For the love of the crock pot

One of Andy’s favorite stories to tell about my cooking ability is from the first time I invited him over for dinner. I made him a ham sandwich.

And I saw exactly zero things wrong with this at the time.

My next meal involved the stove, barely. I boiled water, threw in some spaghetti and opened a jar of ragu next to the boiling water to “warm it up” (my words that he likes to repeat with air quotes) and pour over the noodles after they were cooked.

All this to say, Andy didn’t marry me for my cooking skills.

But in the last few years, I started to discover and truly love, the crock pot. I learned to cook some of my most edible meals in it. Chili, pulled pork, red curry lentils, (careful, that last one makes 16 servings- ask me how I know) and more.

Then, Superbowl Sunday happened. Our crock pot made a popping sound and set off a huge spark. Our friend noticed exposed wires in the back and told us he wouldn’t trust it anymore (I didn’t either).

Our other friend tried to encourage us, saying, “Hey, your marriage outlived your crock pot, that’s a really good thing!” Andy said he had bought it used, so it wasn’t a big loss. But I was a little sad. It had become my favorite kitchen appliance.

The next day I decided to find out if a crock pot was one of those things that needed to be recycled. (I don’t know these things, but I was sure google could tell me what to do.) I couldn’t find anything on recycling it, but a comment on a blog showed up with someone talking about a free repair event, hosted regularly in our area.

Basically, anything that can be carried in can be repaired, or at least attempted and then if it can’t be fixed, there’s no loss. I thought it was a pretty cool idea and I was reviewing things that had been repaired before (fans, dvd players) I figured our crock pot could be a great contender.

Then I remembered that my cousin likes to tinker with things and has a strong electrical background. I texted and told him I was pretty sure our crock pot was broken, but did he want to take a look at it? He replied, “I’m always up for a challenge.” I dropped it off the next day.

My cousin is amazing! He figured out what was wrong, replaced some parts with things laying around his house, and a few days later he was testing it by cooking in it. It worked again; I was floored! I felt so green. I wanted to fly a banner in the air that said, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle… or Repair!”

To be honest, I feel a little stupid that I didn’t think of the possibility of repairing it. But I’m so thankful I have a cousin who likes to fix things, and that our crock pot has lived to see another day.

It’s time to make some pulled pork sandwiches again.

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My brother, the wordsmith

My brother was a skilled user of words. Okay, fine, that’s the exact definition of a wordsmith- but I’m not the one with the impressive language skills, he was. Justin loved words so much that when an opportunity came up to take a vocabulary class in high school- he jumped at it.

The first story I remember about Justin’s abnormal vocabulary was when he was somewhere around the age of two. My uncle would show him off like some people show off a cute puppy. For full effect, he would gather a crowd around before asking, “Now Justin, what’s that thing called when you can see something out of the corner of your eye?” Two year old Justin, who could barely pronounce the words, would proudly exclaim, “peripheral vision!”

Once he took the vocab class in high school, he was off and running. Justin took a lot of joy in knowing the meaning of words that others didn’t. He would drop impecunious into conversation just as easily as circumambulate (two words he taught me that mean ‘having little money’ and to ‘walk all the way around something’, respectively). He had an incredible memory and only had to hear something once to remember it and repeat it for the rest of his life.

One of my favorite memories where Justin’s imagination and love of words came together was one winter in elementary school. We had a large sledding hill in the back yard and he made up a creative game called, “Hi, Jack- bye!” or it could also be known as, “Hijack, bye!” through a little wordplay. Justin loved a good pun.

The rules were simple.

If you were on a sled going down the hill, you were, “Jack.” If you were, “it” your job was to run and jump onto the moving sled once Jack was midway down the hill and hijack their ride. First, you had to greet them with, “Hi, Jack” then you had to try to shove them off their sled while yelling, “Bye!” If you were successful, you rode their stolen sled the rest of the way down the hill like a boss while Jack watched on from the middle of the hill.

It still makes me laugh to think about it. It was a physical game and it usually ended with someone in tears, what with all the snow, ice, running and wrestling on a moving sled kind of stuff.

I’m glad I was able to grow up with a brother who came up with such fun things for us to do. Love and miss you, Gus.

The people before me

When I am in a new situation I don’t know much about, my default mode is research. I dive into books, articles, anything I can get my hands on to learn more. And when possible, I love to learn from people who have been through the same or similar situations.

One person  who had a death in her immediate family told me that people stopped asking how she was doing after six months. She didn’t know if they were tired of asking, or if they thought she should be further along in her grief by that point. She wished people still asked how she was doing with missing her loved ones.

Another friend described her experience following her Mom’s death. The people she thought would be there for her, weren’t. And the people she least expected showed up out of nowhere and were amazing, present and helpful.

Others talked about shifts in family dynamics after a death in their family that were truly heartbreaking.

In a weird way, I’m grateful for the people who went before me in grief. It sounds terrible to say that, because I would rather they never had to go through the loss and I wish their loved ones were still here. I guess what I’m actually grateful for is that they were willing to share with me what their experience was like. To give me a glimpse of what I might find in my own grief.

