The spirit of Christmas: A Jew’s perspective

Christmas was largely a mystery to me, a nice Jewish girl, until J. came into my life 14 years ago. Now J. and I are equal opportunity celebrants, Christmas and Hanukkah both. We miss out on J.’s family Christmas because travel has become challenging for me, but are lucky enough to enjoy time with adopted family here in Calgary. We are included in a hotly anticipated Christmas Eve dinner with special friends, and celebrate Christmas Day in our own home, with an adapted dinner menu of challah, sweet potato soup, and cabbage rolls. Last year we may have thrown in a few latkes as well.

As a newbie, I liken Christmas to a trip to Disneyland. I’ve never been to Disneyland, so I’m just imagining. Or maybe it’s more like a visit to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Christmas is something new and different and I spent my childhood, and much of my adulthood, wondering what I was missing.

I have the benefit of Christmas’ not having the same meaning to me that it does to those who’ve celebrated since childhood. I don’t remember the sick feeling after weeks of overconsumption, culminating in 24 hours of hyperoverconsumption. There was no drunk uncle spewing obscenities by the end of the evening, no cold fronts within the family, no fights over the cooking and the cleanup. Jewish families don’t experience any of these things at their festivities, of course. I just get to enjoy the parts of Christmas that are fun and joyful and special. Why turn that down?

I love Christmas decorations, inside and outside, and participation in others’ rituals–the delectable ham, the special family traditions, the stories of Christmases past. Jewish children don’t spend much time wondering whether Santa is real. Early on, I realized Santa couldn’t possibly be at every mall my parents took me to, but the eureka was not especially traumatic or life changing. I still haven’t figured out how Elijah made it to every Passover seder to drink from the wine cup we left out for him, however.

J. has shared some of her Christmas rituals with me over the years. I’ve come to enjoy having a fully adorned Christmas tree in our home. We’ve collected all manner of dog ornaments–crummy year for dog ornaments by the way; are dogs out and nobody told me?–and others we’ve picked up on trips far and wide. We even have a Star of David as a nod to my heritage, but we don’t put it on top. After all these years together, our tree is full of our memories.

large and small chocolate Easter eggs in multicoloured foil

And if we can just get through winter, Easter will be just around the corner. It took less coaxing for me to participate fully in the Holiday of the Chocolate Egg. That is the significance of Easter, isn’t it? Easter is, without question, much more enjoyable than Passover, a.k.a., the 8 Days of Constipation.

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday. It’s not too late to start thinking of your New Year’s resolutions. I’ll share mine next post, hopefully before I blow them.

 

Adventures with my spleen

Have you noticed I’ve been evasive about my recent hospital stay? I’d promised not to inundate you with medical information in what was supposed to be my healthy month of December. The sickness was going to take a breather, for everyone’s sake, remember? But you might as well know what’s going on since some of you have been asking: my spleen’s been misbehaving.

A few weeks back, I developed some pain, which I ignored effectively for a few days. But when the pain started taking over, I decided it was time to see a doctor. My doctor sent me on to the Emergency Room “just to get it checked out.” In no time, my massive spleen was waving to the CAT scanner.

Turns out my ginormous spleen was taking over my tiny abdominal cavity–“tiny” is the doctor’s word, not mine, but I like it so I’m repeating it–pushing my other organs out of the way. And my belly hurt, a lot, but only if I moved. So long as I didn’t sit down or stand up or lay down or walk or twist or breathe or yawn or cough, I was pain free. But staying still was not a good long-term solution for a gal like me. I may not be a shaker, but I am a mover.

What to do, what to do? Surgeons were called in to decide whether to rid me of my unwieldy organ, but nobody liked that option. The surgery would be complicated and dangerous and removing my spleen would only add stress to my underfunctioning liver. Most adults can live without a spleen, but I’m not “most adults”.

Then doctors considered killing off just a part of my spleen by cutting off some of its blood supply. Sounded reasonable to me, but this procedure would be quite invasive and has its risks.

Then, my fantastic medical team arrived at a third option: radiation. I think of radiation as a means of shrinking tumours, but in my case, the radiation would be shrinking my spleen. Everyone agreed this would be minimally invasive and thus the least risky alternative. Ultimately, radiation might bring an end to what I’d accepted was my interminable pregnancy. Wow! I couldn’t ask for better timing since high-waisted pants are back in.

