28 March, 2010

everything soft (especially me)

Well, it's Sunday evening, there's a chill rain falling on the midnight streets of London, and I feel I've dodged a bullet.

Thursday found us driving a desperately anxious Avery to have her dental surgery. Somehow I imagined this happening in a dentist's office (silly me, that's what happens in America, I think, never having been through any such thing), and since the dental surgeon had told us to expect the procedure to last a half hour, I had us home about an hour and a half later, relieved at its being over.

I had it all wrong.

We pulled up to the stated address to find ourselves at a hospital. A real, proper hospital. Avery's despair deepened. Up to a hospital ROOM, complete with bed with head and foot that moved according to a little remote control, an entirely unbelievable menu of food items like "Vegetable Pakora with Raita" and "Seared Cod with Miso Sauce" (in a HOSPITAL??), and perhaps most incredible, a complete list of wines and spirits. At this point, while the porter (like at a doorman building in New York) was pointing out how to work the space-age bed, I was about ready to order the entire bottle of Smirnoff vodka and call it a day.

Hospital gown ("The ties open at the back, dear"), dressing gown (only in England) and disposable slippers. Did they think she was staying the night? I felt completely shocked out of my skin. Somehow, I knew we wouldn't be home in an hour and a half.

Three hours of waiting later, things went from shocking to completely unbelievable, for me, as the surgeon and anaesthetist (I longed for America where it's spelled anesthesiologist and somehow sounds less scary without the dipthong) arrived. Dressed in clothes that looked appropriate for a round of golf (surgeon) and an accountants' office (anaesthetist), they announced that plans had changed and Avery would be put under a general anaesthetic.

Before I could properly take this in, Avery and John were nodding rather calmly, both of them having been intelligent enough to do research on all possible pain relief options, long before the day. I felt completely ignorant and rug-pulled-out-from-under, but what could I say? It all seemed a fait accompli. Seemingly instantly, she was taken away, John having been voted the parent to accompany her to the "operating theatre" (I was designated as "recovery parent").

"Say goodbye to Mum," the nurse intoned kindly enough, which felt like doom to me.

"Bye, Mummy," Avery said, and with her usual demeanor of charm and impeccable manners to strangers, simply walked away into the theatre, John following her.


I was struck by what seemed to have happened: my only child simply taken from me, thank God with her father with her, to undergo something that's never happened to me, a journey down a perilous and unknown path, at the mercy of people I had scarcely met, let alone quizzed about their steadiness of hand, their mood, their levels of concentration. What if they'd had too much coffee, or not enough, or fought with their girlfriends and weren't paying attention?

"Are you all right?" asked a lovely passing nurse. This is English for any number of questions. It rarely means what Americans think of asking "Are you all right?" which would indicate a pretty serious concern for someone's well-being. To the English, it can mean, "Is your coffee milky enough?" or "Do you need help with your baby's buggy?" in the Tube.

This English lady, however, could see that I took her question literally.

"My daughter's in there, without me. Her father's there, though..."

"Ah, here he comes. It will all come out all right," she said, and smiled with the unconcern of the professional in an arena that seems to the outside visitor totally overwhelming and frightening.

There followed the longest 40 minutes of my life. Worse than waiting for a plane to take off in my worst moments of fear of flying, but similar. How could I have put the most precious thing in the world in the hands of complete strangers who knew how to handle machinery I couldn't even identify? We tried to watch telly, we tried to chat, but even John was a bit off and conversation flagged.

Finally the lovely nurse was back, smiling, "Would you like to come to her now?"

"You mean she's all right?"

"But of course, a bit wobbly perhaps, but you mustn't worry," this all said in a placid French accent, her whites impeccable, she separated from me by a gulf of non-motherhood. (Of course she may be a mother, but not the one of my child who might be a bit "wobbly.")

And I found Avery, all tubed up and certainly wobbly, although motionless, her eyelashes fluttering, things attached to her hands, but unmistakably still Avery behind her eyelids, when they fluttered open.

"I was dizzy but I couldn't make the words work..." she said. I found her hand under the blankets, pristine and soft, and held it, feeling my life had been saved.

The surgeon and anaesthetist appeared, in scrubs now and nonchalant, "It's been a pleasure," they said meaninglessly, not seeming to realize that they had brought me to the brink of total disaster, and then decided to let me live. How on earth do they DO that every day, many times a day? Take a 13-year-old's consciousness, body and life in their hands, fix something, bring her back, and simply move onto the next one? As foreign an existence as I can imagine. All this for two tiny gold chains attached to her buried incisors, to be attached to her braces next week. As if her teeth matter.

But of course they do. Real life continues.

Some two hours, a glass of water and a straw later, plus endless measurings of her heart rate and blood pressure, she was allowed to dress in her civvies, discard the dreaded hospital gown ("I'm for SURE entering that contest to redesign hospital gowns!" she said emphatically), and shake the nurse's hand graciously. "It's been a pleasure to look after you today," the nurse said.

