Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Virtual Stone

September is National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.  I honestly hadn't planned to write a piece about cancer.  It’s been in me for a long time, but I never even considered letting it out until now.  Still hopelessly torn, I ultimately took the easy way out and put it in my Step-Mother’s hands.  I told her that I was thinking of writing a piece and if she agreed, would send it to her for approval before publishing.  If Joyce said that I could write it, I would.  If Joyce didn’t want me to, I would not.

I heard back from Joyce the same day:  “I think that is lovely.  I do not need to proofread it . . . I am sure it will be a wonderful tribute to him.”

A Virtual Stone | |  #Cancer

When Jews go to the grave of a loved one, we leave a stone on their gravestone.  It’s our way of saying “I was here, you are not forgotten”.  I’m 1500 miles away from home so in this month dedicated to awareness of childhood cancers, this post will have to serve as a virtual stone on my (step)brother Peter’s gravestone.

Peter’s Mom married my Dad later in life, so I’m not going to tell you that he and I grew up together.  There was an age difference between us as well.  I was close to my Dad and Joyce, but got to know Peter best during his fight with cancer.

Peter grew up an only child.  I remember him as a fun, happy, athletic kid.  Ice Hockey was his game and he played it as often as he could.  It was an unusually large swollen area from a hit with a hockey puck that resulted in Peter’s diagnosis.  To this day I’m not really sure what kind of cancer he had, one of his Oncologists said it was most similar to a childhood cancer someone his age (17) wouldn’t have.  By the time it was found it had taken over his kidney and adrenal gland and was the size of a grapefruit.  He had surgery, but it had gone into his lymph nodes so it may have metastasized.  It was decided that the Oncologist at Dana Farber would remain in charge of his case, but the chemo would be administered at a local hospital so he could be near home.

I know that Peter’s Mom was with him before the first chemo, but was not capable of being there when they started the treatment.  I decided to go.  It was all I could do to fight the visceral need to rip that bag of poison out of his arm as they hooked it up.  I watched the line of fluid stream from the bag down, down, down into his arm.  I felt sick at the thought of poison, hopeful at the thought of treatment, and sick that poison was making me hopeful.

Chemo is a very good thing, and a very bad thing.  It is debilitating. There are profound side-effects that don’t go away.  Peter had to be literally knocked unconscious for days following each chemo session because it made him so sick.  He lost some of his hearing, he lost tons of weight, he lost the feeling in the bottoms of his feet.  And Peter went into remission.

At one year post-chemo, Peter, Joyce and I went into Dana Farber for a checkup.  The Oncologist told us that there was a mass where his adrenal gland used to be and other nodes as well.  She talked about treatment.  I remember going into the ladies’ room afterwards and talking to Joyce about what we’d found out. How surreal it was that Joyce and I had heard two completely different things.  What she heard was positive, she heard treatment.  What I heard was negative, I heard that it was back.

Peter went through more hell, and then just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, there was a bone marrow transplant.  He was already beaten and bruised and battered and now they were going to eradicate his immune system.  Poison, and hope, and poison.

Once I was allowed in the room (suited up) where Peter was recovering from the transplant, I went in with a backgammon game.  I have to tell you, I’m not one who lets others win.  Ever.  Ask my poor little niece.   I remember that I was winning, and then suddenly every time it was my turn Peter would reach up, take out a little clump of his (loose) hair and put it on the game.  That little bugger was playing dirty.  And it worked.  He won.  Every game.

Peter went into remission again and went to college.  Cal State Chico.  He was pledging a fraternity when it became clear that he wasn’t well.  I remember that my husband (then boyfriend) and I had plans to host friends at his ski house when, the day before we were to head  up to New Hampshire, Joyce called and asked me to come home and fly with her up to California to take Peter out of school.  The whole 2 hour drive home was a blur.  Joyce, her niece and I flew up there. 

Peter ended up at Cedars Sinai on the same floor as Pierce Brosnan’s wife.  It would have been a cool story if it had ended well . . .  for either family.  But it did not.  For us, the end result was this: Peter could fight, beat the cancer back, wait for it to return, fight, beat, wait, fight, beat, wait.  It was up to him to decide when to stop.

I stood at Peter’s funeral 8 days before my wedding.  Peter had been 20 years old.  I remember my sister and I approaching together and holding hands as we threw a rose into his grave.  I don’t remember anything else.

Jews name babies (in many cases the child’s Hebrew name) after the dead.  It’s a way to remember them through the living.  My oldest son’s Hebrew name is Peter’s.  My son’s always known who he was named after and the general story. 

When my son was very little and we were back home, he wanted to go see Peter’s grave.  I wasn’t really sure what to do so I talked to Joyce.  I knew she’d come with us, but you never know what a small child will say.  I was really concerned that Older Son could very well inadvertently hurt Joyce.  We knew, though, that his simple request to see his namesake’s grave would be honored.

