Saturday, August 26, 2017

There's a light at the end of the tunnel...

The cool air coming in our windows the last few nights seems to be just one of the signs around that August is about to come to a close. My level of exhaustion is another! I woke at 5:45 a.m. this morning to pee and normally can't go back to sleep at that hour as my wheels start turning with all I want to do in the day. This particular day is one with a LONG wish list (after working 10-14 hour days away from home all of this past week). The next thing I knew it was almost 7:30 a.m. And even getting out of bed then, I felt like I had been run over by something! It's been a long week for all of us, energizing in some ways but draining in many others. Yesterday (day #5 of me leaving early for a long day away from home), Terah woke (kind of) when I was just about to hop through the shower and head down the driveway to meet my ride. This was not ok, and she was quite vocal about that. I got her distracted playing marbles so that my actual moment of departure was relatively peaceful but I was rattled by the whole thing for much of the morning, and Jason said that when she discovered I was gone her cries felt to him like she was angrily grieving. I was so glad to be able to reassure her today that I was not going anywhere without her. She's not even been napping for an hour but already stirred and is once again in my arms nursing while I type. Her little "mommy tank" is going to need some replenishing in the coming days! I hope I'm up for it as I feel my tank is a bit depleted too and sometimes it seems that part of what happens after stints like this is that she not only wants to be close to me but she wants to cling to me and is also more tender and "on edge" in general - upping the whining and fussing and ways of interacting that frustrate me especially when I'm low on rest myself. Hoping for the best in the coming days, especially since the crunch time is not quite behind me yet. Orientation for my new students concluded on Friday, so next week will be the start of classes and then students will get busier and I hope to get back to working just 30 hours/week for my "office job."

A lot has transpired since I last wrote in this space and I've hardly thought about blogging in part because some of the things feel hard to put words to. It's easy to talk about Kali's 14th birthday and the fun surrounding it, or experiencing the solar eclipse, or what's coming out of the gardens... It's harder to put words to my swirling thoughts and emotions surrounding Samuel's death. That is going to take some time. We look forward to gatherings with hundreds more tomorrow to remember him, grieve together and celebrate a life well lived. But that's just a few hours of one day. I'm trying to figure out what it will be like in the months and years to come to not have his physical presence here with us. The reminders of him, no doubt, abound. But it's not the same, not even close!

Kali had wanted to see Samuel again and we had found an evening where Mom and Dad could watch the two younger girls while we went up the hill for a short visit. That evening, right before we were about to head up, we learned that he was laboring more breathing and it seemed that the end was probably near. Jason and I still went up, but without Kali. She has handled it well (externally at least) that she didn't get to say goodbye, but my hearts aches about that.

I cannot articulate well how much of a gift it was to me to be welcomed into their home. Samuel and Margaret, their children and grandchildren all there. I feel like the things I want to say about it could have the tendency to come out really oddly and not be understood in the ways I mean them. That evening as I sat with Samuel it really felt like he was laboring. I didn't sense that he was anxious or worried, but definitely that he was working. The hardest thing was not being able to understand his murmurings. I didn't miss the few little smiles I caught glimpse of or the soft chuckles I detected as we talked and sang to him. It was not easy to leave. I wanted to be there. I wanted to support him, to be present with him, to tell him what he meant to us and that he could do this and was doing it with such strength.

I felt again within myself that pull to work at one end or the other of the life spectrum. I think I've mentioned my goal of being a doula some day. While the tug is different, I feel as compelled almost to help people die well as I do to help women birth well. Many women give birth and yet the experiences of women birthing is so varied. It seems similar with dying, except we all do that (men and women alike). The idea of a "good death" may seem weird but I really do feel like death can be done in ways that lessen the pain and grief of the loved ones that remain or can be a traumatic event for the dying and those that love them. Like Nora, I feel like Samuel died the way he lived - courageously, thinking of others to the very end, and without fighting. It's not that it makes the missing less or the grieving easy. It just felt like Samuel's death was as close to as he would have wanted it that I could imagine - with his family surrounding him in the home they built together on the hillside where they planted fruit trees and raised their family.

