Lil’ J

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Bhakti Boy

The other day, we went to Waimea Canyon, the immense and lush depression formed by erosion and the collapse of the original crater that formed Kauai millions of years ago.

Three fuchsia leis had been strewn along the lip of the canyon, an offering to the Gods. I wanted to feel a connection to the sacredness of the place, to be inwardly vast enough myself to soak it in.

Little J took off his flip-flops and told us to do the same. “Feel the lava sand, you guys,” he said, closing his eyes. “It’s still warm from the volcano.”  Smiling, Dennis and I took off our shoes, following J’s lead, we stood and tried to feel the energy in the lava sand.

Then the Little One lay down in the red dirt to make a “lava angel.”

He used the top of his head to make the angel’s face.

Then added lava rocks for the eyes. A perfect offering.

Before we left, Little J insisted we do a “family bow” at the edge of the canyon. He had us stand in a circle and touch palms in a kind of triple namaste. Then, following his lead, we all bowed our heads slowly.

My fourth trip to this canyon over the last decade or so. My first real experience of it.

Hugs,

J

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Little J and I were bright awake at 6 a.m. (still on Sugartown time, which means we actually slept-in two hours!). Letting Dennis have a few more well-deserved hours of rest, the Little one and I slipped out in our bare feet, and headed down to Brennecke’s Beach. We arrived just in time for sunrise.

Little J, in his too-tight goggles, his skinny, long limbs, and volcanic energy, charged into the waves like some kind of crazed fish who’d just seen the ocean after a long while of trying to live on land. His little fists pump the air with excitement, and his cries are born of something between delight and pent up frustration.

I fly in after him, flinging my hat, sunglasses and towel away from me.

Together we dive and splash and gasp and laugh. Every wave, though totally expected, knocks us down like some wild news that we were the last to hear. We’ve gotten good at this, as a family, I realized. We don’t try to take a wave until it’s right upon us, crashing down. Then we dig in our feet and brace. If it is too strong and drags us under, so be it.

In the space between the waves, we laugh hysterically, pointing at each other like new-found friends. Exhilarated.

This goes on for at least an hour, and I’m totally spent. It’s more energy than I’ve exerted in a long time. The only way I can get Little J to rest is to bury him in the sand up to his neck. This works for a short while since he’s laughing so hard, the sand is falling away faster than I can pile it. He can’t resist the urge to unearth himself and races back into the water.

I follow suit, but now we’re floating. Not bashing against the waves. The golden light of the early sun plays on the water, our skin. It flickers and mingles with what I can sense as healing energy that rises up from deeper water to just below the surface, where we’re suspended gravity-free, at last. It is somehow a perfect baptism by the alchemy of saltwater and surrender.

I think of Chris and Bob, Monica’s parents. Kind enough to share their Hawaiian home with us, they’ve made this retreat of renewal possible. Little J and I shout a loud, “Thank you!!” that we hope will fly across the two oceans that separate us and fill their hearts with the spirit of Mahalo Nui Loa during this difficult time they’re facing. We send them (and you) love and energy to crash through unexpected waves and to float when you can.

Hugs,

Jennifer

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You’d think that with all the sleeping I did on this trip, I wouldn’t still be so tired three days later. After all, I was in bed before ten on both nights. Everyone else did the work.

Example: here are Uncle Mike and Dennis blowing up the air mattresses before Uncle John arrived with the pump.

*Note Little J’s helpful relaxing.

The next day, Little J pulled his weight by carrying his own oar on the way to do some boating:

And everyone else cooked, schlepped gear, and poured the drinks.

The entire clan (seven adults and three kids) had a fantastic time in the great outdoors battling with the squirrels (who managed to make off with a Cliff Bar and several chips), playing on the rocks, and making s’mores.

It was the second-to-last weekend of September, and we definitely had one foot in summer (a bright, hot Saturday), and one foot in the fall (a cloudy, rainy Sunday). Make that one soggy, dirty, stinky foot:

Little J’s sock, which got left out in the rain near Uncle Tom’s tent (as a little gift?) sort of says it all. Seriously, you should see the inside of my car. By the end of the weekend, we were a pack of mud monsters.

