Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Big C

The week of October 4, 2004 was a blur. David’s angioplasty, scheduled for Thursday had to be moved to the following week.. Two memorial services were held for my uncle, one on Tuesday in SC where he had lived and taught school for many years and one in our small home town on Friday evening at a local funeral home. Because Earl (John) was cremated, his ashes were present at both services in a beautiful ceramic container in the shape of an eagle. Earl and his family had lived in several western states where he taught in a Native American school and his wish was for his ashes to be scattered over the Grand Canyon. My cousin made arrangements for the trip to Arizona for that purpose several weeks later.

Daddy’s very traditional funeral was held on Thursday at the First United Methodist Church where our family had attended since my great grandfather’s days. There was a viewing of the body the night before where we all stood in a receiving line for hours as friends and loved ones passed to pay their respects. Toby flew home from school for the services but ,like me, didn’t care to look at the prepared body of my father, preferring to hold onto happier memories of his smiling face.

Throughout the week David looked pale and weak. Most people thought his appearance was the result of grief. I knew better and so did he. His heart was in trouble and he needed the catheterization that was planned. As each day passed, he became more and more anxious. Finally on Friday, I phoned his doctor and after hearing the situation she prescribed anti-anxiety meds for David to take until he went for the procedure.

On Tuesday, we arrived at the hospital at the appointed time, David was prepared and fairly quickly taken into surgery. As he was being rolled into recovery the surgeon explained that there were several blockages severe enough to need repair. The choices were bypass surgery or placement of several stents. The doctor said he would choose the stents if it were him. When asked when the additional needed work could be performed, his partner replied, “Now,” and promptly rolled David back into the surgical suite.

When David was rolled out the next time he was recovering from anesthesia but his skin color was already much improved. He had really needed this operation!.

A few weeks later during a follow-up appointment David’s cardiologist was discussing the importance of avoiding stress. At one point he told us very seriously that if David continued to drive to work 55 miles each way in rush hour traffic that he was going to die soon. Well, that was all I needed to hear. Immediately, I began preparations to move from our big old house to an apartment in Charlotte.

It felt like we were selling everything , although as we would find as we packed to move and again several years later when we began our traveling adventures, that there was, as both George Carlin and Jimmy Buffett have said, “just too much stuff.” We told friends and neighbors to come shopping at our house. We gave family pieces to other members of the family. Finally, we had a huge yard sale netting thousands of dollars.

We moved into a new 2 bedroom apartment in Charlotte of December 1. On December 4, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

After a battery of tests, my surgeon said I would need, at a minimum, a complete mastectomy on the right side. Her recommendation, however, given some suspicious though not yet obviously cancerous spots on the left, was that I have a bi-lateral mastectomy. Surgery was scheduled for December 30.

David and I decided to wait until the boys returned home for the holidays to give them the news. After all, having just endured the death of their grandfather and then not being near enough to visit with their Dad before or after his procedure neither of them needed to hear right in the middle of exams that their mother had a serious health issue.

The Best Margarita

In Mexico margaritas are seldom made with prepared mixes as is almost always the case in the US.

3 ounces of white/silver tequila
1 1/2 ounces controy (Cointreau in the US)
Juice of a whole lime

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker over ice and shake vigorously. Pour into an ice filled cocktail glass (rimmed with salt if desired) and enjoy.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Big Changes Begin Again

On Monday October 4 David had an early class and had already left for the 55 mile trip to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he was teaching. As usual, having given up alarm clocks in 1999, I was sleeping in until I felt like getting out of bed. The telephone rang about 8:45 startling me awake.

“He’s having a heart attack or something.” the unrecognized voice said over a crackly line. My heart stopped. David must be on the side of the road somewhere and a passerby stopped and called the emergency number on his cell phone, a phone he had only recently agreed to carry at my insistence just in case something such as this should happen. When he bough the phone David had jokingly told his closest friend who lives 100 miles away in Asheville, that if he called and all that was heard was a gurgling sound, please dial 911. It didn’t seem so funny now.

“I’ve called an ambulance and Suzette is on the way.” Suddenly I recognized the voice as my brother. I could hear a siren in the distance. He was talking about my father whom he had met that morning at the site where Daddy and Mom were building a smaller house in which to spend the rest of their retirement. He hung up. I phoned my sister. She was on her way and would call as soon as she knew anything.