A few days ago, I got word of an appointment early in the New Year with the radiation oncologist who is considering zapping me. When I called back to confirm my attendance, I said I was grateful for the appointment. The receptionist paused, then responded: “In all these years, no one has ever thanked me for an appointment with this office.” I guess there’s a first for everything.

Sure, I may not be keen on radiation, but if it will reduce my pain, decrease my waist circumference and allow me to keep my spleen, I’m on board. I’ll let you know whether it’s a go.

I’d love to tell you how J. feels about the plan but she’s not available right now. She’s out buying new sunglasses in case I start to glow. Maybe if she’d just asked Santa, she could have avoided the holiday crowds.

Woman in striped shirt wearing huge red heart-shaped sunglasses.

Do you think she’d look good in these?

A Christmukkah song

images On the first night of Hanukah, my true love gave to me a Jewish ornament for our tree.

Two wooden dreidels, spinning tops for Hanukah

Everyone needs a little wooden dreidel.

On the second night of Hanukah, my true love gave to me two little dreidels and a Jewish ornament for our tree.

On the third night of Hanukah, my true love gave to me three chocolate Santas, two little dreidels, and a Jewish ornament for our tree.

On the fourth night of Hanukah, my true love gave to me four golden latkes, three chocolate Santas, two little dreidels, and a Jewish ornament for our tree.

On the fifth night of Hanukah, my true love gave to me five festive fruitcakes, four golden latkes, three chocolate Santas, two little dreidels, and a Jewish ornament for our tree.

On the sixth night of Hanukah, my true love gave to me six deep-fried donuts, five festive fruitcakes, four golden latkes, three chocolate Santas, two little dreidels, and a Jewish ornament for our tree.

On the seventh night of Hanukah, my true love gave to me seven shortbread cookies, six deep-fried donuts, five festive fruitcakes, four golden latkes, three chocolate Santas, two little dreidels, and a Jewish ornament for our tree.

Chocolate coins in gold wrappers with menorahs on them.On the eighth night of Hanukah, my true love gave to me eight chocolate gelt, seven shortbread cookies, six deep-fried doughnuts, five festive fruitcakes, four golden latkes, three chocolate Santas, two little dreidels, and a Jewish ornament for our tree.

On the ninth day of Hanukah, my true love gave to me…nothing, of course. There are only 8 nights of Hanukah, silly. But Christmas is just around the corner!

Thanks for not visiting

Dear Friends and Family:

Now that I am home from the hospital, I want to take this opportunity to thank you for not coming to visit me. Yes, you read that correctly: I’m glad you stayed home, or went out for dinner, or did something much more fun than watching Food Network reruns with me in my cramped hospital room. The thing is, if the doctors see fit to admit me to hospital, I’m pretty sick and I’m not really up for visitors. Maybe I’d feel otherwise if I were there for happy reasons, if I were having a baby, for example, but I’m not; I only look pregnant.

When you’re not there, I’m pretty busy with visitors from within the hospital. That lab technician who drew my blood just after 5 a.m. every morning, the surgery resident who discussed the fragility of my spleen with me just before 11 p.m., and all the doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff in between. My belly is a magnet for doctors in training.

The best thing about having a private room, if I’m lucky enough to score one, is not having to endure others’ visitors. I’m amazed at the crowds busting out of some patients’ rooms. My roommates must have more Facebook friends than me, or maybe they’re just not the recluse I turn into when I’m unwell. This past hospital stay, many long-lost family members visited my ailing aging roommate night after night. The patient slept most of the time while the visitors loudly and excitedly caught up on each others’ lives. Were they visiting each other or the patient? And if they were visiting each other, couldn’t they have done that in the cafeteria?

Visitors often forget the curtain between beds does not provide soundproofing, so occasionally I’d hear some pretty juicy stuff. Despite what you may think, I’m not all that  interested in the details of others’ bowel movements or erectile dysfunction. And later, when they realize I’ve heard all their true confessions, bodily or otherwise, I will feel less awkward than them. It’s amazing how my making my presence known–a little cough, perhaps, or a visit to the washroom–silences the masses.

Thank you also, dear friends, for not bringing your active and vocal two year old with you. Imagine an hour in a hospital room with a busy two year old who isn’t even there to visit you. You know I’m not anti-kid. I adore kids! Bring them to synagogue, to my wedding, to my funeral, just not to visit me at the hospital.

I wonder if I’m the only one who’d rather be alone when I’m in hospital. Nothing personal, my friends, but it’s the one time I don’t miss seeing you. I want the time to rest and recuperate so the docs will let me loose faster. I’ll look forward to catching up with you then.

