We are three sisters united in our search for the divine - in food, libation, literature, art, and nature. This blog will capture the true, sometimes decadent, at times humorous, and every so often transcendent adventures of the Salvation Sisters.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Hatch Green Chiles and a New Mexico Road Trip

My Traveling Tales by Michelle
Hatch green chile season begins in August and is over by the end of September.
   About this time last year Linda and I devised a spur of the moment plan take a road trip from Tucson to Santa Fe to visit the Indian Market that is held annually in mid-August. Over the years my sisters and I had talked in broad terms about how much fun it would be to attend the Indian Market, but our conversations did not transcend into actually making a plan. Cancer has a way of expediting a decision making process. We both agreed that there was no time like the present, while Linda was feeling well enough, for us to both mark a mutual item off our bucket lists.
   In July of last year Linda was feeling much better than she had felt earlier in the year after enduring six intense rounds of chemotherapy and ten radiation treatments to combat breast cancer that had metastasized to her lungs and bones. The chemotherapy seemed to bring Linda to the brink of death before she rebounded gradually. After nearly five months of feeling horrible and being mostly confined to a wheelchair, Linda had graduated to a walker and was getting around on her own two feet (much to everyone's elation). She was even smiling again (hallelujah).
   The dates of the market fit quite nicely in between Linda's routinely scheduled bi-weekly doctor's visits. And to everyone's satisfaction there had been no recent changes to her medications and she was tolerating quite well the myriad of pills she took daily. The future looked brighter than it had in a long time.
Yours truly on the left wearing my new Heishi necklace and 
Linda on the right holding a Godfather cocktail.
   To proceed with caution we needed to factor in to the sightseeing equation that Linda could not walk long distances and that she might very well tucker out midday, which would necessitate a nap to recover her energy for evening activities. We also suspected that finding parking every day during the market hours would likely be awful and we needed control over that variable. With these contingencies in mind, it made sense for us to stay in the heart of Santa Fe near the action of the market, even though the cost of lodging would increase exponentially. Linda was surprised and pleased to find one available room at the historic La Fonda Hotel, which is conveniently located on the plaza near all the events we planned to attend.
   As with all great road trips, one thing leads to another. It didn't take long for us to figure out how to extend a quick weekend getaway in to what looked more like a mini vacation, or as we like to say, "Sistercation". If we were going to go all the way to Santa Fe, we agreed that we might as well tack on a couple of additional days and travel further north to Taos. If we were going to go to Taos, then Linda wanted to visit Chimayó to make a pilgrimage to the sanctuary. Linda worked the internet like a champ to put together a complete itinerary for sightseeing and dining. She scoured websites, read restaurant reviews and secured reservations for lodging and meals.

Linda and I enjoyed the performance of this fancy dancer champion.
I employed a couple of photo apps to create a painterly effect.
  The week before our trip, Linda's oncologist ordered a MRI of Linda's brain because Linda's tumor score had been increasing but comparative CT scans of the mid section of her body didn't reveal any significant changes. The day before we were to leave for Santa Fe, the oncologist called to give Linda bad news. Much to our dismay, the brain MRI revealed that there was indeed a tumor. If there is good news at such a time, it was that the tumor was small and treatable with radiation. Chemotherapy wasn't an option because it has trouble crossing the blood-brain barrier.
   The oncologist asked Linda if she had experienced any recent headaches or dizziness. Linda confirmed that she was asymptomatic. As a precautionary measure the oncologist prescribed a steroid that we needed to pick-up at the pharmacy in the morning on our way out of town. Linda was directed to take the medication, if needed, to counteract headaches or vertigo, should those symptoms suddenly occur. Linda and I mulled over whether we should cancel the trip. We mutually decided to override our concerns and to move forward with our plans. With the oncologist's blessing we were cleared to travel with the caveat that we needed to stop every 60 to 90 minutes so that Linda could stretch her legs and walk around a bit to get her blood moving.
Our favorite event that we attended was the Indian Market Haute Couture Fashion Show.
  The discovery of the brain tumor was a critical turning point for Linda. We knew that once we returned from the road trip that Linda would be meeting with a radiation oncologist to discuss treatment options. The unknown loomed large as Linda and I headed east the next day on I-10. We agreed that we would do our best not to let the news dampen our excitement for the trip or our enjoyment of our time together in New Mexico. We would be as carefree as possible and would not focus on the gravity of her situation.
   We understood from Linda's diagnosis at UCSF in Feburary that her stage IV breast cancer was treatable but not curable. We also understood that metastasis to the brain is fatal. Doctors will attempt to pacify a patient with statements that invariably start with, "Every patient is different and we do not know how each individual will react to a treatment." The doctor decides upon a course of action and if the treatment doesn't work then the next step is to try something different to see if it works. A treatment plan is just an ongoing experiment punctuated with many questions and few answers.
   What we knew for sure is that cancer spreads quickly in the blood-rich environment of the brain. If there was one brain tumor then there were likely multiple brain tumors that were at this point too tiny to see on the scan.
   We decided to move forward like everyone does by putting one foot in front of the other or, in this particular case, by shifting the car into drive while watching the miles speed by through the windshield of Linda's black Honda Civic Coupe (that she nicknamed Little Blackie after the protagonist's horse in the novel True Grit.)

A photo-worthy dilapidated truck with Taos mountain rests in the background.
   The driving time between Tucson and Santa Fe is about 7-1/2 hours. Roughly the half way point is Hatch, New Mexico where the famous, multi-varietal Hatch chiles are grown. Hatch chile season runs from the beginning of August through the end of September. Living in the southwest it is easy for us to source the coveted Hatch green chiles at our local farmers markets and in grocery stores.
   Last year we purchased about 20 pounds of fresh, flame roasted Hatch chiles at the Rialto Park farmer's market. Linda and I brought the fragrant chiles home, removed much of the charred skins with our fingers and then froze the prepared chiles.
   Some of the chiles I left whole and froze individually on sheet pans. My plans included making chile rellenos, which are roasted green chiles stuffed with a mild white cheese, dipped in batter and fried until golden. Also, a large portion of chiles were diced by hand with the aid of a chef's knife and then frozen in one and two cup portions. I planned to make dishes such as Green Chile and Cheese Soufflé and Green Chile Stew.
   What I particularly like about New Mexican food are the green and red chile sauces. Where many Mexican food eateries in the southwest seem to skate by using canned red sauce for enchiladas and smothered burritos, New Mexico is fanatical about preparing sauces from scratch. Linda and I happily ate New Mexico cuisine for every meal of the day and on several occasions we ordered our entrees Christmas-style, which means a dish is served doused with both red and green chile sauces.
The garden at the Fechin House, Linda wearing her new Heishi necklace, and Mexican sunflowers.
   The Indian Market is amazing and worth visiting if you are interested in Native American culture and in particular silversmithing and hand-crafted items, including jewelry, shoes, hats, drums and paintings. The market was so vast, with over a thousand booths, that Linda and I did not have the opportunity to visit every artist. We both purchased necklaces made of turquoise Heishi beads. Heishi beads were first made by the Navajo of the Kewa Pueblo (formerly known as the Santo Domingo Pueblo), located about 25 miles southwest of Santa Fe, which seemed like appropriate and special keepsakes to remember our trip.
   The visitors to the market were clearly turquoise aficionados and stacks of bracelets—easily worth thousands upon thousands of dollarscovered the arms of women and men alike. Linda adored the ostentatious fashion statement and proceeded to boldly wear every bracelet she brought with her for the rest of the trip. She continued to do so after we returned to Tucson, too. More is more, and more is betterclearly betterin Santa Fe. People watching is definitely a part of  the spectacle during the Indian Market.
   Beyond visiting and talking directly with the artists there is much to do and see in Santa Fe during the Indian Market. There are dance exhibitions, a film festival, music performances, art exhibitions, and other activities taking place in the parks, galleries, hotels, museums and civic center. Our favorite event, where we just so happened to snag front row seats by arriving early, was the Indian Market Haute Couture Fashion Show. I took about a thousand photos (I kid you not) of the models who strutted their stuff down the runway wearing gorgeous fashion statements created by Native designers.

