Wednesday, July 31, 2013

My Father and the Mystery of the Doomed Orange Tree

Dear Dad,

You'll remember this story well, but I feel the need to tell it again today.

At the Stuckey's in Danville, Va., I spotted the miniature orange tree that I knew I must have. It was maybe six inches tall and lived in a white cardboard box with cellophane windows. I marveled at its compactness. How could an orange tree be so tiny?, I wondered. The fact that I loved oranges, that they hinted of exotic lands, made this 10-year-old's boy desire even stronger.

I went searching for you, hoping to convince you that I couldn't possible continue existing without that mini orange tree. We were making our usual pit stop at the Stuckey's halfway between Greensboro, where we lived, and Roanoke, where you were from. During this period, I'd ride up to Roanoke frequently with you. Your father, Daddy Jimmy, had recently passed away, and you, being his only immediate survivor, would go up on weekends to settle his estate.

I went along for the ride for several reasons. First, it got me out of Greensboro. Second, I loved Roanoke, loved Daddy Jimmy's big old house there.

There were other reasons, too, Dad, that weren't evident to me then. I deeply missed my grandfather. He was a white-haired, classy, gentle man, and you named me after him, so there had always been a link. And the trips to Roanoke gave you and me quality time alone that never quite happened otherwise.

You worked six days a week, sometimes seven. On your days off, you often loved to fish. It was no secret to you that I loathed it. On the few fishing trips you'd convinced me to go on, I was alternately bored and appalled: bored by waiting endlessly for a fishing line to tighten, appalled at the can of squirming worms into which I was expected to stick my fingers and extract a sacrifice for the fish hook. You also loved to golf. Again, for me, golf = boredom. I'm sorry about that, Dad. But that's just who I was.

Back to Stuckey's. You came in to pay for the gas, and excitedly, I led you to the orange tree. "Isn't that neat?" I said. "Can I have it?" If memory serves, I believe the tree cost $5 or $10—an investment back in the late 1960s.

With your careful photographer's gaze, you studied the Bonzai-ish fruit tree in its box. "I'm sorry, son, but I think it'll just end up dying," you said. "It'll be a waste of money."

"No it won't!," I pleaded. "I'll take care of it. I'll water it!"

"I'm sorry," you repeated gently, and I knew that was that.

A few months later, on my birthday, I awakened and rushed downstairs to see what goodies awaited. There, in the center of the breakfast room table, was the miniature orange tree. You flashed me a sheepish grin. "Happy birthday," you said.

When did you buy it?, I wondered. I hadn't seen you do it during our subsequent Stuckey's stops in Danville, and there was no other Stuckey's close by. And I would've seen you try to sneak the tree into the car. And I'd gone with you on all your other Roanoke trips between the time I coveted the mini citrus tree and my birthday.

You remained mysterious about the orange tree's procurement, which of course drove me nuts. Ultimately, I decided that you drove by yourself to the Stuckey's in Danville, which is about a 45-50 minute ride, specifically to buy the tree. You took time out of your busy work life to buy your son what he wanted for his birthday. I think you did that as a way of saying 'thank you' for accompanying you on all those trips to Roanoke. I couldn't have known this then, but now I know how much you missed your father, and having me there probably gave you a lot of comfort.

And of course, Dad, you were right. I became the little orange tree's unintended executioner. It may have lasted two weeks before browning and collapsing into an exhausted heap. But you never said what many parents would have in that circumstance: "I told you so."

I've bought a few miniature orange trees over the years, perhaps in an effort to show you I could sustain them. Unfortunately, the outcome was always the same: death to the innocent orange tree.

Although my efforts at raising miniature fruit trees have been fruitless, Dad, there are some things I've managed to get right over the years. One of those is, along with my sisters, to take good care of the woman you adored, the woman you were married to for over 50 years, the woman who was never quite the same after you passed away.

You've been gone 20 years now, as of today, Dad. But you've never left me. Just this morning, you came to me in a dream. I was at your funeral, and some man I'd never seen before was giving the eulogy, and I was growing agitated because he clearly didn't know you. I wanted to stand up, move him aside, and talk about the man we were there to mourn.

When I rose to speak, you were suddenly seated beside me in the church pew. You touched my shoulder gently, smiled, and said, "Don't forget to tell them about the little orange tree."

"I will," I said. "And by the way, how did you get that? I've wondered all these years."

You smiled enigmatically and gently waved me toward the pulpit.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Confessions of a Southern-Fried Quasi Vegetarian

In the South, some restaurants still list french fries as a vegetable. This wonderfully creative view of vegetables should come in handy—as I flirt with vegetarianism.

I can imagine the raised-eyebrow reactions the above statement may cause among those who know me (or perhaps even those who read this blog). Yes, I am notorious for my adoration of fried chicken. Fried chicken is what I'd eat the night before my firing squad execution, along with garlic mashed potatoes (with gravy), baby lima beans (one should still have something green on the dinner plate), big buttermilk biscuits dripping with butter that I can use to sop up gravy, and banana pudding for dessert. In fact, I love chicken in almost all its cooked variations. A juicy filet mignon (cooked medium well)? Yes, please. Barbecue pork sandwiches in North Carolina? Nectar of the Gods. I even love the 'pulled pork' sandwiches, which are a reasonably close approximation to Southern barbecue, that are trendy now in San Francisco. Pot roast, coq au vin, and lamb chops, oh my!

