An invitation to Chef’s Table at MacNean Restaurant

Since the juggernaught that is MND collided with my life five years ago, any type of normality is a distant memory at this point. Yet on this futile journey I have met some incredible people. Those who seem to ‘get me’ straight away, even though I’m at my worst; severely physically disabled and a shadow of my former self. Vulnerability is a very raw emotion, some people can’t or don’t want to deal with it, while others just wade in, wanting to help you in some way.

Ever since our paths crossed a couple of years ago, Ireland’s finest and best-loved chef Neven Maguire and I have remained friends. Recently he invited my family and I to Sunday lunch in his multi award-winning restaurant. The experience was too good not to share with you. I’ve always dreamed of being a food writer… this is my moment 🙂

I can barely eat anymore, approximately 80% of the muscles in my mouth and throat have wasted away by now; but does that stop me? – Hell no! I still eat one meal a day, but get most of my food, and all my fluids, through a feeding tube in my tummy. I’m under strict instructions from my Doctor to eat purely for pleasure. Yes Doc, I can do that!

The lovely Andrea liaised with us for weeks beforehand to ensure they could meet my every need and make this a special experience for me. The biggest challenge was suitable food. Here’s a *brief* summary of my limitations: I can’t chew anymore so food has to be soft and cut small. Textures are a big problem; I can’t deal with dry, crunchy or crumbly foods. My palette has completely changed; I can no longer tolerate strong flavours, spices or even my old favourite; black pepper. Apart from this, everything else is fine…!

The morning of our trip, everything went to plan. My carers had me looking spick n’ span and my husband had packed the car with my medical equipment to cover any ‘what if’ scenarios we could think of. An hour into the journey I needed medical attention – my MND monster wanted to remind me who was really in charge of my life – but after a brief diversion to Cavan Hospital we were on the road again.

Even with a legitimate excuse it’s embarrassing to arrive late to your own party, though needless to say, we received a warm welcome from Neven and his team. We were lucky enough to dine at the Chef’s Table which is their private dining experience. For me, this was ideal; safe and homely surroundings where I could eat at my own pace.

Neven presented us with a 7-course tasting menu [my menu was slightly different to cater for my limitations]. The very knowledgeable sommelier was on hand to offer aperitifs and recommend what wines would best complement our food.

Our first course was a chestnut and mushroom mousse with rabbit kataifi, served with a selection of breads. The mousse had a velvet texture and tasted heavenly. Our breads looked and tasted delicious; bacon bread, cheese puffs and pizza bread with pesto that my 8-year-old fussy eater demolished (along with the very more-ish rabbit wrapped in kataifi pastry!).s-with-hock-and-breads

My second course was orzo pasta with asparagus and red pepper puree. The orzo was cooked in saffron which added colour and a delicate flavour. The others were served a warm ham hock terrine with black garlic, pork crackling and an apple sorbet. The attention to detail with the presentation was incredible and it tasted amazing.ham-hock

The third course was a blackberry and apple jelly with natural yogurt on top. The jelly was delightfully tangy, whereas the yogurt was rich and creamy; a delectable contrast.

Our fourth and main course; gratin of cod with basil risotto, baby leek and a ponzu gel. The red meat-eaters had fillet of dry aged beef, cheek pie, glazed pearl onions and smoked celeriac. My pride and joy had already told Neven his favourite dish. He was promised the best chicken nuggets of his life and he got exactly that: Chicken goujons with panko bread crumbs, hand cut chunky chips, with a generous serving of the special red sauce on the side! A brief lull in conversation, followed by clean plates all round was conclusive evidence we fully enjoyed the deliciously exquisite mains.

Life is always better with a pre-dessert. Mine was instantly improved by a rhubarb puree with ginger ice cream and rhubarb jelly! The puree was a delight for the taste buds, I’m still dreaming about it. The ginger ice cream was a revelation, even for those suspicious of ginger.rhubarb

My main dessert course was coconut and malibu parfait with confit of mango and vanilla ice cream. It was refreshingly tropical. Sadly chocolate and I don’t get on anymore. Consequently I had to look on while the others got the very theatrical “Coole Swan” chocolate sensation with chocolate moose, pecan brownie, chocolate powder and Malteaser ice cream. It’s presented as a chocolate ball then hot chocolate sauce is poured over it, unveiling the hidden treats inside; it’s really got the wow factor. I’ve enjoyed the dessert before so knew only too well what I was missing – big sad face! To finish our sumptuous feast we refreshed ourselves with tea, coffee and petits fours – bite-sized pieces of heaven!

