Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Importance of Sauerbraten and a Free Bird

St. Mary's Hospital in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, is defiantly situated right across the street from The George School, a venerable Quaker institution established in the mid-nineteenth century. St. Mary’s pedigree is a little dubious. The waiting room is festooned with crucifixes of all sizes, and some are quite graphic. The receptionist hands out big, round vibrators that go off when it's time for pre-op—like the buzzers they pass out at Panera and South of the Border to let you know your table is ready.  The mixed message suggests Medieval Times meets Red Lobster.

          Pre-op is a narrow, windowless corridor, a civil-war-style sick ward with curtained partitions where the beds, nevertheless, bump up against one another in the restless, fluorescent gloom. My friend, Deb, who accompanied me, asked sotto voce, "Is this where they do it?"

          Our nurse-escort laughed a little tightly, "Of course not!"

          Once I was captive in bed, a plump, kindly chaplain appeared. The Sister said she had undergone my procedure, cardiac catheterization, a few years earlier, and it had been lifesaving. She held my hand, leaning over my bed rail, and asked if she might pray for me.

          "Please protect your daughter, Charlotte, from the top of her head to the soles of her feet." (Her eyelids fluttered—no fair peeking!)

          "Well," I glanced at Deb afterwards, "that was kinda nice, right?" I may have been blushing.

          "Yeah, it was okay.  You look nervous.  Maybe it's just cause your eyes are bloodshot."

          I felt suddenly panicked.  The prayer had brought forth a sudden, nauseating fear for the welfare of my son and daughter.  If I died, it was suddenly imperative that they knew they meant everything to me, that nothing and no one was more important.  I wanted to tell Deb, but some instinct for self-preservation prevented me from speaking.             

          The chaplain introduced herself to the patient directly across from me, not more than 10 feet away, a scruffy guy about my age who spoke in the distinctive dialect of South Philly. She took his hand in both of hers and fixed her green eyes on him.

          "Now, what brings you here today, son?"

          "Well, awhile back I had radiation treatment for lung cancer—"

          "Oh!" cooed the chaplain, "I'm also a lung cancer-survivor."

          Do chaplains lie?

          I admit it; I was suspiciously recording every detail, the same way the loop recorder about to be implanted in my chest would record every single heart beat. Skipping over about nine hours and 1,024 suspected abuses, after having lain perfectly still to facilitate a secure seal on the stigmata at either side of my groin, a nurse adjusted the angle of my bed so that I was in a sitting position. This was the precursor to my leaving—if the stigmata remained sealed during the positional shift, I could pimp my ride.

          Just as my bed was being raised, Deb told me, “Everything is fine. It’s fine—but R just called to tell me your mother was admitted to the hospital. They’re doing some tests on her heart.”

          Her words opened a floodgate of nausea with a heavy, burning sensation in my chest.

           “Tell them to put my bed down," I groaned, "I think I’m gonna pass out.” My mother was 85 years old and attributed her excellent health largely to the fact that she had refused to see a doctor for eight years.

          This up-and-down routine continued for two hours before it occurred to someone that it might be thoughtful to drip an anti-emetic into my IV to quell the nausea that was, apparently, a bad reaction to anesthesia.

          This is a digression, and so is the fact that I came home that night with a fever and an infected chest and no instructions whatsoever, and that, by the next morning, I felt weaker and the metal shard in my chest was heavy and burned like a comet. Advances in modern medicine had enabled the invention of a spray-on adhesive bandaid through which my incision glared like a pink, oozing, shrink-wrapped eyeball. The better to seal in the germs. Halloween is Monday and I’m ready with my costume five days early.

         Digressing further, I picked up a prescription for antibiotics which, in turn, caused an itchy rash to spread, like a curse, from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. Thanks a lot, Sister.

          Did I mention that New Jersey had declared a State of Emergency due to massive blackouts caused by the first snowstorm of the season?  Trees whose branches had reached upwards, their leaves still flushed with bright autumn color, were sagging under the weight of wet snow and ice.  Limbs snapped and trees fell, transforming the landscape overnight.

