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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Leslie's Spaghetti



The last few days Emma’s aunt Lauren (Leslie’s sister) has been messaging her things like, “what’s something that made you smile today?” or “what was one positive thing you remember from today?”  I sort of love that little interaction.  Lauren was Leslie’s “go to guy” for advice and really valued her outlook on life and her big brain.  I love that Lauren is keeping things positive for Emma.  And that she’s pushing herself a little more into Emma’s life because…well…obviously there’s a big hole there to fill.

I’ve been doing sort of the…well…not really opposite…same thing from a different angle.  Every night at bed time I ask her what made her sad today.  And then I tell her what made me sad.  We talk about why it made us sad and I think, sharing it, it makes us a little less sad, and sort of puts us in a big “shared experiences boat.”  One of the reasons I’m doing it is because I have a tendency to put on a brave face, and I want Emma to know that however brave a face I put on, I still think about her mother all the time.  I want her to know that I don’t take this loss the same way I might brush off a bad recipe or a lost dollar bill.  Her life mattered to me.  It made a big impact on me.  I’m grieving the loss.  I don’t want her to ever think that her mom never mattered no matter how brave a front I put on for “company”. 

Last night as we were lying in bed I asked her if anything at school made her sad.  Her science teacher had actually emailed me previously to say this:  “We were discussing ‘learning’ vs. instinctual behaviors.  One of the learning methods is imprinting – which most examples involve children and their moms.  As I was explaining situations like how the sound of a mother’s voice imprints on a baby while she’s in the womb, meaning the baby will always recognize its mother’s voice I could tell Emma was reflecting on it and getting sad.”  He went on to explain how he tried to modify the lesson toward “dads” but didn’t want to halt it because he didn’t want to draw attention to it in front of the class.  He said she handled it, but wanted to let me know. 

So Emma said, “It was in second period.”

“What’s your second period class?

“Science.  We were talking about how baby zebras scan (and I think I’m getting this partially wrong here) their mothers’ faces and imprint them so they can recognize individual facial patterns in the herd and find their mother.  And (insert kid’s name) said, “I couldn’t do that.” And I said, “I could,” but as soon as I said it I remembered and I thought to myself, “not anymore, I can’t,” and I was sad for a while.”

I was glad that her teacher had emailed me, because it prompted me to ask that question specifically, but I think it’s something I’m going to share with Emma at bedtime nightly.  I think it’s…helpful.  I gave her a squeeze and said, “you know what made me sad today?”

“What?”

“Tomato sauce...” and then I explained.

Back to our story

We lived in the cottage house for four years, and had so many memorable adventures, but I need to move forward with Leslie’s story.  Maybe I’ll share some here or there as they crop up.  This one doesn’t necessarily advance our story together, but it’s worth noting because today in the store the tomato sauce aisle made me so sad…

Spaghetti sauce is this strange sauce as life metaphor…it is both unifying and discriminating.  I think almost every kid loves his mom’s spaghetti sauce.  But…every mom’s spaghetti sauce is different so almost every kid doesn't like some other kid's mom's sauce.  Maybe that's nothing like life.  I don't know.  Bottom line...spaghetti sauce is mysterious.  I remember loving my mom’s spaghetti sauce, but hating the idea of having spaghetti at a friend’s house because…well…it wasn’t the right sauce.  

Leslie started cooking her spaghetti sauce in the cottage house.  I had my mom’s recipe.  She cooked it.  For her it was okay, but Leslie was a much pickier eater back when we first started dating (the list of ‘don’t likes’ included peppers, onions, beans, tomatoes, chunks in sauce, etc…my mom’s spaghetti sauce had 4/5 things included).  For Leslie, it was her mom’s sauce.  She cooked that for me and for me it was okay, but it didn’t have as much zip.  We had dinner with my sister and her husband one night and he made spaghetti sauce that she liked.  She asked him for his recipe.  He’s very much the “throw a bunch of shit in a pot until it’s right” kind of cook, daring, but recipeless, though he did give her a couple tips.

Leslie, using her knowledge of my likes and her own, his tips, and a starting point of her mom’s recipe, created something that worked well for both of us.  There were probably four iterations before she got it perfected.  One was too spicy/chunky (it was my favorite, but not hers), one was bland, one was good, one was better…and she went with it. 

