Monday, February 21, 2011

The 40th Day

I grew up Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) which means my family went to church on Saturday, I didn't eat pork (and was encouraged to be vegetarian), I didn't wear make-up or jewelry, I didn't read novels or play with occult themes (no ghosts, Ouija boards, witches, etc.), and I was not to listen to secular music, watch movies, or dance. Oh, and no caffeine.

Of course, as with any religion, I did just about all of these with or without the aid of my family. My father and mother love movies and dancing, so I saw LOTS of movies and danced all the time. We are also big coffee drinkers, though now I prefer a soy chai latte. I think my mother had a problem with her daughter knowing the lyrics of some questionable songs, so she began to listen to Christian (read "protestant") radio stations. I listened to some of the music, but I was far more into U2 and eventually jazz and classical music. I was a vegetarian by choice and don't really eat that much pork -- though, sausage is often my downfall. I still to this day do not wear make-up often, which Lance appreciates as he has been scared of clowns, Santa Claus, etc. since he was young. In fact, he still is a bit weary of women who wear to much make up -- as if they have something to hide. I love jewelry though! I got my ears pierced when I was 18. I remember my father was aghast. He said "what else did you get pierced???". An ear is hardly a bellybutton, a nose, or some other part of the anatomy that could be pierced.

Obviously, I have not remained Seventh-Day Adventist. As soon as I turned 18, I started going to a Unitarian church on Sunday mornings and started reading the Torah in an attempt to become Jewish. Then, finally, I found a spiritual home in Orthodox Christianity and converted. Or so I thought.

My grandfather passed away 40 days ago. He was an interesting man. He was born in Mexico, married my grandmother after flirting with her at his mother's funeral, and moved here reluctantly after a hurricane hit Tampico and destroyed the family's livelihood. He always wanted to go back to Mexico, and I am sure the Republican party that he supported would have been more than happy to send him back. I still remember him saying "Viva Bush!!!" (though it sounded more like "Viva Booo-shhh!!!"). He was a drinker and smoker and a womanizer -- all of which lead to the abuse of his family, his body, and, later, depression. He was injured as a roofer and could no longer make a good wage and his family had to rely on charity, which I believe angered him. He took it out on them -- though in good times, I suspect, he was quite kind.

He loved his family though, and in time chose them instead of all the pleasures the world can offer. He developed diabetes, and ignored it. He cursed during soccer games, and I repeated the words (which I got in trouble for doing). He was raised Catholic and did not like the SDA church that my grandmother attended. Later in life, when diabetes claimed two toes and when it began to fuse vertebrae, he chose to be baptized in the SDA church and try to turn his life toward the good.

He was always kind to me, smiled when he saw me, and inquired as to how I was doing or what I was studying. When I went to Greece, Italy, and Turkey and asked what he wanted me to bring him back, he requested a little dirt from each place. So, on my trip, I collected a little earth from each place: Rhodes, Ephesus, and Pompeii. I put them in little glass jars and decorated them with the names of the places (per my mother's instruction). He liked those little jars and all of the other little things he received as gifts from me: a wooden duck and a set of matrushkas. I understand now where my love of tiny objects of delight come from as well as a love of travel -- and a fiery temper and great sense of style (he always had cool hats).

In the back of my mind, I knew he would be my first grandparent to die. He was not in the best of health and he was so very weak. I used think I would be able to emotionally handle his repose and I would be able to sing at his funeral. When the time came, when I heard of his death, I was shaken to my core. There are people that you think will always be here and then they are not. It is not as if I have never experienced the death of someone I loved, but a grandparent is just that strong foundation into one's past and it is difficult to see it washed away by waves of time. You know it will happen, but when the tide comes in and they are taken, it hurts beyond measure.

It was difficult to see his body, cold and not smiling. I was reminded of when my great-grandfather passed away and there was no jolly countenance -- the familiar "hey hey" he would say when he saw you. It is in that moment of seeing the body without soul you realize they are truly no more on this earth.

I thought I had fully converted to Orthodoxy until I realized I still do not understand how the church views death. I would hear all of the SDA pastors and family members say "he is sleeping", but he isn't. The SDA teaches death as a sort of "coma" -- the soul does not leave the body, but hangs out in hibernation until the coming of Christ. I grew up with this teaching and when I compare it with what the Orthodox church says, there is overlap, but they do not agree.

I do believe what Orthodox theologians tell me: the soul departs from the body and therefore it is important that we pray for our loved ones so their souls can be at ease.

