Posts Tagged 'birthday'

My First Gluten Free Birthday

Want to know how shallow I can be? Well, when I should have been excited/relieved to find out I had Celiac Disease, the answer to my fatigue and frequent migraines, I was instead heartbroken. I admit one of my first thoughts was “oh no! What about my birthday cake?” All year, I looked so forward to the chocolate cake with chocolate frosting that Mom always made from scratch. My only exposure to gluten free products had been several years ago at my aunt’s house where I tried a gluten free muffin and it was pretty dense and dry, not what I wanted my birthday cakes to be for the rest of my life.

     “Never fear!” said my mom. I was diagnosed in July and my birthday wasn’t until March, plenty of time to experiment in the kitchen with all kinds of flour substitutes and perfect a gluten free birthday cake. Well, Mom was right. I celebrated my birthday a couple days ago and it was a delicious success!

     Before my birthday, my family celebrated three other birthdays with gluten free cake. Just to get her feet wet, about a month before Dad’s birthday, Mom made a basic single layer chocolate cake using a gluten free Betty Crocker cake mix. The gluten free brownie mix from Betty Crocker is so fudgy and spectacular you wouldn’t know it was gluten free unless I told you. But the cake? Not so much. It tasted good, but it was dense and dry as I feared. We all came to the consensus that maybe it just needed some kind of filling like custard or something to moisten it. So in a Betty Crocker cookbook, Mom found a recipe for a yellow cake with a lemon filling. My dad loves the flavor of lemon, especially the Glutino lemon cookies, so we thought this cake would be right up his alley for his birthday. We all agreed it was a recipe worth bookmarking because it was very moist and flavorful, but I’m not as crazy about lemon, so that cake wasn’t going to work for my birthday.

     A few weeks later, we celebrated Mom’s birthday with another Betty Crocker recipe, this one a chocolate cake where you poke holes in the cake while it is still hot and pour a caramel sauce through these holes in to the inner layer of the cake. Unfortunately, the caramel didn’t infuse itself in to the whole cake like Mom had hoped. Some bites would have a wonderful caramel flavor, but others wouldn’t. In the future, Mom wants to try just cutting the cake in half and filling it with caramel rather than the hole method. Despite the uneven distribution of caramel, it was still a good cake, but I’m not as passionate about caramel either. For my birthday, I wanted pure, unaltered chocolate cake!

     Shortly before Mom’s birthday, she had received in the mail a course catalog from a local technical college, in which she happened to spot a class on flourless baking! It was billed as a class to learn how to bake in a healthier way, but it occurred to us that it would be very useful for our newly gluten free household too, so Mom signed up. The class met for two Thursday night sessions and to my delight, after every session she was able to bring home samples of the items she and the other people in her class had baked. Some of the recipes have become family favorites and are now part of our repertoire. Just a couple weeks ago, Mom made another batch of muffins that include pineapple and coconut flour, and we recently made chocolate chip cookies using almond butter too. But my absolute favorite recipe that I have requested the most is this flourless bourbon chocolate cake topped with orange marmalade. Basically I think you just boil bittersweet baking chocolate, butter, sugar and just a tablespoon of bourbon and then bake it in a cake pan. Man, is it melt in your mouth delicious! I am not kidding! It was light and moist in the mouth and really hit the chocolate tooth because it is dark, rich chocolate. I didn’t think I would like the orange marmalade on top because I usually don’t like stuff like that, but it was the perfect flavor complement. Eating this cake, Mom and I realized that maybe the problem with traditional cakes is the idea of trying to modify something designed to be made with wheat flour, whereas this flourless bourbon cake was naturally gluten free.

     Then about a week and a half before my birthday, we celebrated my brother’s birthday. Here I want to pause for a moment and complement my brother. He hasn’t been wild about any of our gluten free recipes, and adamantly refuses to get tested for Celiac Disease, so I told myself not to be surprised if he insisted on a gluten cake. I would have been fine with that. On your birthday, you should get to have what you like, so I would have been happy to just eat the ice cream or something if he wanted a gluten cake, but he said he would be willing to eat a gluten free cake! Like all brothers, he gives me a hard time sometimes, but in this act, I realized that he really does love me and empathize with me.

     Mom couldn’t find any ideas for jazzing up white cake in our gluten free cook books. (I guess they were all written by chocohalics like me because all she could find were chocolate cake recipes. But she found a mix and just cut the cake in half and filled it with extra frosting to moisten it. It was pretty good, but still not up to the birthday cake standards of the old days, so after that party, I officially declared that for my birthday, I would have to go with the flourless bourbon chocolate cake. The only problem was that the way this cake is made, the consistency is really more like that of a thick cookie, which would have made birthday candles difficult if not unfeasible. But I decided I was willing to sacrifice this tradition for a better cake. I am no longer a little kid who needs to make a wish anymore, and besides, since I have always had a fear of bringing my face too close to the candles and catching my hair on fire or something, blowing out my candles in past years has been a comical endeavor that took forever it seemed. I think when I turned twenty, I was having such a hard time that the family started a tradition of assisting me and blowing out a few for me that I just couldn’t reach. So maybe I was getting too old to continue this tradition anyway, I reasoned. But deep down, I kind of still wanted to be a little kid and try to blow out candles again, and Mom hated to end this tradition too. So Sunday morning, she said, “Let’s sit down and look at cake recipes.” It actually didn’t take long to find the perfect recipe. Rather than a box mix, it called for three separate kinds of flour; rice flour, tapioca flour and potato starch. It was also different from our previous cakes because in addition to the typical cake batter ingredients like flour, oil, eggs and sugar, this recipe had you melt chocolate chips and milk on the stove and stir this mixture in to the batter. The introduction to the recipe said it would be moist, and any remaining apprehension about my first gluten free birthday cake melted away with the first bite. It was fantastic!

