The Issue of Gratitude
Gratitude meme's posted by friends and acquaintances on my Facebook page have lately gotten me down. Life tends to toss spit balls sometimes when you are simply expecting a sneaky curve, which makes it difficult to navigate through the reeds. And my friend, this is an acceptable place to be. It's okay to take your time to regain your composure.
It's during these moments in time, when you are "stuck in the reeds," that you begin the real struggle to look at life with new perspective. My dearest friend, April, ended her fight with cancer yesterday morning--She was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer five years ago. She was nearly cancer free for two years after her first treatments ended. Then it metastasized. First into her bones and then into her organs. She has been a true warrior throughout the battle; always full of laughter, always full of love and always meeting her challenges straight on.
Last August, when we first learned of her cancer's move into her liver, I decided to create a fund-raiser. Not for her medical bills but for a trip of a lifetime for her and her two teen-aged girls on a two-week luxury eco-safari in Kenya. It had been her dream since childhood to see the elephants roaming free on the plains. She and I both knew her time was limited and soon she would be limited by her body. I had to move quickly.
Fortunately, I have many friends who do various and interesting things for a living. My friend, Kirsten Andersen, runs a non-profit, Creatura Wildlife Projects, dedicated to the preservation of wildlife around the globe. Through Kirsten's generous contacts I was able to secure the safari with two different eco-lodges, The Emakoko Lodge and Cottar's 1920's Safari Camp, both in Kenya. Trust me, when you put something like this together for a friend, you truly feel the overwhelming generosity of people near and far. Chris Mahoney, an independent safari guide, was the key to the success and enjoyment of April and her girls. They couldn't have been paired with anyone better. In less than one and a half weeks we had the entire trip secured, then put it out on social media to raise money.
I was unable to accompany April and the girls on the safari as I was already scheduled for a work trip. Fortunately, our mutual friend, Stephanie, was able to make the journey to Africa and care for April. They all had more than an amazing adventure thanks to the generous donations by family, friends and even a few strangers.
April flew to Denver from Maui the week of September 13th to visit friends and family. She basically collapsed when she got off the plane with pneumonia. My belief is that April had been holding herself together for so long in Hawaii that when she was on her way to Denver she relaxed-just enough-that her body took over and said we are done here. She was hospitalized almost immediately upon her arrival.
On Monday, September 24th, my phone began exploding with texts. I had been in Denver the week prior (thanks to the generosity of my friend Pat Barrett) as I was preparing for a six-week work trip scheduled to leave September 29th. I thought that was going to be my last time to see April and say my tearful good-byes. She looked at me and simply said, "It's fine Cissy, everything is going to be just fine."
April's two daughters were arriving in Denver from Maui at 2pm and her condition had taken a serious turn. Everyone knew she was nearing the end. I managed to book a flight from Seattle that left at 2:45pm. I arrived at the hospital just after the girls had their last moments with their mother. April immediately knew who I was, she puckered her lips for a kiss and threw her arms in the air for a hug.
The moon was full and the night was long and hard. During April's lucid moments she would look at each of us square in the eye, smile, and say "I love you." We would collectively look back at her and steal her favorite line, "I love you more," which would bring out her beautiful radiant smile and sometimes even a giggle. She remained loving, strong and fierce until her final peaceful breath at 6:06am, surrounded by the love of her four best friends.
The reeds around me have grown tall and very thick. Everyday life is in my way right now, causing unfathomable sorrow. But then, I think of everyone who helped send April to Africa. To fulfill her dream of seeing elephants and creating a memorable amazing adventure with her two daughters--which they can look back on with smiles in their hearts--when the pain of losing their mother lessens. I think of my dear, dear mentor, boss and friend, Réanne, who without hesitation on Monday morning--sent me to Denver to help my friend cross over. In writing this, the reeds have parted a bit despite the horrible ending. There is such beauty in the hearts of those that helped her create these memories for her daughters. And those who support me. I can (just now) feel the gratitude welling a bit in my heart--just please give me a few months before you post another meme on my Facebook wall.
Let Them Eat Cake
Cake. Funny, growing up I was never a fan. I feigned loving it just to fit in with all the other children at birthday parties but would secretly take fork fills and tuck chunks into my paper napkin or offer it silently to any awaiting dog mouth under the table. I am still not a huge fan of cake but have now come to realize that most of the mothers of the 1970’s served box mix cakes with canned frosting and some horrible chemical concoction they considered to be ice cream, this combination was what my tiny sophisticated palate couldn’t bear. I have always been a bit of a food snob, surprisingly, even as a child.
My foray into cooking started a couple years after my parents divorced. My sister and I lived with our father. He did his best. Friday nights we’d go to the Howard Johnson’s and she and I would order chocolate chip pancakes for dinner. Saturday nights we would eat at various neighbors, friends, or his co-worker’s houses and on Sunday my dad would barbecue. Monday through Thursday was the inevitable single fathers’ go to: Swanson’s Hungry Man Dinner. Ugh! I still can’t eat a home-made Salisbury steak to this day. My sister, who is two years older than me, broke out first with trying her hand at cooking. She chose Tuna Helper and frozen Totino’s pizza and called it good. Honestly, she still can’t cook, I’m certain that her husband can’t either, they eat out a lot (and I cook on holidays.)
The onslaught of Tuna Helper finally forced my hand. I ordered my first cookbook at the Book Fair in our school library in 1972, I was in the second grade. It was the Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cookbook. I was so excited when it arrived. It was a beautiful yellow and white hard cover book with a drawing of three kids happily cooking. And the boy was holding. You guessed it. A cake.
I spent hours slowly flipping through the pages. There were so many incredible delights to make and the knowledge of how to execute each dish was carefully laid out before my wide hungry brown eyes. It was almost too much. I took a week to plan and choose my first menu. I set my sights high: Bunny Salad, Tuna Burgers and Ice Cream Flower Pots for dessert. The book delivered all of its glorious promises of delighting my family. Well, close enough. The cheese from the tuna burgers that melted in the foiled wrap made them stick and they sort of fell apart, my bunny’s tails didn’t look like perfectly round balls of fluff...their eyes were askew and I forgot to get sliced almonds so they had no ears. But oh my, the delight in my family’s eyes was enough to encourage me to try more and more recipes.
I systematically went through the book and made nearly every recipe until I came to the dessert section and you guessed it...cake. Most were made from the dreaded box mixes (as it was a child’s recipe book) but I wanted something more...and then I found it on page ninety-seven: Cocoa Fudge Cake. It was made from scratch and it was divine. Moist, rich and delicious and no fake ingredients. Later in life I became a baker at a dude ranch, then the dessert chef at a Hawaiian restaurant, and inevitably held other various cooking positions while attending college. Eventually I owned my own restaurant, where I occasionally made cake. My specialty was a seven-layered banana walnut cake with a burnt buttered cream frosting (trust me it's like eating heaven.)
I no longer fear most birthday cakes as the dreadful dry chemical concoctions of the past, but if I spot a suspicious-looking confection, which I can easily do, I will turn it down politely as I am (not surprisingly) still a bit of a food snob.