When The Going Gets Tough

… the tough cook. At least that’s what I do to comfort myself when stress overwhelms me. More specifically, I put up produce from my garden and other local sources, stocking the freezer with the products of summer’s sunshine. This weekend I processed about 16 pounds of apricots, made lavender vinegar (photo below), and started a marathon of pesto-preparation, beginning with freshly picked chervil. (Recipes to come in the next “Lighten Up” post later this week.)

What stress sent me into a binge of stocking the freezer? The usual: The rigors of Richard’s treatment for brain cancer. Next week, he’ll begin his sixth monthly cycle of chemo drugs–if his blood platelet levels have risen above the danger zone, that is. After that cycle, he’s “only” got twelve more–another whole year of chemo. Right now, that looks like a very long journey. The following week, he’ll have a brain MRI to find out if the chemo is warding off tumor re-growth. Other contributing factors: next week’s deadline for a last-minute article assignment for National Parks magazine. A string of out-of-town guests with more on the way. Elder-care concerns. The hellishly hot and dry weather, which means my beloved high-desert landscape is stressed too.

I usually keep my balance pretty well, but there are moments in this journey with Richard’s brain cancer when I am surprised, like the other night. I was sitting on a curb outside Cultureclash Gallery with a friend, watching people go by and enjoying the sunset light and cool evening air, while Richard was inside the gallery at a reception for the Colorado Metalsmith’s Association.

“How hard is this?” my friend suddenly asked, and I knew she meant the brain cancer, not the standing-room-only crowd in the gallery.

I didn’t really know how to answer. In one sense, it’s not that hard. I’ve lived with chronic illness my whole adult life, teaching myself how to thrive decades beyond my original prognosis. So, as I said to her, I have a lot of practice in living in the moment and understanding that life comes with no guarantees. But… this isn’t me. It’s Richard. So I do what I can to help him stay healthy–and that’s a lot–but when it comes down to it, I’m on the outside, watching my love learn to live with a brain altered by surgery and radiation, and a body weathering a grueling course of chemo. All in the hopes of warding off recurrence of his brain tumor for as long as possible.

It’s not that he’s not doing well. He is. There he is (in the photo above) last Friday, taking his 60th birthday swim in the Arkansas River, which runs through Salida cold as the mountain snowmelt that feeds it, a few blocks from our house. It’s a big river, and although the water’s at its post-runoff low right now, the current is still formidable. I wouldn’t swim it, but I don’t have Richard’s muscles or affinity for water. So yes, he’s doing well–considering. Considering that he’s taking a monthly dose of poison, as his oncologist reminds us frequently. He takes his slug of bone-marrow-killing cytotoxins, then has about three weeks to recover from the poison so he can take the next dose. (How bizarre is that? Very.)

How hard is this? Very. I turn to writing to keep my balance and my sanity. Writing is a crucial part of the spiritual practice I call my daily life, along with yoga, walks, cultivating my garden and friendships, and tending the community of lives that animate our yard and the adjacent thread of creek, the wildflowers, hummingbirds, butterflies; the swallows, bats, and dragonflies, and even the deer (despite their appetite for evening-primrose buds and bean shoots, drat them!). I organize my days to be as quiet and retreatful as possible, eschewing frenetic stimulation of any kind. I spend a lot of time with my honey, sitting close by as we go about our separate pursuits.


And when I’m feeling especially wobbly, I cook. To me, food prepared with the energy of my own hands and creativity is love. The abundance of summer, preserved for some winter day when the snow is flying and the wind is roaring, is the best kind of nurturing I can imagine. Filling the freezer is comforting. Hence this weekend’s marathon of preserving garden bounty. I began with apricots, a whole box of gorgeous, big, and delicious organic apricots. When I started, the washed and golden ‘cots with their blush of pink took up one whole section of kitchen counter. By the time I thought to shoot the photo above, only a small portion of the original pile was left.

Why bother filling the freezer with summer’s bounty? It’s my way of dealing with the uncertainty at the heart of life. Taking the time to preserve apricots, make fruity and fragrant vinegar with the lavender we share with the bees, and to process our fresh herbs into pesto is an optimistic thing to do. It’s my way of looking forward with hope, of anticipating happy and healthy and delicious meals ahead. As I slice apricots, I am preserving this moment of sun-made sugars, this day of fleshy fruit tinted yellow with a pink blush, this time of fecundity, this life. I seal the freezer bags, write a label, and preserve summer to be enjoyed later. It is my promise to myself that later will come, and I will be able to cook for the one I love when it does.