Blog Farm

The Blog Farm

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Our Daily Bread

One day last week was bread-making day. No, more accurately, it was bread-making month or even year; it had been a very long time indeed since my bread-making machine had seen the light of day. I was not driven by any virtuous motives or new year's resolutions to eat more wisely or more frugally. I was simply cleaning out a cupboard from which a suspicious smell was emanating, worried that the mice had moved in again for the winter and were perhaps living and dying in my kitchen.

Everything came out of the cupboard, prompting that purging instinct I have when faced with a cluttered mess. I discovered, among all kinds of now useless odds and ends - old thermoses and lunch boxes, as well as a multitude of plastic containers - not one but two bread machines. Apparently one such appliance is not enough, even when the cook never makes bread. Then I remembered why I had two. I had found the second machine at our local second-hand store; it was an exact replica of my own which happened to be missing a very essential part, the small mixing "paddle". I had kept my own incomplete model just in case the piece decided to reappear one day, because it seemed such a shame to toss out an otherwise perfectly good appliance. It hadn't occurred to me yet that I could simply order a new part, especially since a much cleaner and newer model had fallen into my possession for a very low price.

So the mice (who had, in fact, taken up residence in the cupboard, but who really couldn't be blamed for the smell, which in the end came down simply to bad housekeeping) can be credited for my renewed enthusiasm for this most ancient and revered of domestic tasks, made so simple by wondrous technology. I bought yeast and set to work planning a meal of soup and warm bread for supper. I started early in the day to be sure the bread would be nicely cooled and crusty by mealtime.

The entire process takes only about two and a half hours. The machine mostly sits quietly on the counter, resting and raising the dough, then baking it. On occasion it emits a nice purring sound while it stirs things up or an intermittent beep to alert the cook of certain stages. Nothing could be simpler. That is, unless the power is cut.

The machine was doing its thing when Michael needed lunch. I was preoccupied with something nearby, but since he only wanted a toasted bagel, I let him do most of it himself. Toasting is still a manageable task most days. I was not paying close attention, but something in my brain registered the drop of an electrical plug onto the counter. My reaction time was certainly not lightening speed; it was probably several seconds before I realized what he had done. For no apparent reason he had simply unplugged my machine, even though the toaster was already connected to the same wall outlet.

At first I didn't realize that this amounted to a bread-making catastrophe. I naively thought I could just plug the thing back in again and carry on. What I learned from the handy little manual is that when this happens, the current bread-making mission must be aborted. No salvaging possible. Red alert. ARGH!!!

I was so frustrated that I couldn't think straight. My immediate reaction, when I thought the whole loaf would have to be discarded, was to jump up and down, waving the instruction manual threateningly at no one in particular and uttering expletives. Michael, who by now was happily munching away on his bagel, looked bewildered. He'd already forgotten he'd unplugged my machine, if it had even registered in the first place. He must have thought I had lost my marbles. I thought I had too.

You might be thinking, quite justifiably, that my reaction was a tad extreme. I am normally so calm and composed that I rarely have such a tantrum. In fact, rare would be an exaggeration. I NEVER have tantrums, especially over such silliness as a spoiled loaf of bread. I ran up to my room, locked my door, threw myself onto my bed and sobbed. After about three minutes of these histrionics, I came to and realized I could quite possibly salvage the loaf after all, since it was very close to completion; I could simply throw the metal canister into the oven to finish off the baking process. When that was done, just in case it hadn't worked, and since there was still plenty of time before supper, I set to work making another batch in the clean canister from the second machine (Ah-ha, the real purpose of the second machine was now crystal clear). I had retrieved the only paddle from the first, possibly failed loaf and inserted it into the fresh canister. In the end both loaves turned out beautifully, and I felt very sheepish indeed. Fortunately, Michael remained completely unperturbed by the little tempest that had swirled around him so I suppose I can at least congratulate myself that on the Tantrum Richter Scale, mine was probably only about a 3.0 and barely felt.

Later in the day, with the sun set and the kitchen cleaned up after the successful evening meal, I reflected on my dramatic reaction. I think it was more symbolic than anything because the bread really didn't matter to me. It wasn't as if I had never had kitchen failures before. No, it was more about that plug being pulled and what that represented to me.

"Pulled plugs" have been my recurring theme this year. I have learned over the past year not to make any real plans because usually they must be cancelled or aborted. I have come to see a pattern in Michael's mental and physical health. Whenever something out of the ordinary is looming, like a planned trip out west to see my sister or a carefully planned day-trip to Montreal for our daughter's graduation, Michael starts to slide into a serious mental health crisis often accompanied by alarming physical symptoms. All must be abandoned. When this same daughter made plans to travel to Indonesia in August for a four-month teaching contract, he went into sharp decline again and had to go to hospital twice that month with very serious consequences, as you might remember. When she asked if I thought he might be upset and worried about her leaving, I had to admit she was probably right. But when she offered to cancel her trip, I told her she must go. I had long ago resolved that the children's lives must carry on as normally as possible. It is not their place to put their lives on hold.

