chemo cap

Edited December 13, 2009: Today I started on a new knitting project and reflected on how much I love to knit – even if I only make a few items a year.  I wrote this almost five years ago and published it in my first zine, the PT Breeder.

A week ago, I took my friend Jen up on her long-standing offer to teach me to knit.  She has some misgivings on the ambition of my first project (small needles, tight stitches) but helps me in picking out my yarn and loans me her needles.  At my house, after dinner with our two families and a couple glasses of red wine, she casts on 120 stitches and watches as my fingers tremble through their first attempts at an age-old maneuver passed down for centuries.

I have decided to knit my father a chemo cap.

My family has been through this before.  “Secondary cancer” – or “distant disease”— means he has less of a chance of survival than the first time.  His first round with colon cancer a few years ago we got to see what cancer treatment looks like.  He was poisoned and irradiated and large pieces were cut out of his body.  He lost his hair, he lost weight, he had sores in his mouth and was sick all the time.  He suddenly aged.  Wheeling him out of surgery on a gurney he looked as if someone had hammered him flat.  But, we thought we had a success story.  He recovered quickly due to a healthy lifestyle as a long-distance runner and some good Polish prole genes. We thought we had one of those “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” family stories you hear about.  And then we find out, a day before Thanksgiving this year, that the cancer has bloomed again in his chest.  I realize this will probably be the disease that kills him, sooner or later.

I want him to live.  I want him to live to know my children.  I want him to live for my sake and his, too; but I am thinking of my children when I imagine him gone from my life.  The one grandparent I never knew is a mystery to me whereas the other three are each people I know, I have a history with.  I want him to be there for them as they enter kindergarten, play their first soccer games, graduate from high school.

I am powerless to heal him, but I want to believe I can nurture him even here, miles away.  I keep at the knitting, doggedly forcing my hands into yet another repetitious task.  As I inch along I remember suddenly how we called him “Captain Kiwi”  a few years ago in a lighthearted recognition of the fuzzy new hair growing in after they stopped treatment.  I smile to myself as I think of him; my fingers and hands gaining a body memory and the stitches flow like water from my fingers.  I sit down to knit in the quiet times of my day, a few minutes stolen on the couch, kids asleep, no sound except the hum of the heat, and the knitting needles clicking conversationally with the soft strains of the radio.  I think of the Psalm 139:  “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made”.  With each stitch I am knitting together a healed body; I am holding vigil.  The cap will be about 12,000 stitches when I am done.  12,000 stitches, more than the days I lived in his house, and with each one I am envisioning joining his cells into wholeness, combating the poison that even now is flowing through his veins.

My 2 1/2 year old daughter is up from her nap.  She climbs up to join me at the kitchen table and watches me.  “You’re knitting a hat for Grandpa?” she asks.  Yes, I say.  “Because he’s sick”, she says.  Then looks in my eyes and asks, “Is he feeling better?”  I am suddenly so sad I can’t answer her.  I don’t know if he will ever, in fact, feel much better.  All I can do is hope, and pray, and keep my hands busy.

debunking the myth of Supermom

I never thought I’d be seen as the woman who “did it all”. I hate that phrase. Annoyingly enough, I have had more than a few friends and family pay glowing homage to what they think are my supernatural abilities to manage a home, create art, and raise beautiful children. In reality things had a darker side than they were seeing. I had become so performance-based I had lost the ability to enjoy myself. Here’s the real story of a SuperMom.

Last Monday at the tail end of a dinner party, a friend of mine hiked her cranky 6–month old baby up on her hip and said with genuine exasperation, “Well Kelly, I don’t know how you do it.” I was floored by her comment and it took me a moment to get my bearings. I knew, of course, what she was referring to – a humble but homey dinner party in a modest but tidy home, my recent success in putting out a zine, my sewing, my volunteer work for the Health Department, and my recent switch to cloth diapering my two children. In short, all of the items I struggle with and share with my friends. The fact that my friend would look at me and see a series of successes, a seamless life fully-lived and easily enjoyed, surprised me. I was being elevated to the title of SuperMom.

This episode was easily recognizable because it has been happening to me more and more in the last year. This almost makes sense considering the circumstances of my life lately. About the time my firstborn approached a year and a half, I found I had built a solid base of resources allowing me to enjoy and succeed at life as a housemom – to prepare meals, keep my home ordered, sew for my children and friends, enjoy my child, and tune into my husband. Not surprisingly, this latter development soon got me pregnant. Going through pregnancy and having a newborn while caring for a toddler certainly threw me a curveball in my routine, but with focus and help from friends and family I bounced back rather quickly into the busy life I’d come to enjoy. Referring to becoming a second-time parent, I told people, “I want to enjoy this time, not just survive it.” I asked friends and family for help, embraced my labor and birth, and enlisted my husband’s help in creating time for myself.

