Category Archives: Memoir writing

Soup For Life

The meat, the meat must be beef shank, preferably with bone in; it makes a much better tasting soup. Set it to cook in a large pot three-quarters full of water. You add the spices at this stage. Salt, black pepper, garlic. The amounts are not measured; taste is what matters.

You must watch it closely at first. The fat will rise and needs to be scooped out, a spoonful at a time, making the broth leaner, clearer. Then you let it simmer as life simmers, gently but persistently, bringing memories bubbling to the surface.

“Papa, when do you add the vegetables?”

“I don’t know, Mijita.”

You know he does, but you say nothing and instead turn back to the stove. The meat is soft now and curls around its round flat bone. The bone is white as white can be, the marrow nestled in its center. You poke at it with the spoon, breaking it up into pieces, allowing its juice to mix with the broth. Meanwhile, you have chopped an onion into large chunks and added it to the broth in progress. Its layers float to the top, shimmery, translucent, adding their own juice.

It is you in the kitchen this Sunday morning. Your mother is sick, a migraine keeping her abed. You feel a deep sense of desperation. You want to fill in for her, but you can’t. You are not her and your father knows you are not her. He walks through the kitchen and steps outside, leaving you to divine the next steps. You know what the soup looks like when it’s done, but not how it gets that way.

With the fat scooped out, you can step away and leave it alone for an hour, or two, being careful not to let the broth cook away to nothing. This simmering will cause the meat to shred, making it so tender you barely have to chew it.

This soup was a staple in your home. Every other Sunday the house filled with the aroma of its cooking. Your mouth waters at the thought and you are helplessly transported back in time. You see the tall clay pot sitting on the stove, flames licking its full rounded bottom, its flared top opened wide, gaping at the ceiling, its middle pinched in like a waist.

It resembles a woman’s shape and you wonder what the potter was thinking while he shaped it. It doesn’t appear to hold much, yet your mother makes sure everyone eats their fill. You can never figure out how she does that.

Once the meat has cooked through, it’s time for the potatoes. Scrub them well and slice them crosswise into thick slices, unpeeled. While they cook, chop up the rest of the vegetables, carrots, squash and cabbage.

Take a fresh corn on the cob and slice off the tip, then shuck the corn peeling back the husk to its core. With a firm grip, snap off the cornstalk. Under running water, work out the silk tucked into the rows of kernels. Score the center of the corn with a sharp knife and then break it in half and add it to your soup.

The corn was your favorite part. You looked forward to it. There seemed to be so few pieces in that pot, but your mother always made sure you got one. Those firm yellow kernels glistened sweetly as you inhaled your soup, leaving the corn for last. There was no need to salt it or add anything to it; it was perfect as it was. You ate it row by row, slowly working your way down the length of it. When all the kernels had disappeared, you siphoned out the succulent broth from within that cob, again working your way along it lengthwise, making sucking noises that made your siblings laugh.

When the potatoes are done, fish them out and place them in a covered dish. Add the rest of the vegetables and continue cooking. In approximately thirty minutes it will all be done.

There is not enough room in your deep stainless steel pot to hold all the ingredients at once. It makes no sense to you. It seems so much bigger than the clay pot of your memories. Nevertheless, you set the potatoes aside before adding the vegetables. You’re not sure when you figured out the sequence to this, if you were shown it or if it just came to you, but it matters not, now.

 

*Eat soup. It’s good for you.

**A version of this appeared on my blog, Prose and Possibilities.

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An Apple a Day

I mentioned before that I’ve been studying foods for a few years now. When I decided I would write some food-related posts on this blog, in my own roundabout convoluted way of course, I surprised myself with just how much information I had gleaned.

I was also surprised to find composition books filled with neat penciled, cursive writing. Such patience. Such yearning. Such neatness. Such legibility. Such heartache. Running my fingertips lightly over the words as I read, I felt the me of so long ago. The me who had written them, as if the careful writing down of this vital information would somehow help my pain go away.