I have no proof, of course, that this is what caused August's melt-down, but it does seem to fit this pattern I've now seen repeated many times. He has no control over it, of course. Having made this connection, I now know how to try and avert disaster, partly by never planning anything that might upset him, which means most things I might want to do. But some things are unavoidable. As I wrote in a recent entry about Christmas, I was uneasy about how he might handle a houseful of boisterous family over the holidays. I was very vigilant for several weeks before their arrival and did notice a significant slowing down of his bowels, always the first sign that he is struggling quietly inside. I administered the occasional laxative and was conscientious that there should never be more than two days without action. Despite my interventions, everything did come to a grinding halt for him in that department over the three days everyone's visits overlapped. But I was able to get him back on track soon after, probably because the house started emptying out and he began to relax.

We have a big event this summer that has me worried he might pull the plug on this too. One of our daughters is getting married and our plan is to host the event in our own backyard. An event anywhere away from home would mean limited participation by her parents since Michael cannot endure any lengthy event away from home or away from me. This way he can, I hope, retreat to his room if he needs to but can at least see his daughter married and maybe even partake in the wedding supper. It will be a very simple affair, but it will mean a fairly large gathering, the likes of which he hasn't experienced in a long time. I will try to plan for every possible eventuality and not be shy about administering calming medication if necessary, but given his fragility, a melt-down may be unavoidable. He remains the wild card and could scuttle the entire event.

Many have suggested I consider placing Michael in a nursing home now that his care needs are so extreme at times. I have investigated the possibility but have come to a decision, at least for now while I still enjoy good health and strength myself. To take Michael out of his home, which is the only place he can be calm and happy, would mean the end of him, I am certain. I would be effectively pulling the plug on him, and for now, at least, I cannot live with that. As long as I can cope and remain healthy, he will stay at home but will have to endure the occasional shake-up of his otherwise quiet, calm existence. Things like family visits, dinners with occasional guests and even a wedding have to happen if I am to remain sane. We may experience some serious turbulence at those times, but, with careful planning, perhaps we can avert disaster. I have resolved that as long as he is happy at home and I continue to be his solace, all this I can endure. The moment I permanently become unknown to him and maybe also become the enemy, that will be the time to reassess, and plans are already in place for that eventuality. If home becomes alien to him then it won't matter where he is or with whom.

In the meantime, I will have to allow myself the occasional tantrum over pulled plugs.

Monday, January 10, 2011

"Skating away on the thin ice of a new day" *

Canadian winters are particularly difficult for the disabled unless you live on the balmy southern west coast of this country, but even they have had their fair share of cold and snow this year, effectively paralyzing unprepared cities like Vancouver. Ours here in eastern Canada has been mercifully mild and dry so far, but then it is only early January and in a country where winter weather can occasionally strike as late as May, it is too much to hope that this might actually be the trend this year. If there is anything I've learned about Canadian winters it's that there are very few trends beyond cold and bloody cold with usually buckets, but sometimes truckloads, of snow thrown in.

But we in this household, at least those not responsible for the removal of snow and winterizing the family shelter (which is everyone but me), used to eagerly anticipate the season's harsh blasts. Winter means skiing on local hills, skating on Ottawa's lengthy canal, and, above all, hockey and a backyard rink.

Our first backyard rink was lovingly crafted by Michael back in 1984 when our eldest child was only three. We had bought her those little skates that one attaches to the boots of small children. They have two "blades" but really are just pretend skates to fool children into venturing out onto that slippery stuff they can't stand up on. One can never learn to skate in those things, just stand up, if you're lucky. But our little Anna tottered out onto her very own rink, a mere 4'x6' little space on which she'd have been hard pressed , even if she could skate, to gain any speed and momentum before tumbling headlong into the surrounding snow. I can accurately report she did NOT learn to skate that year.

For the next few years, while we lived in the heart of the city, Michael gave up on future rinks in our too-small backyard and instead we made many forays to the famous Rideau Canal in Ottawa, an eight kilometre long skating rink cutting right through the centre of the city. I remember many a romantic late-night skate with my new husband back before children, and even after the offspring began to arrive, we still made time to go with the kids, or even without on the occasional lucky night out (It's one activity we both felt our children should learn given how much pleasure it gave both of us). Often there was a baby bundled into a stroller but our first child seemed born to skate, just like her dad. No stroller for her. By age four she could skate the entire length of that canal like a pro and even conned her uncle into sponsoring her in a fundraising skate-a-thon one year. He foolishly pledged an enormous amount per lap thinking there was no possible way this child could skate THAT far, and he ended up forking out a rather large sum of money to a very smug little girl.

