The Weird Thing About PTSD

I was raped, sodomized, and beaten for six hours back in January 1987.  Twenty-eight years ago.  Initially, I knew what I “should” feel like, but didn’t really register much.  But that wasn’t really anything new- I’d been pretty good about not registering specific feelings for a long time.  As I’ve gotten older, and had more life experiences, the specific emotions have become much more identifiable.  And unpleasant.  I’ve been through enough therapy to recognize specific feelings, as well as have a greater understanding of what others go through who have been in similar situations.  And sometimes, not so similar situations.  Those can be triggers as well.

I had never been much of a crier.  I’d boo hoo once in a while, but for the most part, I could suck things up and move on.  That has changed.  Some of that is from a good thing: I’ve been able to understand how other people feel with both good and bad events.   That has been a huge ‘plus’ in so many ways, but it also makes my own memories and reactions that much more intense.  I’m a regular faucet now whenever there’s anything that remotely sets off my own memories.  Doesn’t even have to be all that similar.  Just has to trigger a feeling of some sort.

With another parole protest going on, I’m even more on edge.  For the most part, my daily functioning is ‘normal’.  Movies and TV shows can be really tough.  The news stories can be absolutely grueling.  I feel SO badly for those who are violated and/or lose a significant part of their life.   I have to ‘pace’ my exposure to the news.  With TV and movies, I generally have seen most of the episodes before from several series, so know to ‘brace’ myself during specific scenes… but sometimes even that doesn’t work so well.   In one episode of “Law & Order: SVU”, ‘Olivia’ walks out into the squad room after having been held hostage by a serial rapist/stalker who takes her out of the city to a seasonal house (that doesn’t belong to him).  She beats the snot out of him, and has to make a statement.  When she walks out into the squad room, it brings up all sorts of feelings of when I had to walk out of the apartment of my neighbor, after being raped.  There were news stations/cameras and people lining the sidewalk, and looking at me.  One of them lowered her camera, and looked down- giving me the first bit of dignity after that life-changing event.  When ‘Olivia’ walks through that group of people, it stirs up so much.

Some would argue that watching such shows as “Law & Order: SVU” and “Criminal Minds” are poor choices given my background, but I disagree.   In those shows, they show as much as they can about the impact that crime has on the survivors (I hate the term ‘victim’) and, they get the bad guy in 48 minutes.  The good guys win.  There are characters that include the ‘collateral damage’ of crimes against individuals.  And sometimes, the shows are hard to watch.  But it was much harder to live through an event that would be a plausible story line for those shows.

I’ve been much more ‘tender’ this time around with the parole protest.  I’m getting so tired of them, but at the same time, I feel responsible to keep fighting to keep him locked up.   He doesn’t deserve to be out. He agreed to a 60 year sentence in a plea bargain.    He offends EVERY time he’s on parole. Since he was 18 years old, parole is just another opportunity to rack up more ‘victims’.  I’m angry that the woman he attacked prior to attacking me just blew off sentencing.  Had she made sure he got as much time as possible, I wouldn’t have been raped.   I don’t want that same burden on my shoulders.  I may not be able to control the decisions of the parole board, but I am involved.  If they let him out, it’s on them.

In the meantime, I have to talk myself down now and then.  And sometimes, I have to just let myself cry and feel whatever is going on.  On good days, I write.  And every day, I have to remember how much I have to be thankful for.   PTSD isn’t something that gradually resolves in a predictable manner.  It comes and goes when the triggers set something off that is associated with some memory or feeling.  It doesn’t have to make sense.  It just is.

