Wednesday, July 15, 2009

90 and going strong

My mother turned 90 this past weekend so we had a big celebration. I come from a large Irish family where many people had many children, so it was quite a party. I have four siblings. Among us, we produced eight grandchildren and I have five grandchildren – and that’s just for starters. Several of my cousins have five and six children each!

Here’s what’s a bit startling about the whole thing in terms of gluten free. My youngest sister was hospitalized in the early 1950s when she was nearly a year old. Doctors had just about given up as she kept declining, when a physician visiting from Europe suggested celiac disease and saved her life. The cure: No gluten, very few foods, and an emphasis on bananas –which quickly led to a return to good health.

No one had ever heard of celiac disease and we were told that it was rare. So when I started to have increasing problems, CD did occur to me, but I figured lightening wouldn’t strike twice in the same family. That meant I went through endless rounds of testing, many physicians and misdiagnoses, and a lot of needless agonizing about possibilities like cancer or a brain tumor.

I will confess that up until that point, I was vaguely ignorant of my sister’s diet and not at all sympathetic. She was firm about following the diet but not demanding. The main change I remember was my mother using cornstarch instead of wheat flour to make gravy and my searching the dairy case for the one brand of cottage cheese considered safe for her. Throughout the years before my own diagnosis, I rarely noticed what she did or did not eat.

Things changed little during large family gatherings – lots of plain food, much of it containing gluten. Usually my sister and I wind up with a piece of dried out chicken thrown into the oven with whatever else is being cooked and maybe some veggies.

My mother’s 90th birthday was different. This time, aside from the pasta, there were several dishes to choose from. We had to watch the birthday cake go by but unless we bring our own, that’s the way it is. Both of us are fine with that, by the way. I know some might disagree, but unless it’s my birthday, the celebration is not about my food. So I eat fruit, smile and stay very thin.

The celebration was about my mother and she has managed to accomplish a lot in her 90 years. My father died rather young when she still had four children at home, so she carried on, moved them along, held a demanding full time job, and still managed to fit in volunteer work. A bit infirm after all those years, now she takes it easy, reads a lot and watches television.

No matter what I tell her, my mother still seems convinced that celiac disease is rare. But our relatives are waking up, although no one else has been diagnosed. To my knowledge, only one niece has been tested but it was done during adolescence, which is not the best time to test. Yes, it’s frustrating but being ignored in a big family is normal so I choose my battles carefully. I fought this one early on and finally had to surrender. Maybe that’s how my mother got to be 90. She knew when to fight… and when to move on to other things.


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