Tag Archives: family

Brinksmanship

There was this thing we did when the first cold snap hit. We’d watch as the kids from the South and the West started to shiver, realizing that during this, their freshman year, they were woefully ill equipped for the New England winter ahead. We’d breathe in the Boston air, slowly, allowing it to fill our lungs. Chuckle, almost silently, telling them Just wait, this is nothing. You don’t know cold it can get. We would go on to tell them, our friends, how there would be a day in the not-so-distant future where their hair would freeze because they hadn’t fully dried it and, well, temperatures being what they are at that time of year…

It’s happened to me every year since that one. I’ve left my house thinking that I’m ready for the day only to discover otherwise. This year, it was in August. Covered in layers and less than one hundred miles from the Arctic Circle, it turns out, I didn’t how cold it can get.

It’s a learning experience, as most things are. Years ago, I was practicing sort of brinksmanship, colored by the arrogance of youth. These days? Well, things circle back on themselves.

Last year, I was talking about hurricanes and new homes. Or of rebuilding, anyway. Before that, it was new hearts.

Last week, I walked the main floor of Presbetyre in New Orleans’s Jackson Square immersed in the details of how Katrina transformed the city. Of the levees breaking and the Superdome. Of the people stranded on their roofs for days on end. I had to step away from the images in order to catch my breath. It was a year to the day that I had finally made it back to New York after being stranded in London for almost a week because of Sandy. Suddenly, I was back on the flight, suspended over Manhattan, circling the city, unsure of what I might see once I landed but desperate to see it.

Patterns emerge if you look closely enough.

It’s time for another. Four years ago today, my father received a new heart. In the years that have followed, I’ve written about it here and here), always with same request. It’s time again: register to be an organ donor.

I can’t remember where I started this thought. I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’ll get back there eventually.

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It’s time.

This is my annual post.

It was three years ago. Actually four from diagnosis through listing through transplant, but really so many more when my father slipped into a yet unnamed heart failure.

I haven’t talked about it all that much. I’ve mentioned it, and talked around it, asked you to sign up to be an organ donor. But I’ve never talked about it.  Not in any meaningful way. I think it’s time.

In the end, it’s a series of details strung together: of how my sister just happened to be driving right by my apartment at the time, so we could head up to the hospital together. The surreal feeling of leaving my friend a message telling her I can’t make it to dinner, my father got a heart. Having someone there, unexpectedly, keeping vigil with me. And, when it was all over, how I sobbed in the waiting room, unable to catch my breath after a year of holding it.

When you hear about transplants, there are all sorts of facts and figures: the wait time depending on blood type, how long an organ is viable outside the donor’s body. For a heart, it’s four to six hours. You think it will be a manic process, going in, and, yet as with everything before, there’s an element of hurry up and wait. The heart is the last organ harvested—yes, harvested. An odd word choice, but at this point in the process, my vocabulary had expanded in so many unexpected directions I hardly took notice.

The heart remains, pumping, keeping the rest of the viable organs alive until they can be harvested for their intended recipients. We heard that night that a woman in another room, in some other hall, would be receiving the lungs. I thought then about how so many lives would be saved by the unexpected loss of one.

And, so we waited, in the hospital waiting rooms that, by now, had grown as familiar to me as a relative’s apartment. And, the staff let us sleep on the couches, though we could not. And, then, there was a different kind of waiting, while the surgery went on.

The next day, when my father was placed in the step-down unit, we were able to go in once we had suited up, covering almost every surface of our skin to keep out any toxins that were on it. It was an odd family portrait—my father hooked up to IVs and my mother, sister, and I wearing shower caps, gloves and masks, but we were intact and it felt like the hardest part just might be behind us.

I would have to go back to work, and my day-to-day life soon, but not then. That day, close friends of my parents brought us bags of food to eat in the waiting room. And, my best friend, an ophthalmologist, came by to keep us company and give my mother a much needed eye exam—the stress of everything had caused some blood vessels in her eye to burst. As for me, I stared at my book, turning the same phrases over and over in my head, searching for meaning, not in a metaphorical sense. Quite literally, I couldn’t focus on anything. This went on for days.

I’ve heard that a crisis brings out the best in people. I’m not sure I agree. Rather, I think that you become more of who you already are. There’s a challenge, as it were, and you rise to it.

There’s no denying it, from start to finish, I changed. In the immediate aftermath, it wasn’t necessarily in the best of ways—after so much time waiting by the phone and thinking that time was so limited, I forgot what it was like to be spontaneous, to not have to account for every hour. I was skittish, just plain tired all of the time, and at times angry at everything. I’d like to think that those days are past me. I’d like to think, too, that they’ve made me more empathetic towards others.