 

When There’s a Death In The Family

On March 2, 2014, my fifty-five year old cousin died. She would have turned fifty-six in May.  She was only five and half years older than I am, and my closest cousin on that side of the family since we reconnected as adults.  While she lived about 80 miles away, we stayed in contact by e-mail, phone calls, and the yearly family Swedish Christmas Eve party.  I’m still sort of numb, though her death didn’t come out of the blue.  She had a particularly evil form of cancer.  But it’s hard to really accept that she’s gone. She’s the first in our generation of cousins to die, who lived past infancy or early childhood; there were some tragic deaths of infants and children in the family, including my cousin’s older brother at age seven, when she was eleven months old .   If anybody could have beaten this, it would have been her.  For a while, she seemed to be handling chemo relatively well (it’s NEVER easy).  The complications  from the cancer and chemo were another story.  My brain isn’t working that well in writing this, so I apologize ahead of time if it’s scattered.  It’s disjointed, and it’s really, really long…  (for my cousin, the textbook editor… always succinct and grammatically proper… oy).

Our grandmothers were sisters who came to the US via Ellis Island from Nordmaling, Sweden (WAY up on the northeast coastal area, Lapland, reindeer, midnight sun) in the 1920s. They came over on the ship called the ‘Drottningholm’, leaving from Göteborg, Sweden when they were in their late teens and early 20s.  There were 13 siblings in all, and most of them came here, settling in the same general area in the Midwest, in and around Chicago. Nobody spoke English before they got here. They left everything they knew to start a new life .  Eventually, many moved all over the country as their families grew, and jobs took them away from the Chicago area.  Our parents are first cousins (at 81 and 89 years old)- both still very much alive and running around.

When we were kids, that five and a half year difference in age was huge, and I was in the ‘little kids’ group of cousins when we got together for family parties.  The big  yearly family  party was the Swedish Christmas Eve  shindig , and it was THE family party to look forward to  (crazy, crazy fun party !!). There is still a smaller version, that is equally anticipated and keeps that Swedish heritage alive, which is such a treasure.  Whenever possible, family came from all over to attend that party.  I’ve blogged about that elsewhere 🙂   I adored my cousin. She was ‘cool’, and always nice to us younger kids.  I was also the recipient of some of her outgrown toys when I was a little kid, which I still remember (really nice doll buggy, and a whole set of ‘Little Kiddles’ – little 3″ tall child dolls who had their own house that doubled as a carrying case !!).  We lived in the same city for many years, which not all of the cousins did, so I’d see her more often than many of the others of that generation. It was still only a few times a year, yet it was often enough to really like her and enjoy the times I did see her ( there were two of the boy cousins closer to my age that I saw regularly throughout the time I lived at home, before moving to Texas after nursing school in late 1985).  This cousin was someone I looked up to as a kid, and was so glad to reconnect with her when I moved back to my childhood hometown in late 2002.  I moved back a few weeks before Christmas Eve, so we saw each other  for the first time in many years at the now smaller Swedish family party.  We quickly became as much friends as  we are cousins.

When this all started last June 2013 (thereabouts), she called me a few times about some troubling symptoms, and her intense feeling of being discounted by the first gastroenterologist she saw (I later suggested she send her first full colostomy bag to his office).   I’ve been an RN since 1985, and she had some questions, and wanted to know what I thought about this guy saying  she was fine except for a minor problem (for which she was given some topical medication), and did that sounded ‘right’. Though disabled, I still keep my license, and need the 29 years of knowledge and experience to deal with my own medical issues- and am always more than willing to be a sounding board or ‘medical translator’ for family and friends.  This is a cousin who called me in the past for some of her family and  own questions when medical issues came up, and I knew that she knew her own ‘normal’ very well; she needed to listen to her ‘gut, in my opinion.  She’d been in France a few  weeks earlier, and had some vague symptoms there, and they were getting worse.   I told her that if she felt that something wasn’t being addressed, she might contact her primary doctor for a referral to another specialist.  And she did.  She was able to take a scheduled ‘fun’ trip to California after the initial specialist appointment, before seeing the new specialist.  While I was glad she was able to travel at the time, I’m even more thankful now that she was able to have two great vacations before her 9 months of hell began. 

