Saturday, October 3, 2009

having a slow day

Lunch today started around 2:45PM. It didn't have to, I suppose, but I wasn't out of bed until very late, having slept from about 7:30AM to about 1:15PM. Mom was up and about before me, for a change.

I tried making a jazzed-up kongnamul-guk for Mom. Instead of the simple soup with the clear broth (see here), I added tofu, Korean radish, and cabbage, along with the standard soy bean sprouts and chili peppers. The result was so-so, but Mom ate the whole thing, along with a corn salad that provided the carbs missing from the soup.

As happened with Sean yesterday, Mom asked me a question using a full sentence. In my case: "What are you looking for?" I'd been looking for a Korean myeolchi-garu, a fish powder with which to flavor the soup I was making. I ended up using regular old myeolchi (dried anchovies).

Dad proudly noted that Mom was able to get onto her bar stool without any help today, which is a significant change from her previous attempts at getting onto that stool.

Mom is now in the living room, seated happily in her chair, digesting lunch. She and Dad will go driving in a little bit while I stay home, wash a blanket, and prep our Chuseok dinner. We've already munched on some songpyeon during lunch; we'll do so again at dinner, blood sugar levels be damned.

To all who are celebrating Chuseok Stateside today, Happy Chuseok! Many thanks to Pastor Jeri, who emailed me a large-font "Haengbok-han il man gadeuk!" message.


Friday, October 2, 2009

did it again (and other news)

Dad and I took Mom out for a walk today, after my brother Sean had left. Mom didn't walk yesterday, but she succeeded in covering the same distance today that she had walked two days ago. We may have avoided her knee-buckling problem by putting her on a hard/easy exercise schedule; we'll take her out again on Sunday to see how she does.

In other news: Sean was happy to report that Mom asked him a question in a complete sentence-- something she hasn't done in a long while. She also seemed more verbal later in the day, as we were driving home from the park: David called, and Mom spoke with him for a bit.

Mom remains physically weak; she needed our help to walk up the five steps of our deck to reach our house's back door. But as Dad noted, she's determined to keep trying.

I'm still sick, but Dad seems to think my eyelid infection looks better today than it did yesterday. I looked in a mirror and thought it looked about the same. Mom looked into my eyes while we were at the park and wordlessly expressed her dismay at how I look.

Perhaps because I'm sick, I overslept today, waking up around 2PM after going to sleep around 5AM. My sleep was interrupted sometime this morning (8? 9?) when my Korean relatives called us back again; Dad knocked on my bedroom door and handed the phone to me when I was barely coherent, and I'm not really sure what I told Ajumma and Ajeoshi (her husband, my mother's third-oldest cousin). I vaguely remember that Ajumma told me she had wired about a thousand dollars into my Korean account; this is money for Mom. I can't access it directly from here in the States; I'll need to coordinate with one of my friends in Seoul. One way or another, we'll get the money here.

Mom helped out in the kitchen today, as she's done a few times before. She brought out the dishes and utensils that had been sitting inside the dishwasher. I had made her lunch around 2:15PM, before the walk. After the walk, I made her a fruit plate, which she is slowly munching on right now (roughly 5:45PM).

We're doing what we can to stuff Mom full of protein-- chocolate protein bars, extra tofu (and/or meat, or eggs, or soybean sprouts) in her soup, etc. We're also giving her more Vitamin D to counter the shortage that the doctors had told us about. I continue to wash my hands regularly and am wearing another N95 mask-- a new one that Dad had bought yesterday-- basically doing whatever it takes to keep my pestilence away from Mom and her ravaged immune system.

Dad's out at the moment, running some shopping errands, which includes a swing into Koreatown to pick up some Chuseok ingredients. The official Chuseok day is October 3, which is tomorrow (Saturday). We'll be chowing down on Koreatown song-pyeon (filled rice cakes), and even though it's more often associated with the lunar new year, I'll be making one of Dad's favorite Korean soups, ddeok mandu-guk, tomorrow.

Happy Chuseok. It may be premature to sa that today, but in Korea, it's already officially Chuseok. Haengbok-han il man gadeuk! Be filled only with happiness.



The word "disaster" has its roots in superstition; etymologically, it means, roughly, "bad star."

