Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween... and Hello, Saint

Today is Halloween. As with many families, ours has always loved this day. Deciding on costumes, with my children making fun of me as I threw their costumes together with old pillowcases, stapling or using duct tape to "hem" the different pieces together, was a tradition. (According to my crew, “other mothers” actually spent hours on costumes that were to be worn for a couple of hours in the dark.) They also felt compelled to make fun of me during the years I insisted on giving nutritional treats, spider rings, etc. instead of candy. (Actually, I don’t blame them for making fun of me for that!)

Brandon was a terrific "Our Gang" Alfalfa

            Most of my children continued to love the traditions of Halloween into adulthood. They could no longer trick-or-treat due to our family age cut-off of high school, but they could attend or throw Halloween parties, and they could now make the costumes for themselves that their mother hadn’t!

As an adult, he was the perfect Pee-wee Herman

As an expectant dad at Halloween 2011, 
he was the proud chef of the bun in wife Christina's "oven"

This year his wife Christina and daughter Morgan carry on the proud Halloween tradition

            So tonight is Halloween. The evening is ending and the trick-or-treaters are heading home. At midnight the portal between here and “Otherworld” is supposed to open briefly. It’s supposed to be a night of hauntings. I hope that’s true. I begged Brandon to come back and haunt me. 
            Tomorrow, November 1 is All Saints Day and, if anyone is a saint, it is Brandon and all the others like him. All those who have put up with uncomfortable to painful treatments with uncomfortable to painful side effects and like him rarely, if ever, complained through it all - they are saints if anyone is.
            This is my prayer to St. Brandon, “Please, Brandon, please haunt me. Tonight. Anytime. But tonight would do very nicely. Amen.”

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Memo to my other adult children – Please call when you need to, even if the reason scares me

Brandon is the second of our five children and the oldest son. In the first several weeks after his death, I’d feel absolute panic that something might happen to one my other children. An ongoing sense of panic is not compatible with my psyche and definitely wouldn’t work long term if I wanted to retain some relatively normal (whatever that means) level of mental health. Being concerned (OK, worrying) does no good. It won’t change anything that may – or may not – occur in the future. Worrying won’t help me and it won’t help any of my four living adult children live the lives they should live.

I learned long ago that “control” is an illusion. And long ago I decided I was not going to let “what might” happen in the future hang over my head in the present. I’ve known too many people who can’t enjoy the now because of a preoccupation with potential disasters that could loom in their near or distant futures – “potential” as in what may happen, not what will happen. Still, life is life and one of the few absolutes is that no one moves through life without experiencing significant physical and emotional challenges, including the death of special someone(s) at one point or another. I figured this out long ago, too. I simply wasn’t going to dwell on it until a challenge rolled or leapt onto my life’s path.

Of the challenges that could present, I always knew the death of one of my babies – and they are my babies no matter what their ages – would be the worst. That’s why I’ve always prayed for the women I know, and those I don’t, whose child has died. The age of their child at time of death doesn’t matter and neither does it matter whether it was a day ago or a lifetime ago.

Well, I was right. I can’t imagine anything worse – or I couldn’t until one of our out-of-town sons called at 11 p.m. the other night and was obviously in excruciating pain. I listened in while he talked (with great difficulty getting the words out due to pain) to his father, who is a physician, and the possibilities of what might be wrong filled me with an unexplainable dread. The call didn’t last long, as my husband told our son to call 911 and get to an emergency room immediately.

I couldn’t put myself in my usual “wait and see what the problem really is” mode. No, I immediately jumped into pure mental panic and worst-case scenario mode. My husband went to bed figuring there was nothing more he could do then and our son would call when he learned more. I stayed up, knowing I wouldn’t sleep until he’d called. I lasted a little over an hour and then sent a text. His wife, who’d stayed home with their toddler, returned the text saying he’d forgotten to take his phone to the ER with him. She wasn’t sure which hospital the paramedics had taken him to but she gave me the name of a likely possibility.

Thank God hospitals are 24/7 places and a mother can call in any time! I did have the hospital where he’d been taken and the operator put me in touch with the ER. The kind woman there gave the phone to my son so he could reassure his mother that he was feeling much better. He was just about to head for a test, but the doctor was fairly certain of the diagnosis, which while painful is also treatable and not life threatening. A weight lifted.

