Archive for December, 2012

“Ruby Begonia, I’ve got a job for you.” The command echoed off the AmesHigh School dull-colored hallway walls as I walked toward the tall, slender biology teacher, Mr. Dunn.

As I heard my nickname, my early morning expression of half-closed, sleepy eyes transformed into raised eyebrows and alertness. Since I worked full-time as the science department teacher’s aid with a salary of $4,000 per year without benefits, my coffers could benefit from additional income. But how would I manage a full-time job and two part-time jobs? In addition to my science position, every Friday and Saturday night, I rode my bike to Golds Veritable Quandry, an upscale restaurant on Main Street in downtown Ames, where I worked as a sou chef and received one important perk: dinner, limited to certain items free to employees. “Our Fine Filet – thick tenderloin wrapped in bacon” at $9.45 was off limits. “The Crepe Dianne – with salad and bread” or “The Golden Quiche – cheese, bacon, egg & green pepper pie, served with salad and bread” were elegant selections to this Iowa farm girl. I’d consumed plenty of steaks from our farm-raised steers, but had never heard of quiche or crepes.

Additionally, I frequently worked during the champagne brunch on Sunday mornings. I was certain my schedule had no space for another job. Still I asked curiously, “What do you have on your mind, Mr. Dunn?”

I anxiously waited for his answer. This energetic man with a scruffy reddish beard and face full of freckles topped the scale of happiness. His long fingers touched on the pulse of every creative activity in our small college town. The high school students adored his positive, fun-loving spirit; I did also.

“Well, we need a Market Master for our local Farmer’s Market,” Mr. Dunn began.

I wondered what a Farmer’s Market was and what were the responsibilities of a Market Master. Instead of seeking clarification, I asked, “What day and hours do they need a Market Master?”

“Every Saturday morning through the spring, summer, and fall. It’s located at the old railroad depot on Main Street.”

Ames Train Station

Ames Train Station

On Friday night, after mopping and cleaning the kitchen, I usually returned home around 1:30 am. That was enough time to catch some sleep and ride my bike back downtown. Still, I paused.

Encouragement flew from Mr. Dunn’s mouth. “Oh, Ruby, it’s a great job for you.  You’ll love it.”

Once I had asked Mr. Dunn, “Who is Ruby Begonia?”

He curtly replied, “Oh, some old time radio character.”

The origin of Ruby Begonia was a mystery. Some say Ruby Begonia was first created as a character for the “Amos & Andy Show” which ran first on radio and then television from 1928 to 1966. Kingfish, when caught in a lie, would say, “Do duh name Ruby Begonia ring a bell?”

For me, another mystery was why Mr. Dunn nicknamed me Ruby Begonia. From his endearing tone, I liked being Ruby and wished I were one of Mr. Dunn’s kids living with him and his wife in their large, yellow two-story home near downtown.

I sought more details. “What does a Market Master do on Saturday mornings?”

His green eyes sparkled, and I realized that he was drawing me into accepting the job. “You’ll need to arrive shortly before eight, collect the rent money from the vendors and show them where to display their produce and goods. The old depot has a large overhang which protects the exhibit tables from rainy weather. You’ll stay until all the vendors depart, which is shortly before noon.”

Starting to piece this information together, I concluded that a Farmer’s Market was what served as a garden for city folk. Little did I know that, like Golds Veritable Quandy’s, this part-time job would help a “poor starving” college graduate. I accepted. Mr. Dunn smiled. “Ruby, good decision. I’ll meet you there on Saturday.”

The Friday night before my new job, the restaurant closed and the wait staff departed. In a quiet restaurant, the fun began. The chef walked to the radio, always tuned to the college station, turned the knob to nearly 100 decibels. I grabbed my mop and danced across the kitchen floor to blues and rock and roll. Once the floor shone as bright as a metal grain bin in full sun light, I rushed out the back door and pedaled through the dark, quiet streets to Pammel Court for a short night of rest.

