On the Town

I did a lot of walking last week, through and beneath the streets of Manhattan. The first half of the trip was business, the second half, pleasure—spending time with my sister to celebrate our birthdays, which are three weeks apart. And celebrate, we did.

From dinner at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, where the waitstaff are all Broadway hopefuls who belt out show tunes, to a walking tour of SOHO, Little Italy and Chinatown; from a lovely stroll up the High Line to a gourmet dinner and an outstanding performance of To Kill a Mockingbird—we had a great time. The weather was beautiful, for the most part. Our hotel off Times Square was surprisingly quiet. We discovered an excellent diner for breakfast and another for some of the best apple strudel I’ve ever tasted. And we started brainstorming our next trip together.

I’m happy to report that my new sneakers worked out pretty well. My feet certainly got tired, but not as tired as they usually do, and without significant neuropathy. Also notable: as I schlepped through the subway, to and from commuter rail, New Yorkers helped to carry my carry-on up and down steep staircases. Without my ever having to ask. Angels are everywhere.

Along the way, I enjoyed wonderful art, on the street and at the Met. Here’s a sampling for your viewing pleasure:

Art Deco with words for our times at Rockefeller Center

Also seen at Rockefeller Center

In front of 30 Rock

Street art in SOHO

Artistic and delicious pastry at Ferrara in Little Italy

Statue of Chang Kai Shek in Chinatown

Street art across from the Whitney Museum entrance to the High Line

Gardening on the High Line

High Line mural

Art Deco murals and design at the Hotel Edison

The Beatle’s original instruments at the Met’s “Play It Loud” exhibit . . .

. . . and some very decorative guitars

Berlin artist Alicja Kwade’s “ParaPivot” rooftop installation at the Met . . .

. . . and a spectacular view of the NYC skyline beyond Central Park

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

 

‘Tis the Season

April showers (and we’ve had plenty) certainly bring May flowers in my neighborhood. White-blossomed cherry trees and cream-colored callery pears, fuchsia magnolias and pink weeping cherries, along with maples unfurling pale green and purple leaves, grace sidewalks and lawns. White and violet violets speckle lawns that grow lusher by the day. The air smells delightful. With all the rain of late, pollen is subdued, and I haven’t started sneezing, yet.

In keeping with the season, another sign of spring has emerged: I have an infected ulcer in my left thumb. This spiked suddenly last Monday. Fortunately, it’s responding to antibiotics, which seem to be a perennial part of my world at this time of year. A good thing, because I’m traveling this week to New York for a mix of business and pleasure.

As my thumb became irritated, I wondered if I’d aggravated it by typing. Then I realized that I never use it to type. I’ve adapted to so many finger injuries over the decades that I automatically compensate for fingers that can’t comfortably or effectively strike the keys. Which made me wonder: How many fingers am I actually using to touch-type?

This is a bit like asking a centipede how it walks. I really have to stop and notice what I’m doing automatically, which can lead to more typos. But the answer is this: I use my pinky and ring fingers on my left hand, and my thumb, ring finger and pinky on my right. And I can still type quickly enough so that my thoughts translate almost immediately to the computer screen. It helps, significantly, to use an Apple “chiclet” keyboard, which has nearly flat keys with an easy touch, and a minimal rise so it’s easy on my wrists.

When my hands fell apart with severe ulcers two years ago (also in the spring), I learned to use Dragon dictation software to write. It was certainly a big help and enabled me to keep writing. But dictation taps a different part of the brain than writing brain-to-hands, and I will keep typing, even with only five fingers, as long as I can, because it is simply faster and more intuitive.

And so, I am dashing off this entry before I leave on my travels. Looking forward to fresh adventures—and to seeing how the flowers have grow when I come home.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

65 and 20

On Thursday I turned 65. And today marks the 20th anniversary of my mother’s death. Two milestones linked by memory and blooms.

Last week, in a burst of warmth and wet, all the trees unfurled their chartreuse buds, crabapples and weeping cherries blushed, forsythias gleamed. This is often nature’s gift near my birthday, the sudden, welcome spray of pastels. Winter’s subtle grays are forgotten, and the earth smells sweet.

I spent much of my birthday cooking, with Al as sous chef, for our Passover seder Friday night. The prospect had felt daunting, and less than welcome as a way to mark my 65th, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. I was simply in a good mood. We enjoyed each other’s company, preparing each course at a relaxed pace. Midday, we broke for lunch out, and Al—always the master of surprise—wrapped up our meal with a trip to a wonderful jewelry store, with an invitation to pick out whatever I wanted. Later, when all the cooking was done and the kitchen cleaned, we went out again for a birthday dinner. Throughout the day, I received calls from family and best wishes from friends. I felt thoroughly celebrated and well prepared for the holiday, renewed.

