October 2009

Dia de Los Muertos

By Ellen Greene

Dia110 My Dia de Los Muertos altar , prepared with help from granddaughters Lily, 10, and Anna, 8, is a labor of love. On a small table in the living room, we assemble a foot-high pyramid of boxes and cover it with a hand-painted cloth. We stick to Mexican tradition and adorn the altar with tissue paper cutouts in reds, yellows, and purples, then add bouquets of marigolds and scores of candles, their fragrance and light meant to point the way home to the spirits of our departed.

We add some ritual whimsical touches, too, a la Mexicano — a papier-mache skeleton playing a violin; brightly painted clay skulls the girls made in art class; a bar of soap, a small bowl of water, a towel, and a comb for “tidying up” after the long trip back to the world.

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Dia de Los Muertos

My Dia de Los Muertos altar , prepared with help from granddaughters Lily, 10, and Anna, 8, is a labor of love. On a small table in the living room, we assemble a foot-high pyramid of boxes and cover it with a hand-painted cloth. We stick to Mexican tradition and adorn the altar with tissue paper cutouts in reds, yellows, and purples, then add bouquets of marigolds and scores of candles, their fragrance and light meant to point the way home to the spirits of our departed.

We add some ritual whimsical touches, too, a la Mexicano—a papier-mache skeleton playing a violin; brightly painted clay skulls the girls made in art class; a bar of soap, a small bowl of water, a towel, and a comb for “tidying up” after the long trip back to the world.

Next we personalize our altar. On it we place reminders from their pasts so our departed family members feel welcome. Photographs: of my grandmother as a child in her high-button shoes; of my aunt and uncles as teenagers in a somber group portrait; of my parents on their wedding day; of Marsh, barefoot on his sailboat with coffee cup in hand. The gold locket my grandmother bought with her first paycheck. The diamond ring my mother wore for 55 years as a wife and widow. The brass sextant Marsh used to practice the ancient art of celestial navigation.

I’ll spend November 1 in the kitchen, fussing over favorite food and drinks our dearly departed used to enjoy with us. After sunset, our family will gather before our altar, light the candles, and share what I prepared. We’ll start with a batch of Marsh’s stuffed mussels, his signature dish, and my oatmeal cookies that he called “health food.” We’ll share a plate of the cheeses my mother brought from Wisconsin every Christmas and a bowl of the popcorn my dad made from scratch most Sunday nights.  We’ll sip the Miller beer, Spanish rioja, and Mexican tequila they loved and tell the old familiar stories again. We’ll acknowledge the continued importance in our lives of those who have left us and feel comforted by this remembrance of them.

Glib but True

Glib but true, I went to see a doctor about a shingles shot and came away with breast cancer. Here’s what happened. My new U.S. primary care doc, a striking Chinese-American woman  half my age, all but refused to give me the prescription for the shot until I agreed to tests I hadn’t had in years, including a mammogram. Several  weeks and a biopsy later, my stage one breast cancer was diagnosed.

“If you have to go and catch cancer, this is probably the one you want to catch.” So says step-daughter, Lisa, a nurse-practitioner in Austin’s biggest oncology clinic. The cure rate is so high and a new treatment so fast and easy (more on that  in a minute), I felt almost anxiety-free throughout last month’s many consultations with a slew of specialists. I say “almost” because it did get my attention when each office and institution asked for a copy of my advanced directive. Plus we wouldn’t know for sure how simple and small this cancer was until a lymph node check was done. And, to be honest, I did have a couple of secret cries, feeling sorry for the Widow Greene who had no husband to lean on when it was her turn for cancer.

Long story short. On Wednesday, another striking Chinese-American woman, this time my surgeon, performed a lumpectomy. On Thursday, a lab reported the good news of no lymph nodes affected. On Friday, the surgeon inserted a catheter balloon in my left breast and I hustled, well, sort of hustled, over to an Indian-American radiology oncologist for the beginning of a treatment called brachytherapy.

Pay attention now, because this treatment is cool. Intuitively it makes so much sense. Instead of the usual treatment of blasting the whole breast with radiation from the outside, seeds of radiation are delivered via  a catheter to the area where the tumor(s) have been removed. This seed-planting is done twice a day for five days, as opposed to six weeks for whole breast external beam radiation. Granted I don’t look too pretty right now with a tube hanging out of my bruised chest. But come Friday the tube will be gone, leaving the likely souvenir of a smallish scar nicely hidden by the inevitable droop of an aging breast.

Then it’s on to a discussion about medication for the next few years to prevent cancer’s recurrence. Whatever I decide, at least I have no worries about paying for the decision. Thanks to a grateful nation, my “military” medical coverage is good and cheap ($230/year; yes, year); $3 co-pay on meds. I think of my plan as a public option, given that it covers military members present and past, alive or dead, along with their beneficiaries  like me.  Would that other Americans were as lucky as I to have such coverage and such peace of mind.

So there you have it—my active observance of breast cancer awareness month. Plus a plug for the public health care option and a nod to  immigration rights.

Glib but True

By Ellen Greene

Glib but true, I went to see a doctor about a shingles shot and came away with breast cancer. Here’s what happened. My new U.S. primary care doc, a striking Chinese-American woman half my age, all but refused to give me the prescription for the shot until I agreed to tests I hadn’t had in years, including a mammogram. Several weeks and a biopsy later, my stage one breast cancer was diagnosed.

“If you have to go and catch cancer, this is probably the one you want to catch.” So says step-daughter, Lisa, a nurse-practitioner in Austin’s biggest oncology clinic. The cure rate is so high and a new treatment so fast and easy (more on that in a minute), I felt almost anxiety-free throughout last month’s many consultations with a slew of specialists. I say “almost” because it did get my attention when each office and institution asked for a copy of my advanced directive. Plus we wouldn’t know for sure how simple and small this cancer was until a lymph node check was done. And, to be honest, I did have a couple of secret cries, feeling sorry for the Widow Greene who had no husband to lean on when it was her turn for cancer.

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