How many mitzvot does it take to change a life?

All it takes is one good deed--doves flying around world with banner

It has come to my attention that I need to clarify last Friday’s post. Do you really think I’d hallucinate a perfectly braided six-strand challah? Or a hockey pool trophy? A prize-worthy freshly baked pie? Is my hockey pool win that unfathomable?

But do you really think I’d go so far as to fake a morphine hallucination? Would I stoop that low? No, kids, I was not hallucinating. I’m sorry if my tongue was not implanted firmly enough in my cheek. Despite my persistent proclamations otherwise, I am sad to report that I would lie to you after all. In the coming weeks, perhaps we can work on rebuilding trust.

The last week has been a whirlwind. Out-of-town visitors, two units of red blood cells, a baking extravaganza, and not just one but two blood donor clinics held in my honour last Saturday. After weeks of preparation, Supercousin in Toronto and Superfriend in Calgary pulled off the impossible: they gathered donors near and far to give the Gift of Life in my honour.

Those who could not give blood contributed in other selfless ways–they provided home-baked goods, singing, and moral support–while those who could donate made time, some overcoming paralyzing needle phobias, in support of an important cause.

Those donors who were not available at either site that day made appointments to donate on other days. There were many first-time donors who breezed right through, realizing that the process is easy peasy and wondering why they’d never donated previously. I wouldn’t be surprised if they found themselves donating again in the future.

The generous donors, young and old, first timers and repeat attenders, who participated on Saturday, know that I am dying. They want to feel they can contribute to prolonging my life in whatever way they can. Our dear Calgary friends who happened to be in Toronto this past weekend dropped in on the Toronto clinic so they could participate, roping their relatives into donating on their behalf. Many of the mensches I had not even met before.

So how many mitzvot does it take to change a life? One would have been enough, but there were so many freely given on Saturday, I lost count. All of these mensches taking an hour or two or three out of their day to give that most precious gift, not just of life but of hope and support. Were our roles reversed, I’d only hope I would do the same for you.

This week, when I may well need a red-blood-cell top up yet again, I will be thinking of all of you, whether you donated or not, knowing that you did whatever you could for me.

For the months leading up to Super Saturday, I felt loved and nurtured. People understood the urgent need for blood, not just for me but for others in my predicament. I’m not the only one benefitting from mensches like you.

So thanks. A lot. I wouldn’t be alive without you.

I’ve decided it takes only one mitzvah to change a life. Everything else is icing on the lemon-poppy seed cake. And I’d hope, were our roles reversed, I’d give as freely to you as you have given to me.

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From this day forward, reader beware

Puppy dog outline in shading of rainbow

I realize that my last post was heavy and depressing. I am grateful to anyone who read it, and for the resulting outpouring of compassion and support. Even as I was writing you, I wondered whether it was fair to dump these tough challenges I’m facing on you. Who would want to know I’m suffering from escalating, excruciating pain? What a downer.

When I first started my blog, my health was precarious but my death was not imminent, so my writing reflected that dichotomy. There were lighter posts to balance the heavier ones, and I worked hard not to overwhelm you, my readers, with depressing topics day after day. But times have changed and I am staring death in the face. Is it fair to expose you to this nitty gritty, or should I keep all that to myself?

You know my answer: I wouldn’t lie to you. You’ve been with me for the long haul and I’m not going to sugar coat my day-to-day experience now that I’m declining. Consider me too honest. I am writing about the reality of death and dying, which rarely involves puppy dogs and rainbows, or rainbowed puppy dogs for that matter.

I can attest from personal experience that dying is not fun. It’s scary and overwhelming and, although there are ways to alleviate my progressively debilitating symptoms, those interventions won’t stop the course of my illness. They won’t change my end date. In the meantime, no more suffering for this gal.

When I was at the cancer centre yesterday for a red-blood-cell transfusion, Dr. Blood Lite dropped by to discuss my pain. He told me pain was unacceptable, and prescribed morphine, which he felt was a better option than codeine. The doctor knows best, so off to the pharmacy I traipsed with my triplicate prescription.

Morphine is used widely in the management of cancer-related pain. Today I picked up my prescription from the pharmacist–I made this lovely young woman cry when I told her I was palliative–and I will start taking this drug tonight because I need to. I am hoping to knock my pain out of the park.