We went but didn’t stay there long. We saw his beautiful, simple gravestone.  Joyce talked a little about Peter, we said a prayer and one by one left him a stone.  In the car, as I was pulling out of the cemetery, I heard Older Son say “I wish Peter had never died”.  

There it was. 

I sort of held my breath as Peter’s Mom turned around, looked at my little boy, and simply said “me too”.

A Virtual Stone | |  #cancer
Peter David Sferra is remembered.

Baking In A Tornado signature | |  #MyGraphics

PS: I'm on the National Bone Marrow Registry. Are you?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Doctor's Orders

I ended up at the Doctor’s office yesterday.  I hate going to the Doctor, but I’m hardly in the minority.  Frequently we put off going as long as possible. I think this is out of fear, we know something is wrong and we’re afraid to find out what exactly it is.  I have to admit that I’ve been having these symptoms for a very, very long time and have just ignored them. But after 17 years, and the addition of one more frightening symptom, I finally got up the nerve to face my fate.

 The truth of the matter is that the final symptom was actually the result of a flu induced decrease in my caffeine level.  And so I went to the Doctor with this disturbing admission:

I tried to stop drinking coffee.  But I found that if I stop drinking coffee I stop moving.  If I stop moving, I stop baking.  If I stop baking I start stressing.  If I start stressing I stop blogging.  If I stop blogging I stop venting.  If I stop venting my blood pressure goes up and my brain shuts down.  And now my brain is giving me the silent treatment.

Chocolate Almond Biscotti | |  #recipe

Chocolate Almond Biscotti

The Doctor listened to me with interest.  I held my breath as I waited to hear what battery of tests I’d be subjected to, how many quarts of blood I was going to be down, the brain scans I’d have to endure.  I watched the Doctor’s face to see if I could judge her level of concern. 

But the Doctor was very blasé.  “I’m pretty sure this is a very common condition, I see it regularly”, she told me.  “Diagnosing you will just require that I ask you a couple of simple questions”.  OK, way less painful than I thought this would be.

And so she asked:

“Are you depressed on weekends?”  Answer: “Yes.”

“If your Ipod needs charging, will you put your headphones in anyway and pretend you can’t hear what’s being said to you?”  Answer: “Well, yes.”

“Do you lock your door and run the bath even when you don’t intend to get in?” Answer: “Uhmmm, yup.”

“OK, I’m afraid what you have is ephebiphobia…it’s a chronic condition but rarely fatal.  Let me get you a prescription, I’ll be right back.”  The minute she walked out of the room I grabbed my phone:    Ephebiphobia:  Fear or loathing of teenagers.  That can’t be.   Ephebiphobia: An irrational fear of adolescent people.  Irrational?  Ephebiphobia:  Fear or loathing of teenagers by adults.  Look it up.

“Really? I have to pay you $250 for 15 minutes of your time to be told that I have an aversion to my kids?” I thought.  When she returned what I actually said was “OK, I’ll play, what’s the cure.”  I got a one-word answer “abstain”.

Abstain? From the kids?  Yay!  I’m picturing myself greased up, laying on a beach in a lounge chair, Kindle in hand, fruity drink nearby, everyone else a respectable distance away.  No kids anywhere....Doctor’s orders!

“No, abstain from your attempts to give up coffee.  Take this prescription, get it filled, you’ll need to put the treatment together at home by yourself, but I’m giving you written instructions, it should be easy.  If you’re not feeling better in a week, come back in”.

And that’s how my kids found me yesterday afternoon, blender on the counter, filling it up with coffee, chocolate, Valium and vodka.  I feel better already.

Doctor's Orders | |  #MyGraphics

Baking In A Tornado signature | |  #MyGraphics

Chocolate Almond Biscotti

Printable Recipe

1/2 stick butter, softened                                                       
1/2 stick margarine, softened                                 
3/4 cup sugar                                                       
2 eggs                                                                 
1/4 cup black coffee                                               
1/4 tsp almond extract 
3 oz slivered almonds   
2 1/4 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/3 cup baking cocoa
3/4 cup chocolate chips
*Cover baking sheet with parchment paper.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
*In a dry saucepan on the stove lightly toast the almonds (on low) just until they begin to brown.  Remove from heat and cool.
*Beat butter, margarine and sugar until smooth.  Beat in eggs, coffee, and almond extract.
*Wisk together flour, baking powder and cocoa.  Mix into the butter mixture.  Mix in the almonds and chocolate chips last.
*Divide dough into thirds and, using your hands, make 3 logs.  Flatten them down, they should not be more than an inch high.
*Put logs onto parchment paper and bake for 20 minutes.  Remove from oven, gently move the whole parchment sheet with the logs on it off the hot baking sheet. 
*Lower oven heat to 325 degrees.  Let logs sit for 10 minutes.
*Carefully, with a serrated knife, cut the logs at an angle into the size of the cookies you want.
*Grease and flour your baking sheet.  Put the cookies on the sheet sideways so one of the cut sides is facing up.  Bake for 15 minutes. 
*Remove from the baking sheet and cool completely.