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Reading this made me feel good. I hope to spread the good cheer!

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I Want My Fingers Back – Lunchtime Fun

Yesterday, driving home from school, my little boy, Simon, looked sad and announced that after a year of living in Jasper, he was “sick of this place.”  He started by saying that his gym teacher always put him on the weak teams because he is the tallest and strongest kid, but that it rarely tipped the scales, and he was tired of losing with her pre-arranged teams.  Then he was really quiet for a while.  I asked if something else happened today, and he said he didn’t do very well on his math test.  Then he was quiet again.  Again, I asked if that was all that was bothering him, and his face fell and he said that when he went to eat his lunch in the classroom today, other kids made fun of his beef and vegetable soup.  I guess it looked gross when it was cold, and some small-town brat, stuffing a boring turkey sandwich into his face, wouldn’t shut up about how ugly and weird it was, and who the heck brings soup to school for lunch, anyway?  Sometimes, I could really punch someone in the face – go ahead, call the cops.  Simon warmed up his soup in the microwave and replied, “yeah, it might be ugly, but it sure tastes delicious!  How’s that turkey sandwich taste…every day of every week? Is it as yummy as it tasted on the first day of school LAST YEAR?!”  I was so psyched to hear he had a good response to the little turd’s comments and that he felt confident about himself, until I could see that it was just bravado, and that he was deeply embarrassed by the whole thing.  I said, “Honey, I could make you turkey sandwiches every day too – you just tell me what you like!”  And he said, “No, Mama, I like your lunches.  They’re healthy and they taste good.  I just hate jerks. I hate it that they think everything has to be the same – that they think I have to have a stupid turkey sandwich, I have to wear the same Halloween costumes they do, and I have to play hockey to be cool.  I hate playing hockey!”  We pulled into the driveway and sat in the car for a little bit, complaining about a bunch of things.  The rule is: we can swear and complain in the car, if nobody can hear us.  It’s the only place where we can have some privacy, so sue me.  After he was done crying and I convinced him that he really would hate homeschooling with boring Mom teaching him how to do math the wrong way, I told him a story about truly disgusting lunches from my childhood.  But first I had to tell him a ghost story.

 