The doctor said I will not notice much difference in my functioning on this dosage of morphine as compared with the amount of codeine I’ve been taking. No walking around like a zombie or drooling out of the side of my mouth at this dosage at least, although I may experience the odd hallucination. I’m okay with that if the drug can reduce my pain. This should allow me to get back to living my life from somewhere other than the couch. I have so many items left on my baking to-do list….

So kids, you have a choice to make. You can ditch me now, and I will fully understand. If you stick with me, consider yourself duly warned that what I write may not be easy to read. But it will be honest, and I’ve always felt that honesty is the best policy. I think you’re strong enough to handle it. If it’s any consolation, I’ll be muddling through it with you since I don’t have a choice.

A night to remember and cherish

Plate of latke, salad, and bagel with lox and cream cheese along with brochure for cooking class

I try not to speak for others, but I daresay we all enjoyed ourselves at last night’s Jewish cooking class. Thanks to the we’ll-try-anything attitude of 14 special friends, and Judy’s powers of persuasion, the previously cancelled class ended up filled to overflowing with dear friends from all walks of our lives. They mingled and fumbled and helped one another to assemble rugalach and knishes, ending up with substantial overflow to bake up at home.

The instructor made a mean knish. Sure, the potential knish fillings he provided included bacon, but at least he acknowledged the irony. My conscience allowed me to add a few porky bits. (Any moral superiority implied in adding a few vs. a ton of bacon is questionable.) I didn’t ask, but I imagine the other two Jews present added bacon to theirs as well. J. added a lot more bacony goodness, and hers tasted better for it.

The instructor also demoed latke making, which we weren’t expecting, for good measure. Sure, Bubi would never have added garlic to her latkes, but I granted him creative license and choked that fried deliciousness down. We were there for tasty Jewish food, but more importantly, the company of good friends.

Could it have been a more perfect evening? When I looked around the room, I saw people having fun, enjoying one another, and glad to be there. I could not have asked for anything more.

But the wonders of the evening didn’t stop there. One friend secretly sewed me a gorgeous apron that all attendees signed. The inscriptions were beautiful, and J. had to wrest it from me at bedtime before I put it on over my pyjamas because of the greasy, floury mess I’d made. What a beautiful and thoughtful memory of the evening.

Another couple shared news of their long-awaited pregnancy, complete with ultrasound photo. I have been biting my tongue until it bleeds not to ask if there are any challah buns in the oven. Parents extraordinaire they will be.

Kudos to every person there, who showed up simply because it was important to us.

At the end of the class, the instructor pulled me aside to ask if I was happy with the outcome. I told him I was indeed, and explained that the class was especially important to me because I didn’t expect to live long enough to attend. He told me he was happy to be able to provide a distraction from my reality for at least a few hours.

A few hours?? How about the whole week leading up to the class when, after being so distressed over the cancellation, I learned J. had resurrected the evening with a little help from our friends? The joy I felt when J. described the immediate responses to the invitations? The friends who regretted they could not attend but offered to pay for a spot to ensure the class would happen? The excitement of anticipating everyone’s enjoyment of the evening, and creating memories for all?

The distraction is not over yet. We have a lot of baking left to do. Anyone want some porky potato knishes hot from the oven? I’m sure J. would be more than willing to share.

 

The elephant grew and grew until it didn’t fit in the room anymore

Picture of seated elephant taking up the bulk of the roomI’ve had an elephant named Leukemia accompanying me to every large social gathering for the past 6 years or so. I am inevitably preoccupied with who knows Leukemia, who doesn’t know, and when I’ll be asked a question that forces me to disclose Leukemia’s presence.

Over the past few months, Leukemia has been consumed by his bigger, more imposing cousin, Dying. Dying is clingier than Leukemia; wherever I go, he’s always by my side. It’s not a secret that Dying is there–you, my readers, are well aware–but not everyone I encounter knows. So when I arrive at a get together with unfamiliar people or those I haven’t seen for years, I’m on high alert. Who will ask the first question that will force me to introduce my imaginary friend?

