Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Blessings Dropping Blossoms around You: Rest in Peace, Aunt Janet

As I wrote about earlier this month, my mom's sister Janet has been in the hospital this month (she's pictured above, holding my nephew Daniel, in 2004). She died this morning after suffering a serious stroke Monday morning. She went into the hospital earlier this month for a routine bypass surgery on her leg, and she contracted pneumonia. Although it was difficult to see on the x-ray, they detected a mass in her lungs. She elected not to seek further treatment, and made it clear to her family that she didn't want any heroic measures. She briefly went into a rehab facility, but then had a massive stroke and was moved back into the hospital.

Yesterday morning my mom, Nadine, and I went to visit her, as prepared as we could be. My maternal grandmother had a stroke when I was 9 or 10, and she refused all treatment because she was a Christian Scientist. Amazingly, she made a full recovery within a month, before succumbing to a second stroke. I will never forget seeing her slack mouth and body after having the stroke. Still, although I tried to prepare myself, the moment I walked in and saw my Aunt Janet like that, after she was alert just before Christmas, I broke down in tears and couldn't keep it in.

We were so glad to have Nadine with us, because she could ask all the right questions of the doctors and nurses. It is so wonderful to have a doctor in the family at times like this (akin to when Chris was in the NICU). Aunt Janet had taken a turn for the worse overnight and was requiring massive doses of oxygen, yet she was only saturating at 92%. Not good. Even later, when she was oxygenating better, she was really struggling to breathe and her chest was contracting deeply with each breath. She looked very uncomfortable. The CT scan looked awful, as it looked like she had large masses and lots of fluid around her lungs. The doctor told us that they had decided to give her a couple of days of antibiotics to see if she would rally, but after that they would be moving to "comfort care." Aunt Janet had told her sons that if she ever had a stroke, she didn't want any nutrition or any ventilation, etc. She was on saline and antibiotics only, and on great doses of oxygen.

Fortunately, she knew we were there. She was able to murmur noises and once said "no." The speech therapist got her to try to say Mom's name--she asked her if she knew who was there with her, and what was her sister's name. When asked if she was awake, she said yes. At one point, she opened her eyes for several minutes, and Nadine showed her photos of her kids and mine. In the afternoon her sons were there as well, and my dad came in after we called him to let him know it was not looking good. I had not seen my cousins for years, and I always had a special fondness for my cousin Mike (with whom I share a birthday), so it was good to see them and reminisce about Aunt Janet. They seemed to have accepted that Aunt Janet's life was nearing the end.

We were greatly relieved to hear that on Christmas, my cousin's daughter took Aunt Janet to see her daughter, Jan, who is at home on hospice care. This was one of the most distressing things to my family--that mother and daughter were both dying but could not be together, over the holidays. So we are grateful that they could connect one last time.

And as hard as it is on all of us--especially my mom--I feel that this was the way Aunt Janet would have wanted to go. Instead of lingering on, suffering from cancer, feeling that she was a "burden" to her family...she was responsive and aware on her last day, even if she could not communicate much, and she knew she was loved. When I told her I loved her as I kissed her goodbye, I could swear she tried to say "I love you" back to me.

I love serendipity. This quote below was the random "quote of the day" I selected from my blog to post on Facebook. Also, when I started writing this blog post, the perfect song I have posted on my blog playlist began playing (click on "Say Goodbye" on the right-side of my blog, #15, to hear it). We weren't ready to say goodbye, but Aunt Janet was ready to rest.

"But listen to me: for one moment, quit being sad.
Hear blessings dropping their blossoms around you."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Book Recommendation: Open, by Andre Agassi

Open: An Autobiography Open: An Autobiography
by Andre Agassi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever since the 1992 Wimbledon, when I bet my husband breakfast in bed that Agassi would win (and yes, I enjoyed my breakfast in bed!), I've been a diehard Agassi fan.

Something about his rebellious ways and appearance, combined with sensitive eyes, wonderful smile, and gentle voice, has always appealed to me.

Open was on my "to read" list after a Goodreads friend highly recommended it. But when my brother- and sister-in-law gave it to us for Christmas, I dove right in. I think they intended it for my tennis fan husband, not knowing that I was an Agassi fan. I couldn't put the book down, much to Mike's surprise. ("I can't believe you're reading a tennis book!")

Many have heard about Agassi's confession that he took crystal meth in the 1990s during a very rough patch. He is unflinchingly honest about a number of topics. He hated tennis but was forced into playing by a dictatorial father. The sport exacted its toll on his body, especially because Agassi suffers from a debilitating spinal condition.

Agassi took his time growing up. He finally realized that he needed to surround himself with people who could help him do that. In spite of dropping out of school in 9th grade, he turned around his own feelings about school and started a foundation and a school to help underprivileged children. Last year they had their first graduating class, and every child graduated and was accepted into college.