When I was in Kindergarten, my dad took a year’s sabbatical from the Foreign Service, in order to get his MBA from Harvard.  We bought an ancient house with a barn, in a tiny town called Groveland.  Despite being penniless, with Dad going to school and the family living off of Mom’s art gallery, my parents prided themselves on throwing the biggest, scariest Halloween parties in the neighborhood.  There were no superheroes or cute little witches at those parties.  My parents’ goal was to get you to pee in your pants from terror.  My dad would tell ghost stories in the stable of our big haunted barn (don’t argue with me – it was truly haunted), and at the end of some of the spookiest, he’d have my mom jump out of the shadows wielding a Chinese cleaver, screaming something bloodcurdling.  Parents would call my dad, days later, complaining that little Bobby or Suzy was having nightmares….and my dad would chuckle.  The only story I can remember was about a boy named Johnny, who was given some money from his mother, and instructed to go to the store and buy some sausages for dinner.  They were very poor, so there was just enough money to buy the sausages and nothing else.  Well, the little boy passed the sporting goods store and his eye was caught by the fancy new jackknife he in the window.  He had wanted that for ages, but his mother had told him they didn’t have the money for luxuries.  Well, now he had cash, so he ran in and bought the little beauty.  Playing with his new knife, Johnny then followed the tantalizing smell of fresh fudge to the candy store.  There, he spent the remainder of his money on creamy fudge, pulled taffy, and gobs of gumdrops.  Stepping out of the candy shop, alternately stuffing his face with gooey candy and picking the sticky sugary bits out of his teeth, he remembered the sausages.  What would he tell his mother?!  There was no avoiding the huge spanking he was going to get; she would be so angry with him…  As he slowly turned towards home, dragging his feet, he noticed the local funeral parlor was open, a funeral in progress.  Out of curiosity, he stepped inside, drawn to the open casket in the viewing room.  Laid to rest in the satin-lined casket was the fattest man he had ever seen.  The man’s chin had several layers, his belly rose up in an obese hill above the bottom half of the open casket, the buttons of his waistcoat straining to hold in the enormous stomach.  His arms had been crossed in a peaceful pose, his large hands clasped together, plump fingers as swollen as…sausages.   Pulling out his shiny new jackknife, little Johnny hesitated for just a moment, then quickly sawed off all of the dead man’s fingers, leaving just the thumbs attached.  He popped the fingers into the paper bag that had held his candy, stuffed the bag into his pocket, and ran all the way home.  Johnny felt queasy handing his mother the bag of “sausages” and even queasier at suppertime when his mom served up his franks and beans.  Saying he didn’t feel well, he rushed up to his room and burrowed under the covers, the rich fudge and chewy taffy gurgling and rolling over in his stomach.  He drifted into a fitful sleep, dreaming of fat knuckles and funeral parlors.  In the middle of the night, he heard some noise downstairs.  Footsteps coming up the stairs.  Big, heavy footsteps.  And he heard a deep, raspy voice whisper, “I want my fingers back.”  Johnny yelled, “MOM!!!!” and his mother rushed into the room, turned on the lights, “Are you okay, honey?”  Johnny gasped, “You didn’t hear that, Mom?  There’s someone in the house!”  She rubbed his back, tucked the covers around him, and soothed, “No honey, go back to sleep.  Everything is fine.” Little Johnny kept his eyes open for the rest of the night. The next morning dawned bright and sunny, and Johnny dragged his tired body through school, dreading bedtime in his dark room, later that night.  After dinner, he tried to procrastinate, but his mom sent him right up to bed. Lights out, a few hours later, the house fell silent.  Then, Johnny’s eyes popped open.  He’d heard it.  Heavy steps on the stairs.  Deep and raspy, “I want my fingers back.”  Johnny was too scared to scream.  He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.  The footsteps thumped up the stairs and creaked on the top landing, at the end of the hallway leading to his bedroom.  Low and raspy, the voice groaned, “I want my fingers back.”  Johnny flipped on the light to his room, and the sounds disappeared.  Shaking, he sat on the edge of his bed until the sun came up and it was time to go to school.  Bags under his eyes, he trudged to school, wondering what the next night would bring.  Later that night, after dinner, Johnny offered to clear the table, wash the dishes, ANYTHING to put off bedtime.  But his mom said, “Oh sweetie, you’ve been looking so tired lately, go on up to bed.  I’ll clean the kitchen.  Sweet dreams!”  Poor little Johnny slowly put one foot in front of the other and forced himself to get ready for bed.  Drawing the covers up under his chin, he lay in bed, dreading the fall of night.  Finally, long after his mother had gone to bed, Johnny heard the footsteps on the stairs.  “I want my fingers baaaack.”  Footsteps slow and heavy on the landing.  “I want my fingerrrrs back.”  Heavy creaking footfall down the hallway leading to his room.  I wannnt my fingerrrrs baaaack.”  Stillness outside his room, in front of his closed bedroom door.  Then the door handle began to turn, slowly, the door creaking open in the dark.  “I waaaannt myyyy finnnngggerrrs….”  BOO!  Simon’s head nearly jumped through the roof of the car.  

 

