September 30, 2010

The Pull of the Old

Posted in Children, Family, Home, Serbia, Traditions, Travel, Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 6:56 am by Liliana

Revelers at the wedding

Revelers at the wedding, 8/10

My sister and I spent the last few days visiting our father and stepmother in Florida.

They had just gotten back from a month long trip to Serbia. Neither has been there for over twenty years. They were full of stories and impressions.

They had lots of photographs; and an eighteen hour video of an old fashioned wedding of our cousin’s son. We watched all eighteen hours.

Our father grew up in a small village (about hundred and fifty households) in Northern Serbia. His family has lived there for many generations. We are related, by blood or marriage, to almost every member of the population. We know their stories, and the nicknames of their grandfathers.

My father left the village and went out “into the wide world” when he was a teenager. My sister and I grew up in Belgrade. But almost every summer of our childhood and young adulthood we returned to visit. Everyone there knows not only us, but everything about us.

My cousin Milan and I are the same age. As children we played together, roamed the orchards, picked mushrooms in the nearby forests. He stole a cigarette from my grandfather and we tried smoking it in a dark corner behind the house. We chocked on the bitter smoke and neither tried again.

As teenagers we went hunting together, and spent evenings at village dances. He confided in me when he fell in love and decided to get married. Our children are the same age. It was his son’s wedding that we watched for eighteen hours.

Milan’s father and my father are first cousins. The two of them are the same age, twenty days apart. They grew up during the difficult years of WWII, and their childhoods were a lot less idyllic. But they probably did most of the same things that Milan and I did.

My grandfather and Milan’s grandmother were brother and sister. When her husband got killed by a horse in a freak accident, leaving her a widow with four children, my grandfather took on the care of her family.

Their father, my and Milan’s great-grandfather, Milos, was an adventurous man. He traveled the world and came to America in the late part of the 19th century. But he couldn’t stay long away from the village. Just like my father, who traveled the world as well, but has always gone back.

Watching the video made Branka and me feel like the part of the tribe that we belong to. We couldn’t eat the delicious food, we couldn’t drink the home made wine and plum brandy, we couldn’t place our arms around our family and join in the dance.

But when the music started playing, we knew exactly how they felt. And we knew all the songs.

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September 17, 2010

Nana

Posted in Breast Cancer, Cancer, Children, Family, Food, Good people, Health, Home, Weather, Women tagged , , , , , at 6:59 am by Liliana

Liliana, Nana, Branka and our father

Liliana, Nana, Branka and our father- June 2010

In early January of 2005, I was undergoing intense chemo therapy for breast cancer.

It was a bitterly cold and snowy winter. The days were heavy, dark, gloomy and depressing. My physical and emotional state reflected the weather perfectly.

In a few short weeks, I had lost close to twenty pounds. I had no appetite and felt nauseous all the time. I was weak and dizzy. I could not sleep. I developed a blood clot in my arm and then one in my leg. I had no energy. I could not take care of myself, much less my husband and children.

My sister, Branka, tried bravely to take care of our two households. She ran between her work, her children’s schools, her house  and my house. I worried that she too would get sick. We needed help.

Our father had remarried a few years earlier and lived in Florida. We were friendly with our stepmother (Nana), but didn’t know her well. She offered to come to cold, frozen Michigan and take care of us all. We said yes.

Nana came and took over the running of the house.

Mornings were my worst time of the day. After chemo had been working its magic all night long, I felt sick, exhausted and unable to eat. I had trouble getting out of bed. Nana would bring me a cup of tea and hot oatmeal with honey, then leave as I struggled to swallow a few teaspoons at a time.

Mike was already away at college, but Nena and Sam were at home. Jeff had a responsible and difficult job. They were all disoriented and frightened. Nana made them breakfast every morning – fancy stuff like pancakes, bacon, eggs. It made me happy to know, sitting in my bedroom and trying to swallow oatmeal, that Nana took care of them.

After everyone had left for work or school, I slowly gathered my courage and stumbled downstairs. Nana and I sat for hours – she talking and crocheting; I trying to survive another day.

Hours spread before us like decades.

