An Ancient Bridge in Spain and The Scent of My Mother

Me, in front of the “Puerta del Puente”

I recently went on a short trip to Spain with my father. It was the first time for both of us. It was something I wish we could have done ten years ago, when my dad was less physically limited. Unfortunately, back then, in 2012, my mama was homeless, living in her car. So, we were a bit preoccupied, on top of being busy with our jobs.

Though she is no longer with us, my mom isn’t ever too far from our minds. To honor my mom, I was already planning on leaving something of hers in Spain. My mama loved to visit new places and travel, before she got sick. Outside of Mexico a few times, my mom didn’t travel outside the U.S., but I know she would have loved to visit Western Europe if she got the chance.  So, I wanted to leave a part of her there.

The ancient bridge in Cordoba

Not having too much to choose from, I had settled on her watch. I wanted somewhere meaningful to place it, but among the historical sites and places we visited, I had trouble justifying placing it among any of the ubiquitous Catholic edifices or relics. My mom was raised Catholic, but she would come to despise Catholicism. She came to believe the Catholic Church was “The Beast” described in Revelations in the Bible. This was a reflection of my mom’s religious views. She referred to herself as being “nondenominational” and had many criticisms of organized religion.

I was able to find a place in Cordoba, Spain. In Cordoba, there is an ancient bridge. The bridge was built across the Guadalquivir river in the early 1st century BC by the Romans. After the Romans, Muslims settled and dominated the area in the Middle Ages. At that time, it became the capital of “Muslim Spain” for many centuries. Christians (i.e. Catholics) would gain control of the area and in the 16th Century would build a Renaissance gate on one side, the “Puerta del Puente.”

As I learned more about the history of the bridge and the city, I became convinced it would be a good spot to leave my mother’s watch, since it was a place where so much world history, cultural and religious in particular, converged. In that sense, it was not about Catholicism, it was about human history and change. It was about time being impermanent. My mom’s watch stopped working shortly after she passed. But time still presses forward, as it does through all things, including after my mama’s heart stopped beating.  

From our hotel, I jogged a mile to the bridge our last day in Cordoba. It was around 7:00am and still dark. The streets were still pretty quiet and a little eerie, but I didn’t mind the cover of darkness. I figured throwing my mom’s watch into the river could be considered “littering” anyways and I didn’t want to attract attention. I stopped about midway on the bridge, near the statue of what I thought was a virgin Saint. There were candles on the ground in front of the statue and a few were lit.

The statue of the Archangel, Saint Rafael

I had planned on doing a bit of a ceremony, something not too different than what I do in my home in the mornings some days. I started by saying to the statue, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know who you are. If you’re able to, I could use your comfort and protection.” Not being Catholic, I didn’t feel I could even ask for that. I was just showing reverence, mainly, since I was a visitor. I then said a short prayer. I asked for guidance from my mom and told her how much we missed her and how I wish she could be there with me. I then prayed a bit to Jesus. I said these prayers while looking out over the water. I could barely see the river in the black and indigo darkness, as the sun just started to make its presence known on the horizon.

I then started to do some chanting meditation. It is what I have been doing and studying a bit, as part of a spiritual and physical practice I am learning through my Aikido training.  Specifically, I did a version of O’Sensei’s Kototama that I was taught by Linda Holiday Sensei recently. It is a standing version that incorporates arm movements.

“Suuuu…….Aahhhh……..Ooooo………..Uuuuu………Eeeeeyyy……..Iiiiiieeeeee”

The vibration it creates in my center (“hara”) helps me feel grounded, present and more relaxed. Spiritually, it is verbal and physical reverence to creation and the universe. Praying I do more out of reverence for my mom and how I was raised. The chanting is something I actually feel that is more relevant to me philosophically. Being based on Eastern Religion, it embodies connection, awareness and harmony (i.e. coexistence) with other living things and nature. Given that there is even Jewish history and influence in Cordoba, I thought it was powerful that at that moment, through my meditation, I was integrating a fifth religious influence into the city.