     Two days after I was officially diagnosed with Celiac Disease, I had an appointment with a job coach and my Celiac Disease came up in conversation as I waited for Mom to pick me up. As is common unfortunately with a large segment of the public, she was ignorant about Celiac Disease, so I explained to her that it meant I had to follow a strict gluten free diet. Mom arrived just in time to hear the job coach say, “well, on your birthday, have all the cake you want.” What she didn’t realize was that on my birthday, I would, and did, have all the cake I wanted. It was just made with gluten free flour. It wasn’t healthy by any means, another misconception people have about gluten free food. In fact if anything, it was even more unhealthy than gluten cake because it called for more sugar than Mom’s old cake recipes. But with all that sugar, chocolate and milk to moisten the batter, I doubt the average person would have even realized it was gluten free. Even if we hadn’t found a cake that was just as fabulous as the old days, it would have been worth the sacrifice knowing that even if it wasn’t as good, at least it wouldn’t damage my insides and plague me with migraines and fatigue later. But in addition to everything else–the happy conversation with family, the gifts, the fantastic gluten free lasagna (with extra cheese and sauce to compensate for the heavier gluten free pasta),– the fact that we found such a fabulous cake, one that I asked Mom to mark as a keeper for my birthday next year, was the icing on the cake of an all-around happy birthday!

That’s How Far Back I Go!

Last week, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, putting me in the oldest bracket in terms of traditional college students on campus. It was a fantastic birthday as usual. The main celebration happened a day early because I thought I would have to go to my night class on my real birthday. (I thought about skipping, but realized that since it only meets once a week and I had come so close to graduating, I would be a responsible student.) So the day before my birthday, my parents, brother, grandma and I sat down to steak, baked potatoes, a yummy salad kit with a southwest dressing, broccoli and chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, topped with ice cream! (Did you know I love chocolate?) My grandma, keeping with tradition bought me clothes. My parents gave me another gardenia, my favorite fragrant flower. (I got a gardenia for my 20th birthday, but unbeknownst to me, my silly dad thought it wasn’t getting enough sun and put it outside in the hot sun which killed it. I guess he didn’t know that gardenias are fragile plants meant to be indoors. But I forgive him now). Along with the gardenia, I also got an official plastic pitcher with a long neck designed for watering plants. My sighted parents are able to water house plants with huge glass pitchers, or even just a drinking glass and not spill a drop. I have always found it difficult to get pitchers and glasses down in to the dirt by the root of the plant without spilling, so when I watered plants, I found it easier to re-fill one of those plastic, disposable water bottles which I can hold with one hand while figuring out where to pour it in to the pot with the other. I still spilled occasionally with these bottles because the necks of these bottles are short, so water would start coming out before I had fully aimed it in to the pot, but since the mouth of a water bottle is smaller, I felt like I didn’t spill as much. This water pitcher though is a genius invention, as the long neck allows me to get it lined up before water starts to pour, eliminating spills altogether. The only problem now is just remembering to water it since plants cannot follow me around and practically trip me when they want food or water like Gilbert and my cat Snickers do. With my last gardenia, I was good about watering it when it was in bloom, but when I could no longer smell it, I would forget about it and am ashamed to admit that my parents ended up pouring water in to it a lot when they saw it looking dry. But being that I am on the cusp of college graduation and a life where keeping a plant watered will be the least of my responsibilities, this is the perfect time to turn over a new leaf (get it!), and so far I have diligently watered my plant before bed every day except one day when Mom told me not to because it looked like it had too much water in it.

     My mom also ordered me a braille book on how to crochet, as well as some hooks and yarn. I have been thinking I would like to learn a craft to expand my life beyond reading and rambling on blogs like this. I have always been fascinated by the fact that the beautiful, intricate afghans and scarves I have gotten as gifts over the years were once just balls of yarn, so when I saw the braille book my mom ordered on the web site of Horizons for the Blind, it occurred to me that this natural fascination I already had for crochet would keep me motivated through the challenges that come with learning a new craft, making it a perfect option. Also, since my grandma on Mom’s side and one of my aunts is in to crochet, they could help me, making it the perfect female bonding opportunity. So far, my efforts to learn have been discouraging. I don’t know if it is because my hands just aren’t used to the new motor skills required for crochet yet or if I am just a dunce, but the written steps the author gives don’t make sense when I try to follow them. My mom wasn’t able to find a print version of the exact book I am using, but she has tried to show me hand-over-hand how her book illustrates it. But this doesn’t make any sense either. On several occasions, just when I think I have succeeded in making a slip loop, the foundation required for any crochet piece and then progressed to making chains, the slip loop falls off the hook in the process of making the first chain loop. I am not giving up. If my teachers, especially in middle school and high school had let me give up on difficult things like math, I would not have the foundation to be the ambitious, soon-to-be graduate that I am today, so I know that if I can continue this tradition of never giving up, even on hobbies like crochet, I will be capable of making beautiful afghans, scarves or even sweaters to give as Christmas gifts one day. So I have been trying to spend a few minutes each day practicing, but since it is a hobby not a requirement like Math was, I allow myself to walk away from it before I work myself in to tears of frustration. Once I graduate and have all the time in the world, at least until I get a job that is, I may consider looking in to face-to-face lessons with a crochet instructor to see if that helps.

     To my amazement however, we actually could have celebrated on my real birthday because I got an e-mail that afternoon from the teacher of my night class who said due to personal scheduling conflicts, she needed to cancel class! So instead of going to my night class, my parents and I had a second party with a Papa Murphy’s pizza and more chocolate cake. My mom even saved one more gift, an iTunes gift card for my real birthday. This professor for my night class is the kind of professor who believes that for the tuition we pay, she wants to give us our money’s worth and at the beginning of the semester, she basically said she would only cancel if the college shut down for a snow day. She also apologized profusely to students who planned their semester around the old schedule which now had to be modified. But I couldn’t resist telling her before the start of class this week “you don’t know it, but you gave me an awesome birthday present last week!” to which she laughed and responded “well, I’m glad it worked out for somebody.”

