Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That WAS our house to the left and behind the tree!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Barcelona, Paris, Scandinavia, and…California???

What a travel schedule we had planned for ourselves this summer, our first in Spain!  An onslaught of friends (all invited and eagerly awaited), followed by train trips to Cordoba and Barcelona, our first overnight train to Paris, and a whirlwind introduction to the land of the midnight sun in Sweden and Norway.  After that, tours through Northern Spain and Portugal, followed by more visits from family and friends.
Arzu, Sophie, and Thomas Discover the Feria

The Neffs come to visit--a piece of Imperial Beach!
Maestra Nabi and her girls Yasmin and Nasreen

On the day we started this ultra-busy summer, I got a phone call from my stepdad, Rich.  A CT scan had discovered a malignant tumor in my mom’s upper intestine and an ominous spot on her liver.  I hid this information from our guests, not yet willing to sacrifice what we’d planned, nor to break the news to Tia and Sasha.  Late-night phone calls and email traffic pieced together the information: a duodenal adenocarcinoma, and a much larger metastasis to the liver.  But my mom was in good spirits, at peace with herself, and full of energy, willing to jump into "this next adventure," as she dubbed it.  She assured me she felt good, and that she would let me know when I needed to come home.

My mom--still teaching us how to live fully.

So off we went to Barcelona.   (And because we covered so much ground, both physical and emotional, I’ll just give the highlights here, and details in a subsequent entry.)

I had not expected to love this Catalunyan city so much.  When we arrived, I was bewildered by the onslaught of Catalan, even though I had expected it.  We stayed in an apartment with Tia and Sasha’s teacher (and my friend!) Oralia Nabizadeh and her daughters Yasmin (18) and Nasreen (15), just two blocks from the famous Sagrada Familia, the architect Antonio Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece.  All I could wonder was:  What was he thinking? !?! Who would put Venus Fly Traps on the points of a cathedral spire?


Luckily, Barcelona also has its casco antiguo, the mysterious, dark, gloomy, enchanting Gothic district.  We toured the Cathedral,  wandered through the narrow streets and past fountains and tiny, tucked-away squares, charmed by this glimpse into what makes Barcelona so famous.  Then we hopped onto the night train to Paris, the girls thrilled by the overnight rail adventure.

Barcelona Gothic

At the world's most visited monument
My mom’s chemotherapy was going better than expected, so we gave ourselves completely over to this grande dame of a city.  Ah, Paris!  City of grey beauty and wonderful things to eat!  We toured everything we could in four days, anchored by a lovely rented apartment next to the Pompidou Museum.  Tia fell in love with the Hotel de Ville, vowing to build a house just like it when she grows up.
Hotel de Ville--Tia's next home

But after the third day in Paris, I got the first hint that things were not going well with my mom.  She had sent an update to her website (click here for her website), a stoic yet cheerful message explaining how erupting mouth sores had turned her lips black and made eating excruciatingly painful, and how torrential diarrhea was keeping her up 30 times a night.  A terse email from my sister asking me to call immediately was followed by a worried conversation: Mom had gone to the emergency room, only to be rehydrated for “diarrhea” and sent home.   Suzi demanded that Mom be admitted to the hospital, and she flew to Cupertino while we flew off to Sweden, a black cloud of worry hanging over us.

Göteborg was our first Swedish city, more of a stopover than a visit.  Industrial and set in the forests of the Swedish coast, Göteborg is modern and clean, with a few charming parts such as the canal we walked on our way to dinner. Our hotel, situated on the dock of the city ferry, was modern and clean, a reflection of Göteborg; the kids loved the free licorice and decaf coffee in their cozy reception.

Göteborg Tree

I called Suzi on the train from Göteborg to Stockholm.  Mom was stable, doing well in her hospital room, chatty and cheerful although still plagued by the chemo’s side effects.  I felt relieved, and so we traveled onwards.

Fierce Viking Cubs

Stockholm is gorgeous.  From the train in, traveling over the bridges from island to island, to the 19th-century skyline, to the old town with its charming narrow streets, to the wider boulevards and ferries crisscrossing the salt waters, Stockholm charmed us.  We stayed in a youth hostel on a boat situated just a bridge away from the old town, a narrow, diesel-smelling but cozy hostel experience that thrilled Tia and Sasha.  New culinary experiences—reindeer, char—awaited us.

View From Our Porthole

But my mom worsened.  When I called her on her birthday that morning, she could barely talk.  Simone had come down the night before when my mom had suddenly gone downhill with chills and a fever.  She, Suzi and Rich were trying to have a birthday celebration of sorts, with little success; my mom was clearly hurting.  I hung up and started the search for flights from Stockholm to San Francisco.  But by the time we were ready to leave Stockholm on July 13th, which was the first available flight out, the doctors had put in a NG tube which helped my Mom perk up and feel much better.  So on we traveled to Oslo.

Hanging in there

Oslo was yet again a stopover city; we had just the afternoon to see what we could, made possible by the reasonable  24-hour tram passes.  We spent the afternoon at Frogner Park, home to Weidener’s statue garden, which happened to have a wonderful playground attached.

Oslo Tiger

But that evening, skyping to my sister from the bathroom of the apartment so as not to wake the girls, the news got worse: my mom had begun vomiting and her abdomen had swollen to the size of an 8-month pregnancy, indicating a blockage of her intestine.  Was the tumor now obstructing her?  Was there a new tumor?  Or an adhesion from her former surgeries?  I again began the search for flights from Oslo to San Francisco.  But by morning, my mom had stabilized yet again, and the doctors were cautiously optimistic that the obstruction would resolve itself.  So…off we went to Bergen.

On the Way to Bergen: Frozen Even In July

Another stopover city.  What had I been thinking, making such plans??  Bergen is a beautiful old fishing village-turned-city, surrounded by water.  An overnight stay on another boat-hotel, and off we went on the ferry to Balestrand.

Bergen Church

Balestrand is a fishing-turned-vacation village most famously frequented by the Kaiser Wilhelm II in the 19th century.  Our hotel was unremarkable and comfortable, but the views!  We hiked up to the snow one day, a four-hour trek led by Tia and Sasha (“Go ‘til snow!  Go ‘til snow!”), and we biked around the fjord the next day, followed our final day by a dip in the freezing fjord waters.

Ooohhh, that's cold!

But the night before we began our journey home, my mom was again worse; when she had seemed better, the doctors had clamped the NG tube to see if she was stable enough to remove it, but she instead began vomiting.  Able to walk through Stanford’s gardens the day before, my mom now needed help getting up from her bed.  “She’s asking for you, Steph…I can’t tell you what to do, but…” My sister left no doubt in my mind about what the next trip would be.

Goodbye, Scandinavia...Goodbye Spain...

So here I find myself in California, first in the Cupertino house where I grew up, now down in Los Angeles in a rambling bungalow-hacienda where my sister has has set up a base for my mom’s care (it’s a long story in itself; Click here and move through the newer posts for full story).  The journey home was a blur of ferry, train, taxi, plane flight, and car ride.  We  arrived home in Puerto only to dump out the suitcases and refill them with clean clothes, and leave a couple hours later for the Rota terminal to catch a military flight to Norfolk, Virginia.   And so here we are, back in California for the time being—and most importantly, with my mom.

We Love Our Nana


  1. Thinking so much of you!! My prayers go your way every single day. Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you. Un beso muy fuerte para ti, tu madre y las niñas.

  2. Stephanie...
    i am so proud to know you and it is with admiration that i am sending your mom a special hug filled with God's healing power ..."For HIM all things are possible".
    Count on my prayers ...and i trust that you ARE a Blessed family!!!


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