When our friend Renée Molina was here, she mentioned that the Philippines were being hammered by typhoon conditions. I hadn't seen reports of this in the major news vehicles (though I admit I hadn't bothered to look beyond my normal circle of online sources); the past few days have been more devoted to the earthquakes and tsunamis that have affected the Samoas and Indonesia.

But today, finally, I see that there's an article about the Philippines in a major news outlet. The devastation there is pretty extensive. If you haven't been following the news, and if you've been holding the folks in the Samoas and Indonesia in your thoughts, you might want to add the Philippines to your list.

NB: South Korea has its own typhoon problem every year. In my case, I was lucky to be living in Seoul: typhoons that hit Korea normally expend part of their energy when passing over Japan, which often acts as a storm baffle for Korea. And when typhoons do hit the peninsula with force, they almost never do any significant damage to Seoul, which is close to the northwestern coast of South Korea, next door to the port city of Incheon. The hardest-hit regions in South Korea are all along the southern coastline and along much of the eastern coastline as well.


Thursday, October 1, 2009

unhappy relatives

The Chuseok holiday has already begun in Korea; it'll begin in an hour here in Virginia. Chuseok, sometimes referred to as Korean Thanksgiving (more properly, it's the harvest moon festival), follows the lunar calendar, which means it jumps all over the place on our solar calendar from year to year. This year, Chuseok is on October 3, but the three-day festival period begins on October 2 and goes through October 4.

"Happy Chuseok" was not on my #3 aunt's mind when she called us this evening, though. We were in the middle of watching the second episode of "Flash Forward" when the phone rang; the caller ID screen showed a longer-than-usual string of numbers, which usually indicates an international call. Sure enough, it was my #3 aunt, to whom we had FedEx'ed my long letter. I could hear that she was in tears, badly shaken by the news of Mom's cancer. We talked a bit, with me using my broken Korean to fill in some details about Mom's situation. #3 Ajumma asked me what my bank account number was: she wanted to send Mom money. "I want to do something for her," she said. I thanked her, then went looking for my Korean bank account information. I have a friend who can help me wire the money from Korea to America, but I have to mail him my Korean bank card first.

My aunt also expressed a desire to come over, and I told her she could come any time. Emails will have to go through her son, though, and he's in Germany. I'm pretty sure I can muck my way through writing in German; the language will be about the same quality as my writing in Korean, but German and Korean are my only options with that cousin; he's been living in Germany for a while, and although he's a great guy, I'm not sure he's kept up with his English. No matter. Somehow, we'll get travel arrangements all figured out, if my aunt arrives at some travel dates.

We talked a bit about each other's families, catching up on what's been happening over the past two years. My aunt asked over and over, "How could something like this happen?" All I could tell her was that nobody knows how this sort of cancer appears.

So now I'll be writing my cousin, and I'll also be writing my buddy Tom in Korea about yanking my aunt's money out of my account and wiring it to my father's US bank account (this procedure is easier on my aunt, who would otherwise have to go through the rigamarole of an international wire transfer). I have no idea, though, how much money my aunt is thinking of sending. If it's over a certain limit, there might be problems. We'll see how that goes. I told my aunt that, more than money, the best thing she could do would be to visit Mom and hold her hand.

It wasn't a happy phone call, to be sure, but I'm glad it happened, and I'm glad my aunt remained as rational as she could, given the circumstances. Everything she said was sensible; her innate common sense is why she's one of my favorite relatives in Korea. If she comes to America within the next couple months, I'll be happy to see her again.

NB: I call this relative my "#3 Ajumma," or Third Aunt (sae-jjae ajumma), because she's the wife of one of Mom's four cousins-- the third-oldest of the four. I could have written a letter to any of the cousins (or their wives), I suppose, but #3 Ajumma has always struck me as the most poised and astute.


flu shot mission aborted

Dad and Mom went out earlier today to get free flu shots on base at Fort Belvoir, only to discover that the facility had run out of the vaccine. Dad asked the medical professionals why the lack of vaccine hadn't been reported on the flu hotline-- which Dad had called before taking Mom onto the base-- and the answer was that the hotline hadn't been updated in a while. Let that be a lesson to you all: it's often better to talk with a live person than with a recording. This should also be a lesson for the folks on base: if you insist on using recorded messages, make sure they include some sort of language about when the recording was last updated.