El Santuario de Chimayó is a Catholic church and pilgrimage site for seekers of  miraculous healing.
   After experiencing the bustle of the Indian Market, Taos definitely felt calm and relaxing to us during our stay at El Monte Sagrado Living Resort and Spaeven though we packed in a full two days of sightseeing by visiting the the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House, the Rio Grande Gorge, the Millicent Rogers Museum, The Harwood Museum of Art to view the art collection of Mable Dodge Luhan, and last but not least, the ancient Taos Pueblo. Instead of being tired by all the activity, Linda was invigorated.
   On a whim as we drove back to the resort after our first day of sightseeing in Taos, we stopped by a grocery store and purchased Scotch Whisky and Disarrano Amaretto to make impromptu cocktails for happy hour back at our well appointed room before enjoying dinner at the hotel's fine dining restaurant.
   The base recipe for a Godfather cocktail is a 50-50 mix of whisky and amaretto poured over ice. No special equipment is required. The ice machine was down the hall and there were two glass tumblers in the room. The ratios of whisky to amaretto can be adjusted according to taste whether one prefers a stiff drink on the drier or sweeter side. We sat on the deck in comfortable wood chairs, sipped our cocktails and enjoyed watching a storm move in that brought a sweet sprinkling of rain and lowered the temperature to the point that we both had to put on a warm sweater and coat.

A panoramic shot of a multi-storied, multi-tenant adobe building located on the Taos Pueblo. 
    On the return drive home, we were still on the road about an hour outside of Tucson, when we watched the sun make a slow descent towards the horizon. The sky burnt pink and orange and puffy gray clouds heavy with rain dotted the luminous sky. Linda, thinking out loud in a low voice, said that she'd like to attend the Indian Market again the following year... if at all possible. Her voice trailed off and I sensed that she was mulling over the possible ramifications of the brain tumor.
   Pushing angst and what-if scenarios aside, we agreed that we'd make plans to return in twelve months and we hoped that our sister Juliette could join us. Juliette is a talented artist who has a deep appreciation for Native American design and craftsmanship and she also has a penchant for intricate bead-work.
   Linda and I wanted something to look forward to, something that we could hope for, to discuss and make plans for, even though the future seemed more unsure and foreboding than ever before during the course of her illness. After Linda passed away at the end of March, I did not cancel the hotel reservation at La Fonda for this year's Indian Market. I held on to some sliver of hope that perhaps Juliette and I might make the trip together.
   As the event looms nearer, I have come to accept that Linda is indeed gone and that this is not the year for Juliette and I to go on a road trip together to New Mexico. With a sigh passing through my lips, I must acknowledge that this particular situation is what it is. Linda's gone and I'm not going to Santa Fe in two weeks. A few minutes ago, with sadness and resignation, I cancelled the reservation. My husband said to me gently, "There's always next year." But that's not always a true statement, is it? There's only now. You must do things while you are able, before it's too late, like taking mini vacations with your loved ones and buying Hatch chiles while they're still in season.

Preparing Hatch Chiles

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Linda and the "C" Word

The Memory Keepers by Michelle

Linda photographed on October 17th, 2015 at The Hess Collection in Napa, California.
The last really great, happy, carefree day I spent with my sister.
 "The greatest gift our parents ever gave us was each other." ~Unknown

Let me start by stating that my family doesn't get cancer. Or so I thought. My tribe mostly die from strokes and heart attacks, but not the dreaded cancer in any of its myriad of forms. This stupid misconception, this false sense of security that my family is somehow magically immune to cancer was unceremoniously dispatched in September 2015 when my sister Linda called to give me the horrid news that she had found a lump in her breast. When? Not recently, but six months prior in March. I was incredulous. For siblings who may go months between conversations this lack of disclosure may have been less of a surprise, but I spoke over the phone with my sister nearly every day. In addition, we frequently shared texts and emails.
   By now we all know and understand that early detection and prompt treatment are the keys to a successful recovery from any ailment. Why, oh why had Linda kept this health crisis a secret? The answer was simple. She did not want to pursue a cure through allopathic medicine. As a trained herbalist, Linda believed in the efficacy of naturopathic treatments. Linda thought she could heal herself, and that it was incumbent upon her to do so. If Linda did not share the fear inducing news of discovering a lump in her breast with her sisters, her son, or her parents, then she could proceed as she wished without conflict, without having to answer difficult questions, or justify her reasoning process to the people in this world who cared about her the most.
   As Linda had anticipated, as soon as she shared the news with Juliette and me, we began asking the tough questions. Her answers were unsatisfactory and left us wanting. We learned that Linda did not receive a diagnosis from a medical doctor. It was a chiropractor whom had confirmed Linda's worst fears. Juliette and I were dumbfounded. One does not go to a chiropractor to diagnose or treat cancer. Furthermore, it might not be cancer. The tumor could be benign or a cyst or something else. For all our efforts, we could not reason with Linda. Juliette and I could not fathom why Linda steadfastly refused to make an appointment with a board certified medical doctor. Didn't Linda want to investigate all the available treatment options and understand the corresponding pros and cons? No, she did not. Linda had set a course for herself and much to our chagrin she rigidly stayed on that course until her actions nearly took her life in the second week of February 2016.
Linda photographed in 1977 by Danny Townsend in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
   Linda started her self-prescribed treatment plan by taking multitudes of supplements. When the breast gradually got worse she consulted the chiropractor in early September. The chiropractor advised that Linda better change things drastically in her life if she wanted to live. On September 18th, Linda completely overhauled her diet. Linda began drinking fresh green juice every morning and left behind coffee, refined sugar, all grain, vegetable oils, pork, eggs and any processed foods (essentially the Gwyneth Paltrow diet). Linda was enamored with Dr. Budwig's anti-cancer diet plan that included a lot of flax oil mixed with cottage cheese and she could enjoy the occasional glass of wine, or preferably champagne.
   Between September and December Linda lost over 50 pounds. In December alone she took off more than 15 pounds. Linda continued to use supplements of all kinds and she tried a variety of treatments including DMSO, black seed oil, MSM, maple syrup and baking soda, turkey tail mushrooms, cannabis oil and at least 15 other things. Nothing worked.
   In November due to pain and restricted breathing, Linda believed that the cancer had metastasized to her ribs, back bones and lungs. All her life, Linda's Achilles's heel were her lungs. Problems associated with asthma increased. Not wanting to let her teammates down, Linda continued to work full-time during the hectic holiday season at Whole Foods Market, but it became increasingly difficult for her to do so. The asthma caused more fatigue and exercising became more difficult. She was in pain. And yet she persisted, holding fast to her decision to self-treat. Juliette was especially vigilant in arguing the case for Linda to seek medical help. Linda dug in and got angry that Juliette wasn't being supportive.