We put Avery carefully into the car, I feeling as if I was handling an angel that I'd almost not gotten back. She was her normal self, detailing everything she remembered. "How weird to think I've been in a room I don't even remember, and something's happened to me that I just MISSED," she marvelled.

We arrived at home, settled her with the new Daisy Dalrymple mystery books that had miraculously arrived in the post while she was away, a cashmere throw, a warm cat. The nurse having insisted that she eat something to soak up the IV medications, I made some creamy red pepper soup. It can be done in the blink of an eye, while the cook downs a lovely cocktail and begins to rejoin the land of the living, the thoughtless, the careless and normal.

Creamy Red Pepper Soup
(serves 3)

2 tbsps butter
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 shallot, roughly chopped
4 red bell peppers, roughly chopped
2 sprigs thyme, roughly chopped
long splash Marsala wine
3 cups GOOD chicken stock
1/2 -3/4 cups double cream, depending on how creamy you like it
sea salt and black pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan and throw in garlic, shallots, peppers and thyme. Saute till just not raw. Add Marsala and turn up heat to burn off alcohol for 30 seconds or so. Add chicken stock and simmer until peppers are cooked, about 25 minutes. Whizz with a hand blender and put through a sieve to catch pepper skins and thyme stems. Add cream to soup and season.


This soup is love incarnate. It's like chicken soup but without the "sick person" connotations of chicken soup. It's velvety and bright red and celebratory, and it makes Avery happy every time. This soup depends entirely on the quality of its few ingredients: especially really good stock (not from cubes) and really good cream.

This she sipped, and drank a glass of pink lemonade through a straw her clever father unearthed in the pantry.

And we put her to bed with hot water bottles, and a tissue paper package to open, filled with little fake-pearl bracelets in funny, cheerful colors. Something to open. And she was asleep, safe.

I asked her the next day how she managed to comport herself without panicking. She had an explanation that stopped me in my tracks, with its simplicity and dignity.

"If you can control your exterior closely enough, and make it positive, then gradually it begins to affect your interior, and you really begin to feel the way you're acting."

The next day she was COMPLETELY FINE. No swelling, no pain. The annoying anaesthetic wore off and she was totally normal. "Let's walk to school at noon and I can say goodbye for the holiday, to my friends." Off we went, I leaving her to finish the walk by herself while I picked up an enormous quantity of Scottish salmon at our local fishmongers, to be baked in a method so simple it can hardly be called a recipe. But with salmon that fresh and divine, it hardly requires chewing either, so it's perfect for a semi-invalid.

Fox Point Salmon
(serves 3)

1 length of salmon serving three portions: perhaps 1 lb in all?
olive oil to drizzle
Fox Point Seasoning to sprinkle lavishly

Simply drizzle the oil, sprinkle the Fox Point and bake this salmon in a very hot oven (425F, 210C) for about 20-25 minutes, till JUST cooked through but NEVER dry. That's IT.


With this, it's imperative to have:

Cheesy Spinach
(serves 3)

1 large bag washed baby spinach (1 lb)
2 tbsps butter
1 tbsp flour
1 tbsp celery seeds
1/2 tbsp celery salt (to taste, really, but mind the saltiness)
3 cloves garlic
2 tbsps cream
1/4 lb sharp cheese: Cheddar, Edam, Gruyere, Monterey Jack, grated

Whizz up the spinach in batches in the food processor till in small pieces, but not mushy.

Melt butter in a large skillet, add flour and sizzle a bit, then add celery seeds and salt and sizzle more. Add cream and stir up into a stodgy, thick paste-like almost-sauce.

Now turn off heat, and throw in spinach and cheese. Just before you're ready to seat, turn heat on low and stir constantly and watch it all magically amalgamate into a bright-green, creamy, cheesy DELIGHT.


Avery met up with me at the fishmonger's carrying a giant chocolate Easter egg, an offering from one of her friends. "She missed me yesterday," she said with pleasure, and we headed home, for a peaceful afternoon, and a dinner of everything SOFT.

Over it all, my heart was soft, and grateful. I thought of the parents who were at the hospital still, overnight, over many nights, hearing bad news, surviving any sort of unimaginable anxiety, not having to invent it as I did, because it was there in a diagnosis or an operation, not something simple and predictable and everyday as Avery had been through. And I was thankful.

It would be good to remember to feel that way every day. I know very soon we'll be back to chewing, and quibbling, and being annoyed that she leaves her wet bath towel on her bedroom floor. But not today. Today everything is soft.


A Work in Progress said...

What a beautiful post. Avery is so lucky to have you both as parents - she is going to grow up to be a very confident woman. You should really give lessons (though I wonder if your type of innate elegance and class can really be learned).

Kristen In London said...

Oh, Deb, this brought tears to my eyes. Thank you.

Becky said...

So glad to hear that she came through the surgery with flying colors! She is amazingly composed and determined, yet still so kind and sweet. Anna misses her terribly.

Kristen In London said...

Becky, she was a star! How we ALL miss the love your family offered us. It's all still there, I know.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

I am so glad that things turned out well. Your daughter is so brave and smart. I hope I can remember her wise words when I'm on the brink!