The SDA church has a difficulty with this teaching. I am not sure where their idea of the soul still resides in the body comes from, as it is obviously not biblically based (see Christ's Gospel teaching about Lazarus and rich man). Having grown up with this idea my whole life, I was always skeptical about ghosts and after-life experiences as well as the Catholic teachings on purgatory.

As an Orthodox Christian, I understand that it is important to bury after three days and on the ninth day one should also pray because the soul faces judgment before God and is then assigned a place either with God or without God. Obviously, to be with God would be preferable as the human soul is designed to reside with It. However, if one has not in her time on earth loved God or sought after Him, it is more difficult for the soul to chose to reside with God or for God to chose the soul to reside with It. (I use "Him" and "It" interchangeably as a pronoun for God, as God truly has no gender, but on earth He was manifest as God and male MAN, so "He" is also an appropriate pronoun).

Still, I am confused. I am not sure where the third, ninth, and fortieth day traditions come from or how the church fathers can verify all of the teachings on death. My ultimate confusion comes from this question: where is the soul of Grandfather right now? Is it ok? I have prayed on the ninth day for him and will pray today that he is where the just repose. But is he there? Or where is he? Is he suffering? I am so confused and terrorized by these thoughts. Of course I also selfishly think: what will happen when I die? And will my listening to Amy Winehouse somehow take me away from God? Or is there something more to eternal salvation?

I hope in order to reside with God I need to follow God's two big commandments: love Him and love everyone too. I think if I truly loved God, it will be easier and less confusing for me to love everyone else. I always have to remind myself that God loves everyone -- without exception. The itinerant who harasses me in the grocery store, the woman talking on her cellphone while driving, the flamboyant trannie on Capital Hill (with AMAZING shoes) -- God loves each of them and I love them too.

I have been trying to get through Father Seraphim Rose's book "The Soul after Death", but it is a weighty read after a day of caring for Nina. Besides, it is not something I wanted to read before going in for gallbladder surgery. My goal was to finish the book before the fortieth day, but alas, that has not happened. Instead, I will say the Cannon for the Dead for my Grandfather and continue to read about what happens to our souls when we die.

I often recall the "wager" from Pascal's "Le Pensees" -- we gamble when we believe in God. We can risk giving up eternal peace for earthly things or risk pleasures for nothing at all. I don't believe that there is nothing after death; all of the love I feel must mean something is there and I hope I can experience a greater love with God when my time comes. I will continue to pray for those who have departed before me because I love them, because I have hope that I will be able to meet them again in some far better way than I experienced them on earth, and we will all be at peace and love with God.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Gallbladder Crisis of Conscience

Here is a gallbladder.

I remember dissecting various specimens (cadavers included) and not paying very careful attention to this lovely organ. However, I have become quite aware of it because of the pain I have been in lately.

Apparently, my gallbladder is full of tiny stones and lots of calcium billirubinate. Those two items should not be there -- it is equivalent to having soda and cheerios in your fishtank when there should be only fish and water. So, instead of my digestive system receiving the bile it should to help me digest fat, it is receiving nothing or this calcium substance -- at least this is what I have been able to piece together.

When my stomach has not received these enzymes, it tends to cramp under my right ribcage and just below my sternum. I have had this pain off and on for about a year, but doctors were unable to diagnose what was wrong with me. Finally, after two days of cramps, I went to a new doctor (due to insurance changes), who immediately thought I might have gallstones.

Apparently, many women during pregnancy, and after, can develop gallstones. The hormonal changes prompt one's gallbladder to go haywire. It is also a prevalent disease in the Hispanic/Mexican community (especially for women) due to obesity and diet. It also happens to run in families.

Now, I am Mexican who has several relatives short a gallbladder and I was slightly overweight prior to pregnancy, so gallstones shouldn't be a shock to me. But it is. How many more organs am I going to lose before I am forty? I am already down a pair of adenoids and a breast -- and I consider myself pretty healthy.

Getting my gallbladder out would mean having to give up ALL CHEESY, SPICY loveliness that I eat. No more enchiladas, quesadillas, pizza, chile rellenos, brie & fig sandwiches, GRILLED CHEESE, vodka, BEER, chocolate, anything fried, etc.

The news of what my diet would become has sent me into crisis.