After chanting, I took a few minutes to take in the moment. A range of thoughts came up, including remembering my dad cynically asking me the day before why I had my mom’s watch with me, to wondering if my mom was on that bridge with me at that moment. Once I felt ready, I took the watch out of my pocket and looked at it one last time. My friend, Shari, bought my mom the watch for what would be my mom’s last Christmas in 2017. I made sure to text and let Shari know, when I got to the bridge, what I was planning on doing. She was very touched and supportive.

I kissed the watch next and, as I did, I smelled the unmistakable scent of lipstick. I knew the watch had a faint scent of my mom, a flowery smell that some of her clothes also have. But I’ve never smelled lipstick before on any of her things. I thought it was interesting and odd, but I did not think too much about it. I know many people would automatically believe that was a sign from my mom, but I had trouble doing so, cause that’s not my belief system. And being gone around twenty five minutes at that point, I was starting to feel like I should hurry to get back to the hotel to have breakfast with my dad. I carefully reached back and hurled the watch as far as I could into the river, hoping it wouldn’t land in too shallow an area. I didn’t see where it landed, but after hearing a splash, I was satisfied.

It was not until I was in a hotel in Madrid later that day that I decided to look up who the statue on the bridge was. It turns out it is a statue of a male figure, Saint Rafael. Saint Rafael is actually an Archangel and is responsible for healing. During the time of the plague, people in Cordoba would credit Saint Rafael with preventing the plague from causing widespread misery and death. The Spaniards placed the statue of him there in the 17th century. And interestingly, a version of Saint Rafael is found in not just Catholicism, but Islam and Judaism as well.

I have no way of knowing for sure if my mom was with me on that bridge. I like to think she was and that she let me know she was there by somehow conjuring a scent of lipstick. Whatever the case, I do know that since returning from Spain, I have felt recharged and I have a vitality that I do not remember feeling before. I am not as irritable and overwhelmed with work and the mundane everyday tasks of life like I usually am. I have been feeling more relaxed and calm. Indeed, the feeling of melancholy I know so well is not as persistent. I have no idea how long I will feel this way. I hope it lasts. I hope I did receive some permanent healing from Saint Rafael and/or the energies and/or gods in that place. In the least, I’ve been given more reason to continue my spiritual practices and to travel in foreign places more. I’m trying to live a fuller and happier life because my mama would want me to.  And, of course, it helps that I do receive what could be signs of my mama being with me.

Mom Is Gone Now and Politicians Are Still Unhelpful

I’m doing what advocacy I can still, though it is very slow moving. Most recently, I contacted a couple of California State Representatives to let them know I’m available to provide testimony for legislation related to treating people with severe mental illness (SMI). Improving access to treatment and care for people with SMI is getting more attention these days, due to the homeless crisis here in CA. However, as was the case when my mom was alive and we’d try to get her help, politicians and their aides are showing little interest in helping or listening to me. One of the aides of State Representative Buffy Wicks (District 15) actually asked me what my credentials were, when talking to them on the phone! As a political scientist, that perplexed me. As a citizen and tax payer, that disgusted me. Politicians need to be more responsive to their constituents, regardless of status.

I’m “playing the game” for now. But I’m not above harassing them to get a meeting. Below is a copy of a letter I recently sent to Representative Miguel Santiago (District 53), as an example.

Dear Representative Santiago,

I am writing to you because I would like to give testimony for bills and proposals related to the treatment of people with severe mental illness (SMI). I understand that there is currently a bill, AB 1340, that you are sponsoring that is scheduled to be discussed in January. The bill, as I understand it, would amend/modify “Grave Disability” criteria that is a part of the 5150/LPS process. I am highly interested in providing testimony for that proposal, given that I have unique experience and invaluable knowledge in dealing with the 5150/LPS process.

A photo from 2009 of mom and I before we appeared in probate court. I was her conservator for a short time.

Professionally, I am a community college teacher and a Political Scientist. I have been teaching full-time at City College of San Francisco since 2005. I am, also, an advocate for people with SMI and a former caregiver of a family member with a SMI. My mother, a second generation Mexican-American, began exhibiting signs of a serious mental illness around 2002. I started to play a direct role in trying to get her help and treatment in 2007. By then, as a result of no treatment, she was having hallucinations and not taking care of her medical/physical needs, particularly her diabetes. Despite my family’s best efforts, my mother would spend the last 1/3rd of her life with an untreated SMI. In my experience with the mental healthcare system, as my mom’s advocate and caregiver, I largely blame the 5150/LPS process for her needless suffering and premature death.

