faith durand

My friend Faith

13 October 2011

It’s been a strange, volatile week, starting high, plunging low and ending with the realization that most everything is a high compared to the lows that could be.

The week began last Thursday with a rare and exciting treat: lunch with a new friend, the lovely, curious Faith Durand, Managing Editor extraordinaire of my favorite online food hangout, The Kitchn. Though The Kitchn is based in New York City along with its equally inspiring home-design parent site, Apartment Therapy, Faith is based right here in Columbus, Ohio.

But what brought Faith to my house? To my kitchen? Unbelievably, she was photographing my kitchen – my dream one! – to be a featured tour on the Kitchn. But even more exciting to me was that she agreed to stay for lunch.

Last Wednesday I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve. No matter that I’d never met Faith – time spent with a food lover, writer, and kitchen geek could mean nothing but fun. She came, we hugged, I poured her some minty lemonade. When her eyes lit up at the glass – a classically durable, inexpensive Duralex Picardie tumbler – I knew I was in good company.

The idea of my kitchen on the Kitchn was so crazy I had decided not to think about it. In the days before Faith came, I cleaned, oiled my soapstone and focused on lunch. It was such a delight to make food for someone who as a cook herself would enjoy, appreciate and savor the meal as much as I would. And the very idea that I would get to sit down and eat – well, that was a concept almost as extraordinary as having lunch with a friend. (Big thanks to my perfect husband for shuttling our two youngest children between preschool and lunch away from home.)

To me an ideal social lunch is light, plentiful – food that allows for a long meal of relaxed munching – and leaves room for dessert. So we had salad with mixed greens, quinoa, cucumber, tomato and feta (a variation of this quinoa arugula salad). We had thin-sliced cauliflower roasted with garlic, green olives and parmesan, topped with chopped chile almonds. And I made some spiced candied walnuts for snacking on the side.

We ate on my new patio furniture, which I finally got around to buying a few weeks ago after living two years in this house. This was the first time I’d actually sat in it. We basked in the strikingly gorgeous day – the vibrant colors of an Ohio fall and the clear warmth of a California summer.

And then we finished with vanilla tea and blueberry scones (a variation of this recipe, which I just updated with proportions for larger batches).

I sent Faith home with a bag of scones, a jar of candied walnuts and another hug. Thursday was a golden day.

The rest of my week was spent with another kind of faith.

My dad had had a biopsy last Tuesday for a growth on his pancreas that had been discovered by chance as he had been investigating the source of recent stomach pain. On Wednesday, legendary Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer, and the news was full of the very grim statistics on this particularly lethal cancer. Suddenly I felt very nervous.

Friday I called the gastroenterologist in California to find out when we should expect results. Results had just come in, I was told. The doctor would review and call back. I was relieved to know we would have an answer before the weekend.

Soon my mom called. The tumor was benign, she said, but the doctor still advised surgery to remove it. He was going to set them up with the best surgeon for the procedure, who was at Stanford. Later she emailed to say they had an appointment later in the day. We spread the news, relieved and grateful.

Friday night my mom sent another email after their appointment with the surgeon. Dad with his less-than-perfect hearing had misunderstood the doctor on the phone. It was pancreatic cancer.

Anyone who has received unexpected bad news knows how I felt – the brick in the stomach, the punch in the gut. The utter deflation. At almost 74, my dad is in amazing health. He has low cholesterol, low blood pressure, takes no medication and is hardly sick. His mom lived to 93, and I always assumed he would too.

The surgeon was going to squeeze dad in for surgery on Tuesday. If the cancer had not spread, he would operate immediately. If it had spread – well, the surgeon did not say this to my mom and dad, but pancreatic cancer is so deadly that treatment is often more focused on pain relief than disease abatement. Chemotherapy and radiation would only do so much.

We spent the weekend in a heavy fog. My mom and dad were supposed to have come Sunday for a joyful three-week reunion with their four adoring grandchildren. Instead we were praying for my dad’s life.

We sat anxiously Tuesday as my dad went into surgery. My little brother waited with my mom at the hospital. I went through the day glued to my cell phone. After three and a half hours the surgeon came out. The cancer had not spread. He had been able to operate successfully.

And this is where we celebrate the best outcome in a universe of bad outcomes. Average survival after a pancreatic cancer diagnosis is four to six months, with a one-year survival rate of only 20 percent. Average survival even when surgery is successful is 12 to 18 months, with a five-year survival rate of 15-20 percent.

It’s odd for me to talk about faith, since I grew up essentially without religion. What little formal knowledge I have about Eastern religion was learned in an Asian art class in college. But I realize the idea of it – the Taoist approach of connecting with nature and sensing the balance and flow of the universe, the Zen Buddhist emphasis on self-realization than dogma – is the underlying philosophy of my upbringing. The strong faith I’ve developed as an adult comes not from being taught but from the thoughts that come to me in quiet moments of connection.

I hope my dad lives for many more years, and I am grateful that the surgery gives him a chance at it. We all have a finite time to live. I was hoping for 20 more years with my dad. I may not get that now. But I am grateful for so much. He was diagnosed early, which was in one sense a fluke, but in another sense a genuine gift – a reminder to cherish every day we have left, and the opportunity to do it.

Because treatment options are poor, pancreatic cancer is a death sentence. But there are people who fend off the inevitable for many years, and I have the strongest faith that my dad can beat the odds.

As a boy my dad escaped Communist China to Korea with his mom. He lived in Chinese refugee camps and went to school in a tent. He taught himself French because the only engineering text he could get a hold of was in French. With no money he managed to work his way through college in Taiwan and graduate school in the United States. He lived the American dream.

As a retirement hobby, my dad spent a full year chipping away at his long, uphill asphalt driveway with a crowbar and replacing it with pavers, day by day, brick by brick. He has a quiet patience, endurance, determination and creativity like no one else. And I have faith in his will to survive.

But no matter what happens, we have been lucky. We have had a great lifetime together. My mom and dad have been a close team for over 40 years. Having grown up through wars, they have always known that love and family come first. They have enjoyed to the utmost their children and grandchildren. They have had a blessed life.

No matter what, there will be no complaints here, no anger. True tragedies happen every day. My dad has had a good and full life, a lucky life. And somehow I am certain that even after his body expires, my dad through his soul will be with us in another dimension, unseen but deeply connected. We won’t be able to talk, but we will have the quiet, comforting silence of longtime companions.

I feel bruised from this week, but it has been a good one. My dad has been given a chance at life. I have my lovely new friend Faith. And, most of all, I have my old friend faith.

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