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Sunday, April 26, 2015

This Journey With Dad

Dad never wanted to grow old enough to "become a burden", and by that I think he meant  a few things.  He wanted to remain independent, mobile, mentally sharp, able to manage his own body, finances, yard work, and decisions.  And until past the age of ninety, my dad did just that.  He defied his family history of illness and poverty by becoming a successful farmer who barely so much as caught a cold.  My dad, with only a grade six education, served on many boards, gave huge amounts of himself to the church and community, and raised eight children who all had the opportunity to further their educations, should they so choose.  My dad lived to be an old man, in his own home, cutting his own grass, and managing his own affairs.

I never knew how much these things meant to my dad until the very thing he never wanted to happen began to happen.  My dad's brain started to slip a few cogs.

And then my normally very quiet father began to repeat himself.  He said the same things over and over so many times that all the muscles in my body from baby toe to furrowed brown tensed in sheer boredom and frustration.

The story of him being a sickly child, sharing his home with his grandfather who considered my dad his favourite.  Great grandfather would hold my dad on his knee and say-  "Abey, Abey.  What will ever become of you.  You'll never make a farmer.  Perhaps a fiddle player".

I'm not kidding when I tell you now that I've heard this story so many times that I want to break out into angry, resentful, guilt-fueled hives each and every time I sense that dad is about to offer it to me again as though it were the first time the tale had been told.

But dad came from a line of sick people.  His dad wasn't well and died as a poor farmer just into his fifties.  My dad grew up with the impression that once you get married and begin to procreate, you heap upon yourself and your loved ones pain and agony in the forms of inescapable illness and poverty.

So when his eyes light up and he begins anew... "I was a sickly child"...  I have some idea of the depth of his tale.  He beat the odds.  His grandfather's gravestone sits on the very land that my father farmed up to the day he sold the farm and moved to town.  Every fall, dad would navigate his massive machinery around the prairie gravesite and imagine his grandpa sit up tall in that grave to behold tiny Abey armed with not a fiddle, but a ginormous New Holland combine.  And my dad's grin matches the sense of accomplishment he must have felt.

Although I know and appreciate this as my dad's story and part of his legacy, this painful dance of loving and sitting with my elderly father still finds me as a  horribly flawed, irritable human being.

I understand that my dad never had the opportunities for learning that my children now have.  And that its his one regret in life to have never "finished" a formal education.  But it truly doesn't stop my rage when he asks me more than a zillion times what my oldest daughter (I can't remember her name, he says) is doing?  What are her goals?  Is she taking university courses?  What is her ultimate goal?  I don't act out my anger by throwing plates or walkers or dentures.  I manage to suppress my rage.  And it troubles me that although I know he can't help it, and that he asks as a reflection of his own hopes and dreams, I just really want him to stop asking.

None of this is storybook, but it is my truth.

There's just enough self-awareness in me to know that his preoccupation with education hits my nerve of never having finished my own degree, and of never having a true sense of direction for my calling in this life.  It feels like an accusation.  Even though I know its not.

My dad is a good man.  A kind man.  A man with a heap of integrity.  It feels awful to be mad at him for being repetitive.  It feels selfish and unkind.

During the three months that dad has spent in hospital, his body has become stronger.  Sometimes he scoffs at the offer of his walker, as though we were being ridiculous to offer him something a weak person might need.  He doesn't remember that for the five weeks of his hospitalization, he couldn't walk, or even sit up unaided.  Often he is incredulous that he's in hospital at all, and even more so when we explain it has been three months already.  Sometimes he gets angry when we knock on the bathroom door to check if he's all right.  He doesn't remember all the times I have walked in with him and stayed.  Sometimes he gets mad at me when I ask him repeatedly not to take his shoes off before he has gotten into bed because I don't want him to fall because of the slippery TED stockings he wears on his legs now.  He thinks I'm being ridiculous- that  I don't know what I'm talking about.

Sometimes I just have to leave the room.

My dad is a good and kind man.  Its soul crushing to find myself so short on patience at times.  His processing and reasoning no longer work at capacity, and although I know this, he's my dad and it's hard for me to tell him what to do, and its even harder when he balks at reason and safety.  My dad wasn't one to yell or say things in anger, unless he was loading pigs for market.  That's a whole other story.