Fast forwarding to the present...both kids eat my wife’s sauce.  This is noteworthy.  Autistics are often famously picky-eaters, but Emma is possibly more picky still.  But both eat my wife’s sauce.  This is huge, because I can make dinner for the whole family, not mini dinners for each kid and another for me.  It has the sausage and wine in it and that gives it a little tang and spice.  It's not so spicy or zippy that it offends Emma, who as a much younger child cried the hard cry because "I got a spice on my tongue", and who, when making her own pizza waves the pizza sauce over her crust (like a drunk waves vermouth over his martini shaker so as not to dilute the vodka...shut up, I don't mean ME), imparting pizza sauce flavoring via air molecules because any more than that is "too much sauce".  And it has some magical quality that remains unnamed because Lily says, "I want mommy's spaghetti."

So yesterday as I was driving my shopping cart through the Giant Eagle, killing time while the pharmacy prepared my strep prescription and I glanced down to see the large Contadina tomato sauce cans and was instantly pole-axed.  I don’t have my wife’s sauce recipe.  She had it in her head.  Oh my god…we’ll never have her spaghetti sauce again.  It was such a stupid comical sense of finality to have hit me over a friggin’ can of tomato sauce, but I was instantly sad.

This morning I texted my former brother-in-law and asked him for his ‘recipe’.  I’ll talk to my mother-in-law tonight. 

I will recreate that fucking recipe if it kills me.  I know 5 cans of tomato sauce.  I know one pound of Italian sausage links.  I know a half cup (or more) red wine.  I know the spices.  I have the meatball recipe (thank GOD I have the fucking meatball recipe). 

So yesterday as I was thinking about returning for the next installment of Leslie’s story, I was thinking about all the cooking we did in that little carriage house, and of spaghetti sauce, and of how much I’ll miss it and her.

More later…(sorry no pics.  I’m at work.  On lunch break)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

On Faith and Grace and Flanksteak Pinwheels

I just went to the doctor's office.  I was feeling under the weather.  Feverish, sore throat.  I slept like crap last night and the night before, waking in a cold sweats.  It turns out I have strep throat.

On the one hand I want to cry "Uncle".  On the other hand, this is the first time in months, possibly a year that I've been sick.  Ever since Leslie lost her ability to care for kids by herself I've been healthy.  And ever since then I've lived in constant near panic..."what if I get sick?"  But I haven't.  Until now.

I don't know what to make of that.  You can find signs anywhere and in anything if you care to look for them.  I talked to Leslie about God a few times near the end.  I think I asked her why she bothered with all the prayer and church.  Given the circumstances I knew where God stood in my book, with one trial after the other being thrown my wife's way, and her soldiering patiently and positively forward.

She just said, "It's faith that's helped me get through all of this.  God is comforting me.  God is supporting me."

Religion was a sore subject with us anyway, because I'm not particularly spiritual.  One of my regrets, though, is that near the end, Leslie stopped talking to me about God and her faith.  She started talking to friends and family instead, because I was not a receptive audience.  It makes me sad that I should have been the one person in the world she never needed to censor herself around, but she had to.

I know this because I heard a lovely story from someone (my mom?  her mom?).  My mother had given my wife a passage from the bible, Isaiah 41:13:
"For I am the Lord your God
who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
I will help you."
And when Leslie would climb the stairs to go to bed at night, she struggled.  She would send me ahead of her and she would slowly climb the steps, pausing about halfway up to catch her breath before resuming.  The stairs in our house became a hurdle she couldn't manage in the end.  Too much effort.  Took too much breathing.  But when she was still climbing those hated stairs, she did it with her right hand held up...so that God could take it, and help her up the stairs.

And it makes me cry even now to think that I never knew that.  Never saw that.  Still, it's a lovely story, and it underpins what my wife told me long before...don't blame God, he's the one helping me up the steps.

Sort of a one set of footsteps in the sand kind of thing.

I feel okay with how the subject of religion was left.  After the doctors told us that the end was very near Leslie commanded, "Emma can't hate God!" and I promised that she wouldn't.  My own feelings are twisted and hazy, corkscrewed with anger and doubt and loss.  I need time.  But Emma knows how much God helped her mother through those last days, and how much her continued belief and love for God meant to her mother.

Back to our story...

We visited Montana a few times after that first fishing/hiking adventure.  We skied, we golfed (didn't we?  I think we did), we even saw a hockey game there (more on that at a future date).  We saw my nephew's christening.  I complained about the noise level of my sister's kids.
There was a picture of Leslie and I holding baby Gino, but my face is all oily and gross and Leslie just looks gorgeous here holding my niece Gianna.  This is at the christening I mentioned.  Jesus, those kids were loud.
Just Leslie...being game.  I think that's the peace sign, or an homage to the movie "Better Off Dead".