My days of eating are coming to an end so our lunch felt somewhat like my ‘last supper’ and what a way to finish up with such a memorable meal. We got the opportunity to watch Neven create culinary masterpieces right in front of us and then present each dish to us. We had a fun-filled afternoon in the company of our MacNean friends.

A heartfelt thank you to all the talented staff who make MacNean Restaurant an unforgettable treat. To the King of Kindness himself – Neven, thank you for making my foodie dreams come true. I’m a little old for a ‘Make-a-Wish’ experience but you gave me just that!

Sharon x

To find out more about Neven and get some delicious recipes, check out his fantastic blog: Anyone can cook with Neven Maguire

 

Losing my voice to MND

In the early days of my diagnosis I hated going to the Motor Neurone Disease clinic and witnessing all the other patients with varying degrees of war wounds from their battle with this cruel disease. See, I was still in denial and somehow closing my eyes was my pathetic attempt to protect myself from my hopeless future. Unable to block my ears, I was forced to hear the frightening tones of a patient who was losing their voice to MND. Something about the pitch of their groaning muffled voice used to make me feel nauseous with fear. It was a voice you would never forget, an unpleasant sound, it felt uncomfortable in my ear. Without knowing, you could sense behind this ugly sound there was a serious problem.

My voice has been the hardest thing I’ve lost to MND. So much of your identity and personality is contained in your voice. It’s your means of engaging and immediately interacting with the world around you. I didn’t lose my voice overnight, it eroded over a year and a half. At the beginning I was slurring certain words, eventually all my words sounded drunk. Then the tone and pitch altered, the horrible groaning muffled tone made itself more prominent. The sound attracted curious ears, it was impossible to ignore. No matter how hard I tried to enunciate words, my mouth muscles just wouldn’t play along. Everybody tried really hard to understand my attempt at every word. Countless frustrating moments were experienced by us all – my tears were never far away as I struggled to come to terms with my latest MND crisis.

When I first got my Eye Gaze Computer I was excited and couldn’t wait to use it. By the second day, I hated it. It was just so hard to use. I ignored it for a few months until I eventually lost the power in my hand and could no longer use the communication app on my iPad. Until I had no means of communication except nodding my head I was forced to work with my nemesis.

The early days were tough, with lots of teething problems. You have to train your eyes to focus on the letters and turn off your peripheral vision. Sounds simple but it takes weeks of practice. Position and distance from screen, glare from sun and lights, medication, other people’s eyes and even wearing glasses all affect the Eye Gaze performance. [I eventually had to ditch my glasses, I’m short-sighted so can see the screen but everything beyond is a blur.] These obstacles are all equally annoying in their own right.

I like to prepare people in advance of what to expect with the Eye Gaze. It’s an unnatural and unsociable means of having a conversation:

* It’s slow, it takes me time to type out a response, I’m always a conversation behind.
* The eye trackers at the bottom of the screen that read my eye movements are extremely sensitive; if I look away they lose my eyes and can take up to 30 seconds to reconnect. In the mean time, I get frustrated, throw my head back and close my eyes, trying to re-establish connection. This happens numerous times a day.
* I have to concentrate on typing so I keep focused on the screen; consequently I don’t make as much eye contact and people presume I’m not listening. To make matters worse my neck muscles are weakening so I can’t even nod to acknowledge anymore.
* People stand beside me and read while I type, it’s a natural reaction but the eye trackers are so sensitive they pick up the other eyes and throw me off course, forcing me to reconnect again.

Those issues aside; once I sorted out the teething problems and everyone around me got used to the Eye Gaze, I began to love it. Now, I couldn’t imagine life without it. It’s an extraordinary piece of technology which gets many wows and looks of amazement. It has allowed my brain run free from my paralysed self. Without it I would be trapped inside my own body, unable to express myself, unable to talk to my little boy, my husband or my family and friends. I firmly believe I would be gone by now if it wasn’t for my Eye Gaze; it’s my portal to having a life.

Sharon x

The gift that keeps giving

My magpie instincts to desire shiny and sparkly things has dwindled since having MND. They fail to provide a rush of excitement anymore. My husband asked me what I would like for Christmas this year… The thing is, I don’t want or need any more materialistic objects. What I really really want, I probably won’t see in my life time; it still requires years of research and endless funding.