So when I remind him about his dentures, and he yells at me, I want to yell too.

So this seems like the perfect time to talk about my family, of which I am the eighth, and last born.

I am part of an amazing family.  Where elderly parents and the care they require is more than enough to splinter many families, mine has become closer.  Every day we group text, deciding who will care for dad, and mom, and when.  When one of us is reduced to tears and emptiness, someone else will be strong in that very moment.   Or we will all be sad in the safety of each other's comfort.   There's always someone to say; "Me too".  "I know".  "It's ok."

Everyone brings another skill set to the table.  We all have distinct personalities, different things that we love and hate, and a variety of comfort zones.

My sisters love puzzles and games.  I would rather impale myself with plastic hospital forks.  My brother is administrative and weekly designs a well balanced schedule of hospital visits.  He takes my dad for car rides and even to Tim Hortons to see his OLD pals.

My mom shares her journey with us.  She sits with my dad endlessly, playing Skip-Bo when he is able, reading to him from My Daily Bread, trimming his hair, brushing his dentures, teasing him about how long they've been married when he's not sure she's his wife and not his sister.

It's not all sunshine and roses for her either.

But my mama sets her example, as she always has.  She's deeply appreciative of her children's time and attention, never taking anyone's time for granted.  She explains and reexplains to dad about where he is and why.  And when dad starts telling "Abey, Abey" again, mom gently kicks my ankle and we share a look.  Most of the time, my mom is optimistic and resilient.  She adapted quickly to living in the house alone, still baking her own bread, caring for the yard, her plants, the house, and the car.  I think its the first time ever in her life that she has lived alone.  Not bad for eighty-eight.  She still takes time to exercise every day.  Her stubborn pride prevents her from using a walker within sight of the neighbours, so she has taken to doing laps around the dining room table.  She always makes me laugh.

Sometimes, though,  the last place on earth I want to be is in room 101.  Sometimes mom's breath smells like fish, and dad wants to buy a new lawnmower and start volunteering again.  Of dad's two roommates, one is breathing heavy and smells awful and the other is talking endlessly on the phone about his bowel movements, open sores, and how much weight he lost on weight watchers eating raw carrots.  I'm chewing my cuticles to bloody stumps, worrying about my children, and sick to death of sitting in a cramped hospital room.  I miss empty time.  Time to think, to write, to stare off into space without being eaten up by guilt or worry.

Here's what I'm learning:
Love isn't necessarily pretty, and it certainly isn't comfortable.  Human love is terribly flawed, inadequate, and complicated.

Show up anyway.

Look after yourself and the people you care about so that you don't go completely bat shit crazy and actually have nothing left to give except rage and irritability.  This is soooo much easier said than done.  I have to work full-time.  It's my commitment.  There are no sick days, no vacation pay, and no spares in my career.  That's all I'm going to say about that.

I am, and continue to be the mother to four and the wife to one.  (Only one.  weird, right?)
Fortunately, my children aren't small any more.  But still I am their mother.
Fortunate too that Brian and I are both introverts.  We both don't need fifteen hours of conversation at the end of the day.  And because Brian is a home body, there's almost always someone here for whatever offspring happen to be around.

And this again is where I can give a huge shout out to my brothers and sisters, who will double up when they are feeling balanced so that one of us can take a little time to stare into space.  Who don't bother trying to guilt anyone about their time and energy.  Who have so much insider knowledge on the importance of pursuing mental health, that we should likely be a poster family at a psych clinic somewhere on the outskirts of crazy town.

Life as a human sucks lemon balls sometimes.  Inadequacy is real, people.  Many days I don't even like myself a little.  I want to be a deep, clear pool of love and compassion and life-defying patience but more often feel like Kathy Bateman  in "Misery".

So, sometimes the answer becomes-  "Don't Show Up Anyway".
Don't show up to some of the stuff you actually would like to but know will require energy.  Just don't.  It's ok, the world will continue to spin.  

Or sometimes-  "Show up all ugly and honest".  Apologize if you need to.
(Sorry mom.  I'm having a sad day.  Crying about all the things.  Worried about the kids.  Sick of the smell of fish and poop.  I love you, I love dad, and I'm grumpy.  Sorry.)

