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An Unexpected Gift

(by Amy Silverstein)

(Sister Jodie, stepmother Beverly, and me)

The kitchen that grew me up was not a warm place of happiness and love. Cooking was something my sister and I had to master at a very young age, or face our mother's wrath when she got home from work. At 7 p.m., reliably, she would step through the front door and bark out an order for me to make her a scotch on the rocks (or three), and then, having become angrier by the glass, she’d seethe over the chicken or lamb chops or flank steak that her trembling seven- and nine-year-olds had placed in front of her.

But thank goodness for my mother and her harshness. I mean this.

Because real adversity was in store for me just two decades later—the life and death kind. And it turned out that the meals I cooked in my childhood—in my mother's absence and in terrified response to her gruff directives—were preparation indeed. Over time, I learned not to shake when she glowered at me over a well-done pork chop. By lots of trial and error—lots—I figured out how to block out her cruel commentary and find my happy, quiet place in the hell kitchen of my childhood.

And this sure helped when I had my first heart transplant at 25.

And my second one at 50.

And an open-heart valve surgery and a double mastectomy in the years between.

Turns out, I couldn't have asked for a better preparation for a life of extraordinary medical challenges that would require me to brave such serious illness and feel myself under its terrible thumb. Who better than my mother to teach me to lift my chin in spite of this, lasso my confidence, and make sure that the brusque doctor, who wouldn't deign to hear me, heard me all right.

How lucky I was for the early training! To have control over one's mind, to be able to preserve its sanctum in spite of outside forces that are as near and as affecting and as unavoidable as the childhood dinner table, is a gift.

I thank my mother for giving it to me. She passed away several years ago, but the strength she instilled in me lives on, thank goodness. In fact, it might be what has kept me alive way beyond the ten-year life expectancy doctors pronounced at the time of my first transplant. I jog miles and write books. I’ve hiked mountains in four countries—so far. Laughter comes easily. I don’t think I could have survived the medical onslaught—mind, body, or soul—without the early preparation and practice for grit and joy in spite of great obstacles.

I would be remiss not to add this: a fantastic cheesecake recipe, lovingly written, passed down, and prepared many times in tasty dimension by my wonderful stepmom, Beverly. For all the sour, she has given me the sweetest sweet. For all that was missing from my home kitchen, Beverly has filled me up with nothing but delight and deliciousness.