Monthly Archives: February 2012

The List

My grandmother was made of hardy Scandinavian stock and she died a month shy of her 99th birthday. She was forced to retire at 92 and, at her retirement party, she pulled me aside, holding my arm just above the elbow and said, “You know Katherine, I never meant to retire.” I called her Bestemor which I’ve been told is grandmother in Norwegian. I said, “Yes, Bestemor, I know, I know.”

When she started using a walker it became too difficult to get around the grocery store and she relinquished this task to me and my father. Every week, one of us did her “marketing.” When it was my week, I’d call her at 9:00 am Saturday morning and she’d answer on the first ring. She’d be waiting by the phone in her bathrobe and wingback chair with her note pad sitting on her drum table. She’d read the list over the phone, starting with produce, then moving to boxed foods, the dairy case and ending with meats. My dad and I tried to get her to email the list. She could type lightning fast, but she just never took to the computer (enter, Bestemor, press enter, or double click, that means twice). Eventually we gave up and resigned ourselves to taking the list over the phone.

With the list came detailed instructions. “I’d like two lemons. Katherine, do you know how to pick citrus fruit? They should be large. They should be large and have smooth skin. I’d like two large lemons with smooth skin. Did you get that Katherine?”

I did my best to not speak during our phone calls as she was almost completely deaf, but sometimes it couldn’t be avoided. “Yes, Bestemor.”


“Yes, OK.”

“I’d like two bananas if they’re big and three if they’re small. As green as you can get.”

“I’d like four kiwi, but only if they’re from New Zealand. Katherine, don’t ever buy kiwi that isn’t from New Zealand.”

“I’d like a spaghetti squash, a small one. If they’re large, ask the produce man to cut one in half, they’ll do that you know.”

“I’d like a quarter pound of that ham you like.” I don’t like ham.

“I’d like a four pack of that soft toilet paper that’s on special for $1.49. That’s a good price. You should get some for yourself.”

It went on like this for 45 minutes – carrots with the tops cut off at the register, two pears soft at the stem, and head lettuce, not to be confused with a head of lettuce.

Once I had the list I would drive to the grocery store near her house. I’d fill up the cart and load the contents onto the belt. Three-quarters of the pile was always produce. More than a few of the checkers, assuming the food was mine, commented on my healthy diet. I usually laughed and corrected them because back then, I ate to please my mouth without a care for nourishing my body. I was an invincible 20-something with a taste for peanut butter milkshakes and a vague idea that vegetables were important.

Bestemor was still alive and I was still occasionally doing her marketing when, at 31, I was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer and given a 10% chance of living 5 years.

I was in the midst of six months of chemo and wasting away when I started seeing a nutritionist. She told me I had to rebuild my relationship with food. This was shocking for me to hear and also completely right. After years of undiagnosed gastro pain, without realizing it I’d developed a paralyzing fear of food. She gave me baking assignments every week. She told me to eat what I made. She told me I had to start thinking of food as something that would nurture me and save me instead of something that would make me sick.

I knew exactly what I needed to do. Bestemor had been training me, teaching me all that I needed to know for years. It wasn’t only that I needed to eat more whole foods, clearly I did. I needed to plan what I would eat. I needed to make a list. I needed to go to the store and choose the best produce. I needed to prepare meals I enjoyed. I needed to eat them. I needed to nourish myself.

I started right away, rebuilding my diet from scratch. I eliminated soy and gluten which were known trouble-makers for me, and I minimized processed foods and sugars. I planned a menu every week, sitting down with my favorite cookbooks, choosing a few recipes, making a detailed grocery list and doing my own marketing. I discovered the healing nature of the creation and consumption of a meal.

Now, I’m almost seven years out of treatment and cancer-free as far as I know. My husband and I have a four year-old and a one year-old. Keeping the family fed, especially the picky toddler, can feel like a chore piled on to an already full to-do list, but I find few activities to be more satisfying. On good days, when I can get the kids to occupy themselves, or, better yet help out, it’s a cause to slow down and to take a moment to nurture my family and myself. For me the process of meal preparation has become a meditation in healing.

It’s been five years since my grandmother passed away, but I think of her all the time, like in the co-op market where I shop. I know the produce men there. We chat. They’re very knowledgeable and she would have liked that. Sometimes I think about her while I look for cantaloupes that are heavy and sticky on the outside and watermelons that sound hollow. Sometimes I pick up a few kiwis if they’re from New Zealand, and I almost always buy carrots, though I never ask them to take the tops off at the register. I can do that much for myself because, after all, I’m made of hardy Scandinavian stock too.