My poor son felt he had to apologize for scaring me. I don’t want him to feel that way or apologize for what can’t be helped. I want him know he can call us about anything at any time. Ditto for all of my adult children. My exaggerated fear is not his or his siblings’ problem. My fear is my problem. I’ll face it as best I can. Sometimes, I’ll avoid it by taking a trip to the land of Denial, which I’ve found in the last two to three years to be a beneficial vacation spot as long as I don’t stay there too long, all the while knowing the fear is hovering just below the surface – ready to pop up and yank me from Denial to a less pleasant destination.

So, memo to my children, their spouses or significant other, and my grandchildren: I’m here for you – fear and all. I’d rather deal with my fear than have you hesitate to contact me, or your father, with an important issue in order to spare me this fear. Actually, thinking you might hesitate or not contact me when you need me fills me with a much greater fear. I love each of you so very much and each is such a unique love – just as each of you is so unique. That’s what makes Brandon’s death so difficult to deal with, but that’s also what makes continuing to be part of your lives the best part of my now.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Welcome back, brain (I hope)!

I think my brain may be coming back, which is a relief. For the first three to four months after Brandon’s death, I couldn’t focus on anything – not a work project, not a book, not a conversation, etc. – for more than a few minutes at a time. It wasn’t that my mind was muddled or fogged in; it seemed that concentrating on anyone or anything was simply beyond my ability. In recent weeks I’ve felt a bit of a change, and I’ve finally made some progress on work-related projects that have been hanging over my head.

Grieving is a weird thing. I’ve studied the grief process from an academic perspective and I wasn't completely unfamiliar with the lived experience prior to June second. I knew my inability to focus was a common aspect with the shock and denial associated with the first phase of grief. However, knowing where I fit on some continuum of grief pathway has in no way helped me walk the path. In some way, identifying the feeling, understanding how it fits, yet being unable to alter either the course or the speed at which I can move through it has only added to the weirdness.

Apparently, there is no way to get over, around and through this acute grief without living the feelings or dealing with the altered brain chemistry. The knowledge in one’s head is different than the knowledge of one’s heart. The heart cannot avoid the learning curve of grief just because the head is aware. Shucks…

Friday, October 5, 2012

Italy is a feast!

Brandon follows me wherever I go in Italy, or perhaps I'm following him. In a country known for its cuisine and wine, how could he not be with me everywhere? He was our foodie, gourmet cook and wine connoisseur extraordinaire! I've picked up mortar and pestle sets in olive wood and marble, thinking how Brandon would love them to grind herbs, only to set them back down again. In Montalcino during a Tuesday blitz of three Tuscan hill towns, we tasted a number of Brunellos at the Enoteca di Piazza, as a helpful salesperson explained the differences and similarities based on barrel type and size, aging and appellation. Two towns later we were in Montepulchiano and tasting the family Vino Nobile at the Contucci Cantina. A few years ago Brandon decided to get to know the wines of Italy. He bought a book and traveled through it region by region, buying examples to better acquaint him with each wine discussed. And he loved to share his knowledge when I'd purchase the wine-tasting sample bottles. So Brandon was with me again when I enjoyed some of the wines he'd introduced me to.

Learning that Pienza, the picturesque town between Montalcino and Montepulchiano, is known for a particular cheese and that some of the local ristorantes serve it warm with local honey and fruit meant one thing. I had to buy a wedge of the younger pecorino and a small jar of a local honey that the local bees apparently made from pear blossoms. The next evening we heated in the oven at the villa where we're staying and drizzled the pear honey over it, serving it with the villa's house wine, of course! I could hear Brandon cheering me on as I insisted on trying this cheesy experiment. (It was delicious!)

Wednesday three of the six villa "group" decided to take a cooking class from Chef Lorenzo and his staff at his Ristorante Zeppelin in Orvieto. (Chef Lorenzo and his sous chef, Marco, made a meal for us at "our" villa Monday evening. Wow! That's la dolce vita!) Brandon would love the tales of cooking with Chef Lorenzo, but as much or more, he'd love trying out the 50 recipes shared with the cooking school "grads" and the apron of the ristorante that each got to keep. I've picked up and put down chef aprons all over the regions we've visited on our travels, thinking of him with each one. Tonight is our last night at the villa, and the caretakers are preparing our dinner. Brandon, whose hero is Bobby Flay, would flip if he could cook on the Umbrian wood-fired grill Alex is using to cook tonight's meat, and I know he'd've loved to talk food with Alex about marinades and the use of rosemary.

This country is a mental, physical and spiritual feast. This post was about the physical feast. More on the mental and spiritual in future posts. But laughter and tears, Brandon's special touch is part of all.  