Last Friday, we were invited to a lovely celebration for a friend who had been recently granted Canadian citizenship. We wouldn’t have missed it. I tried to leave Dying at home–this was our friend’s special night–but the elephant is clingy.

What I failed to consider was how emotional I’d find being at this gathering with Dying by my side. I’d be seeing a number of people I hadn’t seen in some time, only some of whom would know about Dying.

Soon after the initial greetings and congratulations, I became teary, which surprised me. I realized that I would not see many of the guests again after that night. Then came the awkward questions from the ones who did know Dying. “Are you still fostering dogs/doing yoga/working?” Some who knew about Dying avoided me altogether. I get that; who wants to talk about Dying at a party? Still, if you can see the elephant, I’d be grateful if you’d acknowledge him. It’s not like Dying is great company for me either.

Then my guardian angel appeared: the sister of the host, who, despite her rushing around laying out food, visited with J. and me briefly when we arrived. She greeted us with a big hug, and, in the process of offering us drinks, acknowledged what I was going through and expressed her sadness for us both. Her kindness couldn’t have been better timed, and more needed, in that moment. We were away from the group so my unbridled tears did not destroy the evening for everyone. She gave me a chance to be sad, which I’d been trying unsuccessfully to contain, and she shared her sadness too.

A while back, a palliative home care nurse told us how dying people’s worlds shrink as they become increasingly ill. She was right. I leave the house less, and, other than medical appointments, my calendar is sparse at best. No more yoga classes or PALS outings, rare social engagements, and lots more time at home sleeping. Social outings with unfamiliar people are simply too stressful now that Dying insists on joining me everywhere I go.

Congratulations to my dear friend and may he enjoy many happy years as a Canadian. J. and I were grateful to be included in his celebration. I do wish that Dying hadn’t insisted on crashing the party. Trust me, I’d turf him if I could.

Never say never again

Freshly baked rugelach, a Jewish rolled pastry

Monday was a tough day. I called to enrol an interested friend in the upcoming Jewish cooking class, only to learn the class had been cancelled for lack of enrolment. Then I was chastised for not signing my friend up earlier. Are there not 16 Jewish-food-obsessed people in this whole town? This class was important to me, not only because it was a Jewish theme, but because I’d set it as a goal to work, or shall I say “live”, toward.

I had been hesitant to enrol because I thought I’d be dead by that date. J. encouraged me to take the risk so I did. No wonder I was heartbroken when I received news of the cancellation. The bearer of bad news encouraged me to maintain my credit at the school rather than receiving a refund so I could take another class in the future. I insisted that a refund would be preferable, but appropriately withheld my rationale. You would have been proud of me.

As I moped around the house over the following few days, my much better half–perhaps we should call her Jane Bond today?–started scheming. Guided by one of her favourite mantras–it never hurts to ask nicely–she took action. Unbeknownst to me, she called the cooking school and asked whether they would reinstate the class if she could muster up sufficient enrolment. Then she emailed a number of our foodiest friends to let them know how important this class was to me, and asked if they’d consider signing up. The response was overwhelming. Within 5 minutes she had 7 definites. By day’s end, she had 19 takers for 16 spots. Sorry to those who were too late to make the cut but you gotta be quick with my girl.

Late yesterday afternoon, J. told me what she’d been up to. I’d noticed that her phone had been pinging off the hook with texts, and she seemed in especially good humour as the day progressed. A more astute person than me would have sensed that something was up.

In the late afternoon, J. let me in on the secret. She told me that friends had responded immediately and excitedly and that already she had enough people to hold the class. For the rest of the day, she kept me in the loop as the class filled with our friends. My tears took a sharp turn from sad to happy.

Kudos to J. for making this happen. When an obstacle arises, I lay down and die (pun intended) while she rises to the challenge. As the class enrolment shows, J. can be very persuasive.

And kudos to our incredible community of support, who jump whenever called into action. J. shared how important this cooking class was to me, and to us, and our friends wanted to make that happen. What a precious gift.

I am so grateful and excited, and not just because I can almost taste the knishes and rugelach we’ll be making. Sure, gravlax is Swedish–I imagine our teacher is not Jewish–but it’s a close enough facsimile to lox. The night should be a spectacular. I hope that everyone who attends will enjoy both the food and the memories we create together.

