Monday, July 23, 2012

Moving On

After passing my stress test I was absolutely thrilled.  I finally had the answer to the question that had been hanging over my head for my adult life:  I did not have coronary artery disease! After that sank in I was looking forward to going back to my doctor for my stress test follow up. 

When I got there we went over my stress test results and I not only passed but passed with flying colors.  My heart was as healthy as a 45 year old heart should be. They even gave me a copy of the results which I read later (not that I knew more than 10% of what I was reading but I was certain that it was all just riveting for some medical tech.)

So I was healthy.  The doctor said so.  That lasted for about 45 seconds.

Then the nurse came in with the results of my lab work.  I had blood in my fecal occult blood test (blood in my stool) and my PSA (prostate test) level was elevated and my prostate was enlarged.  I was going to have to go for more tests.....a colonsocopy and a prostate biopsy.  They were testing for cancer.  Suddenly my miraculous stress test seemed much less important.

I sat on the paper covered plastic table and wanted to cry.  I didn't.  I don't think the nurse would have gotten why I was crying.  She was pleasant enough but she didn't seem particularly invested in my emotional well being.

I left the doctor's office and drove back to work.  I had gone to the appointment alone and now felt very alone.  I got back to work and told Brennis the news.  We both realized that there was probably nothing to be worried about but because I was having symptoms and because they were testing me for not one but two cancers we were more than a little concerned.

It was December, just before Christmas.  I wouldn't be able to get in for the tests until after the New Year so I just decided I wasn't going to let it ruin my holiday. There was nothing I could do about it anyway and worrying wasn't going to make anything any better so I just tried to put it out of my mind.

Brennis and I always had wonderful arrangements with our families around the holidays.  Christmas was no exception.  We always spent Christmas Eve with my family and Christmas Day with his family.  Both days were so much fun at both places and I always loved being able to spend time with everyone.  This year my parents were in the process of selling our family home.....the house I grew up we knew that this would be our last Christmas there. Strangely enough I wasn't feeling at all emotional about it.  Now, I get emotional when someone walking down the sidewalk gets the "Don't Walk" sign so I wasn't sure why this monumental life event wasn't registering on my emotional radar.

The more I thought about it I realized that during Brennis' hospitalization I became much less attached to things.  The second we stepped into the emergency room that day I stopped caring about my house, my car, my business.  All of my attention was on doing anything in my power to get Brennis better.  All of my earthly attachments disappeared.  Now, six months later, I think I was still feeling some of that energy.  I still had my family and I was still able to spend time with them while I knew that many of my friends were not.  The place where we celebrated our holidays together was not as important as the fact that we were all still able to celebrate them together. The house was just a house.  Sure it was a wonderful home and we all have some wonderful memories of growing up there and many milestones achieved while we were there but it was not the was merely the stage.  I still had my memories and thankfully I still had my family. Soon, hopefully another family will be able to live there and create new memories of their own.

I looked around the house that Christmas Eve trying to conjure up some kind of false nostalgia and was unable.  I realized that every moment I tried to feel badly about not being in the house again was taking me away from time with the very real people who I loved so much.  I was trying to create an emptiness in the midst of fullness.  With my own medical issues hanging over my head I knew how fleeting our time together can be.  I felt fine but I knew it could be our last Christmas together as a family.  Any one of us might not be here next year.  Brennis' heart attack taught me that. I decided to experience what was  happening rather than wonder about how I was supposed to feel about something that was going to happen.  It felt a lot like living.

Christmas with my family is always magical.  Sure there are stresses and sometimes we have conflicts like every family has but there is something so beautiful about the tradition and the love and the thoughtfulness that I am able to experience when we are together at Christmas.  As we've all gotten older some traditions have faded away and others have taken their place.  We adapt and we adjust but the undercurrent of the love that we all feel for each other brings a sense of continuity that is joyful and profound for me. 

I knew that being in a new place next year would just be another one of those adjustments.  Being in the old house this year just made it more special to me and it was a reminder to always, always appreciate the amazing, beautiful things that happen in your life.  We don't get them as often as we would like and they are fleeting when we do get them.  Hold on to them before they vanish.  Pay attention to them and allow them to linger if you are able. Close your eyes and let them fill you.  These are the moments we live for.

It was the last Christmas in my family home.  It might be my last Christmas before I knew I had cancer.  It might be my last Christmas with my family.  Wondering about what was to come for me was useless.  Worrying was even more futile.  In two months I would know the answers to my questions and I would deal with those answers and move on.  It's what we do.  Allowing the past to keep us from moving forward to our future is just as foolish as allowing our futures to keep us from living in the present.  I had no idea what I would find out  At that moment it wasn't up to I just lived. 