It's clear that Agassi wrote this book (with a talented cowriter) as a confessional, to remind people that people shouldn't spend their lives doing what they don't want to do.

He closes the book by saying that he wanted the book to be a gift to his children, because one of his greatest regrets in life is not understanding how important books are.

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Christmas Miracle

A woman went into cardiac arrest while giving birth and dies. They decide to do an emergency c-section and the baby is born without a heart rate. Then a miracle occurs. Both the mom and the baby come back to life. I love stories like these.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas 2009

A post-chocolate-faced Kieran putting the angel on top of the Christmas tree:

Look at all that chocolate! Must be from those chocolate Advent calendars...there's Kieran with the requisite bunny ears, which he makes for every damn photo nowadays...
Nutcracker-obsessed Kieran with a few of his nutcrackers and nutcracker artwork:

Christmas was weird this year...on Christmas Eve sunny-dispositioned Marie was fighting off the blues. Aunt and cousin in hospital and hospice, another aunt battling melanoma, and my brother in a deep depression, which caused him to stay away from my family entirely this Christmas. As I was running a few errands on Christmas Eve day, I found myself fighting off tears. Later on my mom reminded me of all the bittersweet Christmases I've survived, which could contribute to my emotional state. When I was a child, we were in a bad car accident on Christmas--fortunately we all survived but it was very scary. A very difficult Christmas as an adolescent after a deeply traumatic, scarring experience. Emotional Christmases spent away from family when I was in Japan. The Christmas right after bringing Chris home from 117 days in the NICU--a joyful one, to be sure, but emotional as well. A few years ago when we were in England for Christmas, I felt very melancholy to be away from my extended family. I suppose I idealize Christmas and it makes me emotional if it's not perfect. But when is Christmas ever perfect?

We attended Christmas Eve services at a nearby Lutheran church--we are never able to attend our own church because their services are at the same time as our family dinner. It was packed to the brim, and the music was beautiful...and even though my parents left early (so they could visit my mom's sister in the hospital and take a few food boxes to leave outside of my brother's door) and I was sad that my sister and her family were not there, I decided to focus on how blessed I am with my own family and not dwell on the people who were not there. At least I didn't light anyone's hair on fire this year!

After church we drove to Oregon City, to the home of my uncle and aunt (the one who is fighting melanoma). We were all worried about the toll it would take on them to host Christmas Eve, as they always do, but it seemed to be something they were determined to do.

Nick fell asleep on the journey from church to Oregon City--and continued to snooze a bit until more people started to arrive:

We were shocked, because our family was the FIRST to arrive at the Christmas Eve gathering. We have never been first in my entire life. In fact, when I told one of my aunts that we had been first, she had to sit down to catch her breath! :)

Grandma and Grandpa arrive, and Nick continues to doze--on his favorite shoulder:

It was wonderful to have new babies at our family gathering! Drew and Cayden, sons of my cousins (Drew with his grandpa, my Uncle Ed, and Cayden with his dad, Cameron):

Again, with those bunny ears (or raindeer antlers?):

My cousin Gary's wife Kelly (who is a true baby magnet) with Drew--she was making him giggle really loud!
Like mother, like daughter--Kelly's daughter McKenna with Drew:

This boy is the SPITTING image of his father (my cousin, Scott)!

A bunch of second cousins:

Cousin Gary (Kelly's husband) with Drew...clearly, they need another baby!! :)

Nicholas with the little reindeer puzzle that he LOVED and didn't want to leave behind:

Sisters and mom to baby Drew (and uncle):

Chris with some second cousins:

With my cousin Becky:

Chris and McKenna:

Christmas morning, opening Santa gifts and stockings:

Opening his big present from Santa--a ukulele (the only thing he requested for Christmas):

Mom and Dad joined us for brunch, and later on, turkey dinner...

Kieran wielding a turkey drumstick:

Getting ready to pop the Christmas crackers:

With their Christmas cracker hats--Dad and Chris:

Mike in his crown:
Kieran and Nick:

We made a true effort to cut down on "stuff" this year. Mike and I decided to make a significant donation to an organization that provides cleft palate surgeries in developing countries. We chose Interplast instead of Operation Smile or SmileTrain, because I discovered that Interplast spends far less per $ donated on fundraising. In addition, the founders of Operation Smile and SmileTrain have an ongoing feud with each other, which truly turned me off. Nonprofits being competitive or nasty to each other--very tacky. I am very cognizant of the fact that if I had been born in a different time or place, that child with an unrepaired cleft palate and lip could have been me.
In addition, in lieu of more "stuff," the big gift we gave to Chris and Kieran was tickets to see Rain, a Beatles tribute band. I wasn't sure how they would react, but were both pleased and are very excited. Neither of them seemed to have anything they were desperate for this Christmas and were grateful for all of their gifts...which I truly appreciate. Nick, of course, is in seventh heaven over his ukulele.
In spite of these "experience" gifts, Christmas still makes our house look like a tornado has hit.
My sister and her family are in town this week, and we continued our Christmas celebrations yesterday with more gifts exchanged and a very spicy pot of mulligatawny! The cousins are having a blast hanging out together. That is the best part of Christmas--family time.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Worth the Wait: Book Recommendation--The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

People have been telling me to read this book for months, and I've been waiting until just the right time--saving it as a treat, and hoping it would be really as good as people said it would be. I'm hesitant to rave about this book, though, because it's clear from some of the Goodreads reviews that not everyone loves it. I, however, truly enjoyed it.