I’ve been humbled by the past few years. Yes, that’s a good phrase. I’ve been humbled. I’ve realized that I can’t do things alone, and there’s no shame in asking for help—or asking something of someone.

And, so, I’m asking.

Hopefully not for me, not for my family, but maybe for one of yours. Sign up to be an organ donor.

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Anatomy of a storm.

What happens is this: First, there’s the sense of panic. It’s physical, and you find yourself short of breath although you’ve been in one place. You’re gasping for air, bit by bit in shallow swallows. You need to get home immediately. Except that home is more than three thousand miles away, and you’ve had several flights cancelled already.

Instead, it’s a grey day in London and getting colder and by the time that you get back to your friend’s house, it’s only a few short hours before the storm is predicted to make landfall. So, you do the only thing that you can from afar: check in with your family to make sure that they’re prepared.

It happens just as your father is reassuring you and telling you that everyone will be okay. It is a sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Like thunder and every dish you’ve ever owned breaking and walls coming down and splitting apart. It is a tree falling through the side of the house where your parents live.

After that, things happen quickly, and off screen. You can hear the wind and the fireman who has arrived at the house, but as you stare through your FaceTime app, all you can see is darkness. Next, they’re evacuating and you’ll have to wait as they drive to your grandmother’s house in winds that were strong enough to fell a tree that’s been on the property more than sixty years.

So, you wait, hoping to hear that they’ve made it safely. Time moves interminably slow. In the meantime, trying to deal with the mess of your lost luggage if only to distract yourself from the fact that the storm is getting closer and closer to land and they’re still out on the road. It doesn’t work.

When you receive word that they’re arrived in one piece, you attempt to sleep, only managing a few short fitful hours, haunted by the sound of all of the breaking. When you wake up, the storm is still raging on another coast, and you begin scouring the internet obsessively again, trying to find out whatever you can. It doesn’t look good: A transformer has exploded, leaving large swaths of Manhattan, including where you live, in the dark, and Manhattan is completely cut off from the rest of the city. Elsewhere, large stretches of the Jersey shore have washed away and an entire neighborhood in Queens has gone up in smoke.

That morning, when your friend who is unexpectedly hosting you for an undefined period of time asks about your family, you break down in tears. As far as you know, the house is gone, and you are completely stranded. You’re dripping wet, having just showered and idea of simply getting dressed, let alone going to another friend’s house, is too much to bear. She takes the morning off of work and sits with you, so you won’t be alone and tells you to stay where you are. You’re overwhelmed, with the loss and the unknowing, yes, but also with the act of kindness. You don’t know what to say. So you sit and stare off into the distance, feeling further from home than you’ve ever been.

You start to see reports that the worst is over, and again, you’re waiting, this time until it’s a more reasonable time to call your family in New York to make sure that they’re okay. You last until 7 am EST, when you wake up your sister who is one of the luckier ones—trapped in Manhattan. She calls your parents with you on the phone, since you can’t call the states on your phone. As she holds the corded phone up to her iPad so that you can hear your father speak, you think, this would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. You start to hear responses from the roll call you sent out to your friends. They’ve made it through.

You attempt to sleep, unsuccessfully. Throughout the day and the week that follows, you’ll speak to your sister every few hours. After the initial shock has subsided, you’ll start to catalog things in the house, that are likely lost—your birth announcement, her research, all of your mother’s work and projects for her classroom and your father’s stamp collection. Ultimately, it’s just a list of stuff, but this is also the house you grew up in, and the one your parents live in still. It’s filled with memories, including one of your family huddling together in the house twenty five years earlier as Hurricane Gloria raged on.

When it’s late in the day, you think that maybe, just maybe you’ll be able to sleep that night. No day will be as bad as this one, and although it will be days before you can go home, it’s true. Elsewhere, there are people who have lost their lives, whose homes have washed away or burned to the ground. For now, your family and friends are all accounted for.

You finally make it out on Friday, six days after your flight was originally scheduled to depart. The flight that ultimately sticks is the fifth one that you’ve been placed on.

As your plane circles New York, preparing to land, you’re shaking again. You’re almost back and it feels as if you’ve been gone far too long. You’ll have to wait to go back to your home, as your neighborhood is still without power. And, instead of the usual twenty minutes to get from the airport to Manhattan, it takes many hours. On the way, you see people waiting in lines that span city blocks simply to get on a bus. And, when your bus stops on East 39th Street, you see that the north side of the street is completely illuminated while the south side and beyond has been plunged into darkness.

Still, you’re in New York. And, a day later, the tree has been removed from your parents’ house and it has been pronounced salvageable. It may take months or a year, but it’s there. As are all of you. And, ultimately you feel lucky, because you have so much, when others have so little.

