Saturday, August 22, 2009

Food and love... food is love

Like many people in this part of the world, I have a complicated relationship with food.

Thankfully, it’s not the eating that’s the complicated part.. just the cooking.

It’s not really surprising when I think about it. My mother didn’t learn to cook until she got married (at 39) in an era when it was taken for granted that wives were homemakers and cooks. But she grew up in a house with a cook and a maid and so never needed or had an inclination to learn.

It must have been a shock to suddenly realize that she would have to plan and prepare meals, learn to shop and buy food in a Canadian grocery store where so many of the foods were unfamiliar. Like many housewives of the time, she relied on the only thing that seemed familiar: bad British cooking. My childhood was replete with overcooked meat and boiled canned vegetables. Italian food consisted of macaroni and cheese. Fresh fruits and vegetables were unknown to me.

I did however bask in the delicious glory of my mother’s baking. Where she learned this, I don’t know but it was something that obviously came naturally to her. Most of all I remember her bread. The heavy moist smell of yeast rose up from underneath a damp linen tea towel covering her great stoneware bowl on the kitchen counter. My mother’s energetic punching and kneading of the billowing sticky dough. Loaves upon loaves would come steaming from the oven… brown and earthy, white and soft. Slathered in butter, it was the stuff that golden childhood memories are made of.

She made flaky, buttery pastry which became pies filled with blueberries or chocolate cream or lemon meringue or spicy apples. Tall – albeit often ever so slightly lop-sided – layer cakes swathed in butter cream icing. Crunchy, savoury baked fruit crumbles sparkling with her beloved Barbadian brown sugar.

Meal-times however were increasingly a minefield of barbed comments and marital warfare between my parents. We rarely had company over for dinner and so, rather than finding a natural pleasure in sharing food with friends and family, it became a weapon – its value diluted by quick, cheap fixes.

Thankfully, I’ve never had any qualms about eating, somehow managing to sidestep that horrifying generational legacy of obsession with weight and dieting, the fear and guilt over food that women often impart to their daughters. Aside from a brief, humourless fling with margarine, I enjoy eating food that is prepared with whole, natural ingredients (including sugar, butter, and bacon!) in satisfying quantities.

The problem of course is that I don’t like to cook. It’s not that I’m a bad cook – people tell me I cook quite well. I just can’t be bothered. I know I’m not alone… actually that’s a big part of the problem. Cooking for one is no picnic (pardon the pun but it’s actually quite appropriate given that in the summer I often simply make a sandwich rather than prepare a meal). The idea of flipping through cookbooks to find something appealing, shopping for ingredients (because of course there isn’t much in Mother Hubbard’s cupboard), and preparing a meal to be eaten alone isn’t terribly interesting… and to do that seven days a week!? The lead-up to having friends over for a meal is fraught with anxiety (damn you Martha Stewart and your Food Network cabal!).

And so truth be told, despite the fact that I love eating good food; that I champion whole/slow food cooking; that I love watching good food being prepared; that I revile over-salted, nutritionally-poor, prepared food… I eat it all the time. There, I’ve said it. My freezer is usually filled with a variety of pre-packaged entrees and my fridge rarely contains more than condiments, a few beers or a half-empty bottle of wine, and restaurant left-overs.

Chris would be so disappointed – not surprised, but disappointed nonetheless. He loved to cook. He was fearless and intuitive in the kitchen, somehow everything was ready at the same time and the flavours all complimented but never overwhelmed. I was his willing sous-chef, happy to chop and slice, measure and de-bone at his side. Being in the kitchen with Chris was like dancing – he led and I followed. And so now I stand alone in my preposterously well-equipped kitchen with Chris’ beloved Henckels pots and pans, his Wüsthof knives, his gadgets and cutting boards.

I could force myself to cook – hoping that by simply following a routine, I would eventually slip into a practiced pleasure of creating delicious meals from simple ingredients. Probably a naïve proposition…

I could engage the services of a personal chef or food delivery service. Choosing from a menu of options and having nutritious, ready-to-eat meals at the door or in the fridge – expensive but convenient…

I could eat out at restaurants several nights a week, bridging interim nights with left-overs. No doubt the inventory of worthwhile venues and willing company would quickly be exhausted and the exercise become even more tedious than actually cooking…

I could trek to one of those meal outlet stores where they have ingredients already chopped and prepared – you simply have to assemble what you want and cook it at home. Perhaps a practical solution bridging pre-packaged and healthy meals…

I could keep eating rubbish while watching Big Night, Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, Julie & Julia, or any other foodie movie – closing my eyes and imagining the smells and flavours of real food.