On my 45th birthday, days before my mother’s death in 1999, we spoke on the phone. She was in good spirits because my sister and her family were visiting. A rare and aggressive form of thyroid cancer had appeared suddenly in December, when she brushed a hair from her neck and first noticed a lump. The disease took her life in four months. I had visited numerous times during that winter and early spring and was with her when she passed. In those last moments, as she sipped her final breaths, I had the distinct feeling that she was simply slipping out of her body to somewhere unknown.

In many ways, there was much I did not know about her and have only learned since her death. For a woman of her generation and German heritage, motherhood was a mix of compassion and authority. We had many long talks during my childhood and adolescence, and I learned to be a good listener from her example. But she always maintained privacy about her innermost thoughts and feelings, and revealed little of her own formative years, beyond certain familiar stories of life in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis and her transition to embracing her American citizenship. With twenty years’ perspective, I now understand that the past was simply a place she wanted to leave behind.

Since Al and I traveled to Prague and Berlin as part of our summer vacation, to honor the memory of my great grandparents who were murdered in the Holocaust, I have been thinking of her more, wondering what she really felt during that time, wishing I could ask her. Miraculously, last fall, out of the blue, I heard from a cousin I have never met, whose nonagenarian mother is still alive and able. At the end of May, I am going to visit them in Florida. And so, I may get some answers from the woman who is my mother’s first cousin and the last living link to her generation. This is a great, unexpected blessing.

When we laid my mother to rest, a white cherry sapling had recently been planted in that section of the cemetery, in ground softened by spring’s thaw. It was too young to blossom, then, but casts ample shade near her and my father’s grave today. Its size always surprises me when I visit, a marker of how much time has passed. I like to think, even as she tried to bury her past, that my mother would be pleased that I am reclaiming it, not only for myself through my travels and studying German, but also for my daughters who barely knew her as children.

How much do we ever know our parents, let alone ourselves? I will give the last word to Rainer Maria Rilke, from Requiem for a Friend (The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans Stephen Mitchell):

I have my dead, and I have let them go,
and was amazed to see them so contented,
so soon at home in being dead, so cheerful,
so unlike their reputations. Only you
return; brush past me, loiter, try to knock
against something; so that the sound
reveals your presence. . . .

Ich habe Tote, und ich ließ sie hin
und war erstaunt, sie so getrost zu sehn,
so rasch zuhaus im Totsein, so gerecht,
so anders als ihr Ruf. Nur du, du kehrst
zurück; du streifst mich, du gehst um, du willst
an etwas stoßen, daß es klingt von dir
und dich verrät. . . .

 

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Image: Paul Herwitz

Mud Season

It’s getting warmer and muckier here in Massachusetts—but not yet so consistently warm that the bugs are swarming. So, perfect weather for a walk in the woods this past weekend, albeit stepping carefully around muddy tracks and vernal pools. Life’s cycle of renewal always boosts my spirits in the spring. I hope it does for you, too. Enjoy.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

In Bloom

With more Arctic vortex action promising to bring us frigid weather this Thursday (7°F, anyone?), it was a gift once again to enjoy beautiful floral arrangements this weekend at the Worcester Art Museum’s annual Flora in Winter display.

That, plus the good news that our health insurance was, indeed, reactivated following last week’s debacle made for a promising start to the week. So, Dear Reader, I bring you some of my favorites as reminders that spring is only a few months away (and I sincerely hope the weather matches the calendar).

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

In Praise of Chocolate

It’s getting colder out. On Sunday, snow swirled down from the skies when it was supposed to be sunny. Monday we started off in the teens and never got above low twenties. Snow is predicted for Tuesday morning.

I find myself craving chocolate. Not milk chocolate or white chocolate, but serious, bitter-sweet, dark chocolate. Fortunately, Al must have read my mind, because he bought a bag of dark chocolate bark when he went grocery shopping on Sunday afternoon. God bless him.

Dark chocolate is good for you. I know this because the Harvard School of Public Health says so. The flavanols in cocoa help to lower blood pressure, which makes consumption of dark chocolate, which is rich in flavanols, essential these days, given all of the crazy, distressing news. Dark chocolate can also reduce risk of diabetes and heart disease. I’m all for that.

When I was a marketing director at a small New England college, I always had a bowl of dark chocolate sitting out in the department’s open office space. My staff loved it. So did our colleagues, who would come to visit and snag a few pieces. Chocolate makes people happy. It brings us together. Also a good thing at a time of such divisiveness.

Too much of a good thing, of course, can become a problem. If I eat more than I should, the caffeine in dark chocolate can trip my heart arrhythmia. While that’s pretty annoying, it’s also a built-in warning signal that prevents me from gorging and gaining weight from the stuff.