So what gives me a rush of excitement and joy nowadays? My family and friends of course! Interacting with others fulfills that rush of excitement and leaves me feeling elated and satisfied.

Paralysed inside my MND-ravished body, I have the opportunity to observe and analyse people like never before (maniacal laugh, bwahahahahaha!).  I no longer blend in to a crowd; I attract attention whether I like it or not. But how people react to me is fascinating: It’s either really positive or awful. The people who react positively are far more interesting because they are rare. They have the ability to see beyond my “differences” and make that human connection. I have thought about it a lot and I believe they have a higher aptitude for emotional intelligence.

So how do you know if someone has a high level of emotional intelligence? Well… you will feel it before you realise it. Emotionally intelligent people handle every interaction with kindness and empathy, thus creating positive situations wherever they go.

Being on the receiving end of kindness from a stranger is especially heart warming and will certainly make your day. For me they have left a lasting impact…

* For the person who stops in their tracks and shames others in to stopping too just to give me the red carpet treatment when I pass by them.
* For the waiting staff who welcome me, in my big and bulky wheelchair and make no deal about moving half the restaurant around to make sure I get a suitable table.
* For the salesperson who wrote a note and placed it within my purchase just to tell me they really enjoyed interacting with me.
* For the person who heard my story and brought their award-winning restaurant to my home.

Thank you for teaching me that kindness is truly the highest form of wisdom.

This Christmas and New Year use your emotional intelligence for every encounter. This way you’re giving people something money can’t buy and will be remembered way beyond Christmas Day. Spread copious amounts of kindness on your family, friends and more importantly random strangers. The world is crying out for kindness and empathy like never before. Give it a go and see what happens.

Sharon x

For Finn, the bravest young warrior I ever knew.

Jaw droppingly different

Positioned front and centre, I lead the way. Numerous eyes on me, I take a deep breath, hold my head high and focus ahead. Most people notice me, some take a quick look while others take the time to stop and examine me from head to toe. I can turn heads, make jaws drop and cause children to run away in fear. I’ve had tourists gather beside me and a family follow me around, all for a better gawk. A trip out and about is never boring with me and my wheelchair!

A very dear friend of mine asked me to write about being in a wheelchair. Her beautiful young son uses one to get around and she wanted to know what it felt like. My handsome buddy and I experience life from a different position and I was delighted to share my perspective with his mum. My initial enthusiasm to write the blog quickly dissipated though: I began to realise that my vanity and insecurities were major factors in how I felt being in a wheelchair. The biggest issue for me is people constantly staring. I just can’t seem to get over it, it really, really irks me!

Some of you might think I am being ridiculous: “Who cares what others think?” “Sure, it’s natural for people to stare.” “Just ignore them.” – I’ve heard it all, believe me…. A while back, when my son was six, I remember him asking me; “Why are all the people looking at us?” Heartbreaking that he noticed the unwelcome attention. But if even a young child notices it, then it’s not just me being paranoid!

Slightly ashamed that I was letting my vanity overshadow my thoughts, I contacted my friend to explain my writing block. She immediately responded with a long list of her experiences of the starers too. No surprise that our stories were very much alike. And we both have similar defence strategies; stare back with ferocious intent. My friend has the added advantage of being able to vocalise her retorts. My failed muscles on my face and in my mouth preclude me from reacting like I would really like to.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest(!) here are some tips on how to handle an encounter with another ‘human’ in a wheelchair. These are all from personal experience:

  • “Greetings, Fellow Human!”
    If you meet a wheelchair user it’s ok to look (we are all curious), just DON’T stare. Smile and move along; no rubber-necking.
  • “Beep Beep!”
    Unless you have driven or pushed a wheelchair it’s hard to appreciate how undexterous it is. It’s not nimble like a baby’s pram but cumbersome like a shopping trolley. It’s fine when you are going straight but when you have to stop or change direction it’s a different story. Common courtesy seems to evaporate when a narrow passage, a wheelchair and a pedestrian come together. People are so focused on getting by the chair they scurry past without any regard, forcing me to stop in my tracks. If I had a Euro for every insincere “Sorry ” I’ve  received while some one busted in front of me, I’d have enough money for a golden chariot by now ! Eventually some decent person will stand back to let me through. I want to kiss them for their kindness.
  • “You’re a good driver!”
    Thanks for noticing! Most people just stand and stare at me (I do drive with a set of head controls….). I remember negotiating through a tight corridor of tables and chairs in a half empty coffee shop. All eyes were on me as I inched through. A nice man hopped up to move a chair out of my way. He stood back with the chair in his hands and said, “Wow, you are an amazing driver!”.  I was delighted; he instantly made me feel good.
  • “Mummy, why is that lady in the wheelchair?”
    You’re with a young child and they ask why the person is in the wheelchair – and I guarantee this will happen when you’re in a packed lift, with every one waiting for your response with bated breath! You could say something like, “Maybe their legs need some help so they use a wheelchair.” The one I tell all my son’s friends is “My muscles don’t work anymore”. Just keep it simple!
  • “Hello, I’m here too!”
    If you strike up a conversation with the person pushing the wheelchair, DON’T ignore the person in the chair or have a conversation behind them. It’s just plain bad manners.
  • “Why….?”
    This is for the curious ones, who soooo want to know why the person is in the chair. My advice is “Don’t ask”!  This is a very personal question and some people may not want to share. My dear friend is much more generous than me and gave the following advice on this one: Her little chap is handsome and young so attracts attention. (He has beautiful eyes and killer eye lashes). People often ask her, “What’s *wrong* with him?”. She finds it deeply offensive; he is her perfect little boy. She heard this gentler question suggested by another parent and instantly liked it: “What is his difference?”
  • “Jesus loves you!”
    Yes, some random crazy person came up to me and said that – they actually circled around me before their approach. I was deeply offended, on so many levels. Seriously, wtf?
  • “I’m not deaf!”
    Just because I’m in a wheelchair doesn’t mean my ears don’t work. There’s no need to bend down and shout at me while slowly over-enunciating  your words. Assume the best of people’s abilities, not the worst. Just talk normally.
  • “I don’t know how you do it”.
    I do it because I have to! I’m not looking for pity or congratulations for being in a wheelchair. No head-tilting sympathetic looks needed, thanks.

Good manners and common sense, it works wonders and can help us avoid offending others. Four years ago I’d never have given a second thought to what it felt like to be in a wheelchair. I’ve been in a chair a relatively short time so I have enormous respect for those who have been in one all their lives. I have a spare wheelchair if you would like to see what it feels like   😉

Sharon x

Funny tee shirt available on Zazzle.com

Touch

“Do you miss driving?” my friend asked me recently. She was unable to drive for a few months and was frustrated at her lack of independence. I asked myself the question again, I was surprised at my lack of an immediate response. Do I miss driving…? Suddenly I was aware that I had not answered her and she was still looking at me, waiting for my answer. I reluctantly nodded “yes” to escape my muddled thoughts.

Later that night, while lying in bed unravelling the day, I found myself stuck on the question again – do I miss driving? I was perplexed at my inability to answer the question. Yes, obviously I missed driving but there were so many other losses I mourned since then; driving paled in comparison.

Nothing happens overnight with my MND monster. One day you begin to notice a mundane task starts challenging you. Ignoring it doesn’t help so you start overanalysing it, attempting to understand what’s happening to you. Before you realise it, your body has compensated by adapting a less fluid or clumsy motion to work around the failed muscle. That was how my body struggled to cope in the opening scenes of my MND nightmare.

By the time I could no longer drive, I knew the routine of a failing muscle too well. My car was adapted so I could drive entirely with my hands. Fantastic, until my hands began to fall apart right in front of me. My way of dealing with my losses took a recognised pattern. Shock, fear – tears. Realisation – more tears. Admittance to others – floods of tears. When the muscle finally relinquishes – uncontrollable tears. Through the torrential downpouring of tears, I somehow find the strength to pick myself up and move on. I have to, every body is willing me on from the sidelines.

Yes, not driving anymore was a huge loss, now I depend on others to drive me – but at the end of the day I am still getting around. I look down at my lifeless, misshapen, swollen hands, although still part of me they are useless now. Made redundant by disease. I desperately miss how my hands engaged with life. It’s the little things that I miss the most; random things, things my hands used to do.

I miss having a cup of tea on a cold day, wrapping my hands around the cup, soaking up the heat.