She had an appointment for additional testing, but before she got there had a severe episode of rectal bleeding while at work, and was immediately driven to the ER at a nearby hospital.  She got the preliminary diagnosis (from a tactless ER doc) that she had a rectal mass.  She had known something wasn’t right.  She was admitted for more tests, and long story short, she was diagnosed with a neuroendocrine colon cancer after surgery and the full biopsy, which surrounded her rectum about %75 the way around it (basically like a fist around the end of her colon), and needed a permanent colostomy.  Surgery  took a little over week to actually get done, and in the meantime, she was in intense, constant pain.  She had a moderately ‘normal’ recovery from the surgery, and had to get used to the colostomy, and some decent pain management.  From there, she spent some time in a rehab facility to regain her strength before going home. I remember there was more going on (I still have some brain fog post-chemo), but she was looking forward to getting on with treatment. At that time, the plan was to treat it, and her plan was to do what was needed to  recover, and keep the part of the tumor that couldn’t’ be removed in check.

Now, I get mixed up as to what happened when, but over the next 9 months (give or take a week or two), she had non-stop hospitalizations and  complications with chemo and the cancer.   They were unable to completely remove the tumor because of how it was positioned and the nearby blood vessels, so lymph nodes in that area and additional tumors (spread from the main one) in her liver began to be an issue, growing and causing pressure.  She was given  various types of chemo (including a clinical trial ‘cocktail’ of already approved meds used for a different type of cancer, that was being looked at for neuroendocrine tumors), and I really felt that if anybody would be in the ‘survivor’ percentages, it would be her.  She was in otherwise  good health, and she was young, especially for this type of cancer.  But, neuroendocrine tumors are absolute bastards in the tumor world.  When I was looking up information when she was first diagnosed, I was horrified at the statistics… but I still thought that she had a chance.  It’s never over until it’s over. (Valerie Harper was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given three months to live; that was fifteen months ago, and she has said “Don’t go to your funeral until you’re dead”, and did ‘Dancing With The Stars’.  I love that. 🙂  )  And those statistics never differentiate between ages, other health issues, or actual cause of death. If someone dies crossing the street on the way to their appointment, they are included in the deaths from whatever disease is being studied and reported.  SO, someone who is 85 years old, with multiple chronic diseases, who is hit by a bus going to the store is still included in the cancer death rate because they died during some particular study.  So statistics are iffy- they are a reference point worth considering, but not the be-all, end-all ‘rules’ of survival/death.  I was looking at the possibility that a 55 year old female in otherwise good health could be in the small percentage of survivors- why NOT her?.  I couldn’t see it any other way… but I knew it would be a hard battle.

In the months she was being actively treated, she had a kidney stent (she called me about some nagging and increasing flank pain- and she was right; something was wrong– there was pressure on her ureter from the mass of lymph nodes, cutting off the flow to the bladder from the kidney- so her kidney couldn’t empty out, causing a lot of pressure and pain), low potassium and magnesium, constant vomiting (which can be a cause AND symptom of low potassium- ‘nice’ vicious cycle there),  an infection that I’m foggy about,  multiple fractures in her sacrum, blood clots in her legs, fluid around her lungs, a LOT of pain, multiple adjustments in her medications, a port placed (for giving chemo and drawing blood to avoid multiple IV sticks), medications to deal with medications, a new kidney stent, a lump in her neck from lymph nodes-which caused arm pain from the lump pressing on nerves, and on and on. And during it all, she was mentally going on as if she was sure she would be fine in the end.

I have over 700 e-mails between the two of us from the time just before she was diagnosed until January 2014, when I noticed things were changing because of the change in communication.  She wasn’t answering e-mails or posting as much on the support site for friends and family.  That was different. Something wasn’t right.  I didn’t call her much.  I knew she needed rest (and she had friends who were visiting her, which was SO wonderful), and if she didn’t answer e-mails, she wasn’t online, or up to ‘talking’/communicating. I understood that, and we had  an  arrangement that if she wanted to call, she could- and if she were at a facility, I’d call her back on the room phone so she didn’t have to use her cellphone minutes.  If she was home, she called from her landline.  I waited to hear what was going on from the site set up for family and friends as well.