It turned out it was one of the best Christmas Eves of my life.  I didn't have to be sad that this was our last Christmas in this house.  I didn't have to be anxious that I might be ill.  I just had to be there and because I was there I remember it so vividly and I am now able to re-live that Christmas Eve over and over again.  That, it turns out, was my favorite gift last year.  Whatever might happen next was for another year.....and I wasn't there yet. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Right Size

I'll be honest.  I don't know exactly when I became this person.  I used to eat Chef Boyardee Spaghetti right out of the can and now I am buying organic whole wheat flour and agave nectar.  The transition, in fact, happened so gradually that I hardly even noticed it.  It was, however, a huge transition....a transition I am glad I made but one that evolved over time based on many factors. 

I have been on some kind of a "diet" almost all of my life (except for the frequent, random binges of things like Chef Boyardee Spaghetti  right out of the can).  While I haven't always been overweight I have always struggled with my weight and my eating habits. Being a compulsive over eater I am constantly battling the part of me that wants to binge on food until I am literally sick.  Compulsive over eating is difficult to understand.  While there is the euphoria and satisfaction initially during binge eating there is always..always a feeling of sickness afterward both mental and physical.  There is, of course, the stomach ache and a whole host of other unpleasant physical symptoms (think post Thanksgiving dinner times ten) but there is also always the self hatred and disappointment that accompanies those physical pains.  "You're a failure".  "Well, you did it again!"  "You'll never be thin."  It certainly doesn't follow the Pavlovian pattern of  doing things because they cause us pleasure but it happened regularly nonetheless.

I don't need to get into why this is an issue for me.  To be honest I don't really care.  It might be psychological or it might be physical....whatever the causation it is real and I have it.  That's really all I need to know.  I have it and I don't want it.  So how do I go about stopping it?

For me it was about controlling what I eat and when I eat.  It was about limiting or eliminating foods that I found triggered my binge eating (sugar and salt for me) and eating smaller, more frequent meals so I never felt that I was depriving myself.  It was also about being more active. When you're sitting on the couch watching TV it's easy to get up and grab a bag of  chips to snack on.  It's not so easy to do that when you're out taking a walk or working on your favorite hobby.  Part of my problem is that one of my favorite things to do is cook and bake.  Running my own business I rarely get to experience the joy of a task that has a beginning and end.  Everything about running a business is about the process.  In cooking and baking there is a beginning and an end....and the end is also rewarding which is another reason why I love it. 

The problematic side-effect of having cooking and baking as your hobby is all of the tempting food that is there when you are done.  My old philosophy on cooking was: "If it doesn't taste good enough add butter or top it with sour cream".  Not surprisingly, that worked.  It also, probably played a part in causing Brennis' choked arteries.  I didn't really feel that I would ever again be comfortable baking and cooking for our household.  I felt like I had been negligent with our health because I was trying to please everyone by making delicious but unhealthy food. Sometimes I joked that my cooking almost killed Brennis.  Sometimes I didn't think it was a joke.  Most of the time I didn't think it was funny.

Turning my hobby into something positive was part of the battle.  Making great tasting healthy food isn't difficult really.  It just required me to un-learn many of the things I thought I knew about food.  Of course adding butter (or salt or sugar) and topping it with sour cream (or whipped cream or cheese) makes food taste better....these are great tasting things and believe it or not I still eat them occasionally.  Making things taste great without these things (and a whole host of other ingredients) has been a challenge I have enjoyed taking on and has made my "hobby" of cooking much more fun. Now it is about the challenge and about the physical activity of cooking and baking...not just about slapping icing on something.  I love to cook now because it's exciting and keeps me busy and away from the cheap, unhealthy snacks.  It exercises my mind and my body.

It takes energy to cook delicious, healthy foods and that's a good thing.  I understand that we are all living busy over scheduled lives and that a lot of us have kids or other people that we take care of and it's just too difficult sometimes to think about chopping vegetables or dragging out the food processor.  It happens....sometimes life gets away from us.  Take a look at your life.  When do you overeat?  What are your triggers?  Do you have a block of time during the week when you can cook ahead and have healthy food already prepared?  Are the people around you supportive of you?  You have to start from a place of strength and having an understanding of your issues to give you that strength.

Understanding where you are at this moment....what has caused you to be overweight (or to struggle with your weight) in the first the best starting point.  Really analyzing your relationship with food and your relationship with exercise is the first step.  You don't have to go through years of analysis to figure it out.  You already know the answer.  Make the sacrifices you are willing to make.  Change the things about your life that don't give you pleasure.  Be kind to yourself and be honest with yourself.  Until you are able to do these things, honestly, you will not be able to lose weight and keep it off. 