Or I could go to Italy or France for a year and learn what it is to simply enjoy good food as a normal part of every day life – without all the fretting and sub-zero refrigeration.

"The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a 'What the hell?' attitude." ~ Julia Child

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Video rated R for disturbing content

awake: a cry of pain in another room
you crumpled to the floor like a
suddenly string-less puppet

screaming, running, 911
blue eyes slide away
blue lips
...this is it… oh god don’t let this be it!!!
mouth-to-mouth, wiping away spittle and vomit
counting on your chest

pounding on the door, uniforms pour in
worker bees buzzing
...dialysis, perma-cath in his chest, fistula in his arm, no codeine!
...m’am, would you like to put some clothes on?

address book and a purseful of pills in the elevator
staring out the police car window
...did the siren sound like the screaming in my head?

the video in my head plays on a loop
sometimes in slow motion,
always in colour
the muffled soundtrack echoes

the video in my head plays on a loop
rated R for disturbing content

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

How do I love thee... Oh Canada

Love letters come in many formats.

Sometimes they're compilation CDs. Sometimes they're scratched in the wet sand on a windy beach. Sometimes they're fresh-baked cookies.

The obituary I wrote for Chris was a love letter... for him, to him, of him.

Often we find ourselves thinking of the many things we wanted to tell someone we love when it's too late. "If only I had another chance." "If only I could do it differently this time."

What would you do... if you only had one week to live? What would you do differently?

The film One Week is director Michael McGowan's love letter to Canada. Without revealing any spoilers the basic premise of the film is the story of a young man with a full life and about to get married who is told he has terminal cancer.

What would you do?

He decides to hit the road - partly in flight mode, partly in the hopes of clearing his head and coming to terms with the shattering news he's just been given. Riding his motorcycle westward with no real plan in mind, the arc of his physical journey is also the story of his emotional journey.

Most of the time he's alone with his turbulent thoughts, the ever-changing landscape of Canada as the backdrop. Along the way he meets other people, each on their own journeys, and while these encounters are often fleeting, there are lingering changes that impact in ways great and small. By the time Ben reaches the Pacific ocean one week later his life has changed him... and he has changed his life.

For anyone who's travelled across Canada or lived in different parts of Canada, there are certain touchstones and symbols that need no explanations. But this is no hackneyed travelogue, the moments captured are touching and affectionate and breath-taking and ultimately vibrate deep in that collective Canadian psyche. Despite being a story of a young man facing death, there were many warm waves of laughter that rippled through the audience when I saw it in the theatre. This is an unabashedly Canadian story whose cultural reference may or may not resonate with audiences elsewhere.

Twenty years ago this summer, my university roommate and I loaded up her car Zelda and began a five-day journey to Vancouver. We were young and foolish and broke but life was full of adventure and tree-planting in Northern BC sounded like a great way to spend the summer making gobs of money.

We B&B'd with a Henry Fonda look-alike in the Sault and sang ad jingles along the shores of Lake Superior when the radio wouldn't pick up any signal and stood quietly in the shadow of Terry Fox outside Thunder Bay and took the ring road around Winnipeg and marvelled at tumbling tumbleweed and gazed into the blindingly blue cathedral skies of the Prairies and climbed higher and higher into the monstrous majesty of the Rockies and miraculously convinced a BC highway cop that Qubec didn't use front license plates and finally tumbled down through the great green Fraser River valley into Vancouver.

We didn't make gobs of money and I discovered I was a gardener, not a tree-planter, and I used Raid as hair spray and worked under the protective eye of a trained big game sharp-shooter and watched the sun barely slip below the horizon at 11:30pm and got my first tattoo from a guy with nipple rings and ate too much Baskin Robbins and discovered dim sum and spent my waitressing breaks reading on the beach and tasted bear stew with blueberry sauce and had pizza delivered to us on the Via train and cried tears of homecoming joy at seeing the light beacon atop Place Ville Marie and savoured every bite of Montreal smoked meat at 3am.