I found out relatively quickly how difficult it was to get help for my mother, when I began advocating for her in 2007. Though my mother would be 5150ed various times, between 2007-2009, I was told by representatives in both San Francisco County’s and Fresno County’s Behavioral Health Department that it would be easier for them to take her in and treat her if she were homeless! “Really?!”, I thought. “How unconscionable!” I had to get both counties involved, since I was living in San Francisco and my mom was primarily in Fresno, at the time.

Starting in 2010, the unimaginable would happen. My mom would end up homeless, living in a car, due to multiple evictions from apartments. At times, when we could, my sister and I would try to have her 5150ed, out of desperation. She’d show up at our houses exhausted and sick from lack of sleep and rest, and failing to treat her diabetes. The police would show up and, each time, refuse to 5150 her. Though homeless and obviously ill, they would judge her to not be “gravely disabled.”  They would essentially tell us, “She has to be lying naked in urine and feces on a railroad track” for her to meet “gravely disabled” criteria. In these experiences and more, what became clear to me is that her living in a car was considered “adequate shelter.” My mom barely having any clothes to wear, even in Winter, was still viewed as “adequate clothing.” Though she was diabetic, eating primarily high fat and high carb food was viewed as her being able to “adequately feed herself.” My mom having an official diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder did not matter to them. Each time, they would conclude she was “competent” and able to make decisions for herself.

To me and my family, this was an outright neglect of duty by these police officers. Eventually, in 2018, she would develop stage 4 kidney failure. A Modesto police officer took this institutionalized neglect and, really, cruelty, to a new level when he refused to 5150 my mother in January of 2018, when she stopped taking her medications for various serious physical conditions. My mom was in the midst of an acute psychotic episode and stopped taking her medications because “God told her they were poison.” Going on day four, she was unable to eat or drink anything. She did not have an appetite and would puke up anything she tried to drink. She was demonstrating organ failure. Despite this, the police officer determined she did not meet 5150 criteria. My arguments to the contrary and pleas for help fell on deaf ears. The police officer, like many before him, ruled my mom was “competent” and able to decide for herself if she wanted to go to the hospital. My mom could have died at the house. The police were willing to let her die. Fortunately, however, from the urging of other family members, my mom would agree to go to a hospital later in the day and be medically/physically stabilized.

All of this is to say nothing of other times the 5150 process and various authority figures and officials failed my mother. I detail this some in a documentary film I made in 2020 titled “Benevolent Neglect.” It is available for viewing on YouTube. (A film trailer is available for viewing here: https://youtu.be/ta08Lo3ULqo ) With this letter, I have focused on the problems my family has faced with how “Grave Disability” is interpreted and applied. It is too NARROW. Dr. Julea McGhee, who is the emergency room psychiatrist in my film, told me this.  She said the problem is insurance companies determine what constitutes “Grave Disability” and that they intentionally define it narrowly. In her opinion, many more people should fit the criteria for “Grave Disability” than actually do. I understand that AB 1340 would amend “Grave Disability” to include “medical self-neglect.” I strongly support including “medical self-neglect,” as my mother’s frequent hospitalizations and deteriorating health were undoubtedly the result of her severe mental illness. As I think I demonstrated, I can speak on this with considerable knowledge and authority. I have much more I could say and contribute in this discussion and debate. Thank you.

First Cut of My Film Is Done!

Hi all,

It took me longer than I wanted, but the first cut of my film, Benevolent Neglect, is completed. I’m circulating it to a small group of people for feedback, but plan on being completely done by the end of August. I wanted to share the news and opening scene with my “followers” on here. You can view it below. Thanks for the support, especially to those of you who have been following my blog for some time now. It never got the attention I would have liked it to, but every visitor and follower mean a lot. I know the story has the potential to resonate with many more, so that’s why I decided to make a film. Feedback, so far, has been very positive.