Much too early, the alarm rang at 7:00 am. Retracing my path to downtown, I arrived to greet a small group of middle aged vendors. Mr. Dunn introduced me, using my “real” nickname, Moni. I assigned a space to each vendor, and they began spreading out their fresh vegetables and fruit, baked goods, jams, and jellies.

In junior high school, Pat Nolte, the mother of my best friend Cindy, had taught me how to bake bread. Pat never purchased bread and the smell of bread baking in her oven set off my salivary glands. I loved homemade bread and frequently baked it throughout my high school years. Our family always ate one loaf with melted butter, and sometimes jam, immediately out of the oven. My bread baking came to a halt during college and I survived on cheap grocery store bread, a poor substitute.

I watched as the vendors unloaded their vehicles and carefully arranged their goods. Some folks carried boxes of vegetables – colorful greens, cucumbers, early tomatoes, radishes with the leaves attached. All the same produce that my family grew in the black, loamy soil of our garden. Then, I noticed a short-plump lady spreading out golden brown loaves of homemade bread. The aroma of the Nolte kitchen seeped into my soul. My salivary glands swelled. “Oh, I want some of that bread. But I can’t afford it.” I whined to myself. How would I make it through the morning staring at those loaves? And this lady signed up for a table throughout the whole season. “Oh dear, this job will be torture.”

I scanned down the tables. Glass jars were shining from dappled light that contained strawberry and raspberry jam and elderberry jelly with handwritten labels. Thoughts of raspberry jam on homemade bread caused my swollen salivary glands to secrete whatever they produce. “I must find a higher paying job so I can afford bread and jam,” my thoughts continued.

I silently drooled over the baked goods while a few shoppers chatted with the vendors and purchased items. However, it wasn’t like the Greensboro Farmer’s Market on Yanceyville Street where, today, I seldom shop because the throngs annoy me. The low attendance of the Ames Farmer’s Market during the mid-1970s suited me perfectly, and proved beneficial.

The relaxed nature of the Market allowed the vendors to chat with each other and with me. We covered all subjects – local gossip, politics, college news, athletics. Even though they were old enough to be my parents or, for that matter, grandparents, I enjoyed conversing with them in the shade of the depot overhang. The slow-paced morning moved toward noon and the vendors began boxing up their unsold goods.

They commented on my mode of transportation and asked how far I had to ride home. Evidently, they also sized up the volume of my backpack. The plump lady was the first to ask, “Would you like a loaf of bread?”

My quick response was, “Does a one-legged duck swim in circles? Yes!”

Within seconds, another lady spoke, “How about some jam?”

“I’d love a jar!”

Each vendor offered me a little some thing; I graciously accepted and thanked them profusely. What a red letter day for me; a young lady struggling to begin her career on low paying jobs while paying back college loans. After the vendors headed home to their farms, I wiggled my shoulders through my backpack straps and could hear Mr. Dunn’s voice, “Ruby Begonia, you made out all right.”


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My niece can’t die, she is only twenty-one. I thought catastrophic events didn’t happen to my family.  Healthy children are born and fulfill Garrison Keillor’s quote about LakeWobegon, “where the women are strong, the men are good looking and the children are above average.”  Our family members transition through life stages, then check out in their late golden years except for Aunt Kay who died of ovarian cancer at age sixty and Grandma Nan, cancer also, at age 78. Cancer is a theme in our family.   

My sister from Iowa, Becki, and I talk frequently on the phone.  Through the years of distant communication we shared our experiences with raising our young children.  In August 2005, Karli, her youngest child, was majoring in horticulture at IowaStateUniversity.  Chris, my only child, had just headed off to his freshmen year at North CarolinaStateUniversity.   Life stages were unfolding for both Chris and Karli just as planned, until October.

Typically I started our phone conversations with, “Hi. How are you doing?” or “What have you been up to?”  Next, I moved on to ask about Karli and her brother, Cody.  One day, I forgot to ask about Cody.

“How’s Karli?” I asked.

“She is having some dizziness, balance issues, and vision problems,” my sister answered.

“Has she had this before?”

“No, it might be stress from school.  She gets worried about her classes.”

“I think Chris is going to get a dose of that soon,” I joked.