     But all of this birthday recounting isn’t even what I had planned to be the main point of my entry. For that, let’s go back to my statement toward the beginning of this entry that my 22nd birthday put me in the oldest bracket of traditional college students. This reminded me of a conversation with a classmate the day after my birthday that really got me thinking. I had arrived to my Communication Conflict class early and was waiting for class to start when one of my friends who saw that I had my birthday the day before on Facebook wished me a happy birthday.

     “Yesterday was your birthday?” a girl whom I enjoy chatting with but is not on Facebook chimed in. “Well happy birthday! And how old are you?”

     “Twenty-two!” I said with that strange sense of excitement and disbelief that comes with saying your new age for the first time, almost akin to saying the new year for the first time January 1.

     “Wow! You’re old!” she said playfully. That started a fun conversation in which we both talked about how we feel so old when we see little children, to which the professor added, “wait until you have children of your own. Then you’ll really feel old!” Usually my brain would have moved on from such a casual conversation, but instead I have found myself thinking back to it all week. Of course I know I’m not really old. In fact, I am still in that wonderful phase of life when getting older brings new opportunities, not new ailments and according to political pundits, I will be classified as a young voter until I am 35. And then, speaking of people who really are old, conversations with my grandma and even my parents about how much things have changed over the course of their lives came to mind.

     Sometimes when I complain about how difficult it is to find information on the internet for college research projects, Mom will regale me with stories of how many hours she spent in the musty, dusty “stacks” of the college library pouring over actual books, and then having to write her papers on a typewriter. My parents both remember taking road trips in which they didn’t bother with seat belts. In fact, it was even acceptable for babies to ride unrestrained on the giant window ledges of cars back then.

     “You want to know how far back I go?” Grandma said once, “I remember watching silent films outdoors on a projector that hung from a tree! That’s how far back I go!”

     Remembering these conversations, it occurred to me that even in my relatively short lifetime, there has been a staggering amount of change that was so gradual I took it for granted when it was happening which makes me feel old in a strange way. So to celebrate my 22nd birthday, a milestone that really hammered home the realization that I am sort of a senior citizen now, at least on my college campus, I thought you readers, which I hope will one day include my children and grandchildren, might enjoy a reflection on how far back I go.

     I remember a time when our family did not own a computer. Our very first computer was delivered on Christmas eve 1995 when I was in kindergarten. Being as young as I was, I don’t think I understood what computers were all about, but I will never forget just the buzz of excitement that filled the house as my older siblings played with it every waking moment. But when I look back and remember my siblings doing hand-written reports in middle school and then fast-forward to my middle school experience, by which time every assignment rubric said “your paper must be typed”, I realize that our first computer was more revolutionary of an event than I ever could have imagined.

     Keeping with computers, I also remember when there was no such thing as high-speed broadband. The internet was accessed through a dial-up connection. To accommodate this, I remember when for several years, our house had two phone lines, one for talking on the phone and one for the internet. Otherwise, no one could reach us on the phone if someone was using the internet.

     I remember being with my parents one Saturday afternoon when I was eight years old as they bought their first cell phone. It was nothing like the cell phones nowadays. In fact, that reminds me of a hilarious prank that my dad tried to pull on my sister before heading off to college, just four years after the purchase of that first phone.

     Approaching my sister all somber and serious, he said, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but while we would like you to have a cell phone for college, money is tight right now and we just cannot afford to buy you a new one. So Mom and I hope you don’t mind using an old one.” With that, he handed her the very first cell phone, which my parents had saved. She almost burst in to tears at this, until she looked at my dad who couldn’t keep a straight face, and they all burst out laughing.

I wasn’t there for this prank but when my parents told me about it, I remember asking, “what’s so bad about the old phone?” When Mom pulled it out for me to feel, I instantly understood why it would have been a source of embarrassment at college for my sister. It was bulky and gigantic! I am sure I held that phone at the time when it was new, but phones were updated and replaced so quickly I took for granted how small they had evolved. My sister did get a modern phone, but what was considered a modern phone then would be ancient by today’s standards. It was a sleek flip phone, but it could only make phone calls. Those iPhones which we all take for granted now that can surf the internet, take pictures and shoot videos hadn’t yet been invented!

     Anyway, as soon as we got in the car to drive home from that store with our first cell phone, my mom phoned home and with giddy excitement in her voice proclaimed to my older brother that she was calling from the car. Given how frequently I stand on the sidewalk after class and flip open my phone to arrange where Mom should pick me up after class, it baffles me to realize that even in my lifetime, this wasn’t always possible.

     I remember when in June of my fourth grade year, my parents purchased cable television. I think cable channels had been around for awhile even then, but my parents were frugal and didn’t think we needed it. But when my brother, a teenager at the time begged and pleaded for months, arguing that “we are the only ones I know who don’t have cable,” my dad made a deal with him that if he earned all A’s that semester, we could get cable. Even I, a person who wasn’t as fond of television as my other sibling was enthralled with the diversity of shows available now. I grew especially fond of Animal Planet and spent many beautiful afternoons watching Emergency Vets and A Pet Story.