Fear not. I do not plan to impart solely the clinical. More so the personal, and share what I believe has helped me. The main objective for this study of foods was/is to combat inflammation. That to me is far more important than thwarting fat. Because having a few extra pounds of fat on board is not as lethal as having a few extra ounces of liquid on board.

I learned that the hard way a few weeks before being formally, officially, definitively diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Prior to that event, I ended up in the ER with fluid squeezing my heart and lungs to the point that I presented as an MI patient.

I’d known there was something wrong with me for a while. Something that rest and sleep (hard to come by with a job and kids) and regular doses of OTC pain killers couldn’t seem to touch. My primary care physician mentioned the possibility of RA and handed me over to a rheumatologist.

Unfortunately, this rheumatologist turned out to be the wishy-washy kind. “It could be this. It could be that.” I don’t remember him laying a finger on me, not to examine me nor even to offer a bit of sympathy. And not surprisingly, he never came up with a diagnosis.

But he did treat. Vioxx, right before that blew up. Advil, yeah, like I hadn’t thought of that already. Paraffin wax baths for my hurting hands, hah! I’d read about those in my Fundamentals of Nursing textbook in 1978. This was 2004!

I thought we’d come a long way, baby, but apparently he hadn’t. In August of that year, I went to my PCP and spoke my mind. “That man is going to kill me.”

Little did I know.

He referred me to another rheumatologist and I was given an appointment for mid-October, new patient and all. I tried to think positive. Help was coming. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

On Oct 3rd, what I saw were the bright overhead lights of the ER exam room where at least ten people floated around me, sticking needles into my veins, needles into my radial artery, pills under my tongue, O2 onto my face, leads onto my whole body for a 12 lead EKG.

And the funny thing was that I didn’t care! I didn’t care what all they were doing to me because when you can’t breathe you don’t give a crap about anything else.

After 24 hours of very expensive testing, it was determined that my heart and lungs were fine. As the ER physician put it as he sat next to my hospital bed, “It’s your inflammatory condition.”

It was not his place to diagnose a specific ailment and then come up with a long-term treatment plan for me, to do the job of the specialist who should have. It was his job to pinpoint the obstacle to my heart and lungs functioning as they should right then. I returned his wry smile with my own. We both knew why I was there, why my status had deteriorated to the point where he and I ever had to meet at all.

I immediately envisioned chest tubes being inserted into me to drain the fluid. I’d lost track of how many times I’d assisted a doctor with their placement in critically ill patients. Had I been thinking clearly I would’ve realized that had I needed that particular intervention, I would already have a Pleurevac hanging off the side of my bed.

Though I lay amidst wires, lines and tubings, which made for one very restless night, it was only IV lines, heart monitor leads and an oxygen sensor clipped to my index finger that held me captive to the bed. That, and my yet-to-be-diagnosed disease.

I was sent home on oral steroids to treat my pleural and pericardial effusions. That’s when I first met up with my buddy, Prednisone. We’ve had a rocky on and off relationship these past ten years. Mostly off, but I like to keep my buddy handy, or as I tend to think of him, my frenemy.

Our first dalliance lasted till the following February. By the time I got to see my new rheumatologist, I’d gone through the one week’s worth of treatment prescribed by the ER Doc. The first thing he did was to put me right back on the steroids. “We don’t want it happening again,” he said. No, we sure didn’t.

The next five years were a blur of pain, but at least I knew why.

Come 2009, something happened. I’d left my job several years before and my youngest child had flown away to college.  I began to feel better physically. The fog was lifting and I began to look around. And I thought wait a freaking minute. There’s gotta be more to this than pain and drugs. And so began my journey, into exercise, into foods, into love. Into me.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Grave

It was 2004 and calamity struck. In stages. It started the previous Christmas Eve. My doctor called me. Doctors don’t call you on Christmas Eve just to say hello. My daughter needed a biopsy, ASAP, he said. She was subsequently diagnosed with invasive thyroid cancer. Something we didn’t know until the second pathology report, and that necessitated two surgeries. Two weeks apart. The surgeon had tried to leave a smidgen of thyroid, so she wouldn’t be dependent on medication for the rest of her life. She was nineteen.