Branka came every day, and the two of them tried to think of ways to cheer me up and get me to eat. It was essential that I not lose any more weight as my oncologist threatened to stop chemo treatments; but I had trouble swallowing and had no appetite. Nana and Branka would go into my kitchen and start concocting high calorie delicacies limited only by their imaginations. I never knew what combination and surprises I would find camouflaged inside my smoothies – boiled chicken with chocolate milk, roasted vegetables with honey, etc. etc. I lived in fear of the next offering.

Evenings were merciless in a different way. Nana and Branka made wonderful dinners and the entire family (mine and Branka’s) would gather around our dining room table. Everyone except for me. I sat on a sofa nearby, and tried not to smell the aroma of food or think about food. Our usually rowdy dinner conversations were no more; everyone ate quietly.

We all waited for the day to end.

Nana stayed with us for six weeks, through the worst part of my chemo treatments. She talked to me about things that no one else had the courage to talk about. She was honest and made no light of my situation. I didn’t have to pretend to be brave. But this tenacious, determined woman exuded strength like a rock – strength I could touch with my hand and hold on to tightly.

She cajoled me to eat, to find courage in simple things and not give up. She advised me to take it one minute, one hour, one day at the time. When I could not walk myself, she pushed me forward.

By the time Nana left for Florida, winter was winding down. Snow was still laying deep on the ground, but the first whiffs of spring were in the air. I was done with the first chemo regiment, and starting the second round. I responded to this one much better, and my appetite showed those first early signs of life. I started going for walks outside. My strength came back slowly.

Now, when I think of those cold, dark, despondent days, I think with pride of my family’s ability to endure and survive. And I think of Nana’s strength and love that, like a beacon, pointed the way towards better days. On day at the time.

September 15, 2010

Avery Update

Posted in Cancer, Children, Family, Good people, Health tagged , , , , , at 8:25 am by Liliana

Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine

Little Avery is doing well.

Her diagnosis last year with non-
rhabdomyosarcoma, deeply touched everyone who knows her story.

This rare form of cancer has the characteristics of three different types of cancer, all in one. By the time Avery was diagnosed in October, it had already spread to her lungs and was ranked Stage 4. After four rounds of intense chemotherapy, followed by surgery, her cancer had shrunk and there are now no traces of lesions in her lungs.

Avery is going back to the hospital in October for a follow-up scan. If all goes well, her port will be removed.

Avery is feeling great, eating well, growing and learning all kinds of new things. Her hair has come back, as well as her eyebrows and eyelashes. With her sweet smile and good nature she charms everyone who meets her.

Avery had a little accident during the summer. She ended up with a small fracture in her leg. Her bones have been weakened by chemo, so she had to wear a cast on her leg for a few weeks.

Now the cast is off, and Avery can go swimming and running around.

I bet she’ll be playing soccer with her brothers very soon!

September 13, 2010

Battle in Istanbul

Posted in Children, Family, Serbia tagged , , , , , , at 8:20 am by Liliana

basketball woes

Basketball woes

Last Saturday, there was a lot of excitement at my house. We had reserved the afternoon so there would be no interruptions. My children, in different parts of the country, were all in battle mode.

Serbia was playing Turkey in the semi-finals at the world basketball championships in Istanbul.

If you are unfamiliar with the long and violent history of the Balkans, there is only one thing you need to know – Serbia (together with the surrounding neighborhood) was subjugated to the Turkish Ottoman empire for five hundred years. We still blame many of our woes on that painful history.

To beat the Turks in Istanbul (in basketball, of course) would be a sweet victory – it might almost avenge the bottle of Kosovo and release us from enslavement to that grievous memory.

The game started off well. The Serbian team consisting mostly of young players (ten under the age of twenty three) fought bravely and led throughout the first half by almost ten points. The audience was overwhelmingly Turkish, with a very small (but loud and brave) contingent of Serbs. The Turks looked worried. The Serbs were overjoyed.

Only once or twice did the Turkish team take the lead. It seemed possible that Serbs could win, but I was taking nothing for granted. I didn’t want to jinx them by being overly confident. So, I didn’t call Mike in Boston and gloat about how well things were going.

Well, at the very, very end of the game, the Turks took the lead. And during the last five seconds, they won by one point.