So, I’ll try not to devour that bag that Al bought before the week is out. A piece a day⎯maybe two⎯should ward off the cold and keep my blood pressure in check as the temperatures drop and the news roars on. Just as a preventative, of course.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Image: Charisse Kenion

Refreshment Break

I made myself take a walk Monday afternoon. It was short, just around the block, but I got outside. It feels like fall, now, damp, chilly, and I need to get acclimated to the change in seasons. I’m back in sweaters and warm pants and thick socks, my long coat, hat. I wore mittens over the weekend.

It’s all too easy to make excuses to myself to stay inside when the weather turns. It’s too overcast. It might rain. It looks dreary. I don’t want my fingers and face to get numb.

So my short walk was a good reality check, as well as a much needed breath of fresh air. Even as it was overcast and had been pouring earlier in the day, the rain held off. The air smelled sweet with the tang of humus. My joints limbered up. My mind brightened from a jolt of oxygenated blood.

It was also good to see the neighborhood beyond my computer screen. Trees are turning late this season in Massachusetts, due to a warmer-than-normal summer and early fall. Usually we’re at peak foliage right around Columbus Day weekend, but this year green still predominates. Only the sugar maples, so far, have begun to flame and shed their leaves.

Pumpkins, plastic tombstones, skeletons and fake cobwebs decorate a few neighbor’s lawns, but the Halloween craze of a few years back seems to have ebbed. That’s fine with me. More than ghosts and goblins, there are quite a few red, white and blue signs promoting political candidates for the upcoming November election. That’s fine with me, too.

A new neighbor’s house has been repainted; that neighbor’s repairs are complete; another’s is in progress, with boards hammered over the front door. Al decorated our front steps with mums, pumpkins, gourds and cornstalks over the weekend, and I’m pleased with the result as I walk up our drive.

Back inside, I realize my fingers and lips have gone slightly numb. But it’s warm in the house, and I feel refreshed. Worth repeating.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Progress Report

A year ago today, I was two weeks away from my second hand surgery to repair damage from severe ulcers in five fingers—damage that had exposed bone and broken two of my knuckles. My left index and right pinky were held together by steel pins, and I didn’t know if I would lose them in the next procedure. My hand surgeon felt that skin grafts were worth trying, but we didn’t know if they would heal properly. He had warned me at the outset that these were the first of many surgeries.

What a difference a year makes! I’ve been extremely fortunate. A gifted surgeon, excellent wound care and 60 dives in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, plus effective occupational therapy sessions (and health insurance to cover it all), combined with a lot of support from family and friends enabled me to heal.

And I am cooking again. Al had picked up the slack in the kitchen for well over a year, ever since the ulcers became too painful for me to handle any utensils. He cooked up some great meals and discovered that he really enjoyed experimenting with new recipes. I was grateful for all that good and healthy food.

But a part of me missed cooking. It’s never been a major focus in my life. I don’t spend hours pouring over cookbooks and savoring the thought of new recipes. However, I do like making a good meal, especially for the holidays. It’s exhausting, but satisfying to turn out a gourmet, multi-course dinner. It gives me pleasure to prepare food that brings others enjoyment.

At some point over the summer, I began baking bread again for our Friday night Shabbat dinners. Al had gotten quite good at this, and he was deservedly proud of his delicious braided loaves, but he was happy to have me pick it up again. I also was able to help clean up after meals, which had been impossible with the ulcers and ensuing surgery.

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, arrived just a few days after we came home from Europe last month. I knew it would be too much to have a big crowd, so we just invited a few close family members for the first night. But, to my and Al’s surprise, I was able to do most of the cooking myself. He served as sous chef, cutting vegetables. Even still, I was able to handle the chef’s knife and do a lot of prep myself. Everyone enjoyed the meal, and I felt like I had crossed the finish line.

I have been doing most of the cooking ever since, although I still have to be careful. I developed an ulcer in one of my skin grafts shortly after we returned from our trip, but I think this was actually caused by some calcinosis lurking just under the surface. It is gradually healing. Al is enjoying a well-earned reprieve, although I recruit him for help as needed.

Mostly, I’m amazed and extremely grateful that I can actually do so much with my hands again. It’s taken all this time to relearn how to use them, and I certainly have my limits. But it’s wonderful to see that, despite all the challenges, my body can truly heal.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Just Breathe

This past Friday morning, I had double-header appointments at Boston Medical, an echocardiogram followed by a routine appointment with my wonderful rheumatologist, who has been my specialist for at least two decades, now.

My last echocardiogram was done a couple of years ago, one of those tests I have to repeat occasionally to monitor signs of pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), a late-stage complication of scleroderma. The only symptom, so far, is extreme shortness of breath if I commence intense aerobic exercising without a serious warm-up. We’ve been watching this for years, now, and I’m on prophylactic medication that seems to be protecting me from worse complications.

