Thursday, May 28, 2015

On a Parallel Course to my Father's Death

"I'm not going to die, I'm not going to die...."  Such strong words.  How many other mothers have chanted this motto to themselves every time they thought about fighting the illness running loose in their bodies?  I cannot even imagine.  I cannot imagine how they felt as they descended further and further until there was no further to go.  In my case, I actually think I have a choice.  At least yesterday I did and tomorrow I probably will think so again.

I watched my dear, sweet father physically decline to death in a matter of a little more than three years.  Now due to a different illness, yet not completely unrelated, I'm on the same course.  However, I'm over 40 years younger than he was when he died.  He was an older man, a grandfather six times over.  For me, with two small and dependent children to raise and a husband to spend eternity with, I have no intention of giving myself over to this path quickly or easily.  At the same time, I feel helpless to prevent it.  It’s much too strong for me to battle successfully.  My own body declines every year in measurable increments that I cannot reverse.  All I have is the mental fight left in me to work with.  Sometimes that's not even enough.

My story began some time after my father, alav hashalom, turned 60-years-old.  He was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, a musculoskeletal condition.  This is something we share because I, too, was diagnosed with a muscularskeletal condition, but only a few years ago.  In my father's case, his main symptom started off as a hand tremor.  Other symptoms piled on over the years.  By the time he was halfway through age 67 he had to cut back on driving at night and he needed a lower bed to sleep in because higher ones were too difficult for him to get into.  Yet, he was the same exact brilliant, articulate, creative, easy-going, and dependable man we always knew and loved.  A while after he turned 68 he had some trouble cutting his food and performing other fine motor tasks.  He had also developed stiffness throughout his body.  Shortly thereafter he underwent elective brain surgery in March 2005.  This procedure involved implanting two deep brain stimulators into the upper front portion of his head.  Through the miracle of modern science the doctors were able to use these stimulators and a remote control to literally dial down my father's tremors and the stiffness he was suffering from.  The idea of these devices was that over time as my father's disease progressed he could visit his doctors and they could use the remote to adjust his symptoms for the better.  This gave him control over his disease as it was expected to worsen throughout the rest of his life, which we thought to be a couple more decades, at least.

Five days after his brain surgery my mother and I brought him home from the hospital.  We had no idea that he had suffered brain damage.  That night, a Friday, he slept in the bedroom across the hall from mine.  I was only there for a week to help during this fragile phase in his and my mother's life and was planning to get back to my own life and career in Los Angeles once he was settled.  I cannot write to the extent of what transpired that night.  However, I remember being so shocked and scared by his behavior that I ran into my parents' bedroom where my mother was sleeping alone and woke her up.  I shared the shock and anxiety and led her back to where my father was.  I closed my bedroom door to give them privacy.  When she finally left him to return to her room I ran back out into the hallway to talk to her.  I asked her, "What are you going to do?"  She didn't know, but she was determined to handle it no matter what.

I flew back to L.A. that Sunday, as planned, scared out of my mind.  It was like an overnight transformation.  My father as we knew him was gone.  Forever lost to us, yet here he was in the flesh just like he'd been the week before.  He was the same and completely not the same any longer.  I began mourning the loss of my father at that time as I processed the changes.  He'd always been the most competent and reliable person we'd ever known.  Now he was suffering from brain damage, hallucinations, and he wasn't consistently logical any longer.  During the day he seemed almost the same man we'd known, but he'd lost his edge and went in and out of these brain damaged moments.  The nights were the worst.  As time progressed the days began to match the nights, too.

Back at work in L.A. I gave notice to our executive producer, one of the kindest and most decent men in all of the entertainment industry.  It was a rare gift to work for people who inspired you to be loyal and driven and to feel appreciated by them.  But it was time to return to the East Coast where I was born and raised.  I would settle this time not in the suburbs of Philadelphia where I grew up and where my family was.  I had skills and a resume that could transfer the best to another entertainment town, which was New York City.  By train or car the ride to visit my father from there would be very manageable.  A few weeks later I drove cross-country to my family in time for Passover 2005.  During that 8-day stretch of holiday my father ended up in the hospital for emergency brain surgery.