But Little J got to play with his cousins, and we all got to catch up and spend some much-needed time together. My favorite parts were waking up in the tent with Dennis and Little J, seeing J play with his cousins, and watching my two guys do their favorite thing:

The tent, sleeping bag, air mattresses, and lanterns are all washed and packed up for next summer.

Hugs,

Jennifer

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The last three weeks without chemo have been so full.

Dennis and I dined with Uncle Mike at our new favorite spot atop a hill here in Sugartown. We also feasted on Ted’s famous eggplant Parmesan, whose ingredients came entirely from Ted’s garden. I lunched with Linda in the city, a lovely and belated birthday treat. I shared lattes in a bowl with a dear friend and Peet’s treats with a new friend (and her gorgeous baby). I walked with Marina, and brunched with Mari in Tiburon.

Little J conquered the diving board at the club.

I went to my first PTA meeting, did some yard duty (!), and attended our first parent-teacher conference. Other school events included the walk-a-thon, the ice cream social, and a support-the-school night at a local restaurant. Turns out the parents at our neighborhood school know how to socialize for a cause, let me tell you. Count me in!

On Labor Day, we went on an impromptu adventure to Heart’s Desire Beach in Tomales Bay. Little J got to play with his buddy C, who he hadn’t seen in a while. Silliness was the order of the day.

And speaking of silly:

On Tuesday, I took these same two to feed the ducks at a pond near our neighborhood.

Yesterday I took Little J and a pal from his class to their first 3-D movie.

Of course tea with the ladies on the street and a visiting cousin from England was sweetness in a glass poured over ice with some lemon.

Phew, like I said: it’s been a full three weeks of no chemo. And it looks like I may have a fourth. While my platelets have made a heroic comeback from 40 to 190, my white cells are still pooped out. I’ll find out tomorrow whether we can do treatment with the help of some bone crusher marrow stimulating shots or whether we’ll have to wait another week.

If we have to wait, it could be a good thing. We’re going camping this weekend, so it would be nice to have a little more energy. On the other hand, as you all know, I want to get this done! So it’s a little frustrating to be stalled out an inch from the finish line.

But somewhere nearby in Sugartown, church bells are ringing. Down the street, in a classroom, Little J is sitting and maybe singing. In Los Angeles, Dennis is winging his way back home to us.

There is so much sweetness for the reaping in these near-harvest days. It makes it a little easier not to pine for things to be different.

Hugs, Jennifer

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Tomatoes

I’m really excited about tomatoes right now.

For the last ten years, since the first year we lived together, Dennis has been planting tomatoes. The first few years, when we had a spectacular garden behind our little rented cottage in Rockridge, the tomatoes were amazing and plentiful. The next several years, we moved a lot, and the tomatoes really never ripened as well as those East Bay stunners. This season brings our first crop of tomatoes in our Sugartown house. And they are scrumptious.

I’m so inspired by the taste of this fruit, by the fact that, when I pick one in the heat of the day, I can taste the spirit of the California sun in each bite. So I’m going to make sauce. Lots of sauce.

I called a local organic farm that is expecting a bumper of San Marzanos later this month.

Zoe from the farm is going to call me when they have the tomatoes that won’t sell at market because they are too ripe or less than perfect. I’m going to drive up and get those tomatoes, and with a little advice and equipment borrowed from Leigh’s chef friend, Ingrid, I’m going to jar sauce. This way, I can feed the family on the California sunshine all winter long. How pioneerish, right? Like I said, I’m excited. I’ll let you know when the call comes from Zoe and take pictures of the process.

In the meantime, I want to share a sauce recipe I made up the other day.

I went out to the tomato vines with my bright red colander and picked a handful of Super Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes (vine selected and planted by Dennis) and a few Early Boys (selected and planted by Little J). I pulled off the greens and put the tomatoes right into the slow cooker. I drizzled olive oil and about a quarter cup of red wine over them. I added some sauteed onion, garlic and red pepper. I sprinkled on salt, pepper and oregano. Then I cooked them on low for four hours.

When Little J and I came back from the pool, the house smelled heavenly. The tomatoes had released a lot of liquid, but were still whole (!?). I smashed them up with a wooden spoon and added a small can of Muir Glenn organic tomato paste. Then I let them simmer for another hour. The smell was intoxicating.

