Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Lady in the Dark: A Reverie

This post is a little bonus to celebrate a fifth October Tuesday. It's an exercise I wrote for my writer's group. The assignment was designed to explore different ways to describe yourself as if you were a character in a story.

After I finished my dinner and washed the dishes, I spent a few minutes straightening up my little living area, putting away my knitting project and the day’s mail before finding the book I wanted to read. My dog Nigel had huffed a couple of times as I moved around and when I neared the recliner, he began to bark with urgency. I turned my head and saw that his eyes were trained on one of the picture windows, which was black from the early dark of night. I followed his gaze and saw a diaphanous figure wearing the same blouse and jumper that I was. No wonder Nigel was scared, it looked larger than life. He quieted down as I stroked his head, but my interest was quickened by the reflection. I stood without moving to study the apparition in the window.

The first thing I noticed was that she had no wrinkles on her face, nor any odd age-related blotches of color. “I remember that face,” I thought. The barely visible hair receded into the blackness, giving an impression of the rich ebony mane of youth. Then I noticed how tall she seemed to be. I used to be five feet seven. But now the bone density machine, the dresses that have mysteriously gotten longer, and the fact that I now look straight into the eyes of some relatives who used to look up at me, are all confirming that I have lost at least two-and-a-half inches of height. The reflection in the window caused by the starless night seemed statuesque. My posture has been an abiding concern since I turned seventy—ten years ago—but my ghostly doppelganger was actually quite straight, a stance that was accentuated by the soft, flowing folds of the jumper. Her hands looked relaxed by her sides, and everything about the figure spoke of ease and contentment.

I gently bumped Nigel out of my chair and eased myself into it carefully to avoid any pain from my strained leg muscles that are slowly healing. My book lay ready within reach, but I folded my wrinkled, spotty hands in my lap and considered how we think of ourselves reflexively and don’t always integrate into our self-perception the changes we know have happened. Where did that heavily-freckled, appealing little girl of my childhood portraits disappear to; what happened to the self-conscious, shy, gawky teenager; or the bride, glowing with the happiness of dreams coming true? Where is the hard-working mother-of-three, dragged down by tiredness from the daily routine of climbing on life’s treadmill at six AM and staying there until climbing off sixteen hours later to fall into bed? What ever happened to the empty-nester who became the competent professional, rising to one challenge after another, all the while watching her weight creep up to some thirty pounds more than it is now? For that matter where is the weary caregiver? The grieving widow? The housebound semi-invalid struggling for breath as she fought atypical tuberculosis?

People who meet me today for the first time cannot know those other Donna Jeans. I wonder what they perceive as they look at this little old lady with gray hair who still wears jumpers, uses a walking stick, and yet tries to move with a good stride and a moderately quick step. The figure in the large windowpane had no substance, yet she still managed to convey a sense of peace. What am I, I wondered, if not the distillation of all those earlier iterations of me? Perhaps it is the work of aging to reconcile those different people we once were and come to abide in a peaceful state, like the one I experienced in the dark of that night.

Next Post: 11/06/2012

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Invention Grown from a Mother's Necessity

Danielle Cook Navidi published a book last month and therein hangs a tale.

Cook is my family name and a fitting appellation for my older brother Don’s son and six daughters—all of them are at home in the kitchen. Don had a forty-year career in Europe as a correspondent first for the New York Herald Tribune and then for the Los Angeles Times. His children were raised mostly in France with sojourns in Frankfurt and London. His wife Cherry absorbed both French cooking and the approach to food shopping, which entailed daily trips to the markets. Cooking in her home was a ritual, and the food was both critiqued and respected. I’m not aware that much thought was given to the healing properties of the meals, but the results for the family were good because the ingredients were excellent.

Danielle, Don’s sixth child, settled in Washington, DC and married Fariborz Navidi, an Iranian whom she first met in the American School in Paris. She soon mastered Iranian cuisine and continued to perfect the skills she had learned from her mother and her life in Europe. Just as she had done, Danielle’s three children were growing up in a home where excellent food was the norm.