     I think I was in fifth grade when I first heard about a DVD Player, and it seemed like from that instant forward, VHS tapes were obsolete. In fact, I remember when my elementary school would film special events like the class play in first and second grade, my graduation from DARE and the school band, orchestra and choir concerts. If we wanted a copy of the video, we were asked to bring a blank VHS tape to school and the video would be copied on to it for us. But at least for the time being, I cannot watch those videos because our VCR doesn’t work and since the VCR is considered ancient now, my parents aren’t sure how to fix it. My parents have talked about looking in to services that convert VHS videos to DVDs but we just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

     Also related to VHS tapes, I remember a time when there was no such thing as DVR. So if one family member wasn’t going to be home and wanted to record a show, someone had to put a VHS tape in the VCR at the proper time for the show. If no one was home to man the VCR or the person forgot about this duty, you were out of luck. And there was no such features as pause or start over, so there were no bathroom breaks until the commercials and absolutely no talking was allowed during shows. The funny thing is that since our family didn’t get DVR until I was in high school, even today, I am not used to it and still find myself biting people’s heads off for talking during a show, so Mom has to remind me, “you know, we can pause the show nowadays.” Oh yeah, we can!

     The advent of the DVD transformed the classroom experience too. Because a VCR took up so much space, individual classrooms did not have one of their own, so when a teacher wanted to watch a video in class, they had to coordinate this in advance with the media room in the library and then pick up the phone and call down when they were ready for the video to be cued up. By middle school, each classroom had its own DVD player and now in college, DVDs are placed in a slot on the classroom computer and I think shown on the same projection screen as the powerpoint presentations. That reminds me, I never heard of powerpoint until middle school and remember a time when teachers taught with chalkboards and fragile overhead transparencies that I think had to be written out by hand using a special marker.

     I remember a time when files had to be saved on giant square floppy disks to be transferred to another computer. Now everyone uses thumb drives so tiny you could easily swallow it or suck it up with the vacuum cleaner if you aren’t careful. Or, if you have Apple products, you don’t even need thumb drives at all, as files can be backed up on the iCloud and synchronized automatically with other computers.

     Facebook has become such an ingrained part of life for my generation, I was shocked to learn a few months ago when the movie Social Network was released, that Facebook only came on the scene in 2005. I remember a time when my sibling lamented losing touch with friends over summer, a time when talking with friends or arranging a party meant long hours on the phone. Seemingly in an instant, Facebook almost replaced the phone and allowed my siblings and I to stay in touch with friends and family spread all over the country.

     I remember a time when one medicine I need to take for a medical condition had to be measured in a tube and another person had to blow it up my nose! If I had a cold, or even if my parents stuck the tube too far in my nose causing a tickle, I would sneeze it out. My parents couldn’t re-do it because it is one of those medicines where going without it isn’t life-threatening, merely inconvenient. But an overdose would be extremely dangerous and there was no way to know how much was ingested before the sneeze. So much of these early childhood years were spent consuming remarkable volumes of water and camping out near the bathroom until it was safe to try again with the next dose. What a glorious day it was at my appointment in October of my freshman year of high school when the doctor said this medicine was available in pill form which is so much more consistent and reliable!

     In terms of advancements in technology for the blind, I remember a time when braille could only be produced on paper. Since braille has to be embossed on thicker paper and since braille takes up twice the space as print text, I remember hauling around giant 4-inch binders, bursting at the seams with my braille assignments. In elementary school, all of this extra stuff required me to use a larger desk in the back of the room, and by fourth grade, I had to haul my homework home in an adapted suitcase on wheels because regular backpacks just couldn’t accommodate everything I needed, at least not without risking back injuries.

     I first experienced the joys of a computer with a refreshable braille display in seventh grade when I was given a Braille Lite. But while this computer was lighter and made a lot less noise than the old fashioned metal Perkins Brailler, it didn’t have much memory, so I still depended a lot on hard copy braille. Also, if you wanted to make changes, you had to go to a special insert mode which was very prone to having glitches, at least on my computer. What a joy it was when my freshman year of high school, I got my first BrailleNote which had enough memory for everything, had cursor edit buttons above the braille display that allowed editing to be done with the efficiency of a sighted person and an e-mail interface so teachers could e-mail files to me and I could e-mail homework to them! By high school, math, with its graphs and figures, was the only subject that still required the Perkins Brailler and hard copy materials. This reduced the volume of stuff I had to handle so much that I could sit in a regular desk for every class but math and carry my homework home in a normal backpack! The BrailleNote has made a difference at home too. The house is no longer overrun with giant braille books for my summer vacation pleasure reading because I can download books on to my BrailleNote instantly from Bookshare.

     So grandchildren, that’s how far back I go! And given how fast things have changed just in my short lifetime, I cannot even imagine how much more will have changed by the time I am a grandmother. Readers, especially those born around 1990, feel free to comment if you think of any innovations I forgot about.

Celebrating Milestones with my Dad

“Milestones” is the perfect theme for a disability blog carnival this month because later this month, I will be celebrating a milestone. That milestone is my 21st birthday. If any of you are in college, remember college, or know someone in college, you know what that means! (smile)

     Actually, I am not going to be drinking on my 21st birthday. It doesn’t have anything to do with my disability since drinking has nothing to do with being blind. In fact, it could be argued that blind people could drink even more freely than sighted people since we don’t drive anyway.