I saw her at Christmas, and she was in ‘new’ pain (I was SO glad to finally SEE her after all of the  e-mails and phone calls !).  That would turn out to be the fractures in her sacrum, which she had to have glued back together.  She had her bones glued. Back. Together.    She never got a break during the entire 9 months.  There was always something else she had to deal with and/or get treated.    I cried a lot, as I knew that each time she called with something ‘not right’, it meant that the cancer was not giving up to the chemo.  In February, it became official.  The clinical trial meds weren’t working (and those aren’t given when there are ‘known’ medications that work) so that was already a sign that things weren’t going well at all… but someone has to make it, right?  There was nothing left to do. It was a matter of time, and not that much of it.

She called me in mid-February after being discharged from another rehab facility to help her get stronger after the hospitalization for blood clots, fluid around her lungs, neck nodes,  and getting her bones glued.  She  told me the doctors had no more  options for additional treatment. I’d already been told that her prognosis wasn’t good (from dad, via uncle, then e-mailing her mom, who called me back) , but I asked her if she’d been given any time frame and she said she didn’t want to think about time limits. She also said she didn’t feel like she was dying.  I’d learned a long time ago that patients do have some feeling of when their body is not going to recover.  My answer was  “then don’t” !  (Real clinical and technical, I know…).  I didn’t say anything about the time prognosis I’d talked about with her mom.  She didn’t need me to have some sort of mental countdown going on… so I blew that off as best I could.   She said she wanted to check out some alternative healing options and knew of a Chinese medicine doctor  nearby, and I told her she had nothing to lose, and who knows?  Something might help her at least feel better.  So much of Western medicine comes from natural sources (plants, animals, etc).  Why not?  I encouraged her to do whatever she felt was right for her.  She didn’t have anything to lose, and only something to gain.   She wasn’t ever able to find alternatives… she ended up on Hospice shortly after that phone call.

That was the last conversation we had about getting well.  She called me  a few more times, and each time she sounded weaker and more tired, sometimes a little foggy.  She wanted to know about how hospice decides when to do things, and when not to, and if palliative care was better (she wanted to be at home, so that pretty much answered that).  The last time we talked was within a few days of her death, and by then she sounded almost deflated and she told me she was tired of ‘all of it’. She was still denying any feeling of  ‘actively dying’, yet also sort of saying she was ready for it to be done.  She also asked me why I was able to get well (from the leukemia I had diagnosed in late March 2010, and had 19 months of daily chemo to treat, including 50 infusions of arsenic trioxide).  It wasn’t in an angry way, or in any way ‘upset’ with me  for surviving… it was almost a childlike tone, just wanting to understand the incomprehensible. I really didn’t have an answer, except that she got a meaner cancer than I did.    I told her I had just gotten extremely lucky to have been diagnosed while there was time to treat it.  Many people with what I had are diagnosed at autopsy; I know of two people, one a child, who were gone within two days of diagnosis.  I also told her to do this next phase of her life (the last days) however she needed to do them.  I guess it was how we said good-bye.  I didn’t know how soon ‘it’ would be, until I got word from the support site posts that she was sleeping most of the time, and rarely woke up…then I read she had a brief period of awareness and drank some juice.  That is common very close to ‘the end’, and I knew any calls I got from family would be to tell me she had died.   And that’s what happened.