Then came the fateful day when her eleven-year-old son Fabien was not feeling well. Danielle was worried about the tightness in his neck and chest and his complaint that he felt like he was breathing through a straw. She then discovered a large lump on his neck. After his pediatrician examined him and the X-ray of his chest, Fabien’s condition was diagnosed as Stage III Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a curable form of cancer. However, the treatment is rigorous. Fabien’s six-month protocol consisted of four twenty-eight day cycles of chemotherapy followed by eight weeks of radiation.

In a recent interview with CNN, Fabien, now eighteen and healthy, commented on the nausea he experienced with his treatment. In fact there are numerous side effects of chemotherapy and several of them challenge the process of eating and digesting food. These include mouth and intestinal tract sores, which interfere with chewing and swallowing, a metallic taste in the mouth, changes in appetite, and food preferences or aversions.

Certain that her son needed the best possible nutritional support during chemotherapy and recovery Danielle set out on a quest to find foods that would help rebuild his strength and tempting ways to present them. Fabien put it in the simplest terms when he said that you have choices, but in the end, “It still boils down to You Gotta Do It.” Then he added that fighting cancer is a family fight and it is all consuming. Fabien’s journey of recovery and Danielle’s parallel journey of discovery changed them both, and by happenstance, had a material affect on me.

In the same period that Fabien was receiving treatment and then entering the lengthy stage of rebuilding health, I was completing an eighteen-month treatment for MAI (a mycobacterial lung infection), which involved three drugs that are not nearly as toxic as chemotherapy but had many similar side effects. These included nausea, abdominal pain, the metallic taste, no appetite, and sudden aversions to particular foods that changed from week to week. I visited the Navidi family during my recovery. At that time Fabien was still quite sensitive not only to the taste of food but also the timing of eating it; that struck me particularly because it was definitely an issue for me as well. Danielle was deeply engaged in research and experimentation, and as I described some of my own issues, she made suggestions. Best of all, she introduced me to the cookbook that still guides my diet. Written by Rebecca Katz with Marsha Tomassi and Mat Edelson, it is called “One Bite at a Time: Nourishing recipes for Cancer Survivors and Their Friends.”  When I leafed through the pages full of stunning photos of tempting and unusual dishes, I knew it would help me.

Fabien with His Mom
During Fabien’s treatment he had horrendous days when he was vomiting nonstop and suffering mouth sores, but from time to time he had days when he felt better. He began to visit children in the hospital who had just been diagnosed so he could offer encouragement.  Occasionally, he wrote an e-mail to the family and it was good to hear from him directly with what was always an upbeat message.

His courage sustained me in my own recovery and his optimism was an inspiration. The way he embraced his diagnosis and the research he did to be well informed were a model for me. Fabien never doubted that he would be cured. Once on the road to recovery, he became involved with some fundraising efforts for the pediatric oncology program at Georgetown University Hospital (now Medstar), where he had been treated successfully. During his high school years he took advantage of opportunities to simultaneously build up college credits that were accepted at Temple University when he began his studies there. (Coincidentally, I had done my graduate work in the School of Communication there more than forty years ago.) Fabien is interested in film, writing, and politics and hopes to graduate next year at age nineteen.

In September Danielle published her own book of recipes, stories, and nutritional information titled “Happily Hungry: Smart Recipes for Kids With Cancer.” I believe this colorful, heartwarming, appetite-teasing book will bring help and inspiration not just to the families of kids with cancer but to all of us. This book—which grew out of her own experience and research—is just one part of a new calling for Danielle. She will soon finish a master’s degree in holistic nutrition and has been working cooperatively with Medstar Georgetown Pediatric Cancer Center to develop a Cooking for Cancer project. Funded by a Hyundai Hope on Wheels grant, the program includes nutritional assessments and cooking demonstrations for young cancer survivors and their families. It has been successful and often changing the eating habits of entire families. “Happily Hungry,” which is available at Amazon.com, was funded by several grants and the proceeds help support the Pediatric Cancer Nutrition Program that is now a part of the hospital clinic where Fabien received his treatment.

