My dear son Kai returned to Montreal Sunday. I am so grateful he had a chance to spend two and a half days in Atlanta with me, a whirlwind of three doctors at two different Emory campuses. I made macaroni and cheese while he was here, (added bacon and subbed a little soy milk), and because the avocados were so pretty, I picked some up too. Thanks to the inspired presence of Michael and Kai, the guacamole got chopped bacon added as well.*
A friend took me to the grocery store Friday morning. There’s a sentiment too often inscribed on wine glasses and aprons these days, but during WWII, steely-eyed Londoners reminded each other to “keep calm and carry on.” I suspect it’s a cultural thing, perhaps a gender thing, but “carrying on” has always led me straight to thoughts of my belly. No matter what happens, we all have to eat, right? So, although I could not rationalize it one single bit, it felt okay for me to be in the grocery store Friday morning with my life in slo-mo shatter all around me.
I found the okra but they had black spots. “Do you have any fresh?” My friend who carried me to the market is a mind-reader. The produce manager smiled at her and returned in short order with a bin of okra pods, green as God intended. As I sorted, I remembered to breathe. I was looking for the short, tender pieces. The new ones, more fuzzy than spiny. I focused, sorted, breathed. I began to see how I might carry on.
I had my 90-day check-up last week, and here’s the bad news: five new lesions on both lobes of my poor old liver. Here’s the good news: I’ll be starting hormone shots soon, and these may shrink or slow the tumor growth, alleviate some of the nasty GI symptoms, and also act as markers for targeted radiation therapy
I remembered all the times I’ve picked okra. My daddy used to grow a little bit in the backyard, when I was little and we lived in Kansas. He showed me how to pick the tender pods before the spines got mean. He taught me how to make snapdragons yawn and he teased my mom about her fierce loyalty to Jiffy corn bread mix for breading okra. But he kept a box of Jiffy mix in his cabinet for the rest of his life.
This put a smile on my face: remembering all the many, many times I have splashed that sunny yellow Jiffy mix, oil and beaten eggs across all the many stoves I’ve owned. The innumerable skillets full of the most delicious, tender, crispy, sweet, salty sliced joy from the garden that I have proudly presented to a tableful of guests, guarded at the kitchen counter, jealously hoarded for a latecomer. The buckets of sweat that have poured down my face while ceiling fans and floor fans roared and percolated the sultry Alabama air.
“Look.” My friend had found the discount rack. “This is the best risotto ever and it’s only a dollar.”
I wouldn’t bite. “It’s out of date.” I went back to fondling fuzzy baby okra pods.
“No, it’s not. Have you ever had homemade risotto?” Well, no, I haven’t. Or rather, I hadn’t up until then. She convinced me. I bought it. A pound of fat, unsullied white mushrooms, selected slow. And a pair of strawberry cartons on the fly on the way out the door.
I wanted to cook the risotto first, since I’d never tried it before. You have to stir the stuff nonstop. Thankfully I had enough clout to press Kai and Michael into service. It was good. But the okra? It was heavenly. It was love-on-a-fork. It sang to me of my mother, my children, my past. I was tired and didn’t make it as carefully as I might have but Kai knows his part.
“Best okra ever.”
We finished up the odd meal with lots and lots of strawberries and canned whipped cream and those perpetually stale dessert cups. Nectar of the gods, I tell you.
This thing we humans do, this preparing and sharing of food. It has such power in it. My friend Ellen Beaumont Ballard, my friend Margery Thomson, my friends Phyllis and Anne and Melanie, Bridget and Carole and Tommy, all my parish family who have scraped little bits of orange cheese on celery sticks, dumped a box of crackers on a plate, put another pot of coffee on. We know that power. My entire life, the go-to response to strong emotion is food.
I was at a memorial service recently, for a man deeply loved by his colleagues, students, and family. We spent the weekend together at Bald Rock Lodge on Cheaha Mountain. An army of people, from age ten to ninety, kept food and coffee and sodas and snacks piled high on tables stretching the length of the room. Waves of people came in and out, migrated to the patio, down to the motel pool, out to the lawn. They laughed and loved and remembered their friend. I watched, mostly. And although I didn’t know Dr. Olander or his family, I was nourished. In fact, when we left, I was flourishing. Renewed and reinvigorated.
Lucky me, I got to go to a wedding in early June, too. We sat under the summer trees near the Platte River, long rows of picnic tables, and ate pie and danced, celebrated love and family ties, and those tables, too, were overflowing with something, some power greater than mere calories, physical sustenance. All these long, laden tables I have been invited to, stumbled over, contributed to the bounty or not, they sustain me now.
I had my 90-day cancer check-up last week, and here’s the bad news: CT scans show five new lesions on both lobes of my poor old liver. Too much for surgery. Here’s the good news: I’ll be starting hormone shots soon, and these may shrink or slow the tumor growth, alleviate some of the nasty GI symptoms, and they’ll also act as markers for targeted radiation therapy if that becomes an option. My original prognosis, a 20% chance of surviving five or more years, hasn’t changed. I like my Emory docs; from what I can tell from my research they’re near the top in treatment of pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer.
If you know me well, you know I’m the most gullible person alive. I believed in jackelopes till I was thirty (what, my dad would mislead me on that??). I’ll spot fairies and djinn and angels at the drop of a pin. I prefer this world with a dusting of magic. Perhaps because I want to see it, I do. Even so, I have company in my capacity to believe. Any number of my cousins would swear to the presence of the Holy Spirit at sweet Olivia’s wedding in Omaha. Great clouds of angelic white moths swarmed the memorial celebration at Cheaha. Discouraged, aching hearts are renewed and encouraged and restored over and over, and simple kindness blooms underfoot in all directions. Beautiful things that should not happen, do.
Maybe it was just luck that allowed Kai’s schedule to fit in a trip to Atlanta. I think my Higher Power knew I needed my son to be with me and Michael when we got that news, and then to meet my great psychiatrist at the Winship Cancer Center, and my incredibly compassionate pain management doctor. I’m so very glad I could fry okra for Kai, and spread a tableful of love, nevermind that we ate off plates in our laps in front of the tv.
As a Christian, the Table with the deepest significance for me is the altar where I gather with my brothers and sisters to feast on Christ’s sacrificial love. One of my favorite preachers described that table once as extending, somehow, from my beloved parish home Saint Andrews, to heaven, through time and space, filled end-to-end with all whom we have ever loved and lost and all those who are to come.
That Table, now. It is in my heart. And so, dear friends, are you. I often don’t feel like eating at all these days, but whatever you’re serving up that can’t be tasted or seen yet warms the heart? I’ll have a double handful, please. Right now.
Will you tell me about a time when you’ve found more than food at a table full of folks? Or if you don’t feel like writing it down, just take a moment and remember what it feels like. We’ll make the world a little more beautiful, one thought at a time.
*My most recent favorite t-shirt slogan: “Because of bacon, I know Jesus loves me.”