First of all, I am so accustomed to eating whatever I want. For a few years, I had to give up chocolate and coffee (caffeine basically) because I thought I had fibrocystic condition, and it was a hardship. Still, when I was diagnosed breast cancer, the one solace I had was that I could have chocolate. If I was going to die, I was going to die happy (and possibly with a Toblerone in my hand).

With this diagnosis, there is no solace except for an answer for the physical discomfort I have felt for about a year and a half. I have always been happy to eat whatever I wanted. I remember being a serious fasting-freak when I first became Orthodox before deciding that offending people and being a noisome wasn't worth it. If I was out to dinner with folks, I would not make a big deal about fasting because what was more important was to love the people I was with than to be pharisee about what I eat.

Second of all, now that I will have to go on a fairly strict, no-fat diet I will turn into one of "those" girls.

"Those" girls are the girls who don't eat anything while you are gorging on a piece of molten chocolate cake. They have one slice of pizza (no crust) while you eat an entire pie. They make a fuss about the type of food they eat when you just order whatever you want off the menu.

Not that I dislike girls who do this, I just find it sad. Why worry and fret about your thighs when there is brie to eat? Not that one should have brie everyday, but once in a while, it is good to indulge.

Of course, in all of this reflecting on my diet, I have come to realize that perhaps I do indulge myself a bit much. I can consume half a bag of baked cheese crunchies because, well, it tastes good and is a 1/3 of the fat of cheetos. However, the problem isn't so much the source as the quantity. I could buy locally produced brie from a producer who feeds his cows only choice grass and plays them classical music, but that doesn't make the brie have less fat.

Finally, there are very few things I am good at doing. Many of you may be aghast at this thought, but I find it true. I am a fairly good crocheter and can draw a straight line. I am pretty good at math and explaining how math works along with diagnosing when folks have computational issues or problem solving issues. I can sing, though often flat -- but I am reliable when performing with a group. I can read and remember almost everything I have read (to the annoyance/amusement of many).

The one thing I consider myself REALLY good at is cooking. I love cooking and I have always loved cooking. I can dissect food and tell what is in it. I can interpret recipes and find ways to make them better. Generally, people like my cooking.

Now what will I do when I am limited in my cooking? Seriously, I think one of the reasons Lance fell in love with me is because I knew how to cook and it continues to improve. He loves when I make roasts and reuben sandwiches for him. He teases me (I think) that I do not bake enough for him. Lance has been nothing but supportive through all of this, but it is hard not to think of "cupboard love" being a part of our marriage.

With all of these negative thoughts running around in my head, I have had to try to think positively. The one piece of advice I was given that I have tried to stick to is to think of at least three good thoughts for every one bad one that you have about a person/situation.

So, I have a complied a list of 10 things that will be good about my gallbladder being removed.

10. I will be forced to lose weight with a diet -- For years I have wanted to lose 10 pounds or so in order to be healthy. I would start running, swimming, Bollywood dancing in attempts to get back into shape without any regard to what I was eating. Now I will have to pay attention and hopefully get down to a healthy weight of 110.

(A majority of the list from here on out is food. Though it might be easy to say "But you won't be able to have...", I have to think positively. I can substitute butter and live without fried food.)

9. BEETS -- Lance grows a lot of these, so it is a good thing it is a recommended food!

8. SUSHI -- I love sushi and apparently on this new diet I should eat more fish. Hurray for sushi!

7. BERRIES -- Good thing I live in the Pacific Northwest where berries are abundant and plentiful. Nina and I will have to do more berry picking this summer and stock our freezer full!

6. YOGURT -- I love yogurt and it is one of the few dairy products I will be able to have post-surgery (along with cottage cheese, which I have only eaten once and thought was ok).

5. APPLES -- I have an apple a day because I love apples. I hope to perfect my pie making skills so Lance can still enjoy apple pie!

4. EGGS -- I do love eggs and I can still have one occasionally and in baked items!

3. OLIVE OIL -- After surgery it is highly recommended that I have olive oil and I love to cook with it! I am also supposed to have a shot of it along with lemon juice in the morning. I will have to see about this...

2. AVOCADOS -- At first I thought these would be out of my diet, but it just so happens that all of the good fat will help flush out the toxins that the gallbladder bile would normally flush! So, YAY because I cannot imagine a world without avocados -- it is a vegan staple!

1. Maybe Nina won't need to have her gallbladder out! -- I know I can't blame DNA and culture for everything, but possibly less fried chicken, okra, corn on the cob (no joke, it was tasty) and less beef will be good so that our little one can be healthy!

