The Sensuous Art of Plum Picking

Plums from our backyard tree are incredibly sweet and juicy. I take them to church and put them in the kitchen, where we munch. If you stand outside the room you’d think they’re having an orgy in there. “Oooooh…ummmm…OMG this is sweet…ahhhhhh…just one more… ”

I wait for the Magic Moment.

It sounds like they’re making love, but they’re just in the kitchen eating plums I hand picked. Actually, “pick” is too crude a word. I don’t just pick them, I caress them. I fondle them. I squeeze each one very gently and if there is a softness, I tug it ever so slightly, tenderly, away from the branch. If it doesn’t come off with this gentle grope, I leave it on the tree. It is not ripe.

My husband is annoyed by all this. Frank is a no-nonsense, just-get-it-done kind of guy. He goes out with his bag and just indiscriminately grabs every plum he sees hanging. He pulls them forcibly, with lightning speed. “You’re coming with me!” I can almost hear him say. He’s done in a jiffy, and comes in the house with a big bag of hard, slightly green plums.

It’s easy to tell whether people are eating plums that Frank picked or that I picked. When they’re eating Frank’s, it doesn’t sound like there’s an orgy going on.  

Layoff with a positive spin

They told me I was a great asset and it was nothing to do with me or my work, and then they laid me off. It was a big blow to my self-esteem. It’s real hard to view something as impersonal when it concerns yourself.  

I was also scared. It was the 1990s and jobs weren’t growing on trees. I was getting older—mid-forties—and I felt undesirable in the workplace compared to younger people. On top of that, writing and graphic design were becoming computerized fast, and I wasn’t. Training to get up to date was expensive, not to mention the cost of a computer.

I had trouble getting up the motivation and gumption to look for work. I hid at home. I was depressed.

So I was drawing unemployment and floundering…and then I casually picked up a brochure one day in the unemployment office about the State of California’s retraining program. I perked up as I read. Miraculously I qualified because I was, as I found out, what they called a displaced worker. I had done writing and graphic design for years but all manually, and I was displaced by growing computer publications technology. It was racing along and leaving me in the dust.

I completed the course at a state-approved school that had great instructors, and leading-edge computers for students to use. I got $5,000 worth of training free. I could go in outside of class hours and use any computer that was free and practice with exercise books I bought.  

After graduating I started over in my career, at the bottom because I was new, not at graphic design but at computer graphic design. Soon I found a better job and then a better one yet. And pretty soon I was doing well, working in biotechnology communications with a good salary, to-die-for benefits, stock options, and great work environment. 

What did I learn? That what seems like an end can be a new beginning.  

Grace shows up in clever disguises.

Trees are cherished friends. They shade us, produce oxygen, shelter tender baby birds. Their green beauty relaxes us. Our grapefruit tree went above and beyond to help me. It saved my ear.

I was picking up fallen grapefruit from under our big beautiful tree one morning. When I was done and stood up from my crouching position, my head bumped a branch and I caught my ear on a nasty thorn. There was a lot of blood. I never knew how large a grapefruit tree thorn is until I looked at it after it attacked me. Huge! And nasty.

I washed, disinfected and bandaged the wound. A few days later I removed the bandage and it seemed fine. But over time I noticed little spots of blood on my bath towel after drying myself. Then it started seeping and I went to see my dermatologist. The doctor couldn’t take a biopsy of the sore because it was too contaminated with blood and ooze. (Sorry for the gore.) I was very careful not to wet or touch it for a few days and it dried out.

The doctor then did a biopsy, and it turned out that the source of the blood was a basal cell cancer growing under the skin where the thorn pricked me, tucked into and following the curve of my outside ear rim. It wasn’t yet visible to the naked eye.

Two weeks later a surgeon removed the cancer. He put it in a jar and showed it to me. It was more or less the size and shape of a medium-size garlic clove, although it was longer and more slender which was why it hadn’t been obvious. 

If that thorn hadn’t snagged and wounded my ear, the cancer might have gone undetected until it grew large enough to be noticed. And then I would have been in trouble. A large part of my ear might have had to be removed.

