written by Stephie Goldfish
There is a time for feasting, a time for famine, a time for fasting, and a time for fattening up. We fast on such holy days as Yom Kippur, from sun up to sun down during the month of Ramadan, and during those occasions when we feel we ought to be pummeling our bodies, such as the death of a loved one or times of horrific tragedies such as 9/11.
These times come and go throughout history and in my lifetime like the many times my weight has fluctuated from an average 135 pounds to a robust 175 pounds and from 135 pounds down to a slender 112 pounds within a few days or week.
We overeat. We starve. Or at least some of us think we are starving. Thus is the cycle of life.
I remember vividly times of abundance and scarcity from childhood well into adulthood. On the first of the month we would go grocery shopping with our mom on our scant welfare check. During the first half of the month we enjoyed meals such as spaghetti and meat sauce with an assorted salad, burritos and tacos made the way we learned in Oklahoma, and fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy along with fresh steamed broccoli. Sometimes mom would get us each a New York strip steak and we would have them with a baked potato and salad. Mom tried to buy food to last the whole month, but at the end of every month we existed on simple foods like macaroni and tomatoes or beans topped on fried flour tortillas.
In the winter of 1983, during my last year of high school, and in the midst of finals, when most of my family was living together in one small apartment in the projects in Huntington, West Virginia, the meals we enjoyed suddenly came to a halt. It was so bad that my older brother, Mike, and his wife, Brenda, went door-to-door asking for some can foods or bread. My aunt Dorothy would always say we ate high-off-the-hog. But it wasn’t like we had these three huge meals a day either: breakfast was a rare occasion, and my twin sister and I were sometimes too embarrassed to eat the free lunches provided in the school cafeteria where everyone who ate there was on the free lunch program.
Food has always been a constant in my life yet bringing with it such memories associated with joy and pain. That same winter of 1983, when I was seventeen years old, and everyone else was preparing for graduation, the prom, and their future, I had been diagnosed with a congenital heart defect after being seen by pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Mahmood Heydarian. I had been having symptoms of shortness of breath, and my mother had noticed that my nails and lips turned deep blue. Dr. Heydarian was shocked that the large hole in my heart had never been found prior to this since most congenital heart defects are found when babies are born. I did have symptoms from about fifth grade on, but no one found the defect or suspected anything was wrong. Dr. Heydarian did an echocardiogram, and he wanted to do a cardiac catheterization to determine if surgery was possible. However, because of being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the time, Dr. Heydarian recommended I go to The Cleveland Clinic Foundation to be followed up with a team of doctors that could handle my case. If surgery was an option it could easily be done at that facility without the use of blood.
By the end of February of 1983, we made the trip to The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. My older brother, Terry, drove my mom, my twin sister, and me to Cleveland, Ohio on a Thursday. My older brother makes any situation exciting and fun. Terry took us out to eat at Chi Chi’s, our favorite Mexican restaurant. We enjoyed chips and salsa, beef enchiladas with red sauce, and we ate fried ice cream for dessert.
On Friday we had the consultation with pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Richard Sterba, and he scheduled a cardiac catheterization for the following Monday. Since I was still considered a pediatric patient, being only seventeen, Dr. Richard Sterba arranged for my family to stay at the Ronald McDonald house, which was near the hospital. My brother Terry drove all the way back to Charleston, West Virginia to bring back his wife, Starlet and their newborn daughter, Kristen. That weekend, while we waited for Terry to come back, my twin sister and I kept ourselves occupied by playing Ms. Pac Man about 200 times since it was free.
The community kitchen at the Ronald McDonald House was a place to gather and talk and eat. In the mornings, local volunteers delivered sweet cakes, rolls, croissants, and donuts. The freezers were filled with selected Stouffers frozen dinners. There were laundry facilities so my mom kept our clothes and linen clean. The radio played Michael Jackson’s Thriller a hundred times. Ironically, that was one of the most fun but longest weekends I remember. It was like we were staying at the Hilton.
The Sunday before the catheterization, we were in the community kitchen preparing a meal of lasagna. My mom is one who does not have a problem striking up conversations and she began talking with a woman whose son was in the hospital. They both shared their stories, and I remember the woman saying to my mom about me that maybe I didn’t complain enough when growing up and the woman suggested maybe that was why my heart defect wasn’t discovered earlier.