Cancer is a mean, nasty disease, and there are various forms of cruelty that it can throw out to torment people.  She got one of the worst I’ve ever seen in the 20+ years I was working in various areas of nursing, and with other friends and family (my mom had breast cancer, second breast with suspicious cells, lung cancer, and brain cancer and all of the treatments and surgeries with those… and then dementia from the brain radiation, and lived for another 17 years cancer free).  My cousin never got a moment’s reprieve from agonizing pain, or if the pain was doing better something else would go wrong.  It was SO unfair.  It’s never ‘fair’, but she went through more in nine months than most people go through in a lifetime.  It’s not really fair to compare people’s diseases , since whoever is going through something like cancer is feeling pretty scared, and having their own journey with their disease, but from an objective standpoint with nurse eyes, she had it really, really bad.

One thing that she was so consistent with (even before the cancer)… she always knew when something wasn’t right.  She knew when there was something brewing or just outright wrong .  She knew her body- even with all of the ‘new normals’ she had to get used to- and she got things taken care of when she knew things weren’t right.  Everyone needs to do that.  She’d call me and ask what something might mean… and if she should call her doctor then, go to the ER, or wait until office hours (depending on what was going on).  Sometimes she needed an explanation about something, and sometimes I encouraged her to call one of her doctors (we’d figure out which one to start with since she ended up with several).  Other times, I encouraged her to get checked out as soon as she could.

I will miss her so much.  I already do.  And yet I’m glad she isn’t being tormented by that nasty tumor and it’s offshoots and chaos any longer.  She went through all of this with such grace and dignity, and never gave up the idea that she was going to be OK, until the very end.  And then, she went peacefully in her sleep with her mother and housemate at her side.   I’m not going to be able to go to her Life Celebration because of my own medical issues (and the logistics of getting there with various equipment).  I’m upset that I can’t be there.  I know she’d understand, since she knew I couldn’t attend but a couple of hours of the Christmas parties, after dinner was over.  I’m just really sad.  I wish I could hear more about her from the people who are going to be there.   I’d like to be there for her mom, and her  brothers (who have had to say goodbye to two children/siblings now) and their families.  So instead, I write to clear my own head, and in some very small way, pay tribute to my cousin.  There are a lot of things I’ve thought about during this past nine months, and how my cousin made my life better just by being herself.  As adults, we had a great relationship, and I found her to be   a kind, compassionate woman, with a great sense of humor and an amazing work ethic.  She was never judgmental.  She looked for the good in everything we ever discussed.  She was loyal, and able to help me out with her own perspective on a difficult situation. She knew how to have a conversation without injecting drama.  She let me be there for her, when I often feel like I’m not useful for a whole lot anymore.  I just wish it had been for something that left her here (I’ve never had a ‘nurse call’  be for anything good 😦  ).  It’s always hard to say goodbye to someone, and someone in my generation in the family is just plain scary.   Especially someone I really cared about, not just because we’re related, but because she was a person who added so much good simply by being.

I will love you always, K.P.A.

The Death of My Best Friend…Who Waits at The Rainbow Bridge

At 2:45 p.m. today (December 27, 2012), my best friend and amazing dog Mandy died in my arms.  About 15 minutes earlier, she had been lying on her ‘TV bed’ and made a sound that was similar to those she made when she’d faint, but not as loud and only one time (instead of the usual three deep, agonized moans). I immediately went to check on her, and she was semi-conscious.  I picked her up and she began to wake up, ears perky, and  looking at me. But something wasn’t right- normally when she started to wake up, she ‘came to’ quickly and was on her feet and steady. She did go over to her pee pads and peed, but she wouldn’t leave that area- she just kind of froze standing up. So I picked her up and brought her to my recliner, to hold her and see if she’d perk up.  I decided to get her onto her comforter with a disposable underpad beneath it (she has had ‘issues’ with bodily functions after fainting).  By then, she wasn’t able to support herself on the floor, so I laid her on her recliner as I got her situated (yes, the dog had her own recliner).  I picked her up to hold her  on my lap and see what was next.  She again picked her head up, but then essentially collapsed, and began some slow, agonizing breaths that became slower and slower until they stopped altogether.  I checked her heart rate with my stethoscope. There was silence. The entire process took about fifteen minutes as she died in my arms.