One point!

One point and that sweet sense of victory eluded us again.

The Turks in Istanbul celebrated with the unrestrained joy of tribal ecstasy. At my house, it was very quiet. The kids didn’t call. Jeff and I said nothing to each other. I turned my face to the wall, and I cried.

I have grown up in a society that idealizes pain and suffering. The path to true wisdom is strewn with thorns. But really, I am starting to wonder if there can be such a thing as too much of pain-infused wisdom.

To put it plainly, sometimes I just want my team to win.

September 10, 2010

The Best Years

Posted in Breast Cancer, Cancer, Family, Women tagged , , , , , , , , , at 6:33 am by Liliana

The birthday girl

The birthday girl

My grandmother lived to be ninety five years old. Throughout the years, whenever she talked about people who happened to be her age at that particular moment, she would make a comment – “they are enjoying the best year of their lives!”

For my grandmother, every year of one’s life was the very best year.

It took me a long time to understand what she meant, but I think that I am getting there.

Many years of my life were painful and difficult and did not seem enjoyable at the time. My mother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. My sister almost died from pulmonary embolism. My family in Yugoslavia  lived through tragedy, violence and hardships. I was sick with cancer.

But when I look back on all this, all these misfortunes, together with all the joys, construct a picture of my life. I would not be who I am without them. I hope that I have learned from them to be a better person.

One thing I do know – I am much more compassionate, accepting and kind. To my family, friends, strangers, the world around me. And to myself.

Today I am fifty one years old. Happy birthday to me!

September 8, 2010

Extreme Weather

Posted in Holidays, Weather tagged , , , , , , , , , at 7:17 pm by Liliana

Extreme Weather

Extreme Weather

My family and I spent last week at our cottage near Lake Michigan. It was a relaxing, quiet week.

The first few days were hot and humid. The lake water was warm and I spent hours swimming or walking on the beach.  I tried reading but the heat was oppressive and all I wanted to do was nap. I sat or lay in the sun and went in and out of sleep. It was hard to imagine that any other kind of weather had ever enveloped this lake. Summer heat was the only reality we knew.

On Thursday evening there was a large and violent storm. The rain poured out of water-logged skies. Thunder shook our cottage and lightening illuminated the windows. Curtains manically danced in the wind as did papers, books and anything caught in the breeze.

I am not afraid of storms, in fact I love them. But this storm was so powerful and out of control, it made me uneasy. I stayed awake for a long time, keeping vigil over my family.

As we slowly started moving around the cottage the following morning, we seemed to have entered an entirely new season. The house was cold. Not a little cold, not just a bit chilly, but brisk in a way we have not had a chance to get accustomed to. I pulled on a pair of pants, a sweatshirt and a sweater. Nena put on a pair of her softest, warmest socks.

Sam suggested that we turn on the heat. It seemed to me a preposterous idea to turn the heat on when only the day before we were bemoaning the fact that our cottage had no air-conditioning. But finally, I relented. We turned the thermostat to sixty eight and right away, we all felt more comfortable. We spent the day inside, on couches, under blankets, reading and watching movies.

I cannot remember that I have ever witnessed such a sudden transition of extremes. It’s hard to know how to interpret all these changes.

September 3, 2010

Happy Birthday, Nicole!

Posted in Children, Family tagged , , at 7:46 am by Liliana

 

The birthday girl!

The birthday girl!

 

Eighteen years ago, today, my niece Nicole was born. I was there when it happened.

When I saw her for the first time, I was afraid to let her go.  Surely, I thought, everyone would want this beautiful baby. And indeed, nurses came from all over the hospital to look at her. Just born, and she was causing a commotion.

Her skin was porcelain white and smooth, her cheeks pink, and her hair dark, curly and thick. She looked around the room without crying, curious to witness this new world.

I had to go home and take my son Mike to school that morning. I remember how happy we both were, and to everyone we met, whether we knew them a little or not at all, we shouted  “we have a new baby in our family, just born today!” People smiled and waved. The world seemed joyous that Nicky was born.

And this baby has made us smile ever since. Today, she is on her way to college. Best of luck Nicolina. You have brought us nothing but joy and happiness.

Happy birthday to you!