Samuel died 2 days after Kali's 14th birthday so the week was one of celebration and loss. Samuel was also good at holding life's paradoxes and complexities and so we tried to do the same. She has gotten in some what of a birthday rut, and so the festivities looked a lot like the last few years, the kids in the pictures are just getting bigger. There was a birthday party and sleepover with an outdoor fire and this year homemade ice cream and a rainbow! We made our first large batch of salsa to enjoy fresh before/during/after the party! A birthday brunch with funny cake pie rather than a birthday cake.
And then the yearly trek to the fair which fell on her actual bday this year, complete with a picnic of pesto cheese tomato and sprout sandwiches and lots of fair rides. Oh, other than children getting bigger, I'd add that each year this parent feels a bit sicker on the rides! Terah's bravery increased throughout the evening and by the end she was clinging to her merry-go-round horsey and saying "more, more." She wasn't sure about the first ferris wheel ride, but thankfully accepted my explanation that I could not get us "down" but we'd have to wait for the person that got us on to let us off. 
Speaking of rides, we splurged recently and got Terah an early birthday present. She's been enjoying the little horsey we have in the house, a long term borrow from Samuel and Margaret. She really can zoom fast around on that. And when the older girls are out riding their bikes, she wants to be big enough for the tricycle we have. So we got her a little bike to use on the flat spot. She's still getting a hang of the steering on this one and has been dumped off a good number of times, but she'll get there! This little gal seems to never be without a few boo boo's! 
Before this nap comes to a close, a few other things so I can be more or less "caught up" on the notables for now.

The girls enjoyed a new experience (knockerball) when we attended a surprise bday party for my brother-in-law. Jason also got in one and got knocked around a bit. :) The things we humans come up with for entertainment!!
A blog post in August would not be complete without some kind of food update. We made a lot of special things surrounding Kali's birthday, including me finally making sufficiently flaky biscuits at her request - but not without caving and buying some white flour. The biscuits did make pretty sweet ends for a little sausage sandwich with our recently made batch of chicken sausage. It's so nice that some of Kali's favorite foods are shared by the rest of the family! And BIG SUCCESS - Kali grew eggplants and we got to enjoy fried eggplant thanks to her determination and persistence!
We had a very fun playdate with Ivy recently while her parents enjoyed a few hours to themselves. We all hope it is the first of many! We got some playing in and a little stint at the swingset but that little gal spent the majority of the time in the high chair eating supper. I wasn't sure when to just say "ok enough supper" when she seemed so enthusiastic about continuing to open her little mouth for each spoonful. It was so delightful to spend the evening with her, even if Terah is not 100% about her increased mobility. She seemed to really like when Ivy could be plopped in her lap and she'd just remain there. Those days are over!

Remember those huge rocks we hauled as a family months back? Jason got them placed in Nora's garden last week. It seemed the most fitting activity for the work times Jason had in the day or two after Samuel's death. And now there is good seating there for us - I'd love to get in the habit of spending a few minutes there daily (but at first I should probably just aim for weekly or even monthly!). He still is hoping to gather some additional rocks before the project is complete but it was nice to get it to the next stage in the process anyway.

And finally: the sky! We've had some great thunderheads and then of course the solar eclipse. 1/5 of our family missed it entirely (napping), 2/5 of us stayed at home to keep things going on the home front and as noted earlier it's my craziest work time, and 2/5 of us got to go to TN with family to see the total eclipse. Kali and Alida enjoyed a trip of a lifetime, thanks to E&K for treating them to a wonderful time! I got a few peaks at the Virginia less impressive version of it when I stepped out of the office briefly and I got the blow by blow by text from Jason who was rather enthralled by it at home. :) I will say that the shadows were amazing!
In closing, Jason found this monarch recently when he went to check the cocoons on the milkweed. We sang "In the Bulb there is a Flower" at my Grandma Myers' memorial. I think of Samuel now and the line, "in cocoons a hidden promise, butterflies will soon be free."

