I used to write non wine pieces, writing about whatever I wanted, but found that I would receive more readers for a piece about wine than politics, and the movement toward a wine blog began.
Sometimes I miss the days of very few readers, writing just to write, exorcizing demons. Writing was free therapy, and with the near anonymity of almost no readers I was free to indulge petty inclinations like sarcasm, contempt, and criticism.
Today, after a few missteps where words I have written caused genuine turmoil, I try not to make waves, to upset folks, to be harsh or too critical. I jokingly describe my content now as words about rainbows, bunnies, and Chardonnay.
If you are looking for a wine piece, here on my wine blog, today you’ll be disappointed. I’m writing a piece just for me, it isn’t about wine, but you are free to read it anyway.
During this week’s Olympic coverage on NBC, I heard a report that journalist Tom Brokaw was diagnosed last year with a rare cancer, multiple myeloma.
I instantly froze, and felt a wealth of compassion, and sadness, for Tom Brokaw; my mother died from multiple myeloma.
I posted a note on Facebook about Tom, my Mom, and multiple myeloma. I was amazed at the responses; so many people I know have been touched by, lost family members to this rare cancer.
When my mom was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, it was a death sentence. There was no cure – there still isn’t – and there was no treatment. Ann Landers, the famous advice columnist died from multiple myeloma, as did everyone who got this cancer, and typically within about six months.
I remember the day that I heard Lou Dobbs talk about Millennium Pharmaceuticals stock prices taking a huge leap on news that the FDA was allowing a new and very promising treatment drug for multiple myeloma to be fast tracked for patients. My cousin Laura heard the same news on NPR, and my step father Lyle heard the same news on a multiple myeloma internet forum.
My mom and her doctors moved a mountain of paperwork and she was the first patient in Arizona to receive Velcade. My mom also received Thalidomide, the drug famous for producing birth defects, and my mom and I joked that I wasn’t going to be getting a brother or sister any time soon.
Anyone can tell you that cancer treatment is a bitch, and it kicked my mom’s ass. She lost weight, became weak, was in pain, overcome by nausea, it just sucked.
I don’t smoke weed, haven’t in a long time, but won’t pretend I never did. I bought a big bag of good Mendocino County weed and drove it to my mom in Arizona where they have a different name for medical marijuana: felony drug.
I brought the weed for my mom to smoke because that works to increase appetite and decrease nausea. The problem with edibles or teas is that they can be vomited before medicine absorption, while smoke puts the medicine into the body even if coughing occurs.
The thing is that I forgot to bring a way to smoke the weed. I never could roll a joint for shit, and I didn’t expect my cancer stricken mom to be a steady roller. I needed a pipe. The problem is that I was in Arizona, a felony weed state. I did manage to find the only head shop in Yuma and went in to talk to the employees about my need, a task made supremely difficult by having to talk around the need and use substituted code words for marijuana. Finally, I saw a twin to the pipe I used at my first Grateful Dead show and bought that, feeling some sense of rightness in the choice.
My mom had a remission. She wasn’t strong, she wasn’t normal, she wasn’t full-on mom, but she managed to knock some things off her bucket list. My mom went river rafting down the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River. There was no way she could hike down, or back up, but was helicoptered in and out. She also was a bow princess, riding while strapped in and not rowing, but she went, and went with a friend, and it was a cherished trip for her.
Mom also wanted to see her grandson, my son Charlie, grow up. She had planned to move to northern Sonoma County and work in a new, as yet unopened then, Indian casino. Mom told me that one of the things she felt most cheated about by cancer was losing the opportunity to be a grandmother to my son.
I remember getting a call that my mom had died, but been brought back in the hospital, and was hanging on. My first ex-wife Dina and my sister Ikuko were going, but I was stuck in Long Beach working for a weekend. Sunday night, after a speed record breaking load out, I aimed my car south to San Diego and west on I-8 across the desert to Yuma, driving between 100 and 120 mph, in a senseless and futile exhibition of grief, my driving was one long scream. I was fortunate beyond reason and was not pulled over. I was even more blessed; my mother recovered.
I remember returning to visit my mom one last time, bringing my young son Charlie, who was perhaps seven years old. Mom was so weak, and sneaking smokes – the worst kept secret ever, I imagine – behind her husband’s back. I was torn. Cigarettes were not helpful for my mom, but seriously, it wasn’t going to be the cigarettes that were going to kill her, and the cancer was certainly going to without question, and soon, so fuck it, if she wanted to smoke cigarettes then I would be her willing accomplice.
My mom spent so much time in bed on the trip. My son was magnificent, spending as much time as he could with her. She took a field trip to a friend’s home where Charlie demonstrated his new confidence in a pool, swimming for his Grandma Suzi, before pain and exhaustion forced us to bring my mom back home to her bed.