Katherine Malmo is the author of Who in This Room: The Realities of Cancer, Fish, and Demolition. It can be purchased anywhere books are sold. For more information visit

Making Sense

Two of my favorite breast cancer-related bloggers, Why Mommy and Cancer Culture Chronicles died on Monday. Susan Niebur was an astrophysicist and mother of two boys. Rachel Moro “believed ‘it’s time to move beyond pink ribbons’ and messages of ‘breast cancer awareness’ and start agitating for ‘real and meaningful action in the fight to eradicate this disease for good’” and blew me away with posts like this one about Komen’s allocation of funds.

Monday night, after the kids were in bed, I did the dishes without music or news so I could think. I thought about how strange it was that Rachel died just as Komen was coming under such fierce scrutiny. Was she coherent enough to see and understand what happened when they pulled funding from Planned Parenthood? If she was, did her interest and passion ever wane? Did she still care even though it was too late for her cure?

And I thought about how strange it was they both died on the same day. What were the chances? What did it all mean?

All this thinking and dish scrubbing brought me back to my friend Emily’s last few days. Josie is approaching the age Emily’s daughter, D, was when Emily died. Josie does exactly what little D did when her mom was sick. She is always moving and dancing, she makes up songs and sings them to imaginary friends, and she’s all smiles one minute and all scowls and crossed arms the next. She’s exactly as a four year old should be.

I remember when we were matched with Josie and I realized her birthday was the same as my good friend’s child and that gave me such comfort. As a new adoptive parent, I was subconsciously looking for signs, confirmation that the process had worked, that this was our child. Afterward, I saw it all around me, people finding reassurance in these found commonalities.

Death, especially when premature, always sends me out looking for signs, symbols, patterns. I seem to think that maybe if I can find the pattern I’ll find some cause and effect, and if I find some cause and effect I’ll see some explanation, and if I find some explanation then maybe I’ll come up with some justification that will make their deaths alright. I can’t keep myself from trying to make sense of the senseless.

As the evening wears on, I know that all I can do is keep scrubbing the dishes clean, keep scrubbing, keep thinking until my brain decides to let it rest. Eventually it will and then, since I am one of the lucky ones, in the morning there will be new dances to create, there will be songs to be sung to imaginary friends, and there will be sticky kid cheeks to kiss. And I plan to kiss those cheeks over and over again in the hope that maybe if I kiss them often enough and long enough I will leave a mark, a symbol, or a pattern that may someday help them to make sense of the senseless.


We stayed in town for the holidays and on the Monday after New Years I took Josie skiing in the morning while Paul and Little K had some errand-running guy time. Josie and I had a good morning. Paul and Little K had fun too. Everyone was happy, except for Little K, who gets mad when I’m gone and clings to his dad on my return.

After dinner that night Paul left to play tennis. Little K was standing on a chair near the counter. He’s in that phase. You know, the one where he pushes the furniture around and climbs up on the chair or the table to open drawers and get out sharp knives or topple greasy bowls of fresh warm, but thankfully not hot, chicken stock. Anyway, he’s standing on the chair as he always does and he somehow manages to fall off and land on his face. It’s not pretty and as quickly as I can, I pick him up, hold him close, and tell him that I am here and that everything will be alright while he screams his head off. He’s yelling Mama! Mama! Mama! and twisting around, reaching out his arms, as if he’s trying to find someone else.

I’d met his birthmother a week earlier. Before that, I had very little information about his birth family and I imagined a faceless, bodiless, life of neglect and loneliness. I knew he must have missed people and places from that time, but it was easy for me to gloss over the past with the promise of the future.

Little K seemed so happy with us from the beginning. He started calling me Mama right away.

So right after his fall, he’s sobbing and stretching out his hands as if he’s looking for someone else, I suspect his dad, but for the first time another thought occurs to me. His birthmother is now, for me, a living, breathing person who, at times, had been a loving parent. He could be looking for her. He could have been looking for her all along.

Maybe in the early days he wasn’t saying Mama to me to get my attention or state a fact. Maybe he was really saying Mama? as in, where is she? What happened to my Mama? Where are you Mama?

I knew, even in the thick of his crying, that all I could do was keep rocking and holding and repeating that I am here and that everything will be alright and hope eventually he believes me.