08 – Home for Christmas

I slept late on the Friday before Christmas, still exhausted from my CamPath experience the day before.  The holiday period had officially begun for me.  I was to be given a reprieve from treatment, having Monday, Christmas Eve off, and continuing on Wednesday the 26th.  Given what I know now about my treatment days and the recovery day following, this was quite possibly the best Christmas present of all.  The possibility of needing to start on Ganciclovir would hang over me the rest of the day.
I have had a recurring anxiety about this Christmas.  And that is simply that it just might be my last one.  I am afraid that I will be too conscious of that fact.  I am afraid that I will become tearful as others are trying to celebrate.  I am afraid of missing other Christmas’.  I am afraid of not enjoying this Christmas enough.
Tish and I talked about this a little in the hospital.  I always engineer a huge feast for Christmas Eve.  I generally start in the morning around 8:00, preparing food throughout the day, timing everything, all dozen or so dishes to be ready by 6:30 PM.  No one is allowed in the kitchen unless they are washing the numerous dirty dishes and bowls that I produce, or else helping to bring the food hot to the table in one coordinated sweep.  For each dish I plan the preparation time, the cooking or baking time, the order in which things are finished off and at what temperature, the cooking utensils, the serving dish that each dish will occupy.  The menu always includes homemade yeast bread, a decorated quiche, homemade cranberry relish, wassail, ham, soup, and a variety of potato and vegetable dishes.  Some recipes are constant favorites, others change from year to year, the more successful dishes repeated and those less so discarded.  A group of fifteen to eighteen family and friends gather to partake of this goodness.
Obviously this year I am not quite up to this epicurean marathon.  Tish suggest that we forego the event.  That will not do for me, especially as I continue to wonder if it will be my last.  I agree to scale down, to let my sister and mother to bring dishes, and to let my boys help prepare a smaller and simpler version of the feast under my supervision.
Friday is long and lazy.  Around 3:00 I call the infectious disease office to ask the results of my CMV di-gene test.  I remind them that Dr. Streit wanted to be paged.  I am put on hold while they search the results and page the doctor.  She finally comes back on the line and reports that the results are negative.  I was expecting a numerical value so I repeat back to her what she said – negative?
This truly seems like the only good news that I have heard in the past three weeks.  I am elated, uncharacteristically so. While I am on the phone, Tish calls and I tell her the news. The only good news of this whole dark episode.  I shed tears.  The weight I have carried around is just a tad lighter.
That light of optimism carries through Saturday.  Nathan is at home.  I go through my Christmas recipes.  I traditionally make German springele cookies, an anise-lemon formed cookie.  It is a three-day affair.  First the dough is made, beating eggs and sugar together with an electric mixer for fifteen full minutes.  Into the refrigerator overnight.  The next day dividing the dough, rolling out flat and then with a special rolling pin with carved, decorative squares.  The formed cookies sit out overnight on oiled, anise-sprinkled sheets for baking on the third day.
I had forced myself to make the dough last weekend, but was unable to muster the strength to finish them before I went into the hospital.  My youngest son, Aaron, who has been my cookie apprentice these past few years, took it upon himself to roll out and bake the springeles while I was in hospital.  They are perfect.  The tradition is not only complete and intact, but it has been passed along to the next generation as well..
I discard the more complicated recipes, search through the recipe books for simpler replacements, and telephone my mother and sister to negotiate what dishes they will bring.  Next is to make up a shopping list of all necessary ingredients.  Tish will do the majority of the grocery shopping.  But I decide that I must complete another tradition.  Taking my “turkey certificate” to a second supermarket to purchase the perfect boneless ham.  These coupons are an annual gift from my hospital.  I have Nathan drive me.  We drive through snow flurries on the way home.
Sunday I declare that I need to go shopping.  I have not bought a Christmas present for Tish.  I am met with protests.  But I declare that if a man cannot go out and buy his wife a Christmas present, that is sad indeed.  I have calculated that if I park close and walk slowly and know what I want to buy, I will be okay.  This might have worked if I were an in & out kind of shopper.  Unfortunately I am the other kind – a comparison shopper.
The excursion is complicated by a low tire on my truck, causing me to stop at the neighborhood station and squat down to fill the tire with air.  I stop first at Wal-Mart, then on to Kohl’s, Service Merchandise, and Penny’s, with a small side trip to a woodworking supply store.  By now I have decided on the two gifts.  But this means a return trip to Service and Kohl’s.  Standing in line at each store, I become “wobbly kneed”, short of breath, and find it difficult even to talk.  The symptoms abate as I drive home.  I am quite exhausted for the rest of the day.  But I did what I had set out to do, and that was extremely important to me.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are gifts in many ways.  My energy level seems to be up, physically and emotionally.  I review the dinner plans.  I work back from serving time at 6:30 in order to determine what items are cooked or baked at what times and what temperatures. I have strict rules that everything gets served at once, hot food hot, cold food cold, and everyone seated at the two formally decorated tables before food comes out of the kitchen.  Tish and the boys set up the tables and set out the special Christmas dinnerware that I bought Tish for Christmas ten years ago. Wassail will be set out hot in a serving bowl, decorated with clove-studded oranges, and the candles lit just before people arrive from Christmas mass.
I prepare the ham and put it in the oven.  Then I cut onions, green peppers, and mushrooms for the most popular recipe of all, Mushrooms Berkeley.  Nathan and I had agreed that he would make a garlic-rosemary foccacia bread.  While he is out shopping, I look over the recipe and discover that the dough should have been started two hours ago.  So I whip up the dough and set it in a warm place to proof.  By now I am fatigued.  I set a chair in the kitchen and direct Tish and Nathan in the preparation of other dishes.  A special Christmas program plays on the public radio station.  I spend more and more time on the chair until 6:00 when Nathan inexplicably decides to take a shower.