 

 

Even when things are going well, thoughts of dying sneak in.

Picture of new Calgary Central Library

So many wonderful initiatives are happening on my behalf, I don’t know where to start. Supercousin has already confirmed 24 family and friends in Toronto, and many more who wished they could donate but are unable, for the June 16 Toronto blood donor clinic in my honour.

Now Superfriend in Calgary has stepped in to arrange for a donor clinic here on the same day. She has already confirmed 10 people, many of whom I don’t even know, to fill the 15 chairs she’s holding. Contact me if you’re in Calgary and you have it in you to give; I’ll connect you with Superfriend. I’m sure we can fill those chairs. Those who can’t donate for whatever reason have offered moral and culinary support.

As if that’s not enough, over the past few months, my Superkin have been arranging another special honour. You know what a library nerd I am, how I worked in libraries for years and how I still love to hang out in the stacks. Every so often I even reshelve a book that’s out of place, for old time’s sake.

On November 1, 2018, Calgary will be opening its architecturally stunning new downtown library. As a fundraiser, people can buy windows for inscription. So my Superkin arranged to buy me a window, which will be inscribed for the next 25 years with my name and a few descriptive words of J.’s choosing.

But Superkins’ donations were so generous that they quickly purchased one window, and, with the overflow, decided to purchase a second window for J. Truly, she deserves a window more than me,. She’s been by my side through years of illness, caring for me without complaint, patiently adjusting to my slowing pace, and never abandoning ship. I was overjoyed to come up with her inscription, which not surprisingly ends with, “Never an overdue fine.”

I am trying to see only the joy in all of this, but there is something hanging over me: I’m going to die, and it may happen before any of these events transpire. It didn’t help that I woke up with a visible lump on my neck this morning, perhaps a lymph node saying hello. My mind immediately went to dying, as it tends to do. J. called the cancer centre and the nurse told us to hang loose until we see Dr. Blood Lite tomorrow. No need to contact the funeral home after all.

Since I’ve learned that I am palliative, I’ve tried to keep living my life, planning for events down the road as if I would be there to participate. No one has given me an exact end date, and even if I knew the date, wouldn’t I want to keep living until I die?

There’s a Jewish cooking class being offered at the end of May, and I signed up, after some hesitation. How often do you think Jewish cooking classes are offered in Calgary? Never. Signing up for the class gave me a goal. Then there’s the blood donor clinic in mid-June, and the library opening in mid-November.

Hey, do you think they’d let us don hard hats so we could view our library windows before the official opening? I might just have to inquire.

 

The mystery of the angels in my midst

Patti Labelle quote: You don't have to be an angel, you just have to be someone who can give

When I think of angels, I often think of the heavenly ones with gauzy wings and glowing halos. Kind of like Tinkerbell. Recently, however, I have come to realize that there are many angels here on earth. Don’t worry, I’m not getting all religious on you; I’m making an observation based on personal experience.

Angels have been jumping out of the woodwork recently. There are the long lost friends who have heard I am dying and are reaching out with loving letters of comfort and support.They have shared happy memories of our time together and reminded me of what our relationship has meant to them. Others who live closer by are sharing similar sentiments with me face to face. It’s uplifting to learn I am loved before I die.

I can’t imagine it is easy to communicate these feelings, whether in person or in writing, but these friends are pushing through the discomfort to share frankly and honestly. Knowing that I have had a positive impact on their lives, or that I have brought them joy, or provided support when they’ve needed it–these acknowledgements make me feel my life has had value.

Then there are the doers. The deliverers of lasagna and grapefruit and other various and sundry delicacies, the visitors who drop in at the cancer centre on short notice to pass the time of a transfusion, and the dog lovers who ensure Jelly is cared for if we are waylaid or slip out of town for the day. Their importance cannot be understated.

But there is one particular angel, hereafter named Supercousin, who takes the chocolate cake this week. Supercousin has arranged a Canadian Blood Services clinic in my honour in Toronto on Saturday, June 16. She has initiated this clinic  because she, like many others, feels helpless from afar and wants to do something tangible to show that she cares. She has announced the clinic to close friends and family, and the response has been swift and magnificent. Already 20 donors have stepped up, plus several others who unfortunately are ineligible to donate at this time. Through this venture, Supercousin is raising awareness of the critical need for blood donations. I know I am using more than my fair share of blood products of late, so any efforts to replenish the stocks I deplete can only help others.

