As she lay in the recovery ward of the hospital tangled up in tubes, surrounded by beeping machines, exhausted from emergency surgery and loopy on pain medication, my mother managed to mutter a phrase that let me know she was doing alright in spite of her recent trauma. “Did everyone eat?” she said. “Yes, Mom, everyone’s eating,” I replied. “I’m home.”
I had come home earlier that week, beckoned by the urgent tone of my father’s normally stoic voice. “You might want to think about coming home,” he said. Though his words were measured, his delivery lacked the calmness I have come to expect from him, even in times of trial. Mom was having emergency surgery and the doctors weren’t giving him odds; it was serious. I raced home–a four-hour drive complete with a traffic stop for speeding–and made it to the hospital to find my father in the waiting room, rereading the day’s newspaper for the fourth or fifth time. A few hours later, the doctors told us that she was out of surgery, but not out of the woods.
Mom’s recovery was lengthy: she spent almost two weeks in the hospital as nurses checked and rechecked her lungs for fluid, her blood for an elevated white blood cell count, her incision site for infection. As she impatiently counted the days in her hospital bed (while we prayed that she didn’t sign herself out against medical advice) I passed the time by trying to fill in for Mom. With an indefinite leave from work, I volunteered to take on Mom’s various roles, trying to fill the gaps.
I didn’t realize what I had signed up for.
I babysat a 2-year old, the daughter of a long-time family friend, who tried to convince me that she always eats multiple servings of string cheese when she hangs out with my mother, her ‘Yaya.’ I worked as a receptionist at my younger brother’s recently-opened small business. I answered many questions with, “someone will get back to you soon,” hoping no one would notice that I was generally clueless. At home, I did some grocery shopping, cleaned the bathrooms, vacuumed the carpets, washed the dishes and did several loads of laundry. And I cooked.
Now, I’ve cooked before. I once lived in a community where we were responsible for cooking multiple times a week for over fifteen men. But even then I never had to cook multiple days in a row. I always had the luxury of thinking out a menu over the course of several days or weeks. But as I tried to fill in for Mom during these days of her recovery, I quickly realized that I wouldn’t have that kind of time.
While my mother was in the hospital, I found that food was a constant thought. What will I cook tonight? Who will be home to eat it? How do I keep this warm while not overcooking it and still make it to visiting hours? As soon as one day’s meals were eaten, I began thinking about tomorrow’s. It became a repetitive cycle of food preparation. Yet undergirding the whole process there was also a cycle of care. With my constant menu planning, I became singularly focused on what tomorrow would look like for other people–my father, my siblings, my brother-in-law. In a practical and delicious way preparing food drew me out of myself; food was uniting us.
And I felt united to my mother, too. Even as she lay in her bed recovering, I had a stronger sense of what her day to day life looks like and, more importantly, I was able to see inside her cycle of care that revolves around people and, often, food. This cycle of care is second nature to her. In those days, I didn’t just fill in for Mom or see how Mom sees. I loved like Mom loves.
Mom was discharged the night before Thanksgiving and so was home for the holiday. Food continued to be the great uniter. We enjoyed a very non-traditional meal — I cooked what I found in the house: ziti, meatballs, sausage — but we did so as a family, together on Thanksgiving for the first time in years. Mom beamed across the table from me, noticeably happy to have all her children eating together, even if she couldn’t eat much. I cooked as she had cooked. I loved as she had loved. And, with full stomachs and grateful hearts, we were all focused on tomorrow.
The cover image, from Flickr user Alejandro De La Cruz, can be found here.