Most of the time, the test doesn’t bother me. It’s non-invasive, and, depending on the tech, just mildly uncomfortable. Like I said, depending on the tech. This time, let us say, it was more challenging.

First, the easy part. You lie down on your left side, with your head on a pillow. The lights are dimmed so the tech can see the computer screen more clearly. A transducer, which looks like a short, hand-held rod with a gel-covered rolling ball on top, is pressed against your ribcage, neck and diaphragm, to send high frequency sound waves through your chest wall. It’s like an ultrasound for your heart. The sound waves bounce back to the computer, which translates them into moving pictures of your heart muscle. Occasionally, the tech will turn on the audio, and you can hear your heart beating away, kind of a squishy, pumping sound that seems to reverberate from a deep well.

Now for the hard part. You have to hold your breath during certain parts of the test, so that your diaphragm doesn’t cause your heart to move around and your lungs aren’t so full that they interfere with the heart imagery. I’ve never had an issue with this in the past, but my tech on Friday had a very specific way that he wanted me to empty my lungs, first, and then take in only a small sip of air. Then hold. And hold. And hold. While he pressed really hard with the transducer on my ribcage. I have no padding there. It hurt. And I couldn’t wave my hand or ask, “Can I breathe now?”

I really started to wonder, at a few points, if I would actually be able to hold my breath long enough. Fortunately, each time, just as I thought I wouldn’t make it, he said I could breathe again. It was also reassuring to hear my heart beating when I felt like my lungs would burst. “You’re doing great,” he said. I guess so. Test results will be available this week.

By the end of the half-hour, I was very glad to get dressed and head over to the Rheumatology Department. The sun was bright, the air crisp. As I caught up with my rheumatologist, who, like me, is in his sixties, we chatted briefly about retirement. To my relief, he has no plans of retiring anytime soon. This time, I needed no permission to breathe.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Image Credit: Eric Witsoe

Back Home

Home from our summer travels for about a week-and-a-half, but already it seems like a long time ago that we were away. That’s the strange thing about vacations. You’re completely immersed in your environs while you’re there, but once you’re back, it’s almost as if you never left.

Which is why I keep a travel journal, and we take plenty of pictures (especially my dear husband). If a tourist walks in a city and leaves without a record, was she really there?

Yes, I was, with Al—in Prague, Bratislava, Vienna and Berlin. Sixteen days, four countries, a crash course in European history, spectacular scenery, wonderful art. This trip was also personal: the bookends of our itinerary were designed to honor the memory of my great grandparents, who were murdered in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust.

My mother’s father, a professor of engineering at the Technische Universität Berlin, saw the writing on the wall in 1935 when he lost his position because he was Jewish. In 1936, after five months of searching for work in the U.S., he was able to find a good job and make a new home for my grandmother and mother. But, despite a heroic effort, he was unable to convince his elderly parents, who loved their homeland, that they should emigrate, as well, until it was far too late for them to escape the Nazis. They were transported to what is now called Terezín, a concentration camp about an hour’s drive from Prague, in August of 1942, and died there in early winter of 1943.

No one in my family has ever gone to Terezín. So, with a private tour guide, we visited the camp and learned details of my great grandparents’ final months. We lit candles in their memory. Later, at the end of our journey, we joined friends in Berlin for the placement of two Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones,” which are memorial cobblestones placed in the sidewalk next to the home where victims of the Shoah last lived of their own free will. These were powerful experiences for me, which I am only beginning to process and understand. It is one thing to know the history of World War II in the abstract, and quite another to confront such horrors in the lives of your own family.

We enjoyed uplifting experiences, as well: fairytale scenery in Prague, a day trip to Slovakia’s High Tatras amidst the Carpathian Mountains; a visit to a medieval silver mining town, also in Slovakia, one of several UNESCO World Heritage sites that we saw during our travels; extraordinary artwork by two of my favorite painters, Egon Schiele and Paul Klee, in Vienna and Berlin. And, oh, yes, some very delicious food. My hands held up, my feet wore out, but I’m so grateful that we were able to honor my great grandparents’ memory and have another overseas adventure, whatever the challenges—physical and emotional.

Here are a few highlights:

View of Prague Castle from the Charles Bridge

John Lennon Wall, Prague

Mucha stained glass window in St. Vitas’s Cathedral, Prague

Devin Castle ruins, Bratislava

High Tatras, Slovakia

Old Castle fortress, Banská Štiavnica, Slovakia

Belvedere Palace and Museum, Vienna

1936 Olympic champion Jesse Owens’ name carved in the wall of the Berlin Olympiastadion (top left column)

“Landschaft in Blau” (Landscape in Blue) by Paul Klee, 1917, Berggruen Museum, Berlin

The Stolpersteine honoring my great grandparents, Berlin

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.