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Living and dying...

Kali just headed out for duck chores and doesn't want me to start on her birthday meal preparations without her. Terah just came downstairs to help me do dishes but when Grandma reappeared the pull to go with her was just too strong and I lost my dish washing helper. So my choices are to do the dishes alone (but why do something alone that I can do with her), or check the hourly weather obsessively to see if we will be able to go forward with Kali's outdoor party this evening (which is pointless as it changes every time I look), or try to write a few of my deeper musings about life of late while I'm all alone downstairs. I'm choosing the latter!

When we were at UVA a few weeks back visiting B in the hospital, we were able to reconnect with Noreen, the doctor who was very near and dear to us in the last week of Nora's life and has become a special friend. We credit her, and those that helped carry out our palliative care plan for Nora, for helping us to care for Nora in her final days of living in a way that honored her, kept her comfortable and maximized our time with her. Every time we have been together in the 9 years plus since, we have floated the idea of doing some joint writing together around palliative care and our experiences working together (the shared perspectives of a family and a doctor). Our recent connection rekindled that interest and I'm putting out there the goal that sometime between Nora's 10th birthday in October and the 10th anniversary of her death next June that we at least seriously get the ball rolling on that project!

When we said goodbye at UVA, I again extended the invitation for her whole family to come visit us in Keezletown. While interest seemed high, they are a busy family with two growing children and so I wasn't getting my hopes up (too high). Needless to say, I was excited to receive a text last week with their one and only free day in August, which beautifully coincided with a day on our schedule that had nothing but "harvest day" written on it. I didn't delay sending my enthusiastic "please come" text back, and what followed was a beautiful day together!

The four of them arrived in time for a late Tangly Woods special brunch - the morning's harvests of veggies laid out on the table and surrounded by various potato crusted quiches and nettle cornmeal biscuits. Over the course of the meal we learned that their son was an avid fisherman and when he heard of the pond a meandering two mile hike away, the enthusiasm for grabbing our rods and checking out the spot was palpable.

So after a little spin around outside (side note: my favorite tidbit from the day was Jason sharing with me that Tom noted to him walking around our place that he experienced a combination of envy and relief - so well stated! It's beautiful, but what a lot of work), we took off for a hike (all of us hiking and Terah snoozing until we were at the lake and she roused in time for a little splashing). A few blue gills were caught but then TJ got serious about his pursuits and waded in (not to his parents' surprise). We were about to head back when he snagged a large bass and just as he brought it to shore it escaped. He was given the "just 5 more minutes" warning, and his determination paid off as he pulled in a nice bass right under the 5 minute mark.

As he cooked up the fish in our kitchen he told me how proud he was. He said something like, "I have to tell you that from the minute I caught the fish until now, I'm feeling very proud." He had every reason to be as the fish was delicious, with the lemon thyme and rosemary he had picked and the shallots they had made on the side with butter. I had made two kinds of lasagna and we enjoyed cucumber salad and greens beans and then some chocolate ricotta mousse to top it off...but it all kind of paled in comparison to the fish!

The day was just overall a very fun day. It was a day of rekindling friendships, enjoying delicious food, getting fresh air and exercise, and watching children enjoy the plants and animals surrounding us outdoors. But the preciousness of the day was not lost on Jason or me. To this day times with persons who knew us and Nora intimately rank among the most special ones to me. As we sat down for our first meal together, we pulled our little stack of meal blessings from the center of the table to see what was on top. It seemed so very fitting that "When the Rain Comes Down" was the blessing for that meal. That is the only song in the whole stack that comes from the lullaby CD that we had on repeat in Nora's room the last few days of her life. I'm all for making meaning of things like that, and so it just solidified the uniqueness and I'd go as far as to say sacredness of the day to be singing, "When a baby smiles, she's smiling for everyone. No matter if you're rich or poor, no matter if you're great or small. When a baby smiles, she's smiling for us all."