I’m lucky to have friends like you who are willing to take their visiting cues from me. No need to feel guilty for not coming in. I’ll call on you when I’m home and again up to hearing all about your exploits while I was out of commission. Hope you’ll have something juicy to share with me then.

With love and my undying appreciation,

Annie

 

My slippery skinny slope

When most people think of anorexia, they think of those people with distorted body images who restrict their food intake to the point of starvation. This disorder has wide ranging consequences and is terribly difficult to overcome.

I can reassure you that I don’t have that kind of anorexia. I love food, I love eating, and, except for when I was much younger, I’ve never much believed in dieting. Eating thoughtfully and healthfully, maybe, but not dieting.

But right now, I am anorexic in the medical sense of the word, i.e., I’ve lost my appetite. It’s a strange sensation and one that arises only when I’m really sick. During my hospital stay, I was not allowed to eat for a few days, and the doctor advised me to reintroduce solid foods slowly to give my body time to heal. Also, I felt pretty sick after I ate, so I lost an interest in food. I know, anyone who knows me would find this particular turn of events unfathomable.

I hate that I celebrate the few lbs. I’ve lost through this ordeal, as if that’s an accomplishment. I’d say I can fit into my skinny jeans, but I can’t since I don’t have skinny jeans; I gave those away long ago so a skinny person could wear them. But I can see my body shrinking before my eyes and I can understand the appeal of intentionally restricting calories. And I’ve heard many people revel in the few lbs. they lost when they got the flu.

I think about how eating disorders develop, how they give a false sense of control to people who feel they don’t have much control at all. I’d sure love to feel in control right now, I’ll admit, since finding out I have a few new disconcerting problems with my health that need to be followed up on. But lots of things happen in our lives that we can’t control, and we have to find ways to face those things head on rather than harming ourselves through disordered eating.

Person with pink socks on scale

Those socks? Must weigh 2 lbs. at least.

I’ve been testing out this slippery slope all week. A few more days of underconsumption and all my clothes will be loose. Why not stick with this for a few days longer? Because I know it’s not good for me. My body is tolerating food again, so each day, I’m trying to eat a bit more. I know I need to eat to get well.

Thankfully, my unhealthy fantasies of continued weight loss were interrupted this past weekend by yet another unexpected gift of a low-sodium multi course feast from our friends, the Groovies. Couldn’t very well let all that delectable food go to waste, could I? That would be rude!

To my relief, J. has been eating the delectable spoils too. She develops sympathetic anorexia when I can’t eat, and trust me, she has no weight to lose. Jelly, on the other hand, is unwavering in her devotion to her kibble. Imagine eating the same food every meal–just the thought of that is enough to make me lose my appetite. But not for long, don’t worry.

 

BREAKING NEWS: Dr. Liver flies the coop

Dear Dr. Liver:

I’ve had such a fantastic medical team these past few years that I was saddened to hear you’ve accepted a trade south. Despite the tears in my eyes when you told me, I want you to know how thrilled I am that you will be pursuing a new challenge in a different city, even if it means my losing your care. I can feel thrilled for you and sorry for myself, can’t I?

In the 11 years since you were saddled with my care, you have treated both me and J. with the utmost of kindness, respect, and professionalism. You have been unusually punctual, of course, and patiently addressed my long lists of concerns. You have been there in the background when that’s all I’ve needed, and jumped into action when my liver required more attention. You have tolerated my addressing you by first name and even offered your email address if I ever needed to reach you urgently. Why, just last weekend, you responded promptly to an inappropriate intrusion and then skipped your lunch a few days later to meet with us.

I also wanted to make sure you don’t forget that time a few years back when I was circling the drain in the ICU, when my chemo and my liver were duking it out and the chemo was winning. You really showed your true colours then. Throughout my ICU stay, you visited often and made yourself available for consultation. But one particular Sunday stands out in my mind. (That’s not exactly true; I have no recollection of that day but J. told me about it later and I believe everything she says.) You were not on call that weekend, but you unexpectedly showed up in the ICU to check on me. Despite the fact that I recall nothing, I will forever feel both guilty that you took the time away from your family–I am Jewish after all–and grateful that you made the time to check in on me. I don’t know if I would have made it through without your care. I owe you my life.

