Flag Cake (And The Utter Importance Of It)

It was the last week of June, 1995.

My life had changed dramatically over the last twelve months. My son, Evan, had been born in July of 1994 and after several long months of struggle as I transitioned from a hip, cool career gal to a new stay-at-home mom, I was at last feeling the rough edges of my new life beginning to smooth out. It was a welcomed change. I didn’t enjoy feeling as though I was on a runaway train that I could not control and that was exactly how I had experienced those first months of motherhood. Exhausted, clueless, often teary and without a clear map of how to navigate this strange, new terrain. As I approached my son’s first birthday, I finally felt as though I could breathe again.

With The Mister often away working long hours in the glamorous movie business, Evan and I had finally found our groove. A mother-son bond formed and strengthened. He loved being in the baby backpack and I needed to return to regular exercise. We each got what we needed through our nightly strolls through our neighborhood. Narrow streets with no sidewalks and busy traffic made our trek somewhat dicey, but we always managed to wind up near a vacant lot at the very end of a quiet lane. Overgrown with weeds and bramble and framed by a barbed wire fence, this lot was home to several horses. Evan and I looked forward to our visits and occasionally enticed the horses closer with carrots to share. Extending a curious hand to touch their velvety noses, Evan would squeal in delight. Being with the horses grounded me, as they always have, and reminded me of who I was before I was a mom.

First birthday preparations were well underway that last week of June when I awoke one night with a fire in my belly. And not a good fire, mind you. This was trouble. I spent the next several hours throwing up in the bathroom, wondering what in the world I had done to bring on this stomach bug. Finally, by the afternoon of the next day I was feeling slightly better, enough to manage eating some bland Malt O’ Meal. I went to bed that evening, still exhausted but determined that I would awaken fresh and healthy the next morning.

Not so much.

Instead, I was roused fully awake from my fitful sleep as a deep, searing pain blasted through my gut. I stumbled to the bathroom again, thinking perhaps the Malt O’ Meal had been a poor choice. I tried to vomit, but to no avail. I was sweating and shivering uncontrollably and suddenly felt as though a heavy curtain of blackness was encroaching from all directions. I sat down on the toilet seat, put my head between my legs and yelled to The Mister to call 911. It was not a decision so much as it was instinct.

The paramedics arrived quickly. As they gathered around my huddled, fetal-positioned lump in my bed I remembered wishing I had made myself a bit more presentable. Three strapping, quintessentially handsome paramedics, all focused on me. Ashen, grey, sweaty me. They asked me questions as they assessed the situation and recommended I go to the hospital. In the aid car. Wait…what? What do I do with Evan? Although Evan had begun to eat more solid food, he was still nursing regularly. He needed me, despite The Mister’s insistence that he would take care of things. How the hell could this be happening? The sun was just beginning to rise on a brilliant summer morning as the ambulance motored down I-405 with me in the back.

Admitted to the hospital and shot up with morphine, the testing began. Blood tests, scans, questions. And then more questions. More tests. And a whole lot of laying around on a gurney in curtained cubicles, busy hallways and deserted radiology rooms. Doped up on pain killers with a fever climbing steadily higher by the hour, I floated in and out of lucidity.

Once tucked away in my own room, my OB/GYN popped in to check on me. All the testing had been inconclusive, she told me. And although they originally suspected appendicitis, the symptoms I was presenting didn’t exactly match up. They wanted to look inside and see if they could figure out what was going on. I heard the word “surgery” come out of her mouth and remember thinking just get this nightmare over with. Do whatever the fuck you need to do I imagined telling her. “Okay” is more likely what I managed to croak out.

It was 7:00PM by the time I was prepped and ready to be sliced open. I had been at the hospital for thirteen hours.

About two hours later in the recovery room, groggy from the anesthesia, I saw the surgeon’s face first. Appendicitis, indeed, he told me. My little, useless appendix had managed to burst open and spew it’s inflamed poison throughout my body, hence the high fever. Lovely, I thought. But for the first time in 48 hours, the pain in my gut was gone.

One of my first visitors after surgery was my sister, Jaylynne, and her family. The look of sheer, uncensored horror on my sister’s face as she laid eyes on me was what I remember the most. Hell warmed over, corpse-like, pallid, and possibly even cadaverous were all apt descriptions of my appearance. Apparently, it was a bit shocking. My young nephews hid nervously behind their parents, occasionally stealing a glance of their now ghastly Auntie Tracie. They didn’t stay long. My OB/GYN stopped by shortly after. “You gave us quite a scare,” she told me, as if I had orchestrated this whole episode myself for my own amusement. “It was a little touch and go there for awhile.”