For the love of Pete, try to be nice to yourself too.  (I've got very close to nothing here.  I'm just barely trying to learn).  One of the unbelievable things that is true about these past three months, is that I decided early on that exercise was something I shouldn't let slide.  So I state my hospital availability around my twice weekly gym appointments.  Twice weekly might not sound like much, but after a ten hour workday with twelve hours of housework attached to it, hauling my impressive butt to the gym from 6-7 twice a week is actually kind of a big deal.  And a commitment.

It hasn't been easy.  Most of the time, I'm really glad I went.  My blood is pumping, my muscles feel taut, my laugher got exercised, and I got the heck out of the house to a place that wasn't Bethesda Hospital.  Sometimes I hate it.  Sometimes I feel like the Biggest Loser in the world, and not in the celebrity sense.  More like the girl with four left feet kind of way.  I know that its because my tank is low and demands are stretching my idealisms to ugly little scrappy bits.  

So its a case of show up anyway.  My gym people are amazing.  So kind and real and funny.  And STRONG!  Good grief, so strong.

This journey with dad isn't over.
When people ask-  "How's your dad?", I hear myself sigh and say- he's getting stronger.

And then get hit with a floodgate of soul crushing guilt.  

I love my dad.  I'll miss him when he's gone. I want to spend every minute of every time I've driven to Steinbach to sit in that cramped and smelly room.  It's exactly what I want to do.  I'll never regret it.

Life is more full of contradictory truths than I'd fully appreciated.

This is exactly what my dad never wanted.  And so we never wanted it for him either.  But there's been some sweetness in dad's life shifting this way- the smell of his bald head when I kiss it good night.  The kisses between my stoic and excessively private parents when mom goes home to bed.  The pleasure I find in rubbing lemon oil into dad's calves, massaging the bump where his leg broke in 1965.  Arranging the pillows under his head until they are just so.  Lacing up his shoes, stirring cream into his coffee, helping him find his glasses.

Maybe you've gone through this already, and you know all these things.
Maybe your dad died young and you never had the chance.
Maybe your family hates each other.

I have to believe its ok, somehow.
These are our stories, and they are sacred.
Beautiful, ugly, precious, boring, profound.

Sacred.  This journey with dad.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Abnormals Anonymous

They weren't offering Abnormals Anonymous, so I joined crossfit instead.

It was time.

I'm not very good at it.

But I keep going back.

Sometimes we have to run to the elevator, which is sort of on the way to my house if you don't actually run to the elevator, but you take a sharp left instead.

So far, I've never run home instead.

This is sort of how I look when I run.

But actually, more like this.

Fortunately when we run, it isn't for long distances. Usually because they want us to do some other horrible thing.

I tend to be the horrible, negative, irritating one in the class who when the coach explains all the stuff and how to do the stuff, then says; "Any questions?" I usually say- "Yes. WHY?"

And then he lies and says it will be easy.

I had hoped that crossfit would change my life and I'd turn into one of those buff people without cellulite or tons of fat.

But like I said- I'm not very good at it.

If that isn't bad enough, I have to share my experience with people who are both strong and coordinated. Life isn't fair.

But I keep showing up. I figure one of these days, they'll introduce an activity that I could possibly excel at.

But meanwhile, I'll just keep being me.

And showing up.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

Mexico, 2015

This did happen.

Mornings started early, and went like this: in room coffee, and a visit to the balcony to study the mama and baby bird swaying in the palm tree.

After a buffet breakfast of mimosas, yogurt, fruit, eggs and bacon, we would head to our favourite spot on the beach. And watch this guy and his team work their butts off. Apparently, sea grass season came early this year. I enjoyed seeing another vacationer bring coke down to the beach for all the working guys, and I confess it was a bit weird sitting on my ass reading books while they worked so hard.

A 10:00 AM mojito helped.

A big highlight this year was meeting friends at Playa Del Carmen.

They are way cute.


If you think Donn and Brian are cute together, you should see me and Alice.

This guy loved us.

And speaking of cute- I love this guy.

We have so much in common- for example, nose picking.

We actually went to Playa Del Carmen so that I could learn about selfie sticks.

I had no prior knowledge.

And to eat fish tacos.

Plus a bit of shopping with Alice and her cutest-in-the-world son Ridley.

