Cancer – A Few Silver Linings

CMy husband Marc has taken the kids back to Tokyo to re-start their “real” lives.  Bailey is a freshman at The American School in Japan (ASIJ) and my daughter, Sydney, started middle school, grade six, at Nishimachi International School (NIS).  Both kids have been at their respective schools for a while and I couldn’t bear to take them out of their comfort zones, though I’d much rather have them here with me. (Look for a forthcoming post on the hardest thing I’ve ever done – I’m just not ready to write it yet.) They are for sure in the exact right places for them.

Though this whole cancer thing sucks, I have found a few silver linings to it, and I’m pleased to say that Marc has also found a few here and there. Case in point: the other day he said to me, “Sydney is really fun in the grocery store.”

This is something I knew already.  Sydney is very good at spotting items on the list.  She likes menu planning and then buying the planned ingredients.  She likes finding a new item to try and even feeling produce to check for ripeness.  She’s a good little shopper.  In addition, when we’re in Japan, she likes reading signs, figuring out what things are, and calculating weights and costs in grams and yen.  Her Japanese reading and speaking skills are coming along nicely and the grocery store is good practice.

Marc is also an excellent Japanese reader and speaker, so in addition to all of the fun things about Sydney in the store, he was able to show her certain Kanji symbols and discuss the language issues via food, Sydney’s favorite subject, which made everything more interesting for both of them.  Marc has always enjoyed the kids musical and sporting events, and he and Bailey can discuss fantasy football and other sporting events and issues ad nauseum. However, it has been harder to find things he has is common with our girly-girl and so the grocery experience was great in more ways than one. Marc has been a great dad from day one with our kids, but he has never been the primary caretaker of them; that has been my job, except for a few weekends or a week here or there when I’ve been away.  Now he has stepped up to do it in a big way while I stay in the U.S. for treatment – and is doing a great job of it so far.

So here’s the benefit: some serious dad and kid bonding. If I wasn’t sick, Marc would never have discovered Sydney’s talents in the grocery store. That very same day, the two of them went out to the ever-popular and crowded Azabu Juban festival near our house and had a blast together.  If I was there, I would have gone, and though I really miss being there, I am delighted that my daughter and her dad had the opportunity to experience it together differently from how it would have been if I was there.

We have such great friends in Tokyo that I know Marc is going to have a lot of help with the kids – homework, caretaking, meals, etc – in the next four months while I’m in the U.S. But I also know that he will do a great job with everything himself and he and the kids will forge a new, strong connection that they might otherwise not have done.  For that I am not sorry – it’s a little perk in a hailstorm of sorts. So in the end we will all emerge from the experience hopefully healthy, and in some ways be even better and stronger for it.

What Are You Doing?

cooking 1Sometimes people have asked me what I’m doing with my time since being diagnosed with cancer.  I must admit that some days it takes a lot of energy to simply exist.  Luckily those days are few, and when they happen (predictably on days 5-8 after a chemo treatment) I just stare at reruns of “NCIS” without even seeing them.  However, I do get out to see friends, to go shopping, to have a meal, on almost every other day of the treatment cycle.  Even if I’m feeling blue or tired, I force myself out for a little while every day.  I’ve also learned to force myself to go out walking on days when I feel okay and the weather is good.  (My definition of “bad” weather has expanded to include high humidity however – sweating never feels good, but feels particularly yucky on a covered, yet bald head.)  So I am out a lot.

One thing I have always loved doing is cooking.  I find that it’s the one thing that completely empties my brain of all other tasks and trials.  It’s not that I find it relaxing, but I can’t multitask when I do it.  I have to concentrate on the task at hand or risk making a mistake that ruins the dish.  I also find it tremendously satisfying to make things that other people get to eat. When someone I love pronounces a dish I’ve made as yummy, it’s the highest form of flattery and satisfaction to me.

Recently, since feeling even better, I’ve done more cooking.  I made a Japanese dish, beef wrapped sauteed vegetables, for Ellie and Steve – one that I learned at a cooking class I took in April.  It wasn’t perfect because I couldn’t find thin enough beef, like that used to make shabu-shabu, which I would have bought in cooking 2Tokyo.  I found thin beef, but I should have pounded it thinner.  That’s okay – it was still yummy, even if it didn’t look as perfect as I wanted it to.

Then, this week, I took it upon myself to make a full meal including dessert.  I had been having conversations with my friends Maxine and Bonnie (separately, I might add) about cooking and how seldom people cook from scratch anymore.  True foodies cook from scratch though, and I do like to consider myself a foodie, not just a gourmand! No one has time, and convenience foods are so readily available that many people rely on them exclusively in the U.S.  Cooking and eating are such arts and the preparation of a meal takes a lot of time that most working people don’t have anymore.  But time is one thing of which I have in abundance right now.

I went to the grocery store last Tuesday and slowly gathered ingredients.  I then spent upwards of three  or four hours in the kitchen and later tried not to feel disappointed as the meal was consumed in ten minutes.  Ellie and Steve are a pleasure to cook for, though.  They appreciate each flavor and are generous with compliments.  I didn’t care how long the meal took to make – the looks on their faces as they enjoyed it was more than compensatory.

My only food restriction from the cancer treatment is that I can’t eat fresh fruits and vegetables – nothing raw.  The doctors are afraid that if there’s one bit of bacteria that’s not washed off properly, then I might get sick in my immune-suppressed state.  Getting sick when one is immune-suppressed is dangerous.  So I can eat whatever I want – as long as it’s COOKED.

I made a Food Network shrimp dish for a main course.  Craving tomatoes and berries, I made a caprese salad with roasted tomatoes a la the Barefoot Contessa.  I also made ricotta cheese toast with caramelized tomatoes from Martha Stewart.  For dessert, also from Martha Stewart, we had blueberry and strawberry scones with cream cheese whipped cream.