And so it went on like a roller coaster ride.  Within nine months my father had a total of five brain surgeries, including the first one.  He'd suffered not just brain damage, but infections in his brain.  The damage was irreversible.  After the final surgery, when both deep brain stimulators had been removed, the doctor gave him back to my mother in a wheelchair.  He was not just mentally debilitated, but now physically, too.  It was overwhelming for all of us, especially my mother.  Her moods swung all over the place.

On the work front, I was an outsider to the entertainment industry in New York City and jobs are very tough to come by for outsiders.  There are far fewer of them than there were in L.A. and the locals protect their own.  I was fortunate to get a good job within three months of moving into the city, but once I became shomer Shabbat I was promptly fired.  Frequently before that job started and frequently after it ended I'd run home to Pennsylvania to be with my father and help my mother through the ordeal.  Even though I was in the middle of the turmoil alongside my mother, she had no one else to unleash her emotions on but me.  I was suffering already in my own way and couldn't bear the additional stress.  I decided to visit less frequently and go back to focusing on my career in NYC.  I ended up meeting my husband due to this focus on my new life.

But, the die was already cast.  When my father was returned to my mother in that wheelchair it set the tone for the rest of his life.  His mind was a cloudy mess and his body was barely obedient.  The rest of his healthy body, including all of his strong organs, ultimately declined to match his brain.  It took three years and two months before he passed away.  It was a slow, painful time for all of us.  Since I'd mourned the loss of my father so early on, I'd fallen into a state of acceptance, patience, and kindness.  I knew it was merely a matter of time until his body caught up to the damage in his brain.

At the very end when my poor father was in the hospital his doctors pleaded with my mother, tried to "reason" with her from their perspective, that it was time to pull the feeding tube.  A hospital is for someone who will get better, they explained to us, and he's simply not one of those people.  He's going to die so either expedite it here or take him home.  My mother contacted Hospice and hired care for him at home until he passed away on his own terms.  HaKadosh Baruch Hu above generously gave us another couple weeks to visit him at home and say good-bye.  He passed away quietly in the early hours of the morning on January 20, 2009 (24 Tevet 5769).  No one pulled any plugs or removed any feeding tubes.  It was the best way possible in my mind for his specific situation.

And that was the end of that long, sorrowful chapter of a brilliant man with so much good to offer the world having his brain taken away from him in such a way.  His greatest gift was his advanced I.Q. and that's the very thing that was lost in the years leading up to his death.


Never in a million years could I predict that my end would follow my father's path.  I mentally fight it every day and push my body to physically fight it.  I hold onto blind hope that I'll peel back the years and resume living the capable and strong life I did not so long ago.  But I feel myself crashing again.  This is the feel of what happens when I get worse in measurable increments each year.  No medication has been able to stop the advance of my illness.  No surgery will do much more than slow down what is already coming.  The book is not finished for me.  I still have who-knows-how-many years to fill the pages.  And I'm trying to fight as much as I can.  There is simply no control over what has unleashed itself on my body.  The path was already paved in front of me by my father.  All I can do is make it longer and windier for myself to get as far as I can in a way my beloved father could not.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Let's Talk Shabbat: Now and Way Back When

A few years after I moved to Los Angeles, California in 1999, I started thinking about the numerous Orthodox Jews I saw walking on the sidewalks or crossing streets on Saturdays. Whenever I saw them, I was always doing the epitome of what they weren’t – driving in my car, listening to music on my radio. Seeing these Jews heading to and from their synagogues I was overcome with something closely resembling pity. To my na├»ve eyes they looked as if they were living under a heavy burden. How sad that they have to miss out (on fun) as life passes them by. How little I knew or understood. I had never been closely exposed to Orthodoxy up to that point. I couldn’t truly grasp what I was looking upon. I was uneducated and making an ignorantly uneducated assumption. What I didn't know then was that one must experience what it’s like on the inside of the Orthodox Jewish world to fairly judge it. It took me years to get myself on the inside to look out. And how humbling it was to see how wrong I’d been on those Saturdays. I realized in hindsight how haughty and judgmental I was to think that I was living it up all that time. Hardly! They were the ones living it up while I was filling my days with empty activities and letting life pass me by!

