Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Few of Her Favorite Things (APIWATWOL #10)

#10 in my "A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words Or Less" series. (For a description of how this series works, see Installment #1.)
The Video Station: Mom's Home Away From Home
For Mom's birthday three years ago, my sibs and I decided to treat her to some of her favorite things. And Mom has definite opinions about what constitutes her favorite things. And Mom is very loyal to her favorite things.

Among these favorite things are:
     (1) Video Station (DVD rentals, great recommendations and fun conversation),
     (2) The Rio (Great margaritas, passable food and fun--probably due to great margaritas),    
     (3) Ozo (Great coffee, nice baristas and the place she always meets up with her pal, Anita)
     (4) Big-screen Movies (because sometimes you just can't wait for the DVD release)

With my sibs all living out of state, I volunteered to drive around and get gift cards for Mom from all of us. At each stop, I asked the folks working there to also wish my mom a happy birthday, the photos from which would be made into a giant card.

Over the years I've learned that Mom isn't big on surprises. (Case in point: even when traveling, she likes to know in advance exactly what size bed she'll find in her hotel room. Queens only. No doubles. No kings. I'm not kidding.)

But I've learned that some surprises are okay, such as, say, being serenaded. So I rewrote the lyrics to "My Favorite Things" for the waitstaff at The Rio to sing to Mom when Clare and I took her there to celebrate on the big day. And sing they did! (Based on their performance, I suspect some of them may've dipped into their renowned margos beforehand.)

“My Favorite Things”
The Loretta Version
(Original Score from The Sound of Muzak)
"Happy Birthday, Loretta!" (Now can we get back to work?)

Lattes at Ozo with my pal, Anita
The Rio with Clare and a cold margarita
That stack of more napkins that Blake always brings
These are a few of my favorite things!

DVDs and wine with the local Larsen Clan
Dinner and the big screen with my good bud-dy, Nan
The praises of movies that Bruce often sings
These are a few of my favorite things!

When the news bites...
When it's too hot...
When I'm feeling sad...
I simply cash in on the gift cards I got
And then I don't bad!

When we got home, we gave Mom another gift (below) with a card that read: Today's your birthday and we should do special birthday things like eat pie and swear.  And so we did...
Nothing says "Happy Birthday" like pie and swearing.  

If you haven't figured it out by now, we are not a normal family.

Food for Thought (APIWATWOL #9)

#9 in my "A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words Or Less" series. (For a description of how this series works, see Installment #1.)

A shopping cart of food. Why the hell did I take a photo of my shopping cart of food? When I randomly pulled this photo for my APIWATWOL project, I asked myself this question...and again was tempted to pick a different photo. But rules are rules, so a shopping cart of food it is.

The date stamp on the photo file indicates that this was my first grocery shopping trip after returning from a family reunion six years ago. We hold our week-long reunions at the Jersey Shore every three years, and anywhere from 80 to 100 Worthingtons gather to sit, talk, laugh, drink, eat and float in the ocean together. (Relatives who go to a gym during reunions are shunned.)

The shore isn’t exactly known for its health food, so the menu for the week is heavy on cheesesteaks, pizza, sticky buns and beer. During our last reunion, I discovered that a vegetable juice bar had opened in Stone Harbor and when I walked through its door the first time, I practically bowed at the owner’s feet in gratitude. After chugging my green juice, I grabbed a slice at the pizzeria across the street. Hey, just because an old dog learns a new trick doesn’t mean she forgets her old tricks, right?

There are things in the shopping cart above that I didn’t even know existed in earlier years. Growing up, I thought there was one kind of lettuce and it was iceberg. Imagine my shock when I discovered the existence of romaine and arugula, both in this cart.

Avocados, bought regularly now, were something I didn’t discover until moving west of the Mississippi in my early 20s. Because Jack-in-the-Box—aka Jer-Mex—didn’t offer guacamole. Probably because it can’t be deep-fried.