In noble beauty, that tree has graced our backyard for 30 years. It has serenaded us when the wind rustles through its leaves, and yielded the lovely gift of its fruit to us. Now it has saved my ear from being ravaged by cancer.

I am deeply grateful. I thank the tree, I thank the thorn, I thank God, and I wear a hat and sunscreen when I’m outside.  

Grace

I woke up grouchy one morning, still tired. I pondered skipping my morning aerobics. Commitment! I told myself, then dressed and headed to my workout room. That was my first mistake.

I do an online aerobics routine on the British Institute of Health website. I turned on my computer, clicked on Chrome browser, waited…and what came up was “no internet service.” I restarted, went to Chrome again, got the same message. On my third try, the same thing happened so obviously it was not a temporary fluke. I was going to have to call my internet service provider technical help number, and spend a long time on hold then a long time doing the troubleshooting steps, but it would have to wait. I was barely awake. I couldn’t face computer troubleshooting without a shower and a cup of coffee.

I decided I would get my exercise in with a brisk walk. My neighborhood provides a good aerobic workout as there are some pretty steep uphill stretches. But when I looked out the window, I saw it was raining heavily. No walk today, I thought.

At a loss, I went into the kitchen and popped a Keurig pod into my coffee maker. Then I remembered I had a chocolate hazelnut croissant from Starbucks with my weekend treats in the freezer. Even though it wasn’t the weekend yet, I took it out and thawed it. I knew it contained 400 calories and 50 percent of my daily saturated fat allowance. I went for it anyway. I would double my aerobics routine when my computer was back up. 

I added Italian sweet cream to my coffee and sat down at the table. Savoring the chocolate hazelnut decadence and sipping my coffee, I started to feel pretty great. What had started as a growing list of frustrating problems had turned into the perfect morning.


Grace: the freely given, unmerited favor of God.  

Heavenly Help in Disguise

Hernias are not usually thought of as being from heaven. They’re usually thought of as coming from the other place. But my husband’s was different. It saved his life.

Frank’s hernia showed up last year. He was 78. The hernia wasn’t very big and it wasn’t painful. The doctor said it might remain relatively harmless and that if Frank preferred, he could leave it be and they’d just keep an eye on it. But of course he could have it surgically repaired if he wanted.

Frank had never had surgery and found the prospect unpleasant. He was inclined to leave well enough alone. But the doctor went on to tell him if he did remove it he could do it laparoscopically, with a recovery time of only 1-2 weeks and much less pain than with open surgery. It’s all done with a thin scope and instruments inserted through very small incisions.  

That made Frank was a lot more interested. He opted for the laparopscopic surgery.

Good thing. He had no idea then what an important decision that was. 

Routine pre-surgery blood tests were done, and a high white blood cell count was discovered. So different tests were done to find out what was causing the abnormality and eventually they did a CT scan.

That’s when they saw the spot on Frank’s pancreas. It was biopsied and turned out to be very early-stage cancer. Three-quarters of pancreatic cancer patients die within a year of diagnosis. But because his cancer was small and confined to the head of the pancreas, Frank was among the small minority of patients eligible for a complex procedure to remove the tumor. It’s called a Whipple surgery.

The Whipple surgeon said the cancer was early-stage enough that Frank could have his hernia repaired first, so he did. It was a piece of cake. He recovered fully in about a week. Shortly after that, he had his Whipple surgery. That was not a piece of cake. It was a long operation—about seven hours—and a lengthy, difficult and painful recovery. But it was worth it. It beat the alternative, no contest. The outcome was very successful, because the cancer had not spread to surrounding vital arteries or organs. The prognosis looks good for Frank to have a good number of quality years ahead of him.

It would be quite a different story if Frank hadn’t had that hernia, and if he hadn’t opted for the hernia surgery with its pre-surgery tests.

Life is mysterious. So many times, things happen that seem negative but when you look back on them you see that they were actually gifts. Precious gifts. In Frank’s case, the gift of years of life. And all from a lousy hernia, imagine. That has to be one of God’s cleverest disguises for a gift, ever.