On a shopping run, I remember having to pull my car over and I just totally lost it, crying uncontrollably, my son a mute witness to his father’s grief and pain.
I’m a decent cook, but my mom was a better cook. I had always bragged on my mom’s cooking to my son, and on our last night together, my mom was going to cook one of her specialties for us. My mom’s beef stroganoff is the best I’ve ever tasted, and she sent me to the store three times that day for ingredients.
My mom had a stroganoff secret that she had never shared with me, she replaced the water regularly used with equal parts red wine and seven up. The red wine adds flavor and the lemon lime soda adds balancing brightness.
Embarrassed that she had already sent me to the store three times, my mother did not want to send me a fourth time when she found she had no seven up. Blame it on the pain, or the drugs, but my mom substituted concentrated lemon juice, and an amount equal to the amount of seven up she would have used, instead of a reduced amount because of the concentrated nature of the ingredient.
“John” I heard my mom call weakly, and I came into the kitchen where she told me what she had done, and asked me if we could fix it. I tasted the stroganoff, and probably the best thing would have been to throw it out, it was beyond saving. We added enormous quantities of sour cream, and wine, and anything else we could think of, hoping to cut the strongly dense wrong flavor of thick artificial lime.
We sat down to this last dinner, cooked by my mom; mom, me, and Charlie. Did I mention that we forgot to tell Charlie that this meal was going to be horrible, and that he was operating under the belief that my mom was a great cook, and was also being an angelic son and grandson on this trip?
While mom and I dished ourselves up light, Charlie filled a bowl full. I can’t say he flew through it, but to his credit Charlie ate every disgusting bite of that last meal together. Lucky Lyle, my step father, was saved as he only ate meat, cheese, and potatoes.
It is funny, but I might not remember a perfectly executed dish as well. The horrible dish of nearly inedible food is a bittersweet memory of my mom that I am grateful for and will cherish forever.
When my mom did pass shortly after, I had largely come to terms with the loss. My grieving had begun in earnest on the two trips, the first racing across a desert night, and the second sharing a sweetly human moment over a dinner disaster with my son and mom together.
My mom asked that her ashes, mixed with the ashes of a favored dog Bozo, a pretty terrific yellow lab, be spread at Doran Beach, a state park on the coast of Sonoma County, where mom and Lyle used to set up a trailer in the summers, and where Dina and I would visit.
Of course, it is illegal to spread ashes on a state beach, not that my mom knew that, but I’m sure it would have amused her to put her two boys in the position of breaking the law for her.
On the day of the spreading, out of respect, I dressed all in black; black leather jacket, black shirt, black slacks, and black shoes. My step father handed my brother and I the bags and gestured toward the beach, he was too distraught to scatter his wife’s ashes. My brother Tom and I opened containers and combined the ashes of our mother and our dog brother into a strong bag and tore one corner away to allow a steady stream of ashes to fall and scatter in a walk together down the beach.
I don’t have a lot of ash scattering experience, but found the uneven release managed by my brother annoying; nothing, nothing, a bunch and clumpy, nothing, a bunch…I couldn’t take it and took the job.
I remember my son was moving roughly parallel to us, but playing in the water; my cousin Laura walked with us and kept up a patter of supportive words meant to get us through the task, my brother and I spreading her ashes – now in a perfectly steady stream from the bag to the sand between us. I remember thinking it odd, the cremation wasn’t uniform and there were pebbly bits of what were likely bone mixed in among the ashes, and the colors of ash ranged from black to white with every shade of grey between.
Having emptied about half the bag on a walk down the beach, we turned to come back and empty the other half over the sand just trod. And then the wind picked up. And then the colors of ash from black to white with every shade of grey between were blown onto my black clothing.
The horror of wearing your dead mother, and her dead dog, is bad, but the sense of decorum that required me to continue walking and releasing the ash flow in the same respectful manner was worse.
To say that both my brother and I were incredibly desirous of alcohol is to downplay our absolute need for a drink.
Let me be honest, there really isn’t enough alcohol in the world to make wiping your dead mother off your clothes in the men’s room of the Tide’s Wharf better.
All we could do, Tom and I, as we tried to wipe our mom from our clothes, was imagine her laughing about it from wherever she was now.
It is easier for me to write about the pain, and share the comedy that death offered, than to just write simply and honestly that I miss my mom terribly. I loved her very much and, more than anyone, she is responsible for who I am today.
To Tom Brokaw: I don’t expect that you will ever see this piece, but your fight now made me think of my mom and her fight then. I’m pulling for you. Use the time to make memories with your family.
For everyone else, call your mom if you can.