Elderberry Whine

Ten days shy of the second anniversary of my mother’s death, I’m sharing something controversial here — Sandra Tsing Loh‘s recent polemic in the Atlantic about caring for her aging father.

Even if you think Sandra Tsing Loh’s piece is over-the-top, that she’s self-obsessed and could use another 1,000 hours of therapy, there’s no denying the power of her emotions.

I’ve written about my own life-changing experiences with eldercare and about Jane Gross’s important book, A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents and Ourselves.

It’s a powerful subject and one that I’m glad is getting more attention.  When you are in the throes of it, caring for your aging parents, while also working, caring for your kids, your partner and yourself can be lonely, overwhelming and feel hopeless.  It helps when others share their stories and, like Jane Gross, use what we learn from each other to effect change.

Read this and weep:  Daddy Issues

I miss you, Mom (the original turkey-maker).

When Life Gives You Lemons…

One of my “day jobs” is education reporter, a role I fell into by accident.  As the mother of two school-age kids, I spend a lot of time thinking, talking and yes, complaining about public education (Jeff can attest to this.  In addition to boring people at parties with talk of fish oil, don’t get me started on the middle school math curriculum).  Because it matters so much to me, I’ve decided that in addition to volunteering in the schools, the best way for me to be part of the solution, instead of merely bitching about the problems, is to write objectively about efforts to improve our imperiled public education system and the people who are working hard to make a difference.

Some have called this the civil rights struggle of our time.

When my mother was dying and I was fighting to make sense of her convoluted Medicare coverage, I became an impassioned advocate for Medicare reform and especially for people of my generation — the sandwich generation — to educate ourselves about the harsh realities of elder care.

If all politics is local, maybe all activism is first and foremost located in our hearts.

Two years ago, I sat in a Starbucks at the Plantation Towne Square shopping mall in Florida with my childhood acquaintance and neighbor Beth.  I hadn’t seen Beth since high school, nearly thirty years before, and had only heard snippets about her life from my mother, who was the human embodiment of a social networking site long before Mark Zuckerberg’s birth, able to provide a status update on pretty much anybody from our hometown.

My mother came to visit me after the birth of my second child bearing Table Toppers, the disposable stick-on placemats that she told me Beth, a lawyer and now mother of three, had invented so that mothers trying to feed their toddlers in public places didn’t have to fret about germs.

To be honest, though I’d always liked Beth, I wasn’t interested in hearing about her innovation and applauding her entrepreneurial spirit.  I was in the full throes of an identity crisis that had stemmed from leaving my prestigious international career to be a stay-at-home mother.  Unlike Beth, I hadn’t crafted a creative new identity that merged my professional skills with my new role as parent. I didn’t want to be reminded that there were other women who, after giving birth, had managed to find fulfilling ways to blend career and family.

I came to Florida to care for my mother, who was scheduled for some outpatient surgery. But when I got there, her condition was much worse than I expected.  Our relationship, which had been strained over the years, was awkward, and so to make her feel better and to pass the time, I let her tell me about people we knew in common, including Beth, who lived nearby.  There had been a tragedy, my mother said.  Beth’s oldest son had contracted leukemia at age 11 and hadn’t survived.

I think it was more than cabin fever that led me to break free of my mother and arrange to meet Beth for coffee.

We sat across from each other and commented on how much we both resembled our mothers.  Beth’s chipper high school class president demeanor now had a careworn veneer, but I noticed she also had her mother’s softness and warm, quiet eyes — qualities I had always admired.

We caught each other up on our lives and the people we knew in common, and then we talked, mother-to-mother, about the unspeakable loss she had suffered.  It wasn’t the cancer that had killed Ian, Beth explained, it was the treatment.  Ian had been diagnosed with T-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) , a form of cancer that can have a 75-80% recovery rate. But his immune system had been so compromised by the toxic cancer treatment, that, though cancer-free at the time, he was unable to survive the meningitis he had contracted while the “cure” was underway.

Along with frustration over the futility of Ian’s death, Beth and her husband Brad were haunted by Ian’s own feelings about his treatment, which had been painful, isolating and humiliating.  Ian often asked why the “cure” had to hurt so much.