I'm sick. Trying to keep this sickness from Mom and Dad is a challenge, because I think I'm currently in the infectious phase. There are two distinct problems: (1) the rattling, mucus-y cough I'd mentioned earlier, accompanied by a runny nose; and (2) an infection that's causing my left upper eyelid to swell, leaving me looking like a fat Rocky Balboa. It's a mystery as to where these problems are coming from. In the hope that the eye problem is bacterial, I've broken out my bottle of leftover ciprofloxacin, the prescription antibiotic I'd received back when I was dealing with that corneal abrasion. If the problem is viral, the cipro is useless.

As for the cough... well, I can treat the symptoms with medicine here, but am not sure what to do, cure-wise. Vitamin C might help. In the meantime, I avoid coughing near Mom and Dad, and as of yesterday, I've been washing my hands religiously before touching anything related to food prep.

Dad's got some N95 masks lying around somewhere-- relics of the recent renovation. I might start wearing one of those, since they're supposed to be somewhat more effective than regular face masks when it comes to infection prevention.


one year

I guess I missed it. This past September 27 marked the one-year anniversary of my return home from my walk. I wasn't entirely happy to be home; I recall feeling like a failure for having taken the "easy" way out, wintering with the folks instead of hunkering down in Oregon or Washington. But I also knew that I was out of funds, facing the prospect of hitting the Rocky Mountains in the winter, and wearing my right knee down to powder. Staying out west would have been a recipe for disaster.

What a strange twelve months it's been. If you had told me, on September 27, 2008, that I would still be here in Virginia a year later, and would be dealing with my mother's terminal brain cancer, I'd have called you crazy.

I remember how upset Mom was during the days before her first operation (she was hospitalized on April 16; the operation was on April 21). Her cognition was impaired, as was her speaking ability, but she was more verbal than she is now, and she had asked me when I was planning to go back out west. "I'm staying here," I told her, "for you." Mom glared at me, then looked away.

It's a child's lot to deal, on a near-constant basis, with parental disapproval. With Mom, it always seemed that I could never do anything right. Even up until she was hospitalized, she was giving me a sour eye. She didn't approve of my undertaking the walk, but as I wrote above, when the time came for me to leave (I had planned to restart the walk this past April 18), she didn't approve of my staying. I suppose there's humor to be found somewhere in that paradox, but laughter doesn't always come easily these days.


Wednesday, September 30, 2009

not all bad

The news isn't all bad today. Just a few minutes ago, Dad, Mom, and I got back from a walk in Fort Hunt Park. Dad had wanted to get the walk in before it started raining. Mom covered the longest distance yet, doing a loop that was, according to Google Earth, about 680 yards-- roughly a third of a mile. With the weather breezy and in the 60s, the day was pleasant. It was only when we were on our way home that it started to rain. Not bad timing.


stepping down: maybe not a good idea

Mom's behavior today is very perseverative. I'm pretty sure this is a direct result of the step-down of the Decadron dosage, so I've told Dad we should put Mom back on her full dose. Mom is currently seated in the bathroom and exhibiting no desire to get up of her own accord. This hasn't normally been the case-- at least for the past few weeks-- when Mom was ready to leave the bathroom and come to the living room for lunch.

Yesterday and the day before, I saw Mom staring at her pills for a long time before finally swallowing them. This behavior is of a piece with what's happening now, and also coincides with the Decadron step-down timetable. We'll see if her behavior changes over the next 36 hours once she's back on her full dosage.

UPDATE, 3:43PM: Mom's out of the bathroom and at the bar, eating lunch.



I think I've caught whatever my brother David had. For the moment, it involves a sore throat and a deep, rattling cough that happens only occasionally. Extra precautions will have to be taken, especially as regards how I interact with Mom. Oy gevalt.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

more than just one visitor

Along with Pastor Jeri, whose visit we'd expected, we received an unexpected visit from one of Mom's Korean friends from long, long ago-- so long ago that I had no idea who this person was. Dad had apparently found her name in the old Rolodex and had written her a letter about Mom's situation. Our thanks, then, to Mrs. Nam for her visit today.


forgot to mention

In our talk with Dr. Tonnesen yesterday, we covered the question of Mom's weakness and weight loss. Dr. Tonnesen agreed that the steroids are an issue, and suggested that the time had come to step down the dosage by 25%, then later on by 50%, all while monitoring Mom's response to such a reduction. I'm all for it if this means that Mom can regain her strength without suffering renewed intracranial swelling.

