TOTALLY TEETOTALING

Sugar and I have a complicated relationship. Sugar’s the bad-boy boyfriend I find irresistible. Classic cycle: I pledge to leave but fall into his arms at the end of every day.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, when I turned thirty, I was diagnosed with hypoglycemia. My liver was misfiring, making my world spin recklessly like that awful teacup ride at the county fair.

I needed an immediate dietary overhaul. In addition to saying “No thank you” to my favorite carbohydrates, the doctor instructed me to stop drinking alcohol. Completely. Immediately.

Okay, time to give up alcohol. No big deal. Scores of people live happy, productive(er) lives without it. But here’s the kicker: my family’s a collection of amateur wine makers and appreciators. Our basements store wall-length wine racks (stocked, of course), oak barrels actively aging homemade wine and copper grappa stills waiting patiently for fall. Wine and wine making have always been our culture, our passion, identity. Living alcohol-free was going to place me on the wrong side of the bar.

It was difficult to explain my diagnosis to my family. My brother, Greg, took the news particularly hard. He asked, with intense hope in his voice, “How about beer? Lite beer?” At the time Greg had two small sons. My husband and I did not. Greg looked at me sorrowfully and asked, “How are you going have kids?” I laughed-off his question as he added, “Do you have any idea how much we drink after they’re in bed?” I continued laughing.

But then I had kids.

Three years later our first son was born. I left my job to become a full-time Mom. Dirty diapers, dishes and doctor appointments–all mine. So was the fun of watching my infant sons struggle to find their thumbs, sit without falling over and discover the wonders of spaghetti.

Twelve years later, I still get to witness their growth and their journey towards independence. I also get to collect dropped bath towels, step on surprisingly sharp LEGO pieces and field questions like, “Mom, how does energy get inside the battery?”

I adore my sons. They bring me joy and boat-loads of entertaining moments. But some days I just wish l could run away. Some days, I’m sure, they wish I would. And this is why, periodically, at the end of a long day, when my sons are asleep, I’ve been known to say to my husband, “I miss booze.”  He understands. He nods. And sips his wine.

Green Frosting Funeral

Liz had been a teacher. While I can’t testify to her professional excellence it’s hard to believe that someone with such a flash in her eyes and depth in her laugh could be anything but exceptional.

Everyone asks, “wasn’t she wearing a helmet?”  Yes. Of course. But helmets have limitations. Once her bicycle hit a certain speed, the helmet stopped being effective.

The day before her accident we were gathered celebrating a Bar Mitzvah. The reception was a warm invitation back to the house for coffee and dessert. The kitchen was sunny and filled with happy chatter, clanking cups and plates. Homemade pastries were skillful laid-out on the dining room table. Brewing coffee perfumed the air as we told and retold stories. We left promising to meet for dinner. One day soon. Check your calendar.

Machines breathed life into Liz’ body for months. Family and friends took turns rubbing her feet and pleading into her ear, “wake up, please wake up”.  I did not go to the hospital. I did not whisper in her ear. I was afraid to face her husband’s pain. Her children. I did not want the memory of her laughter replaced by noisy, mysterious machines or the memory of her eyes replaced by the sight of her slightly contorted, unconscious body.

During those months my ten-year-old son, Justin, tenderly greeted me with the same question: “Mom? How’s your friend?” How dearly I wished to say, “You’re not going to believe it, sweetheart—she’s awake!”  My eight-year-old son, John, was ever optimistic. With his eyes earnest and hopeful he’d begin sentences with, “When she wakes up—” and proceed to describe elaborate celebrations staged to welcome Liz back.

But Liz had wandered too far. She wasn’t coming back.

Although young, Justin and John knew enough about life to understand death. So after days of fraught deliberation I decided to bring them to Liz’ funeral. It was their first.

Not surprisingly, her funeral was standing-room-only. Mourners stood shoulder-to-shoulder along the side aisles and crowded deep into the foyer.

The community of grief was suffocating and I struggled to breathe and digest her death. My mind resisted the facts: her’s was an accidental death. No cautionary tale. Nothing noteworthy to avoid. No one to blame.

As I stood, my left arm embracing Justin, my right arm embracing John, my most cherished bookends, my throat tightened thinking of their willingness to join me, to honor my friend with their goodbye. I felt depleted but they enriched me. I heard myself saying, “all we have is goodness.”