“After Ian died, I felt like I was going through the motions as a parent,” Beth admitted.  “Before his death I had thrown myself into parenting, yet I hadn’t been able to prevent something terrible from happening or been able to shield Ian from pain.  Afterwards, it was hard to get excited about birthday parties and school events for my other two sons.”

But Beth is a more than a turkey-maker, she’s a lemonade-maker. She and her family threw themselves into another innovative, entrepreneurial project — the creation of the I Care I Cure Childhood Cancer Foundation, which raises awareness and money to fund gentler treatments for childhood cancer. To date, the foundation and its partners have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for cutting-edge, targeted therapies for pediatric cancer.

In addition to its ongoing fundraising, the Florida-based foundation hosts a 5K run and family fun day, so that activism can be a family affair. The fifth annual event will be held on February 12.  There is also a network of I Care I Cure Service Clubs for kids across the country, to share Ian’s commitment to community service with his peers, and new efforts to develop teen service learning projects.  You can learn more about these opportunities on the foundation’s website and/or “like” it on Facebook.

Three months after Beth and I met for coffee, my mother died and a year after that, Beth lost her mother. We live on opposite sides of the country and probably won’t ever see each other again.  Since I don’t have my mother to keep me up-to-date, I’ll have to rely on Facebook to follow Beth’s activities.

There’s a saying that books broaden your perspective because they enable you to lead a thousand lives different than your own. The same can be true of your encounters with other people.  I’m grateful for what I learned from my mid-life reacquaintance with Beth, just as I’m grateful every time I get to interview someone for an article and learn what motivates them.  We can’t always and don’t always want to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.  But we can listen to them share their experiences.

I’ve had a recent bump in readership and subscribers and I want to thank you all. Through this blog I have reconnected with old friends and have made new ones too.  One such person is Ken Rivard, who with his wife Jody Adams, writes the wonderful food blog The Garum Factory.  During my musings about the feasibility of mid-life activism, Ken, who I think of as a wise older brother, commented, “I think the hardest thing, the older you get, is to shake yourself out of the habitual rut of your own life, your own perceptions, etc. and remember when the world was wide open.”         .    

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.  When the situation is not so drastic, say on a gray weekend morning when you are waiting for snow, do yourself a favor and make these Lemon-Bay Scones with Currants, courtesy of the Garum Factory.  When you look at the recipe, you might initially be daunted by the effort involved in making and freezing bay leaf and Meyer Lemon-infused brown butter.  Don’t be.  It sounds harder and more time-consuming than it actually is.  And, like activism, once you set your mind to it, you’ll be glad you did.

The Bitch Is Back – The Atlantic

I stumbled upon this today when I was feeling blue and overwhelmed by all the holiday stuff.

It’s one of the funniest and best descriptions of perimenopause and menopause I’ve seen.  It’s worth reading if you are a “women of a certain age” or someone who loves one.

Thank you, Sandra Tsing Loh.

The Bitch Is Back – The Atlantic.

Food for Thought

Thanks to everyone who sent me get well wishes.  As it turns out, my illness was usurped by the needs of my family.  Jeff was diagnosed with pneumonia, there has been an outbreak of pneumonia in daughter #2’s school and though she doesn’t have it, she has had a cough she can’t shake, which necessitated several trips to the doctor.  Daughter #1 had to weather the slings and arrows of growing up this week and our rat-catching cat Cheeto awoke with one eye glued shut and a pitiful look in his other eye.   What choice did I have but to get better and fast?

In our family, this is known as “gazumping” ( taken from a mercenary British real estate practice but, as Lemony Snicket would say, a word which here means trumping someone else’s misfortune with more dire circumstances of your own).   As my friend and fellow mother Lauren ruefully stated, “You get three hours to be sick before everyone else needs to be taken care of.”

Ain't it the truth

So it’s only now that I’ve had a chance to compose that serious post-holiday entry I promised.

The people we shared our Thanksgiving dinner with this year ranged in age from two to 89. This is unusual for us and it offered the opportunity to consider life from a variety of perspectives.

As two year-olds do, ours looked upon everything with fresh eyes, brightening the most mundane of tasks with his enthusiasm. In the weeks since he’s been gone, as I shamble downstairs in the wee hours to make the morning coffee, I can hear the faint echo of his sweet voice counting the coffee scoops with me in English and in French. It keeps me going until the caffeine kicks in.