There is no "one size fits all" approach to losing weight.  Every person is going to do it differently but everyone needs to start by trying to determine what is right for them and it's likely that the process of figuring that out is going to evolve over time (I am still tweaking my diet every time I find something that isn't working for me).  This is not a task, it's a journey...a journey that likely will last the rest of your life.  It doesn't end when you  lose the weight but it does get better as you begin to really understand and appreciate your relationship with food.  No matter how you got to where you are now the road forward is not and should not be one that is unfamiliar.  You don't have to make big changes overnight. Let go of the unhealthy things slowly and that will allow you to bring more healthy things into your life. Learn from your past mistakes but don't let them derail your progress.  You can choose to go back at any time but it won't get you to your destination.  Just because you pause on your path doesn't mean the road is closed.

Losing weight is hard for a lot of people. It's never impossible.  Losing weight and keeping it off is even harder...but it is worth it. 

I'm not sure exactly when I became this person but I'm glad I did.  I wouldn't change me for all of the canned spaghetti in the world.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Other Shoe

Summer was over.  We had begun to settle into a nice calm autumn.  It was a quiet time at work as we began to think about gearing up for the holiday season and Brennis was getting outstanding reports from all of  his doctors and surgeons.  We were happy.  I, however, had a secret that was keeping me up at night.

About two years before Brennis' heart attack I had started having chest pains.  They weren't the  crushing chest pains that people describe when they are having a heart attack but they were burning, tightening sensations in my chest that almost always radiated down my left arm and up into my jaw.  Before Brennis' incident I had always thought that heart attacks are either very dramatic or fatal.  I didn't know they could be subtle like Brennis'.  He never even had chest pain, after all.  His heart attack manifested itself as a pain in his back. I had these pains fairly regularly at least once every other week.  Every time it happened I waited for them to get worse but they never reached a point where I thought I should go to the hospital.

I know now that I should have gone to the hospital after the very first pain.  Heart attacks can take many forms and have any number of specific or non-specific symptoms.  I know that now.  I didn't know that then and I didn't have insurance so I waited it out.  I didn't die so I thought I was okay.  That's not a particularly good plan but thankfully it worked for me for a while.

The pains continued throughout Brennis' time in the hospital and through his recovery.  He was aware of them but we both quietly tried to ignore them as much as we could because we were afraid of what might happen if we went to the hospital.  Neither one of us was prepared to go through this all over again.   This is what denial feels like.

In October I began to have other symptoms.  I was getting up to go the the bathroom five to six times a night and was going to the bathroom up to twenty times a day.  I was in my mid forties and I knew that this is the time men start having problems with their health and between the chest pains and the frequent trips to the bathroom I knew that it was my turn to grow up and go to the doctor. 

I made an appointment and three weeks later I went to the doctor.  I was assuming that it would be enlarged prostate, bladder infection, heartburn....something I could take care of....something temporary and treatable.  Within about ten minutes I knew I was wrong.

The doctor was concerned about my chest pains and my blood pressure was high.  Because of my symptoms and my family history the doctor prescribed a stress test for me.  I was numb.  I was afraid.  I would be going back to the hospital  that Brennis just left.  I was certain that they were going to find something wrong.  I wasn't sure how I had managed to avoid any serious health problems up until that point but I knew now that it was my day of reckoning. 

The doctor also made an appointment for me at a urologist since my prostate was slightly enlarged and that might have been causing my frequent trips to the bathroom.  I was falling apart, obviously. 

The first test was the stress test.  It was scheduled for early the following week.  I think I must have spent those few days in a fog.  There were many possibilities.  I could have a successful test and go home, they might send me home and find something wrong as they read the test results in the following days or I might have some indication during the test that something might be wrong.  I was so afraid and so certain that there was going to be something wrong....not because I like to worry (although I do) but because of my symptoms, my family history and my previously less than stellar diet, exercise and smoking habits. 

Quietly I got my life in order.  I hated that Brennis was going to have to be the one to go with me for this test after everything he had gone through a few months before.  I wish it didn't have to happen but I was thankful that I was going to find out what was wrong with me before something more serious happened.  In the days before the test I made sure I was caught up on all of the bills, the laundry and even made extra dinners for Brennis in case I wasn't able to be there for some reason.  I even made a  list of all of our accounts and passwords and put it in my wallet in case the worst happened so Brennis could take care of things after I was gone.

This was all very dramatic, I know....but I had just been through Brennis' open heart surgery so I was fairly well primed for drama.  I also, honestly, wanted to be prepared.  The surprise of Brennis' heart attack has never left me.  I am constantly on guard for what might happen next.  I don't let it rule my life but I am always ready in case I need to be.

The day of the test came and I passed the test successfully.  In the days following I waited for a call from the hospital telling me that something was wrong.  They never called.  I finally called my doctor's office for the results and they told me everything was normal.  I was shocked.  I can't even say I was necessarily relieved since I had never even entertained the possibility that nothing would be wrong.  After that news sank in I realized that I was being given another chance.  I had abused my body in many ways throughout the years and yet whatever I had done had not yet damaged my body enough to require repairs. 