I’m extremely thankful that she didn’t have any prolonged suffering; just this morning she was looking at me and wanting her Charlee Bear dog treats (which she got), and eating Swedish meatballs (microwaved and low salt, just for her).  I’m extremely grateful that she was in my arms, and not alone or afraid. She just relaxed into my lap and let go. I told her she’d been an amazing friend and dog, and that I loved her more than I could ever make her understand, and that it was OK to stop fighting the heart failure.  I knew it had been hard for her for a couple of weeks, but she had been so alert and interested in what was going on, and had still been eating (though becoming very picky).  I’m so thankful that she took the reins, and it was fast.  I had agonized with the decision to put her to sleep last week, but unlike my last dog, the signs weren’t  so clear.  Mandy was still invested in life…until she wasn’t.  The end left no questions.

I’d called my dad when I noticed something wasn’t right, and he came over as fast as he could- thinking at best we’d be taking her to the vet to be put to sleep if she was still ‘not right’, or at worst to the animal crematorium.  I also called my birth-mother. She’s been keeping up with the gradual decline. Mandy  was ‘gone’ when dad got here, which was OK, since it gave me a few moments alone with her during that time when everything changes and the order of my world began the process of adapting to the void left behind without her.  I know it’s a process, and that I’ll be a mess on and off for a while.  I’ll miss her for a long time, just as I still miss the one before her, and the one before her.

I can’t explain in human words how much I loved that dog.  There is no ‘dog-language’ to explain how important she was as the one living thing I saw more than anybody else. Being home 24/7 about %98 of the time, she was my sole companion and closest friend.  All I could do was to do all I could do, and I did. I have no regrets about the level of treatment for her congestive heart failure. I have no regrets about letting her lead the way as far as when she was ‘done’ (and she was quite decisive 🙂 ).   I only know that there’s a hole in my heart left by her absence that will be raw for a while.  I know I’ll get another dog, though none of my dogs have ever replaced her predecessor. They just grew in my heart in their own way.

Thanks to the vets and staff at the Mulford Animal Hospital in Rockford, IL.  You have been so caring, and kind.

Mandy Bluebonnet Tumbleweed- my forever friend, who never let me down and always lifted me up. ❤

Mandy Bluebonnet TumbleweedMar. 28, 2001- Dec. 27, 2012

Mandy Bluebonnet Tumbleweed
Mar. 28, 2001- Dec. 27, 2012

 

"Mandy

The Legendary Swedish Christmas Parties of My Youth

My mom had friends who wanted their sons to marry me so they could get an invite to our Swedish family Christmas parties.  When I was a kid, they were THE family party to look forward to every year.  My paternal grandmother had  a dozen siblings, and while not all of them were in the Chicago area (or even in the United States- or alive), most were at least within driving distance.  They rotated whose home hosted the dysfunctional chaos, er…uh, party. In those days, it wasn’t a potluck- the hostess did all of the cooking.  That in itself was a major undertaking. Add 50-60 people in various ages and stages of sobriety to the mix, and it was a big deal!  I loved it!   One year, dad was anxious about driving in the bad weather… he’d heard about some folks who had skidded off of the highway (not the bazillion who got through).  Mom and I started bawling.  Dad ended up taking the plunge, probably wanting to risk ending up in a ditch vs. dealing with being blamed for ruining Christmas that year.  We got there and home just fine.

My dad’s parents both came over on a boat from Sweden in the early 1920’s.  They were on separate trips, but left from the same place in Sweden (Goteborg), and on the same ship (Drottningholm), though different years. Grandpa thought that anything was a party; he had a great time en route to a whole new life in America ( and later, just mowing the lawn). Grandma wasn’t as fortunate on the trip. Her many siblings were of some comfort, but at Ellis Island, they ‘lost’ one of their sisters in the fray and later found her at the hospital on Ellis Island.  She later was taken back to Sweden for medical reasons, and died as a young adult. On the train from NYC to Chicago, somebody (not family) slit their own throat in the train bathroom and they had to watch blood flow down the aisle of the train.  They were young- some just kids.  And they were terrified. Nobody spoke English. But they all brought their ethnic cooking and holiday customs with them.  All of the various great aunts and uncles, and assorted cousins of parents, second cousins, first cousins once removed, and so on all reaped the benefits of those celebrations.