My one regret is not adopting one of these kitties. But- $22.00 U.S.? That's just stupid.

Besides, I was saving my pocket change for viagra and antidepressants.

Back at our resort, here's what we did.


Plus a bit of light crossfit, just to maintain mobility.


Know what was the best of all?

Coming home.

Coming home to my kids and my house and my life.

And that's kind of sweet, isn't it.


Saturday, March 28, 2015

A day of happy things

A late start to my work day (7:45!) and the gift of cheesecake- for breakfast, of course.

This little guy in this adorable sweater. It was his dad's for goodness sake! I can't even stand the cuteness factor here.


THIS! How did it even get to be this day before the day? Impossible.

My people.

Do you have any clue what kind of friendships get forged in my muddy mudroom? I sometimes get five years with the same woman bringing her child to my house. We do a lot of laughing and crying and friendship building in my porch. It's my favourite.

Speaking of friendship forged in my porch. Today I'm grateful for my friend who has offered to take my sweet Sam for a hotel night with tons of swimming so that I can worry about him a little less while we are away. Sam, swimming, with good people whom he loves. That's all good.

A work day with minimal crying, fighting, vexing, and pants pooping. Yes- pants got pooped, or more specifically, panties. But only once....

Our whole brood home for supper, plus a welcome surprise guest- my brother Al. He showed up to help me figure out whether I had turned off the correct things on my phone to avoid a nasty $6,000 MTS bill upon my return. We fed him tacos and scotch so that he would stick around for a while.

An early bedtime- because, good grief! It makes tomorrow come faster!

I know how annoying it is when people talk about their fancy pants, lazy, indulgent holidays. For the first 20 years of our marriage- TWENTY- we went nowhere, except through Lowe Farm on our way to yant zeed. So I feel your pain if you're in that place of life where the poopy pants are more of a 24 hour gig, and flying away on a jet plane is more than completely impossible.

But I'll manage my sorrow. I have packed five books, seven sundresses, three inappropriate swimsuits. I have filled the freezer with meat buns and pizzas, and there's plenty of rye bread and Nutella.

It's go time.


Monday, March 16, 2015

All the things- Badly written

Hi there.  I used to blog here.  Write blog posts and process stuff and tap away at the keyboard like I could.  And then life got all lifey, like it does.

So here's the thing.  My son turned twelve in December and we still haven't done his birthday party.

I could say its because I spend so much time at the hospital sitting with my dad and that would make me sound like such a great person.  But its more true that I hate planning birthday parties, what with the necessary phone calls, and coordinations, and driving sweaty smelling boys to laser tag and buying chocolate bars and lamely calling them goody bags, and all that.


It's almost easier just feeling like a crappy guilty mother than to go through all that agony.

So, I'll just go with saying that I've been too busy being a lousy mom to find time to celebrate my kid's birthday.  My apology to all you excellent moms out there.

Also- we have all been spending a good chunk of our lives at le hospital.

When dad is having a good day, he asks me all the questions that make me want to drive a plastic knife through my eyeball.

He says-  your oldest daughter... I can't remember her name... is she in university?  What is she taking?  What are her life goals?

and I immediately start sighing.  Either audibly or in my brain.  I despise these questions.

Next he will move into the set of questions he has asked me for roughly 25 years now.  Did I ever attend university?  what did I take?  am I using my knowledge?

And no matter.  Here's what I hear.  (Yes, I will take full responsibility for my own brain.  I will take full responsibility for being insane and defensive and insecure and generally a horrible person.)

"Joyce.  You were a loser.  Did you take loser courses?  Courses that helped you become a not loser?  You're still a loser, right?  Because what did you take courses in?  ARTS??  and did you even finish?  no?  wow.  Just wow.  And so correct me if I'm wrong--  but am I right in understanding that now your daughter is also aimless, wasting precious time and money on courses that won't get her an Awesome Job?  Did I hear that right?  Huh.  Well.  So-- you took WHAT exactly?  and WHY?

wow.  What's it like to be you.  A time and money wasting partial arts degree holding type individual?"

(Hey.  I warned you.  This is in no way what my dad is actually saying.  He's a nice man.)

But it fully explains why I've been too busy to plan a birthday party.
Besides, I don't actually have a full degree, so I'm not exactly qualified.