If you happen to live in Toronto and would like to donate at this clinic, let me know and I will connect you with my awe-inspiring Supercousin. (To reach me, you can comment on the blog, text, or email me.) If you do not live in Toronto, but would still like to donate, let me know. Maybe a group of us can crash the Calgary clinic (or wherever else you live) while the scheduled Toronto clinic is underway. We may not be able to add to the official Toronto-clinic tally, but I have a feeling the overflow of blood products will find good homes.

I’d love to be in Toronto June 16 to cheer these generous donors on, but my horoscope stresses that travel is out. You can be sure I’ll be there in spirit, however, or Skype, or maybe even FaceTime, assuming a young person can show me how.

Choosing your words, and your verb tenses, carefully

As I move into my palliative reality, I’ve had several discussions with others on whether a sudden death is preferable to one that is expected. What are your thoughts?

Although my timeline may have changed recently, forcing me into fast forward, J. and I have had (the gift of?) time to plan for my impending death. We have been systematically sorting out some of the logistics of my departure. Why, just yesterday, I sold J. my car for one dollar, since I doubt I’ll need a vehicle up there. Then I promptly spent my unexpected windfall on wine gums.

When someone dies unexpectedly, loved ones may not have a chance to tell the person how they felt. There may be unresolved issues amongst the survivors, complicating their grief. Imagine a teenager who commits suicide after a fight with a parent, or an estranged brother who learns his sister has died suddenly, preempting any chance at reconciliation.

Well, there need be none of those unresolved issues with me, folks. Throughout my life, I have tried to make amends with others I’ve felt I have wronged. I’ve always tried to be honest with people, perhaps to a fault, but I’ve never intended to be mean. If I have crossed into meanness with you, and not addressed my behaviour at the time, I am truly sorry.

I have also tried to let those I am close to know how deeply I value them through my actions and my words. If I don’t get to all of you before I die, I’ll trust you have sensed my love and gratitude for our relationship. I have been truly blessed with a richness of friendship and love.

If you haven’t yet, take some time to tell your loved one what the relationship has meant to you. Forgive me for wanting to guide you through this process but I have had some experience with this lately.

If your beloved is dying, consider addressing only the good, and leaving out the bad and the ugly. If that person said or did anything to hurt you many years ago, don’t raise it now. You’ve had ages to address that wrong and chosen not to. I can attest that dying people are frankly not up to the confrontation; they’ve got other things, like hospices and graveyards, on their minds. I realize this may seem unfair, but I’d urge you to stick with the positives in those final exchanges.

When you choose your honest words with me, maybe you too could consider whether they will be hurtful. Now’s the perfect time to consider biting your tongue until it bleeds. Feel free to discuss your longstanding grudge against me with someone else, however. Perhaps therapy might help you resolve your ongoing resentment. Let me provide the name of an excellent psychologist while I still can.

Finally, if you want to tell me what I’ve meant to you, consider your verb tenses wisely. I’d prefer your addressing me in the present tense since I’m not dead yet. If you tell me that you loved me, I’ll wonder when you stopped, for example. Once I’ve died, past tense is fair game if my name arises. For now, I’m still here, and I can still hear you. Thanks.

Basset hound with ears, with quote "Just so you know, if you want to talk, I'm all ears."

What [inappropriate thing] would Annie have said?

Not long ago, my fourth blogaversary and 600th post passed without fanfare. I can’t believe I missed an opportunity to laud my accomplishments; I must have been distracted by other matters. I’ve told you all many times how grateful I am for your keeping in touch through my blog. Your reading has spared me recounting difficult news, especially of late, to each of you individually. I plan to keep you in the loop of my life by writing for as long as I can.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how my life is going to end soon, and how the story I’ve been telling over these four years will end with it. In my blog, I will continue to share my difficulty accepting my prognosis, the end-of-life decisions I have made, and other honest details of my decline. I imagine you may regret my oversharing, but you’ve kindly hung in there with me.