Doctor With a Heart

 


When my daughter was ten, doctors discovered a growth behind her middle ear. The intricate operation to remove it called for a surgeon with exceptional compassion as well as consummate skill.

There wasn’t much time to lose. The growth was a cholesteatoma, which often starts from a cyst that sheds old skin. The skin builds up, and can grow and destroy surrounding delicate middle-ear bones and cause other serious problems.  

Dr. Alan Nissen, a widely respected ear surgeon, was to perform Michele’s operation.  In one of several conversations we had about the procedure, he told me that a known risk of the operation is severance of the facial nerve that controls the mouth muscles. The nerve was very close to where surgeons would be cutting. When the facial nerve is cut speech becomes hard to understand, and the face is disfigured because one side of the mouth is noticeably pulled down. The risk was small, Dr. Nissen said, but he was duty-bound to inform me of all downside potential.

A few days before the surgery Dr. Nissen and I had a final conversation. I brought up facial nerve severance, which weighed heavy on my mind. I’d been pushing for an extra surgeon on the team to do one thing during the operation: observe the nearness of the cutting to the nerve and alert the team when they were getting perilously close. Dr. Nissen had told me this observing doctor was the most sure-proof way to prevent nerve severance.  

“To surgeons the risk may be small,” I said. “But for Michele it’s huge. It’s one more thing on top of the other facial differences she has. She’s dealt with a lot of challenges in her young life. Her courage amazes me. But why add another challenge that is so avoidable?”

Among Michele’s other issues were her very small ears. She was also hearing impaired and wore hearing aids. She had a deviated septum—a crooked nose that twisted to the left side. That could be corrected but not until she was older. If the facial nerve was severed, she would likely be unable to form facial expressions on the left side of her face and her speech would be slurred.

As the late-afternoon sun filtered into his office that day, Dr. Nissen gave me the bad news. An observing surgeon would not be added to the team, because the group had determined that risk in Michele’s case was no more than average. He looked at me somberly. “I know where you’re coming from—a lot of love for Michele,” he told me. “But we’ve weighed all the factors and this is the soundest decision when everything is considered.”

“Maybe the risk is statistically small,” I said, “but the effects on Michele are so very large.” He looked genuinely sorry. I knew that in addition to being an extraordinary surgeon, he was a compassionate man.

 “I wish I could say something that would change your mind,” I told him when I left, but I knew at that point there was no changing things and nothing more I could say. The surgery was just three days away.

Disappointed and sad, I walked to my car. I knew the growth had to be removed. I would pray that Michele’s facial nerve would not be touched. That was all I could do. Driving home I told myself the odds of severing the nerve were low. I told myself there were therapy programs to rebuild strength in damaged facial muscles. I told myself God had already brought Michele safely and successfully through four surgeries for other problems. I told myself all that and more…and I worried.

I was exhausted emotionally and physically when I got home to our cozy little apartment. Michele was at a friend’s house. We lived just a few blocks from her “mainstream” school, where she had just transferred from her special education class for hearing-impaired kids that was two towns away, an hour bus ride. It was an exciting change, especially when we walked around the neighborhood and she saw and played with kids she knew from her new school.

I went into the kitchen to start dinner and was peeling potatoes when I noticed from the corner of my eye that the answering machine was blinking. I punched the button to run the message.  And there was Dr. Nissen’s voice. “I wanted you to know right away that my colleagues and I talked this afternoon and we’ve decided to add an observer to the team. We will see you both in a few days. Don’t worry, everything is going to be fine.”

He had called while I was on my way home. It was one of the most beautiful phone messages I’ve ever received. I’ll never forget that day, and I’ll never forget Dr. Nissen and his compassion and skill. 

A huge and heavy burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt suddenly light and free as I got back to fixing dinner. I have never peeled potatoes with such joy and gusto as I did that day.

The operation was four hours long and successful in all ways. It’s been 26 years and Michele’s cholesteatoma has never come back, as they sometimes do.

 

Home Invasion

Relax.


A massive prehistoric beast lives with us. It rumbles threateningly when it’s awakened, it shakes the earth when it moves, it gobbles up space, it’s always hungry. It’s my archrival. 

