Monday, December 31, 2007

Tying Up Loose Ends

December 31, 2007

I thought I should check in before the year ended and let you know not to worry. We had Christmas, lovely in all its splendor and good cheer. I really wanted to tell you all about it, upload photos, the whole nine yards. I just didn't get around to it. Not lazy, exactly, I just haven't wanted to come inside. And I certainly haven't wanted to sit in front of my computer (oh yeah, and there was the added problem of always finding a queue at my desk, when I actually made time to update--Davis is home for the break and playing an online, live version of Risk between the residential colleges at Rice that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week; Erin now has an active e-mail correspondence with a half dozen friends; and Walter's office is closed for the break, so he has to read the New York Times on my computer every day).

Erin made all of her Christmas presents again this year, mainly at the church gift making workshop, but she did a few on her own at home, including this lovely strawberry pot that she painted for an obviously appreciative Aunt Elisabeth:

This Christmas allowed Erin to act like everyone else in America who has birthday's between her age and Davis's. Annabelle received the video game that simulates air guitar with a fake one (you gotta love the camo pancho over the Christmas pajamas):

The only reason I really updated today though was to tie up the loose ends of the year. For those of you on scan watch, it's time to pump up the action. Erin will have routine scans next Monday. She and I will return Davis back to school on Sunday, and then get set for a full day where we dance the wild scantastic. Somehow, this time, I feel like everything will be copacetic.

For those of you curious about the IVIG infusion Erin had in November. Almost an unqualified success. Why almost? Erin has felt really well, no major or really even minor illness, even when those around her have been stricken. Good weight gain. Healthy appetite. The only problem? The insurance company is dragging its feet on paying the $1700+ bill. I'll get right on that . . .next year. For the results we've had, I might even consider paying the bill without complaining.

We trusted Willie enough to break out a new jigsaw puzzle last night. Last time we had puzzles out, Willie ate selected pieces and chewed through the boxes so that we did not have the completed view to work from. This time we started with a 500 piece one, so we could finish in one night, thus minimizing the risk. It worked, so far.

Erin is scheduled to leave for Fort Worth on Wednesday for a multi day visit with her friend, Clayton Sue and the rest of the awesome Benson family. Walter is leaving for an academic conference on Thursday, leaving Davis and I to knock off our various inter-term projects together.

Now, I best go start celebrating New Year's Eve.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Last Call

December 23, 2007

Thanks to the many loving folks who took the time to send an e-mail or write a comments about their holiday rituals. I wish I were as creative and interesting as all of you. There is still time to share your holiday remembrance/tradition/celebration so that I can include your story in the booklet for Erin. I will add to the booklet until tomorrow afternoon.

Also, last call for Lunch for Life. We need to send thanks to those of you responsible for decorating Erin's tree with almost 400 ornaments. Depending on whether you used the giving code 24730 or not, your donations have added at least $1000 and perhaps as much as $2000 directly to neuroblastoma research. If you have started to give, but hadn't yet, wed like to encourage you not to wait.

Lunch for Life

If you have been wondering what Erin has been up to, I should probably fill you in. Piano, soccer, and horse back riding have all taken a winter holiday. Is Erin languishing around the house with nothing to do? No, of course not. The weekdays may have slowed down enough to play with friends in the park or out in the woods most days after school, but the weekends have been chocked full. A couple of weekends ago, she helped celebrate Nico's birthday with him, went with Katie Lockett to see A Christmas Carol, then spent the night with her, and on Sunday morning served as liturgist in big church with Nico. Last weekend, we went to Jesse Baxter's ice show (and had the bonus of seeing Heather Jobling skate. . .Wow) on Friday. On Saturday, she spent the night with her buddy Tiffany Reeves (and joined their family at a holiday party and for hay riding at Central Park).

I had to pick up Davis in Houston last Wednesday, so Lizzie Cluff, fresh from a study abroad program in Australia, picked Erin up from school, took her for ice cream and girl talk, and delivered her to the church for bell and choir practice. By the time Erin got home, full of ice cream and good cheer, I think she discovered that she had gotten stronger than Davis over the semester, as this wrestling video demonstrates.

Erin's class holiday party (which is just an excuse to eat pizza and junk food and have extended recess) happened Friday (apologies to Elaine, but this photo was too cute to leave out).

Davis served as Santa's elf, orchestrating and managing the craft project. I do believe the fifth graders adored him, and I think I saw flashes of teaching excellence as he guided them through their project.