See those two quarts of kefir in my cart? Until about eight years ago, the only kefir I knew of was Sutherland. Now kefir is a staple grocery item. I use it to make my morning shakes, another mid-life discovery. In my 20s and 30s, morning shakes were simply the bi-product of a great party the night before.

Next to the kefir is a bottle of kombucha “tea”—one of the nastiest and healthiest drinks around. Tea is a bit of a misnomer though. More like funky mushroom water. Kombucha will always hold a special place in my heart because it was the excuse Jeff used to ask me out on our first date. In a fit of health-crazedness, he had begun growing his own kombucha mushrooms (basically, blobs of mold in giant bowls covered with dish towels) at the media studio he owned in San Francisco when we met. After our first business meeting, Jeff invited me to his studio to try kombucha tea. Fortunately, our relationship lasted longer than his fixation with growing kombucha mushrooms. Now, we’re down to the occasional pre-packaged bottle of flavored kombucha tea. Usually as penance for food crimes like a week spent eating crap food at the Jersey Shore.

In the bottom of the cart I see my usual bushel of organic cucumbers, jumbo bag of carrots and a few bunches of kale. If you’d told me when I was a kid, or even a teenager, or even a 30-something businesswoman who regularly ate fast food, that I’d one day be jamming the likes of cucumbers and kale and parsley through a masticating machine and drinking what was spewed out, I would’ve laughed. Or run away. Fast.

So overall, I’d say the theme of this trip to the grocery store was Reform. When the most decadent item in the shopping cart is a bag of organic blue corn chips, you know you’re in for a fairly boring-but-healthful week ahead.

Food, like life, has its ups and downs, its crazy out of control times and its periods of smart decisions. And the beauty of food—and life—is that we get to choose.

What’s in your shopping cart?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Tiny Parades (APIWATWOL #8)

#8 in my "A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words Or Less" series. (For a description of how this series works, see Installment #1.)
Parades. Love 'em or hate 'em, but parades are a part of our culture. And believe it or not, the photo to the left, randomly selected for this APIWATWOL installment, is of a parade. Yeah, I know. Pretty pathetic, right? This is what 4th of July looks like in Boulder, CO, where what used to be my second favorite holiday as a kid, is about as exciting as Groundhog Day at any age. In other words, not very.                                                            
My pal Roxy (white shirt, big smile, long hair) invited me (red shirt, slouchy posture, dorky hat) to participate in this not-ready-for-prime-time neighborhood Independence Day parade when our girls were toddlers. I agreed because I'm originally from Wenonah, New Jersey, home to what I still believe is the best damn parade on the planet. As you can see, the participants in this particular parade outnumber the spectators by a 10:1 ratio. I'm still grateful to my late stepdad, John "Pa" Goodenbour, for cutting his usual bike ride short to cheer on Clare as she sat like a lump in the back of my decorated red wagon with no clue about the purpose of the event or the personal significance of July 4th parades in general to her mother (red shirt, slouchy posture, dorky hat).

Until our family moved away when I was 18, I missed being in the Wenonah 4th of July parade only twice. Three times if you count the year I was maybe four years old and utterly exhausted before reaching the halfway point. When I got to Lincoln Avenue and saw Mom on the curb, I dropped out and spent the rest of the parade collecting candy, tossed from the floats and firetrucks. Of course, bailing early meant Dad had to later explain to the judges that I really DID participate in the parade and, as such, deserved my $1 participation "prize."

Dad in the Wenonah July 4th Parade
On the morning of July 4th, everyone--like it or not--was, and still is, awakened by four one-minute siren blasts from the firehouse, where Dad volunteered until his death. That was the kickoff warning for the annual parade, which began at 9 a.m. sharp.  Our town was small. One-square-mile small. So small, in fact, that the parade actually went down Main Street, pulled a  U-turn, and went back up Main Street, passing itself as it went. That way, parade participants  would be sure to have people cheering them on the whole way. Plus, half the town seemed to be in the parade, so the other half of the town was already spread thin in terms of spectatorship.