For the first 30 years of Saturdays in my life I usually slept in and indulged in well-deserved activities such as getting pedicures or facials, getting my hair cut and styled, meeting friends for lunch, going shopping, going to movies, doing laundry, cleaning, paying bills, and many, many times working either in my parents’ business when I lived at home in Pennsylvania or supervising an editing session for a TV show after I went into production in L.A. I thought that was living maximally to the best of my knowledge. But all this time later it feels like those were only superficial activities. Since I became religious I’ve spent Saturdays indulging my spiritual and mental self and resting my physical self; getting dressed up and taking my children to synagogue where we are excited to go and delve into Torah Judaism, socializing with our community, leisurely eating festive lunches with our family and friends, taking time to sit down and read books or peruse cookbooks and magazines, stopping all stressors and deadlines and focusing on my most cherished prizes in the world – my husband and children – where I’m dedicated to nurturing happy and healthy relationships. How many children and parents cannot hold a meaningful conversation? Perhaps they were never given enough time to exchange dialogue and appreciate each other’s intellect. How many children learn to disrespect their parents and talk back? On the contrary, I’ve seen how a child in this day and age can profoundly respect a parent’s or even a grandparent’s mind for having been around longer and earned more experience. I’ve seen how a parent can even profoundly respect a child’s mind. All due to those Shabbat conversations when no one is rushed and the world has stopped to give us this sacred space.  It almost boils down to the word "connection".  We're not connecting with material things.  We're connecting with other humans.  We're building and caring for our relationships.  We're connecting to people and, most especially, to G-d.

Shabbat doesn’t just show up and find us. We are charged with finding it. It’s not at the gas station when you’re filling up your car on a Saturday, nor is it at the hair salon or movie theater. It’s where you look when you make the effort to look for it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Time To Come Out of Hiding

Where have I been since posting my last blog so very long ago? First, I expanded my teaching hours in a religious school for 2011-2012 and literally had no extra time in my life to blog. That pace was too much for my family and I had to cut back substantially after the 10-month long commitment was over. Then, having had recently joined Facebook, www.facebook.com/allyson.guraryeh, I began posting something there every day, although nothing I wrote was terribly long like on my own blog. That seemed to satisfy my need to write temporarily. I also developed a devastating case of carpal tunnel and could not type any longer (thank G-d, that is not the case today). And lastly, the hardest news to share with people is my musculoskeletal condition that was diagnosed last year in January 2012. Four months later I was diagnosed with another musculoskeletal-related disorder. I’ve been on strong drug therapy, along with PT and OT, since the first diagnosis came in. I’m on the mend, but it’s been a painstakingly slow process, longer than the doctor predicted when she started me on the treatment plan. I’m going in the right direction, though, and that is what matters the most because I have two small children to raise and I want to be here to do it in good health, G-d willing. My writing has come second to everything else going on in my life. I’m hoping to get back to more frequent writing again soon so please stay tuned for the near future!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Red Lipstick

I remember the first time I became cognizant of red lipstick. It was worn by the actress Kelly McGillis in the movie "Top Gun" (released in 1986 by my former employer - shout out to Jerry Bruckheimer!) She wore it perfectly! It looked sophisticated and she was beautiful. From then on, my obsession with red lipstick was begun. However, due to my very young age back then, it looked utterly ridiculous on me. I could see that one grows into red lipstick much like you grow into your mom's high heels.