I began to panic. David and I owned only one car and he was on his way to Charlotte. I called the hated cell phone. No answer; it was turned off. I left a message to call me and then called the history department office to ask that David call me as soon as he returned from class. How would I get to the hospital? Where was Mom? She and Daddy were living with my sister after selling their home while they were building the new place. Mom was in the early stages of dementia and required near constant care, which Daddy was providing.

I needed transportation. I called Dad’s sister knowing she would want to know what was happening and hoping she could give me drive me the 25 miles to the hospital. She called my uncle who was working out at the Y and asked him to meet her at my house. I quickly bathed and dressed and was ready to leave when she arrived. My uncle, however, not understanding the panic and urgency I felt, took his time showering and changing at the gym and finally arrived about a half-hour later.

By that time, I had spoken with my sister, Suzette, and knew that the paramedics thought Daddy had a stroke. He was confused but talking when they loaded him into the ambulance. Suzette had gone home to get Mom and all were headed to the hospital.
When my uncle, aunt and I finally arrived at the hospital the waiting room was filled with relatives. Hadn’t we all just spent the previous afternoon talking with Dale and he seemed fine. Mom was seated in a wheel chair in the midst of everyone smiling. Either things were not as bad as I had expected or she was oblivious to what was going on. Unfortunately, it was the latter.
I passed through the emergency room doors and found my sister, brother and brother-in-law standing outside an empty room filled with equipment. Daddy had stopped breathing and had been entubated. I knew only too well what that was from our experience at Tavish’s birth. He was now having an MRI performed, His doctor was on the telephone nearby arranging for transport by helicopter to the nearest university hospital. This was not good.

As they wheeled Daddy back to the treatment room he was pale and unconscious. I was terrified. This was our patriarch, the glue that kept our family together. His influence extended well beyond my sister, brother, and I to our children, my aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. He was smart, organized, disciplined, successful, supportive and so opinionated that he could argue with a wall. We all loved him and he drove us all crazy. My boys thought he was the center of the universe.

The doctor returned from looking at the MRI results and consulting with neurologists at the university hospital. The conclusion: irreparable brain damage due to a ruptured aneurysm at the base of his brain so severe that the university refused to accept him. My father was going to die.
I immediately called Tavish at Davidson and suggested that he drive to the hospital, less than an hour away as soon as his classes were over for the day. Shaken, he agreed but I expected him to cut whatever classes remained and I worried that he would drive too fast.

The doctor asked that we get my Mom and meet him in a small conference room down the hall. My sister, brother-in-law, their children, my brother, sister-in-law and I waited in the small cramped room. Where was David? The doctor arrived and explained as plainly as he could how grave the situation was. My father was brain-dead and only the machines to which he was attached were keeping him alive. Always prepared, Daddy had given my sister enduring medical power of attorney just in case we should ever be faced with such a situation. We all knew what he would want. Loss of control was one of his greatest fears. Once the breathing apparatus was removed how long would he survive? “In some cases a few days,” the doctor said. “”In this case, I think just a matter of hours.” The thought of my Daddy functioning, yet not, was beyond my comprehension. Why couldn’t it just be over as soon as the tube was removed? Wasn’t it over already? Why did he and we have to endure this anguish? The doctor assured us that he was in no pain.

Suzette signed the necessary paper work. Even Mom, although in a daze, seemed to fully understand what was happening. Daddy was moved to a private room down the hall and all our friends and relatives who had gathered were invited in. We rolled Mom up next to him and as she held Daddy’s hand a nurse removed the breathing tube. His mouth was contorted to one side and he began to make a slight, soft, gasping sound. A nurse stood nearby to monitor his condition.

David arrived and only then did I begin to cry. We stepped into the hall and through the tears I explained all that had happened in the past few hours. We walked slowly back into the room, his arm around me and stood at the foot of the bed to watch my Daddy die.

I don’t even know how long it took. It could have been a half-hour or three. Time wasn’t moving. I could hear the quiet sobs of my cousins behind me. My uncle kept annoyingly checking for a pulse. How could this experience be so loving and so morose at the same time.
Then the nurse pronounced him dead.

