The story that I have for you today is hard for me to tell. I fear that it may also be difficult to hear. It’s a story about me, but it’s also about you. For a long time, I wasn’t sure that I would ever tell it here. But now, I think I want to. I’m ready. So here goes:
Last August, while running on a treadmill, I suddenly fainted. When I awoke on the floor, the paralyzing pain in my head was too big for my senses. Something was terribly wrong. I lay there and tried to make sense of it: I was in the best shape of my life. I had just completed the New York City half-marathon. That was me, nailing those hills in Central Park; running through a car-less Times Square; smiling up at the towering billboards, the lights blinking only for me. Until the moment I fell, I felt strong, healthy, and fast. My body was used to ten-mile runs. Why, after only three miles, was I now on the floor?
An aneurysm had burst in my brain. I spent the next month in the intensive care unit, and underwent surgery to clip and seal off the ruptured aneurysm. When I was finally allowed to get out of bed, my muscles had weakened so dramatically that I could not take a single step without assistance. “But I’m a runner,” I would whisper, through tears, to the nurses. I entered rehab, and regained enough strength to walk short distances. In late September, I came home.
Let me pause here to say that the majority of people who suffer ruptured aneurysms die on the spot. Those who survive are typically left with life-altering physical or mental deficits as a result of either the hemorrhage or the high-risk brain surgery. Somehow, I escaped all that. Statistically speaking, I am supposed to be dead, or at least severely disabled. I am neither of these things. The doctors told me that my recovery would be long, measured in months. But, miraculously, it would be complete. I was grateful, to say the least. It’s not that I wasn’t devastated, but for some reason I felt that I had the constitution to handle a thing like this. I knew that the only way out was through. With my family and friends beside me, I would make it.
Then came round two.
It started with a high fever just a few days after I arrived home. My head and face swelled, and soon we were back at the hospital. I had contracted a dangerous infection in my brain. Surgery was necessary to scrape out the infection and remove the infected part of my skull. I spent another month in the hospital fighting the infection and other complications, the details of which I will spare you. The infected bone could not be saved, and so I now sport a several-inch indentation above my left eye. Depending on the angle and how I’m wearing my hair, it looks anywhere from mildly disturbing to pretty darn creepy. Because I am missing a piece of my skull, the doctors gave me a helmet (it’s actually a hockey helmet!) to protect my brain from injury. (If you’ve seen a girl walking through the streets of Cambridge in a sticker-covered helmet, no bike – or hockey stick – in sight, that’s me!) The plan was this: Wait one year to make sure that the infection would not recur. Then, I would have one last surgery to replace the missing bone with a synthetic piece. I would look and feel as good as new.
But when I returned home in early November, I had trouble believing it. I had lost twenty pounds from my already small frame. I was so weak that I needed help with the most basic and private tasks. I faced powerful, intravenous antibiotics three times a day for weeks. While I knew in my mind that everything would one day be okay, I lacked the visceral feeling that it was so. I was afraid.
Coming home was more difficult than I had imagined it would be. It may sound odd, but I felt that my apartment had certain expectations of me. And I could not meet them. There was my little office with its piles of books, its highlighters and colored pens. My office chair demanded that I take a seat, that I turn on the computer and pick up where I had left off. But I could not sit up in a chair for more than a few minutes; I could not look at the bright screen, or even read more than a page of text without discomfort. And then, most of all, there was the kitchen. The Japanese knives and wooden spoons, the heavy pots and squeaky oven door. Where there had been noise and laughter and motion, now there was silence. I knew that in order to reclaim myself, I would need to reclaim my home.
I started this blog when I was strong enough to stand at the stovetop and stir for several minutes at a time.
In the early months of my recovery, people suggested that I write about my experience. I couldn’t. For me, writing is a process that brings me closer to my subject. But I was already there: I was living my illness. I didn’t want to be any closer. Then, one day in late December, I mentioned to my friend Megan how much I missed my kitchen. She asked, “Have you ever considered writing a food blog?”
Megan tossed out the names of her favorites, which I promptly forgot. At home, I typed “food blog” into Google and hoped for a few hits. Well. Two million search results later (in under .18 seconds, Google informed me), I realized that I was likely the last person on earth to discover this lovely creature, the food blog. I poked around to find out what this blogging thing was all about, and the next day, Sweet Amandine was born. My very own aneurysm-free zone.
I think you’ll understand when I say that Sweet Amandine has both nothing and everything to do with the aneurysm. Starting this blog was my way of saying, “I’d like to talk about something else now.” I was tired of being upstaged by my illness. Here, in this big, white, open space, I could look away from the pain and fatigue, and begin to remember who I am. I could celebrate the people I loved, and what nourishes us. I could celebrate my life, my living. Because, aneurysm or not, this life of mine trembles with joy, beauty, and love. I can’t help but to see it, and take note.