To help with the relief efforts, there are many charities accepting donations, including The Mayor’s Fund and The Red Cross.

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This one’s going to be good

Truth be told, I really don’t like candy corn all that much. Or, certainly not enough to warrant spending several hours making it from scratch. And, yet, that’s exactly what I’m going to tell you about.

Stay with me, here.

This is where things get good. And, where I admit that I made the candy corn simply because wanted a reason to tell you about this photo:

halloween

It may not be immediately apparent, but in this photo, my sister is dressed like Belgium. Yes, Belgium. Just go with it. You can tell on account of the Fleur-de-lis that adorns her dress (I don’t buy it, either).

I’m America. You can tell because I’m wearing gingham. And, because of my really, really big hair which is barely contained by the puritan style bonnet.

There’s a long and complicated story behind the costumes, but essentially, what you need to know is this: my mother and aunt went to a sleep-away camp when they were growing up in the 1960s. These costumes are from those days. My mother kept them and, every year, my sister and I would get excited to break them out for the holiday.

The year before we were Iran and Iraq. Those costumes consisted of big pants, bikini-style tops and head scarves. As I write that it occurs to me that it must have been a mild fall on the east coast that year. Also: that, evidently, there was no such thing as political correctness in the 1960s.

It was only years later that it occurred to me that dressing up like a country wasn’t a typical Halloween costume and was, frankly, a little weird. The tip-off came from old photos of the Countrywood Elementary School Halloween parade. All of us kids would come to school dressed up in our costumes and parade around the parking lot so our parents could admire us. There I am in all of the pictures, flanked by my classmates who are dressed as pumpkins and princesses. I’m in my gingham dress with my Puritan bonnet. I can only imagine what the other adults must have thought when I told them I was America. I was such a happy-go-lucky (translation: “lacking in total common sense and unaware of social cues”) child, that it didn’t even occur to me that it was odd at the time. Of course, I found the photos during my too cool for everything early teen phase. So, in the interest full disclosure, this is now one of those stories that I tell every Halloween. And, as I slowly overcome my adult aversion to dressing up, I’m considering investing in a new gingham dress.

When I called my sister to ask her if I could share the photo with all you, she had one stipulation: You can post it, but only if you also mention the year that our mother paid us so that we didn’t have to go trick-or-treating. Of course, that’s a whole different story for a different time.

For now, enjoy this candy, and have a happy Halloween!

Candy Corn
Recipe courtesy of Serious Eats

1 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup light corn syrup
1/3 cup salted butter
2 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1/3 cup powdered milk
1 tsp vanilla
red and yellow food coloring

In a medium sized bowl, combine the sifted confectioners’ sugar and powdered milk. Set to the side.

In a medium saucepan, combine the granulated sugar, corn syrup and butter. Bring to a boil on high heat, stirring constantly. Once it reaches the boiling point, reduce heat to medium and continue stirring for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the vanilla extract and remove from heat.

Add the confectioners’ sugar and powdered milk mixture to the wet ingredients; stir well until the mixture is thoroughly incorporated and smooth.

Let the dough cool until it is firm enough to handle, about 30 minutes to an hour.

Divide the dough into three equal parts and set each third into a separate bowl. Add 2 to 3 drops of yellow food coloring to one dish, one drop of red and two drops of yellow to another dish, and leave the remaining dish uncolored. Knead the dough to which you have added food coloring until the color is even, using gloves (I used sandwich bags. Which looked ridiclous, but did the trick). If the dough is feeling very soft or sticky, you may want to chill the dough for about 20 minutes in the refrigerator before proceeding with the next steps.

On top of a sheet of waxed paper or parchment paper, use your hands to roll each color of dough into a long, slender rope. You can roll it out to your desired thickness: for larger candies, make each rope thicker; for smaller candies, make each rope thinner.

Line the three ropes of dough together: white, orange, and yellow. To ensure that they will stick together, lay a piece of waxed paper on top and give them a very gentle rolling with a rolling pin. You just want to adhere them, not to flatten them.

Using a very sharp knife, cut the dough into triangles. Keep a damp cloth nearby so that you can wipe off the knife if it begins to get a candy residue. This method will result in half a batch of traditionally colored candy corn and half a batch with yellow tips. Let the finished kernels sit for an hour or two (do not stack them on top of one another as they will stick together!) to become firm.

Makes enough to give you plenty of cavities

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And, to you.

Today is my sister’s birthday. I have a cake planned, and, if I can pull it off, I’ll tell you about it.

Until then, here are some flowers that we spotted last weekend along Park Avenue.

This counts as a gift, right?

Happy Birthday, Robyn!

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