Until I was 24-year-old, I never realized that a parade passing itself was odd. I distinctly recall the moment of my epiphany. I was in grad school at UCLA and one of my three male roommates had rallied us for the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena at 4 a.m. to ensure good spots along the parade route, which was about five people deep with spectators by the time the parade got underway. Partway through the parade, my bladder demanded attention and I told my roomies I'd be back soon.

"But you might miss the UCLA float," one of them said.

"That's okay," I replied. "I'll see it when the parade comes back from the other direction."

My comment was met with blank stares. Further explanation from me regarding the "fact" that parades make U-turns and pass themselves on their return trips did nothing but evoke expressions of disbelief followed by sidesplitting laughter from Mark, Dean and David. It took quite some time for me to live that one down.
I retold the story of my Parade Shaming in 2011, when I returned to Wenonah, NJ, specifically to participate in the parade as that year's "Hometown Legend." (Remember: this town is so small its annual parade has to pull a U-ey; similarly, the definition of "legend" requires taking some liberties.) It was great fun, but my biggest regret that day was forgetting to secure a Costco-worthy bag of Tootsie Rolls beforehand. As the lead car in the parade, Clare and I were met with the expectant-turned-disappointed looks from kids along the route all awaiting their early-morning sugar rush. My bad.

Susan, Yours Truly, Mischelle, and Andrea
Another great honor with regard to the Wenonah parade occurred in 1974, when me and my cadre of sixth-grade gal-pals won "Best in Parade," which came with a whopping $20 prize. My mom had long since figured out the key to winning Best in Parade, and she shared her insights with her ambitious parade-entering offspring: follow the headlines of the times and create some sort of light-hearted play on words around a hot topic. Not too edgy, not too political, and certainly not mean spirited. Living in Wenonah, after all, was like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting. Quaint was far more important than cutting edge. In this case, my pals and I did a mash-up of a popular airline ad with Nixon's impending impeachment. A voila--Best in Parade!

Even when times were tough, the parade seemed to offer the perfect escape from the realities of a less-than-perfect life. Just two months after my father's sudden death in a small plane crash in 1968, Mom, now a single-mother with no (paid) job, no college degree, and no savings, rallied her children and put together a Charlie Brown-themed entry. Tim was Charlie Brown, Steph was Lucy, Karen was Linus and I--that little knucklehead in the white bathing cap and sunglasses--was The Red Baron.
Wenonah Parade, 1968. Even the death of one's spouse wasn't a good enough excuse to forgo participation.
While we didn't win Best in Parade, I suspect everyone watching us that day would've liked to award Mom Best Attitude in Parade for her courage in the face of daunting life circumstances. (FYI, these were the same people--friends and neighbors, all of them--who had quietly and graciously taken up a collection for our family when news of Dad's death spread like wild fire through our town.)

The photo above was given to me by Mrs. Sparks when I took a grad school pal to Wenonah with me to experience the magic that is the 4th of July parade. Mrs. Sparks always hosted a brunch following the parade, and her son Don, an old friend from childhood, invited us to join them. Seeing me there, Don's mother felt compelled to pull out her old photo albums and tell me how brave Mom had been during that time. Since then, I've always liked Mrs. Sparks a bit more than I already had for taking the time to share those kind words with me. Even two decades after the fact.

So, yeah, parades. Love 'em or hate 'em, they'll always hold a special place in my heart. Specifically, the Wenonah 4th of July parade.


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Killing Him Softly

The following is a guest blogger story written by a friend who wishes to remain anonymous to protect her father's privacy. And it's a tough topic, but an extremely important one. I, for one, have seen enough suffering--my own and that of others--to be a proponent of the right to choose an expedited path to The Great Unknown when one's pain is too much to bear and it's clear that there's no returning from the abyss. 

