I stirred ramen into a boiling pot of water as I spoke softly into the mic at my ear, “I love you so much grandma, I’m here with you.” I was barely paying attention as the sweet potato sauteed to my left, so I turned the heat down as we spoke.
“I don’t know if I should come, I mean, I know we had a really good conversation yesterday. What do you think?” I ask as tears break the surface of my voice.
“Let’s take this one day at a time for now,” she said to me as I plopped in peas and corn. A measly thought about protein and nutrition floats across the whirlpool that is my thoughts.
I may have only been making a packet of ramen for lunch, but it felt like so much more. Standing in my kitchen, barefoot, with headphones in as I chopped an onion and scallion for flavor. I considered waiting to call, finish my lunch, but felt I would want to put it off even further. My feet are on the tile but my mind is soaring back to different moments, different years.
Thinking about food in my family, how we revolve gatherings around meals, how we support each other through the gift of food. Food has been such a critical point in our family, connecting us when it feels as though every other connection has broken. Food still brought us together when parents were deployed, folks were working late, and even when I left. We talk about food because it makes us feel good, and brings a smile to our faces.
What food tastes best when you’re grieving?
I squeezed a bit of Sriracha on top of the ramen, not minding if it burned a little going down. I hoped it would, maybe that would remind my taste buds that it was time to eat. I felt sadness prick my voice as I say goodbye to them both; speakerphone having to take the place of holding hands and rubbing feet. ‘I wish I could be close to you’, I think as I place the sweet potatoes on the ramen, realizing I’ve come off autopilot just in time to eat and say farewell. It turned out this would be my last conversation with my grandpa, who I had spoken to before he passed the phone to my grandma. Chillingly, I was the last person he spoke with.
Food has a way of showing us what’s going on beneath the surface. Which makes sense, when you think about how food creates energy in our bodies and can directly affect our moods. The day after this phone call I drove two hours to be with my grandma and mom, now using my grandma’s home as a headquarters for funeral arrangements. Our week that began with sudden togetherness ended in a funeral, surrounded by family. What brought us together afterward was food.
I’ve never thought of myself as a caretaker, someone who swoops in and starts feeding everyone. But this week it was suddenly all I knew how to do. I found myself going through her pantry deciding on meals for lunch and dinner. Feeling like if I could do anything it would be to set hot food in front of her to eat. I fed my grandma and mother and spent our time in between meals holding hands, processing memories, and receiving flowers and food at the door.
This false sense of control is seen often in times of grief. The need to focus on one project at a time, trying to give what you can when it feels like so much has been taken. I could understand that my grandpa had died, it was obvious from the way we were organizing a funeral. But at the same time, my grandma’s house looked the same, the fridge still had dill pickles and coffee creamer, and his jackets still hung by the door. Cooking and caring for my family as they went through the motions helped me reconcile those feelings of fear and loss.
“We got the gift of cancer,” My grandma said, knowing how ironic the phrase would sound, “The gift of knowing when so many in our family have been gone in a day in much more sudden and devastating events”.
And she’s right. We’ve had two beautiful years and then some. Of vacations, recitals, pizza Thursdays, graduations, and holidays. Cancer was something we knew but never saw. It still isn’t fair, especially to her, I think to myself as I pour half the ramen in a leftovers container, my appetite dried up like the shards of green onion at the bottom of the fridge. Two weeks from today she held my great great great aunt’s hand as she passed. Now she’s planning her husband’s funeral. Documents, letters, sympathy cards and just…stuff, litter the floor as she is now the one managing two deceased person’s estates.
Food does taste different in grief. It often brings comfort, sustenance, and energy. But it can also bring memories, feelings, and pain to the surface of a troubled heart. There’s a reason folks organize for meal trains and drops when someone dies. We forget to care for ourselves, we wonder what it’s like to go on living, grocery shopping for one instead of two. Food, in a way, is grief. It is grief in that we spend time bringing pieces together in hopes of making something delicious and filling, it is grief in the sense that we think back to the last time we made this dish, remember who it was for and why.
We remember, and we cook, and in that, we heal.
Read more of my work at www.itsjustliz.com