Towards the end of the day the adults had this short luxurious block of time where all the kids were outside playing and we got to talk about writing - not just our writing together but writing in general. I found the conversation fascinating as we talked about the kinds of writing Noreen does for medical journals and how often she feels the need to try to remove her bias or emotions or experiences that have impacted her deeply from the research. I understand the pull towards that notion and possibly the pressures felt to do so in scientific publications. At the same time, it was for us her choice to engage with us fully as human that were experiencing loss and grief to a level we had not previously faced that was so powerful and life altering for us, and I also believe for Nora. I believe Nora died well in part because those helping us care for her at UVA, approaching us not as a number or a case but as people with a family and a history together and values that mattered. It made all the difference in the world. And I feel like communicating those kinds of stories is an excellent complement to also sharing the quantitative data that I think will likely only back the qualitative stories.

So we'll see what comes of our conversation! There is no lack of interest, it's all about carving out the time and space and prioritizing putting energy into that - which I want to do badly enough to put it out there in this space as a goal for the coming year!

Going into our day together I felt almost pure excitement for our time together. But there was (and is) on my mind and heart the reality of our neighbor Samuel's decline. We had offered to be on call as needed that day and so were unsure, until we knew that his care was adequately covered, if we would stray far from fruit farm lane. As we hiked and talked about Nora and talked about the plants growing around our place, our neighbors and dear friends were never far from my mind. This journey of loving and losing hits all of us in waves at different times.

When Nora was with us, Samuel and Margaret were some of our key supporters - making sure a fire was in our wood stove when Nora came home for the first time, bringing a meal to UVA and playing music for us as we comforted her, being part of her memorial service, and being part of our lives all the years since. The journey has twisted and turned since then, bringing us two more daughters and them two granddaughters, our lives overlapping and in touch more at times and then seasons of less regular contact. But always the assurance of them being there, just up the hill. Neighbors that are also close friends are truly precious, precious gifts.
But then it makes the losing so much more painful. Last evening, thanks to my parents' arrival and willingness to hang with the girls, Jason and I headed up the hill as daylight was waning. Jason had popped in for a few hi's here and there since I was last up for a visit but lingering colds and other things had kept me from visiting for awhile. When a baby is born and you miss a few weeks seeing them so much changes. Similarly, and yet not similar at all, Samuel seemed very changed (now in a hospital bed most of the time and spending much of his time sleeping, thankfully mostly comfortably thanks to the amazing care being provided to him!).

It was easy to be focused on the changes and the obvious decline in health. But he only had to rouse briefly for us to see the glimmer of his light and humor and care shining through. When he first woke briefly and saw we were there Jason let him know that he had been working on rehabbing a chicken coop that Samuel gave to him. I can't remember the exact words but without missing a beat, Samuel said something like, "of course you were." He knows Jason well! We then went on to share how our chickens were taking more than their fair share of our tomatoes. He said something like, "You'll get'll eat them." He had a smile on his face as his eyes drifted open and closed as we talked to him and to Margaret and then as he drifted into a deeper sleep just with her about these days and the ones ahead.

When it was time to go, I had to pull myself away. I felt the tug to go relieve my parents and also just wanted to sit there for hours rubbing his leg in their cozy home that houses so many precious memories. Finally, we said our goodbyes and I approached Samuel to give him a hug and a kiss. When I kissed his cheek his eyes came open and he smiled. He then offered me the most precious gift murmuring: "You've been a good neighbor...and friend." It was yet again a testament to Samuel's kindness and generosity that he gathered the energy to share this gift with me, to have these words ringing in my head and heart (which do nothing more than make me want to be an even better neighbor and friend to those around me). To be someone that brings out the good in others is nothing short of beautiful!

As we walked up the hill, I told Jason I feel like every time recently that we have been able to slip away from our crazy and chaotic brood and head to their home, I feel like I'm exiting one world and entering another. As we walked home, I wondered out loud to Jason if we'll experience this - if one of us will provide 24 hour care for the other and vigilantly journey with them in their dying. I only hope that if I am the caregiver, I can be as present and loving as Margaret. And if I am the one dying that I can do it without fear and with love for those around me and even a sweet smile like the one Samuel shared with us last evening on my face.
Kali is done chores and ready to get party preparations underway!