When dad is having a bad day, he can't see that his wife of 64 years is his wife and not his mother.  He thinks he can walk.  He wants to go home.  And I am his sister.

Fortunately for me, his sister never attempted university.

I wonder-  if I had completed my degree, would tax season each and every spring make me break into a cold sweat, and chew holes through my cheeks?

Do I do my own taxes, you ask?  Noooooo.  I'm not a flipping accountant.  I'm simply talking about compiling numbers and papers.


I started early this year-  Louis Riel day, in my pyjamas, likely sipping wine at 7:00 am, and sorting papers.  I couldn't believe how mature I was being- writing out all those receipts after doing all that mathy math and whatnot.  Well before people started clamouring and screaming and hurling threats.

But I didn't actually finish.  And so at the end of the day, and before the mania of the next day was about to begin, I stacked up all those papers and dumped them into a plastic bin, which I then "stored" on the dining room floor.

Until today.

Today-  well, I guess today I HAD IT.  (as in-  KID!  YOU'VE PUSHED ME TOO FAR, I'VE HAD IT!"  type of had it).  So I brought down the giant hammer on my schedule.  I said no to all the things-  no driving to any of the anythings, anywheres-  no way, no how.  Time to tackle THE BIN.

(turns out that I haven't paid the piano teacher, God bless her.  Found that bill.
Or called the school to set up an appointment for Sam to try out instruments for band next year.
I guess there was room in that bin for all sorts of papers....)

I've cobbled together a stack of papers.  That contain numbers.
Tomorrow I can mail them to the accountant.

And then guess what?  I'll really have to start feeling super guilty and bad and crushed by the fact that my sweet boy has not yet had a birthday party.

He doesn't care that I have part of an Arts degree.
Or if I've filed my 2014 taxes.

He just wants a flipping birthday party.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Weekends With Dad

I get dressed in the early Sunday morning darkness, the memory of Saturday with dad still sticking in my throat. It was a tough one. Full of dad's confusion and frustration, and of my attempts to explain and console. So, I wake early, with worries on my heart. I chose a white sweater with the word "Peace" in shimmering silver letters. It's my prayer, and a sort of benediction I say over myself, and over my dad as I prepare to spend another hospital morning keeping his company.

In my years of working with the elderly, I've seen it all before. I'm not unfamiliar with the forgetfulness, the insistence that things are different than they appear, the frustration, even the anger that the elderly and confused can exhibit.

But its never been my dad before.

And so, of course it feels different. And even though I know its not personal, it hurts me on a personal level and leaves me feeling vulnerable and sad. This is my dad we're talking about: that strong leader type guy who people looked up to and respected. And now, he appears to be just another old guy in a hospital gown, convinced he can walk home, and that we, his family are standing in his way. Making trouble for him.

When we were kids in Sunday School, why my dad was still strong and served as Deacon, we used to sing a song that went like this:

"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

All the days, all the days of my life;

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

All the days, all the days of my life.

And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,

And I shall feast at the table spread for me;

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

All the days, all the days of my life."

My sister heard it this way: "Shirley, Goodness, And Mercy shall follow me", and she wondered aloud to our mother- "What sort of dress did Mercy wear?"

It's a good question, even now. When you're feeling sad and vulnerable, how can you recognize mercy if you're not sure what dress to look for? What will she look like?

Time spent with people in their days of fading light can be painful.

Sometimes impossibly boring.



Anxiety provoking.

At times it reduces me to big giant baby status, and I'm clamouring again for validation and approval. Begging for scraps as though I am not already enough.

Sometimes, the people you show up to sit with and love are a bit angry, and because their thinkers are kind of tanked, they're sort of peevish and quite insistent that you're making life difficult for them. Even though you know you just want to ease their pain. And then it all begins to feel a bit intense and a lot impossible, so you find yourself in the corridor with a few tears splashing down.

Weirdly and most unexpected- Mercy shows up wearing second hand sweatpants and a yellow hospital gown. Her eyes meet yours and within them, you see just enough kindness and goodness. She says she understands, she knows it hurts and she gives a big generous hug. She is well disguised as you hadn't quite envisioned Mercy as a home-schooling, unemployed mother of five doing her best with nowhere near enough funds.