Cooking is a great way to spend my time as I go through the treatments.  It occupies my time, empties my brain and delights my tummy.  So that’s what I’ve been doing.

National Azabu Supermarket – A Tribute

During my first days in Tokyo, I had this plan that my husband, our kids, and I would eat only Japanese food.  We would live like Japanese, cook like Japanese, and for two years just be Japanese.  It was April 2003, and the children were babies – just shy of four and one.  Of course, I made this vow from the luxury of my Minami-Azabu apartment with the Western appliances in the kitchen on the first day or two of our planned two-year sojourn in the city. It was hardly binding.

The next few days were a blur of finding the ward office, the immigration office, the health insurance guy, the phone company, the cell phone store, and other errands required for setting up a life.  My husband, Marc, was with us all the time at first.

Then came the first Monday.  Marc left for work, and the kids and I bade him a cheery goodbye before heading to the park.  Arisugawa Park, I realized, was the only place I could get to on my own.  The park it was!  It was very early May, and Arisugawa had that sickeningly-sweet smell of the trees that bloom for a few weeks only at that time. The kids loved the sand-box, the swings and the bouncy horse. We passed a tiny Japanese grocery store on the way, so we bought some strictly Japanese food on the way back for both lunch and dinner. (I had taken a few cooking lessons, by the way) By the time we got home, ate lunch, the kids had a nap, did some inside playing and then had a bath, it was time to make dinner and Marc came home.  I survived my first day solo, which was day six of time in Japan.  I felt triumphant.

Day seven was the same. So was day eight.  By day nine, as any stay-at-home mother could attest to, I was pulling my hair out.  The Japanese moms in the park had no interest in talking to me – I have blonde, curly hair and wear shorts and t-shirts, while they are uniformly dark-haired with perfect navy blue skirts, white blouses, hose and jewelry, even in the park.  They remembered to bring cloths to clean their kids after the sandbox and I never did.  I was loud, my kids were loud.  We stood out.

So it wasn’t just that I was a stay-at-home mom for the first time, which I was.  But we were thousands of miles from home, family, friends, and I had no outlet, no human interaction other than with babies.  I didn’t want to talk to Marc too much about it – I had so bravely and decisively wanted to be Japanese for two years.  How could I face him and go back on my plans?

On day ten I stood crying at Arisugawa Park at 10:30 in the morning, letting my tears flow as a salty mess, down my sandbox-stained face and into my mouth and I just lost it.  I scooped Sydney out of the sandbox, and without so much as brushing her off, I loaded her into the stroller, ignoring her howls of protest.  I pulled Bailey off the swing and put him in the “Sit ‘n Stand” behind his baby sister.  Being an observant child, he protested, but saw my face, and stopped.  And we were off down the hill.  Just a few feet from Arisugawa Park was National Azabu supermarket.  I had vowed not to go, but the circumstances were dire.

Since 1962, National Azabu has been a haven for the ex-pat community.  They sell familiar items from home that are completely non-Japanese, like breakfast cereal, Hershey’s syrup, and Cambell’s soup.  Their prices on so many things are outrageous because they can be – for some reason, it seems okay in there to pay more than $1 for one apple, $10 for a pint of blueberries, or $5 for a roll of Bounty Paper towels. It has an upstairs that is a dry-goods store, including books, greeting cards, toys, Halloween costumes, and kitchen ware – all of which is recognizable to a Westerner, particularly an American.  It’s the only grocery store that has the meat packaged exactly like a Westerner is accustomed to. AND, it’s one of the only places where everything – yes, everything – is labeled in English.  After their first experience buying tofu thinking it’s cheese, Westerners appreciate the labeling.

In National Azabu, the staff is friendly, the aisles are bright and cheery and the people are diverse.  Everyone looks you in the eye and smiles at you, staff and customer alike, and it’s refreshing after the Japanese demure style.

On day ten, I was still crying when I walked into the store.  But by the time I was in the first aisle, I wasn’t anymore.  Everything was just so bloody familiar.  The kids and I spent thirty minutes in there, and all we really bought was three boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese in the bright blue box.

On the phone later, I explained to Marc and apologized.

His response to me was the greatest gift I have ever received; I will love him forever for this one: “Aim, it’s really okay.  I’m so proud that it took you ten whole days.  You did great.”

Even though things didn’t magically smooth out, and becoming comfortable in Tokyo took a lot of time and came in fits and starts, I still remember those first days like they were yesterday.  Eight years later, I’m still here in Tokyo and we all love it.

National Azabu announced yesterday, September 26th, that in just about a month, they will be closing their doors.  The building is old and they need to take it down.  They are still trying to figure out whether or not they will rebuild and re-open.  Of course they say that they have a goal to re-open for their fiftieth anniversary in 2012, but that seems like a golden wish at this point.  The economy in Japan – and everywhere, really – is so horrible. So many people I know here are really mourning the closing.  In the post-March 11th world in which we live, non-Japanese speakers depend on the readable labels on everything National Azabu carries, so we can all be careful about our food supply.  There’s another international supermarket not too far away, but it’s not the same – it doesn’t have the same friendly aura, and park-side location that’s so easy for foreigners, as National Azabu.

Nearly every foreigner in Tokyo, or any former Tokyo resident who has returned to their home country can tell you of their first visit to National Azabu and what it has meant to them.  For me, National Azabu saved me on that lonely spring day – it was the first sense that I could live in this place that was so different from what I was used to as an American.  National Azabu showed me that I live in a Japanese style if I wanted to, but still get some serious comfort when I needed it.

National Azabu is an institution, and it will be sorely missed.  I know I join the entire expat community in wishing for their triumphant return.