Garden update!

So I've got two posts brewing and this is the decidedly quicker and easier reflection to write so here goes! It seems appropriate to do a little post dedicated to an update on what is coming from the gardens on the day that I hope to make the first batch of fresh salsa. To sum things up, this year has been one of various successes and various failures. Not all of either of those categories are pictured here (quite frankly because the camera battery died, again, before I got around to all the gardens). So here's a far from comprehensive update!

We've got hot peppers! I guess you call this a success, though we have never really failed at growing those. They are beautiful as always, I look forward to making the first batch of hot sauce and this past year for the first time I have even used a few drops of it on select occasions! We continue to also foist it on anyone who comes over, uses it and expresses a liking for it! I was just about to make the first batch when friends (to be mentioned in the next post) came, liked the hot sauce and gladly took all I had picked off our hands! Happy them, happy me!

We have squash. Do we have "enough" squash? We are definitely not trying to leave squash in people's cars in a church parking lot. We have yet to feel "burdened" by it. But we normally have one or two when I want to use them in a recipe. We grew a type that is good for drying and I've done one round in the solar dryer. We have a beautiful one pictured here maturing for seed but that has more or less taken that plant out of commission, as it is busy getting this one matured! It seems once again our squash plants (especially the trombone) are giving us abundant flowers, some fruits and also aborting a good number. Part of it could be that we are trying to leave most of the trombone on the trellis to do their magic and become winter squash for us to enjoy for months to come. So we may be being a little too greedy, asking the plants to give us summer squash and winter squash in abundance. We are enjoying what we are harvesting - had summer gravy with fresh corn over some fried new potatoes and it was nothing to sneeze at!

Tomatoes, oh what to say about tomatoes. Let's start with what is doing great - the drying tomatoes and the sweet Noritas! We are getting LOTS of drying tomatoes and since we aren't getting a lot else yet we are eating them like cherry tomatoes, in large quantities! I haven't dried a single one. I harvest them, put them in a large bowl on the dining room table, and over the next two days until harvest time again the level goes down to nothing. We've also enjoyed a few platters of colorful slicers. I have yet to can a single tomato product. Most of what we have gotten to date has been very much seconds (what I can salvage from pecked ones or ones with blemishes), and they have made great shallot tomato sauces that we put on everything and anything, or eat plain. If you have never eaten cooked tomatoes with shallots and a little salt, you really must try it. It's an amazing combination that I can't believe I was only introduced to in the last year or two. I said the other day it should be a summertime staple the way cottage cheese has become a staple - always a pot or container of it from the fridge. So, lest my blood pressure rise too high, I will just briefly mention here that the chickens are doing a royal number on our cooking tomatoes and our slicers when they get into the main garden (a good feather clip on the troublemakers has hopefully solved the latter problem and the former won't be solved until we execute our wintertime "expand the main garden fence" project). They are ruthless, really. They go even for green tomatoes. Ok, I admit, that once again we have somewhat brought this on ourselves - Jason is feeding them less feed to encourage forage. And foraging they are, we were just hoping that they could forage somewhere else. So we'll see if I can replenish the tomato products in the root cellar. Some butchering has happened, some shuffling of chickens and some moving of coops has happened and will be happening to hopefully reduce the pressure on the cooking tomatoes so we can get a portion of the crop - in tomato form, rather than egg and meat form. 