I was not overly concerned.  However, in subsequent calls, Becki reported that Karli’s symptoms persisted and that new ones developed.

A few weeks later, I asked, “How’s Karli feeling now?”

“She’s still dizzy most of the time and her balance is not right.  Instead of driving, she’s taking the city bus to classes.”

“Gosh, how long is this going to last and what is it?”  I asked.  My sister desperately wanted an answer.

That weekend Becki was scheduled to attend a massage therapy workshop in Minneapolis.  She decided to go, and stay in contact with Karli via phone.  I also decided to check on Karli.

I called on Saturday.  After casual chit chat I asked, “Karli, are you feeling any better?”

From a person who seldom complains, I knew her long pause was a bad sign.  Finally she spoke softly, “Hum, not really.”

Karli heard the concern in my voice, “I’m starting to get worried about you.”  In another month, we learned we had good reason for being worried.

As her symptoms continued, Karli thought she may have contracted a disease while visiting Costa Rica with her horticulture class.  Doctors at the ISU Health Clinic performed tests, but the results detected nothing.  Meanwhile, days passed slowly while Karli tried to concentrate, study, and pass tests.  New symptoms started to develop, including slight hearing loss in her left ear and difficulty reading.  A visit to the eye doctor provided no answers.  She passed up a horticultural trip to Texas, and by Thanksgiving, the holiday of feasting, Karli couldn’t keep food in her stomach.  Her visit to Cody’s house in Ankeny proved difficult because the smell of a new carpet made her feel nauseous and her hearing loss worsened.

After a long Thanksgiving break with little to no food or water, Karli visited a neurologist in Ames.   When the doctor whispered into Karli’s left ear, she heard nothing.  The next stop was a visit to the ER to get re-hydrated through an IV, and then a CAT scan and MRI.  The neurologist read the scan and diagnosed an acoustic neuroma, a benign tumor, pressing on the auditory nerve.  Becki and Karli were told that the neuroma could easily be removed and described the extraction as a “bread and butter surgery” for their local ENT clinic.

That was dead wrong.

Becki communicated nearly every day with extended family members.  Our mother, Janet, had learned from Cindy Elsen, our step-sister who is a nurse, that Iowa City had one of the best ENT clinics in the nation.  Even though the Ames doctors encouraged Karli to have surgery locally, she and her parents decided another opinion at Iowa City was worth the effort and time.  Thank goodness.

MRI in hand, they drove to Iowa City.  The doctor viewed the scan and immediately knew he was viewing a tumor on the brain stem.  They were NOT dealing with a bread and butter surgery.  But what type of tumor? 

A biopsy specimen was sent to the pathology lab.  Not until the pathology report became available would the type be known; however, the doctors speculated it might be a lymphoma or a type of blastoma.  For such tumors, surgery was not recommended.  Becki misinterpreted “no surgery” as a good sign, not realizing that no surgery meant little to no chance of survival.

Meanwhile, oblivious to the dangers of searching the web for medical information, I entered “blastoma” into the Google search box and began reading about glioblastoma.  This was a very bad idea.  Glioblastoma is the form of brain tumor that is extremely lethal and years later killed Edward Kennedy.  As I began reading, a watermelon formed in my throat and the blood pulsing through my heart nearly congealed.  If this was the cancer invading Karli’s brain, she will not survive.  We couldn’t lose Karli.

A few days later, the Iowa City doctors informed Becki, Karli, and Karli’s dad and Becki’s ex-husband, Carl, that the tumor was a pediatric type called a medulloblastoma, which is treated with surgery, radiation, and, lastly, chemotherapy. Becki was distraught after the back and forth recommendations:  first a bread and butter surgery, then no surgery, now surgery.   The doctor quickly informed her that a medulloblastoma diagnosis and surgery were good news because they now had a chance of curing Karli.  I never searched the web. 

Karli’s parents divorced in 1995, and, thankfully, maintained a healthy relationship.  Several situations enabled Becki and Carl to transition fairly smoothly from a husband-wife relationship to ex-spouses.  As Iowa hog farmers, they lacked material wealth and, for this reason, minimal disputes erupted over splitting their possessions.  Their wealth was their children, and their children were not game for division. 