The last thing I wanted was to shroud this space in mystery, so I purposefully avoided vague references to exploding brains and holes in the head. Those in the know no doubt picked up on subtle nods and hints to my illness, to the quiet courage and profound kindness of the people closest to me. (When I said that in matters of life and death, Eli swoops in and saves the day, I wasn’t kidding.) But mostly, I trained my eye on more important things. Things like cake, and a tableful of friends who make me laugh my dented little head off.
A week before my twenty-ninth birthday, I told Eli that I wasn’t sure I wanted to celebrate. I felt cheated of twenty-eight. How could I celebrate twenty-nine? Eli took my hand, and said, “Erase this year, and there would be no Sweet Amandine.” That just wouldn’t do.
The way I see it, we’re always broken in one way or another. I just happened to wear my brokenness on the outside this year. Sweet Amandine gave me a place where I could feel whole in my brokenness. And this is where you come in. Although we have never met, by reading these pages, leaving sweet comments, and dropping the occasional e-mail in my box, you helped remind me who I am at a time when I felt least like myself. It’s hard to know how to thank someone for a thing like that. So I’ll just say thank you, and tell you that in those two little words lie galaxies of gratitude. Without you – all of you – this recovery would have looked very different. I shudder at the thought.
In the spring, we learned that my final surgery would take place sooner than expected. I was doing so well that I wouldn’t need to wait the full year. Tomorrow, August 3rd, I’ll check into the hospital for one last surgery to repair the hole in my skull. We’re calling it Humpty Dumpty Day, in deference to that tragic nursery rhyme figure whose run-in with a wall left him far worse for the wear than my measly aneurysm. Given the poor track record of all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, we’ve opted for a neurosurgeon to do the job instead. It’s major surgery, and it won’t be pleasant. But after where I’ve been in the last year, all I have to say is bring it on. This time, recovery will take weeks, not months. And once my head is back together and I’m fully healed, well, that’s just it: I’ll be fully healed. I’ve been on medical leave from school this year, and I’m scheduled to re-enroll in the fall. (In case you’re wondering about all of those exams you have been hearing about recently: Once I regained the stamina to study and write for several hours, my advisors allowed me to take them even though I am officially “off the clock.”) Soon, so soon, I’ll run again along the Charles. I’ll get all dressed up for dinner and leave the headgear at home. Tomorrow, I’ll hang up that helmet for good. I can’t wait.
Dear reader, are you still there? I hope that I have not completely traumatized you. I’m guessing that you could use a piece of cake right about now. I know I could. Fortunately, I’ve come prepared.
In my kitchen, banana bread is a food of departure. Before some time away, I always try to use up any remaining fresh produce that might otherwise go to waste. I blend berries into smoothies, chop greens and peppers into omelettes and, if I’m lucky enough to have a couple of overripe bananas lying around, I make banana bread. It’s only fitting that I baked a loaf this morning, since it may be a while before I’m able to stop in here again. I find that a slice (or two) and a cup of tea settles the nerves when, say, you’re about to go in for brain surgery.
I’ll do my very best to return just as soon as possible. In the meantime, I’d be grateful if you could keep me in your thoughts, and send some positive vibes my way.
See you on the other side.
[p.s. Since I don’t want anyone to worry, I’ve asked Eli to sign into my Twitter account and send out a post-surgery report tomorrow evening. You can check in here.]
Banana Bread with Cinnamon Crumble Topping
Adapted from Bakesale Betty, as seen in Bon Appetit, September, 2008
For the bread:
1 ½ c. flour
1 c. granulated sugar
1 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. baking soda
½ t. salt
1 c. mashed ripe bananas (2-3 medium)
2 large eggs
½ c. vegetable oil
¼ c. honey
¼ c. water
For the topping:
2 T. granulated sugar
2 ½ T. packed golden brown sugar
1 t. cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9x5x3 inch metal loaf pan. (I use cooking spray in place of the butter.)
Prepare the batter:
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, 1 c. sugar, 1 t. cinnamon, the baking soda, and the salt. In a large bowl, whisk the mashed bananas, the eggs, the vegetable oil, the honey, and the water, until smooth. Add the dry ingredients to the wet, and stir. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.
Prepare the topping:
Mix together the 2T. granulated sugar, the 2 ½ T. brown sugar, and the cinnamon. I use my fingers. Sprinkle the topping over the batter.
Bake the bread for about one hour, until a tester inserted into the center comes clean. Cool in the pan for 30 minutes. Then, turn the pan on its side and gently slide the loaf out onto the rack. Easy does it – you don’t want to dislodge the topping.