I waited for years and purchased and tried many shades of red lipstick. Still, nothing looked right yet. Finally, finally when I turned 30-years-old, my moment arrived! Red lipstick looked on me the same way it did on Ms. McGillis in 1986. I was overjoyed! Now I looked sophisticated and beautiful in my red lipstick, too. What a shame that I only put it on at home in the morning and never re-applied it the rest of the day! What a waste.

Now, in these years since I looked right in red lipstick, I've barely worn make-up to the extent I did when I still worked on a daily basis. My husband and children have been happy to have me without make-up while I stay home. I only wear it now when I teach or go to weddings and such. And, quite unfortunately for me, I have found that there is only a short stage in a woman's life (or, at least in my life) where she looks good in red lipstick. I seem to have passed that stage already. I tried putting it on a few times in the past couple months and each time, I needed to wipe it off in favor of a lighter beige-pink color instead. The red once again looks ridiculous on me. Now I've aged out of it instead of grown into it. This is what the other side of wearing red lipstick looks like. How sad that I never took advantage of that stage while it was at hand.

I sit here now laughing as I write this. I laugh at how badly and for how long I wanted to look right in red lipstick and after all that effort, I didn't savor my opportunity when I had the chance. In a way, it's sad justice that I can't wear it any longer because I didn't appreciate it enough when I could. I also laugh because there is nothing I can do but laugh. Thank G-d, it seems that the sting of this isn't so very strong because I must be accepting aging better than I thought I would. Thank G-d! But still, what a shame....

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Day In My Past Life at E!

Do you ever wish you could go back in time and re-live a day in your life? Not specifically to make different choices and change outcomes (although that could be nice), but just to go back and walk in your old shoes again because life was so interesting or so pleasant that you want to re-visit it.

In the small handful of years since I left the entertainment industry, I have not missed the lifestyle too much. It's been surprising, actually, how content I was to start a new career (or two) and live a calmer life with more personal time and less stress. But as more time passes and takes me further from how I used to define myself, I am slowly starting to think about my former lifestyle all over again. I am remembering the cheerful times from those fruitful years. I felt blessed every day to live that very life that I worked so hard to come by. I was mindful of all that was going well. And because much was going well, with great affection I remind myself of what a day-in-the-life was like back then.

Perhaps my favorite job in Hollywood was on the "E! True Hollywood Story". Not the most lucrative or most impressive job out of everything I did, but most certainly the absolute happiest one. I had been around the block a few times when I became a permanent employee at E! in July 2002. I was fond of a few different shows I worked on at E!, but something about "THS" felt like this was what I was meant to do in life. I was euphoric at the beginning of each new show we produced when I was handed a fat stack of research materials to read (no kidding, 2"-4" high, plus books). I loved sorting through everything, putting together timelines and lists of famous movies or TV clips or moments in the subject's life, lists of acquisitions to make, lists of people to interview, etc. Once an outline was nailed down, my mind was kept sharp and my negotiating skills were honed with the day-to-day details of bringing together a TV show that was only a concept in our minds and would become a tangible product for audiences to see at home. From A to Z, I was even exhilarated as I sat in the editing bays until 1 or 2am so many nights on so many shows. It was completely rewarding.

As if going each day to a job I loved wasn't enough, the details of my personal life were fairly pleasant, too. While I lived in the Fairfax District for my first 3 years of Los Angeles life (and suffered through the obnoxious overnight helicopters, as well as a 3:30am burglar in my bedroom), I moved to a warm, friendly, nicely maintained apartment building in Beverly Hills for the last 2 1/2 years. My neighbors were caring, my landlady was the best you could ask for, and who could argue with the public services of Beverly Hills? Imagine going to City Hall for something and actually receiving outstanding service from the people there! I worked and sometimes slaved like a dog to have good things and by this point I was living as pleasing a lifestyle as possible surrounded by (mostly) good people.