I think in many ways I had given up on myself. I had always had horrible eating habits and I began smoking when I was 18.  I think I assumed that I was heading down the same road as my grandfather and father and was just destined to have heart disease at an early age.  I never thought I would live to a ripe old age.  That was not even a consideration of mine.  I spent most of my forties wondering when I would have a heart attack.....not if I was going to have a heart attack.

Now I know that that is no way to live your life.  It was foolish and that kind of thinking caused me to waste a lot of time and to make a lot of bad decisions about my health and those decisions affected everything about my life.  When I realized that I was alright everything about my life and the way I thought about my life changed.  This was probably, in the long run, an even more important event for me than the shock of Brennis' heart attack.  Everything I had assumed about my life was wrong.  Now to go about the business of changing it all...making amends and moving forward.

Your life is exactly what you think it is....but it doesn't have to be.  All it takes is changing your perspective.  Thinking that my life was going to be short made me live my life a certain way.  Now that I know that it will likely be longer than I thought I live in a different way.  Nothing really changed about me but my perception of my life. 

The same is true of every aspect of your life.  The way you think about something is the way it is for you.  The way you think about your spouse is they way they are.  The way you think about your job is the way it is.  If you can simply change the way you think about these things they can become different things for you.  You are never trapped by anything or anyone except yourself.  There is nothing stopping you right now from getting up out of your seat, walking out the door and away from the life you are currently living.  Is there?  Why do you stay? 

There are reasons you are in the life you are living.  Find the power within yourself to make it the life you imagine it can be.  If you want it to be tomorrow can be different....and nothing has to change but you.   

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Corn Tortillas

Once upon a time one of my biggest weaknesses was chips.  Potato chips, tortilla chips and my favorite....Doritos.  I was intimate with the chip.

As we all know, the problem with most chips is the fat added when we fry them in oil.  As usual I have tried to replace the chip with something healthy that I can make myself so I know what is in them.  Turns out I didn't have to look very far.

Corn tortillas have two ingredients.  Masa Harina (corn flour) and Water.  I like to add a third ingredient, baking soda, to give them a bit of a lift but that is optional.  Masa Harina can be found in most large grocery stores in the mexican food section.  The really tricky part for making homemade tortillas is finding a tortilla press.  I looked in about a dozen stores (including larg kitchen and bath chain stores) and was disappointed.  Finally a friend of mine bought me one in Cleveland at Sur La Table.  You can easily get one online and save your gas money.  If you pay more than $20.00 you've paid too much.  Mine is a perfectly wonderful cast iron press that will literally last forever and it only cost $19.95.

Without a tortilla press you can roll out the tortilla dough between two sheets of wax paper but the tortilla press makes this effortless.  I cut a large zipper plastic bag in half and press my tortillas in between the sheets of plastic in the press and they never stick.

Click HERE for the recipe....I just one with a layer of Slow Cooker Refried Beans topped with Black Eyed Pea Relish......Can't be beat!

Monday, July 9, 2012


I lost weight for a lot of reasons.  I wanted to look good, I wanted to feel better, I wanted to be able to buy clothes in a regular store, I wanted to be able to see my feet.  Simple things....but if you are overweight, getting to the place you want to be can certainly be a huge struggle. 

One unintended consequence of losing weight, however, made me very concerned.  I realized very early on after losing the weight that people actually treated the "thin" me better than they had treated the "fat" me.  It wasn't that I was feeling more confident and people reacted to that.  People just plain treated me better.  They smiled at me, had conversations with me, treated me like I of them!  I won't lie.  It felt good but it was mostly very upsetting.

I began to look at the way I treat overweight people versus the way I treat thin people and I began to realize that I was somewhat guilty of the same treatment.  Why?  What makes us want to relate more with people who are thin than people who are overweight?  Why were people treating thin Todd better than fat Todd? 

I won't pretend that I know all of the reasons but it did give me some food for thought.  We are all aware of racism.  We understand that it is based on a false premise that people of certain races are fundamentally different from us.  We understand that it is wrong but on some level we are all guilty from time to time of having a racist thought run through our minds.  Part of the reason racism exists is because of fear. We tend to like to be around people who are like us so we feel comfortable and familiar. It's just easier and so it becomes our norm. 

I think there is something similar going on with the way people sometimes treat overweight people.  In this case, however, it is not so much about wanting to associate with people like us but rather associating with people who we want to be like. When I was overweight I felt like a failure.  I felt like I was out of control and weak.  Every time I saw a commercial for a new weight loss plan I got a knot in my stomach and quietly hated myself for not being thin.  It's a horrible thing we do to ourselves.  Other people can be cruel but sometimes we can be our own worst enemies.  When I looked at other people who were overweight I identified with them but not in a good way.  Seeing them reminded me of myself and it made me remember how much I disliked myself.  It's not a rational or kind reaction but it was an honest one unfortunately.

