Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Garden In Her Pocket

I’ve been on hiatus, friends, very busy with work and a bit overwhelmed by life for the past few weeks. I am getting back on track now and will be catching everyone up, hopefully, with all I’ve been doing since, well.. since the Superbowl.

Let’s start with February 7.  In my post of January 28, I told you all about my friend, Anna, a talented chemist for the state of Maryland and a respected professor who is suffering her third recurrence of an insidious brain tumor which has finally left her bedridden at a nursing home in Baltimore, Maryland, where I live.  With none of her relatives living nearby and visitors few and far between, I have struggled with how best to help Anna cope with long hours spent staring out her hospital room window.  There is only so much public television one can watch, after all.  

Too weak to hold a book or turn its pages, it hit me that Anna might enjoy listening to “books on tape”, so I launched a project, which is to say that I contacted my good friend and fellow board member at Soldiers Delight Conservation, Inc., who is also a longtime employee of the Baltimore County Public Library system.  Jason not only gave me a comprehensive overview of how the library’s “books on tape” system works, but very generously donated a portable CD player he no longer uses and a brand new set of earbuds for Anna’s utilization.

I prepared a basket to hold Anna’s goodies – the player and the earbuds and a pack of extra batteries.  I visited my local branch of the library and checked out two audiotapes I thought Anna might enjoy: one scientific and the other a novel about elephants, and made a pretty tag with Anna’s name and hospital room number and a list of the contents. 

Then I thought about ways the now waif-like Anna might regain enough strength to eventually hold and enjoy an actual book.  Getting some nutrients into her seemed like a good idea.  Anna told me she disliked the bland, institutional food and wasn’t eating.

I thought about what sustenance Anna might enjoy.  She told me that before falling ill, she had been learning all about Afghanistan. I remembered an Afghan favorite, kaddo bowrani, a dish of sumptuous chunks of sugared pumpkin fried in oil and herbs and served with a tangy garlic-yogurt sauce.  It is a specialty of the house at Baltimore’s Helmand restaurant, owned by Qayum Karsai, brother of the president of Afghanistan.  The restaurant kindly published their recipe for kaddo bowrani in the Baltimore Sun newspaper several years ago and I jumped at the chance to make it that year as a Thanksgiving appetizer.  

But this was February.  Where would I get fresh pumpkin at this time of year?  I put in a call to  Asad Akbari, manager of the Helmand in Baltimore.  Do they serve their baked pumpkin appetizer all year long, and if so, where on earth do they get their fresh pumpkin? I asked.  “We grow them ourselves”, Mr. Akbari replied, “and then we keep them in a cold storeroom all winter."  I explained my plight and offered to buy a pumpkin from the restaurant, but upon hearing Anna’s story, Mr. Akbari wouldn’t hear of it.  “I shall give you a pumpkin for Anna”, he said.  I picked up the gourd from the Helmand the very next day.

A basket to hold Anna's books on tape, and food
containers with pretty labels combined to form a festive
ensemble for Anna 
A few days later I whipped up a batch of cinnamon-scented kaddo-bowrani before work.  I stirred garlic into thick Greek yogurt and made pretty labels to affix to small containers. I packed up a fork and some napkins.  On my lunch hour, I gathered up the components of my multi-faceted project and drove to the convalescent hospital.

February 7th was very cold.  I insulated myself against the bitter weather with denim leggings by HUE from Macy’s, a ribbed-knit, long-sleeved Tee and a funky new sweater with a cowl neck and bell sleeves by NY Collection, a fabulous find in a box of hand-me-downs I received recently from my best friend’s mother, Joyce, in Spokane, Washington.  Over warm socks I pulled fur-covered Slovakian après-ski boots by Linda and stuck a beribboned dea dread hair comb in my locks. I was ready.

Anna’s face lit up when I entered her hospital room.  But nothing could compare to the delight in her eyes when I opened the container of soft pumpkin and handed her a fork.  Once Anna had eaten her fill, I showed her the basket with the CD player and the audiotapes I had checked out for her.  I made sure to meet with the activities director at the nursing home before I left to explain that someone would need to help Anna get the player started when she was ready to engage with her "books". And someone would need to change the CDs for as long as she wished to listen.  Each “book” consisted of about ten discs.  

We had a wonderful visit, Anna and I.  There was a spring in my step as I left the nursing home that day, made possible by the kindness of people like Jason and Asad Akbari, who didn’t even know Anna, yet reached out to embrace her needs with their compassion and generosity.

For many years Anna volunteered with me at Soldiers
Delight Natural Environment Area.  In this 2009 photo,
Anna shows off grasses native to the serpentine
barrens on which the preserve lies.
I’ve made several visits to Anna since I delivered that first set of books on tape.  Yesterday I retrieved from her The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, a novel about five Afghan sisters who built a successful business in Kabul despite harassment by the Taliban.  She loved it.  Anna was delighted to tell me that she had eaten all the nuts and apples I’d brought her on my last visit, and wants more.

In a week or two I will bring her Life At The Speed Of Light, a book by J. Craig Venter, the scientist famed for his role in sequencing the human genome, who details an ambitious vision for a future in which custom-made organisms heal the planet, sure to get Anna’s scientific brain cells firing happily.

It isn’t always convenient or even particularly fun to help someone in need.  I don’t know Anna all that well, and like most institutional facilities, the ambience at Anna’s convalescent hospital is a bit dreary; the sight of so many patients in various stages of diminished capacity shuffling the hallways and mumbling incomprehensibly can be depressing indeed. But if not me to temporarily dispel Anna’s boredom, then who?  The joy on Anna’s face when I walk into her room makes my heart sing.  We don’t always realize how much a kind word or deed resonates. But it does.
A book is like a garden carried in the pocket. ~ Chinese Proverb


  1. Awww, welcome back sweet friend. You look beautiful as always, and your story is so endearing. You do know Anna, with your memory, research, and the thoughtfulness you show, and that of your contacts. It has given her much happiness, along with everyone who might read your blog. So Lovely and Touching! If everyone was half as caring as you and your 'helpers', this world would be so much more amazing, loving and wonderful for us all. What an inspiration! Thank you for your blog. My day is starting wonderfully. ox -B

  2. Everyone should be so lucky to have a friend like you! Incredibly thoughtful and personal gifts, but even more, to give of your time and self. XOXOp