When I wasn't in editing sessions until the early hours of the morning, I was living a normal work schedule at E!, which was 9am-6pm for some departments and 9:30am-6:30pm for others. I remember the decadence of rolling out of bed at 8am or so, driving the entire 15 minute commute down Wilshire Boulevard (encountering many careless drivers along the way), which was lined with soaring palm trees on both sides to fully remind you that you were living in a seemingly-glorious place, and arriving at my desk between 9:15 and 9:30am. I was a workaholic and did not mind expending all of my energy on my job. I was motivated by every element of the work. And if you're really fortunate, you are motivated by the people you work side-by-side with. I had producers who worked just as hard as I did, even though they were my superiors and could get away with less. When I worked with people like that, I wanted to work even harder. When I worked with people who passed the buck or were remiss (at E!, at other production houses...), it added stress to my job. If they weren't living up to their responsibilities, it added to my already full plate.

To further heighten an "only in L.A." experience, the E! office building had a courtyard, waterfall feature and all, and numerous picnic tables and chairs for our use. We ate lunch outside at those tables. Translation: I could eat lunch outside in January and I did only because I could. I'm a girl from Pennsylvania. This was one of the most surreal things to me. And I told myself that to stay down-to-earth, I should never forget that feeling. This was a reminder of where I came from and how privileged I was to be where I was.

Once I left work in the evenings, I was basically completely drained. I managed to go to the gym a couple nights a week, I was paired up with a partner to learn Torah with once a week starting in 2003, I attended a Jewish class once in a while, and I began to make my own Shabbat dinners at home if I wasn't invited out to one already. I had few precious friends and countless acquaintances.

Religiously speaking, I came to L.A. a blank page as far as Judaism was concerned. During those 5 1/2 years, that page was imprinted with what turned out to be my Jewish identity. I learned history, ancient rituals that are still practiced today (over 3,000 years later), heard and spoke words of Torah for the first time in my life, and felt the acceptance and unconditional love of sisters and brothers I never knew existed. My career was completely fulfilling to me by then (less prestige, less pay, but I knew what the other choices were). Spiritually, I was not living up to my potential at all. I felt some of that and knew that was why I needed to continue surrounding myself with honest and well-intentioned people who could show me what was out there for Jews to learn about and practice in their own lives. I was getting closer all the time. I kept wanting more and was also reluctant to take on too much. I went from entirely assimilated and unaffiliated to being something like "Conservadox" and having a synagogue where I could call home.

I spent my whole childhood living for the future, for the day when I would be successful in the Hollywood entertainment industry. And I finally had what I wanted at the right company and at the right pace. I was challenged intellectually by my work in the office and by my explorations in cooking and entertaining at home. Yet I still felt an emptiness that I could not explain. What more could anyone want? What am I missing?

I would not know until I moved to New York City in 2005 and found Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Within literally 2-3 months of setting foot in KJ, I found 100% clarity and direction. You can never know if Torah Judaism is right for you until you stop finding excuses and devote the time to living in those shoes for a while. That's what I did and I found all my personal and spiritual fulfillment. I even found that my professional identity, so wrapped up in the entertainment industry until then, was not as necessary as oxygen to me as I had always thought. But don't get me wrong. I think lovingly and longingly upon those days at E! I would never undermine how valuable that time was and I would still cherish going back for a day-in-the-life.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Passover & Year Round Apricot Chicken with a Twist


I love many, many recipes from the "Spice and Spirit" cookbook, but this succulent chicken dish in particular is adored in my household by everyone. I've received a lot of enthusiastic compliments on it from outsiders, as well, and not a single complaint, bli ayin hara. The normal ingredients translate easily into Pesachdik ingredients.

"Spice and Spirit" cookbook, January 2007 printing, page 240.


Apricot Chicken (with my own personal twist)
*I've doubled the main ingredients from the cookbook because it makes the finished product so much juicier. If the way I wrote the recipe yields too much for your needs, it can be easily halved OR you can freeze some for another time.