          Did I mention the big, honking herpes lesion that transformed my lower lip overnight?

          Our power was restored this morning, and with it, my gratitude and a triumphant urge to kvetch.

          But none of this matters.  My mother knows what matters.

                                       *                              *                             *

It's Halloween morning here at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.  Instead of crucifixes, some of the staff are dressed as witches. My mother is having open-heart surgery. Her surgeon, Dr. Bavaria, who nevertheless hails from Italy, is tall, dark, and sexy.  My mother and I agreed on the sexy, but I was convinced he was Bavarian while she vigorously argued on behalf of Italy.  (She made a point of asking him before they started her anesthesia.)

Pauline at the Surgical Family Lounge
          By my mother's second night in the hospital, less than a week ago, she was unable to shift in bed without becoming breathless.  Her blood pressure fluctuated wildly, so nothing could be prescribed to control it.  I sat with her that evening and her expression had set into a kind of hard, peevish mask.

          The words emergency bypass surgery were cast about, experimentally, by doctors who were still waiting for conclusive test results.  I had brought the New York Times and her mail. She had me practice paying her bills and balancing her checkbook, examining my work for neatness and accuracy.  Only after she was satisfied with my competence did her own soft face begin to show through the peevish mask. Her large eyes narrowed, but with her eyebrows raised a little, at least she looked hopeful.

          "Did you finish making the sauerbraten?"

          Great emphasis was placed on this question.  She had started the sauerbraten four days earlier—it had already been marinating in its complex brine of red wine and vinegar, bay leaf and juniper berries, a day too long.

         "The brine was in a separate container," my mother continued.  "I told R how to wrap the meat in paper towels, to absorb all the excess—did he remember to bring it to you?"

          "I swear I've never seen such a complicated recipe.  I know it's delicious, but it almost doesn't seem worth all the effort."

          "You just make it."

          The night I came home from St. Mary's, feeling flayed and still a little queasy, R had greeted me with a smile.

          "Your mother told me to give you something very important."  He opened the fridge and produced something that looked like an enormous heart wrapped in damp, pink paper towels.  "This is the meat your mother wants you to make.  It's all she talked about—I think she cares more about this than her heart.  She says you have to make it tomorrow or it goes bad.  The cookbook's next to the stove."

          The next morning, weak and feverish, I hoisted the damp slab of meat onto the kitchen counter and carefully opened the pinkish wrapping.  It still reminded me of a giant, purple heart and provoked an uncomfortable mix of emotions.  I was grudging and resentful and revolted, yes; but I was also undeniably pierced through with tenderness.

          Two tablespoons of lard I did not have; I'd substitute butter.  The meat sizzled in my red enamel pot (a little too small, but adequate) and I carefully browned each side before removing it to a platter and adding the chopped vegetables.  The rich fragrance of browned meat and onions filled my kitchen.

          The sauerbraten recipe was written like a novel, in long, ponderous paragraphs. Somewhere on page two, well after eye strain had set in, the vegetables, brine, and meat were finally united with some flour in the red pot and left to simmer under cover for several hours.

          Before she told me she needed bypass surgery and a valve replaced, she asked me again.

          "Did you make the sauerbraten?"  By now I was ready for her.

          "It's simmering as we speak.  All that's left is to add the gingersnap crumbs."  She sat back in her hospital bed, clearly impressed.

          "Just remember to press that sauce through a sieve to get all the lumps out.  You really have to push to get out as much as possible.  Don't forget."

          "I was thinking about putting the sauce in the food processor to blend it.  Don't you think that would work, too?"

          "I've never done it, but I don't see why not."

          "I'll freeze it and we can have it together when you come home."

          Then she told me about the state of her heart, the severe aortic stenosis, the blocked artery, the valve that needed replacing, and added, "You know, if I survive the surgery, I won't be able to eat the sauerbraten.  You eat it with the kids."

          A litany of instructions followed, which she insisted I write down on a yellow legal pad, such as where to find important documents, various keys, financial and other advice, and why it's prudent to obtain exactly 12 copies of a death certificate.  I took notes, obediently, hoping to convey reassuring qualities, such as calm receptivity and courage.