Afterwards, mourners of varying heights and ages crowded inside the social hall. A massive buffet cleaved the room. Trays of imported cheeses, glass bowls of fresh fruit, hot pans of roasted chicken were laid-out to feed the weary, the emotionally exhausted.

I didn’t want Justin and John witnessing more of my tears so I sent them to choose a plate of food while I embraced by friend. While only fifty-years-old Jim stood like crumpled paper. His spine was curved from the brutal weight of grief. No amount of empathy could straighten it.

Another mourner took my place beneath Jim’s arms as John appeared at my side. Justin trailed closely behind. John’s eyes sparkled as he held high a white dinner plate stacked with mini desserts. Sickly green frosting smeared over John’s teeth and top lip as he announced, “Mom! Wait ’til you see the dessert buffet!” Justin held-out his towering plate and said, “Mom, you gotta try these brownies!”

Seen through their eyes this scene (expect for the crying) had all the trappings of a great party. I considered Shhhing them. I considered giving them my hardest look as a reminder of the sadness which brought us here. But I didn’t. Instead I put my hand on John’s back and said, “show me to that dessert buffet.”

BASEMENT CAKE

My in-laws moved-in with us during the second week of September. A new school year and tears had just begun. And I was actively mourning the end of summer and the beginning of an autumn that, at best, wouldn’t be a good time.

Maury, my father-in-law, has cancer again.

Eight years ago cancer festered in Maury’s throat. They moved-in then, as they have now, to receive treatment at Boston’s Dana Farber Cancer Institute.That cancer was stubborn and held on with a kung-fu grip for six months while Maury suffered a cure that nearly killed him. A medical version of shock and awe.

Eight years ago my kids were very young; two and four years old. That posed unique challenges and I found myself saying the most bizarre things to them.

“No, Papa’s teeth don’t live in his mouth anymore. They live in a glass now.”

“The man in the photo is Papa. Yes, he was bigger then.”

“Why don’t you play LEGOs while Papa naps in the hallway.”

The cancer was gone for eight years. And every year we’d celebrate with a little champagne and an extra thank you to God before sitting to dinner. At some point I stopped worrying that cancer could strike twice.

Days before my in-laws moved-in I celebrated my 45th birthday. Every year my Mother lovingly bakes my favorite cake. I refer to it as “the cake” since every other cake wishes it could taste this good.  Two layers of moist chocolate cake that, I promise, sigh when sliced. She covers the cake with a cooked vanilla frosting that lays thick and soft. It’s very hard not to place my face right into it.

Before leaving my parent’s house my Mother placed the remaining cake on a platter and insisted I take it home. Happy birthday to me!  When I got home I knew the platter wouldn’t fit in our bulging kitchen refrigerator so I tucked it into the basement refrigerator and forgot all about it.

Its uncomfortable to tell people my in-laws have moved in. It opens up a conversation that’s depressing and difficult to end. Everyone wants to be positive. Everyone likes to say this time will be different, less intense, less destructive, the kids are older, the cancer hasn’t metastasized, it’s not going to be as bad.

On Monday Maury developed a raging infection. It slipped into his blood and kept hidden in his body, quiet like a secret, until 10:00pm on Tuesday night.

If you have never heard the sound of an adult body dropping to the floor, imagine someone on a step ladder dropping a 180 pound bag of sand onto hardwood floors. Apart from the noise the house shakes and small items rattle as your brain tries to decide what happened.

At 10:08pm I found myself standing in my nightgown at the end of our driveway flagging-down the emergency crew who’d been called to action.

I watched, feeling useless, as Maury was lifted out of our house, strapped in a gurney chair, unconscious, frail and as small as a baby bird.  My mother-in-law bumped around, struggled to remember her shoes and purse. My husband couldn’t decide if he should change clothes or leave for the hospital wearing pajamas.

I watched lights flash down our street until they were out of sight.

At 10:33pm I remembered the cake.

Sitting on the cold basement floor, the cake platter in my lap, I sliced off miniature pieces of cake and fed myself until nothing was left. I remembered all the positive things people said, how this time it was going to be better. I wished that were possible. But I know better. Because cancer—good cancer, bad cancer, small cancer, large cancer — it’s all a tsunami. It’s swift and pounds with massive force and sweeps away everyone in its path.  All you can do is suffer the storm and pray that when it passes everyone is left standing.