It's not that I treated overweight people poorly.  I certainly would never have done that.  I guess, however, that I did judge them just as I judged myself.  Being reminded of my own shortcomings was not something that I welcomed. 

On the other hand I think I admired thin people so much that I probably treated them better.  I wrongly assumed that if they could keep their weight "normal" they must be better than me. 

Keep in mind that all of this was, of course, subconscious.  I never actually had those thoughts but looking back it seems that this was the unspoken dialogue that affected how I treated other people.

Now being able to experience this from both sides I am shocked.  I love that people treat me better but I am sad that being thin has become so important in our society that it affects how we treat people. I remember when a good friend of mine was talking to me about quitting drinking years ago.  He kept asking me if I thought he was an alcoholic.  I didn't know how to answer the question.  How was I supposed to know?  I told him that if he thought he was an alcoholic then he probably was.  Only he could define what that meant to him.  If he thought he had a problem then he had a problem.  I was in no position to know what was going on in his head.

We have no way of knowing what is going on in peoples' lives unless they tell us (and even then we probably really don't know and probably shouldn't).  If someone is sad and troubled about their weight and they ask us for help we should be there for them.  Otherwise it's none of our concern.  I am in no position to judge anyone for their weight any more than I should be judging them for the color of their skin or the kind of car they drive.

I was only able to begin the process of losing weight because I was able to accept and love myself the way I was.  Starting from a place where you love yourself makes it so much easier to go about the business of loving and respecting your body enough to treat it the way it deserves to be treated.  If we continue to judge people based on their weight we are not helping them to love themselves....we are perpetuating the stereotypes that made them hate themselves in the first place. 

Once again, as with many things, this is about being conscious in your life and treating each moment, each interaction as a unique opportunity to learn and grow as human beings.  If you are open to learning about the people you encounter during your day you will understand that everyone on this journey called life has their own story to tell....they have their reasons for doing things the way they do and they have their own faults and heartaches too.  That's not just a fat person sitting across the table from you.  That's someone who fears and loves and tries and is imperfect just like you.  Give them the credit that you want for yourself.  They deserve it and so do you.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Grilled Spaghetti Squash

I love grilling.  There is something about the taste of food from the grill that appeals to me. Just because I don't eat meat doesn't mean that I can't still enjoy some great grilled foods. 

About a month ago I was at the local health food store and bought an organic spaghetti squash because I knew Brennis loves the spaghetti squash my mom makes at Thanksgiving.  I had probably prepared spaghetti squash years ago with lots of butter and salt but as I regarded this large yellow rock in my basket at The Raisin Rack I really had no idea what I was going to do with it.

It was a beautiful day so I thought I would grill it.  I'll never make it any other way.

This one is so easy anyone can do it.

First I heated the grill (I used a gas grill and warmed it up to about 400 can use a charcoal grill and grill this at any temperature but cooking times will be different)

I halved the squash lengthwise and removed all of the seeds.  The first time I grilled this I brushed the surface with olive oil but for today's squash I just left it alone and I didn't notice any difference in the taste.
Place the squash face down on the top rack of the grill (if you have one...if not just keep a close eye that it doesn't cook too fast on the surface)

Cover the grill and check it after about a half hour and then about every ten minutes afterward to see if it's done.  The squash is done when you can easily puncture the outside skin with a fork (the fork will go in like you were poking the soft skin of a peach)
My squash took about 40 minutes.

When it's done it should look something like this.
Remove the squash from the grill and allow it to cool enough to be able to handle it.
With a fork, scoop out the inside of the squash (it will come out easily in long strands like spaghetti). 
I eat it as a side dish with a bit of black pepper on top but it's also great as a main dish with your favorite tomato sauce.
This is extremely healthy and doesn't take a lot of effort.  I was grilling zucchini and eggplant at the same time that the squash was cooking so the whole grill was filled with vegetables that I was using in recipes for the week so I wasn't wasting any propane just for one squash.
Try it before Summer's over! 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Beside Myself

In writing there generally is not much to say when there is no conflict or drama.  In life, we prefer to have as little of those two things as possible.  After the drama of last Summer I was glad to be settling in for a calm and restful Autumn with Brennis feeling better every day. 

It was calm.  Well it was free from major drama anyway but Brennis' cleared arteries were obviously pumping blood much more efficiently since I was now being forced into involuntary servitude as we began tackling nearly every home improvement project we had been neglecting for the last three years in the span of about a week.  After twenty years together we had established certain patterns regarding household duties.  I did the laundry, cooking & dishes and Brennis did the weekly deep cleaning.  My philosophy on cleaning is "It's better now than when I started" so I could comfortably abandon my cleaning routine at any given point and be perfectly fine with it.  Brennis cleaned until it was done.  Obviously he was the better choice for the job.  For the most part, however, that was the extent of Brennis' physical activity before the heart attack.  Other than that he generally was on the couch smoking cigarettes and watching television.   I know now that given the state of his heart it was really all he  was capable of.  It did, however, make my list of chores get longer and longer with every passing year. 

