There was no end to the surprises that came with a definitive diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis. I was fully aware of the chronic pain part and the chronic, progressive, irreversible parts weren’t all that surprising, but I was taken aback with the genetic aspects of the disease – that over 90% of the people with A/S have the HLAB27 chromosome with evidence that the condition dates back several thousand years. It was first described in the 1600’s but we know that a good number of the folks pushing stone blocks for the Pyramids also had the inflamed joints and fused vertebrae of the disease known as Bekhterev Disease, Bechterew’s Disease, or Marie–Strümpell Disease before the medical world settled on ankylosing spondylitis.
In addition to the physical discomfort another source of stress connected with A/S has been the large number of people anxious to share a ‘silver bullet’ for my condition; said silver bullets being one of any number of naturopathic remedies that would completely cure me and eliminate all my symptoms just as soon as I signed up as a distributor and joined someone’s ‘downline’ in one of many multilevel marketing plans. Unfortunately what most of these folks can’t seem to grasp is that with just two exceptions I have little use for alternative medicine, and that antipathy dates back over 50 years when my parents would regularly bypass needed medical solutions for alternative (read cheaper) cures.
I don’t think mom totally distrusted modern medicine – she had been a U.S. Army nursing corps cadet during World War ll and missed deployment to the Pacific Theater only after the war was cut short after Little Boy and Fat Boy permanently altered the Japanese landscape. She worked as a registered nurse in a public hospital for ten years after the war and continued to stay certified through continuing education clear up into the late 1970s, but when we moved to Alaska she somehow became convinced that between the lack of sunlight, and the amount of preservatives in our food, her children were nutritionally short changed.
She started out modestly with bean sprouts and sun-lamps but by the time I hit high school she was in full alternative mode with a daily regime of “additions” to our diet that seemed to exceed our intake of regular food…but of all the additions she tried three stood head and shoulders about the rest:
- Nutritional supplements in pill and capsule form
- Vitamin B-rich yeast mixed with orange juice referred to as “dirt”
The pills and capsules started out with just a One-A-Day® multiple vitamin but as time went by Mom followed classic addict behavior and began to increase our dosages by the odd pill or capsule, until my third year in high school saw me knocking back a small shot glass full of assorted pills, capsules and gel caps containing every vitamin in the alphabet.
‘Dirt’ was our term for a tumbler full of orange juice mixed with a powdered Vitamin B/ yeast compound. I had very serious issues with ‘dirt’ from the very beginning :
- The powder wasn’t mixed with real orange juice – it was mixed with Tang, and no matter how you mixed it or how many astronaut jingles played on TV, Tang was just water flavored with equal parts Orange Pixie Stix and Alka-Seltzer.
- If you entertained any hopes for a social life you really, really did not want that stuff in your system as the day progressed. As a bullet-proof seventeen-year-old I could care less about any heretofore undetected problems with my nutrition, but I was extremely concerned with the rotten-egg burp and room-clearing killer farts the yeast brought on in a healthy digestive tract.
Almonds entered the equation at roughly the same point the pill count got out of hand. I never really knew why we were taking the almonds – something about cancer, but as a dyed in the wool cashew man the almonds grew old on the second day Mom dropped them in the shot glass. My normal response would have been to chuck it all in the trash, but Mom was as vigilant about monitoring our intake as she was in providing the stuff. Inmates entering prison for the first time were under a fraction of the surveillance Mom exercised when she issued the pills and dirt. She stopped short of a full body cavity search but once that stuff was ingested there was no opportunity for ejection short of an alien abduction.
It was a no-win situation until my senior year of high school when my mom cajoled the school board into allowing my younger sister to attend eighth grade at school in town. My sister was not a morning person and the resultant turbulence while loading up the car meant I now had time for diversion. Disposing of the dirt was easy enough – I’d grab the tumbler and mumble something about drinking it on the way out to the car when in fact I’d dump it as soon as I got out of the door, a scheme that worked until snowfall when the brown splotches that started to appear between the front door of the house jump-started maternal suspicion1..