          "If I die, I want you to look into having the body cremated in Philadelphia and then having the ashes sent to Princeton.  Why incur the added expense of shipping the body first to Princeton, and then shipping it back out to a crematorium...? You're glazing over, but this is important—you have to face these things now."  Her huge, dark owl-eyes were fierce, but not without compassion.

          "Um, I was fine up to the dead body," I grinned.


                                    *                              *                             *

          The night before her surgery the nurses set up a cot for me beside her bed.  There was a sliver of sky visible through the wide window beside us.  Above the snowy rooftop of Penn Tower, across 34th Street, was a radiant half-moon and, on our side of the street, something reminiscent of a lighthouse, which must have been used to guide aircraft to the helipad on the hospital roof.  The intermittent sigh of a train whistle from the station two blocks away reminded me of a fog horn.  

          We reclined, facing each other, on our separate beds, nibbling banana-walnut muffins and sipping apple juice through straws we'd poked into tiny foil-covered containers. She read the New York Times and from my laptop I searched the web to unearth precious nuggets of information for her about the two sons of Gloria Vanderbilt and conductor Leopold Stokowski—the half-brothers of her hero, Anderson Cooper.  

          "I noticed you filled the legal pad with your own notes," I said as nonchalantly as possible.  "Anything you want me to read now?"

          "Oh, no!  They're mostly just notes to myself and—well, some instructions for you, but there's nothing you need to know now.  Except there is something.  Let me see."  I passed her the legal pad and she flipped through several long pages until she found what she was looking for.

          "Here it is—this is it."  Her index finger traced the line of text as she read.  "If you spend $300.00 before November 24th, you can get a free turkey at Shop Rite."

          She looked at me over the rim of her glasses.  We do a lot of laughing at my mother's peculiar strain of bluntness and stinginess, but only after I take pains to point out the humor to her.  After all, 'blunt' and 'stingy' are like juniper berries and gingersnaps, they're her secret ingredients; they impart her wisdom and legacy, and they are my inheritance.

          My mother's room in the ICU is full of strange noises from all the machines and computers that are keeping her alive.  Her breathing tube was removed 11 hours after surgery, and one of the arterial lines in her neck was just removed, but she's still connected to an external pacemaker and more tubes than I can count.  We know that her recovery is very much a two-steps-forward-one-step-back endeavor, but each setback demands a giant leap of faith.  Now that the surgery is behind us, I can tell my mother I love her again without fear of betraying emotion and endangering our carefully calibrated composure. 

          Meanwhile, the sauerbraten's in the freezer and I'm one shopping trip away from qualifying for my free bird at Shop Rite.


  1. This is a work of art ... a short story to end all short stories!
    I'm speechless ...

    Great big hugs and love from Dida sis!!!!!!!!!!!!xxxxxxxxx

  2. Hey, Julie! I'm so glad you read this. I can't explain why it's so necessary for me to write this--and have it read--but it is. Thank you.

  3. There are parts of this story that are so familiar to me Charlotte, you really have no idea. I find your writing very healing given my own experience. My dad suffered a heart attack when I was 21 and was resuscitated after having died for about 5 minutes. A mistake, as he survived in a coma for 14 months afterwards. Absolutely devastating to my family. Anyway, the hospital scenes so familiar. My dad was also a Catholic, and memories of bloody crucifixes tend to haunt me. My sister had a heart attack at 39 (?) and suffered from angina, among other ailments, until her death about 9 years ago. My dear friend of mine lives with a defibrillator also put in about 8 years ago. Every time I hear heart troubles, I feel panicked and nauseous. Your writing has helped my to come to terms with the terrifying (though I still have far to go). I hope you keep writing and I hope you look into getting published, if you haven't already. And the sauerbraten- my mom is german, and used to make it frequently, and your mom sounds a lot like mine in terms of priorities. I am sure that she will have the same sort of instructions for me in a similar situation. Not that far away in the future. Thanks for sharing and take care of yourself. I am looking forward to reading much more for years to come.