Monday, October 1, 2012

Vacation as balm

I am in Italy with my husband Joe and friends. We are taking our first "real" vacation in several years. We canceled the last one, scheduled for early May of 2010, in early March when Brandon called to say one of the nasal polyps he'd had removed from his right maxillary sinus the week before had shown a malignancy. Poorly differentiated squamous cell carcinoma. Surgery was in his near future and there was no way to know how extensive it might be. The maxillary sinus is just below the lower aspect of the eye socket and just above the roof of the mouth. It is to one side of the nasal cavity, the brain and a cheek. The procedure he was to have is called a maxillectomy. The surgeon was to strip the lining of his right maxillary sinus and cut out any area, including bone beyond, where a malignancy was noted.

I wasn't going anywhere until we discovered how extensive the surgery and recovery would be and what, if any, further treatment was needed. As it turned out, the maxillectomy uncovered a small area on one bone between his maxillary sinus and his nasal cavity, so that bone was removed. There was no sign of the cancer in any other area of the sinus. The surgeon thought he'd gotten it all, and we thought Brandon was home-free after a major scare. unbelievable relief and a new appreciation for our family unit followed that news.

Within the next four months, our house (finally) sold - about three weeks before our son Tony's wedding to Kristin in New Jersey. Their rehearsal dinner was planned, but invitations had to be ordered and mailed for Brandon and Christina's rehearsal dinner - exactly four week's after Tony and Kristin's - while finding a mover to store our furniture, since our condo wasn't going to be ready for months, and a furnished apartment willing to take us with our large dog Rudy in the interim! Our move had to take place smack dab between the two four-weeks-apart weddings and, in the meantime, we had to make choices on materials to customize the condo. However, the stressors of those weeks seemed minor after the weeks of wondering and worrying between Brandon's diagnosis and surgery.

Both weddings were beautiful and I think more joyous because we thought the big C had been found early and removed. But the big C is a nasty, sneaky bastard. Soon after returning from their honeymoon, Brandon saw the surgeon for a regular two-month check. The CT scan looked clear, but the doctor found an enlarged lymph gland on the left side of his neck. A closer look at his nasopharynx showed a "suspicious" area, which was quickly biopsied and found positive for poorly differentiated squamous carcinoma. Although Brandon said he didn't want to be a reason we didn't take a vacation, I didn't want to go too far or for too long from that point on.

The roller-coaster ride had begun with its many downs and ups, ending 21 months later with his death on June 2, 2012 - 17 weeks as of yesterday. I'd stepped off of one roller coaster only to step onto another. So when friends asked if we'd be interested in spending a late-September to early-October week at a villa not far from Orvieto, Italy, Joe and I jumped at the chance! It gave us something to look forward to and plan for during a difficult summer, and there is just something about Italy. It is a balm for the soul.

We started the vacation with three days in Rome. I didn't expect it when I first visited Rome several years ago, but I fell in love with this city. Its architecture is a hodgepodge of historical periods that somehow works completely, and the city exerts an energy that seems to have built through and continues to encompass its many millennia. The people of Rome fit the energy, and I think I came to appreciate their dry humor on this trip. Death - the past - and life today constantly rub up against one another and not always comfortably.

Throughout our days in Rome, I'd duck into one of the too-numerous-to-count churches here or there. I looked for and found a number of depictions of Mary cradling her adult son after his death on a cross. The first, a painting, was hung on the wall of a room outside what used to be the Pope's bedchamber in the Castel Sant'Angelo
and was soon followed by Michelangelo's Pieta in the Chapel of the Pieta in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. Later the same day and while on my own, I found a third - the Pieta Braschi - in a side chapel of the Chiesa del Gesu, the mother church of the Jesuits. Before leaving Rome on Saturday, I came upon one more pieta in a church between our hotel and the Pantheon, which appeared to be a bronze "copy" of Michelangelo's marble masterpiece in the Pieta Chapel. My favorite? Although Bouguereau's painting remains my favorite, the expression on Mary's face on the Pieta Braschi is second. She looks to be THE sorrowful mother. Michelangelo's pieta may be the most famous, but it doesn't capture the depth of this sadness. I'm sharing my iPhone photos of the various pietas I came upon in Rome, so you can judge for yourself.

Michelangelo's Pieta in the Pieta Chapel of St. Peter's Basilica

Bronze want-to-be in another beautiful church

Castel Sant'Angelo - in the chambers of popes of a bygone era

Pieta Braschi in the Chiesa del Gesu

Saturday we headed to a villa Rocca di Benano, which is tucked into a corner of Umbria that borders Tuscany and Lazio. But more on our time in Umbria at a later date...