I feel so fortunate that Erin's class has a wonderful, family feel. You know fifth graders they can get mean or snotty to each other in certain circumstances, but these kids in Ms. Kutzenberger's class really have warm spirit.

Erin was surprised to find Aunt Kat and Emma at home (for a scheduled weeklong stay) when she got home from school. I had never really kept track of this, but according to Erin, she had never seen Emma on her first day of a visit, because she always arrived after I had sent Erin to bed. This year they arrived in plenty of time to join us for our planned activity--sledding on Mt. Aggie. Pat and the rest of you rolling in snow, don't laugh at this next picture. Here's how Texans enjoy a white Christmas (the little blob in the middle is Aunt Kat, zooming down the mountain like lightning. The white, of course, is artificial turf):

I don't know if other cancer parents are like I am, but I tend to see little microcosms of Erin's larger struggle with cancer in many commonplace events. Today, Erin served as acolyte during morning worship. During the prelude, Erin, garbed in her alb, walked slowly down the center aisle, holding a candle lighter (is there a special word for this device with a wick on one end and a bell-shaped candle snuffer attached?). She arrived at the Advent wreath and easily lit "hope" and "love." She got to "joy," and it wouldn't catch fire. Erin moved up a step on the chancel to try to see the wick better (causing her to stretch the lighter in front of her to reach the pink candle). It wouldn't light. The prelude music got louder and faster. Everyone in the congregation watched. Her candle lighter lost its flame. She calmly re-lit it on the "hope" candle and tried for "joy" again. No luck. The congregation was now holding its collective breath. The organist approached the climax of the prelude. Erin moved the candle lighter towards the "peace" candle, which quickly caught and flared up, then circled back for one last try at "joy." So much frustration, so many different angles, such a long stretch from the step across to the Advent wreath. The entire sanctuary sat still in its seat. No telling how many prayers were sent up, probably enough to lift the roof. Then "joy" kindled, almost guttered, then blazed. Everyone breathed, and Erin walked off, serious at first (as she had been the whole time), then her face changed expression, from determination to relief to joy. It was hard to tell which shown more brightly, the "joy" candle, Erin, or Erin's mom.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Two More--an Old One and a New One

December 22, 2007

You probably wouldn't recognize our Christmas tree as a Christmas tree if you saw it before we put on the ornaments. When I first met Walter (many moons ago), he was a young assistant professor, batching it on a pretty skimpy salary. That may or may not explain his choice of Christmas tree. He always called it a cowboy Christmas tree and claimed that he was allergic to regular trees in the
pine and juniper families. He would walk out into the fields near his house and chop a yaupon (ilex vomitoria), which he placed in a traditional Christmas tree stand (more on this later) and decorated with fairly traditional ornaments. Once you get used to the idea that your Christmas tree is neither symmetrical nor fully branched out and that it would not smell like a "Christmas tree" unless you put it next to Glade Evergreen air freshener, you can kind of get used to this funkier version. It also explains why we don't put the tree up the day after Thanksgiving. A cut yaupon can last maybe ten days before it drops its leaves and berries.

I don't want you to get the impression, however, that it is all sweet and light with a yaupon "cowboy" Christmas tree. For one thing it took us more years than I care to remember to figure out how to keep it from falling over once we got it into the stand. To me, putting up the tree always meant choosing a day that Walter wasn't likely to be stressed or in a bad mood already, icing down a plentiful amount of beer before hand for the aftermath, and preparing for a lot of whatever the opposite of Christmas cheer is. There are huge logistical problems with using a yaupon as a Christmas tree: the trunk is too slender to fit securely in a tree stand (we would wrap it with a hand towel to make the trunk thicker and use shims to make it fit); the top is heavier than the bottom and the trunk is crooked (we would use bricks on the feet of stand as counterweights and sometimes secure it to the wall with guy wires). We would wrestle with the tree and sweat. If you find one with a thicker trunk, the balance problem grows in proportion. If you find a relatively balanced one, it is likely to be too skinny for the stand.