In the years since that summer, I've been lucky to have travelled to St. John's, Vancouver, and every provice in between for work and vacations. But of all those trips, it's that road trip which always resurfaces with the strongest emotions and memories. Perhaps because it was my first time seeing other parts of the country; perhaps because it was the company I shared; perhaps because it was our last summer of freedom before graduating into "the real world". It was the first time I really grasped the vastness and beauty of this country and how lucky I was to live here. Everyone should be so lucky!

Happy Canada Day - what are you going to do?

Monday, May 11, 2009

The valley of my childhood

This is me and my childhood friend Glenn. We were pretty much inseparable from stroller to school bus. Our parents were good friends and we lived one block away from each other. Lots of holidays and summer days and nothing special days were spent together until we started school – he at the local English Catholic school and me at the local English Protestant one.

We used to go exploring in our neighbourhood, climbing rocks and trees, poking sticks into dark holes; we snuck popsicles from my house and then his on hot summer afternoons; we went tobogganing at the nearby hill; we played board games in our pyjamas; we divvied up our Halloween treats, bartering what we didn’t want.

As is the usual course of life we made new friends once we started school and began to drift apart. There were still birthdays and Christmases but we saw less and less of each other as the years flew by. Glenn and his family moved away when we were about nine or ten. After that we rarely saw each other aside from the occasional visit during summer vacations but by then our devoted childhood friendship had faded into our parents’ photo albums.

I recently found out that Glenn died last summer from complications of a second kidney transplant surgery. I had always known that Glenn had diabetes. He was diagnosed when we were little kids, but I never really knew much about it. I knew he had to have needles – that was about the extent of my awareness. It never occurred to me back then that he could die.

It’s been probably 20… 25 years since I last saw Glenn. My favourite memories of him feature a grinning, mischievous boy with dark unruly curls. I hope he’s still climbing rocks and trees, and exploring, and finding new adventures.


WALKINSHAW, Glenn Kevin 1962-2008

On July 16, 2008 at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, QC at the age of 46 after complications from transplant surgery, Glenn passed away peacefully with his family by his side.

Glenn is survived by his mother Lorraine (nee Ward) Walkinshaw, predeceased by his father Albert. Beloved brother to Brad Walkinshaw (Mary), of Montreal, QC, and Jill Walkinshaw (Steven) of Orleans. Glenn will be fondly remembered by his nieces and nephews Rini and Amanda of Montreal, QC and Alexandria and Anderson of Orleans.

The family gratefully thanks the Dialysis Unit of the Riverside Hospital of Ottawa for their kindness and nursing care, and also the Royal Victoria Hospital Transplant team and the ICU Medical and Nursing teams for their care of Glenn since May 19, 2008.

A Mass in the presence of the ashes will be held at St. Patrick's Basilica, Kent at Nepean Sts., Ottawa, at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, July 22, 2008 with burial in the Botanical Gardens at Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa.

In memory of Glenn, please consider the Juvenile Diabetes Association and remember to be kind to everyone. Rest in Peace, dear Glenn. We Miss You. "Live Free and Ride".

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Unexpected visitors

My mother used to tell the story of time her mother came to visit her. I wish I had paid more attention to the details of that story. As much as I peer into the thick darkness of that memory, I can’t remember when Mom said that Grannie Armstrong came to visit. But I do remember that it was after she had died.

I never met my mother’s mother. She died suddenly from a stroke, at the age of 70 – the year before I was born. When my mother got married and moved to Canada, she never saw my grandmother alive again. They were very close and I don’t think my mother ever got over the shock of that loss. She wrote of it in her diary. I hear the loneliness in her voice, thinking of being so far from ‘home’, trying to be a good wife in a strange, cold country.

My mother was not given to flights of fancy and, despite her struggle with depression, she did not experience hallucinations. She was a creative but also quite a practical person who worried that I was too “airy fairy”, as she often referred to my childhood day-dreaming. When my mother told the story of the night her dead mother visited her, I got goose bumps. Not because I was afraid but because I felt it to be so absolutely real and unarguably true.