The Christmas Eve celebrations began in late afternoon at someone’s home.  The women of the generation that came over on the boats were generally involved in helping with the final cooking and food prep, and getting the table filled with food that was served buffet (or smorgasbord) style.  The ‘middle’ generation (those born in the United States to those who came over on the boats) were busy getting caught up on the year’s events….and drinking glögg (more on that in a minute). The youngest generation were running amok. There were basically two ‘sets’ of ages to this third group. I was in the  younger group.  The older group was 3-12 years older than I was (give or take a couple of years).  We just had fun and enjoyed seeing each other.

 

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Christmas Eve 1932…. my dad was about 4 months old.

Before getting to that smorgasbord, there was a tradition of making a sort of semi-sedate conga line, everyone holding the waist of the person ahead of them, and making a chain throughout the house, moving to the song ‘Nu År Det Jul Igen’ (It’s Christmas Time Again).  It was mandatory. Only one person really knew the words to the whole song (one of grandma’s sister-in-laws), and the rest of us mostly mumbled to the tune.  It is a catchy little number!  If anybody has seen the movie ‘Fannie and Alexander’, it’s in there. And the song itself is  on YouTube.

The smorgasbord  was a precursor to the high protein diet craze. Most carbohydrates had a rough time getting on that table. There was always ham (and for the host family, ham for days in various incarnations), Bondost (Swedish farmer cheese with caraway seeds), ‘korv’ (pork and potato boiled sausage), pickled herring, sylta (think ground veal jello- not my favorite), Swedish meatballs (a very special recipe that I still make),  lingonberries (tiny Swedish cranberry-like fruit), and the other permitted carbs: hardtack (thick rye cracker) and limpa (Swedish rye bread), some baked brown beans that are like ‘regular’ baked beans (I hated them, and still do), a green lime and pear jello mold (another ‘I’ll pass’ item), and boiled potatoes. Must have boiled potatoes.  Carbohydrates were more like condiments than a food group for the holiday dinner…except for the cookies later in the evening.  It was an amazing meal that I looked forward to every year.

At midnight, lutefisk was served (with more boiled potatoes, a cream sauce, and nutmeg).  There are many jokes about lutefisk, and for good reason.  It’s cod that has been soaked in lye, and then dried (to preserve it back in the days before refrigeration or freezers for long journeys on ships, or just because; during the winter, living near the Arctic Circle made for some iffy fishing opportunities). Lye is the same stuff used to make soap, oven cleaners, and drain opener. The fish had to be rinsed in water for days (water changed daily) to be sure it didn’t create an opening between the esophagus and neck when someone ate it as the lye ate through the person.  Sounds yummy, eh?  It was/is so popular in Scandanavian circles that it is sold in plastic bags, packed in some of that final stage of rinse water, ready to heat and eat!  Once boiled, the texture is similar to gelatinized rubber bands. With fish flavor. Strong fish flavor. Are you hungry now?   I haven’t had the stuff for decades, but I did eat it as a kid.  Those who have read some of my other posts know that my food intake was very restricted when I was a kid; I’d eat just about anything when I was turned loose at the Christmas party. Except the cloyingly sweet baked beans, and that green jello mold. Not going near those.  Had to save room for cookies 🙂