Dad started the step-down last night. Mom seems OK for the moment, which might be a good sign. If her behavior starts to become bizarre, though, we'll step her back up. Dr. Tonnesen said we were free to make adjustments in dosage ourselves, without a written prescription; I told Dad that, because Mom is so quiet these days, it might be hard to tell whether a change in Decadron dosage was making her better or worse. We both agreed that behavior, rather than speech, would be the thing to watch. We'll see what happens over the next couple of weeks.


hit the reset button

Pastor Jeri's stopping by today at 3PM. I'm about to take a wee nap, but will be up and about in time to prep lunch and get the house ready. Not much to get ready, really: the upstairs is pretty neat except for the perennial chaos on the dining room table. If anything, it's the downstairs that needs a Jesus-style temple-scouring. I'll get to that eventually. C'est promis.


the drop-off

Renée and I left the homestead at about 6:45AM and made it to Union Station with more than an hour to spare. It was great to have her over for a brief while; I know that Mom was happy to see her. Renée told us several times that we have an amazing family, but knowing Renée and her brother Sam as I do, I know they'd do the same thing for their parents.


Monday, September 28, 2009

a quick summary of the day

1. Got up late, made lunch: bratwurst sandwiches for Renée, Dad, and myself; noodles, Asian beef, and homemade oi-kimchi for Mom.

2. Took Mom & Co. to Fairfax Hospital; saw Dr. Tonnesen at 2PM. Talked a bit about the MRI done by NCI on September 11. "Better than expected" was the doctor's feeling upon reading the text report. It seems, however, that the report NCI faxed over wasn't the revised version of the report that we, as a family, had already seen, so whether Mom's current condition is "better than expected" remains up in the air, and I found myself disturbed that NCI hadn't yet revised the report.

Dr. Tonnesen said he wants to see Mom again in "a couple months." Since he's no longer administering radiotherapy, his main capacity, now, is an advisory one. He conceded that his reading of the July 20 MRI (which showed the second growth when it was still aggressively growing) might have been hasty, given the tumor necrosis visible in the 9/11 MRI. We now know the radiation did indeed have an effect.

3. Dad FedEx'ed my Korean-language letter (it's more presentation packet than letter, being almost 10 pages long) to Korea. I can only imagine what sort of phone call I'm going to receive in a few days. I expect there'll be screaming, crying, and plans to come right over to Virginia. Fine with us. I feel bad about the fact that Mom's cousins and their families have been in the dark about this situation. I really should have called them early on.

4. While Dad was on his FedEx mission, I took Mom and Renée to Fort Hunt Park. Mom walked a somewhat wider lap around the parking lot than she had done the two previous times, and she maintained what was, for her, a strong, steady pace. This was heartening.

5. We got home, and Renée's buddy Carla Okouchi came over, proudly showing off her belly: she's six months along the way to becoming a proud Momma. Well... technically, she's already a mom-- she simply can't let the kid out to play for another three months. Carla, Renée, and David are all in the same age group, so when David showed up after 7PM, they had fun chatting while Mom watched quietly and happily from her couch throne. I also found out that Carla and her hubby are both stars in an independent film, a martial arts horror-comedy called "Ninjas versus Zombies." I hope Bruce Campbell takes note and helps Carla promote her film. I admit I envy her.

6. I can claim, for once, that dinner was a true success. The bulgogi, despite being quite salty, was given rave reviews, with folks going back for seconds. I did the beef up Korean-style, in contrast to the Komerican way that my mom and her big sister tend to prepare the meat.*

Dad can also claim a triumph: his rum cake was a hit when we had dessert.

7. I'll be dropping Renée off at Union Station in the morning; we'll be leaving around 6:30AM, so I'm hitting the sack right now. My thanks to her and to Carla for visiting. Mom spent so much of her time smiling, and that means the world to me.