One time we had successfully gotten the tree up and decorated, when the heater (or maybe air conditioner, since we are in Texas) came on and the air through the vent was enough to upset the delicate balance we had achieved and tumble the tree over, ornaments and all. Another time I remember vividly happened when Davis was still a baby. Our friend Duffy was either living with us or had just come over for the annual curse-fest of Christmas tree night. I had laid a fire in the fireplace to add to the ambiance of the evening and had secured Davis out of harm's way in his high chair to watch, but not interfere. Walter thought he had a better plan this year (I think this is akin to inventing a better mouse trap, much pursued but rarely realized), and we got started. Let me just say that a storm with horrible winds blew up suddenly and somehow caused the chimney to stop drawing. Smoke filled the living room, setting off the smoke detectors (of which, because we were new parents, there were plenty). The wailing smoke detectors launched the dogs into a howling frenzy. The howling dogs and wailing smoke detector startled Davis into shrieks and tears. This all happened just as Walter let go of the eight-foot tree, which torqued under its own weight and toppled to the ground. After that, I honestly thought that Davis would have to grow up opening his presents under a poinsettia or perhaps a sprig of mistletoe.

We did take the next year off from cowboy Christmas trees and bought a live tree (which we set up in the loft to keep Davis from continuously de-nuding it) and that worked okay in the set up, but hit our pocketbook pretty hard. Walter relented the following year, but somehow we had the brilliant idea of moving the location of the tree. Did I say brilliant? Is there a word more superlative than brilliant? If you can think of it, insert it here _______. That year we began with the idea that we would hang our tree with wire from the loft, so that the Christmas tree stand was really just a prop. We could get as large and uneven a tree as we could wanted, tie it up with wire, and secure it to the loft railings where they made a right angle. Since then, it has never fallen down. . .never teetered . . .never even come close. Now our only problem is that Davis and Erin pick the tree, and it's always a gamble whether we can squeeze it through the door.

The other holiday tradition at the Buengers that I want to tell you about began just two years ago, but it is one we hope to keep and expand. Maybe other environmentally conscientious families have figured this out a long time ago, but three Christmases ago, we looked around at the crumpled paper of every color piled in heaps around our living room and decided that throwing away good paper year after year could not be a good thing. We had tried the strategy of opening the gifts carefully and saving the wrapping paper, but that drug out the gift exchange way past bedtime. Davis suggested a solution. He went to a fabric store after Christmas and bought discounted holiday fabric. With me pinning and him sewing, we made what we call "Ho Ho sacks," bags of various sizes with drawstrings. The next year and last year we added to the collection, so we now have between a dozen and two dozen re-usable bags to hold our Christmas gifts. It makes the wrapping faster and the clean up pure joy. Here are some of the ones already under the tree (you can see that we haven't phased out gift wrap and paper gift bags completely, but that is the plan):

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Other Rituals

December 18, 2007

Ordinarily, we would have put up the Christmas tree last night, one week before Christmas Eve, but with Davis still in Houston, procurement of said tree has not yet happened. You will just have to wait until the morrow or perhaps Thursday to learn why the Buengers wait until the last week to put up their tree.

Instead of dusting off the ornaments today, my mom and I went into full-scale production on Chex party mix (or what most uncivilized folks like us call trash). We substitute copious amounts of butter for the usual bacon grease, but on the whole this is not a heart-healthy, or waist-line slimming snacking option. Since every batch has a life of its own, I can't tell you exactly what we do. It involves a turkey roaster, six flat pans of various sizes, a lot of ingredients left off the Atkins diet, a barely warm oven (like 250 degrees), and a ton of patience. Mainly, we mix our favorite naughty snacks in a big turkey baster, cover them with buttery, salty stuff, and then bake them at really low temps for about twenty minutes at a time. Then we take them out of the oven, skroodle them up (which means try to flip the ingredients over without dumping them on the floor), paint them with more buttery, salty stuff and bake them some more. We repeat this over and over and over until we have depleted at least a couple of turkey roaster and filled a comparable volume of Christmas containers and used coffee cans. It helps if you have loud Christmas music playing in the background.

Another holiday tradition that's cued up, but hasn't played yet is cookie day. Walter and Erin make applesauce cookies (the recipe makes so many cookies that Christmas is the only time of year I can let them do this recipe, and only then because we have a good chance of giving many of them away). Erin and I will also have another go at Grandmother Thompson's Icebox cookies (do you think Erin even knows what an icebox is?). We made these at Thanksgiving with the idea that we would use some of the rolls for Thanksgiving and save the rest for Christmas. Well, that plan went wrong, mainly because these cookies are so incredibly popular. Since we were down to one remaining roll and were going to have to make up a new batch anyway, we decided to bake up the last 40 or so and take them to the caroling party at the church on Sunday. People kept
sneaking back for seconds and thirds, and Jimmie Homburg said we needed to run the recipe in the Chimes. We may or may not do that, but I can do you one better. Erin's great-grandmother's recipe is now published in the brand new Lunch for Life Cookbook, which you can order online by following the links. The Lunch for Life Cookbook is a collaboration of families of children with neuroblastoma. Over 100 families and celebrities contributed their absolute best recipes to the production of this cookbook. Not only will purchasing this cookbook go along way in aiding our quest for a cure but we believe you will also be receiving some of the best recipes on the planet. All proceeds will go to benefit the Children's Neuroblastoma Cancer Foundation, a public charity dedicated to finding the cure for neuroblastoma. If you do order today, they will deliver by Christmas, but if there's no rush, wait until tomorrow.