"Un, deux, trois, quatre...."

The 89 year-old is revisiting great literary works and told me that during a recent bout of insomnia, she deconstructed a T.S. Eliot poem.  I hope that when my life is no longer ruled by “To Do” lists, I will use my inadvertent waking hours as wisely.

And the 20 year-old college student, so sure of everything, reminded me of those heady days of discovery – foreign film, jazz, philosophy — and above all, certainty in the face of uncertainty.  Even if you had no idea what life held for you post-graduation, you were sure  that you were going to make your mark on the world in a way that your parents never had.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving, we attended the memorial service for our friend Kim. Though, like any human being, he lived a full, rich, yet sometimes flawed life, much of the focus and many of the comments at the service dealt with his later years, when he served as a human rights advocate and a teacher, and especially the past four years following a debilitating stroke, when he served as an inspiration to everyone who knew him.

My favorite remarks at the service were made by Kim’s brother-in-law Kevin, who met Kim as a young man often at odds with the father whose namesake he was, and with whom he maintained a 40+ year- relationship.  Kevin read excerpts from the eulogies both he and Kim had made at Kim, Sr.’s funeral.  By then Kim, Jr. had made peace of sorts with his father.  It was interesting, Kevin told us, how many of the qualities he and Kim had admired in the father could also be attributed to the son. Thanks to Kevin’s remarks, I got a glimpse of the full measure of our friend as he developed over a lifetime.

The morning after the service, Jeff told me he had had trouble sleeping.  In what I now characterize as our “quiet desperation” conversation, he said that when he considered the impact Kim had had on the world, he worried about his own contributions or lack thereof.

For here we are at 50 – not two, or 20 or 89. We have mouths to feed, to-do lists to work through and events, both fortunate and unfortunate, to contend with. Though we, as Voltaire suggested, strive to tend our own gardens with care, raising responsible citizens, making soup for sick friends, volunteering at schools, coaching soccer teams and occasionally donating money for tsunami relief and holiday food banks, during those inadvertent waking hours, we may wonder if our contributions are enough and whether we  feel fulfilled by the choices we have made in our lives. No matter how pressing our own needs, there is always someone who can gazump us with far more urgent problems.  There may also be lingering regrets about roads not taken.

A 900-word blog is not the place to provide answers to the big questions of the human condition, which philosophers and religions have grappled with since time immemorial.  But it can be a venue for discussion, especially now, during holiday and resolution season, when many of us strive to be our best selves.

For those of you approaching, at or past mid-life (however you choose to define it), I’d like to know your thoughts on this.  How have you reconciled your life choices? Do you have plans for your senior years that involve “giving back” in some way? Or will that be the time when you finally get to sing your song?

Forgive me if this seems irreverent, but I have a recipe that I think complements this train of thought .

I often feel like my best, most virtuous self when I eat kale.  Given the preponderance of kale recipes I’ve seen lately, I sense I am not alone. This one comes from Food 52.  It’s very easy to throw together and is a welcome, crunchy change from self-indulgence, yet is fulfilling all the same.  Don’t tell your kids they are eating kale.  Call it salad and they will eat it. And don’t forget to use the nifty method for separating the kale leaves from the stems that I learned from the Garum Factory. I feel as wide-eyed as a two year-old whenever I do.

Kale Salad with Apples and Hazelnuts (adapted from Food 52)

Serves 4

5 cups curly kale and mustard green leaves, torn into small pieces

(I used only kale and it was fine)

2 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced on the bias

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon brown rice vinegar

(I used regular, unseasoned rice vinegar)

Sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper

1 tart apple

1/4 cup hazelnuts, chopped and toasted

1/4 cup pecorino romano or parmesan, shaved with a vegetable peeler

  1. In a large bowl, combine the kale, mustard greens, scallions, olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Mix with your hands to really blend the dressing and rub it into the greens. Let the salad sit while you prepare the rest.
  2. Core the apple. Thinly — like, super thinly — slice the two halves from stem to flower end. If you have a mandoline, that’s the easiest way to go. Add the apples to the salad and gently fold together so they don’t break in half. Taste and adjust seasonings.
  3. Spread the salad on a platter. Sprinkle with the hazelnuts and cheese shavings.

courtesy of The New Yorker