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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.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely LOVE your blog and your spirit. I am a PD'er and enjoy reading others' blogs on the topic. Michael is fortunate to have you as his caregiver.