December 30, 2010

Christmas this Year

Posted in Children, Family, Food, Health, Holidays, Home, Traditions tagged , , , , , , , , at 8:14 am by Liliana

Christmas Spread

Christmas Spread

My family hosted Christmas this year.

Every part of the house was put to good use.

The children came home from far and wide. Nena, Nicole and Sam were comfortably ensconced in their rooms. Mike flew in from Boston, Sasha drove in from Ohio. The two of them had to sleep on a sofa bed in the basement.

Branka started baking a week before Christmas. Every evening and all weekend long she was spreading phyllo dough for baklava, grinding walnuts, juicing oranges and making her secret citrus honey syrup. The house smelled of fresh baking, cloves and cinnamon.

Two days before Christmas I started making side dishes to go with roasted turkey and honey glazed ham. I made green bean casserole with fresh mushrooms, sweet potatoes with pecans and cinnamon, mushroom gravy. As I tasted my concoctions, I noticed that my sense of taste, and my sense of smell, was numb and muted.

Sam had been sick the week before Christmas. He had gotten a nasty bug from his girlfriend Emily – high fever, sore throat, achiness, no appetite. Now it was my turn to fight the virus.

We were expecting thirty people for Christmas dinner.

Somehow, by sheer will power I got up early on Christmas morning and readied the turkey for roasting. I cut up lemons, apples, celery and onions, stuffed the turkey and placed it in the oven. Everyone commented on the delicious fragrance but I could smell nothing.

We set out our best china, got out the crystal. The guests started arriving at three in the afternoon.

Jelena brought two kinds of appetizers and a selection of confections that could rival any French bakery. Martha baked a perfect apple pie. Natasha made a frothy, creamy torte. Hannah baked a delicate spice cake and a key lime pie.

The table was overflowing with delicacies.

I could neither smell nor taste anything.

My head ached so badly I had to prop it up with my arm so it would stay upright. My throat was sore, eyes watery, nose red.

Still, the evening seemed to go well. People filled their plates with turkey and glazed ham slices, side dishes, salads. They talked and laughed. The kids watched basketball and played pool.

We made tea and coffee and spread out the deserts. Guests sampled everything.

I filled my plate with desserts – one of each, hoping that by some miracle I could taste the beauty of the food in front of me. I could not.

By eight in the evening, with a house full of guests, I waved good night, and slowly walked up the stairs to my room.

Good night, all!

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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.