This last thirty minutes is the rush period.  Guests start to arrive but are expelled from the kitchen unless they have a specific task assigned.  These tasks generally go to Tish and to my sister, Barbarann.  They consist of setting drinking water and cold dishes out, transferring hot dishes to the serving dishes at the last moment while I slice the ham.  The late starting foccacia does not come out of the oven until the dinner is being served.  Everything turns out exquisitely.  I even have enough appetite to try a little of everything.  We hold hands and pray.
At dinner’s end I retire for the evening to my chair in the living room.  I am tired but not exhausted.  Aaron and Nathan have filled, set out, and lit the luminaria to line the sidewalk.  We do forego another tradition though, the building and lighting of a large Yule fire.  Next is the tradition of exchanging gifts between my sister and her husband, my sister-in-law’s family, and my family.  By the time everything is over I am quite tired and ready for bed.  Tish and my mother arrange presents and stuff stockings while the “boys” set up their sleeping bags Aaron’s bedroom while my mother gets the bed – another tradition.
My Christmas Eve dinner, scaled down as it was, has always been my own special gift to my friends and family.  One of my favorite movies is called Babette’s Feast.  It is a film based on a short story by Isak Dinesen (Out of Africa) about a refugee from France’s civil war, a renowned female chef who has moved to a small austere religious community on the desolate coast of Denmark.  She later wins 70,000 francs in a lottery.  She spends the entire amount to prepare an elaborate feast for the people that have taken her in.  Her past is a secret.  The meal is like magic.  It brings forgotten light into the self-imposed darkness of these people’s lives.  My own feast has been a success once more, despite my infirmity.  And basking in that success, my darker anxieties have been overshadowed by warmer feelings of family and holiday.
Christmas Day – The weatherman’s prediction, or prognosis, for a white Christmas had been a slim chance to none. Yet on that morning when I “flung open the shutters and threw up the sash”, I beheld a “blanket of new fallen snow.”  It occurred to me that since the weatherman’s prognosis had proved faulty, so might my own.  I think that in that moment, looking out my bedroom window to the snow-covered street below, I felt for the first time a faint glimmer of hope.
A few weeks ago I had altered my Christmas list, asking for food items, bought or homemade, used items, anything handmade.  I asked for things scaled to my new life priorities.  I asked for more things from the heart and not the pocketbook.
Other Christmas traditions were preserved.  The “kids” (26, 23, and 16 years old) crowded into our room to wake us by climbing on the bed.  I went downstairs first, this year accompanied by Tish, to light the tree and the mantle decorations, set the tea kettle and coffee pot on, and ready the camera.  The Christmas morning fire did not take place this year.  It seemed too big a task to me. We opened our stockings, poured our coffee and tea, selected Christmas cookies, and settled into our long-assigned places about the living room.  It was my Grandmother’s second Christmas with us.  Missing only was my mother’s dog, Beezer, kept away due to my immune deficiency.
Ben got me the relaxing water fountain I had asked for.  Nathan made me shortbread and stuffed them into two antique Chinese tins.  Aaron bought me a portable CD player that I thought would be invaluable for any future hospitalizations.  My best present was from Tish – a German-brand Leica point & shoot 35mm camera.  I had put it on my list as a joke as it costs $400, more than we usually spend on each other.  I had wanted one for several years but could not justify spending that much.  I scoured camera shops in Europe and the Middle East, hoping for an impossibly favorable exchange rate.  I wanted a simple but quality camera for my travels, something that I could keep in my pocket.  The Leica is the only small camera featuring glass lens elements.
Actually on the day of my diagnosis, on the way back home, I pessimistically suggested to Tish that she not buy me anything expensive for Christmas.  But having gotten the camera, I decided that it was ideal for recording this new journey of mine.  It was a way to record my treatments, my caregivers at the clinic and in hospital, my treatment companions, the visits of friends, return visits to my own hospital.
We finished opening our presents.  Then we had our traditional brunch –eggs, coffee cake, cinnamon rolls, orange juice, and the only time to the year we buy bacon, and it is turkey bacon at that.  This year I was relieved of both cooking and clean up duties.  I dozed off in my chair while the family prepared the brunch.
In the afternoon I watched the movie Shrek which Aaron had received as a present.  In the evening I went with the family for traditional Christmas dinner at Tish’s sister’s house.  I drove my truck myself in case I wanted to leave early.  But I made it through the evening of festivities, contributing to that increasingly elusive sense of normalcy.
I drove home in my own truck in the icy darkness on snow-slick streets.  I had made it through the holidays. I had had two near perfect days.  I managed to stay in the present, to be in the moment.  And I had kept my dark thoughts at bay.  Besides maybe there would be more Christmas’.  This day had started with a miracle of snow. Our Christmas traditions, which have defined as much as anything else our enduring sense of family, were preserved intact.
These two days gave me strength and a sense of groundedness.  These days helped to prepare me for the next ordeal.  Tomorrow I would go to the treatment clinic for the first time to resume my CamPath treatments.  My appointment was at 8:00 in the morning.  What would it be like?  How would my new nurses be?  Would I see my doctor?  Would I react with fever, chills, and rigors?  Would I shake right out of those treatment chairs?
But driving home and then preparing for bed, I did not think of these things.  There was no need.  Tomorrow would come soon enough.  Today was still Christmas.

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