Many people sent cards after Justin died and I have read and saved every. single. one. There was a card with a handwritten letter inside that I can’t stop thinking about, even nine months later. A friend shared about what she noticed and appreciated in Justin’s life through reading his CaringBridge for almost two years (she had never met him). She also talked about things she learned in the three years since her granddaughter died. When she talked about her grief, I treasured each word, because I knew I was hearing from someone who had suffered a deep loss and was still working through it.

One thing in my friend’s letter stood out. She wrote that she was sure Justin and her granddaughter had already met in heaven. She said maybe Justin had already given her granddaughter a motorcycle ride. It was such a simple sentence, but I haven’t been able to get the idea out of my head. And I don’t want to.

I can picture Justin in my mind, laughing and racing down the streets in heaven, maybe even with a couple kids in tow.

It’s hope found in small things like this, that help redeem a bit of the hurt in loss.

Nicknames

When I started writing, I figured it would be mostly current events in my not so interesting life. But recently, every time I sit down to write, words upon words about my brother come out. I decided that’s okay. At some point I will naturally talk about him a little less, and that will be okay too.

But for now, he’s often on my mind.

When he is especially on my heart and mind, I wear my “Team Justin” bracelet from his benefit two years ago. When I want to be slightly more discreet about it, I wear two bracelets my friends gave me after he died. One has a motorcycle charm, and the other a personalized name of, “Gus”, my brother’s nickname from when he was young.

When we were teens my brother and I gave each other the nickname, “Fatty” and greeted each other with, “Hey, Fatty” for years. Soon after Justin died, I just wanted to see his handwriting again. So I pulled down a box of letters from my closet and found a card he had mailed to me in 2003. He had listed, “Fatty” as his return address. I smiled and laughed as I read it because he always sent me the most inappropriate cards. I loved it.

About a year ago he asked me to stop using that nickname for him. I asked him if Gus was okay. He replied, “that works.” And so I switched. My friends took note of it when they decided to give me something to wear when I’m missing Justin.

Sometimes people’s thoughtfulness is overwhelming in a good way.

Three questions

When meeting new people it’s not uncommon to be asked, “Do you have any siblings?” An unsuspecting person asked me that last December. Tears welled up in my eyes and I somehow sputtered out, “Yes, a brother. But he died.” Fortunately, it was a sweet man in his seventies and we sat at a piano bench talking about life, death and family. I’m glad he was so gracious.

I’ve found that most people ask three questions when they find out my brother died. The first two are variations of the same question:

“What happened?” and “Was he sick?” I prefer the first question to the second. Even though there was cancer involved, I like the open endedness to the first question. I can answer it however I want to instead of ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

The third question is usually, “Was it sudden?”.

I haven’t found a good way to answer this one yet. Because logically, if I look at a calendar and the 20 months between Justin’s diagnosis and his death, and the 6 or 7 times the cancer returned to his body, well yeah, I suppose I could have seen it coming and it wouldn’t have appeared so “sudden”.

But I was too close. I didn’t really see it coming. Or more accurately, I didn’t want to see it coming. I was surprised. I mean, I knew in my head it was a possibility and that is why I prayed more for my brother than I’ve ever prayed for another human in my whole life. But I didn’t let the rest of me accept that possibility. Just a little corner in my head had those thoughts and I tried to shut them up all the time.

I think I come by this stubbornness naturally. In my family we’ve had several people cheat death.

My Uncle was diagnosed with renal cell cancer when I was a teenager. He was given six months to live more times than I can count. He lived for 18 more years. We were able to say goodbye to each other several times before it was the last time. In his last week we got to spend a morning together and he mapped out his favorite route for riding motorcycles out west. My husband was taking a trip with his buddies that summer and I was getting the low down on all the best spots. He knew the owners of little hole in the wall places and marked them on the map too. It’s one of my favorite things from him.

My Grandma was diagnosed with terminal lung disease when I was young. One time a woman lectured her on smoking when she saw my Grandma hauling around her oxygen tank. Grandma leaned into the woman and pointed her finger in her face and said, “Lady! There has never been a cigarette between these lips!” before huffing away and leaving the woman speechless. Grandma was diagnosed at the same time as another man with the same disease, same stage and roughly the same age. He lived 4 months, she lived almost 10 more years. As a grandkid, I credited it to her stubbornness of wanting to see all of us grow up.

My Mom was killed in a car accident, and after having a conversation with God, she came back to life. This probably sounds crazy, but no one was more shocked than the paramedic on the scene. He had checked for signs of life, found none, and completed the fatality report by marking all three people in the vehicle as dead. He came running back to their crunched car minutes later when he heard my Mom yelling the name of Jesus (no lie).

So, the history of not taking illness or even death too seriously was pretty well ingrained in me by the time Justin received his first diagnosis of tumors in his chest. I was scared. And I bawled my eyes out the moment I heard the news. But each time the Doctor would give him a course of action to take, I would relax a little bit because there was a plan. And Justin always talked about everything going on in his body with such confidence and conviction. He was easy to believe.

So yeah, it was sudden and it wasn’t. But it was to me.