I've always been drawn to epistolatory books--A Woman of Independent Means, 24 Charing Cross Road, and more recently, Clara Callan. As a child, I was an an avid letter writer, and this habit served me well during the 3 years I lived in Japan (this was all before e-mail and affordable long-distance telephone rates). Further, I fell in love with my husband through love letters. (We were living in Japan, and I was unable to see him for a month after we first got together, because he had a friend visiting from England, and she had a crush on he waited until the end of her visit to tell her about me...and in the meantime, we wrote passionate letters to each other.)

One of the Goodreads critics of the Guernsey Literary Society commented that no good writer can truly develop a character through letters. I beg to differ. I find that letters are a wonderful way to get to know someone.

At any rate, I loved this story and its quirky, spunky characters. True, it might have been unrealistic for Kit to want to live with Juliet instead of the people who raised her...and yes, the characters might have been independent and progressive for their time...but this was all part of the book's charm for me. One naysayer said that an educated English writer would not have given a second thought to a letter from a Channel Islands pig farmer. These reviewers remind me of a woman in a book group years ago, who would often criticize books by saying "I just can't believe that would really happen!" Well, it didn't. It's called fiction. And sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

And anyone who doesn't believe that all the quirky characters in this book could exist in one place has never lived in a small town (or watched "The Vicar of Dibley").

If you enjoy reading letters (the most important criterion, in my mind) and stories about friendship, books, and love winning out over class and creed, you will enjoy The Guernsey Literay and Potato Pie Peel Society.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Lesson of Parenting: Never Say Never...

I remember years ago, when Chris had a playdate at a friend's house, and came home brandishing a plastic sword. I was horrified and quickly hid it away until we could return it to the friend. Fortunately, our children have never been obsessed with weapons (you know, the "they're going to make a gun out of a banana, anyway, so you might as well give him a gun" types), and he quickly forgot about said sword.

Kieran is not what I'd call obsessed with weapons, either, but he is entranced by fictional or theatrical weapons. He went through a Harry Potter wand phase, fashioning wands by wrapping chopsticks in foil, etc. Last summer when we were in Toronto, I allowed him to buy a sword filled with candy in a gift shop, and Mike was shocked that I'd let my guard down. Then Mike allowed him to buy another sword, with sound effects. Can you believe we have fallen this far?

For the past three days, he's been taking fencing classes at the Southwest Community Center--for 3 hours each day. He has absolutely, positively loved it, and he returned on Monday requesting a (more real) sword. (I guess the other one doesn't qualify.) He wants to continue fencing, of course, and this evening Mike came home with the boys from seeing "Narnia" at the Northwest Children's Theater, and Kieran had a dagger (what he calls a sword).

How the high-and-mighty have fallen. Never say never. I can't believe how much our nonviolent, pacifist child-raising ideals have changed. Chris didn't see a Disney movie until he was well into his threes. Nicholas sees all manner of movies and videos. He even watches Scooby Doo! Shock and awe. What has become of our idealistic parenting?

All You Need Is Love

Okay, I know I'm completely corny, but I cried when I watched this video. I realize it's a brilliant marketing idea from mega-coffee magnate Starbucks, but how can it hurt to raise money to fight AIDS in Africa?

Anytime I see people from all walks of life, or across the world, singing together, I can't help but wonder what would happen if instead of fighting and warring with each other, we worked together to help people. Truly inspiring to contemplate.

Swimming and Baaing

Kieran and Nicholas finished off another term of swimming. Kieran finally stopped holding his nose when he goes underwater and got promoted to otter! And Nick is our little fish. He was by far the youngest and smallest kiddo in his class, but he had a blast. Kieran went down the big slide by himself, and Nick went down with his teacher. Here they are posing at the end of their classes:

And after I told Kieran I wanted a "nice" photo:

Monday night, as I mentioned a few posts ago, Chris' middle school Sunday school class did a "traveling" Nativity play. Chris played dual roles of shepherd and wise man, and Kieran was the most animated and enthusiastic sheep Bethlehem has ever seen!

Ever see a sheep giving the peace sign?

Or eating a cookie?

This is what I got when I asked Kieran to put his arms around Kate! Poor sweetheart (Kate, that is...)!

Oliver, church puppy: