“It was wonderful. I know. I get it. It shouldn’t have been wonderful, but it was. Somehow, the depression that had clouded my days lifted, and my spirits were full of laughter and silliness. I didn’t have to do a damned thing except behave with some dignity, and maintain a good attitude. After a lifetime of work, of being always a little behind where I should be, and a little short of the funds I needed, and of never having time to just be, dying was a vacation.”— Jean Carroll Nolan
By Jean Carroll Nolan
SEASIDE California—(Weekly Hubris)—December 2017—I baked ten fruitcakes today. I know. You all just threw up your hands in horror but, honestly, they are good. I dispense with the citron, which I find bitter and flavor-challenged, and with the nuclear fruit, cherries of red and green hues having nothing to do with nature. I use craisins, currants, chopped dates, dried apricots, dried pineapple, and dried cherries, soaked for a week or so in brandy, and then combined with nuts and a dark brown, clove- and cinnamon-rich batter.
Molasses is important, both for color and flavor. And then we drizzle brandy on them, to season them, twice a week. Nobody has ever turned up a nose at my fruitcake, with the possible exception of small children, who are notoriously suspicious of anything new or unfamiliar. I used to bake these every year, and to enjoy distributing them to friends and family.
We had a fire in 2011, and lost everything, including the two dogs, one cat, and the recipes I had worked on and tweaked for years. After waiting several months to again feel “like myself,” I began to realize that I didn’t have my normal energy levels, and that I was quite severely depressed. I kept hoping to improve the situation through physical exercise, music, literature, my beasties, all my usual go-to cures. Alas, none was effective.
This dismal state of affairs persisted for six years. I did go see the doctor but, other than my usual labile blood pressure, and the lung damage expected in someone who smoked a lot for many years, nothing seemed out of kilter. I just didn’t feel good. It was a mystery, and I was too tired to try to solve it. And that, in and of itself, should have warned me. I have, throughout my life, had the energy, good humor, and overall vigor of a year-old pit bull puppy. When I spent a year recumbent, finding reading and writing too exhausting to contemplate, let alone pursue, when my daughter came to visit me and did not recognize me, when John’s sisters and their families visited for his 70th birthday, to find my house horribly messy, I should have put the pieces together. Denial is an amazing coping mechanism, though, and I kept telling myself that this was normal ageing.
So, you ask, what does all of this have to do with fruitcake?
On the evening of April 27 of this year, a Thursday, at about midnight, I found myself completely unable to catch my breath. I tried for a protracted period to do so but, eventually, had to admit it wasn’t going to happen. I hollered for my husband, and called 911 simultaneously. My biggest concern was crating our larger dog before the First Responders arrived. We failed at that but, fortunately, the paramedics were dog-friendly, and walked confidently through the unlocked front door, paying no attention at all to the 85-pound bull dog who greeted them. Bless them.
They took a listen to my internal functions, glanced at my grotesquely swollen ankles, and had me on a gurney and in the ambulance so fast I still do not recollect clearly how it was all managed. There was no time even to kiss John. They were, obviously, not happy with what they saw on their monitors, and I heard the gent who rode shotgun yelling, “ER at CHOMP. Park in the garage,” to John as we pulled away from the curb, siren blaring.
Bizarrely, I was not frightened. Curious, very tired, and vastly relieved to have oxygen, though I had no idea I had been low on that precious commodity. I recall quite clearly noting, with distant amusement, that the crew chief or whatever they call the lead dude in an ambulance, swaggered a bit as he walked ahead of the gurney, which I, having lived with a Marine for 50 years, found reassuring and adorable. Then, the ER docs took over, leaving my life-savers time only to wish me good luck, and pat my hand.
Lights. Blurred images. Someone cutting away my new satin lounging pajamas. A voice saying, “Jean, Jean, we have to shock your heart to get it back into rhythm. I am giving you something to knock you out. OK?” Well, sure. What the hell. What, I wondered (my last conscious thought before they detached me), was the likelihood that the patient would say, “No. I’ll just get up and go home”?
Two hours later, I awakened, still in the ER, and was told that my heart was stabilized, and all the other systems were running as well as could be expected. The next excitement was being placed in a room, and getting to see my poor husband. With that, I was off to ICU.
To make a long story short, I will only add that the care I received was phenomenal. People were incredibly kind, none more so than the poor overworked hospitalist who came in, on Saturday, to tell me that my heart was so compromised that I was as good as dead, that I was too weak to tolerate surgery to repair it, and that I should give up on the idea of watching my grandson play baseball, walking my dogs, or doing anything except lying in bed, supplied with an oxygen cannula, and gently sinking out of awareness.
And I was tired enough that, really, that program did not sound bad at all. The only hard part was telling my husband, whose best friend and left brain I have been for half a century, and my children whom, despite all my mistakes, I love unreservedly. Those conversations made me cry.
Bless my family. I went home after six days, in Hospice care, complete with oxygen tanks, monitors for 02 levels and blood pressure, a hospital bed, and several medications. My son, who lives the closest, here in El Cerrito, had come to see me in the hospital, and had begun cleaning the house, preparatory to my homecoming or funeral, whichever came first. He was back when I went home, as was my daughter, who flew out with her husband of two weeks to visit and take care of me. My brother was here from Chicago within a few days, and his two older sons arrived on the heels of their father’s departure. Our son and daughter took over all the household concerns, leaving John, who had been hit hard by this, but was trooping, to sit with me, and recover from whatever it was he felt.