     Partly, I won’t be drinking because I am already prone to addiction when it comes to other vices like chocolate, so I don’t even want to go down the alcohol path. Part of it is that I am a quiet kid not interested in being involved in social circles that go out and drink. Even if I were interested, my present situation makes being social kind of hard. For one thing, my college classes are often so demanding that I have to stay home and read on Saturday nights. For another, since I quickly found out dorm life wasn’t suitable for me and my guide dog freshman year, and the area where I live has no bus service, going to social events is really inconvenient. My parents are wonderful and try to reassure me that the half an hour drive to campus isn’t that far and they wouldn’t mind staying out late if I wanted to go to social events. Even so, the couple of times I have gone to social events, I feel guilty about imposing on my parents and don’t enjoy the event as much as a result. The events I have gone to have been alcohol free, and generally ended before 10:00, which my parents consider late. But since drinking events are often just getting started at 10:00 and could potentially last until 2:00 in the morning, I would feel even more guilty about making my parents take me to these events. Then there is the fact that I have older siblings who haven’t been compelling advertisements for why drinking is so exciting, when they would occasionally come home to visit the morning after overdoing it, groaning with a hangover headache. But the main reason I won’t be drinking on my 21st birthday is because my sense of taste and smell are hyper sensitive. I can smell a glass of wine on the other side of the table from me, and even at that distance, it smells so overpoweringly fruity that I want to gag, so there is no way I am bringing a wine glass to my mouth. While I will eat pretty much anything when it comes to solid food, there is something about the taste of liquids that is so sharp and unpleasant that believe it or not, the only beverages I will drink are white milk, and non-carbonated, unflavored water. Once I inadvertently picked up a glass that I thought was my water glass and didn’t realize it was the wrong glass until a drop of beer touched my tongue, and it had the most nasty bitter taste to me that I have no plans to try it ever again. But even though I won’t be drinking on my 21st birthday, my dad thought of the most ingenious idea for how I can still celebrate this legal milestone without having to drink. At midnight on the day of my birthday, Mom (the designated driver), Dad and I are going to walk in to a bar where I will proudly show my ID and buy my dad a beer. That way, I won’t have to drink, but I won’t miss out on the milestone every college student talks about obsessively for months–the moment when they can legally buy alcohol! But as this milestone approaches, I am reminded of another milestone five years ago that I thought would mean nothing as a blind person, but again thanks to my dad, one that was still celebrated.

     As young as middle school, I remember my siblings dreaming of the day when they would be eligible for freedom in the form of a driver’s license, but as a blind person, I was always aware that a driver’s license wouldn’t be a privilege I would enjoy. This may change in my lifetime because the National Federation of the Blind has partnered with Virginia tech to create a special car that gives the blind feedback to drive independently. But I think this car is still in development, and even when it is on the market, I imagine it may take awhile for blind and sighted people alike to trust that such a car would be safe and reliable. So for now, a driver’s license is still out of reach.

     I actually don’t really mind not being able to drive. It is a pain to have to impose on my parents to drive me everywhere, and while other students love it when their last class of the day gets out early, I hate it because it means I have to sit and wait since my parents anticipated picking me up at the regular time and thus are running errands or doing other things and cannot come right away. But since I have been blind pretty much my whole life (I went blind because of a brain tumor that destroyed my optic nerve when I was six months old), I am not depressed by these little inconveniences because they have always been just a normal part of life for me. And in addition to the potential to drink more freely if I wanted to, not driving also means I can use the commute to school to get some reading done, do some last minute studying for tests or take a short nap if I was up late finishing homework the night before! But when all of your classmates are raving about how excited they are to get their driver’s license on their sixteenth birthday, it is hard not to feel a little down about the fact that you wouldn’t be able to drive. But then, just like now, Dad came to the rescue with an ingenious idea. After breakfast on the morning of my sixteenth birthday, a Sunday, Dad and I got in to our ’89 Toyota Camry and my dad drove to an empty parking lot. Then, my dad and I switched seats! After giving me a crash course (get the pun? haha!) on how to use the brake pedal and steering wheel, I got to drive! I think my dad manned the gas pedal as a precaution against accidents in case I pressed it too hard. But I got to have my foot on top of his, and I was in charge of braking and steering.

     “Okay, turn left now,” he would say and I got to experience turning the wheel and feeling the car turn left under my control.

     I wasn’t exactly the smoothest driver at first. You definitely would not have wanted to ride along with me if you are prone to getting carsick because when my dad said “brake now”, I would panic and slam the brake. But after awhile, my dad reassured me that when he said “brake now”, it wasn’t BRAKE NOW! as in “you’re about to slam in to a tree!” “Brake now” meant I had time to come to a slow gentle stop. I think I drove for about twenty minutes, by the end of which time I was quite proud of my driving skills. Maybe Dad got a few more gray hairs, but there were no crashes–not even a fender bender!

     But more importantly, I was on cloud 9 when I went to school the next day. I didn’t have a driver’s license, but I excitedly told all my friends and teachers that the milestone was celebrated! I drove on my sixteenth birthday!

     As a funny side note, about a year later, we sold the ’89 Toyota Camry and replaced it with a 2007 Mazda. One day, on our way to church in the new car, there was hardly any traffic so my dad said “Would you like to steer?”

     “Sure!” I said, fond birthday memories flooding back to me.

     Now in the Toyota Camry, making turns took a lot of effort. I remember having to turn the wheel a full 180 degrees before I felt the car turn. Not realizing that every steering wheel is different, when Dad said “turn right” I proceeded to give the wheel a strong 180 degree turn, when my dad screamed, grabbed the wheel and never offered me the chance to drive again.

     But if I never get to drive again, that would be alright with me. Like I mentioned, since I have been blind pretty much my whole life, not being able to drive is a minor inconvenience which I have learned to accept. I have even found advantages of not having to drive. The only time my disability ever brought me down was hearing my friends talk about getting their driver’s license, a milestone which I thought would mean nothing for me. But while sitting at the bar with my dad on my 21st birthday, me with a champagne glass of water and him drinking a beer on my behalf, I am going to thank him for finding a way for me to celebrate that milestone, tell him how this milestone reminds me of that wonderful drive celebrating the milestone of turning sixteen five years before, and thank him for showing me that just because I have a disability doesn’t mean milestones cannot be celebrated.