The Beaumont Sisters with our mother and Linda's identical twin boys, Jordan and Joshua (circa 1979). We're standing in front of our dad's cement mixer - it must have been a joke,
because there were much prettier places around the house to gather for a family portrait.
Left to Right: Juliette, Maria, Jordan, Mom, Michelle, Linda and Joshua.
   A couple of days before Christmas Linda finally made an appointment with a Naturopathic Doctor who had a special interest in oncology. Linda abandoned the Budwig diet in December due to an increasing aversion to dairy products and congestion. The N.D. agreed that Linda needed to eliminate all dairy from her diet, even products made from goat's milk. To Linda's surprise, because he is an N.D., he thought that she might need a mastectomy. To his credit, he immediately referred her to a surgeon at UCSF, but the first available appointment was not until early February. The N.D. also ordered a large panel of blood tests and a Thermogram to confirm that she had breast cancer.
   In the meantime, the N.D. recommended that Linda read Radical Remission a book that details other types of treatment based on research that the author completed with hundreds of people who survived cancer, and it delves into the nine top things that the survivors did to heal themselves. Linda also started biomagnetic therapy with a practitioner in Santa Rosa, California who purportedly had very good success treating cancer patients with paired magnets.
   Linda also sought the help from her long-time acupuncturist. When the elderly Chinese man saw Linda's breast he exclaimed that he could not help her, that she should go see a doctor immediately. Post-haste. Oh boy was Linda angry. How dare he suggest such a thing. We held our tongues and rolled our eyes. Except for Juliette, who told Linda, to once again, get a frickin' clue.

The Beaumont sisters circa 1967.
Front: Linda and Michelle
Back: Juliette and Maria
   Finally, in late December, two days after Christmas Linda threw in the proverbial towel and went on medical leave. Linda felt less guilty over the decision because she pushed through with sheer will power to make it through Christmas Day. And while the next few days would still be busy in Whole Foods stores through New Year's Eve, the worst of the holiday season was over.
   A few days later, on our dad's birthday, Linda sent an email to our extended family disclosing that she had breast cancer. Happy birthday to you, Paul. That's not even passive-aggressive, it's just aggressive. Dad said it was the second worst piece of news that he's received in his life. The first being when he learned that my sister Maria had died suddenly from a brain aneurysm. Linda once again stated her position in the email that she was a believer in natural medicine and that she had decided many years ago that she would not have breast amputation, radiation or chemotherapy. I have learned to omit the word "never" from my vocabulary. Because once you say the words "I will never do...__________", it is highly likely that you surely will do it.

Linda in the fall of 2013 while visiting Monterey, California.
Photograph by Mark Glasser. 
   In January, Linda limited her diet even further by following the Cantin Ketogenic Diet. She continued energy work with the magnet lady and started Vitamin C drips in the N.D.'s office. She integrated the Ketogenic regimen with the Gerson Protocol for Cancer diet, which mostly consisted of a lot of juicing and little else.
   In early January Linda wasn't convinced that she needed to retain the appointment with the surgeon at UCSF because she felt like she was improving. Regardless, we all urged her to keep the appointment, reiterating that receiving a proper diagnosis was of utmost importance. Thankfully, she did not cancel. By the end of January Linda was feeling weak and shaky and wondering if she needed to be hospitalized.
   The day before Linda went to UCSF she shared her thoughts in an email, "I have felt strongly compelled to see if my body couldn't heal with just supporting my immune system with diet, supplements and the other things that I have tried. Now I know that it cannot, and I will need to rely on conventional medicine."

On Juliette's wedding day in 1992. There ceremony took place in Bisbee, Arizona.
Juliette was pregnant with her oldest daughter, Avalon.
From Left to Right: Michelle, Juliette, Mom, Dad and Linda
   The medical staff at UCSF were outright shocked by Linda's condition. It is rare for a triage team to meet a new patient with such an advanced progression of the disease. The final diagnosis was bad news. Linda had stage IV breast cancer metastasized to the bones and lungs. Sure enough, so many months before, Linda had correctly self-diagnosed herself. The doctors concluded that Linda was treatable, but not curable. The breast was not operable. The disease had progressed too far. They could perhaps give her a couple good years. The doctors said that everyone responds differently to treatment, so all they can do is set a course of action and measure the results. In other words, they try something and see if it works. We'd hear this refrain again and again over the course of the next year.
   On February 9th Juliette and I flew to California to be with Linda and to help provide assistance to Linda's partner, Mark. Linda's son drove to Petaluma to also lend his helping hands. As a team we would assist Linda with her treatments and form a plan to provide for her short-term and long-term care.
   Linda was in and out of the hospital over the next couple of weeks. Juliette and I braced ourselves for the worst. We understood that Linda was at a critical intersection between life and death. Juliette and I saw Linda's malfigured breast for the first time during a medical examination. The doctor gave us the choice to leave but we declined the offer. Once we saw the disfigured breast, we would never be able to unsee it. No wonder the chiropractor and the N.D. said she had breast cancer. We could have diagnosed it too.
What my face wanted to look like
every time I saw Linda's breast tumor.
   We marveled that Linda could look at her breast in the mirror and think for one second that she could heal herself with a new diet, some supplements, acupuncture and a pair of magnets. To make a horrible situation even worse, Linda almost over-dosed on aspirin, of all things. Before being admitted to UCSF, aspirin was all Linda had in her arsenal to combat pain and she simply took too many. The medical team went to Defcon 1 when they discovered that Linda's blood was too alkaline and the staff had to urgently correct the pH balance of her blood.
   The doctors started prescribing lots of drugs: long term morphine, short term pain morphine, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, anti-nausea, steroids, laxatives (to counteract the effects of the opiates), and other meds. We kept a daily scorecard of the pills Linda took and when they were administered. The specialty equipment arrived: an oxygen condenser for the house, oxygen tanks for the car, a wheelchair, a walker, a commode, and a shower chair. As Linda said at one point, quoting the Talking Heads while lying in a hospital bed, "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco."
   Then there were the countless hours spent driving between Petaluma and San Francisco. Linda was chauffeured back and forth for chemo treatments, thoracentesis to drain the lungs, MRIs, CT Scans, a PICC line insertion until the port placement, among other things. Getting Linda in and out of the car and into the house or into the hospital took a minimum of two people. The two steps outside Linda's front door leading to the driveway became the bane of our existence. She'd either have to be spotted and guided with a walker or the guys would put her in a wheelchair and carry her over the threshold and over the steps. The smallest things become the biggest obstacles.

   After resisting traditional medical treatment for so long (to avoid angry patriarchal doctors that lived to chop her breasts off - her words, not mine), Linda was shocked, and perhaps a little overwhelmed, and maybe a smidge sheepish to encounter the compassionate care provided to her from the staff at UCSF. Interestingly, the team treating Linda was almost completely comprised of females. Linda's oncologist in California was Dr. Melanie Majure. To this day we refer to Dr. Majure as "the unicorn" because she is a magical being. We all loved her, especially Linda.
   Within a few weeks of our arrival at Linda and Mark's house, it became apparent to Mark, Juliette, Jordan and me that Linda would need long term care and that staying in California was not sustainable. This is an excerpt of an email that I wrote to my parents on February 14th:

"Overall Linda is doing much better than when Juliette and I arrived. However, "better" is a relative term. Linda is having trouble moving, although she is standing and walking (with difficulty), slowly and with the help of a cane and the grabbing of furniture and door handles as she moves through the house from the living room to her bedroom and bathroom. She is still on oxygen 24 hours a day. She is managing pain with a regimented routine of morphine and oxycodone. She's a little hard of hearing. She doesn't always remember what she's said or what somebody else has said to her. However, she feels well enough to micro manage the house's occupants. "Do this", Do that", "Get this", "Make this", "Toss this", "Rub this", etc. And if the demand isn't met lickety-split then there is hell to pay. If a demand slips from her mouth, it's got to be done now. As in right this moment, even if it is a non-urgent matter. We're all collectively taking a deep breath and hope that the chemo works really fast to get her to a much better, less demanding place. We've got to figure out long term care for Linda because it is taking a village at this time to take care of her and not one of us has the choice of not working. We've all got responsibilities of our own and we have bills and mortgages to pay. Juliette and I cannot relocate to California. Jordan has some time before he need to return home for fire season. Mark can only take a 2 to 3 month leave and he'll be stretched too thin on his own with no back-up if she doesn't make quick progress. The hope is that the chemo will enable Linda to become self-sufficient without the need for round the clock care. The medical staff seem to think that we'll have a good idea within three to four weeks of how the chemo is reacting in Linda's body.
   If Linda will need to continue to receive round the clock care, the only conclusion that we've been able to reach after looking at the situation from all angles is that Linda must move to Tucson. We don't know how resistant she will be to the proposal. We need to gather more information to verify that a move is possible. We need to investigate her insurance plans, both medical and disability, to understand if there are any issues if she were to relocate. But before we can do anything, Linda needs to get stronger and stabilize. So, we haven't broached the subject yet, even though it is the elephant in the room. We're hoping to have that conversation with Linda before Juliette and I return to Arizona. Logistically it will be a big pain in the ass to pack and move Linda. That will take a village too. And if she's still being Ms. Bossy Pants at that stage in the game then one of us (or more) will surely lose our minds."

   After a couple of weeks Juliette and I returned to Arizona. As the world turns, our mother was experiencing health issues and needed assistance. In the words of Murphy's Law, "What can go wrong will go wrong." Juliette moved in with my mother and began attending to her needs. Juliette is still with her today. I returned to California to help Mark.

Portrait of Linda taken March 2016 in her home in Petaluma, California.
We thought this styling channeled her inner Imperator Furiosa.
   The long and the short of it is that Linda did relocate and it indeed took a village of friends and family to get her packed up and moved to my house in Tucson. One doctor said we couldn't go, that Linda could easily die during transit. A few folks said we shouldn't. I hate these words: couldn't, wouldn't, shouldn't. Caught between a rock and a hard place, we did what we had to do. We knew this for sure: Linda's life in Northern California was not sustainable.
   Thankfully we had the support of Linda's oncologist. Dr. Majure advised that we avoid planes so we made plans to drive. Dr. Majure promised that she would do everything in her power to help us relocate and that she would strengthen Linda as much as she could for the journey ahead. The doctor was a true blessing in a time of great need. All the while I steadfastly hoped that the 1,000 mile road trip would not look like a conjoining of the films Weekend at Bernie's and Little Miss Sunshine.

The Beaumont sisters in Lompoc, California circa 1970. Photograph taken by Paul Beaumont.
Left to Right: Cheyenne, Juliette, Michelle, Maria and Linda.
   My daughter, Maddie flew out for spring break and we began packing Linda's belongings the first week of March. Friends packed boxes and cleared the pantry. Another plant-loving friend accepted the generous gift of Linda's well cared for potted plants and trees. Jordan and his friends rented the largest moving truck available, loaded his mother's belongings and drove to Tucson in one straight shot, about fifteen hours of driving time.
   My husband and I caravanned in two heavily laden vehicles, Linda's car and a rented van. We departed Linda's house on the last Monday in March and nine hours later we stopped for a two-day layover in La Quinta. We stayed with our dear family friends in a beautiful house situated on a golf course in a gated community. It was a blessing because we all needed time to recuperate. While Linda napped, Jay and I spent hours in the courtyard soaking up the mild sun. Between continuing to work full time, assisting with Linda's care, and packing the house on nights and weekends, it was the first time in months that I sat and did absolutely nothing. I reveled in the nothingness.

Linda at the Taos Pueblo in August 2016.
   The wife of our host, and my mother's best friend, was a victim of breast cancer. He and his partner, a lovely woman whose husband had passed away several years ago, treated us with kindness, while also not shying away from openly discussing the brevity of our situation. His observation was that chemotherapy takes the patient to the brink of death. And that the path back to health is a slow and arduous climb. As individuals they were no strangers to sadness and grief and yet they have forged ahead and found happiness together. We enjoyed hearing about their travels and their shared interests. He played the piano for us and together they prepared our meals, made margaritas and poured wine. God bless the caregivers.
   We arrived in Tucson on a late Thursday afternoon after a smooth drive through the desert. Linda's son, Jordan and his two buddies arrived with the moving truck and moved some of Linda's things into the house and the remainder into a large rented storage locker. Linda had her first appointment with her new Oncologist five days later. As promised, the unicorn helped to facilitate the transfer of care and all went smoothly, much to everyone's relief. I patted myself on the back that Operation Relocate Linda was a success. Upon arriving in Tucson Linda was quickly set-up with a course of ten radiation treatments to treat the metastasis to the bones.

A sisters portrait gone completely wrong. Go ahead laugh. It's okay.
   The good news was that the chemotherapy knocked the virgin cancer cells for a loop. By early May, Linda's tumor marker score was cut in half. We finally learned how to heal the bed sores that had for months plagued her and me (since I had to assist with treating them). One of the things I never imagined for myself is that I'd have to apply medication and bandages to the insides of my sister's butt cheeks, but there we were doing just that. The medication wasn't going to apply itself.
   The physician at the wound clinic said that Linda could cure the sores if she consumed a minimum of 90 grams of protein a day. It was as simple as that. We were relieved and frustrated at the same time. Why hadn't anyone with a degree in medicine mentioned this before? Within two weeks of a dietary regimen that included supplementing with Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides in addition to Jay Robb Egg White Protein Powder, the awful sores were healed. We always felt as if we were learning everything the hard way, no matter how many questions we asked or how much research we did on the internet.
   With a physical therapist's assistance, Linda started taking short walks outside with the aid of a rolling walker. By early June all the home care providers had discharged Linda. And while Linda still used supplemental oxygen in the house, particularly at night, she no longer required it when we ventured away from home. We felt so free not having to drag an oxygen canister around with us wherever we went. By early July Linda had weened herself completely off morphine and was able to lift her camera again to take photographs, a lifelong passion.

Selfie of me and Linda celebrating my birthday in June 2016.
   In June Linda started pestering me about driving. I was hesitant about the idea and shared my thoughts with my dad in an email:

   "For the last two weeks or so, Linda's broached the subject of driving her car again. I wasn't too excited by the idea. Linda trotted out rebuttals, such as "it will make your life easier", and my favorite: "I won't be driving that far". To which I replied, "Most accidents happen within a five mile radius of home." Granted she has been steadily improving, both physically and cognitively. She's almost completely off the heavy drugs, and what she takes, she takes at night to help her sleep. Linda is certainly more alert, but is she alert enough? I trotted out another rebuttal, "What about getting the walker in and out of the car?" In an act of defiance, she did just that. She went and pulled the walker out of the trunk unfolded it, and the folded it and put it back in the trunk. 
   We chatted with the doctor today about the subject. The doctor said she was fine with it as long as Linda isn't driving at night while on any meds. The doctor recommended that somebody drive with Linda a couple of times to see how she does. Linda was not too excited by this idea because, as she pointed out, I've never been a fan of her driving ability. True that. We'll give it a go and see how she does. Granted, driving in Tucson is not driving in San Francisco. Everything Linda initially wants to do is within a few miles of the house. Linda even suggested that we take a night class together at the Pima College Extension Campus that is just down the street. Even if I didn't attend with her, she could certainly drive herself there and back."