I had, for the first time in my adult life, absolutely no responsibilities. John walked the dogs, and went to the store. Claire prepared food for me, as well as literally lifted me up and helped me stand and perform all functions of natural life. I was too weak to stand. I had to be quiet. I had no other choice. Sharisse, our daughter-in-law, spent a day making meatloaf and mac’n’cheese for us. Steven, our son-in-law, checked out and repaired a glitch in our vehicle, and took John on errands. Daniel managed the bills, paperwork and all the myriad tasks old-person life requires. I lay in bed, visited with the delightful Hospice nurses—and they were all absolutely fantastic—enjoyed the visits of my good friends, and prepared to check out with, I hoped, a bit of style. Everyone sang to me.
It was wonderful. I know. I get it. It shouldn’t have been wonderful, but it was. Somehow, the depression that had clouded my days lifted, and my spirits were full of laughter and silliness. I didn’t have to do a damned thing except behave with some dignity, and maintain a good attitude. After a lifetime of work, of being always a little behind where I should be, and a little short of the funds I needed, and of never having time to just be, dying was a vacation. I was fortunate in that I had no pain, was as hungry as a sixth-grade boy who plays two sports, and surrounded by an incredibly funny, smart, musical, and loving family. And, for the first time in my life, people were telling me to gain weight. I looked, briefly, like a fashion model, which was grand. (I should say that this is no longer the case. A good thing, but I miss the way clothes looked.)
And then, in July, they kicked me out of Hospice. I failed, dismally, in chartable decline. I was bouncy, and cheerful, and felt better than I had in years. I had to give up my oxygen, since my levels remained in the 98/99 range, and I lost the amazing hospital bed, which was the coolest thing about the entire Hospice deal. I actually wanted to do the dishes, to make a salad, to vacuum the floor. I have no idea how long it will last, but I feel terrific, and am so glad to be here for the holidays, to have been well enough to attend our granddaughter’s fourth birthday, in June, and our grandson’s ninth, in early November. It is positively enchanting to feel like making ten fruitcakes, and to walk my delightful but obstreperous dogs, to hear the rain and smell the ocean.
And, thus, the poem, which encapsulates the incredible feeling of freedom I experienced looking at the possibility of death, not as a distant end, but a present reality. Thanks to every one of my family and friends who allowed me to have my walkabout. It was healing and joyous.
By Jean Carroll Nolan
Once upon a time, a sunburned day,
A caryatid left her appointed place
Beneath the temple roof, and went to play.
For centuries, she’d borne the weight with grace,
Enduring heat and cold, and standing staunch
Against the assault of time, but now, to brace
Once more, to tote the load, to throw her haunch
Into the task was more than she could face,
And so, she walked away, her stone feet slow
But steady, as she thought, There is no race,
No finish line, no other racers, so
None can snatch my victory. No disgrace.
No sentiment marred her face (although her mother,
Had she been there, arguing the case,
Might have discerned the silent love and other
Wounds unseen in the sculpture). One carved lace
Had come undone. With something not quite pain,
She bent, a trifle stiff, a minor strain,
Tied it up, and then resumed her pace,
A steady, slow attempt to find a space
Where she could rest, a column for a base,
And contemplate the paintings on a vase.
(With More Than a Nod to Fannie Farmer)
This recipe makes two 9” x 5” loaves, or six to eight 3” x 5” loaves, depending on how much you fill the loaf pans. I know the theory is that you can’t bake in disposable aluminum pans, but it seems to work just fine, which is good, as I give my fruitcakes away. Two days before you make your cakes, you want to cut and soak the dried fruit in brandy. If brandy cannot be used for health or whatever reasons, use a couple of cups of boiled apple cider to soak the fruit. Use what fruit is native to your area. Here in California, I use chopped dried apricots, craisins, currants, dates, dried cherries, and dried pineapple. You want approximately 3 1/2 cups per recipe. Make sure you have a cup of roasted nuts around. The edible kind, I mean. I used fancy mixed nuts, unsalted.
1) Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
2) Butter however many loaf pans you are using. I use cooking spray, as John and I both have to be a little careful.
3) Cream ¼ lb butter, or ½ C of shortening.
4) Add 1 C of firmly packed dark brown sugar.
5) Add 1 tsp lemon extract, and 1 T fresh lemon juice. If you are using a fresh lemon for juice, make and add some lemon zest.
6) Add two eggs, and beat thoroughly.
7) Add ½ C plus two T dark molasses. Beat until well-blended. (I love molasses, so I use ¾ C, but that is strong.)
8) In a separate bowl, mix two cups of flour, ½ teaspoon baking soda, 2 tsp cinnamon, ½ teaspoon cloves, ½ teaspoon allspice, ½ teaspoon salt. (Use spices you love. When I bake these, I add more cloves, because we love them, and leave out mace, which I dislike.)
9) Add the dry ingredients into the batter, and add ½ cup milk or brandy or bourbon or fruit juice, whatever floats your boat.
10) Stir in the nuts and fruits, mix thoroughly, and spoon into your prepared pans.
11) Bake for 1-1¼ hours, or until a broom straw or toothpick comes out clean. (Anyone remember broom straws?)
12) Cool, spritz a little brandy on top, and wrap tightly in foil in an airtight container.
Theoretically, you need to soak cheesecloth in brandy, and wrap the cakes in it, but I think that’s just so much covfefe. We just spritz the cakes twice a week, and wrap ‘em in foil. Enjoy!