Sunday, January 20, 2013


A note: I've decided to try the new blogging platform Storylane. The story that follows can also be found there. Click HERE to reach it.

My family, 1963

    This is a story about beginnings, which is why it is set in the past.

    The summer of 2002 was not unfolding well: my country was at war, its leaders beating the drums to start a second one by telling bigger and bigger lies; from my home in New Jersey, the wounds of 9/11 still felt raw - there was candle wax piled deep on a pier in Hoboken, where memorial flames had burned for months -  and the skyline across the river held a gaping hole; I’d learned my father was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; my hobby - caring for an heirloom vegetable farm -had expanded into a gigantic obligation; I’d lost the muse for my creative love of decades, photography.

    Every morning, however, I reached out in what seemed a positive gesture: sitting at the laptop to write. The younger me had wanted to be a writer. When a camera had been thrust into my teenaged hands I put words aside. But now the earlier infatuation was back.

    My project was a novel. I’d been writing and re-drafting it for more than two years. I had no idea how good it was - or even if it was good at all - but its first chapter had got me accepted to a Big Deal writer’s conference, and I hoped to give enough polish to the work so that my workshop leader - a Very Big Name - would thrust me onto the literary stage.

    There was quite a bit to be got through before that moment, however - pages and pages of words. To say nothing of the rows and rows of tomato plants, Asian melons, Indian beans, fingerling potatoes and flowering sunchokes needing weeding, fertilizing and insecticide-ing. Or my father’s maddening obsessions. Or the deepening strain in my mother’s voice.

    Sometime in June I got a call. Dad’s doctor had convinced him to get a hernia repaired (or perhaps it was the other way around). Mom had decided to compress their medical needs, and scheduled herself for pain-reduction spinal nerve blocks. Could I come to Ohio and care for them? Just one week. Her procedure was scheduled for Monday, Dad’s for Thursday. Fine I agreed, though my inner self seethed with resentment. They wouldn’t need to interrupt my life if they’d agree to bring help into the house. They surely could afford it. But Dad was too paranoid, and Mom too proud.

    It was on that trip to Ohio I confessed to my wife that things had gone wonky in my guts. I’d been suffering with diarrhea since late May. Recently, every time I ate, my abdomen was wrenched with pain. Plus I was losing weight. Yes I was going to see my doctor - just as soon as this Summer Of Obligations was over.

    In my parents’ home, everything that could go wrong was going wrong. Dad was hallucinating crowds of visitors in the living room and Mom’s skeletal pain was so severe she could no longer stand at the stove and prepare an entire meal. The thing they should be doing - trying to find a facility to move too - was The Great Ignored.

    Mom’s procedure went smoothly, although she was incapacitated for two days afterward. My wife and I performed kitchen duties, kept Dad within sight, and helped Mom in and out of the loo. It was thunderstorm season in Ohio and the lightning was ferocious. Between storms, Dad’s nocturnal wandering, and Mom’s occasional calls for help, Leslie and I slept little. My stomach worsened.

    Then it was Dad’s turn. Whoever thought that surgery on a 90-year-old man in deep dementia was a good idea? We got Dad in and out of the hospital OK - no overnight stay being required - but he couldn’t understand the post-operative pain, and was determined to get up and walk around even though potent analgesics made his gait a wobbling shamble. Worse - though we didn’t know it at the time - his surgeon had insisted he drink eight glasses of water daily. Constipation is a real concern following abdominal surgery, and all that water would help prevent it. Or at least that’s what the surgeon said.

    My job was to assure that every one of Dad’s movements ended in a safe return to bed. Since he mostly slept during the day, that meant getting up in the night to shepherd him in and out of the bathroom. I also had to keep him from going down the stairs to the basement or out to the garden.

    It was an exhausting occupation. I resented and objected to it, but kept a nice face because I knew Mom was not yet recovered. Besides, her procedure had not been successful. She was in pain, and an open display of anger wouldn’t do anything for her. To ameliorate my feelings I cleaned house. This served two functions: to organize possessions for the inevitable - even Mom could see they’d have to move soon - and to find objects from my childhood.

Me, 6th grade.

     Chief among those mementos were photographs. There were dozens of albums, some dating to the 1920’s. I found photos of Dad as a young farmer. There was Mom, shooting archery. There was I, draped in a gigantic bib, face smeared with chocolate.

    It was remarkable how many pictures of me included food. Not just me eating, but me whirling an egg beater, rolling pie dough, cutting cookies. I didn’t remember doing those things, but I did recall being a teenager and baking pizza, sometimes for the whole neighborhood.

    More remarkable than the pictures was how they made me feel: damned good. Despite the fact that in present time everything I ate seemed to hurt, and life was a continual round of toilet visits and me curling into a pained ball on the bedroom floor, I loved food. Or at least I loved making food. More than anything, the little voice inside me whispered. More than photography. More than writing.