To date we have never maxed out our capacity for fruit! We love it, the girls love it, much of what I harvest never seems to make it into the house. I have yet to bring a red or white raspberry in but hopefully that will change here as the season gets further along. I just put the first quart of blackberries in the freezer, but prior to that they joined the tomatoes on the table and slowly disappeared. The chickens like the berries too and will even eat them green, but I'm ok with that. There are so many fruits on and what they aren't getting the little fruit flies are waiting to descend upon. So it's a mixture of delicious blackberries and some soft ones, but we are getting enough to enjoy them and share some with the chickens and fruit flies. They are spread out in various places and that is probably my greatest challenge on harvest day - hitting all the gardens and keeping track of what I'm harvesting where (especially when I have one or two little ones in tow "helping" me). We just picked our first cantaloupe and it is sitting on the pass through making our mouths water. There is one lovely watermelon in the patch. It won't be a great melon year, but those tend to be "bonus foods" for us and we'll just savor the few we get to enjoy!
Gotta mention cucumbers yet - it's been a batch of pickles here and there, a supply good enough to keep us enjoying fresh cucumber dill salads when we get a hankering for one, and there's pretty much always a cucumber to grab and chomp on fresh. But I'd call it a mediocre cucumber year - we've got 4 nice seed ones just harvested so maybe getting those off a few vines will reinvigorate them and we'll get a few more nice flushes?! I have not canned nearly as many pickles as I did last year. It might just not be a "eat a quart of pickles for a snack anytime you want kiddos" kind of year. We'll have enough for the essentials - pizza nights and with pesto or egg salad sandwiches..

I feel pretty content with the beans in the freezer. I didn't do as many dilly beans this year BUT for the dilly beans (and pickles) that I did, we had enough dill. It's the first year that I can remember that I didn't reach out to our neighbor to beg some dill heads from her abundant patch. That is a success for sure! I decided to go light on dilly beans as we have some leftover and freeze more beans. We have one large shelf full in our standing up freezer. They won't last all winter by any means but will take us for awhile and I couldn't really fit more in anyway. Every other day we are still getting a nice mess of beans - though the bush beans are over, the yellows are getting so ridden with bean beetles they aren't worth much and the rattlesnake beans in the kitchen garden have yet to come into their own. It's mostly the purples that are still producing really well. I'll get out there to see what we find today as soon as Terah decides to get started with her day! We decided this year to not do successful plantings of bush beans and instead snuck in some buckwheat in the one row. So right now we are waiting for that the mature and the seed bean patch to be ready for harvest and then out come the beans/buckwheat and in go fall carrots!

I still think one of the most beautiful things in our summer garden are okra flowers. They are exquisite! Our little patch of okra is doing good and I'm adding a little handful of chopped okra to my quart bag in the freezer every other day. It never is a lot at one time, but over the course of the season we get a nice stack of quart bags that will provide us with a hearty supply for gumbo stew over the winter - another winner with the whole family! We haven't done any fried okra yet but that is just around the corner as Jason saved some "fryers" when butchering this past weekend and Kali's eggplant are looking good! So proud of her success in that realm!

Our pepper plants look better than they have in a number of years and are loaded with fruit. The ripening process for them (and the tomatoes) has been slow and I think that is in part due to a cooler summer we have had. I think it doesn't feel like August in part because we haven't been sweating buckets like we often do in August. Days in the 70's or maybe low 80's and often getting to 60 or below at night. I'm not apt to complain about that but the tomatoes would take hotter and likely the peppers would ripen faster. Let me be clear that I'm not sitting around twiddling my thumbs waiting for any of these things. Quite frankly, I sometimes even feel a moment of relief when I see a tomato mostly eaten on the ground (that's one I won't have to chop or can!). But that is fleeting as I really do love seeing the color move across the canning shelves and the pops of cans sealing will always be one of my favorite sounds. That said, I'm not sure how the peak of tomatoes and new student orientation are going to mix. Time will tell, and so far I've always survived August!

It looks like I'm about to have two side kicks awake and ready to head out with buckets and bowls to see what we can find. Every other morning is harvest day so we'll go searching for all the things mentioned above. Today that will hopefully not be too long of a job because there is also pie crusts to get made for a birthday brunch tomorrow and ice cream custards to get chilling for a birthday party tonight! We are 3 days shy of having a 14 year old in the house and the celebrations are getting underway!