Beware the Eve of Palm Sunday

Well readers, fear not! This journal hasn’t gone to the dogs permanently! But I hope you all enjoyed the entry Gilbert wrote. He has sure got opinions and an adorable personality hasn’t he? (smile) As Gilbert mentioned, I let him write his own entry to make amends because I felt guilty that my entries lately have been all about me with hardly a mention of him. I promised him I would be better about acknowledging his feelings when I write entries, but I think I will also let him write more entries himself in the future because man was his entry fun to read, and he proved his expertise in adding some cuteness and life to my often boring journal! In fact, he will be due for a vet appointment soon, and I am sure he will have a lot to say about that, as well as some volunteer opportunities we did last year that he enjoyed, so stay tuned! But right now, I bet that from my subject line, you are all wondering “What the heck is this entry going to be about?” So without further ado, let me explain.

     First however, maybe I should include a disclaimer. I am Catholic, and every year, I love going to church on Palm Sunday which is the week before Easter, holding a palm branch in my hand, and listening to the wonderful bible reading about Jesus marching in to Jerusalem and being welcomed by people waving palm branches, and the solemn reading of the Passion which is the story of Jesus being betrayed and crucified. So my point is, I take Palm Sunday observances seriously, so the purpose of this subject line is not to offend anyone, or make a mockery of Christianity for any of you readers who are also Christian. But I am of the belief that if God created animals like Gilbert and Snickers who are constantly doing silly things, and of course created a sense of humor in humans, He must have a sense of humor Himself. So I used this subject line because I cannot help but laugh and wonder if God is trying to tell me something. Why else after all, have scary things happened to me the last two years the night before Palm Sunday?

     Last year, I was taking Gilbert outside to relieve himself one more time before bed. When I took him out, it was about 12:30 and my parents, and the whole neighborhood for that matter were already asleep. But I wasn’t worried about anything happening because it is not unusual for me to take him out that late since I am a night owl. In fact, I was so confident that nothing could possibly happen that I didn’t even bring my cell phone. What I had forgotten to anticipate however was that this was Gilbert’s first spring with me, and as I am sure you readers who are dog owners already know, spring is full of irresistible temptation for dogs with all the new smells, wonderful mud piles and baby animals to investigate. I should have anticipated naughtiness because this early spring season was when Mojo and Indy, Gilbert’s predecessors, and actually even our cat Snickers, get that itch to run away. But I think I was still a believer of the misconception that guide dogs are angels because that night, I just went along and followed Gilbert further and further in to the grass thinking he was just looking for the perfect spot to poop. But after awhile two scary things occurred to me. The first was that if Gilbert had to poop, even a finicky dog should have made up his mind on a place by now. The second was that we were far far away from the edge of the driveway where we started, and were in fact, were in a cluster of trees I had never seen before. This could only mean one thing. We were severely lost, and unlike the day when the dog trainer did a drop-off near my college campus, tonight, no good samaritan would be passing on the sidewalk to rescue us. I tried turning around and pointing my feet straight, hoping to retrace my steps back to the driveway, but Gilbert must not have been walking straight because when I tried walking straight, I only found more trees. So, I ended up doing what all of the survival experts tell you never to do. I panicked and just started randomly scrambling around, only to be met by more trees! I tried shouting for help, but no one heard me. After what seemed like hours more of scrambling around, I began to consider having an impromptu campout. It was not terribly cold, maybe fifty degrees, but it would have been nice to have a jacket, something else I hadn’t brought since this was originally intended to be a quick outing. But I could huddle against Gilbert to stay warm, and then the next morning when Mom or Dad noticed that Gilbert and I weren’t slumbering in our respective beds and they called a search party to look for us, I would at least be doing one thing right according to the survival experts by staying where I am. I wished I had paid more attention at an Earth Keeper’s camp when I was in fifth grade where a survival expert showed how to make a shelter using sticks, or remembered some survival scenes from “My Side of the Mountain” and “Hatchet” two of my favorite books when I was younger, but books I never thought would be applicable to me in real life! But maybe Gilbert and I could make do and have some special bonding time in the process. But man, our nice warm house and soft bed sounded so much more appealing than a campout, so I wasn’t going to give up yet! That was when it occurred to me that in my panic, I hadn’t noticed the sound of cars in the distance. If I pointed myself and Gilbert in the direction of the sound of traffic, we should end up back in civilization eventually. So that is what I did, and finally, I had made a smart decision. I don’t think words can describe how excited I was when I felt concrete under my feet. I think I actually stopped and gave Gilbert a huge hug. I still had to get my bearings because instead of going to the driveway, we had ended up on the patio by the porch swing, but I was back on familiar ground so that didn’t take long at all! We had made it home to sleep the sweetest most appreciative sleep in our own beds! The next morning when I told my dad about our adventure, we must have subconsciously realized that maybe God was telling me I needed to be a more responsible dog owner when I am taking him out at night because we decided to put a few precautions in place that I still follow today, like taking Gilbert out while my parents are still awake, or carrying a cell phone with me if they are asleep. My dad also suggested bringing his harness so that I could put it on him if I got lost, and being on duty might mean he could get me home, and maybe some of you guide dog owners are thinking the same thing. But I refuse to swallow my pride and risk a neighbor looking out the window and noticing that I am so geographically challenged that I need Gilbert to guide me through my own yard! More importantly though, this ordeal taught me the importance of keeping my feet firmly planted on concrete so Gilbert understands I am on to his naughty exploring ways now! My dad did install a rope outside the back door by hooking one end to our porch swing, and the other to a tree in the grass, so that if Gilbert ever insisted on pulling me in to the grass, I would have a rope to follow back. But actually, I never ended up needing to use this rope because now I take him out the front door. I used to prefer taking him out either the garage door in the winter since the patio door freezes shut in the winter for some reason, and then the patio door in late spring through fall. I preferred these doors because they gave me a straight shot to grass without any steps to worry about. But last summer, my parents did some remodeling of the house, so now there is a new deck built with posts that stick out in the perfect place to clunk my head if I am not slow and careful, as well as landscaping rocks along the edge of the grass where I used to stand, so I quickly decided that having to climb up on these rocks in summer was way more annoying than going down the two steps outside our front door. But I soon discovered two advantages to the front door. The grass is closer to the house, and since the front door is right by our living room, I can hear the television while I am outside, so even if Gilbert did want to go in to the grass a little further, as long as I can hear the television, there should be no possible way to get lost, and sure enough, I haven’t gotten lost once since using this door! But if I thought getting seriously lost was scary, that scare was nothing compared to this past night before Palm Sunday when I almost died.