Laughing, I told Simon that he was lucky his mom packed nice lunches like soup or chef salads.  When I was little – 2nd and 3rd grade – we lived in Moscow.  It was 1976, the Cold War, we were living in Communist USSR, with very limited food choices.  The Russians could prepare beets 14 different ways, and do amazing things with potatoes, but my mother couldn’t even manage to cook a pork chop.  Her version of American food was to throw that pork chop in the oven and cook the Hell out of it.  It would come out as hard as a hockey puck, served with some steamed rice and maybe some canned corn (if we were lucky and the commissary in the American Embassy had canned veggies available that month).  We made do – with enough salt, the pork chop tasted just fine.  But for lunches, we were shit out of luck.  My sisters and I went to the Anglo American School, along with all the other children from the various foreign embassies in the city.  The school was very small, there was no cafeteria, so we ate brown bag lunches in our classrooms.  I remembered being so embarrassed, pulling out a cold, hard, pork chop.  Or a chicken leg.  Nothing else. No drink. No fruit. No utensils.  I’d envy the sweet little son of the Kenyan Ambassador.  Every single day, his cook would lovingly prepare a delicate, fresh crepe, spread with honey, and rolled up tight.  Pancake honey roll.  I would drool for it.  On my pork chop days, the little boy would tilt his head, smile and say, “trade?” and I would give him a big hug and savor his delicious lunch.  Who knows, maybe he was bored with the same-old-same-old every day, or maybe he loved pork chop hockey pucks.  Either way, I would cross my fingers for pork chops for lunch every day so I could have my pancake honey roll trade.  Unfortunately, there were days when I wouldn’t get pork chops.  There were days I was lucky to get a lunch at all.  Mom was an artist – a night owl who could stay up for days on end to finish grand paintings.  Her art came first, and feeding the children fell somewhere on her list of priorities near the bottom, under “Drink coffee. Smoke cigarettes. Brush teeth.”  She would drag herself out of bed in the morning, stand there with a cup of coffee in one hand, the other hand leaning on the kitchen counter, eyes squinting through the smoke curling up from the cigarette clenched between her thin lips.  Needless to say, we didn’t get pancakes for breakfast.  My dad bought a giant case of Nabisco Shredded Wheat and a case of Carnation milk powder when we first moved to Moscow.  There was so much of it, I don’t think we ever finished it.  Every school day morning, Mom would boil the kettle of water, crush a shredded wheat biscuit in a bowl, dump some milk powder on top, and pour the hot water over it all. That was my breakfast.  Mom would growl, “It’s 40 below outside.  You need something warm in your stomach.”   We were required to eat everything on our plates, or get it for dinner, then breakfast the next day, upon threat of a beating.  Usually, by the time I worked up the courage to choke down the hot cereal, it had cooled to a pile of inedible mush.  No amount of sugar could help it.  I gag just remembering it.  So on the BAD mornings, my mom would would open the fridge lean on the door, just staring blankly inside for lunchbox inspiration.  I’ve had the waxy ends of hard smelly cheese for lunch.  I’ve had raw onions and a hunk of salami.  But those are epicurean delights compared with Russian mystery-meat hotdogs, drenched in ketchup and wrapped in tin foil.  The hot dogs had a funky smoke flavoring, they were floppy and skinny, and looked just like real fingers. The effect, when the tin foil was opened up and the ketchup dripped out, was horrifying.  Nobody would sit with me at my desk during lunchtime, on I Want My Fingers Back lunch days.  On those mornings, my sisters and I would watch my mom wrap up our I Want My Fingers Back lunches, with sinking hearts, and we would grab slices of bread to hide in our pockets.  Later in the morning, on the school bus, I would help my little sister, who was in Kindergarten, open her metal lunchbox, and we would throw our bloody little packets of tin foil out of the school bus windows, squealing when the cars would run them over and they exploded into hotdog roadkill.  At lunchtime, we would pull the stolen bread from our pockets and chew slowly, dreaming of pork chops.  Ah, talking about the Good Old Days of my childhood always works wonders on my children when they think their lives are tough. 

So this morning, I woke up at 6am, made a pot of short-grain sushi rice sprinkled with a bit of sugar and rice vinegar, pulled out sheets of nori (dried seaweed), and a jar of furikake (seasoned flakes of nori and roasted sesame seeds).  I prepared Simon’s favorite lunch: sticky rice balls rolled in furikake, and sushi rolls with little pieces of roast chicken in the middle.  I lovingly wrapped them and placed them in a bento box with 3 baby mandarin oranges, and paired that with a thermos of his favorite juice.  Turkey Sandwich Boy can stick it where the sun don’t shine.  And if his tiny little mind can’t handle my son’s delicious lunches, I just might send Simon to school with a little tinfoil packet of I Want My Fingers Back to offer as an alternative to his turkey sandwich.  Does anybody know where I can get my hands on some Russian hotdogs in this town? 

Flowers and Tea in the Winter Mountains

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During the past week, our house has been bustling with the arrival of our oldest daughter, visiting from university, and the departure of our youngest daughter on a French exchange program to Quebec.  Sitting down to write has been a luxury I couldn’t afford, so the words have been filling me to overflowing, inside.  A few days ago, while shopping in Safeway, those words had nowhere else to go, so they started spilling out of my ears.  In the floral section. Luckily, I carry a little notebook for just such occasions, and I caught them before they were lost (something Hashimoto’s has taught me – write it down or lose it forever).
 
Driving to Safeway takes an hour, so I usually take my time, wandering the aisles to make sure we have everything we need before making the long journey home.  At the end of the produce section, I found myself surrounded by flowers.  As I ventured further into the arrangements and noticed all the tulips and lilies,  my heart lifted with the realization that Spring was around the corner.  Living so far north, this is the time of year when it feels as if Winter will go on forever.  So I indulged myself by wandering around the flower section, picking up the heavy glass vases, picturing the long-stemmed blooms I could arrange, and where I would place them in my apartment.  I gently stroked the glossy leaves of the orchid plants, reminiscing about my house in Hawaii, filled with all varieties of those beauties that my husband would bring home to me every few weeks. Large baskets filled with luscious ferns, hung from iron hooks, green tendrils tickling my ears as I brushed by.   All around, the damp smell of healthy plants in rich soil made me feel homesick for something I couldn’t place my finger on…
 