You can spout all the religious doctrines you wish in opposition, but let's remember two things: (1) Religions are manmade constructs and anyone who believes otherwise is probably trying to sell you salvation on television for a mere $99/month (I am not anti-religion or spirituality and I consider myself a "seeker"--but I do not believe in using religion as a basis to argue my own perspective), and (2) We can never--NEVER!--know the full extent of someone else's suffering, so how then are we to judge their choices? (Hint: we're not supposed to) 

"Freedom" is one of those buzz words that gets tossed around quite a bit in the American culture. Why shouldn't this concept extend to end-of-life choices? 

When it comes to departing the physical realm by choice, I'll take compassion over condemnation any day. 

* * * 

My dad’s last cocktail was alcohol-free. For a man who started most days with a screwdriver, this was unusual. Instead of vodka, he mixed some white powder that I had prepared into his orange juice, choked down the lumpy concoction, and was gone 13 minutes later. I was there with him. This is my story.

My dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2010. He had symptoms for two years before that, but like a lot of guys he didn’t go to the doctor (side note: GUYS! go to the doctor. Getting a wand stuck up your butt would suck, yes, but not as much as slowly dying over six years from a disease that could have been treated). By the time he made an appointment, it was too late. He had six years of a slow-motion death. He knocked everything off his bucket list, including a cruise to the Panama Canal. Oh, and a cruise to Mexico with me and my daughters, where he learned Gangnam-style dancing. That’s my dad.

Things got worse in 2015. He stopped his chemo treatment and entered hospice care, which is usually a 6 month or less deal. He was in hospice for almost a year. Then in June of 2016, when the cancer had spread to his spine and the pain was relentless, California passed a new law known as the aid-in-dying law. Similar to Oregon’s law, it allows patients with terminal illnesses to end their suffering without the stigma of suicide. Oddly enough, it became my dad’s lifeline for a while. Knowing the option was available to him gave him comfort, and pushing forward to get approval from his doctors gave him something to focus on.

I supported him in thispartly because I was pretty sure Dad would fill the prescription, then let nature take its course. I thought he wanted the comfort of having a choice, but not the fear involved in actually making that choice. I was wrong.

On a Sunday in August, I called Dad for our usual weekly call, which involved me trying really hard not to be impatient as he told the same stories over and over, obsessed over his need for earthquake insurance, and griped about all the people who annoyed him.

He told me that he would be seeing a second doctor that Tuesday, one who would confirm his diagnosis and back up the recommendation of the first doctor, that he be prescribed the medication. I decided to make the 1.5 hour drive down to be present during that visit. I had no idea I wouldn’t be returning home that night. The doctor said that he was eligible, and she would be arranging the prescription within days. I scrambled to arrange things so that I could stay. It was clear my dad was serious and he was ready.

It took three days for the prescription to be available. It wasn’t as simple as “phoning it in”, and only one pharmacy in the county would fill it. We were informed that it would cost $3,600the pharmaceutical company had jacked the price up as soon as the law was passed (thanks, a-holes). It came in 90 capsules containing powder, which the pharmacist had to empty one by one into a vial. Oddly enough, the pharmacy took my dad’s credit card as payment, which seemed to be a questionable business decision.

The label said “May be habit-forming”. I think not.

We made plans for Dad to take the medication that coming Monday, when his hospice team was available to be nearby and provide support. I was terrified. What if he chucked it up, or fell off the chair he had selected as his final stop? I felt comforted knowing that hospice would be within arm’s reach if I ran into trouble.

Only, they weren’t. Dad decided on Saturday that he was ready. He had a couple bites of breakfast, then announced that he wouldn’t be eating anything else, as he wanted to “get the show on the road”. The instructions told us to wait 5 hours after eating, so we agreed that at 3pm, he would take the anti-nausea pill, then at 4pm he would drink his final cocktail. And that’s when it really hit me. I started to get shaky and dizzy.

We waited. What did we talk about? I hardly remember. I kept thinking it wasn’t real, that he wouldn’t do this alone, without hospice support. It was unfair to me. It was selfish. My husband drove down with our kids to see him, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him of the new timeline. He drove off, and I walked back inside.