But we always returned to our cozy cottage house overlooking my landlord's pool.  When I started writing this I thought we'd lived there a couple years at most, but the timeline says it's more like four.  And that's probably about right.

I was telling a young woman at Leslie's viewing about one of our cottage house adventures.  She had just finished telling me how graceful Leslie was (she was a majorette with Leslie in High School).  I laughed and told her how clumsy my wife was.  I'm allowed to say that.  Here's why:

Leslie and I were sitting at the kitchen table in the cottage house.  The house itself didn't really have a kitchen so much as a kitchen/dining room.  Is that a dinette?  I don't know.  Anyway, we'd just finished cooking something really yummy.  Maybe it was flank steak pinwheels.  That's something she and I used to cook all the time.  We fancied ourselves foodies...for flank steak.

Sidebar:

Flank Steak Pinwheels:
1)  buy one flank steak.  Have the butcher run it through the tenderizer twice (three times and it)  shreds it)
2)  lay flat.  season with salt and pepper.
3)  place partially cooked bacon length-wise across the width of the flank steak.
4)  take a thawed package of frozen spinach and cover the bacon and steak. (we didn't understand "fresh" back then...it was before food network)
5)  roll up.  push wooden skewers every inch or so along the length.  Cut between skewers.
6)  grill 5 minutes, flip, grill five more.  
Bang.  Done.

We would drizzle them with store-bought Bearnaise sauce, powdered McCormick's brand, I think.  (foodies...pfft)

End Sidebar

So we finished our steaks and Leslie was doing something.  I don't recall exactly why, but she dropped something, maybe a knife.  Maybe she danced away from it quickly to avoid getting impaled, but whatever it was I laughed and called her a klutz.

Leslie repeatedly told me about how she'd danced as a kid growing up.  She was a majorette for godsake.  She was no klutz.

"Okay, I'll make you a deal.  If you can go two weeks without doing something clumsy I promise never to call you a klutz again."

She mulled this over.  "Fine," she said, and we shook on it.

"Want some ice cream," she asked?

"Yeah, that sounds good."

She walked into the kitchen and got out the ice cream.  It was really cold from the freezer.  I don't know what I was doing while she was getting ice cream, but I know I was still sitting at the kitchen table.  I couldn't see what she was doing.  Apparently the ice cream was resisting her efforts to scoop it.

With what I can only imagine must have been a look of sheer panic, she watched helplessly as the ice cream at last yielded to her vigorous efforts...too quickly...and a dollop of it sailed across the kitchen to land on the floor.  When she quickly looked at me, she saw I was unaware and moved to erase the evidence, but slipped on the ice cream, landing in an awkward near split in the middle of the floor.

That got my attention.

"What the hell?"

She told me what had happened.  She tried to convince me that she deserved another chance to prove her grace, pleading that it was a flukey accident, but I wasn't having any of it.  She lost the bet less than five minutes after making it.  She was forever labeled clumsy by me.

But only in jest.

More later...

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

She Was Game


I think what I appreciated most about Leslie was that she didn't require me.  It's nice to be needed I suppose, but Leslie was sufficient unto her self.  When we went to parties if we were separated I never had to worry that she couldn't hold her own.  I'd spot her a few minutes later talking to a group.  If she caught my eye, she'd smile or wave, not requiring that I rejoin her unless I wanted to.  And usually I did.  She was game.  That's what I told her.  "You're game."

"What do you mean by that?"

"I just mean, that you hold your own.  I don't have to hold your hand or be with you constantly for you to be secure with me.  It's nice.  It's refreshing."

We spent most of our time together.  When my apartment complex raised my rent I wrote the sort of indignant letter that only a 25 year old or a CEO can write about how it was "unacceptable" and how I would grace them with my presence one more year only if they lowered my rent.  I was filled with righteous wrath. 

Shortly after that I moved just outside of Cranberry.  It was probably 20 - 30 minutes from Leslie's apartment, so she ended up spending a lot of nights with me.  Ultimately, I asked her to move in. 

I keep wishing I had her to fact-check this, but I suppose if I misremember, who is going to call me on it? 