Then I found wide pots filled with assorted bulbs; crocuses, tulips, and hyacinths.   They were slightly over-bloomed, the hyacinth stem drooping with the weight of the heavy blossom clusters. But I knew they would smell heavenly, so I leaned in and nestled my face amongst the petals.  A deep inhale of the heavy perfume…and I found myself in Bedfordshire, England, with my best friend, Connie.  We were taking one of our days off from working in the AAFES Base Exchange store on RAF Chicksands, and enjoying a day visiting garden centers.  Our lives as Air Force wives would have been very boring, if it weren’t for the small miracle of meeting each other.  When I interviewed her for a job in the Shoppette, I remember thinking how nice it would be to have such a fun friend.  She was just a young girl like me- barely 20 or 21, freshly returned from her honeymoon with her high school sweetheart, but smart as a whip, feisty, and quick to smile.  She had long, chestnut brown hair, that fell in wild waves of corkscrew curls, and startling blue eyes that never ever missed a thing.  It’s funny how appearances fooled me into thinking, “high school cheerleader, popular crowd – maybe not interested in being friends with an oboe-playing band geek who liked to read cookbooks for fun and prune roses for kicks.”  Lo and behold, both Connie AND her husband Dan had been band geeks, they loved to cook, and had the same goofy sense of humor I thought I was alone in possessing.  Our husbands worked crazy schedules on base; 3 days of day shifts (7am-3pm), 3 days of mid shifts (3pm-11pm), 3 days of swing shifts (11pm-7am), then 3 days off.  In the beginning, Connie had to wait for base housing, and she and Dan lived in a spider-infested townhouse in a village called Sandy, about 30 minutes from RAF Chicksands.  To escape the dark rooms filled with spiders, we would explore garden centers on our days off from the BX, where we both had transferred to work.  The garden centers were enchanted places where you could wander greenhouses filled to the rafters with plants of all varieties and sizes.  They also had gift shops stocked with gardening books and beautiful pottery to drool over.  But best of all, every garden center had a cozy little area where customers could enjoy high tea.  Some teas were fancy, with scones and clotted cream, and some just offered small sandwiches and strong, sweet, milky black tea from chipped teapots with knitted tea-cozies.  It didn’t matter what the weather was like outside (usually chilly and mostly wet), because inside we were warm in the greenhouse, surrounded by bright flowers and the pleasant muted clinking of our china cups in their saucers.  I  remember that we were always too poor to buy many things (our husbands were brand-new enlisted airmen – we would have had more income on Welfare), but we always had a few pounds to buy a pot of tea and maybe share a sandwich or some sausage rolls.  And wandering the garden centers, paging through the books and looking at, touching, and smelling the flowers were always free.  
 
Connie and Dan eventually secured base housing, and were given a unit just a few hundred yards behind my house.  With our husbands’ shifts keeping them in permanent sleep deprivation, Connie and I had to occupy ourselves with few resources. Living on the economy was very expensive, and simple things like going out to dinner or the movies weren’t luxuries we could all afford very often.  So we learned how to cross-stitch.  And we learned how to cook.  To this day, Connie’s Spaghetti Carbonara is the best sauce I have ever had.  Pancetta, red wine, beef,  sauteed onions, garlic and carrots, all married together for hours, then finished by pureeing and stirring in silky cream.  I could drink the whole pot of sauce if I didn’t have to share it… I tried to convince her that we could open a restaurant and only serve her spaghetti and my beef stroganoff and get RICH!  She would laugh and flap her oven mitts at my foolishness, but to this day, I know people would pay good money for our food – if only they could taste it first.  
 
Once in a while, if our husbands’ off days and swing shifts would coincide,  we would splurge and take the train to London. The 4 of us visited Madame Toussad’s Wax Museum, dallied in Harrod’s, and stood at the gates of Buckingham Palace.  I remember always having a difficult time breathing in those places, not quite believing I was actually travelling in a city that was older than my native country.
 