At 3pm, I told Dad that he could still change his mind. That once he took the anti-nausea pill, it would be hard to turn back because we would then have to wait to get another one when we rescheduled it. He looked at me, popped the pill, and I knew this was happening.

For the next hour, we sat around and made small talk. I don’t remember much, but it went by surprisingly quickly. My mother had agreed to be there at 4pm to support me, but when the clock struck 4, she wasn’t there. My parents were long-divorced but still friendly. “She’s always late! This will teach her,” Dad said. Some marital wounds never heal over.

With shaking hands, I put 4 ounces of orange juice in a glass in front of him, then brought the powder over. Dad said he didn’t want my fingerprints on any of iteven though what we were doing was legalso I humored him and used a napkin. I opened the medication and poured it into his glass. The powder puffed up around my face in a big white cloud.

At that moment, I was pretty sure it would be lights out for me instead. Waving away the clouds of powder in front of my face, I handed the drink to Dad.

The powder made a very lumpy concoction that must have been hard to choke down. But Dad did it, without hesitation. No last words, just a “Cheers” and he drank it down. My mom had arrived by then, and the three of us sat looking at each other for several minutes. Nothing happened. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say: I can’t even do this right! And then his head tilted down and he began to snore. I had learned that the process could take up to 24 hours, depending on the person’s physical health. My dad’s was not good.

About five minutes later, the snoring stopped. Dad wasn’t breathing any more. It was over. He was gone. His ending was peaceful and calm, and on his own terms.

At that point things got really challenging for me. I’m going to document all the details, in the hope that they will help other people considering this process. As I’ve been talking to people about it, I’m learning that this has been going on for agesthat people use morphine or other drugs to cause the same outcome, with a wink from the medical establishment. This new law legitimizes it, but it doesn’t introduce a new solution. It just alleviates much of the guilt felt by all parties, and for that I am thankful.

Once Dad was gone, I called hospice to send a nurse out. It took about 45 minutes, which isn’t longunless you’re sitting in a room with your dad’s body on a chair, mouth hanging open, color drained completely away. Then it’s the longest 45 minutes of your life. She pronounced him dead and asked me the time of death. Despite all my Grey’s Anatomy viewing, I had forgotten to note it. “4:13 p.m.”, I pronounced with confidence, totally making it up. “4:13 p.m.”

After that, there was nothing left but to wait for the funeral home to pick him up. True to form to his last moments, my Dad had recommended the cheapest possible solution, opting for an out-of-area cremation service that cost less. It took them four hours to arrive. Four more of the longest hours of my life, after the 45 longest minutes.

When they arrived, two well dressed young men who were very solicitous, they took an inventory of his clothing. ALL his clothing. They were rooting around to see if he was wearing underwear. I asked them to please stop, but they needed to know if he was wearing underwear so it could be returned to me along with his other clothing and belongings (like a watch, which came back to me with his ashes). Just say he’s not wearing any! I begged. Stop looking. My mom, in a rare display of awesome gallows humor, suggested we should have put him in shorts, because “it will be hot where he’s going”.

If you are going through this, I strongly suggest not looking when the funeral home staff puts the body on a stretcher. I really wish I hadn’t. To this day, my last memory is of Dad’s head flopping to the side, his arms flailing out. His skin was waxen and almost yellow. It wasn’t pretty, and I wish I hadn’t seen it.

They asked if my dad was a veteran. This stumped me. I knew he had served 28 days in the navy before being discharged for health reasons, but he never identified as a vet. Still, I couldn’t say no. So they got a flag, draped it over the stretcher, and asked “Ma’am, would you like to take a picture?” No, I really wouldn’t! I thought as I took the picture.

And then he was gone.

It’s been almost four months. Writing this feels cathartic. Not everyone responds well to this story; those who were raised Catholic, like my husband, find it difficult to process. But I know I did the right thing for my dad, and that I honored his wishes.

Rest in peace, Dad. I picture you dancing gangnam-style with a screwdriver in hand in the great beyond.