All of this has a dark side however. My second labor, birth, and early months with my new baby seemed almost too good to be true. They were. About six weeks into my son’s life I realized I had arrived in a dark place. To the outside observer, I probably seemed a relatively successful and capable woman. I felt a wreck inside. The most minor glitches in my day would seem insurmountable.

It took a few breakdowns before I realized no one was going to help me, and I needed to figure out a way to get the inner struggle, whatever it was, out into the open. I tentatively, oh so tentatively, suggested to my husband I might need a counselor. It was a tough call to make. What would happen? Would I find out? Or worse, that there was more wrong with me than I’d even imagined? The thing that made me determined to go was the realization that the only thing keeping me willing to survive was my love for my children. And if things got bad, really bad – and I lost my love for them – what then?

At about the time I started seeing a counselor, the fog began to lift. I began to see my moments of despair as being unreasonable. Life didn’t need to be so overwhelming.

And now I am wondering about my friends and acquaintances who appear to have a solid face to the outside world. I wonder what secret pain they hold, and how easy it would be for them to say to someone, “I am really faltering here. I need help.” For some reason, all the stories about women who need and get help seem to be about someone else. They can’t be about us. And maybe that self-imposed pressure is why it’s so hard for our friends to admit to one another that, for the now, it’s their story.

Cream Of Chicken & Vegetable Soup

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
12 ounce evaporated milk (1 can)
~ 1 pound / 16 ounces assorted steamed / prepared vegetables
3 cloves garlic
2 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 8 ounces total), cooked and cubed
2 – 4 cups chicken stock, depending on desired consistency of soup
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon garlic salt
salt and fresh ground pepper

Melt butter in medium saucepan over low heat and saute garlic until softened, about 10 minutes. Stir in flour until smooth. Gradually stir in milk. Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a boil. Add vegetables, chicken, broth, and onion salt. Heat through and serve. Makes about 6 – 10 servings, depending on amount of stock used.

Pastel De Tres Leches

(or, Three Milk Cake)

1 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1⁄2 cup unsalted butter
2 cups white sugar (divided)
5 eggs
1 1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla extract (divided)
1 cup milk
1⁄2 of a 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1⁄2 of a 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1 1⁄2 cups heavy (whipping) cream

Preheat oven to 350 °F. Grease and flour a 9 x 13 inch baking pan.

Sift flour and baking powder together and set aside. Cream the butter and 1 cup of the sugar together until fluffy. Add the eggs and 1/2 teaspoon of the vanilla. Beat well. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, 2 tablespoons at a time, mixing well until blended. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for 30 minutes.

When cake has finished baking, pierce it in 8 or 10 places with a fork or skewer, and let it cool. Combine the whole milk, evaporated milk, and condensed milk and pour over the top of the cooled cake. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.

Whipped cream topping: When ready to serve, combine the whipping cream and the remaining 1 teaspoon of vanilla and 1 cup of sugar, whipping until thick. Spread over top of cake.
Because of the milk in the cake, it is very important that you keep the cake refrigerated until ready to serve. Serve chilled and with fresh fruit, if desired.

Variations:

Caribbean version: Replace the sweetened condensed milk with 1⁄2 cup of coconut milk in the milk mixture. You can also add 1⁄4 cup rum or any other liqueur.

Southern version: In addition to the three milks, add 1/3 cup peach schnapps. You can add 1⁄2 cup of diced, drained peaches to the batter. About 1⁄4 cup of pecans can be added to the batter or sprinkled on top of the cake before serving.

Cream Of Broccoli Soup

3 tablespoons butter
3 cloves garlic
3 stalks celery, coarsely chopped (about 1/4 inch)
2 lb. broccoli, cut into large florets
1 quart / 4 cups low-sodium chicken stock
12 ounce evaporated milk (1 can)
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
3 tablespoons flour
salt
fresh ground pepper

In bottom of large soup pot, saute garlic and celery in butter over medium heat until softened but do not brown. Add broccoli and chicken stock (stock may not cover). Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer until broccoli is quite tender, but not cooked to mush, about 20 minutes.

Puree broccoli and broth in food processor. If desired, remove a few pieces of broccoli before pureeing and add back in when finished. Pour puree back into soup pot. Blend half the evaporated milk and flour separately. Add flour/milk mixture to soup along with cheddar cheese, reserving some cheddar cheese for garnish. Bring soup barely to a boil while stirring. Soup should now have a moderately thick consistency. Add remaining milk, mixing with more flour if necessary to bring soup to desired consistency. I personally don’t find more flour necessary. I also enjoy a thinner cream soup.

When soup has thickened, remove from heat or put on VERY low heat so that milk doesn’t ‘break’. If necessary, gently reheat small batches in saucepan or in microwave. Soup will keep for 3-4 days in refrigerator. Makes about 8 servings.

Chocolate Chunk Banana Bread

2 eggs
1 cup ripe mashed bananas (about 3 bananas)
1/3 cup canola oil
1/4 cup milk
2 cups flour (I use a 1/2 and 1/2 blend of all-purpose and whole wheat pastry flour)
1 cup sugar
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped nuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Mix eggs, bananas (about 3 bananas), oil and milk in large bowl until well blended. Mix dry ingredients separately in large bowl. Add wet ingredients; stir just until moistened. Grease loaf pan; fill with batter.