I miss rummaging through “that” drawer we all have, finding something you forgot you had. Rejoicing in the discovery.

I miss holding a pen and writing, especially birthday cards, it is just not the same when your mammy writes your husband’s birthday card.

Scratching an itch. Oh God, I miss it so much.

I even miss petting the cat and dog.

Above all, I miss skin contact, making physical contact with others. Touching, feeling and engaging with the world surrounding me.

I miss picking up my son and holding him tight against me. Feeling the soft skin on his back, caressing it to remind him of my unconditional love.

I miss holding my husband’s hand, how our fingers interlocked, tight and inseparable. Stronger together.

I miss giving and receiving hugs. Like a firm hand shake, a tight hug is a good sign, the feeling of hands across my back, full of good vibes.

As my eyes feel heavy and my body succumbs to sleep…I know tomorrow will awaken a plethora of new losses to lament.

Sharon x

Child’s play

Despite the presence of the MND monster, our seven year old golden haired boy continues to make us smile every day. For almost half of his life, all he has known is the diseased me. He can barely remember when I walked unaided and spoke with an unslurred voice. Happy ever after was stolen from our sweet innocent boy.

He is a good child, kind, considerate and full of fun. Our greatest worry in the early days was the negative affect MND would have on his life.  Going through an unpredictible period in life stirs up terrifying emotions. It is hard to prepare for the unknown. There was very little advice forthcoming on how to support a child when a terminal diagnosis is dumped on a family. Finally the voice of reason and experience invited me into her office one Autumn morning: Dolores, the owner of the family-run creche he still attends today, took me in, comforted me and gave me invaluable advice on how to talk to him. She suggested we explain in simple language, a little bit of information at a time and let him digest that. When he needs to know more, he will come back with new questions. This allows us to support him emotionally and gauge his thoughts and concerns. Many times it is his innocent and simplistic approach to my condition that teaches us all how to cope.

Children are incredibly resilient but need ongoing love and support. Our family, friends and community have put a protective seal around him. His school and creche instinctively put this in place. Everyone helps in whatever way they can, always looking out for him. He is an open and chatty child so it’s easy to spot if something is bothering him.

There is a constant stream of medical equipment coming into our home to aid my ailing condition. Every piece is fascinating to a child and requires a thorough investigation – box and all!  The most exciting arrival was the full body hoist with large sling. He brought the hoist in to the living room, climbed into the sling with his cat,  then raised the hoist to its maximum height of nearly six foot and watched TV – as you do! An electric wheelchair to a seven year old screams “fun, fun, fun!”.  When I am not in the chair, he drives it around the house with such precision, you have to admire his skill.

He loves the carers and keeps them motivated by smacking their backsides and tickling them. He adores being in the centre of all the action – he puts on his medical gloves and insists on helping out with the night time routine. His favourite job is rubbing copious amounts of cream on my hands and feet. Once he is in the room keeping us entertained, he is of course dodging his bed time. When they’ve finished he likes to walk the girls out to their car, give them a kiss and hug good night. They have to drive away and beep their horn before he goes back inside.

In his mind the carers are there for his benefit too – well why not, if they look after me, why not look after him too?! On one occasion he asked the girls to give him a shower just like mine. So he got my shower wheelchair, stripped off, popped on my shower cap and shouted out, “I’m ready!”. He was treated like a prince –  powdered and puffed from head to toe. He was chuffed with himself, getting treated just like his mum!

We don’t lock doors and hide things from him, that instills fear and exclusion. He is allowed come into the room when I am getting ready but does understand I need privacy occasionally. This took a little fine tuning in the early days. One Saturday morning, a couple of years ago, he was excited his friend was coming over. When his pal arrived he couldn’t wait to tell me so he brought him in to say hello. The only problem was, I was in the shower… There were screams everywhere as my carers jumped in front of me to protect my modesty. The boys, bemused by the commotion, shrugged their shoulders and walked out. Fortunately they were too young to understand what they had done.

Recently, I had to spend time in hospital for the first time since having MND and we were all a bit anxious about it. The night before I was admitted, my sweet boy presented me with ten of his ‘precious crystals’, he told me they would help me feel safe and protected. How could I be scared now, he was taking care of both of us?

We try to make an abnormal situation as normal as possible, it’s the only life he knows.  Providing him with a loving and happy home, we hope for the best. One thing is for sure –  he is a very special boy.

Sharon x