Every Saturday at 6:45pm or Sunday at 9:45am, Connie would say, “Okay, I’m running to Mass – I’ll be back in about an hour.”  Whether she was at my house or I was at hers, she went.  Her husband and I, both baptized but never raised by families to practice our faith, would wheedle and whine to keep her from going, but she would just smile and say, “I gotta go!  I’ll be right back!”  There was no Bible thumping or preaching – she went because she wanted to go.  My father is Agnostic (in my opinion, a very pretentious way of saying, “I dunno”) and my mother was just paranoid.  She was baptized as a baby (some Missionary must have convinced someone in her family, but never followed through with the rest of the faith lessons) but it meant nothing, as not one of them attended Mass or even discussed any faith in the household.  She also believed in Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, among other things.  Basically, it felt like my mother wanted all bases covered, in case she died and one of the faiths was actually true, so she had all of us children baptized at birth.  In any case, both parents were too lazy to physically bring us to churches to explore faiths, so they always told us, “You decide what you want to believe in when you grow up.”  I went to an Episcopal boarding school one year.  It was my first time in a church, and I was enthralled by the architecture, the acoustics (I sang in the school choir), and the hushed air when the minister spoke.  The hymns were my favorite part, though, which made me think that perhaps I wasn’t feeling the message I was meant to receive from the Episcopalians. So I asked Connie, “Why do you go to church?”  At first, she laughed and told me that when she was little, her mother would get tired of the kids whining about going to Mass on Sundays and would yell, “Get up and come to Mass, or you’re all going to Hell!”  Then I said, “Why do you keep going now?  You could sleep in, or we could keep watching that show on tv, or we could all have a glass of wine – why do you feel you have to go to Mass, now that you’re grown up and Mom doesn’t need to nag you?”  She grew still as she thought about it, a little crease forming between her eyebrows.  Then she said, “Well, I think I go to say thank you.  God gives me every day of my life – every minute of every day.  And I have a really good life.  I’m healthy and happy, and I have a wonderful husband and a good job.  For all those days in my life, I think it isn’t too much for God to ask me to go to Mass for just one hour. An hour is such a small amount of time to say thank-you for everything He gives.”
 
For weeks, Connie’s words rattled about in my head.  Finally, I worked up the courage to ask her if I could come with her one time, to see what Mass was like.  She agreed and said I was totally welcome, but there was a little rule that I wouldn’t be allowed to partake of Communion because I wasn’t a fully initiated member of the church.  I thought, “that’s okay.  I’m just curious.”  Following her to Saturday night Mass was curious, indeed.  Upon entering the small wooden, multipurpose chapel on base, Connie dipped her fingers in a little basin of water (Holy Water, she explained), and genuflected with her dampened fingers; gently touched forehead, then sternum, then left shoulder, then right. I imitated her, the water leaving a cooling spot on my forehead. There were only a few other people there, so the carpeted chapel was very quiet. We slid into the wooden pews, and Connie pulled out the padded kneeling bench by our feet, and knelt.  She bowed her head and became very still.  I looked around at others doing the same, looked up on the alter to the large crucifix, studied Jesus’ bowed head.  And the pianist asked us to open our Catholic Book of Worship (hymnals) to a certain number, and we began to sing.  The music was meh.  But then there were readings from the bible.  2, to be exact.  It was a bit difficult to understand, because I was slightly nervous from all the rising and the sitting, and the responses to prompts that I was a stranger to.  Then the priest began his homily.  I figured out that after a reading from the Gospel, the priest does a homily to explain the Gospel in layman’s terms.  I could never have prepared myself for Father Ryan, though.  Here was a spritely little man in his mid-fifties, glasses on his nose, talking about how great the Rolling Stones are…what?!  He had us laughing and answering questions, and next thing I knew, I felt a “click.”  I started tagging along after Connie to every weekly Mass.  Eventually, perhaps feeling left behind, her husband joined us. Not once did Connie nag us, not once did she preach.  She just lived her faith, and we lifted ourselves to reach the level she seemed to glow from. The rhythm of prayer and response, song, and readings, began to feel comfortable and easy.  Every week, we all gave each other a sign of Peace during Mass, by shaking hands after the Lord’s Prayer, and wishing each other, “Peace be with you.”  And every time that happened, I felt the peace wash over me and I felt strong and refreshed, ready for a new start to a new week.  Dan and I went through the RCIA program and were both given our First Communion and were Confirmed on Holy Saturday Night before Easter that year.  
 