By April, we’d made it through radiation treatments, and then came May. I severed the tip of one finger trying to pry the stopper off the drainage hole of a large plastic planter, with a knife. My plants always bring me a sense of peace, working with them, or just communing with them. I felt the knife go through my finger as blood spurted. I grabbed a paper towel and jammed the finger end back on. It had already gone as white as the paper towel. The ER attending had been a plastic surgeon back in India. My finger survived intact, though for many years it was excruciatingly sensitive to touch. Nerves have a long memory.

Meanwhile, I was feeling weak, having generalized pain, along with localized pain to my joints. My stamina was decreasing rapidly, making me glad for my office job. I knew that my ICU days were a thing of the past; my body could no longer sustain the hectic pace. The rheumatologist treated me for arthritis, and though he did mention the possibility of RA, he did nothing to diagnose it or treat it. In July, while leaving his office after my final visit to him, my sister called. My father, who’d been in the hospital, had died.

I dreaded the three-hour trip back home. The necessity to change flights in Houston. The need to run from one terminal to another, carrying heavy luggage along with my heavy heart. I felt I was short-changing my father, thinking about myself instead of him. But, oh the pain! In my body, and in my soul.

Upon my return, I had my PCP refer me to another rheumatologist. “This man is going to kill me,” I said. The soonest I could get an appointment was for mid-October. I hoped to make it till then.

October 3rd found me lying on an ER bed, in a scene straight from TV. I watched it all from above. Or maybe I only imagined seeing it, as I had been on the other side of that bed countless times.

It turned out not to be anything as obvious as the hammer-fall of a heart attack. No, it was something more insidious. Something that slithers toward you, with its own intrinsic ebb and flow. Something that can be innocuous or deadly. The bane of RA sufferers. Fluid.

With the passage of time, fluid had been collecting not only in my joints, but also around my heart and lungs. Till one day, I could no longer stand for the few minutes it took to shower, nor could I speak well enough to make myself understood.

The new rheumatologist’s first words, after hearing my history, made my eyes fill with even more fluid. “Don’t worry,” he said, placing his hand on my arm, “We’re going to find out what it is.”

“IT” turned out to be RA, and though he started to attack it aggressively, I continued to worsen. It had been allowed to grab a stranglehold on me, and it didn’t seem to want to let go.

I resigned my management position of the busy telephone triage department; I couldn’t keep up with all its intricacies. I remained part-time, but that did not help matters. Being tied to a desk made my hips ache so. Holding the phone to my ear while typing on a computer keyboard made my wrists and elbows scream with pain by the time my six-hour evening shift ended.

At night, I longed for the pain to subside just enough to let me sleep a little. And fearing that death was on the horizon, I retired. I had to conserve my dwindling physical and mental energies for my youngest child. It would be two more years before she went away to college. She needed me, and I needed to give her my last days.

But then, a funny thing happened on the way to my grave.

I began to get better.

Joy Street

When I was a young girl my father gave me two books. When he brought home the first book and held it out to me, a gesture accompanied with his usual silence, I accepted it gratefully. Until that day, I had not known that my father appreciated my love of reading. Up until then, I was not aware that he saw me that clearly.

I do not remember if I spoke, if I thanked him, but the look on my face must have been thank you enough, because later on he brought me another one.

These books became treasures to me and I guarded them reverently. To me they held a meaning beyond their story. They were proof of what could be done with words; evidence of what intricate power could be woven between two simple cardboard covers.