     It so happened that this year Palm Sunday coincided with the weekend of my birthday. So the Friday before which was my birthday, I woke up to get ready for another busy day of school, but instead of the same old eggs that I usually eat for breakfast just because they are quick to prepare and keep me satisfied until lunch, my mom kept a birthday breakfast tradition we started last year and made potato pancakes, my favorite breakfast item that I only eat on a rare basis since I am sure they are very greasy and unhealthy. But eating healthy is not supposed to be the priority on your birthday right?

     Then I went to school as usual, and after my politics class when I had some study time, I had hoped to take my birthday off and post an entry to this journal, but decided that even on my birthday, I should be a responsible student, so I think I worked on politics homework that I had fallen behind on. At 11:00 when I had my lunch before my next politics class and science lab, I thought nothing of it as I filled up on baked fish, and actually thought eating this fish was a smart decision since it was the only healthy thing I planned to eat that day. The other politics class was uneventful, but then it so happened that my birthday had to be the day we went to the creek to collect bugs for the science lab, an event which Gilbert mentioned in the last entry. As Gilbert mentioned, walking through the mud wasn’t my idea of a fun surprise for my birthday, but what Gilbert didn’t mention was that when we reached a clearing near the creek and were all standing listening to the professor give us directions for how to go about collecting our bug samples, a student mentioned that Gilbert was eating grass, which she heard dogs will do if they have an upset stomach. That was ironic because at that moment, it occurred to me that my stomach was a little upset too. It wasn’t bad, just a mild twinge of pain in my stomach, but any stomach pain is ominous when you are wearing a constricting one piece wader suit thing that goes from your chest all the way down to boots for your feet, and you are far away from any man made bathrooms. But the excursion through the creek had ended without a hitch, my dad had picked me up from school to take me home as planned, and still it was nothing more than a mild twinge. It was so mild that I insisted we go to Texas Roadhouse as planned, where I had a blast sitting on a saddle and getting my picture taken as the other diners said “Yeehaw!” to me. I even ordered and ate a steak and baked potato loaded with cheese, butter and sower cream, not to mention the free ice cream the restaurant gives diners on their birthday, and of course a generous slice of my mom’s delicious layered cake which is a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting of course! I had pretty much forgotten this pain as I opened my presents which included the usual clothes from Grandma, but also a beautiful gardenia bush whose pot took up the entire center of the kitchen table and whose fragrance once it started blooming was so heavenly I actually kind of looked forward to doing my homework near it, and letting its aroma soothe and relax me! My stomach pain was a distant memory when, after the party, I went to read all the birthday wishes written on my facebook wall, and then take a walk on the treadmill to try and burn off at least a couple hundred of the thousands of extra calories I am sure I ate that day.

     But the next day, my stomach pain was back with a vengeance. Actually, most of the day went well. I got up, heated myself some leftover potato pancakes for breakfast, and a small fajita made with leftovers from Texas Roadhouse before going to a local chapter meeting for the National Federation of the Blind that I was invited to by two other blind students who went to my college last year. I don’t usually go to these meetings because since I spend most of my time with sighted people, I actually feel kind of funny and out of place at gatherings for the blind. I know that probably sounds weird coming from a person who is blind herself, but it’s the truth. However since I was invited and encouraged to come by the blind students at my college whom I had sat with for lunch one day, I thought I should go and I had a good time meeting some new people. Best of all though, they had pizza, and I had a piece of this tomato basil pizza that was really good. My dad picked me up from this meeting and I enjoyed a typical carefree Saturday evening listening to A Prairie Home Companion on the radio, and when my mom came home, my dad made a wonderful dinner of baked fish and this rice dish from Trader Joe’s that has curry and vegetables in it, topped off with a slice of leftover birthday cake of course. But then, shortly after this dinner, my stomach pain returned and I even got slightly sick, meaning, without going in to too much detail, let’s just say, I had to get rid of some of my dinner. But since I still thought it was relatively mild, I decided I really should go ahead and walk on the treadmill since the guilt of this weekend of unhealthy eating was really starting to take hold, and despite all of the experts who advise people to take it easy when they are feeling sick, I decided my need to burn some serious calories was more important than taking it easy given the circumstances, so I pushed myself to the limit, setting the treadmill a little faster than usual. I was hoping to walk through ten songs of the Toby Keith album I was listening to thinking that should come out to about half an hour, but after only six songs, I started to feel kind of nauseous and uncharacteristically tired, so decided I better stop. I thought maybe I could get off the treadmill, but still march in place slowly for the remaining songs, thinking that maybe just slowing down would settle my stomach. But my nausea only got worse, and in addition, my heart rate also seemed unusually fast, even considering that I just finished a workout. So as quickly as I could, I turned off my music, walked upstairs and sat down. The next thing I remember was my mom sitting me up and shouting “Allison! What happened?” It turns out that she had been upstairs watching television when she decided she wanted to give me my medication so that she could go to bed. But when she called my name repeatedly, I wasn’t answering, and then she thought she heard a thud downstairs. When she found me I was completely passed out and unresponsive. Even once my mom had woken me up, I was still in a fog, so a lot of what happened was a blur, but I guess my mom had shouted for my dad to come quick, and he was standing over me trying to keep me talking so I wouldn’t pass out again while my mom called 911. Needless to say, despite being in a fog, I was scared witless. The only times I had ever been in an ambulance were the times when I was little and firemen would come to the school to talk to us and let us explore the fire trucks. I never imagined I would see an ambulance from the perspective of a patient, or at least not until I was elderly or something. But as I mentioned in my entries about the surgery I had in October, I was finding out once again that life is full of uncertainties. So alas, the paramedics came, checked my vital signs and loaded me in to an ambulance on a stretcher. The paramedics did not use the sirens which was probably a combination of the fact that my vital signs were stable despite being unconscious, and the fact that it was late at night. Also since I had managed to sit down in a safe area before passing out, I did not sustain any injuries, making me luckier than a lot of people who pass out. This was a relief to me because it made me feel better that while passing out is nothing to take lightly, at least my condition wasn’t so grave that I had to be rushed to the hospital with sirens blaring. But it was pretty cool not to have to stop for red lights, and after the paramedics put an IV in, I was actually feeling better enough to joke with the paramedics that being an ambulance driver must be a pretty cool job since they can legally speed and run red lights!