It saddens me that you will know the end of my story, but I won’t know the end of yours. I want to be there to see how your life turns out, but I won’t be. I think of all my beloved nieces and nephews who are nearing or already settling into adulthood, and I will miss watching their lives flourish. If they get married or have children or grow in other ways, I will not be there as witness. I’d like to think I’ll be cheering from above, but will they be able to hear me?

And if any of you experience hardship, I won’t be there to offer comfort, as you have done for me and J. so magnificently through my illness. I won’t be able to lend an attentive ear or drop off a lasagna or just be there, to do what good friends do. I’ll be leaving you high and dry.

When I was helping a client through grief, I’d often try to bring the person they’d lost into the room with us. No Ouija boards or empty chairs; we’d simply talk about the person. I might ask, “What would your (now-deceased) loved one say about your current breakup/job struggle/pregnancy?” Some clients thought I was crazy, but others took comfort in imagining how their beloved might have supported them through their struggle. Conjuring up that person’s voice when they were stuck helped them move forward.

And so I wonder, could I be that voice of love and support in your ear after I’m gone? If you are feeling low or alone or upset, could you imagine how I might comfort you? You know I’d want to be there, and I’d be overjoyed knowing I might help you muddle through, even after I am gone.

I realize that trying to enlist my help after I’ve died may backfire altogether. There’s the risk you may conjure up Loose-Lips Annie, who has blurted out countless inappropriate statements over her lifetime that she wishes she could retract. Hopefully not, though. I’ll try my hardest to contain my overly blunt persona, even from the great beyond. That is, unless I think you could really use a swift kick in the pants. Then all bets are off.

Basset hound on bed comforting person in hospice

Even a realist believes in miracles

Israelites leaving Egypt through parting of Red Sea

Tonight Jews the world over will be eating matzah, bitter herbs, and greens dipped in salt water and retelling the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. How did that Red Sea magically part? And how is it that in 54 years, I’ve never noticed the hiding the afikomen, that special piece of matzah, for the kids to find?

While we Jews celebrate our freedom, Christians will be celebrating the miracle of the abundance of chocolate eggs. (That is what Easter is all about, isn’t it? The annual chocolate egg hunt?) The kids will be wondering whether the Easter bunny stole the eggs from an unknowing chicken (rabbits lay bunnies, not eggs), how they too were hidden without anybody noticing, and, this year in Calgary, whether they’ll be able to locate them underneath several inches of fresh snow. Dress well for the hunt, wee ones, it’s cold out there.

I will admit I am somewhat distracted from the holiday festivities this year. Rather than focussing on the miracles of the season, I am focussed on the miracle that I am alive and feeling fairly well. I have a roof over my head, food in my fridge, a loving partner, a dog who adores me when I feed her, and friends surrounding me. I couldn’t ask for more.

But I am also a realist. I don’t believe a miracle will alter what happens to me over the next year. No magic potions, no oddball interventions, no flying down to Mexico for the unvalidated treatment that preys on those who are betting on life. I also don’t believe a doctor will discover a cure for my condition just in time for me. If that were going to happen, it would have already.

I have not consulted a naturopath or a witch doctor or an airy fairy shamanic healer. I don’t think chiropractic care or reiki can halt the progress of my illness in its tracks. Others may pursue those alternative interventions, and more power to them for so doing. I’m solidly a Western medicine girl. My Western-trained doctors have kept me alive this long, and I’m going to trust them to do whatever they can for as long as they can to keep me well.

Please don’t be offended if I politely decline the miracle intervention you suggest. You want me to try those magic mushrooms (not the psychedelic kind) that saved that guy with advanced cancer? They sound amazing, but I’ll pass. I don’t believe they’d help me.

Don’t cry for me, Argentina. I’m oddly at peace with what’s going to happen to me. Knowing I have no control over my impending death is freeing, and easier than hoping for a miracle cure. In the meantime, I plan to treat my body with respect, barring the list of unhealthy foods I plan to eat before I die (Big Mac anyone?), to move my body as much as I can, and to spend time doing things I enjoy with people I love. My goal is more happy than sad days. If I can keep Saddy on side, I’ll be fine.

Happy Holidays! May you all have many personal miracles to celebrate.