There was no greater gift, besides his love, that he could have given me, because you see, these were not store-bought books. They were books salvaged from someone else’s trash can. My father’s job was to drive a garbage truck. And I imagine that before he was “promoted” to driver, he was one of the men who picked up the trash cans and dumped them into the back of the truck.

How he noticed that there were books amidst the trash from his perch inside the cab, I don’t know. But just as he’d noticed that his little girl loved to read, so he espied those books and brought them home to her. I read and reread these books countless times, though one was missing the last half of its last page. It would be many years before I knew the ending to that story.

And as they gradually fell apart in my hands, these books served as propellant for my own writing. I accumulated notebooks full of stories, stories that my English teachers praised and led them to encourage my endeavors. I dreamed of going away to college to study journalism. For hours at a time, I would disappear into my own little world dreaming up stories, and reading and writing.

My mother did not understand or accept this as there were four younger children she needed my help with. One day when I was fifteen, I came home from school to discover that everything had been thrown out. All my writings were gone, and worst of all, my books.

The loss left me devastated and I stopped writing, for decades. And what made my pain worse was the thought that my mother had probably coerced my father into helping her discard my things. The irony of him having to return those books to the trash heap made me laugh, as well as cry.

I took this assault on my psyche in stoic silence. I was my father’s daughter and I said nothing to no one. Since then, I’ve never been able to talk or write about this and few people know about it. I bore this event in my life as a mark of shame, though I don’t know why. And as a result, I have never gotten over it. It has hurt to this day.

A few months ago, I did manage to relate this story to my daughter-in-law, with my voice only breaking once or twice. I didn’t realize how intensely she’d listened until I opened my Christmas gift from her.  It is an exact replica of one of my missing books, the one that had the last page ripped off, Joy Street by Frances Parkinson Keyes.

The last page on this copy is intact, however, and now, so am I.

I want to wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and may joy street always find you.

I want to wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and may joy street always find you.

 

Dream Visit

My father came to me last night in a dream. He looked as he did at my age, robust and strong. I was as I am now, as he gently escorted me down a busy city street to a night class. Traffic boomed all around us, headlights ablaze, and he did not speak as we walked amidst many others. Before leaving me, he pointed out the building I should go into as if I didn’t already know, and then he held me in his arms and kissed me on the cheek, his stubble rough against my skin.

Though I don’t often dream about my father, I still feel him with me these many years after his death. He was a simple man who put family above all. He believed in paying his way and if he couldn’t pay, he would do without. And we did, do without. Yet, I never went hungry or lacked a roof over my head. And it was only long after I’d left home that I realized how poor we truly were.

The following story, I believe, depicts my father better than I can using just words. I wrote it March of this year.

Poverty’s Prism

My father walked into our home, bloodied.

“Hijo, que te pasó?” Mamá leapt to her feet.

“Papá, what happened to you?” I echoed. His khaki pants were drenched in blood and he held one hand within the other. Between the two was a blood-soaked rag.

We followed him as he trudged through the living room and into the dining room. Taking his usual seat at the head of the table, he sat hunched over his hands. With a long sigh he slowly separated them and as he let go, a stream of blood spurted out.

I grabbed his hand and instinctively applied pressure to his wound. My mother hovered about us, unsure what to do. My father sat mute as I pressed down and squeezed his hand in both of mine with all my might.

“Que pasó?” my mother whispered, her voice tremulous.

“Me caí,” my father said simply.

“How did you fall, Papá?” I looked down at him, my heart also bleeding. After work, he’d gone to visit his own father in the hospital.

“Antonio argued with me. When he walked away, I tried to follow him, but I slipped and fell.”

My father had many brothers. They all lived near us in that small south Texas town, but we hardly ever saw them. And whenever their father was ill, they made themselves scarcer.

My grandfather lived but a few blocks down the street from us, yet we never saw him. My father had married the woman of his own choosing and my grandfather did not approve. Therefore, the six children that resulted from this marriage were not recognized by him. In his eyes, my father was single and childless.