As I walked out into the hall I met Tavish running in.. When I told him the news he collapsed crying against the wall. He had tried so hard to get there to say goodbye. We talked about how we had said goodbye the day before and how grateful we were to have had that special time.

We all slowly left the hospital knowing our lives, once again, had changed forever.

Dinner in San Miguel -
It may seem odd to post a recipe after such a difficult personal post but in some way my life is always about food. Food is a constant - palnning, preparing, making reservations, consuming. Every event in my life, even death, has a food component.

One of the nearby restaurants, Posada Carmina, is known for the Chicken Pie it serves for Comida Corrida (Fixed price lunch), always preceded with a soup, usually poblano crema or crema de zanahoria, and a wedge of lechuga topped with queso dressing.

Chicken and vegetable pot pie
(Pay de Pollo con Verduras)
Serves 6
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 white onions, chopped
4 carrots, diced
3 Tbsp all purpose flour
½ cup dry white wine
1 10 oz pkg frozen peas
1 Tbsp fresh thyme
Salt and balck pepper
1 - 9 inch pie crust - your favorite recipe or store-bought
Heat over to 400
Cook chicken in pot of simmering water until cooked through - 10-12 minutes; let cool and shred
While chicken is cooking, heat oil over medium heat. Add the onion and carrots and cook until they begin to soften, 6-8 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and cook, stirring for 1 minute
Add the wine and cook until evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add the milk and simmer until the sauce thickens, 2-3 minutes. Stir in the chicken, thyme, salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a shallow 1 ½ or 2 quart baking dish.
Lay the crust on top, pressing to seal the edges. Cut several vents in the crust. Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake until bubbling and crust is golden, 30- 35 minutes.
11 Abril 2009

Thursday, April 9, 2009


In August 2008, in the midst of a State of Florida budget debacle, my husband, partner and best friend, David, a history professor at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg was among over 300 university employees whose jobs were eliminated. Scheduled to teach his final class on Aug 7, his 62nd birthday, David decided to retire, apply for Social Security and begin what he calls, “Getting paid for being old.” Our life together was about to change yet again.

Four years earlier, in the Fall of 2004 we had experienced our Anis Horribilis, to borrow a phrase from Queen Elizabeth II., and knew our life would never be the same again. Of course similar feelings, though never quite as intense, had occurred to us at various other times in our lives - when we met and married on our fourth date (1981), our moves from Chicago to Florida (1983) and back again (1985), my diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (1983), Tavish’s traumatic birth (1985), our move to Charlotte (1989), Toby’s birth (1989), our move to Lake Norman where we built a single story house with modifications for me (1995), ), David’s decision to change from a 25 year career in journalism and public relations to writing and teaching (1996), permanently leaving my job (1999), spending the spring semester in the UK with the boys (2000), moving to Lincolnton upon our return (2000), two years of Lincolnton High School and marching band (2000-2002), Toby entering and exiting middle school (2001), the Lincoln Theatre Guild, The Green Room and the Hickory Community Theatre (2001-2004), Tavish entering Episcopal High School (2002), David pursuing his PhD (2001-2005 ), moving to Aberdeen, Scotland with Toby for an academic year (2002- 2003), looking for high schools for Toby (2003). But all those are subjects for a later time.

2004 started out well enough, I traveled to London with a group of Fabulous Friends to celebrate my 50th birthday, also worthy of a future entry, Tavish graduated from EHS and was accepted to Davidson College and David was well on his way to completing his doctoral thesis. We were living in an historic house in Lincolnton, NC, our days consisting of coffee and later cocktails on the expansive front porch, unschooling Toby, reading and writing, occasional dinners with friends and enjoying watching the boys become young men. Well, perhaps that last part was a little stressful from time to time.

David took a daily 3 mile walk along the converted railroad right of way, now a nature trail and I walked and worked out at the local YMCA from time to time. That spring I shuttled Toby to and from rehearsals for a Moliere farce at a theatre about 25 miles away. I spent the evenings in a local coffee shop, sipping decaf, reading and waiting for his rehearsals to end. The performance was a smashing success and he received his first newspaper review.