Within one month of each other, Connie and I found ourselves expecting our first babies.  Soon after, however, our husbands were reassigned to the U.S.  Connie moved to Maryland, and I moved to the armpit of Texas: San Angelo.  The best part of living in San Angelo (the ONLY part) was that my daughter was born there.  The rest is a blur.  Connie’s baby boy was born 11/12/92, and my daughter was born on 12/13/92.  She made me the Godmother, and I made her and Dan the Godparents.  She and Dan came for a visit when the kids were 3 months old – we celebrated Easter together and for a few days it felt like no time had passed.  Luckily, it turns out we have that kind of friendship, because 17 years went by before we saw each other again.  We tried to keep in touch, but life gets busy with jobs and kids, divorce, and moving.  Years later, I found myself in Colorado for a high school reunion, and Connie and Dan drove to my hotel to bring me to their new home.  Connie’s hair was blond, Dan’s was all salt and pepper, and mine was falling out, but as soon as we started talking, we were in our 20’s again, laughing and joking and comparing kids. Their son and my daughter, although raised apart since they were 3 months old, have turned into mirror images of each other.  We alternate between wanting to hug them and wanting to strangle them.  Connie confides in me that she has had ups and downs with her son, as I have had with my daughter, but through it all, she maintains an inner peace I wish I could find.  She gets angry like a normal person, but she bears no resentment, like I do. For her, forgive and forget go hand-in-hand.  That’s something I need to work on…  They also got on a plane and flew out to Canada to visit me a couple of years ago.  It’s so strange and wonderful to me, each time we are reunited, to find that nothing has changed.  Connie is still the kind of person that I strive to be.  She is patient and kind, she is forgiving and loving.  As I age, I realize how important it is to surround myself with people that I look up to; people who teach by example.  But there are very few people I meet that inspire me to be a better person, while making me laugh and appreciate life at the same time. I’m sure I am describing every Best Friend in the world, but this is different, because this is my Best Friend.  Since I get more discerning as I age, I find myself choosing to be alone, rather than have shallow friendships. If it weren’t for Facebook and FaceTime, linking me to the friends I have held on to, and to my Best Friend, I think I might go crazy in this winterscape called Jasper.  I mentioned the Girl Scout organization on Facebook, a couple of weeks before Lent, praising it for its liberal views, and the next thing I know, a huge box arrives in the mail from Connie, full of Girl Scout Cookies (and other goodies).  All it was missing was a big pot of steaming tea, strong, sweet, and milky hot.  And Connie.  And a warm greenhouse full of flowering plants…
 
I blink, look down, and find myself holding a little pot of deep purple african violets.  The dark green leaves are impossibly soft, covered in velvet that begs to be touched.  I look up, and I’m in the flower section of the Hinton Safeway, thousands of miles away from England.  Connie and I both live in the Rocky Mountains now – she’s on the Colorado side, I’m on the Canadian side.  There are just a few really big hills between us.  I brought the little plant home and placed it on my kitchen table.  It keeps me company while I abstain from Facebook during Lent, it’s cheerful purple petals reminding me that Easter is around the corner.  It stands in for the garden centres in my memories, while I raise a cup of strong, sweet, milky black tea towards the snow-covered mountains, to my best friend on the other side.  Cheers, Connie!
 

An Ode to my Precioussssssss

I have survived turning 45.  Normally, age is not an issue for me.  The days leading up to the grand event did not portend impending doom, or even anything that mattered.  Growing up in my family, birthdays for children were of no consequence.  Actually, anything having to do with children was considered of no consequence.  My father used to think he was so witty, saying “Children are cabbages.  They’re not worth speaking to until they are educated and old enough to carry a reasonably intelligent conversation.” Such lovely sentiments that no level of brain-fog can erase from my aging brain, unfortunately.  On the plus side, the family I have been lucky enough to choose for myself, believes in Love and more Love, and my husband and I pull off some amazing family birthday celebrations.  That said, I still have a difficult time getting excited while anticipating my own birthday; I focus on our family tradition of the Birthday Boy or Girl giving a gift to each member of the family.  It makes for a very fun round of opening gifts at the breakfast table. And the rest of my birthday energy is spent preparing for the others’ birthdays during the year.  

So the days leading up to my big day were uneventful – only peppered by my silly husband grabbing my face in his hands and declaring, “I can’t BELIEVE you are going to be 45!!!  45!!!  So Old!!!” several times a day.  He’s two years younger than me, so he likes to think of me as a cougar.  Puh-leeze.  Between the face-grabbing and his jumping up and down with glee over some secret surprise, it was hard to ignore the looming date.  My oldest daughter, Emmy, was also home from university.  She must have been in on the secret too, because they would occasionally make eye contact, then giggle and clap their hands. Silly people.  

All I wanted for my birthday was something so enormously extravagant that I knew we couldn’t afford it. It was something so over-the-top I couldn’t even mention it out loud. Since I am a practical person, if I want something I know I can’t have, I try to put it out of my mind. Why think about it, if it isn’t going to happen, right?  Window shopping?  I hate it.  Why go into a store to look at stuff if you don’t have the money to buy it?  Some women love diamonds, some love shoes.  I like those things, but I LURVE technology.  Nothing puts a gleam in my eye like reading about processor speeds and RAM…sigh.  Over the years, I have been slowly seduced to the Dark Side by Apple.  It started with my first iPod Shuffle, and led to my iPad and my iPhone5.  Occasionally, I would surf the Apple Store site and illicitly drool over the Mac Books, closing the windows if someone were to walk by—feeling like I’d been surfing for porn.  But instead of splurging on big tech toys, we decided to help our children with university, and I had to settle for my old Dell laptop, keys sticky from my husband’s honey-bread mishap and his spilled latte.  First World problems, right?  Just close that window and move on, Sue. If asked what I wanted for my birthday, I replied, “plants!”