I like to think that their sisters, both Becki’s and Carl’s, helped set the stage for their new relationship.  As a young teenager, I had a crush on Carl.  It was one of those infatuations that young girls fabricate in their immature minds.  In reality, Carl was interested in a beautiful cheerleader from Lohrville, not a Plain Jane basketball player from CedarValleyHigh School.  Years later, I suggested to my sister that she introduce herself to Carl.  After further years when they divorced I made a pledge to be supportive of Becki and not criticize Carl; after all, how can one criticize their teenage heart throb?  Likewise, Carl’s sisters remained supportive and loving towards Becki.  The Christensen Family is full of kindness and Becki still celebrates birthdays, holidays, and special occasions with their family. 

Additionally, a person’s spirituality guides one through difficult times.  Both Becki and Carl study and practice Master Path, a pathway for spiritual growth.  The divorce was a minor hurdle compared to Karli’s health issue.   To maintain strength, Becki frequently reminded herself “Thy will, NOT my will,” and then peace filled the void left by the worry and stress.  She trusted that God’s plan for Karli was taking shape and to accept it, and with that freedom Becki and Carl made thoughtful, educated choices on the plethora of medical decisions thrust upon them.

From Karli’s side, the doctors said she had a 60% to 80% chance of beating the cancer.  The pediatric tumor resided in her adult brain, but the medical details overwhelmed her.  Karli decided to respond like a pediatric patient and leave the medical decisions to her parents.  She adopted Alfred E. Newman’s famous line, “What, me worry?” and told herself that worrying wouldn’t cure her or determine whether she lived or died.  Karli confessed to her dad, “When I was younger and struggling with depression, I wanted to die; but now that there is a chance that I might die, I don’t want to.”  With those thoughts and faith in her doctors, Karli focused on restoring her health by following the decisions and advice of her team of doctors and parents.  

I called Becki and Karli nearly every day while waiting for the surgery date of January 5, 2006.  Becki described the tumor, “It’s not a contained unit, but a tumor that originated in the brain stem and exploded outward.” 

That sounded impossible to cure but instead I asked, “How do they perform surgery on an irregular shape?”

“The doctors estimate they can remove about 70% of the tumor and then destroy the rest with radiation.  They will use chemotherapy in case any left over cancer cells remain.” My sister was starting to sound like a medical doctor.

Doctors and nurses prepped Karli for surgery.  Her long brunette hair was shaved from the back of her head where the surgeons made a nine inch long, upside-down “L” incision to access Karli’s brain stem.  The surgery involved placing a suction device within the tumor and carefully targeting and extracting the cancer cells without disrupting normal brain cells.  The brain stem controls one’s motor skills and any mishap would have lasting effects, but so would not removing the cancer.  The surgeon told Becki he would not take any chances, and she trusted the Iowa City doctors. 

Karli 2

During the surgery, Becki thought about how close the tools would be to Karli’s brain and, with all the relatives across the nation, prayed for excellent results.  Becki wondered who she would greet after surgery – her same daughter or a child with a severe handicap.  After six hours in the operating room, the nurses rolled Karli into post-surgical intensive care.  The doctors warned Becki, Carl, and Cody that Karli’s face would be swollen.  The family hesitantly and quietly walked into the recovery room joined by Nicki, Carl’s sister, and Jerry Wilson, a close family friend.  Karli’s dark eyelashes and rich brown eyes appeared like a China doll’s but sunken within a swollen face.  Becki softly spoke, “Hi Karli.  How are you doing?”

In a groggy voice but able to speak with her characteristic personality Karli replied, “I feel like CRAP!”

A mother’s loving smile erupted across Becki’s face and tears seeped from the corners of her blue eyes.  “That’s my Karli,” and she knew surgery was a success.  With the worry at bay, for now, Cody commented, “Karli, it looks like your face is painted on a balloon.”  Laughter erupted as each person in the room savored the glow of Karli’s beauty.

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