Danielle and her sister Adrienne, the third of Don’s children, have been presenting cooking demonstrations in the Washington, DC area for several years. Their emphasis is on locally grown ingredients including the food that comes from Adrienne’s garden. Their website lists upcoming events and offers exciting recipes.

Stories of the way major illnesses have changed the course of the lives of both patient and family are popular and not uncommon. Danielle was just like any other mother who watched the extreme suffering of a child and wished she could take his place. Her response was to use the skills of a lifetime as the springboard to invent an approach to healing and recovery for her son. Then she had the vision to find a way to share it with other cancer kids and their families. In the Medstar Georgetown Pediatrics online newsletter, the director of the oncology program Dr. Aziza Shad wrote, “We are so fortunate that the Navidis brought Fabien to us for treatment. The nutrition program Danielle has brought to Medstar is invaluable.”

Brief Book Review: Although I had received an earlier mock-up of Danielle’s book, I had not seen the final version until it arrived in the mail today. I sat down with a cup of tea and read it from cover to cover. It is an energizing, upbeat book that supports a positive path to help sick children recover, but the cancer diagnoses included in the photo captions are a sobering reminder of the harrowing journey of each of these kids with cancer. The tips, nutritional information, and clear cross-references between recipes and the side effects they aid guide readers to appropriate choices. I’m eager to start trying the recipes for myself and will pass them on to the parents of my great-grandchildren. In her author’s statement, Danielle allows that Fabien said it best one night during a family dinner after he was finally in remission: “This is my new favorite soup, Mom. It tastes like someone is taking care of me.”  

Fifth Tuesday Bonus Post: 10/30/2012
Next Regular Post: 11/06/2012

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Some of My Best Friends Are In-Laws

The John Deere Gator
“Are you ready for a Gator ride?” my brother-in-law Wendell said to me as he got up from the table where five of us sat talking long after we finished our delicious meal. He’s married to Bill’s sister Jean, and their other sibling Stan, his wife Ellen, and I were visiting their Kansas farm. It’s the first time we’ve all been together since Bill’s funeral nine years ago. Wendell was about to go check on his cattle and was offering to take me along. The last time Bill and I had been there many years ago, he had given me a ride in the air-conditioned cab of his gigantic combine while he did some fieldwork. Now, I love an adventure and the older I get the less it takes to qualify in that category. I had no idea what a Gator ride entailed, but it sounded like something out of Disney World, so I said yes.

The Gator, which turned out to be an ATV, has well-placed handholds, seat belts, and a windshield, but it is certainly an open-air vehicle. Off we went down the lane, up a dirt road, and across the fields. My old body bounced about as I held on tight, while in my mind I was singing, “I’m just a kid again. Doin' what I did again…” Wendell and I chatted easily and I asked lots of questions about the farm. In his mid-seventies, he is semi-retired, cultivates as many acres as he can comfortably manage, and rents out some of his land. Once we saw that the cattle were contented and had plenty of water, we took off on a tour of their acreage, including the “big rock”—a pink granite boulder left by a melting glacier eons ago. It was a glorious day and a soft breeze ruffled my hair. I was much happier in those endless Kansas fields than I’d been in Disney World many years ago.

Wendell is taciturn unless he’s telling a story or stating his opinion, but he is also funny with a dry sense of humor. At an age when golf is the usual pastime, he goes rollerblading at a rink where most of the skaters are less than half his age, and takes his young adult grandchildren skiing on the steeper slopes of resorts in the West. He had a ski accident a couple of years ago and broke his shoulder, but with faithful adherence to a physical therapy program, he was back on the slopes the following winter. He still does a workout every morning. Ellen is trying to strengthen the shoulder she broke several months ago on a walking trip in Italy, and I am trying to rehabilitate my painful knee, so we both joined Wendell on the floor one morning; he taught us some new exercises to add to our therapy homework.