Our next rink didn't materialize until after we had moved into our current home that sits upon an enormous acre lot on the outskirts of the city. But given the constraints of Michael's work and domestic duties (and, now I realize, the quiet but inexorable progress of his disease), there was little time to really devote to this all-consuming task. There were one or two over the first years in this home but generally the learning-to-skate duties fell to me who homeschooled these four children and spent the most time with them. I discovered local arenas that offered free skating twice a week throughout the year so that became the biggest part of our phys-ed programme. Often we were the only visitors and had the entire arena to ourselves. We happily did laps to lousy pop music, and races were held up and down the ice. Anna practised figure skating moves she'd taught herself. We almost always hit the doughnut shop for treats afterwards.

None of our kids ever had a single skating lesson, my approach being more from the sink-or-swim (skate?) methodology books. But they all learned to skate, some better than others. I skated for so many years pushing one child then another in a stroller on the ice, I was worried that when the last one grew wings on his feet I would be incapable of standing up without the comforting support of a child in a stroller. I was never as confident as my husband on skates.

It was once our youngest child, our only son, began hockey and became an addict like his dad that the real devotion to the backyard rink began. With a vigour and enthusiasm heretofore unseen for this task, Michael would start to plan the rink as soon as the snow started falling, spending hours packing it down, perfecting strategies over the years for flooding and creating the ideal rink which, of course, was always subject to the vagaries of the weather. Every year it expanded as the youngest grew into a more confident hockey player. They would spend hours out there passing the puck and taking shots on goal (we have a full-sized hockey net, of course). One year our son laboriously painted wobbly lines on the ice with his little paint box. Only a few years ago we spent far too much money on a "Zamboni" made from sewer pipes, towels and an attachment for the hose; it actually works. Dedication was complete, nearly a religious experience.

Over the years the disease wore my husband down and the task became too onerous. He would try but couldn't really carry through because physically and mentally it was becoming too difficult. Confusion had taken hold of his brain, making the planning and execution impossible.

But a wondrous thing had happened in the years that father and son had worked side-by-side on this shared passion: our son had learned the family business and started to take over. There were a couple of difficult years as the baton was being passed, while Father came to terms with his interfering disease, demoting him to support staff, and Son took over as the Boss, making all the decisions about the construction. Finally, Michael seems to have accepted his subordinate role and is simply happy to contribute.

This year the rink construction began just before Christmas, but with our son's busy work and social life, it wasn't looking terribly hopeful that this project would take off. I questioned why he had even started, given his limited available time to devote to it, but his response hit a chord with me. He assured me that really it didn't matter if it was ever completed. What mattered to him was the process and how much he loved it. This I realized was true of his father who seemed so much at peace engaged in this rather Zen-like activity. A perfectly finished rink was just a bonus, not necessarily the goal.

I realized another thing too. Our son's initiative this year has been a gift, something for his dad to enjoy. With all the drama surrounding Michael's health last winter combined with unfavourable weather conditions, the rink never got started. With winter now upon us, Michael has become almost completely house-bound and unwilling to go anywhere. The effort seems just too Herculean. He spends most of his day dozing on the couch in front of the television, and when I ask if he'd like to go outside with me, he nearly always declines. But as soon as our rink got to the point where it actually looked like more than just packed down snow, there seemed to be a renewed interest in the outdoors. Every morning I prop him up in his hospital bed, fling open the curtains and let him see through his window to the backyard. He quietly assesses the progress our son has made overnight, most of the work being done very late after all have gone to bed as his dad used to do in the good years. In the afternoon when Michael is at his best physically, I find him pulling on his boots and coat preparing to go out and have a look. He inspects the rink for the weak spots that need extra attention and then, with my help hauling out the hose for him, he sets about flooding. He falls all the time, every few seconds in fact, but he is undeterred. He pulls himself up on the ice, no easy feat for someone with advanced Parkinson's disease, and carries on, usually in a rather haphazard, confused fashion but who cares? I am vigilant at the living room window, seated at a table and pretending to type on my computer; I don't want him to think I am really just keeping an eye on him. When it looks like he can no longer carry on I suggest he come inside before he seizes up completely. His pants are drenched from the many falls into the unfrozen water and his back is obviously hurting but his cheeks are flushed with fresh air and pleasure.

I miss skating with my husband. After he left work disabled in 2003, we would seek out those same arenas I visited years ago with our kids, this time for seniors' free skate. On a good day he might last about fifteen minutes before collapsing with exhaustion. For the first time in our lives together I had become the better skater, a distinction I'd rather not have. Now he in his advanced condition and I still fearful after breaking my wrist skating on the canal two years ago, we will probably never skate together again.

But I can help him in small ways to get out and happily lose himself in a few minutes of rink-building. And perhaps he'll even strap on those skates again this year.

(* from Jethro Tull's "Skating Away")