I hope your move works out brilliantly for both you and your family. I know you’ll be as nice to the many gay people in your new city as you have been to us. Oh, and one important insider tip (those of us who can’t drink have to find something to do in wine country): the several kids you’ve had since we first met might enjoy the Jelly Belly Factory tour even more than I did at 46, but don’t say I didn’t warn you about the sugar-laden gift shop.

You described the physician you have referred me to as smart and affable and even more handsome than you. All three remain to be seen, but I do trust your judgement implicitly and I look forward to meeting him. Let him know that even though I’m a psychologist, I’m a wee bit anxious about everything, would you? And please skip the part about my being high maintenance or he may refuse to take me on.

With deepest gratitude,

Annie (and J. too, of course)

A hospital room with a view

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’ve been so quiet lately because I haven’t been able to come up with blog-worthy topics during my cancer-free month of December. I wish that were the reason. In fact, I haven’t written because I haven’t had internet access in the semi-private hospital room I’ve been inhabiting since the weekend. At least I scored the window, which looks out onto the reservoir and parkland and as far as the mountains on a clear day.

Picture of winter scene out window of hospital, including iced-over reservoir and mountains in distance.

This is all my fault for declaring December a cancer-free month only. I should have broadened my proclamation to include illness of any kind. My bad. And so here I sit, a worsening symptom, a doctor visit, an emergency room referral, and an admission later.

And good thing for that admission. I got the full workup, and the smart doctors discovered some interesting things about my one-in-a-billion body. They also found a problem that needed addressing pronto, and so they fixed me up, thwarting a potential catastrophe. Now they’re ready to send me home.

Unfortunately, while I was here, I missed a nice relaxing weekend with my family, gave up J.’s fantastic lasagna with an out-of-town friend Friday night, and ditched two kind invitations for meals with friends. And J. relinquished any semblance of a weekend at all. She came straight to the ER from work Friday and, as always, supported me through this upheaval while holding the fort and arranging for doggy day care with our generous jump-into-action-when-needed friends. She’s been running ragged while I’ve been lying around.

Some good has come out of this, though. You guys had a break from post notifications for a few days. (All my idle chatter must get annoying.) Hopefully you had a great weekend; I don’t begrudge you that. In the meantime, I got some important information about what’s going on with my body that I’ll need to follow up on. Oh, and I didn’t die.

I’m also oddly excited to be on clear fluids for the week. I can see and smell from others’ trays that hospital food is still unappetizing, so I don’t feel I’m missing much, except J.’s lasagna. Also, the jello has improved over my last stay, and the unit has an excellent supply of popsicles. And I’d told you I had a few pounds to lose, so off they slide. I’ll be in tiptop shape in time for Hanukah, the Feast of Fried Foods.

Forget all that “positivity about starving” nonsense. I miss chewing my food, so I’ve taken to fantasizing about other people’s meals. I’ve been watching Food Network nonstop and texting friends to ask them for detailed meal descriptions. Good on you, S., for putting chocolate chips in your quinoa breakfast porridge, even if I bullied you into it. (I’d post the fantastic selfie she sent me this morning but the quinoa is oddly M.I.A. in the bowl of chocolate chips.) Do not diminish your Mini-Wheats, C.. Any no-salt-added cereal is divine in my books. I’ll admit I was jealous of your steak frites for lunch, though, W. I hope you enjoyed them.

Yes, I will have to live vicariously for now. I’ve developed a long list of cravings for my first supper later this week. It will start with dessert, specifically this three-ingredient recipe for Nutella brownies. Easy to make, and I think they’ll slide right down. Hey, if I chew each bite long enough, do you think a brownie might pass for clear fluid?

Delay of gratification is overrated

J. and I are fundamentally different when it comes to food. J. has mastered the art of eating when she’s hungry and stopping when she’s full. I know no other human like her. I have the odd day like that, but trust me, it’s just the odd day. If something tastes good, I eat it, and often too much. Hence my 10-15 lbs advantage over J. at all times.

You will not be surprised, then, to hear that I threw out a tiny bit of J.’s bake-sale cheesecake brownie. I had eaten mine the day J. brought it home, of course, but J. had consumed a small bite of hers for a few days in a row, leaving the remains untouched. Yes, you read that correctly, untouched. I had to throw out this tasty-when-fresh brownie because it had gone stale. You have no idea how much I hate filling the landfill with wasted food, especially when it’s dessert.

Because this sad series of events has happened before, I instigated a statute of limitations on dessert several years ago. The statute became a necessity after J. and I had spent several years together. As it stands, we can each have our own stash of bad-for-us foods, but the stash becomes communal property after a certain time. We haven’t yet agreed on the time, but imagine I’d suggest a shorter deadline than J. would.