   To help rehabilitate her hands (the chemo gave Linda peripheral neuropathy of the hands, in particular her left hand), she decided to take up knitting. Linda ordered a kit online that contained the yarn, special knitting needles, a pattern and access to online videos that showed how to do the project step-by-step. In the hottest part of the summer, Linda began working on a beautiful, thick red scarf that she said was for me. We'd jokingly say that she was knitting an heirloom. And, that I'd need to go to Antarctica to use it. If I didn't see her work on the project during the day, I'd say, "Get to work on my heirloom. Winter is coming." Everyone loves a little Game of Thrones humor. Now that she was feeling much better and it seemed that she had perhaps years, and not months to live, we'd say in good humor that she now had time to knit everyone in the family an heirloom.
Linda and I took a road trip to New Mexico, the land of enchantment, in August 2016.  
   In August Linda and I took a spur of the moment road trip to Santa Fe to visit the Indian Market. We three sisters and our mother, and now our daughters, all have a deep appreciation for turquoise jewelry. (And clothes made from velvet, but that's another story.) Juliette wanted to go with us, of course she did, but decided that it was pertinent to stay with our mother and attend to her needs.  
   Linda and I splurged and stayed at La Fonda on the Plaza so that we'd have easy access to the room in case Linda got tired and would need a nap. After the Indian Market ended on Sunday, we drove further north and a little east to make a pilgrimage to the famous Santuario de Chimayo. We rubbed the holy dirt on our foreheads and said prayers for Linda's health. We drove further north and stayed two nights in Taos at the gorgeous El Monte Sagrado Living Resort and Spa. We visited the Taos Pueblo, the Millicent Rogers Museum (a kindred spirit, for sure) and wandered around the Nicolai Fechin House and garden. Linda's appetite had fully returned and throughout the trip we ate delicious New Mexico cuisine made with Hatch green chiles.
Linda and I made a pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico. 
   By September Linda was strong enough to garden. This was a big deal. Everywhere she has lived, Linda has always made her little corner of the world a more beautiful place by planting a garden. Occasionally in the ground, but mostly in containers. Linda drove herself to local nurseries and selected a variety of flowering plants, vegetables and herbs. Along with the plants, she'd return with pots and potting soil. Wearing a sundress and a straw hat, with gloves on her hands, she'd go about confidently planting her new purchases.
   Linda invited birds to the yard by installing a large bird bath and multiple bird feeders. From her seat at the dining room table, she loved watching the goldfinches, house finches, doves, hummingbirds and the birds of prey  owls, hawks and kestrels. A pair of male and female cardinals made rare appearances in the yard, which made spotting them an exciting event.
   The day before the road trip began Linda found out that she had a brain tumor. She did not have any outward signs, but the doctor called in a steroid that we had to pick up on our way out of town. Linda was to take the steroid in the event of headache or dizziness. Linda's tumor marker had been increasing but her CT scans looked good. The oncologist thought it wise to take a look at her brain and an MRI was scheduled. Of course, having breast cancer metastasize to the brain is really bad news. We didn't let the news damper our enthusiasm for the trip. After our return from New Mexico, in mid-September Linda received stereotactic radiosurgery, a radiation treatment, to eliminate the tumor. It's a fairly straightforward, fast procedure that is done in an outpatient center.

Linda's container garden in Tucson that she tended with love and care.
"Sisters are different flowers from the same garden." ~Unknown 
   We moved into the rhythms of the holidays. Linda declined to attend the All Souls Procession in downtown Tucson with Juliette and me, and Juliette's daughter, Sonora. Although Linda previously adored Día de los Muertos celebrations, she was now prickly about all things related to death. She said that Juliette and I would be too if we were staring death in the face. Juliette and I reminded Linda that no one is getting out alive, that we all have the same fate. Linda angrily said she was closer to death than we were. To quote the film, Gladiator, "I knew a man once who said, "Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back." And that's what we did. We went to the Procession and Linda stayed home.
   I hosted Thanksgiving and we prepared a ginormous 26 pound turkey and all of Linda's favorite side dishes. At Christmas, we made sure to buy a tall gorgeous tree, a Nordmann Fir from Oregon. I pulled out all the old family ornaments, including some bedazzled heart shaped ornaments that Linda had sewn in her twenties. Linda and I took our time decorating the tree together and enjoyed reminiscing about Christmas's past. Linda's son came to visit. My daughter was home from college. Two of three of Juliette's children and her grandchildren were with us. Linda made sure that we all posed for family photos on Christmas day. I'm glad that she insisted. Based upon how she was feeling Linda mused that it would be a miracle if she lived to see next Christmas. All I could think to say was that I believed in miracles.

Thanksgiving Day 2016 with, left to right, Michelle, Maddie, Linda and Juliette. 
   One need not be a doctor to determine that the prescribed oral chemotherapy was no longer working. In retrospect, we're not sure that any of the oral treatments worked. In January, Linda's oncologist recommended starting a course of intravenous chemotherapy to battle the cancer that was actively blooming again. This news took the wind out of Linda's sails. She all too clearly remembered how ill the first round of chemotherapy made her feel. The stigma of a bald head. The insistent nausea. She described most foods as tasting like metal in her mouth. The oncologist assured Linda that the side effects with this new chemotherapy would be less severe. Linda should not lose her hair and food should continue to taste good.
   Unfortunately in March more brain tumors were discovered via a routine MRI and stereotactic radiosurgery followed by mid-month. Chemotherapy typically does not cross the blood brain barrier. Therefore the only treatment for tumors in the brain is radiation. The radiation oncologist thought the best treatment option was whole brain radiation, but the oncologist instead recommended targeted radiation to save the whole brain radiation as an option for later. Whole brain radiation can be performed only once and no other radiation treatments can be received afterwards. It's a one shot deal.
   My observation is that the radiation procedure was difficult for Linda both mentally and physically. Her uncomfortable state was compounded by the fact that she was having a lot of trouble with her lungs. Breathing took effort. A lot of effort. The cancer was clogging the pleural cavity that resides between the lungs and the wall of the chest. Linda once again had to have a procedure called thoracentesis, whereby excess fluid is removed by inserting a needle into the chest. The doctor recommended inserting a catheter into the chest so the lungs could be drained daily at home. Linda declined, concerned about the potential for infection. Linda was back on oxygen full time and she was disappointed that after working so hard to get off morphine, she was back to taking it consistently to manage pain and shortness of breath.

