OAXACA, Mexico — My mother was a beautiful, active woman when she had a stroke. Afterward, her mind and speech were as they’d always been, so were her expectations. She was convinced that with rehab she’d walk again and resisted any changes to her lifestyle or “being told what to do.” Many of our attempts to keep her safe failed. We’d find the MedicAlert device by the bathroom sink or on a nightstand in her bedroom; anywhere but around her neck. After a year, even with the help of a sainted caretaker named Nereyda, we knew we needed a Plan B.
I considered many options and countries before deciding to rent a house in Mexico. We came close in Panama, but moving my mother to a property beneath a volcano . . . well, I wasn’t setting myself up for those endless family jokes. It turned out that Mexico had everything: short, inexpensive, and frequent flights, excellent health care, affordable help, American TV on cable, American foods at Walmart — and Mom could chat for hours with friends through a low-cost international phone plan.
I was at the Mexican Tourist Office when I casually asked if anyone knew of someone with a home to rent and was surprised that within a week I received two messages on my answering machine offering houses with real possibilities. The first unfortunately didn’t have a bedroom on the ground floor; the second was in a village outside of Oaxaca and sounded perfect. The owners, Leslie and Richard, were living in Madrid and after a long phone conversation with Leslie, I booked a ticket to Oaxaca to see the house.
El Oasis couldn’t have been more aptly named. Situated behind a high wall, the crimson-colored house overlooked a vista of the Juárez Mountains. My heart sank at the dramatic entrance with steep stairs, but the manager quickly showed me a back door level with the street.
El Oasis was an artist’s house filled with books and a collection of jade-green pottery from Santa María Atzompa in the multicolored-tiled kitchen. French doors in the master bedroom opened onto a patio with a small gurgling fountain; the wide entrance to the huge private bathroom offered easy access and independence for someone using a walker. There was a separate two-bedroom guest cottage and an office where my partner, Tony, and I could work. The gardens were filled with fruits and herbs.
As I toured the house, a large sweet mush of a dog named Betty joined me. It was as if the house had been designed for us with every feature we needed.
I sent Leslie an e-mail describing the help my mother would need. In addition to the regular staff of three (Cipriano, house manager and driver; Rosa and Margarita, housekeeper and laundress), Leslie hired Marta, an English-speaking registered nurse who would live in, and the indomitable, warm-hearted Lourdes as cook. Mom would be catered to and pampered; she could eat what she wanted, bathe when she wanted, and Cipriano would drive her wherever she wanted to go. The staff of five would cost the same as one person had in New York. And doctors, even specialists, made house calls.
El Oasis was located in what appeared to be a tiny dirt-road village, but uncovering the depth of the community was the perfect metaphor for peeling the layers of an onion. The adorable elderly couple Modesta and Sinon were happy to order whatever I requested if they didn’t have it in their tiendita. Same with Adolphina at her produce stand. Bardomiano roasted coffee beans for the international market and us; the superb seamstress Margarita tailored Mother’s duvet cover I’d brought to fit Leslie’s quilt. By day two, Mom was drinking pure nectar juices squeezed by Lourdes.
At home we’d resisted getting a wheelchair. We’d clung to the belief that with rehab, Mother would walk again. But in Mexico a wheelchair represented freedom to explore. We went for lunch at Hotel Camino Royale, the beautifully converted 1576 Santa Catalina convent with remnants of faded frescoes on the walls and a covered terrace restaurant. Cipriano drove us to the Sunday Tlacolula market, the largest indigenous market in all of Latin America, where it seemed everything, from the tangerine and rose-colored ice pops to the deep-yellow grilled corn, was sprinkled with sweet red chile powder. We bought armfuls of wildflowers for almost every room in the house and bags of dried jamaica flowers to boil into the tart cranberry-like juice we loved.
We’d arranged a rotating schedule so that Mother would never be here without family or friends. Initially it was Tony and I one month, my brother two weeks, my sister and her daughters two weeks, then one of Mom’s friends for two weeks (they were already lined up for months before it was back to us).
Tony and I work freelance, so we could stay longer whenever we wanted or needed to. In the pool, with water streaming through my hair and over my body, the stress of New York hospitals and emergency rooms disappeared. Tony picked handfuls of limes from the garden each night for drinks and perfected a sorbet made from three varieties of mangoes. The house was filled with music. We were thriving here, not just Mother but all of us.
My brother and sister were at our Mother’s side when she died. I returned to see an altar the staff improvised at the foot of her bed; saint decals on glass candle holders luminous in flickering flames; bouquets of flowers in vases draped with rosary beads; Mom’s photo prominent in a silver frame.
She’d died around the time of Day of the Dead celebrations and my sister and I joined thousands to remember loved ones at the local cemetery. Our mother had the best last year of life anyone could hope for, and it couldn’t have been in a better place.