My mother - sometime in the 1930's

    I set aside some of the photos for residency in my house when the time came. Meanwhile, Dad and Mom were on the path to recovery, or so it seemed. My sister and her daughter arrived to take over, and Leslie and I left for New Jersey.

    We’d got halfway across Pennsylvania when my cell rang. It was my niece, Brianna: “Pop-pop’s gone crazy!” she howled. “He just turned his plate upside down and is throwing food!”

    I could hear clatter in the background. My heart skipped a beat. Leslie interrupted on speaker: “You know what to do?” she prompted.

    “Call 911?”
    “That’s right. You’re a very smart girl. Do that, and stay out of the way.”

    We clicked the call off. A long moment passed. “I can’t go back,” I finally said.

    “Of course not,” Leslie said. “It’s fine. They can handle it. We have to get home.”

    Indeed we did and indeed they could.

    As it turned out, Dad was suffering from hyponatremia - a dangerous lowering of sodium in the blood. He’d gotten that way from over-hydration (recall those eight glasses of water per day?) 24 hours on IV electrolytes fixed him.

    Madness, I discovered, is but one symptom of hyponatremia. Wobbly gait, irregular heartbeat, poor respiration, paleness and sweating are others. Untreated - or mistaken for dehydration and treated with more water - hyponatremia is fatal.

    Hyponatremia is now recognized as a leading cause of fatalities in marathons. In fact, no marathon fatality has ever been caused by dehydration. Actually, most of the “dangers” assigned to dehydration are now recognized as mythic, and the “benefits” of “good hydration” - bowel regularity, mental clarity, joint smoothness - are now understood to be non-existent.

    It’s too bad that Dad’s doctor hadn’t kept up on hydration research. Some of the facts were circulating in the medical community even then. It was equally too bad that fixing his hyponatremia didn’t cure his Alzheimer’s. But then, nothing does.

    It was also too bad I wasn’t listening to the facts swirling around me. Leslie had been diagnosed with celiac disease when she was 12, and thought that a lot of what I was suffering sounded familiar. But I was sure it was cancer. My one prayer had become: let me publish this novel before I die.

    Fast Forward to October. It’s a cold morning and I’m sitting in the produce stand beside that heirloom vegetable farm, shivering in a down jacket. I’ve lost 15 pounds since June, and despite several diagnostic procedures, have no idea what’s wrong with me, other than it is not cancer.

    The summer that began poorly unfolded worse. A good friend of Leslie’s died. She and I got stuck on opposite sides of the Hudson River during the August blackout. And that Big Wheel writer’s conference was a Big Scam. The superstars spent their time sniffing other superstars and gave us underlings short shrift. My workshop was worthless. Plus I’d been so sick I’d had to skip a third of my classes.

    Luckily I had something to hold onto. On a return trip to Ohio I’d collected some of those family photographs. They were scattered on my desk, and they made me smile. I’d been The Boy Who Baked, and was proud of it. I’d always loved to cook, here was proof. At least if I died soon, as I was certain I would, I had fed my wife well.

    I picked up a book a colleague had loaned me. “Irritable Bowel Syndrome” was the title. I’d been trying to follow the authors’ dietary recommendations. Not that they were doing any good - quite the opposite. And then my eye fell on a chapter heading. One I’d seen a dozen times but ignored. Two words I’d heard hundreds of times but also ignored. Celiac Disease. I flipped to the page.

    There were my symptoms, each and every one. Holy Crap! Maybe I wasn’t going to die after all. If a blood test confirmed it, I had C.D. No problem, not for a man who loves to cook. What, I wondered, could I cook and eat right now?

    Everyone I’ve ever met who has Celiac Disease remembers their first gluten-free meal. For me, it was a thick burger grilled over charcoal, a half-dozen slices of German Green and Cherokee Red tomatoes, a dollop of cottage cheese with fresh basil. Salt and mustard and pepper and no bread. And Oh My God nothing happened. No pain. No rush to the throne. Nothing.

    As I washed the dishes and tidied the kitchen I sensed that major changes lay ahead. I would close the produce stand in two weeks, I would contact my doctor and ask for the necessary blood test, I’d start a gluten-free diet. Maybe I’d recover the strength to re-draft the novel.

    There was no way of knowing what really lay ahead: my parents’ removal to assisted living, a bewildering array of negative writing experiences, my learning that gluten-free breads were terrible, my sense that I could do better, the years of research, my abandonment of a teaching career, the opening of my gluten-free dry blend business. I could see, however, that a talisman guided me. Sitting on my desk, the beacon from the past. Pictures. Of me. Making food. It was a destiny I hadn’t known I had. But was ecstatic to embrace.

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