I blended the sauce with my Braun immersion blender, which is the best cooking tool ever because you don’t have to transfer hot contents to a blender. Then, I pressed the liquid through a fine mesh colander to separate out all the skins and seeds. The result was a creamy, delicious sauce that looked like a too thick tomato soup and tasted like  a balmy evening in southern Spain.

We dined alfresco that evening as it was the hottest night of the year. Little J ate shirtless and shoeless. He devoured a plate of ravioli smothered in the sauce made from the tomatoes he grew. Then he played in the back yard while Dennis and I ate the sauce over shredded spaghetti squash (which looks like pasta. Have you cooked this? It’s amazing).

I’d added some fresh basil during the last ten minutes of cooking and a little chevre to gild the lilly. Wow. What a satisfying meal.

A little bit of heaven from a little red fruit and a gorgeous end-of-summer night. Dennis and I sat outside later with a glass of wine and drank in the stars for dessert. Perfection.

Hugs,

Jennifer

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On the way home from post-treatment-then-post-healthy-five-yr-check-up for J,  we stopped for our usual frozen yogurt. After that, Little J was tuuuckered. “Daddy WHEN are we going to be back in Sugartown?”

“By the time you count to thirty, we’ll be off the freeway,” Dennis answered.

Immediately and predictably, Little J started to count as fast as he could. To get the off-ramp there faster.

When he realized he was going to finish before the off-ramp came, he slowed down. When he realized he couldn’t control how quickly the off-ramp was going to come, he let it go and started to do something more fun. “Let’s all count to one hundred.” We were home before we knew it. The kid’s been in kindergarten for three whole days, but he already knows the most important lesson of all, one that Joan Didion taught me: “Play it as it Lays.”

Speaking of Kindergarten, here’s Little J on the first day.

We agree as a family that we’ve accomplished our goal set back in May to have a great summer in spite of the cancer treatments. The last few weeks were no exception. With my birthday celebrations followed by a super-amazing blood-transfusion, and James tearing it up at summer camp, how could they not be great weeks. Here for you, the five senses tour:

Taste

Uncle Mike turned 50 two days after I turned 41, so he treated us all to brunch at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc in Yountville. Yum is not enough. Family-style delicious fare shared with Coopers, their BFFs, their lovelies, and their little ones is about as much perfection as one can take. Then there was the local pub for Fish ‘n Chips on my actual bday with my Sugartown girls. Finally, Central Market with the BFFs Mari and Carolyn.

Watermelon salad with feta cheese and lavender-infused honey. MMM.

*Romantic dinner in SF with Dennis after quick jaunt to Tiffany left out to preserve sweetness and mystery.

Smell

Chlorine, spray-on sunscreen, and victory as Little J and his swim coach Mason engage in a smile-off. J has just swum half the length of a full-length pool.

Sound

The crunching and slurping and satisfied mmms of the long-awaited last-day-before-school-homemade ice cream sandwiches. There were even some bees buzzing nearby. And maybe a cat yawning in the sunshine.

Touch

The last hug and kiss before school.

Sight

Before this happened:

Sixth sense?

Well, the last thoughts of summer leave us so grateful for my successful treatment and our healthy, happy kid. I have one more round, possibly two (if my bone marrow can take it, visualize strong marrow!) but I’m not counting the seconds to the off-ramp, either. I’m walking to school each day with J and D and playing “I spy with my little eye” and secretly fantasizing about being a part of the PTA when I have the strength. Playing it as it Lays.

Hugs,

Jennifer

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I’ve been thinking a lot about angels lately. The invisible ones are my little secret. The ones that walk this Earth are my friends and family. And they fluttered all around me this weekend. All the messages, cards, and presents, from a bottle of Holy Water from Lourdes, to a pot of a succulents for my garden, touched me deeply and left me feeling so loved.

The ones I want to share with you are from the tiny angels in my life. A card from Little J:

And two from the little cherubs of Sugartown:

I’m so lucky.

Hugs,

Jennifer

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This photo sort of says it all. Our camping trip to Spring Lake in Santa Rosa was perfect. We were not expecting to feel so far away from it all, but we did. Little J took to it like a squirrel to a pile of acorns, which he collected and left outside little squirrel holes.