The shot glass full of pills, capsules and almonds remained a problem – mom still shook us down before we left in the morning, so I finally came up with an avoidance method that relied on the location of my bedroom. Access to my attic was by a ladder through a hatch in the closet at the end of the hall – which was kind of cool because of the secret aspect of it all. In addition to the water heater the area behind the ladder served as a closet of sorts for clothing and other items I was unable to stow in the scant storage spaces in the loft itself. The space was a mixed blessing because in addition to providing access to the attic, the hall closet provided our only route to the crawl space under the house, and while the ladder was securely fastened in place I was none too sure about the trap door over the hole leading to the depths below.
As we bounced around the house early each morning I made sure to make one additional pass by the door to my ladder where I’d empty the shot glass between the boxes on the closet floor. Each evening I would take a broom and sweep away the pills I tossed there earlier, either hiding them in the bottom of the kitchen trash or sweeping them through the gaps around the hatch to the crawlspace.
…and then suddenly it was the end of the semester, academic year, and high school. Work schedules didn’t mesh quite as smoothly as school schedules did and Mom’s program of vitamins and supplements dropped by the wayside. As I came and went on my travels as a student, missionary and soldier I eventually forgot about pills, “dirt” and almonds until one summer day several years later when my folks discovered a noticeable dip that had developed in the middle of the house. My parents asked me to check on the cement footings under the middle of the main floor, which would take me down into the crawlspace. No one had been down that closet hatchway in years and even though various sisters, nieces and nephews had used my old loft at one time or other, no one had settled in for the long haul, so my collection of stuff was still there.2
There were no permanent lights rigged behind the closet ladder so I had to work by touch, and after cleaning my stuff up it still took some time to clear out the old sheets of cardboard and scraps of carpet that insulated the hatchway. The cloud of musty mildew odor the “poofed” into existence after thirty minutes of mucking about let me know when I’d made it to the dimly-lit crawlspace, and I was surprised to find that it was dimly lit as fingers of daylight pushed through the random gaps between cement block, poured cement footings, and leafy stalks.
Years earlier in an effort to provide better access as well as elbow room, the area just below the hatch had been excavated an additional three feet. Growing out of the dirt just to the side of this excavation were a half-dozen twisting stalks, each with just a leave or two and looking like something grown in a zero-gravity environment. The leaves were not the healthiest looking I’d ever seen, their color that of Thanksgiving found in the back of the oven a week after the event but they were vaguely lanceolate in shape like those of a willow tree. I would have never suspected anything would sprout in the crawlspace but given the plants’ location between the hot-water line to the bathtub and one of the only places that sunlight reached into the crawlspace I wasn’t totally surprised.
…no, the surprise didn’t happen until several years later and several thousand miles away as I was preparing an assignment for a graphic design class I was teaching. The project entailed designing snack-sized packaging for various types of nuts, and as I was assembling reference materials and imagery I was stopped cold by the photos of almonds and almond trees.
Slender branches with long oval leaves that looked like the head of a lance? I shook my head – the time frame between ditching the almonds and finding the plants was much too long for any germination to be possible…but at the same time I remembered that it had been raw unprocessed uncooked almonds Mom had us gagging down. I’d also just read about a research project in the United Kingdom sprouting grain seeds found in one of the pyramids.
The clatter of pots and pans startled me back into coherent thought as my Beautiful Saxon Princess began preparing dinner, and as I gathered up my papers and gradebook I thought of mom’s nutritional efforts all those years ago, I had cheekily dismissed all her efforts to improve my health with her pills and supplements …and almonds. There never seemed to be any connection, any measurable benefit to the stuff she had us choking down but here I was staring at a plant that was healthy enough to thrive in such adverse conditions – a plant displaying the rigorous health mom had sought for her children.
Clattering pans brought my attention back to dinner and when I confessed ignorance of the aroma my Beautiful Saxon Princess said: “It’s a vegetarian garlic almond quiche”
She went on breezily. “As I recall it’s not exactly your favorite, but it was one of your mom’s favorite recipes.”
“Dish me up a double helping….”
- I eventually convinced her the “splotches” were the result of an intestinal disease affecting peninsula moose that I’d heard about on the radio
- The stuff ranged from corduroy bell bottom pants to the missing lid of my FIREBALL XL5 lunchbox among other things, and most of the detritus that had to be cleaned up before opening the hatch dated from my tenure,