On Monday, March 1, 1983 my cardiac catheterization confirmed that I had a large Ventricular Septal Defect that had been present since birth that was causing my unoxygenated blood (blue blood) to flow over with the oxygenated blood (red blood). The doctors had sent a catheter through a vessel in my groin into my heart chambers to measure the hole and pressures of my heart. After I had come out of the operating room from having the cardiac catheterization, my mom, Kim, Starlet, and Terry were all there waiting for me. Terry was holding Kristen, and he laid her in my arms, and I began to cry. I couldn’t stop crying.
The complete work up left me weak and disillusioned when the team of doctors sat us all in their office, shook their heads in dismay, and told us bluntly the only potential cure for me would be to have a combined heart and lung transplant, because it was too late to just close the hole. We all sat there numb. I was wheeled back to my room to stay overnight. I remember being in the same room with a young girl my age that was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was too young to have cancer, I thought.
The next morning, right when they brought my breakfast, another doctor came and said I was released to go home, and I got dressed and left, foregoing the breakfast. On the long way back to Huntington, I felt an overwhelming void. Even the Long John Silvers fish we had couldn’t fill the sadness I felt.
About a month after the trip to The Cleveland Clinic, an elder in my congregation, Brother Buckhold, and his entire family invited me to go with them up to Lima, Ohio. In Lima there was this homeopathic doctor, who claimed to have cures for everyday ailments; who was also known among the congregation to have a fixation on breasts. Anyway, my older sister Debbie gave me a five-dollar bill to take with me for lunch. I put it in my pocket. I pictured lunch to be a stop at McDonald’s, Wendy’s or Burger King.
However, the first stop we made on our journey to Lima was for lunch in German Town near Columbus, Ohio. We ate onion soup, bratwurst, sauerkraut, and assorted pastries.
Eventually we made it to Lima, and I saw the homeopathic doctor who sent me home with a regimen of vitamins, one of which was beef of heart, which Brother Buckhold paid for. The doctor promised that those vitamins would close that one-inch hole in my heart that has been there since birth, and I hate to say it is still there today.
I thought we were close to ending our trip, but we made a special stop at the Swiss Chalet mall where we tasted cheese and chocolate of all kinds. After that I couldn’t believe there would be any more room for food, but we went to a Polynesian restaurant, shaped in the form of an A-frame house, where we had dinner. I could not resist getting beef with broccoli.
I knew all of this expense was much more than five dollars, and at the end of the night upon returning back home, I couldn’t muster up enough courage to give Brother Buckhold the five-dollar bill, feeling so ashamed of the minuscule amount. Yet, I felt ashamed afterwards for not offering it to him. To this day I am grateful to Brother Buckhold for his kindness and generosity.
Once when living at the Brandon Residence for Women, it was a poor or more like a broke-night, so I decided to eat down stairs in the dining hall. They were serving fried pork chops. I had never had a problem eating them in my life, before, when I was young, because we were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses and taught it is not a sin. But I had been in therapy with a Jewish woman who escaped the holocaust, and my cardiologist also being Jewish Orthodox understood my religious beliefs at the time of not accepting blood transfusions, since he himself had religious restrictions, not to mention my first husband had educated me on some of the teachings of Mohammed while he was studying to be a black militant Muslim of the group that follows Farrakhan, and I wondered if it was really wrong to eat that pork chop or more like hypocritical. I couldn’t eat the pork chop and I threw it away.
I have since learned to eat swine and not feel guilt. And, more recently, I’ve also learned to accept someone else’s blood in order to save a life. In 2007, I had been taking the wrong dose of Coumadin, and began hemorrhaging. I nearly bled to death, and I needed a blood transfusion. I felt I could not be hypocritical in refusing to accept a blood transfusion.
As for needing the Heart and Lung Transplant, I am still considered a candidate, and to have such an operation would require the use of blood transfusions, which I have come to terms with due to everything I've been through.
Sometimes I wonder if those who survived the holocaust ever really enjoy a meal after such horrific deprivation and humiliation. I can see, too, how people go to extremes — from an Epicurean lifestyle to being on the verge of an anorexic society. We forget when we have, and, when we do not have, we remember.
Having experienced both ends of the kaleidoscopic to monotone color-of-food spectrum, feelings of guilt and shame permeate my mind every time I now have a meal. Tormenting thoughts plague me like when I used to order Thai food at work when others had diligently packed a lunch. These memories are so vivid and fresh that they haunt me now, sometimes taunt.
I ask why such patterns exist today, and I take deep breaths.
At the end of the months may we remember that first harvest of plenty and vow not to let the drought repeat again.