Holy hell…did I nearly die?

Death aside, I was in the hospital for five days. Hooked up with an impressive array of IV’s and drainage tubes, I was pumped full of painkillers and powerful antibiotics. I had been nursing Evan regularly at least three times a day when I got sick and now my breast milk was effectively poisoned for the foreseeable future. When I expressed my concern about my ability to continue breastfeeding, my surgeon guffawed and told me to “let it go” and that my son was old enough to do without. And although there was some truth to what he said, he failed to recognize the implications of recovering from surgery on the same floor as pediatrics while speed-weening my baby. My hormones reacted impulsively to the sound of crying babies down the hall. Night after night, I was awakened by my hospital gown soaked with useless breast milk–not only wildly uncomfortable but also a vivid reminder of being separated from my son. My physical recovery paled in comparison to the emotional wrench of being away from Evan.

Those five, long days in the hospital were not without some silver linings, however. My dad would visit me every evening after supper. Honestly, I think he liked having somewhere to go and nurses to flirt with. Ambling in with his cane and nonchalant nature, he would pull up a chair and sit beside me for an hour or so. He was a man of few words, so conversation didn’t extend much beyond perfunctory small talk. But he would bring me stacks of magazines–People and Woman’s Day and Better Homes and Gardens–undoubtedly curated and chosen with my mom’s guidance. It was just a few years later when my dad passed away and those evenings spent with him were like gold to me. Expressing emotion did not come easily for my dad and I have no memory of him telling me he loved me. But his predictable, quiet presence by my side as I lay in my hospital bed spoke volumes.

Enter the flag cake. Finally.

It was the end of June, you see, about a week before the 4th of July, so the magazines my dad dropped off were filled with red, white and blue party ideas. Inevitably, there was the Cool-Whip advertisement that included the recipe for a festive flag cake. Made from a box, frosted with Cool-Whip and festooned with an assortment of berries to resemble the stars and stripes on a flag, this cake became an obsession of mine. As my hospital days wore on my doctors began to speculate as to when they would spring me from this sterile prison. The holiday was quickly approaching and became my benchmark of freedom. “We’d really like to get you home before the long holiday weekend,” they would tease. They would leave my room and I’d turn back to my magazine, find the page with the flag cake and imagine being at home at last, cake in the oven, berries at the ready. The flag cake sustained me.

I am not a particularly patriotic person.

But as time trudged on, the idea of this flag cake began to take on a much greater meaning. Freedom, in the sense of being sprung from my labyrinth of tubes and 2:00AM blood pressure checks. The simple pleasure of going to sleep and waking up in my own bed. Having been fed solely through my IV bag of glucose for nearly a week, the simple yet sensual pleasure of preparing and eating real food again sent shivers of excitement down my spine. And after months of feeling utterly overwhelmed with the expectations of being a new mom, the freedom to walk into my son’s bedroom and lift him out of his crib sounded nothing short of heavenly.

The flag cake became a metaphor for all that I hold dear. Stripped of the busyness of life and forced to simply be, that which I hold dear became crystal clear. Health, family, friends. Love.

Really, it’s all about love.

On July 3, 1995, my doctors sprung me from the joint. Wheeled out like an invalid in a wheelchair, my precious magazines stacked in my lap, I remember telling The Mister something about the importance of keeping this recipe for a flag cake that I had come across. “You’re not seriously considering making a cake tomorrow, are you?” he asked. Of course not.

I am not a particularly patriotic person and anyone who knows me knows that I abhor the 4th of July. By nature, I am not a flag-waving, rah-rah kind of girl. Between the hot-dog-and-pie eating contests and the thousands of dollars of explosives that get blown into thin air, I see most Independence Day celebrations full of excess and waste and gluttony. I hate the noise, I hate the garbage that inevitably winds up in my trees and yard. My dog is a mess. I can’t wait for it to be over. But you can bet on that following July 4th, 1996, there was a box-mix-Cool-Whip-frosted flag cake on the table in my kitchen. A new tradition with brand new significance. Moving through various incarnations–from homemade cakes and cream cheese frostings replacing the Cool-Whip and boxed mix version to an off year where the berries had a strange but uncanny resemblance to chihuahua faces–it is always there. The ubiquitous, metaphorical flag cake. This year, layered peanut-butter Nanaimo bars replaced the traditional flag cake. The meaning, however, remains the same:

Freedom. Independence. Health. Love. Simplicity.

A long walk down a quiet lane to feed carrots to horses.

No loud booms required.

(And here, because I love music and because I saw this band just a few weeks ago and because the lead singer is hella cute and because I agree that every day should be a holiday…)

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