The three of us spent hours at the picnic table building the Lego fire truck Uncle Mike had gotten him for his birthday. Then it was down to the swimming pond for splashing and paddling and ice cream sandwiches. My favorite was lying on my warm beach towel and watching Little J play with Dennis in the water, J’s summer-bleached hair drenched in sun like a halo.

I did get into the water myself, and Little J said, “Mommy, I can’t believe it’s your first time swimming since your medicine.” Just when you think kids couldn’t possibly be keeping track of such things.

At night, after glorious bbq’d meals by Dennis, we ate s’mores and counted stars. Then we all piled into the tent to sleep. It’s a three-man tent, but with J sleeping at a diagonal between us, his face smashed against mine (bliss) and his feet tangled up in D’s knees (not so much), we barely fit. This arrangement was well-worth the sleeping in til 8:30 each morning, though.

In the end, Little J missed his cat and his friends, but Dennis and I felt we could have stayed another week. We’ll definitely be going back there soon. I’d lost track of my supposed illness the whole time, all the walking and playing and breathing fresh air. It’s magic. And it reminds me of our family’s favorite summer anthem: California Stars, written by Woody Guthrie and performed by Wilco and Billy Bragg. Enjoy.

Hugs, Jennifer

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Yesterday, after chemo, we unfurled Little J’s new slip-n-slide and discovered it was a deluxe  dual-lane race slide with a checkered flag at the end. Perfect! We’d been talking about checkered flags all morning.

Yesterday’s treatment marked the turn around the half-way bend in the road. I now have more treatments behind me than in front of me. And YES!! My numbers continue to plummet. The CA-125 is down nearly another 80% at 25, which is, WNR (within normal range). Fabulous.

I still have Thursday’s dose, then two more rounds, but I can see that checkered flag already. Can’t you? Flapping in the wind, welcoming me back to remission.

The camping trip was a huge success, more on that tomorrow.

Hugs and happy weekend!

Jennifer

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A Bigger Splash, David Hockney, 1967

On Wednesday, Little J walked into our bedroom after his swim lesson, and suddenly I saw him as this kid who’d grown up while I wasn’t looking. His sun-bleached hair in his eyes, his tanned skin, his hoodie zipped half way. The smell of chlorine. I was looking ten years into the future when he’ll be this tall, athletic teenager who walks around without a care.

“Mom, I have somesing to tell you. Your are going to blow away by this.”

And then he was little J again. I pulled him into my arms. I could feel the sunshine lingering on his his cheeks, his warm back.

“What is it, my sweet?”

“I passed the swim test at the club.  I can go off the diving board now.”

I look at Dennis for some confirmation. This seems far fetched, coming from the kid who was barely dog paddling last week.

Dennis nods, all grins. Proud papa.

“That’s amazing!” I squeeze Little J tight, trying to picture him full-out swimming, and honestly I can’t.

There have been patches of this summer that have gone by, small bits of time, two weeks, one week, where I’ve been flat out with chemo fatigue, and Little J has unfurled a whole new part of himself. Then during my week off, we spend every second together, and I catch up. This was one of those times.

We took J to Finn’s to celebrate the completion of his swim lessons and his diving-board test. He doesn’t want to go off the diving board, by the way. But he’s ready if, for some reason, he has to. He told us this over dinner, during which he ate two meals from the kids’ menu.

And after polishing off his sundae, he hands me the cup of crayons and paper. We’re ready to pay up, but he wants me to draw him a picture first.

“Mommy. Draw a pink castle because that’s your favorite color. And draw you as the princess inside.”   I do.

“Now draw daddy as the prince, and he needs a crown and a big, big sword.”   I do.

“Now draw the super-hero kid flying over everything with a giant knock-out-punch fist. In case the other people can’t kill the dragon, and he has to.”    I do.

He thinks it’s perfect and is finally ready to go home. He doesn’t want to have to kill the dragon himself, by the way, but he’s ready, if for some reason, he has to.

Today we’re celebrating Little J’s birthday with a small group of friends, and tomorrow we’re headed off for our first camping trip as a family. I’ve never seen a happier, more excited kid. And the fact that he didn’t have me draw this dragon that he might have to tangle with is giving me hope that his summer is as carefree as we’re trying to make it. Hope yours is too, so far.

Hugs,

Jennifer

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