Friday, February 4, 2011

It's Been Awhile

Wow -- this is the first blog post of the new year...and it's February. I was on a "one-post-a-month" plan, but Nina absorbs just about every moment of my time. I have had a lot I have wanted to write about, but have not gotten to do so. Therefore it is time for one of my lists:

Blog Topics:
- Nina & General Motherhood
- Baptism
- Dying and Death (woot ?)
- Oscar Nominated Films

Geez, light and breezy topics...where to begin.

I suppose I will start with my most recent thoughts: Nina and motherhood in general.

Nina was born in a state of panic -- or at least I was in a state of panic. As she was positioned in such an odd angle, there was no dilation and her heart rate kept plummeting every time I had a contraction. The doctor finally said "ok, your baby is not liking labor, and we need to get her out!" and we were ferried to the surgery at lightening speed.

When you hear the heartbeat you have heard for nine months suddenly slow and stop, something happens to you that is hard to describe. Whether it is instinct or emotion, a wave of panic came over me. It was the sort of frantic panic one has when things do not go according to plan for something very important. A very strange thing happened: I began to pray frantically.

Now, normally when the poo hits the fan, I either get super mad or I pray. I fully anticipated that if anything went wrong in labor, I would get super mad. It didn't happen; perhaps because it was possible that my child would die or perhaps because I realized getting super mad was not going to solve anything. I am just glad I could remember how to pray.

I whispered my prayers -- not a sound left my mouth. Lance said he could tell what I was doing : the way my eyes looked and the way my lips quivered.

The first prayer that popped into my head was "Have mercy on us O God, for we have put our hope in Thee. Be not angry with us greatly neither remember our iniquity, but look upon us now as Thou art compassionate." I have no idea where this is from (Psalms?), but it popped into my head. I prayed the "Hail, Mary" (known in Orthodox circles as "Rejoice, O Virgin") over and over along with the "Our Father" (even in Slavonic).

The anthesiologists (I had two) were trying to get a spinal tap going and I was not cooperating. One of them said "If we can't get this in, we are going to knock you out". Oddly enough, what helped me remain still and steady as they put the needle in was thinking "what would Lisabeth Salandar do?".

I did not set them or their cars on fire.

Instead, I neatly curved my back as I had been instructed and took the pain, like Lisabeth Salander would, knowing it was all for a great purpose.

As they began the extraction process, I returned to prayer and started the 50th Psalm (Have mercy on me, O God, etc.) figuring that if I bit it, I would at least be started on the Psalms for the funeral.

Lance said he peaked around the curtain and saw my bladder hanging out where it ought not be. He quickly returned to my side of the curtain. Soon we heard cries and one of the nurses showed us our wriggling bundle of pinkness. I took one look at her and thought "Nina Sophie" - - it came to me quickly and without hesitation.

And since then, motherhood has been a series of unpredictable events and stumbling blocks no one can anticipate.

I have been to lactation "workshops" with mothers running around with no shoes on, talking about how they needed an "outing" when I was trying to get help feeding Nina on just one breast ('cause I only have one). I have been to the pediatrician with other screaming children hoping that mine does not join the chorus. I have had not one, but THREE diaper blowouts at one venue. I am amazed at the vast amounts of laundry as Nina tends to "cheese" and does often when I have finally had a chance to take a shower.

I have said this often recently: motherhood is not intellectually straining as much as it is emotionally and physically demanding. I am rather good at being intellectually challenged as I think any human is. But I find myself quite the weakling when it comes to remaining emotionally balanced and physically capable of tending to a little person.

I get so frustrated with her, but constantly remind myself that she has not been in the country for that long. I recognized in myself that if I am not physically at least 50%, that is operating on half the amount of sleep and food I would normally have, I will not be able to take care of her. It has all become a balancing act: finding ways to keep my constantly busy mind engaged while still taking care of physical and emotional myself so I can take care of her.

I am also looking for a job because I don't think I can continue in this vein of work. I purposefully gave myself no job so that I could find out if I liked being a full-time mom. I have come to the conclusion that I do not like being a mom 24-7. It is hard work and I am not cut out for it. Since the stork does not accept returns, I must return to work so that I can better appreciate her. I am so grateful that I live in a time where this is possible, that I can decide what is best for my family.

Of course, returning to work during a recession is not easy and especially so when you also factor in childcare. Still, I return to prayer and know that God blessed us with Nina and so He will bless me with work when the time is right. I just have to continue to put hope in Him.