The summer flew past as we shopped for college for Tavish and boarding school for Toby. All too soon, in early August, Tavish was off to Davidson and college life. Toby was around for another few weeks as Buxton School where he would attend in Williamstown, MA did not begin until mid-September. I cherished those last few weeks with him at home knowing in my heart that he would never be my little boy again.

David and I drove Toby to Massachusetts and returned to Lincolnton to begin our lives as “empty nesters.” I was not prepared in any way for that role and fought it daily. I sent creative care packages to the boys and wrote long e-mails (which neither read regularly). I imposed the “You must always call your mother every Sunday for the rest of your life” rule and for the most part they began to follow it. When they didn’t call me, I called them.

On the last Friday of September, David called from his office in Charlotte to tell me that he would be a little late getting home. He had scheduled an appointment with his doctor. Well ,not actually his regular doctor, she was out of town. Because he wanted to see someone urgently he agreed to see one of her partners. Only when he arrived home did he tell me that during his regular walks he had been experiencing chest pains for weeks. A few days earlier he had become nauseous and sweaty and in so much pain that he was forced to sit down immediately. Some passersby asked if he was OK and he assured them he was and after the pain subsided, he had walked home and dressed for work as if nothing had happened. I was furious.

The doctor informed David that he was experiencing classic angina and because he had been performing his own daily stress test during his walk, and failing, the best choice was to proceed directly to angioplasty. The procedure was scheduled for the following Thursday. David was frightened and anxious.

On Saturday morning, I received a call from my sister that our uncle, my mother’s youngest brother, had died during the night. Earl, or John as he had preferred to be called as an adult, was the youngest of Mom’s seven siblings and had been deteriorating rapidly during the past few months due to Alzheimer’s disease.

On that Sunday, as large small town families do in the wake of death, we all gathered at my aunt’s house. There was food and family stories and memories galore. At one point during the afternoon Tavish and I sat for quite a long time listening to my Dad pontificate on everything from religion to politics as he was wont to do. I regretted that Toby wasn’t there with us. Dad doted on his grandchildren, showed off his new great-grandson born just a few weeks earlier on his birthday, hugged nieces and nephews, and while the day was sad, all seemed well with the world.

By 2 PM the following day, my Daddy was dead.

Tonight's dinner -

Macaroni y Queso con Coliflor
(Macaroni and Cheese with Cauliflower)
6 servings

12 ounces elbow macaroni (multi-grain works well)
1 head cauliflower , separated in to small florets
½ cup fresh parsley chopped (flat-leaf is best)
3 Tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt and coarse ground black pepper
1 large onion, finely chopped (preferably white onion)
1 ½ cups (6 ounces) grated sharp cheese, white or yellow
½ cup grated mild white cheese
(reduced fat cheese is OK, fat free will not melt)
1 ½ cups Mexican crema ( sour cram or reduced fat sour cream will work)
½ cup evaporated milk ( or 1% milk, do not use skim)
1 Tablespoon spicy mustard, like Dijon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
Dash red pepper (cayenne)
Heat over to 400 degrees. Cook pasta according to package directions, adding cauliflower during the last three minutes of cooking time; drain
While the pasta is cooking, Pulse the bread in a food processor or blender until coarse crumbs form. Add the parsley, 2 Tbsp of oil, ¼ tsp each of salt and pepper and pulse to combine, set aside
Return the pasta pot to medium heat and add the remaining Tbsp of oil, the onion, ¾ tsp salt (I use much less) and ½ tsp pepper, nutmeg and red pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, just until soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Mix in pasta, cauliflower, cheese, crema, milk and mustard and stir gently to combine.
Transfer to shallow 3 quart baking dish, sprinkle with the bread crumbs and a little grated cheese
And bake until golden brown and bubbly, 12-15 minutes. It may be necessary to lay a piece of aluminum foil lightly on top if the crumbs brown too quickly.
Serve with a mixed green salad (ensalada mixta) in a simple dressing of lime juice, olive oil, salt and pepper and a creamy Chardonnay from Argentina. For dessert, baked apples stuffed with raisins and drizzled with maple syrup (Manzanas rellenos con pasas y jarabe de arce)
08 Abril 2009