Linda photographed at Tohono Chul in Tucson, Arizona in December 2016.
   Linda passed away two weeks later. The week before she had been diagnosed with pneumonia and anemia. She began taking an antibiotic to fight the lung infection and received a blood transfusion to give her a much needed boost of red blood cells. Neither treatment seemed to make a significant difference. Linda continued fighting but she was flanked on all sides by the ever nimble, ever growing cancer.
   Three days before her death Linda made the difficult choice to stop treatment and transfer to palliative care with hospice. The oncologist said that Linda perhaps had upwards of two months to live. To the contrary, once Linda made that choice, she opted for a quick exit. She metaphorically flipped the switch and the decline was steep and swift. Everyone was taken by surprise at how quicklywithin 72 hours Linda transitioned from this life to that great unknown; whatever it is that is next.
Linda, circa 1959.
   I cannot even begin to describe how difficult it is to bear witness to a loved one, in particular my beloved sister, succumb slowly to cancer. It's a nasty, nasty disease. She fought a valiant fight and was courageous to the end. Cancer tried to take her dignity, it failed in that regard.
   Even though it is a futile exercise, I cannot help but wonder if Linda had immediately pursued medical treatment after discovering the tumor in her breast, if she'd now be living a full and productive life. I saw so many women independently receiving treatments at the infusion centers in San Francisco and Tucson, and then walking out, car keys in hand, to go about the routines of their normal lives. Surviving cancer is all about quick and decisive action to seek a cure.
Juliette, Linda, Michelle and Maria at Surf Beach circa 1968.
Photograph by our father, Paul Beaumont
   The moral to this story is to be your own best advocate for protecting your health. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Visit your doctor for an annual wellness check. Both women and men should perform routine breast exams. Men develop breast cancer, too. Women: get a mammogram. Even better, if you can afford it, get a thermogram. Never heard of it? Not a big surprise. A thermogram will one day replace mammograms, but insurance companies currently only cover the costs of mammograms. On a side note, you can request a CT scan on your heart to learn if there is any calcification that could lead to a heart attack. Has your doctor ever suggested one? Probably not, but out of pocket it only costs about $85.00 and you'll have a much better understanding of your risks for heart attack.
   And one more piece of advice, if you will indulge me the opportunity. Actively choose to be happy. Don't like your job? Find another. Don't like where you are living? Move. We tell ourselves stories that keep us trapped and stop us from pursing what we really want. As my mentor says, everything is "figuroutable". Decide and then take action. It may take a while to get from "here" to "there". That's okay. Be consistent. Slow and steady wins the race.

The three graces enjoying Sistercation in Northern California in October 2012.
Photograph by Mark Glasser.  
   Recently I met a breast cancer survivor who worked with an N.D. while she was receiving chemotherapy. She scheduled routine Vitamin C drips and supplemented her diet with a plethora of vitamins and herbal remedies. She attributes her recovery to chemotherapy and radiation, but feels strongly that she benefited from the supplements and herbal remedies that complemented her treatments. The old saying comes to mind, and it comes to me in my father's voice. "You don't bring a knife to a gun fight."
   Linda made her choices and then had to abide by the outcomes. There are no do-overs. She said she had no regrets. In my opinion, that's just stubbornness talking. After Linda passed away at Casa de la Luz hospice, I returned to my house followed by her son, Jordan and ex-husband, Danny. We stayed up into the wee morning hours, having a wake of sorts, drinking Jameson's Irish whiskey on the rocks while we talked and reminisced. I was lamenting the fact that Linda did not seek treatment earlier, even though everyone kept urging her to do so, especially Juliette who took the brunt of Linda's wrath for not supporting her alternative treatment plan. Danny's reply resonated deep within me. He said, "Linda's passion overwhelmed reason because her passion was so committed." Truer words have never been said.
   Linda and I were about as close as two sisters could be. We were two little peas in a pod. We sounded alike, dressed alike, and shared the same sense of humor. I hope you rest in peace, Linda. We shall meet again. I loved you resolutely and completely in this lifetime, and I will continue to do so until the end of time.

"A loyal sister is worth a thousand friends." ~Unknown
Michelle, Juliette and Linda enjoying Sistercation in Bisbee, Arizona in September 2013.
Photograph by Fernando Serrano.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Southwest Tradition: Tamales for Christmas

by Michelle

   About this time every year I go into full holiday planning mode. I'm usually on the hook to host multiple family dinners at my home between Winter Solstice through New Year's Eve. In recent yearsafter a string of increasingly stressful holiday dinners, an unjoyful attitude (just call me #grinchy) and trying to overcome nightly aching, throbbing feetI decided to simplify my life as much as possible by creating menus where a key part of each meal can be made ahead and frozen.  
   Not to be too cliché, but I do fall into planning menus that are influenced by countries that I have visited and whose cuisines I enjoy the most, such as France, Italy and Mexico. Go ahead, I dare you: try advising my family that (surprise!) we're having Scandinavian or Moroccan for Christmas dinner this year and see the range of "ew" faces develop like Polaroid pictures in front of your eyes. Just like a Thanksgiving meal, a Christmas Eve or Christmas dinner is no time to break new culinary ground. Save that for the doldrums of January.
   A couple of years ago after finally reading Julia Child's first groundbreaking cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I opted to prepare a triple recipe of crowd pleasing Beef Bourguignon in November. I let the hearty stew with the fancy name sit in the refrigerator to rest for 24 hours. Then, the next day, I divided the big batch of goodness into portions that would serve about 6 people. Into the freezer went the portioned packages, and I gratefully checked one more item off my to-do list.
   I collect a final headcount for each holiday dinner about a week in advance. Two days before the special dinner, I transfer the number of frozen packages to the refrigerator to defrost. All that I need to do to finish dinner is to whip up some mashed potatoes, make a friendly veg (#nobrusselsprouts), gently reheat the Beef Bourguignon and open a couple of bottles of wine. I produce a rustic, but elegant dinner with hardly any fuss on the day of the gathering.

From Left to Right: Beef Bourguignon, Pasta Bolognese, Joan's Leafy Green Salad and Carnitas.
   The same strategy applies to Pasta Bolognese, which only needs to be paired with shaved parmesan (Parmigiano-Reggiano, if you're feeling extravagant) and an excellent salad of leafy greens. If you want to make just about everyone extra happy, broil a loaf or two of crusty garlic bread and serve hot from the oven. If anyone is Paleo in your group, it's really easy to serve the Bolognese over zoodles or spaghetti squash. For more traditional eaters, the Bolognese sauce also pairs well with regular or gluten-free pasta. My go to brand for gluten-free pasta, which is available in a variety of shapes, is Bionatureæ®
   My other most requested holiday menu hails from south of the Arizona border: Carnitas and an assortment of Tamales from Mexico. To round out the menu, I prepare homemade pinto beans and Mexican Rice. Garnishes include GuacamoleMexican Crème Fraîche, shredded cheese, shredded lettuce and diced tomatoes. Normally I make the carnitas ahead (and freeze), and buy the tamales from a local purveyor. But last year my sister Juliette proposed that we gather a group of family and friends to make the tamales together down in her home turf of Bisbee. If you aren't familiar with the tiny historical town of Bisbee, you can read all about it's eccentricities here and here.

A view of downtown Bisbee, Arizona from the second floor of Roka, the best restaurant in town.
After the tamale making session, Maddie and I took a quick tour around Bisbee to take photos.
   We had so much fun making the tamales last year that we are going to do it all over again this year. Our group talked and laughed and got caught up with each other while assembling tamale after tamale. We listened to music and sipped a variety of beverages. The team made a ton of tamales over the course of an afternoon. For contributing their labor, everyone took tamales home with them to eat that night or freeze for a future, very delicious, make-ahead meal.
   The really great thing about preparing your own tamales is that you have control over the ingredients and you are only limited by your imagination. You can successfully make vegetarian tamales by simply swapping the lard for corn oil or your oil of choice. I personally prefer lard. I have found good sources for lard at my local farmers' markets. We weren't planning on breaking any new ground flavor-wise, it is the holidays after all, so we prepared three fillings: shredded pork, shredded turkey, and vegetable with black beans.

Everybody had her job to do. Juliette tied the tamales with her nimble fingers.
   An unlikely discovery that we have made over the years is that the meat inside a tamale tastes very similar regardless of whether it is filled with pork, turkey and beef. Strange, I know, but true. So when choosing a filling, it really comes down to your eating preferences. You don't need to make multiple fillings unless you feel compelled to. Even then, it can be difficult to tell which tamale your selecting from the steamer pot unless the tamales are marked in some way, such as a different wrapping style, or tying with different colored strings to indicate the various flavors.