Oftentimes while sitting on our front porch, I would catch my grandfather passing by. He seemed to quicken his pace as he neared our home, marching tall and straight, his beige Stetson firmly on his head. His pale skin was ruddy from the sun and his flowing mustache and hair were as white as snow. I followed him with eyes that did not exist.

My father never spoke to us about him, but in our tiny house not much was secret. It was easy to overhear our parents’ conversations, if we’d a mind to. I usually felt nothing toward my grandfather, but now my anger flared knowing he was somehow at fault for my father’s injury.

“Where did you fall?” I released the pressure slightly and the red migrated onto the white handkerchief my mother had stuffed on top of the saturated rag.

“I fell against the glass door. It shattered.”

“Where?”

“At the Emergency Room.”

I was speechless for a moment.

“And they didn’t take care of you?”

“No, I left in a hurry before they could see I did it.”

“But, Papá, this hand needs to be seen. You need stitches. We need to go back there right now!”

“I can’t, Mijita.”

“But, why not?”

“Because they’ll make me pay for the glass.”

I was shocked into silence. I realized then that my father did not see this as an accident, as something that the hospital would attempt to rectify by rendering him care. He instead considered himself culpable. He’d broken the glass door and now he was responsible and we had no money.

I sensed his fear and his stubbornness. And though I tried to get him to seek care that night, I could not convince him. At the age of fourteen, my words did not carry much weight and he refused to return to the scene of the crime.

When his bleeding slowed, I cleaned and dressed his hand, taping it as tightly as I could. The next morning our family doctor would tend to him and the wound would eventually heal without further complication.

My grandfather lived to go home once more, until one day he returned to the same hospital for the last time. My father was there for his every need. Thankfully, his brothers were not.

A Vignette

“You have very pretty hands,” she says.

I am busy signing a stack of papers. We are finally doing the deed, filing last year’s taxes.

“I have Rheumatoid Arthritis hands,” I say, taken aback by this unexpected comment. “RA loves your hands.”

“They are pretty,” the tax lady continues. “Women pay for nails like that.”

“She’s always had pretty hands,” my husband pipes in, stopping me in mid “thank you”. Now I’m really stunned; compliments I hear, but never about my hands.

I become self-conscious as I maneuver my fingers to keep the sheaf of papers flipped to one side so I can sign and date the various documents. I’m just glad to finally get this chore done. I’m exhausted from having spent hours over the previous days adding up dollars and cents gleaned from the ton of medical and pharmacy receipts accumulated. Truthfully to no avail, or to very little avail.

I’d put this off all year, filing for an extension. An extension that was rejected, the tax lady now informs us, making the day chock-full of surprises. My pen still, I stare at her in concern, what exactly does that mean? No matter, she says with a shrug. I mimic her shrug and go back to my signing.

“Did you have a problem? Were you not able to file before?”

“No,” I tell her, “I was angry and didn’t want to do it.”

My husband laughs. “There you go,” he says to her.

I ignore him.

“I was angry about my identity being stolen,” I say. “I wanted to wait.”

“Yes,” she commiserates and goes on to tell us horror stories of how hackers are able to capture your private information. It’s a terrible thing to have your identity stolen and it’s left to you to prove who you are when you’ve done nothing wrong.

During the year-long process it took to resolve this, I couldn’t help but wonder, Who am I? And who in the world wants to be me?

But the one question that burned through my mind was this: If you went through the trouble of stealing my identity, why didn’t you also steal my RA? You can have that for free, whoever you are. No questions asked, ever. You can rest assured I will never try to get that back.

The prolonged process of filing over, I stick my copies in my briefcase and stand up.

“Thank you for everything,” I say, “now I’m going to go have a drink.”

She stands up as well. “Where are you going to go have a drink?”

“I’m taking her to this steak place,” my husband tells her, as I start walking toward the exit.

I feel her eyes follow me out, perhaps because it’s only noon.

(Written Oct 12, 2012)