*Komerican bulgogi tends to be thicker cuts of sirloin, often thick enough to be grillable. In Korea, a person raised on Komerican bulgogi might initially be disappointed to see that peninsular folk prefer their bulgogi less gussied up with marinade and cut in thinner, stringier, messier strips, but this style eventually grows on you. So last night, I asked David to cut the sirloin into very thin strips, then poured a generous marinade over the whole thing, allowing the meat to soak almost 20 hours. In cooking the meat on the stove this evening, I got it to where it was brown and tender, but not charred. Instead, the meat released its juices, which combined with the marinade to form a fine Korean gravy-- something you could pour over rice.


honored guest and an appointment

It was a sudden change of plans, but my brother Sean, who lives in DC, offered to pick up our friend (maybe I should say sister) Renée from Union Station. This gave me time to do a bit of extra shopping, and my brother David, who was a very good sport despite being so overworked, helped me with some food prep while Sean drove Renée to our house. Dad tried to stay awake so as to see our guest when she arrived, but the hour was late and Dad, unlike yours truly, tends to wake up rather early.

We'll be hosting Renée until very early Tuesday morning, when she has to return to NYC. We brothers spent some time catching up with her, which was very cool. I even found out that her multi-talented beau has written a children's book, which she helped illustrate. Most awesomeous. Best of all, Renée isn't a morning person, either, so we were able to sit up until after 3AM and chat about life, the universe, and everything.

Renée's friend Carla (whose mother was with us the day Mom had her first major surgery) will be joining us for dinner. I'll be inflicting bulgogi on everyone; the marinade tasted all right this evening, so I'm hoping the meal will turn out fine. I often feel I'm going out on a limb when I cook Korean food; Koreans can sometimes be hard to please, leaving the novice cook with little margin for error. Neither Renée nor Carla is Korean, however, so maybe my judges will be lenient. I'll never know: if the food sucks, I doubt that either lady will breach etiquette to say so. Heh.

Monday is also important for Mom, as she has a 2PM appointment with Dr. Tonnesen, her radiation oncologist. I don't know what we're going to discuss; radiotherapy is over, but I suppose the doctor might be interested in the 9/11 MRI done at NCI. That scan shows some necrosis in the second tumor, i.e., the radiotherapy did have some effect. Alas, Mom's third tumor might have originated at a point in the brain not covered by the radiotherapy, or it might have grown in spite of the radiation. Perhaps the doctor can shed some light on that topic.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

awake, and missed the boat

I'm awake... in time to fix dinner. I'm sad to say that I slept right through the visit of Mrs. Pham and her husband. Many thanks to them for their kind visit, and my apologies for not being there, but I guess I can no longer pull all-nighters with quite the impunity that I used to.

UPDATE: Our guests brought food! Many thanks for that; it made for a great dinner, and there's plenty left over for tomorrow.


up all night

It took me a million years, but I finally finished typing up a four-page letter to my relatives in Korea, updating them on Mom's situation. You may recall that I had handwritten three pages of this letter over a week ago; in the end, I opted to type the whole thing out on the computer because of my poor Korean penmanship (it's not unreadable, but it is something of an eyesore).

Typing presents its own problems. I'm already a slow typist in Hangeul when I use a Korean keyboard; I'm even slower on my new American Mac, despite the Hangeul "keyboard window" that pops up to help you figure out where to put your fingers. I also spent a lot of time consulting an online Korean dictionary to make sure I was getting the medical terms right-- words like "tumor" and "edema" and "diagnosis" and "survival rate." In the end, I'm sure the letter still contains all manner of mistakes and horrifically nonsensical locutions; that's what I often saw, in English, from my students at Sookmyung Women's University. I'm proud of the efforts they made-- and truth be told, some students wrote excellent English-- but I'm pretty sure that my Korean letter looks as bad as many of the lower-level English essays I had to slog through.

I also added another four pages of pictures for my relatives. Some were recent pictures of Mom, both with and without her helmet, to give them some idea of how she looks, what her demeanor is, and who some of her friends are. I also included all the MRI images that I'd blogged, hand-labeling the printed images in Korean so that the relatives could better understand their significance.

All of that took me all night. It's 10:46AM now, and I need to get some sleep before our 3PM guest arrives. There's a chance I might be asleep when she gets here; in anticipation of that contingency, I've already set out instructions for Dad on how to prep lunch for Mom.

So: good morning and, uh, good night. Oh, yeah-- Dad will FedEx the letter tomorrow. He gets a 75% discount with FedEx because he's a former airline employee. We want the letter to arrive before Chuseok, one of the biggest national holidays in South Korea (October 3 this year). If it doesn't get there in time, the relatives will call on Chuseok, and they'll be in for a nasty surprise. I'd rather have them read the letter first, take time to absorb the shock, and then call me. We'll see if that's what happens.