6:30am on the morning of February 22nd (yes, we get up for birthday celebrations BEFORE breakfast on school days) and I am gently kissed awake.  I open my eyes to the family singing Happy Birthday in the dark.  Quietly, my little boy puts his hands on my eyes and leads me through the dark to the kitchen, where pink and red streamers float from every surface, with pink and red hearts dangling all around.  The dining table is covered with gifts on one end, and our traditional German birthday candle ring on the other.  The birthday candle ring is a wooden circle, with holes to hold candles and little wooden pixies with felt clothes and hats (we call them our mannschgerl).  Instead of the number of candles needed to celebrate my birthday, the family made the smart move to light a “4” and a “5” candle.  More singing, and a very strong cup of espresso, had me sitting very happily for a few minutes, while my husband made me breakfast.  Then, the gifting began.

This was the year of scarves for me.  I am not a very fashionable person, but my good friend, my daughter,  and my big sister have unwittingly put an end to that!  I now have silk scarves, pashmina shawls, and floaty concoctions to drape for every occasion.  Look out, Jasper, I am changing the dress code… 

In between my lovely gifts, I handed out tickets to my family’s favorite hockey team’s game in Calgary, some love cups (the only kind of coffee cups we like in this house), and a iPad Mini to my oldest daughter (another addition from the cult of Apple).  I smiled because they smiled, and my heart grew bigger and bigger.

Then my husband made me cry by giving me a coffee cup that he had decorated himself.  A homemade love cup.  On it, he’d painted hearts and a love poem.  That was that, I thought.  The perfect ending to my perfect birthday.  I should have noticed the children holding their breath…and my husband’s suppressed smile.

Opening the wrapper on the box they handed me, I saw the words, “MacBook Pro.” No.  That couldn’t be right.  Blinkblinkblink.  The box still read “MacBook Pro.”  I thought maybe a pair of shoes wrapped up in MacBook Pro box?  A HaHa gift?  Lifting the top of the box, I saw the glow of brushed aluminum, and the apple…that yummy yummy apple…Christmas in February!!!!  

I am still in awe.  The touch pad, alone, is a wonder.  The retina display should come with a choir of angels that sings “Hallelujah!” every time I open the laptop.  This is all very bad.  I think Tolkien was mistaken.  Gollum wasn’t corrupted by a stinking ring.  He was given a 15″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display on his 45th birthday.  And soon he forgot about his Love.   He forgot to make dinners and pick up kids from school.  And he shriveled up and moved into the underground caves of the dwarves.  I’ll make sure to leave my forwarding address to his spare room…jussst don’t give it to that filthy Bagginsesssssss.  What.  Did you think Ode to my Preciousss was about my husband?  What husband?  All I can see issss my Precioussss with the 2.7 GHz processor and the lurvely retina dissssplay…

Two visitors taking a shortcut to my back yard, over the lake-turned-ice-skating-rink.

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Domo Arigato, Dr. Hashimoto

If you are old (as my children would put it), this will have you busting out your robot dancing and other foolish moves. For any fellow Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis victims out there, this will become your new theme song. Brain-fog, lethargy, FATNESS, and depression. That’s the rockin’ life we lead, even when treated, precisely because we are not robots and our bodies flux…especially as we age. woo to the hoo.

10 years ago, I had never even heard of Hashimoto’s Disease. My older sister had mentioned thyroid issues after her youngest child was born, but she lives all the way out in Australia, and busy me with my busy life must have been just too…busy…to pay enough attention. So time passes, and I’m around 40, and the family begins to tease me that I’m getting old, becoming absent-minded. I also notice that I am gaining weight, even though we eat healthily and exercise regularly. My hairbrush fills up with hair at an alarming rate, and I am cold all the time. And tired. Oh, so tired. There are days that I can barely get myself out of the bed, and no amount of coffee makes a difference. I would leave a room to go do something, and find myself in the hallway, reduced to tears because I didn’t know why I was there. I worried about dementia…Alzheimer’s… Finally, I take myself to the doctor, who orders blood tests and perkily tells me, “Looks like your thyroid is just not pulling its weight! Do you have thyroid issues in your family?” Do I? When I reached out to my extended family, my big sister gave me all the details of her battle with Hashimoto’s, and my father tells me that he’s been on a synthroid for years. YEARS. Yes. Communication with my dad is another issue to be discussed at a different time… So it turns out Hashimoto’s can run in families and after another round of blood tests for certain antibodies, I get to join the club. No green blazer, no membership card. Just Fat and Forgetful. Not the coolest club, to be sure.