I seem to recall her really worrying about her parents' reaction to us living in sin.  And (and this is where I wish I had her to fact check me) one night at a Super Bowl party at a friends house, we got in a fight about it and she broke down.  Her parents kept asking her what was wrong, and she wouldn't tell them (also at the party) what she was actually upset about because she was afraid they'd be pissed at me, so she told them she lost a lot of money on a bet.  Because...she was a huuuuuuge gambler.  I'm not sure why she thought that would fly.  It didn't.  And maybe they were initially not super excited about us living together, but they were also okay enough with it that I never felt judged by them or "out of favor".

The place I moved into was an old carriage house that my landlord wasn't using.  It was decorated in early 70's wood paneling and thick bright shag carpeting.  I had a waterbed because "cool".  The place had no air conditioning.  But it was relatively large (by our standards) cheap, and it shared a yard with a swimming pool and jacuzzi, and the landlord was always gone and gave us free run of the place.  Behind the cottage house was wooded and it sloped gently to the North Fork of Big Sewickley Creek.  We invited friends to bonfires in our "back yard" and drank beer that I brewed with a friend in our kitchen and smoked cigars and lived like DINK couples can. 

Every month she wrote a check for $212.50 and every month I did too.  Because we were going dutch. 

We had some amazing times there.  We'd get a bottle of wine, I'd grab a cigar, and we just soak in the jacuzzi while snow fell around us until we were either too drunk or too cold (or too hot) to stand it anymore, then we'd cart all our things back across the pool to our place.  Last night I was looking through pictures.  It was soooo long ago.  These were pictures and memories I'd almost completely forgotten, despite living there for maybe 2 or 3 years.  God she looked happy and alive.  I don't mean it literally like I could given that she's not alive anymore.  I just mean...she was vibrant, she was joyful.  It beamed out of her 10,000 watt smile.

We flew back to Montana to meet my parents.  We were going to hike.

Sidebar:  Leslie had ulcerative colitis.  She'd just been diagnosed maybe a couple months after we moved in together.  At the time she didn't know what was going on, and she was really suffering from a flare up.  I remember being SO.  PISSED.  At her.  She told me she had to go to the doctor.  I asked her about it.  She said she was bleeding.  I'm like...okay...yeah, you need to do that.  She said, "well I didn't think it was that big a deal, it's been going on for a year." I just stared at her.

"How...how did you think bleeding for a year wasn't that big a deal?"  I drove her to the doctor.  Step one:  Prednisone.

Okay...sorry for the sidebar, but it dovetails with the Montana trip.  Prednisone made her blow up.  She was moon-faced and her joints hurt and she was very self-conscious about those facts.  We prepared for the hiking trip by going on exactly one walk in the wildnerness at Moraine State Park north of where we lived.  Clearly we were ready.

The elevation conspired against us.  I remember growing up in Montana thinking about how tourists complained about the elevation.  I remember thinking it was bullshit.  I remembered that as I was gasping for breath less than 1/10th of a mile into the 3 mile hike.  Leslie was struggling as much as I was.  She thought she was going to throw up and she was in tears because there was no way we'd get up that trail and she was "ruining" the whole trip. 

Dad jokes to this day that Leslie had curlers in her backback.  Curlers and makeup and a blowdryer.  She didn't.  No, dad...it's just a funny story!  Telling it 20 times doesn't change the funny story into a fact!

Anyway...I sat down with her. 

"Les, I'm dying too.  We're just going to take lots and lots and lots of breaks for 'pictures'." 

We pulled ourselves together.  Dad took Leslie's pack and his own and my friend Derek (who would one day be best man at our wedding) and the two of us started again up the mountain. 

"Picture break!" we'd announce loudly.  So.  many.  picture breaks.  But it became a joke.  The tension was defused.  Three and a half hours later we made it to Slough Lake.  She caught her first fish on that trip.  She gutted her first fish on that trip.  Because Leslie was fucking game


She did freak out mildly at one point because we didn't pack any food up the mountain (because obviously we were just going to fish for our supper) and pushed the fishing rod at me apologetically.  Her body language saying, "yes, it was neat catching that fish...now please take responsibility for catching more so we don't starve to death in the wilderness."

We camped that night miles from anything or anyone.  I remember it was so dark you literally couldn't see your hand in front of your face.  
Jim + Les...you just have to look really hard.

I was telling Leslie that they use these guide poles to decide when to stop plowing the road.  It was August when we were there, but when snow tops the pole...time to stop plowing. 

More later...