Now that Brennis was "fixed" I couldn't stop him. We were painting, replacing floors, sanding walls, cleaning, scrubbing, bleaching, you name it.  I think at one point we were working on five rooms in our house at the same time (and we have a very small house). No I was exhausted. I was so thankful that Brennis was able and willing now to do all of these things but I had become accustomed to working at my own pace and not having to keep up with someone. Suddenly Brennis was like a machine.  He never stopped. 

I had just been through the most emotionally draining experience of my life and now I was going through the most physically draining experience.  While I appreciated the fact that Brennis was now feeling better and he was excited and able to do things he wasn't able to do before I was beginning to get worn down.  I was hanging by a thread and it was getting more and more frayed by the second. 

All through the end of summer and into the fall we continued on this runaway train.  Part of me wanted to stop it but part of me knew that if I stopped it I would be forced to deal with reality so I continued to allow myself to get sucked into the perpetual activity that had become our lives.  The reality I was avoiding was the very real fear I had that something else was going to happen to Brennis.  One minute he was fine and the next minute he was having a heart attack a few months before....I don't think you ever get over that.  Even today I worry about him continuously.  If he's sweating, I worry. If he's tired, I worry.  If he eats too much or too little, I worry. 

As long as we were busy I didn't have to think about it. I didn't have to worry that the other shoe was going to drop.  We were happy, we were making our lives better by making our home more lovely and more functional...who wants to deal with fears then? 

Worrying is something that I do very well.  It has become as much a part of my personality as green eyes are a part of my physical appearance.  I understand that it is fruitless but I do it anyway.  Recently I ran across the blog of my father's former cardiologist  Dr. Terry Gordon and as I was reading through the blog I came across this statement that spoke to me:  "If you have control over a situation, you shouldn't have to worry about it.  And if you don't have control over a situation, worrying about it isn't going to give you that control." 

It was so simple and so right.  There were things about Brennis' health that we could control.  We could stay away from cigarettes and eat well and exercise.  We could take care of ourselves and each other.  Even with all of these things there is also a possibility that Brennis might have to deal with this situation again some day.  He also might be hit by a bus, get cancer or live to be 100 years old. As long as we are taking care of the parts that are under our control there is really nothing to worry about.

The other day Brennis and I were talking to two women whose husbands had both been through traumatic medical procedures.  Brennis made the observation "I still think that this is harder on you guys than it was on us.  There was nothing we could do but trust that we were in good hands.  You guys had the worry."  It was true....I worried.  I still worry.  Coming face to face with Brennis' mortality made me intimate with it.  I didn't like it.  The thought of him not being a part of my life anymore was not only emotionally painful but also physically painful to me. It made me ache. 

What I realize now, however, is that worrying about Brennis is not going to make him live forever.  Years ago, when we first moved in together I used to be very jealous of Brennis when he was with other guys.  It used to make me crazy.  Finally, one day I realized that being jealous was only making me anxious and upset.  If Brennis was going to cheat on me he was going to do it whether or not I was jealous.  In fact, the more I acted crazy the more he might be tempted to find someone who wasn't a lunatic. 

The same is true now when I worry about Brennis having another heart attack.  My worrying isn't going to cure him of heart disease....but my constant state of anxiety certainly wasn't helping matters any. 

Finding peace in this world is not easy.  We are always going to be confronted with problems and issues that we have to resolve.  Sometimes the fixes are easy and sometimes they are difficult but we muddle our way through them until we are back at a place of comfort and contentment.  Worrying about what might come next isn't going to keep it from happening.  Being able to let go of worry is something that I work on every day.  I have to actively think about it and stop myself from going down that road.  It leads nowhere.

If we are going to truly experience the beauty and magic of life we must not allow worry to obscure our view.  Worry closes our minds and our hearts to the wonderful things that life has to offer, it stops us from trying new things and can paralyze us with fear. Life is about moving forward, learning, experiencing and loving.  If our lives are consumed with worry we aren't able to allow any of those things to enter our lives.

I will never be able to get the time back that I wasted worrying about things over which I had no control.  When I find myself worrying about something I try to remember that, listen to the voices that tell me to proceed and go.  Worrying has never solved anything.  Spending time and energy on something so counterproductive simply doesn't make sense.

Now our house is finally the home we have always wanted.  We made it that way one step at a time.  Sometimes I worry that it won't last forever.....but then I just let it go.  I look around and smile.  "This is the moment I have always wanted," I think to myself....and I am thankful.     

Monday, July 2, 2012

Seasoned Rice & Beans With Vegetables

The other night I went out to a mexican restaurant in Cleveland.  I'll admit, I still haven't mastered the art of ordering vegan in a restaurant so I usually just find the best choice and get that.  It certainly makes ordering easier since it usually rules out about 99% of the menu. 