Bake for 55 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely in pan on wire rack. Store, tightly wrapped, at room temperature.

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A variation from kraftfoods.com – combine the dry ingredients for a bread mix and give it as a gift:

Chocolate Chunk Banana Bread Mix

Makes: 1 loaf

2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped nuts (optional)

1 disposable 9×5-inch foil loaf pan

Place all dry ingredients in 1-gallon sealable plastic bag; seal bag. Place bag in loaf pan. Place in decorative gift bag. Pair wrapped bread mix with tea towels for a great hostess gift.

Attach the following preparation directions to bag:

Preparation Directions: Preheat oven to 350°F. Mix 2 eggs, 1 cup mashed ripe bananas (about 3 bananas), 1/3 cup canola oil and 1/4 cup milk in large bowl until well blended. Add bread mix; stir just until moistened. Grease foil loaf pan; fill with batter.

Bake for 55 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely in pan on wire rack. Store, tightly wrapped, at room temperature.

Meatloaf

4 slices white bread
2 1/2 pounds ground beef
2 garlic cloves
2 stalks celery
2 carrots, scrubbed
1/2 cup fresh parsley (or 2 tablespoons dried)
1 large egg
3/4 cup ketchup
4 teaspoons dried mustard
2 teaspoons celery seed
1 tablespoon coarse salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar

Preheat oven to 400 °F. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse bread until fine crumbs form. Transfer to a medium bowl and add ground beef. Place garlic, celery, carrots, and parsley in food processor until finely chopped (you may want to cut the celery and carrots down a bit before processing). Mix the vegetables into meat mixture. Add egg, 1/2 cup ketchup, 2 teaspoons dried mustard, celery seed, salt, and pepper. Combine thoroughly, using your hands. Place in a loaf pan.

In a small bowl, combine remaining 1/4 cup ketchup, remaining 2 teaspoons mustard, and brown sugar. Whisk until blended. Brush mixture over top of meat loaf. Place the pan on a baking sheet to catch drippings and transfer to oven. Bake until a meat thermometer inserted in the center reaches 160°, about 1 1/2 hours.

Let meatloaf stand about 15 minutes before slicing. Makes about 6 servings.

Okay, I basically stole this recipe from you-know-who (initials M.S.). Still, I have refined the recipe and simplified the directions a bit (she loves to make things more complicated than they should be). This is a very hearty, moist meatloaf with a great ketchupy crust. Nothing says “I love you” better than a big slab of animal product for Valentine’s Day, right? 🙂

Sweet and Spicy Candied Pecans

Enjoy with this version of a Waldorf salad.

Nonstick vegetable oil spray
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon (generous) freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 cups pecan pieces

Preheat oven to 325°F. Spray baking sheet with nonstick spray. Combine corn syrup and next 4 ingredients in large bowl. Stir to blend. Add pecans; stir gently to coat. Transfer to baking sheet.

Place large piece of foil on work surface. Bake pecans 5 minutes. Using fork, stir pecans to coat with melted spice mixture. Continue baking until pecans are golden and coating bubbles, about 10 minutes. Transfer to foil. Working quickly, separate nuts with fork. Cool. (Can be made 3 days ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.)

Makes 1 1/2 cups.

Waldorf Salad

1/2 cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons sour cream
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon sugar
2/3 cup dried tart cherries
4 Granny Smith apples, cored, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 1/3 cups very thinly sliced celery
1 1/3 cups red seedless grapes, halved

Romaine lettuce leaves
Sweet and Spicy Candied Pecans

Whisk mayonnaise and next 3 ingredients in large bowl. Add cherries, apples, celery, and grapes; toss. Season with salt and pepper.

Arrange lettuce on platter. Spoon salad over. Top salad with candied pecans.

Makes 6 servings

Tempeh Tacos

1 pound tempeh (2 8-oz packages)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons tamari
1/4 cup lime juice
1 tablespoon chili powder or Mexican seasoning
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
12 taco shells or tortillas

Taco fixings:

Shredded lettuce
Sprouts
Salsa
Feta cheese
Avocado slices

Crumble or chop tempeh into small pieces and place in a mixing bowl. Combine 1 tablespoon of the oil, the tamari, the lime juice, and the chili powder in a small bowl and pour this marinade over the tempeh. Let stand 10 to 30 minutes. The longer time allows more absorption of the flavor.

Heat the other tablespoon of oil in a large skillet. Add the marinated tempeh and keep mixture moving in the pan until tempeh turns golden brown. Add chopped cilantro just prior to serving. Warm taco shells according to directions on package. Fill taco shells with tempeh mixture and your favorite fixings.

Preparation time: 30 minutes to marinate, 5 minutes to assemble tacos.

Makes 6-8 servings