Why, then, would I even consider becoming a vegetarian? Last May my overall cholesterol level spiked to 218. I suppose the fried chicken and hamburgers had finally caught up with me.

Since then, I've been modifying my diet and upping my exercise, and I've brought the overall level down to 169. But the other numbers (LDL, HDL, etc.) still aren't where they should be, and I don't want to go on statin drugs.

And so, in advance of my next cholesterol test in late July, I decided to take my efforts to a new level. Nearly every morning, I'm eating steel-cut oatmeal with flax seed and slivered almonds. I'm swallowing handfuls of supplements throughout the day: Metamucil capsules, CholestOff, niacin. I took garlic supplements for a while, until Nick turned to me one night and said, sweetly, that I smelled like a basket of ballpark garlic fries.

And now, the big step. Three days a week, sometimes four, I eat absolutely no chicken, pork, or red meat. (I will eat fish during those days.) The shocker? It's not as difficult as I thought, thanks to MorningStar Farms (I actually love their crispy Chik'n patties), Trader Joe's meatless meatballs, vegetarian lasagna from Whole Foods, tuna fish salads, meatless pizzas, and that classic quick lunch, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (with exotic 'jellies,' such as Pineapple and Mango preserves).

In a few weeks, when I get my next cholesterol check, I'll know if all this has paid off. Even if it doesn't, I've already learned something valuable. I'm not as wedded to my old Southern-by-way-of-San-Francisco diet as I assumed. This old dawg can learn new tricks—and perhaps even prefer them to the old ones. Who knows? I may take this vegetarian thing even further.

In any event, it's comforting to know that french fries are a vegetable.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Failure to Thrive? Not So Fast

This is a story I never thought I'd write: My mother is expected to be released from hospice care soon.

Since hospice began caring for her in early March, Ruth Martin has gained 10 pounds. Though she used to mostly stay in her room at Heritage Greens Arboretum, a memory-care facility in Greensboro, nowadays she is often found in the main 'recreation' room, participating in a game of ball bouncing or checking out the other residents.

Later this week, the oxygen tanks that have cluttered Ruth's room are to be taken away, as her oxygen levels have returned to normal.

Ruth's unexpected revival has astonished and delighted us all—certainly my sisters and I, but also her caregivers. Rarely have they seen someone her age (93), and in her prior condition, bounce back so dramatically.

This turn of events seemed unimaginable. In early 2013, a bad stomach virus, which my mother caught, had circulated through the Arboretum. Management had strongly advised family and other outsiders not to visit, fearful of spreading the virus even further. And so, for several weeks, my sisters (three of whom live nearby) were not able to visit Ruth.

By late February, my mother had grown extremely weak. She began refusing to eat and take her medications. She slept most of the time and when awake, spoke mostly gibberish. The memory-care facility administrator suggested it was time to bring in hospice care, which to me meant that my mother's clock was now ticking—loudly. Her official diagnosis? "Failure to thrive."

And so, on a Monday morning in late February, I decided to make a hasty trip to Greensboro. With Nick's help, I booked a flight at 11 a.m., cancelled my business appointments for the week, showered, packed, and made it onto the plane for its 1:30 p.m departure.

While in Greensboro, I was determined to get my mother to eat. I bought her favorite junk food: McDonald's french fries, doughnuts, Baby Ruth candy bars. She treated them all as if they were something vile. I bought baby food--anything I could think of she might be able to swallow. During my nearly week-long stay, she ate almost nothing, limiting her intake to cranberry juice and some Ensure drinks.
My mother, late February 2013
During the last hour of that visit with Ruth, I knew I had to somehow say goodbye. She dozed off and on as I paced around her small room, wondering what I could say that would have any meaning for her as well as for me. I decided to keep it simple.

"Thank you," I said, and kissed her on the forehead.

She woke up, looked me in the eye, smiled weakly. "Thank you," she replied.

With that, I walked out of my mother's room, convinced I'd just spent my last few minutes with her.
But in the weeks to come, an alternate scenario slowly unfolded. My sisters took turns visiting Ruth every day, reading to her, painting her fingernails, being by her side. The hospice staff visited several times a week. The Arboretum staff gave her extra care. Her doctor took her off several medications and gave her a drug whose side effect is known to increase appetite.

By mid May, the news was so encouraging, I returned to Greensboro. This time, my mother was alert, her blue eyes looking directly into mine in a way I hadn't seen in a while. She smiled and laughed. She let me feed her, but more importantly, she was now feeding herself.

She is still talking in gibberish, still confusing past with present. But she seems happy and content, and she has moments of clarity. The other day, when an unfamiliar Arboretum resident walked past, my mother said to my sister: "Who is that old lady?"

I attribute much of my mother's rebound to my sisters, and of course to Ruth herself—a tough country girl from North Carolina, through and through, whose mother lived to 100 and whose grandmother passed away peacefully at 95. One lesson to take away: Never, under any circumstances, underestimate a Southern woman.

On July 22, Ruth Martin will be 94 years old. I don't know how much time we have left with her. But since late February, every visit, every phone conversation with her has been what they call in New Orleans a lagniappe—a sweet, unexpected gift.

My mother, early July 2013. (Note the Piggly Wiggly T-shirt under her sweatshirt.)