Friday, December 14, 2007

When You Least Expect It

December 14, 2007

Thank you for your patience while I finished grading all my final exams and dealt with the detritus the end of the semester inevitably delivers to my doorstep.

Thank you even more for sharing your Christmas memories, stories, and traditions. If you haven't made time, please add yours to the ones I already have. If you don't want to go into a long explanation, just leave me a comment, naming your favorite holiday food, hymn, or television special.

Thank you the most for growing Erin's Giving Tree to 304 ornaments. I can't tell you how proud it makes me, that after all of these years of watching Erin on this journey, you still have heart enough to support the research cause that matters so much to us.

I had to pause today and do some thinking. Typically, I am quick to criticize some aspects of college life and choices large universities, including my employer Texas A&M, make that just don't seem very educational. I have often spoken against our practice of stuffing 300, 400, even 500 students in an auditorium--lecturing to them with power point slides and asking them to bubble in scantrons to see if they remember anything. The way I see it, bubbling in isn't a skill that serves you that well in life after college.

Today, however, rather than railing about the stupidity of enormous classes, I want to tell you about the powerful impact they can have. I suspect, when you are sitting in a room with 549 other students who don't know you and don't care about you, it would be easy to feel disconnected and isolated. The Management 209 and Management 211 students, with the encouragement of their professor, decided they didn't want to feel this way. They made an mind-numbing effort to help children in Child Protective Services have a great Christmas by filling their Christmas wish lists. Using lists filled out by the children themselves, these students bought, wrapped, and delivered five presents each to 98 children in the area. . . and these were not just socks and toothbrushes. My office suite was gift-wrap central, and I saw at least twenty bikes, i-pods, playstations, and loads of fun (and specially requested) stuff. If you thought you had a lot of shopping to do, consider a wish list with 492 gifts. Here is a link to last year's gift drive:

The cool part is that this isn't a one off activity. It actually follows the classes' Thanksgiving food drive that started in October and ran through last month with students collecting canned goods and non-perishables for the local Food Bank. Those students also have a list-serve of students who send cards and notes of encouragement to people who have special needs. Sometimes, this list-serve gets so interested in the person with the special need they do even more. Besides wanting to warm your heart (and eat a little crow for being so critical of large classes), I can make even more of a connection.

Five years ago one of the people who needed something special was Erin. She was on the eighth floor of Texas Children's Hospital in the midst of her first of two stem cell transplants. This is how she looked on December 4, before she started her conditioning chemo. In a few days she looked much frailer, paler, and sicker.

A couple of weeks later two sisters,
Kalli and Meagan, arrived, fresh from finals laden with stuffed animals and special gifts that their peers at A&M and Blinn had taken the time to buy for Erin. A visit from Santa hadn't cheered her much, Tara Lipinski was okay, but not enough to get out of bed for, the singing FBI agents struck my funny bone and perked me right up, but Erin didn't even budge. Kalli and Maegan with an armload of stuffed animals? That was a different matter to that five year old. She made a quick animal pyramid (note Rosie on the left joining in with her holiday outfit on), and didn't even leave enough room for herself in bed.

I guess we didn't expect it. Just like I don't expect much good to come from large, auditorium classes. Except, sometimes great things happen when we don't expect them.

I don't know why I have to keep learning this lesson. I visit websites everyday, written by parents with sick children. Neil, spends the small slice of free time he has keeping up with emerging research that may have possibilities for neuroblastoma kids. Pat, has rallied his small community to raise thousands of dollars for research, Band of Parents just baked and sold 96,000 cookies to raise money for research. At the same time, Mara and Becky are shaping their words and images through their daughters' websites to reveal the true love and caring that is possible, even in the face of a horrible disease like neuroblastoma.

This holiday season, cherish your loved ones and pay attention. Something life changing could happen when you least expect it. You might even be the one who changes someone else's life.