This time my best choice was called a "Burrito Bowl" which was described as having "Seasoned rice piled high with your choice of...."  and they listed different types of meats or (thank God) black beans and vegetables.  I opted for the last choice.  Then the whole thing was topped off with their special blend of cheeses.  If I had just asked to have the cheese left off I would have had a perfectly delicious vegan dish but since I had never eaten there before and I was really hungry and would have been angry if my "Burrito Bowl" relied exclusively on the cheese for its great taste I opted to keep the cheese.

So I ordered it and it was absolutely delicious.  In fact, everyone else at the table said they wished they had gotten what I got instead of what they got.  They were probably right.  It was the best restaurant meal I had had in a long time and I would never have even thought about ordering it had I not been a vegan. 

I wanted to try to make a cheeseless version of this and this (with a few adjustments for my own taste) and here are the results.  You, of course, could substitute any vegetables for the ones I have listed but these are the ones I had on hand (and the yellow squash and zuccini were in the original dish).  Have fun with this!  I hope you enjoy as much as I did!

1 1/2 Cups Uncooked Brown Rice
1 1/2 Cups Low Sodium Vegetable Broth
1 Tbsp. Chili Powder
1 Tbsp. Nutritional Yeast
2 Tbsp Chopped Fresh Cilantro
1 Small Onion, chopped
1 Small Zuccini, sliced thin
1 Small Yellow Squash, sliced thin
Juice of One Lime
Additional 1/2 Cup Vegetable Broth
8 Ounced Sliced Mushrooms
1 15 oz Can Black Beans, drained and rinsed
1 15 Ounce Can Pinto Beans, drained and rinsed
2 Additional Tbsp. Nutritional Yeast (if desired)

Start by making the rice.  Put rice, 1 1/2 cups vegetable broth and 1 1/2 cups water, chili powder and nutritional yeast in a small sauce pan.  Stir slightly and bring to a boil over high heat.  Once boiling, reduce the heat, cover and simmer the rice until all of the liquid is absorbed.   When the rice is finished add the chopped cilantro to the rice and stir.  Cover until the vegetables and beans are ready.

While the rice is cooking heat a medium sauce pan over medium heat.  Add enough vegetable broth to cover the bottom of the pan and add the onion.  Cook the onion for three to four minutes in the vegetable broth, adding more broth as needed.  Add zuccini and yellow squash and cook an additional 5 minutes until the vegetables are cooked through.  Squeeze the juice of one lime over the vegetables.  At the end, add the mushrooms and cook an additional two to four minutes until all of the vegetables are cooked to your taste. 

To serve, layer beans and vegetables on top of seasoned rice on your plate (or in a bowl).

This would also be wonderful with chopped fresh tomatoes or mixed together and served in a tortilla.


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Thank You

Every time I go to to a funeral I think that it would be so nice if the people in the casket (or urn) would have been able to hear all of the wonderful things people were saying about them.  Instead, unfortunately, it's not until someone we love is gone that we really understand what they meant to us, how they touched our lives and how much they will be missed.  We don't want to consider that our dear relatives or friends will ever leave us forever.  We can't bear to think about it and so we don't.  We love them and we work with them and play with them and appreciate them but we don't often just sit down and say...."Hey....this is why I love you and this is why you are a wonderful person and I would miss you if you weren't a part of my life". 

The second day that Brennis was in the hospital I got an email from a musician friend of ours from Ireland where she was visiting.  Her husband had had a heart attack and open heart surgery ten years before and, like us, they had no insurance.  "People are going to want to do a fundraiser for you", she said.  "They did it for us.  Just let them do it.  You'll need it."

I wasn't even thinking about money at that point.  I could have cared less about how much it was going to cost.  When I entertained the thought of people doing a fundraiser for us I was immediately defensive.  "We got ourselves into this mess," I thought "We can get ourselves out of it". 

As the days passed and my mind occasionally started adding up the days in the hospital, the numerous drugs, the surgeons, the nurses the cardiologist, the meals....I kept thinking about what my friend had said. She was pretty smart. She was always right.  I began to think that I should just listen to her. 

Actually I knew that there was a fundraiser in the works as soon as we got the word from the doctors that Brennis had had a heart attack.  The three artists working the gallery for us the  morning we were in the ER were already secretly planning the event.  Eventually I told them that they could do what they wanted.  I knew we were going to need help and I was actually very grateful that they wanted to help.  I was in no position to agrue.  I did, however, feel like a bit of a failure.