For those who don’t know about glögg, it is a mixture of brandy, port wine, some ‘warm’ spices, orange rind, almonds (had to have one in the bottom of each cup, or some horrible Scandinavian evils would find their way to the unlucky imbiber) and Everclear…or basically the kerosene of drinkable alcohol. To make it so that it wasn’t a form of euthanasia, it had to be ignited to burn off some of the alcohol.  That just meant that more was consumed.  There were some bonafide alcoholics in this family.  For the most part, they just got rowdy and loved everything ! I don’t remember any mean drunks… and for a long time I didn’t even realize why Santa didn’t show up until 2-3 a.m..  One of the first generation had to sober up enough to dole out the presents in a Santa suit, and it had to be one of the older generation, as the middle generation had kids who would miss a parent during the gift opening.  Us kids would be dozing off, and jerking ourselves awake when we realized that we were still waiting for Santa to show up. They were long nights ! But the sort of dysfunction that made for amazing memories 🙂

The glögg did have some unpleasant effects; one year a neighbor of the host and hostess knocked on the door to inquire as to the identity of the person who was face planted in the snow pile out front, with his arse in the air…my dad and one of his cousins went and fished out Cousin B from the pile of snow in the front yard… Good times !

Eventually, someone would come stumbling down the stairs shouting ‘Ho, ho, ho’ and laughing in a jolly manner. All of us kids would suddenly perk up.  Often, someone was walking closely with ‘Claus, and I now wonder if it was for stability should ‘Claus start having trouble with his balance and gravity.  To me, it was the start of an amazing thing. It fascinated me that whatever I flagged in the JCPenney Christmas toy catalog  at grandma and grandpa J’s house would show up from Santa !  (I was the only grandchild of my paternal grandparents).  Grandma seemed to have some direct connections to the North Pole. (And Grandma J never told Santa I needed socks or undies). Imagine 6 of us ‘younger’ kids and 4-5 (depending on the age cut-off) of the ‘older’ kids all opening gifts at one time, in their respective ‘groups’ of families. Gift wrap, bows, and boxes would be coming down blizzard style. It truly was a magical time, especially when we were younger.  Looking back at the old photos, it’s obvious who was stuffed into the Santa suit; as children, we were mesmerized to be in the presence of the ‘real’ Santa Claus.

Every year was fun. It was a holiday that was steeped in ethnic traditions that made it special, and unlike anything I’d see on TV or heard friends talk about. The real reason for the season was sprinkled into the evening at some point, but Jesus’ birth was not the main focus of the celebration.  My parents and I always celebrated church Christmas events, so I was very aware of the meaning of Christmas; the Swedish party was the heritage part of the season.  I loved those parties. We still have smaller versions of the old days, with family who is in town (or at least nearby), and some years, those who have moved away will join in. Now it’s a potluck, which makes it nice to be able to contribute, and not as horrible on the hostess.  I’ve been limited in actually being at the parties due to the heat intolerance with the dysautonomia, but with the ice vest I now have, I’ve at least been able to go to the last part of the evening  It’s much earlier in the evening  than it was when I was a kid, and the glögg is enjoyed in moderation (I can’t drink at all for medication reasons).  I make the meatballs to send with my dad- same recipe that we had at the old parties. The ‘dance’ before eating is still done.

It’s still a very special part of the holidays, and wonderful to remember the ‘old days’. So many are no longer alive, but thanks to those decades of  incredible family parties, they are still there in spirit.

Swedish Christmas Eve, and my cousin's last Christmas…

Swedish Christmas Eve, and my cousin’s last Christmas…

Edit:  Christmas Eve 2013 was bittersweet… while the old traditions were still there, and our heritage was celebrated in familiar ways, it was the last Christmas for one of my cousins, who had been battling cancer since the summer.  At Christmas, I was still hoping things would be OK eventually, but I was also concerned about some new things she told me about.  She lost her fierce battle on March 2, 2014.   Her mother (dad’s first cousin) died later in 2014.   She was the hostess of the Christmas Eve parties for many, many years.

And, in 2016… it will be much different this year without dad.   SO much family history was tied up in the Swedish Christmas Eve party…. and it will be missed.   I’m so thankful for the incredible memories.  ❤