Sonora quickly gets the hang of wrapping tamales. Making tamales can be a messy venture.
Green olives and
smoked Gouda.
   Traditional tamales will often have one green olive tucked in the filling. Eating these tamales can be kind of dicey, a variation of Russian roulette, because often the green olive will contain a seed. We really appreciate green olives so we tend to add three to the filling, but we use pitted green olives to avoid the risk of losing a tooth while trying to enjoy a holiday dinner in a darkened dining room lit by candles. We're never quite sure what's in any particular bite. Not naming names, but one sister would lament if there was only one green olive in her tamale while another sister, who also randomly selected a tamale from the steamer pot, would gloat that she chose a tamale that had three green olives. My husband thinks we're ridiculous for creating such a stir over green olives, but he should know by now it is what we do.
   An additional discovery is that adding a thick strip of smoked mozzarella to each tamale was a huge hit. Everyone dug it, the young and old alike. Finally, everyone agreed that adding strips of potato and jalapeño to each tamale was also the way to go. At least we can all agree on something. (And here I have to remark that once again this year for Thanksgiving my family had to stubbornly debate whether to stuff or not stuff the turkey. I chose against stuffing the turkey this year and it almost started a riot before dinner time between we three sisters and our mother.)
   Place tamales, grouped by filling, into freezer safe Ziplock bags. Freeze the tamales. The tamales can be steamed directly from the frozen state. Easy! Be forewarned that frozen tamales take about two hours to cook, so plan appropriately. Be careful that the simmering water does not completely boil off or your pan will be scorched. Continue to add water to the steamer to maintain the water level, if needed.

On one of two assembly lines, Avalon, Maddie and Sonora make tamales together.
   By the way, if you find that you've steamed a couple of extra tamales and you have leftovers, we have found that tamales are great in scrambled eggs. Simply dice a tamale into bite size pieces. Pan fry the pieces in a bit of butter for a few minutes, then add scrambled eggs along with some salt and pepper. Add some shredded cheese if you like. Serve with salsa.

Foreground: tamales wrapped in corn husks. Background: tamales wrapped in banana leaves.
Jump in to my belly.

Tamales: Pork, Turkey or Vegetarian

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Bahama Mama in Atlantis — Paradise Island

My Traveling Tales by Michelle

"Happiness is a day at the beach." ~ Unknown

"Certain springs are tapped only when we are alone. Women need solitude in order to 
find again the true essence of themselves; that firm strand which will be the indispensable 
center of a whole web of human relationships." ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh

   Recently I traveled solo to Paradise Island in the Bahamas to exhibit at an accounting conference. Tough duty, I know. But someone's got to do it, so it might as well be me. All kidding aside, it has been a difficult year full of trials and tribulations, and if you follow our sisters' blog, you will have noticed the abrupt change in blogging status since January.
   A one week getaway is exactly what I needed even though my time away from home would not technically be a vacation. I had one ticket to paradise and I would surely make the most of my non-working hours. And so it was, just as I had hoped, that after a week of embracing 'island time', and letting the stress flow away from my body, I was ready to get back to my 'real' life. I committed to myself that I would try to hang on to island time for as long as possible after my return.

The Royal Towers features the Bridge Suite, one the world's most expensive guest rooms at $25,000.00 a night. I particularly liked the the sea horses as architectural accents.
   On a Friday morning in Tucson I rose at 3:00 a.m. to start my travel day. Fourteen hours passed before I reached my final destination. It seemed as if everyone on the final leg, the flight from Atlanta to Nassau was headed to the conference. I had a nice chat with the accountant sitting next to me, Pete from Northern California, a quiet, professional elderly gentleman was looking forward to the days ahead partaking of educational courses and networking with peers and exhibitors. The next time I bumped into Pete it was at a vendor sponsored party at the resort's nightclub, Aura. Free booze flowed like a river for three hours. In a room full of accountants, there was much speculation over the sum of the bar tab. The three co-hosts surely gained a lot of American Express points that night.

The DJ shoots fog over the dance floor. As Austin Powers would giddily say, "Yeah, baby, yeah!."
My friend Kaydee hooping at the confrence's after-hours party hosted at the nightclub, Aura.
   The time was approaching ten o'clock, and the party had been raging for two hours. Pete's gray hair was disheveled, his shirt untucked, and he was three sheets to the wind. Amazingly, he was still on his feet, walking nonetheless, and had a silly grin on his face. When he saw me slowly passing him, his unfocused eyes suddenly zeroed in on my face in recognition. Pete stopped walking, which stopped the flow of human traffic behind him. I nodded my head at him, as if to say without words, "Hey there!" Pete grabbed my shoulders to stop my forward motion. He then proceeded to plant a big kiss on my cheek. I was thankful that his lips were dry. He staggered. I grabbed his waist, steadying him. As a potential future customer, I gamely smiled, patted his shoulder once I was sure he was once again somewhat balanced on his feet. Mom-style I advised him to be careful, wiped my cheek for good measure, then continued weaving through the maze of people who were idly popping some moves while gazing down upon the gyrating bodies that were getting their groove on the sunken dance floor. The blaring dance beats bounced off the walls and ricocheted across the night club. The laser lights zigged, then zagged. The strobe lights flashed. I was instantly twenty-two again when the DJ spun a set of 80's music. We whooped, we hollered, we danced, we had fun. I didn't see Pete again.

Weddings are held in the beach-side cabana that overlooks the aquamarine waters of the ocean. 
I learned from a friendly marine biologist that was seated next to me on my return trip home that the Bahamas is home to the second largest barrier reef in the Northern Hemisphere.
   While checking-in I learned begrudgingly that I was assigned a garden view room. That would simply not do. C'mon, I'm on an island. I live in the desert. I want to gaze at the beautiful turquoise ocean as much as possible, even if it is for a limited time everyday. Upon my not-so-subtle prompting, the registration representative noticed that I was staying an entire week. A view of the ocean was definitely in order, we both agreed. The friendly Bahamanian pulled some strings to help a mama out. After a ten minute walk from the registration desk in the Coral Tower lobby to my Beach Tower room, I stood poised to slip my card key into the lock when I heard the air conditioning vent bellowing like a freight train on the other side of the closed door. I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep with that racket. As I opened the door, the light from the hallway illuminated the darkened room in a dim glow, I could see that even in the low light that the room was unkempt and obviously needed maid service. The bed had been slept in, the covers were thrown back, the top sheet looked like a crashing wave tumbling over the shore of the wrinkled comforter. A quick glance at the bathroom yielded a view of  used towels piled on the bathroom floor. Because it was 9:30 at night, I thought the perhaps the room might be occupied. Regardless of the state of the room, I went to the window and pulled back the closed curtain and sure enough, there was indeed an angled view of the ocean from the deck.

The Queen of Atlantis holds court. 
   Back downstairs I went, thankful that I wasn't dragging my overstuffed luggage behind me. God bless bellmen. I politely informed the lone employee who stood behind the concierge desk about the state of the room and the bellowing of the air conditioning vent. The young woman, who seemed to be on a word fast, tipped her braided head to peer at a computer screen and began tap-tap-tapping on a keyboard, clearly with the intention of assigning me a new room. Once again I felt trepidation over being on the receiving end of a garden view room. Hesitant to interrupt, but doing so anyway, I kindly shared my desire for an ocean view with the stoic woman. Without making eye contact, the concierge simply nodded her head and continued to stare at the computer screen without saying a word. I did my best to be patient. I'm sure she's tired of hearing the same tired request over and over again. Oh well, I thought, hope for the best and see how the situation unfolds. I learned later during the week that my experience was not unique. Many attendees that I spoke with at the tradeshow had changed rooms not once, but twice due to varying problems with the air conditioning and plumbing.