When we find ourselves in a position where we need other people we feel helpless.  We may not actually be helpless but it's how we feel.  In addition to that it was very easy for Brennis and I to feel some guilt for the position we were in.  We had priced health insurance five years before but the premiums would have been astronomical since at the time we smoked and were both considerably overweight.  Had we just quit smoking alone we would have had a much better time getting insurance (and the money saved would have helped pay for it).  To say we felt foolish in our current position was an understatement....but it was where we were at this moment and we now needed help.  I couldn't turn back the clock and make better decisions.  It is an experience that has taught me to be less judgemental of other people who have made questionable decisions in their lives.  All we can do is to start right now where we are and make the most of the choices before us.  The past is gone and it simply doesn't matter. 

So we moved forward or, more accurately, a group of very kind, generous, loving people moved forward.  Brennis and I had no idea what was going on.  We didn't want to know.  My friend's words just kept playing over and over again in my brain: "Let them do it." 

The scope of the event became clear to me as soon as I got back to work.  There were butons made with Brennis' picture on them that were being sold for five dollars in the gallery.  "Five dollars?", I thought....."People are crazy!"  I was glad that they were.  I had only begun to get the bills in the mail.

On top of that, people were buying tickets for $20.00 each to attend a silent auction and concert at our Cultural Center in late August.  I was dumbfounded. The more I heard about what was happening the more I was touched.  This was becoming something larger that I could have ever imagined.  I was overwhelmed with gratitude.

In addition to all of that we were getting checks and gift cards from people visitng not to mention the food people brought to the house for weeks after Brennis got home.  To try to list all of the kindnesses and generosities shown to Brennis and me during this time would take days.  There was a Facebook page called "The Brennis Bunch" that people used to keep track of Brennis' progress in the hospital which was now being used to gather auction items, food and volunteers for the big event.

Brennis and I have hosted our share of fundraisers at the gallery but nothing like this.  We tried not to think about it and just went on with our lives.  Brennis went back to work by the beginning of August and our lives were starting to get back to normal.  Every day, however, we were getting bills in the mail: bills from the emergency room doctors, bills from the radiologist, bills from the blood testing facility, bills, bills, bills.  I put them in the cupboard and started a spreadsheet.  I began to become even more thankful that this event was coming up.  There is no way we could have even started to tackle this wall of bills without help.

Then it was that night.  Brennis and I worked at the gallery that day.  He was back to work full time by now, the end of August.  I was on my second day off the nicotene patch so I was already feeling a bit....shall we say....overwhelmed.  We closed the gallery early so we could be at the event when it started.  People had paid $20.00 afterall....we really should be there on time.

The minute we walked into the Cultural Center we were surrounded by love.  Literally.  For the entirety of the evening Brennis and I were face to face with nearly every person in town we had ever had a significant relationship with and they told us how much they loved us, how much we meant to them and how grateful they were that Brennis was going to be alright.  There wasn't a moment that we weren't face to face with the most wonderful, giving, caring, generous people you would ever know.  It was like something out of a movie but it was actually happening. 

People really adore Brennis and they were able to tell him that.  It was beyond amazing.  For once somebody got to hear from his friends and family how much he is loved and appreciated while he can still experience it. 

Saying "Thank you," for something like this (and for the thousands of small kindnesses Brennis and I received throughout those three months) is not easy.  Those two words are powerful but they hardly match the gifts we were given.  We wrote cards, called people, told them how grateful we were but it just never seemed like enough.  How do you convey your gratitude to literally hundreds of people for all of the extraordinary things they had done for you?

Brennis and I knew from the very beginning that we would get through this ordeal.  We knew that no matter what happened we would weather this storm as we had weathered many, many smaller ones throughout the years.  What we didn't know was that we would have so many people surrounding us at every step on our journey.  They were as much a part of our experience as we were.  They were now as much a part of us as they possibly could be.

Saying "Thank you" is enough....but it's not the end.  These people were kind to us because they were thanking us for something we had done for them.  We thank them in return by trying to be the kind of people they imagine us to be.  We thank them by taking care of ourselves and respecting the gift of good health we have been given.  We thank them by being conscious of their needs when the tables are turned and they are the ones who need help. 

Thank you is not the end it is the beginning:  The beginning of a cycle of kindness that hopefully will continue throughout our lives.  Being thankful is a state of being and we need to be mindful of it.

So to all of those people reading this now who were here for us when we needed you so badly last year....Thank you!  There is nothing more to say.  I am grateful and I hope you know that.  I may say it again some day too....I probably will.  You have become a part of my life in ways you can never imagine and now I am a part of yours.  For that too....I am thankful.

Needing help from someone is not the same as being helpless.  It is simply an opportunity for us to share our gifts with other people.  Needing others is an opportunity to be connected to each other.  If we didn't need other people we could all just as well live alone and never reach beyond ourselves. I am thankful that I needed those people last year because now they are a part of me.  Now as I move on through my life I feel them close to me, guiding me.  They have enriched my life in ways none of us could have ever imagined.  Never does a day go by that I am not mindful of their gifts.  I received them freely and now I give freely in return.