In our cupboards, you may come across all manner of salties and sweets in opened packages. J. would choose salty over sweet. The open family-sized chip bags do not pose much problem to me, since I am clearly a sweets over salty gal, and I adhere rigidly to my prescribed low-sodium diet. No need for a statute here. J. ensures that the chips don’t go stale by consuming a small bowl every day or two until they’re gone. (Does anybody else ever do that?)

Baby in highchair eating chocolate with chocolate all over face.

My problem started in childhood.

Sweets, such as chocolate or desserty baked goods, pose more of a problem for me. If we have a special sweet treat in the house, not only can J. can consume hers one bite at a time over several days, she can leave the treat unfinished if she decides it’s not worth the calories. I, on the other hand, cannot leave anything sweet unfinished, unless it’s truly inedible. When I see J.’s treat half eaten, I pace and stew and do everything in my power to stop myself from finishing it. I don’t always succeed.

But this week, I took my success a little too far, thereby defying the statute. Tragedy ensued: J.’s remaining brownie got stale. I found a way to assuage my loss, however: I baked a full pan of fresh cheesecake brownies. Curiously, J. thought they were meh. I don’t know what “meh” means but I got the impression that she was not impressed, so the whole batch is mine.

Now, I need to pace myself with my spoils or find a new home for them. Thank goodness for my dear friend., G., who dropped by today and took a few off my hands. Let me know if you want any more, buddy. Anybody else craving a cheesecake brownie?

 

December resolution? Why not.

Why does everyone wait until the New Year to make resolutions? No wonder they’re bound to fail. I, on the other hand, have decided to invoke a December resolution. If it extends into the New Year, all the better.

Because resolutions are nothing like birthday wishes, I can share mine with you without jinxing it. So here it is: I am hereby declaring December a cancer-free month. Yes, folks, you heard it here first. It’s been a crazy cancer-filled year, culminating in November’s “we have no idea what’s going on with you.” All that time wasted fretting and stewing and not sleeping, and for what? I am suffering from cancer burnout, and I need a break. So I’ve decided to take this month off cancer. That means no doctors, no labs, and no ER visits. I can’t promise I won’t think about cancer, but I’m not going to talk about it.

I know, I may regret this public proclamation. It always storms the day after a car wash, and when rain is forecast, forgetting an umbrella ensures a torrential downpour. But I feel fairly secure in this plan. I will be healthy all month, maybe even into the New Year. Why scratch it if it’s working?

Jelly donut covered in white sugar.

Timmy’s have nothing on these sufganiyot.

What will I do with all my spare time? I’ve missed a number of yoga classes and dog walks attending doctors’ appointments. I haven’t been cooking as much as usual, and my frozen baked goods stores (I don’t give away everything I bake) are slowly becoming depleted. Yes, there is room in the freezer again. So many things to do, so little time.

If I’m taking the month off, you deserve the month off too, don’t you think? I’ll need more time to come up with blog-worthy post subjects if I’m not writing about cancer. What will I have to tell you? Unless my life gets a little more exciting, you may not hear from me as often over the next while.

You probably think I’m just doing this because I’m overwhelmed by Christmas preparations. Guess again. I’m Jewish, so readying for Christmas is not really in my repertoire. I recently realized, while talking to a friend, how much time and money I’ve saved over the years NOT making Christmas Cake for all my friends. You probably have Judaism envy. ‘Tis not my season, I’m afraid.

Chocolate coins in gold wrappers with menorahs on them.

Real gelt has Hebrew on it.

Since I’ll have a lot more time on my hands, I’ve decided to work on ridding myself of the few pounds I gained from the recent stress-induced overeating. (Sorry to tell you, J., but our supply of leftover Hallowe’en chocolate bars is almost all gone.) Another virtue of Judaism: it’s possible to lose weight this time of year, so long as we don’t overindulge on latkes, gelt, and sufganiyot.

How do I plan to shed the flab? Nothing drastic, trust me. I’ll just be replacing the sweets with sweet potatoes. Why sweet potatoes, you ask? I just read an article that suggested sweet potatoes can kill leukemia cells, so I’d better get on it. Anything that might help the cause. I’ll let you know if it works, but not until January. This month I’m cancer free, remember?

P.S. Anybody have a good recipe for sweet potato latkes?

Fried potato pancakes on a plate.

Applesauce and sour cream, please.