The incredible view from my room in the Beach Tower, which I was grateful for everyday.
   For the second time that night, I entered a darkened room in the Beach Tower. The first thing I noticed was that air vent whispered cold air into the room. Silence is golden. I flicked on the lights. The beds were precisely made, the closet was empty and the white towels in the bathroom hung appropriately in place. The washcloths looked like splayed peacock feathers and were placed decoratively inside carefully folded hand towels. Once again I pulled back the closed curtain that covered the sliding glass door. To my delight, through the glass I could see by the moonlight that the view from this room was better than the room before. Before me was a magnificent view of a pool and beyond the pool and unencumbered view of expansive ocean. I opened the glass door and heard the waves rolling over the sand.
   In the end, for a little hassle, and a nice concierge that didn't seem so nice while she was reassigning my room, I wound up with exactly what I desired. The room itself was fine, nothing to write home about, overall the hotel looked a little tired, but at least is was clean and had an amazing view. I called to ask the bellman to deliver my bags and then I had just enough time to grab a slice of pizza topped with jerk chicken and sliced banana peppers before the take out joint closed at eleven o'clock.

I learned it's not so easy capturing photos of the active sea life in the lagoons and aquariums. 
   To illustrate the size of Atlantis, the water park alone is built on 143 acres. Between the three towers—Beach, Coral and Royal—and the condo-hotel, The Cove, there are over 3,000 rooms. In addition to the pools, slides, and both fresh water and salt water lagoons, there is a two mile stretch of beautiful beach, the sand soft and white. The shallow ocean water is luminous clear green before mutating into dark blue in the deeper depths. I could clearly see the interplay of colors from my vantage point of my ocean view room. My friend, Monica, said that staying at Atlantis is like staying on a docked cruise ship. The experience is much the same. Atlantis is all there is on Paradise Island. You can take an excursion into town, but the round-trip shuttle ride just seems like a big pain in the neck.

A view of Paradise Lagoon. The Beach Towers are in the center and the Coral Towers on the right.
My favorite outdoor bar on the property sits under the cover of the seashell covered roof.
A favorite water attraction is tubing along the mile-long lazy river. 
   I enjoyed my time in the Bahamas. Mainly, I think, because I was by myself. Kate, a colleague from New Zealand was my booth buddy for the tradeshow. Kate had her own room and we maintained our own schedules unless we were working, or meeting in the late afternoons or early evenings for cocktails and then dinner. That was ideal. I could rise in the mornings, put a hat on my head and walk the seven minutes to the Coral Tower to order coffee and a croissant at Starbucks. I'd bring breakfast back to my room and sit on the deck, looking out over the pool and ocean like a Queen surveying her kingdom while sipping a venti latté and slipping flaky bites of croissant into my mouth. While I enjoyed my morning respite, the staff below worked at a steady, unencumbered pace while cleaning the pools, arranging deck chairs and feeding the sea life in the surrounding lagoons.

A stairway leading to the Predator tunnel is located below the Lagoon Bar & Grill.  
The Lagoon Bar and Grill is surrounded by a lagoon filled with sharks.
I noticed some sharks at the bar, too. 
   I overheard plenty of couples quarreling in paradise over the course of the week. I thought, more than a handful of times, I'm glad that's not me. I have no one here to stress me out. No one I have to consider but myself and, of course, Kate. I did as I pleased. I ordered a Bahama Mama cocktail the size of my head and drank it down without guilt. I joyfully ate a croissant every day. I ate nachos slathered in pulled pork and doused with melted cheese. In between working hours, I wore sleeveless, flowing tank tops and didn't care if my arms looked fat. I did what I wanted, ate what I wanted, slept when I wanted. I came home to Tucson feeling relaxed. The question that loomed was how long the feeling would last. When I finally worked up the nerve to stand on the scale (I just couldn't help myself), I discovered that I lost nearly two pounds. That couldn't be right, I thought to myself. I weighed myself again, but the scale was consistent. I was consistently surprised. Twice over.

The departing view of the Bahamas from my seat at approximately 20,000 feet.
   On the way back home, I shopped the duty free shop at the Nassau airport. I looked at the prices listed for the various rums, whiskeys and scotchs and frankly the prices at my local Costco seemed better. I was about to exit the shop when I spotted a bottle of Nassau Royal Liqueur, which is a key ingredient in a Bahama Mama. I suspected that this particular liqueur would be difficult to source in Tucson, so I bought it and stuffed it with some difficulty into my computer bag. It felt like the weight of the roller bag doubled. Although I felt like a pack-mule, dragging that bag around, I'm glad I brought the bottle home.
   In the days following my return home, just as I could feel island time slipping away from me, I thought what better way to pretend we're in paradise, then to make a signature drink from the Bahamas. I gamely whipped up a gallon of Bahama Mamas for a family dinner over Memorial Day and they were a hit. By the end of the evening, there was nary a teaspoon left in the bottom of the pitcher. The fruity libation perfectly complemented Fallin' Off the Bone Baby Back Ribs and spicy chicken wings. Slurp down a Bahama Mama and you'll surely feel yourself slip into island time, too. No plane ticket required.

   Nassau Royal Liqueur tastes of vanilla and spice. Without the liqueur the cocktail would taste like a fruity kid's punch. The more complex flavor profile with the addition of vanilla and spice is especially nice. The Liqueur can be purchased on-line.

After a hard day's work, it's happy hour for Kate and me. Kate ordered a Piña Colada. 
My sister, Linda remarked that the Bahama Mama is as big as my head.
   "It turns out that the Bahama Mama is not just one-of-many monikers slapped onto overly sweet Caribbean crap drinks, but it actually is a concoction that, while varying from source to source, is a drink unto itself and will usually contain dark rum, coconut rum, orange juice, pineapple juice and grenadine." ~DJ Hawaiianshirt of Spirited Remix

   Even at Atlantis, where I ordered Bahama Mamas at two locations, the ingredients list varied slightly. This drink is on the sweet side, so you could very well choose to add a portion of Malibu rum, if you like the flavor of coconut. Recipes that added banana liqueur I shied away from because I don't particularly care for the taste of banana liqueur, and it wasn't included in the Bahama Mama's that I ordered at Atlantis.

Bahama Mamas for a Party

Yields 1 Gallon (16 8-oz drinks):

1-1/4 cups (10 fluid ounces) Myers's Dark Rum
1-1/4 cups (10 fluid ounces) Bacardi Dark Label
1 cup (8 fluid ounces) Kahlua Liqueur
1 cup (8 fluid ounces) Nassau Royal Liqueur
4-2/3 cups (38 fluid ounces) unsweetened orange juice
4-2/3 cups (38 fluid ounces) unsweetened pineapple juice
1-2/3 cups (12 fluid ounces) bottle Grenadine Syrup

1. Mix all the ingredients together in a large container (I used a Cambro). Cover and chill. Serve individual portions over ice.

Single Serving Bahama Mama

1-1/2 ounces Meyers's Dark Rum or Bacardi Dark Label
1/2 ounce Kahlua Liqueur
1/2 ounce Nassau Royal Liqueur
2 to 2-1/2 ounces unsweetened orange juice
2 to 2-1/2 ounces unsweetened pineapple juice
1 ounce Grenadine Syrup

1. Put all the ingredients in a shaker. Shake well and pour into a glass filled with ice. Garnish with an orange slice and a maraschino cherry, if you please.

I made sure to visit the various aquariums located across the property on a daily basis. 
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