There are all sorts of approaches to treatment for Hashimoto’s out there, from conventional synthroids, to nutritional changes, to incense and prayers (sorry, but that end of the spectrum is labeled KooKoo Land in my book). Normal hypothyroidism is very straightforward. Your thyroid is sluggish, underperforming, you just need to pop the right amount of synthroid and your hormone levels can theoretically reach a normal level. Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis is actually an autoimmune disease. You see, it is my own body, attacking my own thyroid, trying to kill it. On it’s own, my thyroid may have even had a chance to be normal and strong. Instead, it is under attack, and left untreated, would eventually be destroyed. In the olden days, I may have gone to bed and eventually never woken up, slipping into a myxedema coma. But here we are in the 21st century and modern medicine; problem solved, right? Yes…kinda. First, you have the immensely difficult task, in the beginning, of REMEMBERING to take the daily pill. Considering that memory loss is the #1 symptom of this dratted disease, it took me ages to get in the habit. The meds take some time to kick in – so a month of “oops, did I remember to take my pill?” plagued me. Blessedly, once the synthroid started to have some effect, I was relieved to find myself remembering that my contact lenses were, in fact already removed, so I could spare myself the painful digging around in my eye socket, searching for them. And I could climb the stairs in my house and remember, at the top, what it was I climbed them for. My children were especially relieved. I began using their names again, instead of the collective “Short People!” that I had resorted to calling them…The bad news is, some things are stubbornly sticking around, like the fat, and the constant feeling of being cold. The good news is, there is more energy to exercise, and I think peri-menopause is starting to send me hot flashes to combat the cold shivers. My body is a battlefield.

It’s been a few years since I was first diagnosed, and through regular blood tests and medication changes, my thyroid has been doing its best. I am still not normal, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if I ever deserved that label in the first place. There are 7 pesky little nodules on my thyroid. I call them my 7 Dwarves. Every 6 months I have an ultrasound to make sure they aren’t growing. It always feels strange, after 3 lovely pregnancies, to go in for an ultrasound hoping that what we see is NOT growing. So far so good. And there is always the positive thought that even if the nodules do rise up and revolt, thyroid cancer is probably the cancer you want to get, if you have to get a cancer, as it is the easiest cancer to treat, and the most survivable. I can’t believe I just wrote something positive about the C word.

It’s slightly ironic, having a disease that I can’t forget about because it still bugs me on a daily basis, this forgetfulness. The brain fog is improved, but there are far too many moments when I say out loud, “what was I saying?” and all my friends and family just pat my hand and prompt me to continue. There are huge chunks of my past that I simply can’t recall. My children will ask, “remember when?….” and I draw a blank. Writing helps; I can return to precise moments in time by re-reading journal entries. And oddly enough, cooking helps. Certain smells can transport me to completely different countries, decades past. For instance, raw onions and salami? Flashback to the USSR in 1976. I’m in 2nd grade, my father and some Russian contacts are sitting at our dining table, drinking straight vodka, cutting hunks of salami, popping salty black olives, and biting whole white, raw onions,as if they were apples. The fumes go straight up my nose and make me oh so hungry for a taste. My eyes are watering from the cigarette smoke, and my ears ring with their bellows of drunken laughter.

My children are puzzled by my crystal clear memories of certain things, but my complete inability to remember everyday things, like picking them up from school, or the names of their friends (all the girls’ seem to have names that start with “K” – how confusing is that?!). My son, who is too young to have learned about Pavlov’s dogs in school, brightly suggested, “Hey Mama, maybe if we give you a cupcake every time you pick us up from school on time, you can get it right!” Okay, so I forget some important things. But I also forget some things that are too painful to hold on to. That smell of cigarette smoke? There is nothing I hate more. Cigarette smoke reminds me of chain-smoking, abusive parents, getting carsick on long rides, and Mom dying of lung cancer. No smoke, no memories. Fresh clean air and Hashimoto’s means fresh, clean slate in my brain. Hashimoto and I have a tentative truce. I let go of some of the good, and am grateful some of the bad goes with it. So sometimes I say it sarcastically, but sometimes sincerely, Domo Arigato, Dr. Hashimoto.

Waiting for Mr. Tumnus

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