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The Greatest Gifts

By Suzanne Pollak

A mysterious book, hypnosis, and fourteen-week presents—have you ever heard of such gifts?

The Charleston Academy fields many questions about gift giving. Students wonder what to buy for weddings, bridesmaids, and hostesses. They want to know what to bring—and what not to bring—to a dinner party. Husbands call for gift advice so often that we could give a class dedicated to the one subject. Recently my mind turned to other sorts of gifts: the “life savers” that make you feel differently about your situation instantly and entirely.

A few months ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I am lucky (it was an early-stage cancer) and even more so to feel the love shown by so many people near and far. I want to tell you about three gifts that jolted me, so unusual they were.

The first came from outer space. No joke! A package arrived on my doorstep the day after a biopsy and two days before the doctor called to report the cancer. No one but my doctor knew I’d had a biopsy, but not even the doctor knew I had cancer when the book appeared. Not one of my friends acknowledged sending the book. My spirit guide? Pure coincidence? A fluke? I considered these questions.

Our brains tend to run wild with stories all the time, even more so after a cancer diagnosis. The surprise gift from the unknown sender was titled A Year to Live by Stephen Levine. Receiving the book out of the blue, between the time of the biopsy and the doctor’s calling to report on the result, served as a sharp wake-up call. Who sent this? Who cares? I considered the gift in a context of fantasy, my brain fuzzy with unwanted, unexpected news. Could this be a gift mystically organized by my deceased father and cousin’s spirits? Were they trying to tell me: “Pay attention! It’s time for you to do the things that matter to you, things we did not have time to do before our deaths from cancer”?

I awakened to their imagined advice, glanced at the title of the book, and drew up my list of what must be done. It didn’t matter if there were two weeks left or thirty years. My tiny list soothed my mind, and the book’s content did too. We are all going to die someday. Let us get our ducks in a row. The ritual and the organization of these tasks can be comforting. We know we have an end date, and if we have lived in full technicolor, it must be okay. My first gift was that my brain was calm. My life story is so rich in experiences that it could not be made up. However ready I may (or may not) be for the unknown, right now there’s more to say on the subject.

I will never forget the instinctive wisdom of the friend who presented me with the second gift: a hypnosis session. This hypnotist’s specialty is preparing patients for surgeries. Do I believe in hypnosis? Am I a susceptible person? Does it matter? These surprise gifts came from angels who alighted around me when I needed them. That is what I learned. When we have a real need, something shows up. It may not be what we ordered, expected, or dreamed of; it’s most likely better than anything we imagined—and better for our souls too.

And then there was the third gift, which blew me away, randomly arriving every seven to ten days for fourteen weeks. This gift stunned me because (1) it came from one of my sons and (2) it brought us closer together. His gift made me healthier and happier and feel honored in ways possibly not even imagined by the giver himself. Through his generosity, I started eating more, I regained lost weight, and I took better care of myself. I even cooked and ate new foods, including eggs.* The gesture was so valuable to me that it seemed almost worth having cancer.

The three gifts made me feel wiser, well cared for, and utterly loved. They were proof that the givers understood me and my situation. They were transitory in nature (except for the book) but treasured all the more so because each gift was so needed at that exact moment.

Bags of groceries and armfuls of flowers appeared on my doorstep every week, delivered from Whole Foods. There was an avalanche of goodness that extended from this gift: the initial surprise of opening up bags of groceries (chosen by a foodie); discovering what was inside, which made me feel like a little kid at Christmas; then the joy of planning meals, choosing recipes, and making myself eat three meals a day, at home, to get through all the supplies. The calculation of how much a woman can consume in one week, according to a younger male, can be quite astounding. I didn’t want one bite, ounce, or flavor to go to waste, so I had to figure out how to eat all the food before it lost its freshness.** Then I experienced the thrill of arranging the flowers.*** During several weeks, I did not have enough vases because the blooms from last week were still alive or dying too gracefully to discard, so now there were even more buds to arrange.

The three gifts made me feel wiser, well cared for, and utterly loved. They were proof that the givers understood me and my situation. They were transitory in nature (except for the book) but treasured all the more so because each gift was so needed at that exact moment.

If you are wondering what to give a person in need, the following are ideas that will be remembered for their kindness years later: a home-cooked meal with directions, orchids, a handwritten letter, a lunch scheduled every so often so the person has something to look forward to, a text every morning asking, How are you?

Through this experience, I relearned many things that I already knew. A person and their thoughtfulness can save you.

*I never really liked eggs but, after receiving a dozen of the finest eggs one week, I changed my attitude. A dozen is a lot to use when eggs are not part of your diet, so I began making three-egg omelets. A quick omelet in a cast-iron skillet takes little effort, so I started experimenting with a true French omelet. But when I couldn’t find the proper pan, I switched to scrambled eggs and discovered how to make them so delicious that I’m now addicted!

Here’s how: Over low heat, melt a bit of Irish butter. Then add three of the best eggs money can buy (You’re worth it!); these should be well blended with a fork so no white streaks remain. Continuously stir the eggs in the pan until they become a creamy blend. Just when curds (soft lumps) start forming, keep stirring, and add a few crumbled pieces of plain goat cheese. Keep on stirring until you wind up with a creamy pile of the softest eggs imaginable.

** What freezes beautifully? How could I reuse leftovers? I made stocks from the roasted chickens, soups from the vegetables, veal ragout from the bundles of carrots and celery. Sometimes I was too tired from radiation to cook a real meal, so I would roast a sweet potato and spoon on mountains of sour cream, crème fraîche, and Irish butter, and then shower chopped chives over the top—all treasures from one week’s bounty.

***Flower tip: To make flowers last, change the water every other day. According to Lily from Flowershop (who taught an Academy class long ago), you should put the vase under the faucet and let the water run through until clear.

— V —


Suzanne Pollak, a mentor and lecturer in the fields of home, hearth, and hospitality, is the founder and dean of the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits. She is the coauthor of Entertaining for Dummies, The Pat Conroy Cookbook, and The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits: A Handbook of Etiquette with Recipes. Born into a diplomatic family, Pollak was raised in Africa, where her parents hosted multiple parties every week. Her South Carolina homes have been featured in the Wall Street Journal Mansion section and Town & Country magazine. Visit CharlestonAcademy.com or contact her at Suzanne@CharlestonAcademy.com to learn more.



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