My mother said that she awoke in the middle of the night, uncertain of the time. My father was working shift work that night and so she was alone. She described being suddenly wide awake, not struggling to shake off the cobwebby feeling one often has when roused from a deep sleep. Looking up she saw her mother sitting at the foot of the bed, hands folded in her lap. She smiled at my mother and my mother smiled back. They shared a long and loving gaze before my grandmother simply disappeared. My mother said she hadn’t been afraid and I could tell she was deeply comforted by the love and warmth of that singular experience.

I wasn’t able to be with my mother when she died and after she passed away I secretly hoped that I would receive a farewell of some kind from her. I had travelled to visit with her only weeks beforehand and she had rallied from a period of illness. Despite struggling with advanced Alzheimer’s she still knew me at our last visit. I spent hours with her each day, helping her eat, looking at pictures, telling stories. On our second-to-last day together, I remember telling her that I loved her and, being unable to reply in a full sentence, she pointed to me and mumbled “Love” with a smile. Perhaps that was her goodbye. I just wasn’t ready to hear it.

I desperately hoped for a visit from Chris after he died. His sudden and unexpected passing left a huge gash of emptiness inside of me and I thought that if I could see him once more and say goodbye, it might provide some comfort… some closure. Someone he knew had a dream about him soon after his death in which she saw him floating up in the sky with the energy of being free. In her dream he told her that it was so wonderful in the afterlife and that he was pain free and feeling vibrant again but that he was so sad to be away from his beloved Sandra.

I was jealous that she had heard his voice. Why hadn’t I heard from him!? All the irrational, insanity of that time left me questioning my own perceived openness to alternate realities, the depth of my love for Chris, etc, etc. So many painful, questioning nights laying in bed staring at the ceiling, hoping for a vision, a voice, anything that would signify communication from my beloved Chris… I often prayed to awaken from what I had begun to hope was a long nightmare. But the visit never came.

So it was a shock when I did get an unexpected, early morning visit back in January. I remember waking up very suddenly, my eyes literally snapping wide open, and my senses being very sharp as if the volume on my hearing had been turned up. Not more loudly but more crystal clear, the constant hum of life and my own busy mind suddenly quieted. Someone was in the room with me but I wasn’t afraid as I obviously would normally have been. I continued to lay on my side, not turning to look about but simply feeling this intense presence in the room.

No words were spoken. No voice was heard. No touch was felt. An overwhelming sense of comfort and calm filled the room and then, as suddenly as it had quieted, the hum reasserted itself and the visitor left. I don’t know if it was Chris or one of my parents. I don’t know if it was even someone I knew. I do know that I was left feeling more peaceful than I had in a long time.

I remember a couple of months after Chris died, a bitterly comical scenario played out in my imagination: Mom and Dad are hanging out in the afterlife (whatever form that may take) and in walks Chris. “What the hell are you doing here?! You’re supposed to be back there with Sandra! You promised to take care of our little girl!” cried my parents to Chris. He shuffled his feet in embarrassment, chewing his lip, and struggling to find something reasonable – or even witty – to say that would appease them. Nothing came to mind…

I hope they’ve forgiven him.

Monday, April 27, 2009

When a stranger calls...

It was the telephone that woke me up, jangling insistently like a rude alarm clock.

I sat up, struggling to find my even keel in the middle-of-the-night darkness. My throat tightened as I hesitantly said hello. Phone calls in the middle of the night are never good news… or so I thought.

“May I please speak with Christopher Dixon?” asked the voice at the other end.
“May I ask who’s calling?” [at such an ungodly hour, asked the voice inside my head.]
“It’s the transplant unit. We have a donor kidney for Christopher.”

I breathed, listening to make sure I remembered that moment.

Chris was a very sound sleeper and I had to literally shake him awake, he hadn’t even heard the phone. “It’s the transplant unit, they have a kidney.” I said – quite calmly in retrospect – before I handed him the phone, making sure he was awake.

We were both wide awake now. I sat on the bed beside Chris and never took my eyes off his face as he answered and asked questions for a few minutes. When he hung up, we looked at each other, our eyes filled with hope, anxiety, nervousness, love.