Ingredients:
6-8 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
6-8 potatoes (one per breast)
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced in rings
olive oil
salt and pepper
paprika
6 tbsp apricot jam (or preserves)
6 tbsp lemon juice (or 2 lemons)
6 tbsp ketchup
3 tbsp mayonnaise
2 envelopes onion soup mix (1 3/8 oz. each)

Directions:
1. Pre-heat oven to 350°.
2. In a large baking dish (13"x9"), lightly coat the bottom with olive oil.
3. Scrub potatoes and slice on the diagonal no more than 1/4" thick.
4. In a single layer, spread potatoes on the bottom of the baking dish. Drizzle on some olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and paprika. Repeat layers until you use up all potatoes.
5. Spread out the onion rings over the potatoes. Drizzle with olive oil and some salt.
6. Bake for half an hour.
7. In the meanwhile, mix the apricot jam, lemon juice, ketchup, mayonnaise, and onion soup mix. Set aside. (Do not boil as the original recipe instructs. FYI, this is where the ingredients have been doubled to make the recipe juicier.)
8. Remove the baking dish from the oven. Place the chicken breasts in a single layer over the potatoes and onions. Pour all the apricot mixture evenly over the breasts taking care to cover all of the chicken.
9. Bake uncovered until the chicken is cooked through, about 45 minutes. Test a thick chicken breast by cutting through it: if juices run clear then it is ready.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Dutch Meat Loaf That Every Family Can Enjoy!

This is a wonderful recipe not only for yourself, but also when you want to bring a meal to a family who just had a baby! It seems that even picky kids (and husbands) will eat this.

The Back Story:
Because I try to avoid clutter (see my home and you may think otherwise!), I am very selective about what cookbooks take up space on my shelf. I used to collect all kinds of cookbooks - like any serious cook - and I wasn't afraid to let them take up all of our shelf space. However, as the collection intruded with what space our children's books needed, I had to go through my cookbooks and weed out the ones I didn't use. Now I'm down to 16, which still sounds like a lot! I go through them every year or so to see which ones I should give away and I need a lot of motivation to make the space for adding a new one to my shelf.

One of my favorite cookbooks has an unlikely story of how it got to me. It's the purple colored "Spice and Spirit, The Complete Kosher Jewish Cookbook" from Lubavitch Women's Cookbook Publication. Back in 2008 I'd never heard of it and didn't ask for it, but it was given to me by a dear colleague at the OU who had an extra copy. It sat on my desk at work unopened for months before I brought it home. Once home and still unopened, I stored it on my cookbook shelf until my yearly foray through which cookbooks I could get rid of. I meant to give away this one first, but then all it took was one glance through it and the rest is history! That would have been a huge mistake if I didn't finally look through it! I am grateful that this is among my collection. The recipe selection is spectacular. I use it all the time to try recipes that are new to me, from Hungarian to Caribbean to Sephardic cuisine.

Dutch Meat Loaf
"Spice and Spirit" cookbook, January 2007 printing, page 211.

Ingredients:
1 1/2 lbs. ground beef
1 cup soft bread crumbs
1 onion, diced
1 15 oz. can tomato sauce
1 egg, beaten
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/4 c water
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp prepared mustard

According to the recipe, use a 9" x 5" loaf pan, but I use a larger baking pan.
Yields 4-6 servings.

1. Pre-heat oven to 350°.
2. In a large bowl combine ground beef, bread crumbs, onion, 3/4 cup tomato sauce, egg, and salt. Mix well and shape into a loaf. Place in loaf pan.
3. Combine remaining tomato sauce with water, sugar, and mustard. Pour over loaf.
4. Bake for 1 1/2 hours. Remove from oven and let stand a few minutes before slicing.

I like to serve this dish with a side of roasted potatoes and roasted asparagus.