     Mom rode in the ambulance with me and Dad drove to the hospital separately after taking Gilbert out and putting him in his cage. My mom would later tell me that since the paramedics had trouble finding a vein for my IV, she knew exactly why I had passed out. When I had gotten rid of my dinner earlier that evening, I hadn’t realized that I also got rid of a lot of my fluids. Add to that the fact that my brain tumor destroyed my pituitary gland which monitors my electrolytes, the loss of even more fluid through my sweat on the treadmill, and the fact that I purposely drank less water than usual that day since it embarrasses me to have to ask where the bathroom is at a total stranger’s house where the NFB meeting was held, and as the emergency doctor who took care of me that night put it, it was the perfect storm that led to severe dehydration.

     Of course, just to be cautious, the doctor wanted to do some other tests that included a blood test, an EKG which was a special type of scan to make sure I hadn’t developed a heart problem, and a CT scan to make sure I hadn’t passed out from a seizure which could mean another brain tumor. There was also this test where they took my blood pressure three times, first laying down, then sitting and finally standing. I forget what the point of this test was, but I remember the standing test had to be redone three or four times because I think I felt so faint and my blood pressure dropped so quickly that the blood pressure machine couldn’t register it. When the EKG and CT scan came back showing no other problems, the doctor ordered two huge bags of IV fluids to restore my electrolytes, and then at 4:30 in the morning, I was released from the hospital and walked out feeling tired from the long night of tests but otherwise, good as new! The doctor’s orders were to stay off that treadmill for awhile, and drink lots of fluids like water, but also sports drinks that are high in electrolytes. Once again, my disgust for other drinks besides milk and water that I mentioned in the first entry about my surgery had come back to bite me. But since I was able to tolerate bland food the next day, which also has electrolytes, my parents agreed it was fine for me to just drink water. But the next Thursday when I was all recovered, my dad wanted me to try a sports drink so that if I was ever starting to get dehydrated again, they could give me something to restore my electrolytes before I reached the point of passing out. The drink he thought was the most mild, PowerAid made me gag when I tried to drink it. But if I eat it with a spoon like soup, for some reason I could tolerate it that way, and actually even kind of liked its gentle sweet taste, not enough to add it to my beverage regimen, but enough that I would use it to avert any future dehydration disaster!

     But anyway, on Sunday morning as we reflected on the eventful night, my mom said she believed God was watching over us last night, since she said if she had given me my medication before I went on the treadmill and went to bed, I might not have been found until the next morning by which time I might have died. But despite our immense gratitude for God’s protection, I slept until 11:00 that morning, too late to go to church for Palm Sunday. And just like last Palm Sunday, we discussed precautions to put in place like making sure to always go on the treadmill earlier in the day so that my parents are awake to check on me and ensure that I would be found sooner should I pass out and to never ever go on the treadmill if I feel sick to my stomach. My parents also broke down and bought me this medic alert necklace with my name, medications and allergies engraved on it that I wear every time I leave home in case I am knocked unconscious and my parents are not around to tell the paramedics of my special medical circumstances. My parents wanted to get me one of these necklaces when I was younger. But my protest at having to wear such a necklace that could potentially be ugly and scare people away, combined with the fact that since my brain tumor, I have been so healthy we didn’t think such a necklace was necessary meant that we never went ahead and ordered one. But after this medical scare, even I relented and agreed to wear one since I finally appreciated the truth behind that saying that life is fragile. But the necklace they ordered actually looks like it would be pretty. My information is engraved on a metal dog tag, but this tag is on a gold chain with an angel charm that I like to think of as my guardian angel watching over me. Hardly anyone has seemed to notice it, and those who do probably think it is just a normal piece of pretty jewelry. In addition to these precautions, I added one more. After getting sick a few days later when once again, the school cafeteria served fish, I will only eat fish from places that specialize in fish like Red Lobster where you can be a little more confident that the fish is fresh, and weird stuff wasn’t added to preserve it because I have never gotten sick from the fish at these kinds of restaurants.

     So I don’t mean to be superstitious, but can you see why after the increasingly scary things that happened the past two years on the night before Palm Sunday, I would wonder what God has in store for me next year before Palm Sunday? I mean, there is only one thing worse than almost dying! Does God have a “three strikes, you’re out” plan for me? Just in case, maybe next year, I should drink lots of water, take Gilbert out before dark and spend the night in the basement, or somewhere far away from any windows where a meteor could crash through and knock me in the head or something! I am just being silly of course, but maybe it wouldn’t hurt if next year, you could all pray for me!