His wife Jean came into my life in 1952 when she was a freshman at DePauw University and I was assigned to be her college big sister. A little over a year later, I would marry her brother Bill, but at that point he and I were best friends who had not yet fallen in love. Jean and I have been friends ever since, and I know we are as close as if we were sisters by birth rather than by law. Jean came to help me get some rest in Bill’s final days, and as fate would have it, he died four days later. From the moment she arrived until the funeral, she quietly and competently did everything from answering the phone to cleaning the house, doing the laundry, and keeping the final watch in Bill’s hospital room while I took a short break. She sent Miles running down the hall to fetch me when the end was at hand. In the years between DePauw and Bill’s dying, we had shared the joys and sorrows of child rearing, caring for elderly parents, and making our way through the passages of life.  Now she and Wendell are in their golden years, working a little less and traveling a little more, and I am in my decrescendo years, when home is usually the best place to be. But I needed to be with Bill’s family for another one of those good times I had enjoyed during my fifty years of marriage.

My journey started when Robin and I dropped Nigel at the nearby farm that is his home when I go on long trips. We drove by way of Louisville to the home of Anna, my cousin-in-law and sister-in-spirit in Floyds Knobs, Indiana, near Bill’s hometown of Sellersburg. Stan and Ellen had driven in from Washington, DC, and I would continue my road trip with them. We spent three happy days at Anna’s, including dinner each evening. During the day Anna and I talked endlessly about everything while the other two visited various cousins near the Dreyer homeplace where Bill, Jean, and Stan grew up.

Thanks to Robin’s regular trips back to Indiana, where he went to college and still has good friends, I have been to see Anna several times. Like Jean and all the Dreyer women, Anna is tall and beautiful. She lives alone, as I do, and is trying to be expansive in mind and soul as her world is also contracting. Fortunately she can still drive, although she’s decided to stop traveling. Anna does all her own housework and gardening even though it takes much longer these days, as it does for me. We share recommendations for books and movies, laugh together, and have frank discussions about health and aging in addition to gardening and politics. When we embraced at the end of our visit, she said that we had to hang together and not let each other give up too soon.

Stan was still in high school when I first visited Sunset View Farm; he was witty, full of smart remarks and little jokes, and the only one willing to get down on the floor to play lummi (pronounced “lemmy”) sticks with me. I had made my own set a few years earlier when I was a Girl Scout camp counselor and took them with me everywhere. He’s been my friend ever since. Stan brought Ellen into my life, and she also quickly won a spot in my heart. Periodically the three of us get on the phone together to catch up—the conversations are usually long and lively. What a treat to travel with them to Kansas and have plenty of time to talk. Over the years of my marriage, Stan visited us in Guatemala and we spent time with him in Haiti when he was working for CARE. After several overseas assignments, he and Ellen settled in Washington, DC where we were able to see them more often. My memory bank is filled with many walks I have taken with Ellen in Silver Spring, Celo, Florida, and Kansas, always chattering away like schoolgirls. But alas, not this time. Her injured shoulder didn’t slow her down, but I wasn’t as lucky with my painful knee.

I feel as though part of Bill’s intangible legacy to me is the friendship of these five in-laws. They were a major part of my support system as I moved through the years of grief and illness that followed Bill’s death. The phone calls from all three households were frequent and generous, and occasional visits were helpful and healing. I knew I was in their thoughts and prayers. That didn’t stop as I slowly found happiness in my life as a single person living in a place I love. These five are permanent threads in the tapestry of my life.

I don’t tell in-law jokes, and I don’t laugh much when other people do, because Bill’s parents and the spouses of my own siblings, as well as those I’ve just spent time with, have all enriched my life. A few days before my wedding, my mother sat me down for a chat. Among other things she said, “When you marry a man, you marry into a family.”  She went on to say that I should try to build good relationships with the Dreyers right from the start. The few rough spots I had mostly came from being a city girl marrying into a farm family or because my British background was different from that of Bill’s forebears who emigrated from Germany. Bill’s parents embraced me with love, but gaining a smooth relationship took time and good will on both sides. I did indeed marry into the Dreyer family and, to this day, I feel lucky that I did. 

Next Post 10/16/2012