The beast is my husband’s beloved muscle car, his 1970 Chevrolet Camaro. It’s a polluter, with no catalytic converter, and a gas guzzler. It gets a mere 15 miles to the gallon. Maybe 10. Yet the old space hog gets to occupy the garage while my sensitive compact lives outside in the driveway because there’s not enough room for it. On cold winter mornings I bundle up and go outside and, teeth chattering, scrape ice off the windows of my two-year-old Corolla. I run the defogger to clear the windows before I can get on the road. All the while Frank’s beast snuggles comfy-cozy in the garage.        

When we married I moved into Frank’s house and from the beginning the Camaro was like a roommate. A roommate I’m jealous of. It gets so much attention. Even though it’s an environmental nightmare Frank loves it. It’s the closest thing to a child he’s ever had. He’s the original owner and lived with it for more 20 years before he met me. He’s always working on it. Changing the oil, or tuning it up, or fixing a leak of some sort, or adjusting something or other.  

It was never like that when we were dating. I came first. I wasn’t crazy about the car because it didn’t have air conditioning or a CD player, or anything modern. But I wasn’t jealous of it. We would just use my little Sentra with its air conditioning, electric windows, CD player, etc.   

I wish Frank had a teensie car like this, instead of his massive 1970 Camaro that devours the garage.

I was almost rid of the Camaro once. Frank called one morning from the side of the freeway where the Camaro had broken down. He thought the block was cracked. I don’t know much about cars but I was pretty sure a cracked block is fatal.

I told him I was sorry, trying to hide the insincerity in my voice. I drove over to him, singing along to John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High. I actually felt high. I was making plans for life after death of the Camaro. Frank would take my Sentra and I would buy the new Toyota I’d been wanting. Sweet. Lots of head room. Five-speed automatic shift, sunroof, 10-disk CD player. My fantasy ended when I saw Frank and his damaged chariot. I pulled over, turned off John Denver and tried to look sad.

The Camaro wasn’t drivable so we called a tow truck. It came and loaded up the car and drove away. On our way home Frank said glumly he didn’t think they made new engines for his model anymore.

“I’m so sorry,” I lied. When we got home I started dinner and Frank called his car guy. They talked a long time. After Frank hung up he was beaming.

“They do make new engines for my model,” he enthused. “And it won’t cost nearly as much as I thought.”

Then and there, I decided to take my stand. I took a deep breath.

“If you’re going to keep that old dinosaur, I want a divorce,” I said. “I’ve had it. It’s me or that car.”

KIDDING. I didn’t really say that. I thought it, but what I said was, “Gee, that’s great honey. I’m happy for you.” The truth is I was afraid to find out which of us he would choose.

Frank and I and the Camaro are still together. I still park in the driveway. Frank’s Camaro still hulks in the garage, like always except now it’s got a brand new engine. It’s good for another 50 years. It will outlast me. It’s not fair. When I break down, I won’t get a new engine. The most I’ll get is a new knee or a new hip or two in the coming years, maybe a pacemaker. Minor parts. But on the bright side, the Camaro’s longevity reminds me of my own mortality. It helps me to savor every moment that I have now.

My struggle with the Camaro has taught me that I can only change myself. I can’t make the Camaro go away. I can’t make Frank less attached to it. With acceptance comes peace. It’s good for me, after all, to get outside on those freezing winter mornings and scrape ice off windshields. It’s invigorating, and I can practice gratitude, being thankful I’m not back East shoveling snow. I see the positive side. I’ve stopped calling the car my husband loves a gas-guzzling, space-hogging, polluting, noisy, prehistoric old heap. Now I see an iconic American classic, majestic symbol of a bygone golden age of Detroit and American car makers. I’ve learned nonresistance. That wretched old road hog—oops, I mean that national treasure—is my teacher.


The Power of Faith: WWJD – What Would Jesus Drive? A fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly car like a Honda Accord. “For I did not speak of my own Accord….” ~John 12:49

The Power of Chocolate: I love cars. Especially milk chocolate cars, wrapped in Italian foil. ~Pat Torello