Surprisingly, you’re not expected to run red lights when you get that call. “Take your time, don’t panic, bring a few things in a small overnight bag… we’ll see you when you get here.” And so we did just that. I packed socks, underwear, pyjama pants, razor, toothbrush/toothpaste, my list of people to call, and a roll of quarters that we had kept in the drawer for just this occasion.

We were out the door in 15 minutes flat. The taxi ride to the hospital was quiet. We held hands as we watched darkened houses rush by our windows.

The hospital was brightly lit but the hallways were empty as we quickly made our way up to the transplant unit.

Things happen pretty quickly once you get there. You’re assigned a room – always private, for fear of infection in immune-suppressed transplant patients. Blood is drawn for last-minute tests. X-rays are done to check for infections. Electrodes are mapped out across the body to monitor heart activity on an EKG machine.

In between tests, you sit and wait. Your mind racing. Your heart racing. The thumping isn’t loud enough to drown out the fears, the excitement, the what if’s. Transplants are not a miracle cure – they’re a therapy, an interim measure. They don’t last forever. The surgery – like any surgery – is risky. Chris and I had had all those conversations many times. So we sat and we waited, wondering which room along the hall sheltered the other anxious kidney recipient. I watched the sky turn indigo and then golden pink as the sun crept up to meet us at the horizon.

I called Chris’ parents to tell them that we were at the hospital, that there was a donor kidney for Chris, that I would call later when I had an update.

I remember the nurse coming in. “I’m sorry, but the kidney isn’t a close enough match.”

Eyes blinking. Empty silence. As suddenly as it began, it was over.

How to put into words that floor-falling-away feeling? The adrenaline and exhaustion suddenly colliding inside your head, your heart, your stomach which minutes before had been churning with anxious elation. Sitting in the patient lounge, our arms limply encircling each other, as the rising sun shot through the drapes and bled down the wall.

We quietly checked out and walked down the hall, leaving ‘our’ kidney to the next candidate on the list. The list really is life…

The rest of that day is a fog in my memory. I know that we both stayed home from work, sleeping a bit, eating a bit. I know I called Chris’ parents to break the news but I don’t remember calling them.

I’ve never had a miscarriage and I can’t pretend that it’s the same feeling but it’s the closest thing I can imagine – coming home empty-handed and empty-hearted instead of joyful. It was a very quiet day, a sad day.

We went for a walk and thought about the person who had died, their family who had consented to organ donation – who were they? We thought of the other people like us who had received long-awaited calls for lungs and heart and liver and corneas and kidneys. Were they in surgery or in recovery by now? Their families waiting anxiously for news of a successful surgery, preparing for the possibly bumpy road to full recovery.

We wondered when the next call might come.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

An unbroken bond

I just returned from a one-week whirlwind visit with several dear friends. The original timing of my vacation (aside from getting away from my wet basement) was arranged to coincide with the birthdays of two of these aforementioned dear friends who just happen to have been born one day apart. A gathering of the 'clan' was set into motion and a flurry of excited e-mails flew back and forth amongst this group of friends who met [--] years ago in university. We try to all get together at least once a year and, so far, I think we've done pretty well.

We've muddled through life's adventures, lending a shoulder or a hand whenever needed. We've shared a lot of tears but even more laughter. We've been to each others' weddings (but under some unspoken pact, never as bridesmaids - must be the dresses!). Helped each other move (thank god those days are over!) and consoled each other over broken hearts (remember 'I hate men parties'?). We're as different as any group of women could be but we argue and love without question. The bond is taken for granted but not the gratitude or the responsibility it holds.

So it seemed that fate brought us all together again this time, not just for birthday festivities as planned but for other unexpected life-changing events. One of our group received thrilling news of admission to a prestigious graduate program at an Ivy League university. We shared cheers and tears of joy and a bottle of champagne was ordered from the bar! Another of our group experienced the heavy-hearted loss of an elderly relative after a lengthy illness. We shared hugs and consolation and glasses were raised in honour of a passing soul.

And so life goes. Our weekend together was in many ways typical of our long-standing friendships - the celebrations, the losses, many a glass of wine, mugging for the camera, the comfortable mundane catching up on each others' lives late into the night, and the goodbye hugs before returning to our day-to-day adventures... each taking with us the strength of our friendship, topped up for another year.

Thanks for the memories girls, and for all those yet to come!