But she too has a dad who she loves. Who yells at her for losing his walker, when the truth is she has secured it so that he won't fall, thinking of himself as well and able bodied. She brings all her children to the hospital with her, they wait at the end of the hall while she cuts his meat and spoon feeds him pineapple tidbits and chocolate pudding from a tray. He yells at her, and she tells him that she loves him. That she will keep showing up and sitting with him for eight hours at a time, feeding him meals and keeping him safe because she doesn't want him suffering with a broken hip or a broken leg, or the broken heart of being left alone.

I sit just behind the curtain and let the tears fall. There's no privacy here for family dynamics. I've heard her dad slam his fist and raise his voice in frustration. She has heard my dad insist that its time to go home, ask me if I've milked the cow, call me stubborn.

Sometimes, through the thin curtain, we stifle giggles and sighs, listening in on each other's joys and agonies whether we want to, intend to, or not.

Later in the evening when the daughter has left with her family, more guests arrive for her father. I sit quietly on our side of the tiny room, grateful for the rest that has finally come over my dad's mind and body. It's the man's relatives this time, or maybe the elders from his church. They speak to him in hushed tones and offer to pray for him, asking for strength to return to his bones. He tells them how his daughter makes him suffer and I want to defend her through my curtain, ask them to know her heart as well. The couple ask him- would you like a song? And they sing to him of "Hertzen" and "schmertzen". I can't help but laugh a little, even as I swab my eyes and cheeks- In German, even the words "I love you" sound terrifying in their throaty, spitty, hacking "ICH LIEBE DICH!" Silent no longer, I hear myself say- "What does "schmertzen" mean?"

Pain, the man says, and peeks at me from his side of the partition.

We want to pray for your dad, too, the man says. We will pray for him at home, if you like.


Peace, I say. Please pray for peace.

Goodness and Mercy.

They show up in outfits I really hadn't expected. Dresses that I would have dismissed as inadequate, inferior, dare I say- beneath me. But still they come to me wearing ugly hats and dirty jackets, stringy hair, and bad teeth. Practical shoes, head coverings, tired churchy words.

And I recognize that Mercy's dress is nothing at all what I had expected and that

It is enough.

It is more than enough.



Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Weird- only 37 days until we get to go somewhere hot, humid, and beautiful. A land flowing with guacamole and cervesa.

Last year when we were counting down, I felt like I was literally dying in the winter of 2014.

It was a terrible winter. Colder than any human should endure. Plus bronchitis, an unending cough, and a house full of the most obnoxious preschoolers I've ever endured.

We were totally stuck indoors- hacking, crying, and throwing endless tantrums.

It was the worst of times.

And soooo the best time ever for Brian to win a free trip. I clung to the thought of flying out of Winnipeg like Kate Winslet clung to her bit of Titanic debris. Dresses and bikinis came out of the closet weeks in advance, and I soothed myself through painful afternoons by reading endless reviews on trip advisor.

And when the countdown was finally over, we boarded that early morning flight to Cancun and embarked on seven of the most glorious days and nights of our lives.

Straight up bliss. Hair thick with salt water. Books by the stack. No cooking, cleaning, scheduling, or alarms. Flowers, green grass, trees and iguanas.

I stretched out and tried to fill every pore in my body with that sun.

In 37 sleeps, we get to do that all over again. It feels different this year- partly I imagine because we have done it before. Last year was the first time ever that Brian and I have done something so gloriously relaxing and inclusive. So, this year I know what to expect. I remember the pools, the hot concrete, the way the humidity beads your water glass. The orange juice and champagne at breakfast, the cats that wander by begging for scraps, the birds that swoop in to help clear the plates. I remember how light the ocean water makes you feel, the crinkle of salt on my skin and hair, the sounds of the birds in the early morning light.

And so when I let myself- I get excited. But this winter has been different- sure, the toddlers have shown more mercy, the worst offenders have replaced their tantrumming ways with words much of the time and the temperatures have been more tolerable. But the big difference is that now my dad lives in the hospital.

So this winter has been spent taking shifts to be with him, and there have been worrying times. Lately though, it seems that a "new normal" has taken shape, and we are cautiously easing into life with dad on new terms. So in ways, I'm not in any hurry for time to pass quickly.

But time will continue to pass. Mexico will approach, with her sun and greenery.

Countdowns of different kinds.