A chill pervaded the air that afternoon, sending my husband and I to spoon hot Japanese curry over sticky white rice. Earlier that afternoon, my phone vibrated as the small screen lit up with a message from my Mom. I put off making that call until I could find the right type of quiet for the conversation.
In between ordering our food and waiting for our names to be called, my mother got cancer. To be clear, I made her say the word twice because I almost missed it the first time since it didn’t belong in the words coming out of her mouth. Cars whooshed by. I leaned against a street sign to steady me as my mind worked overtime to listen more closely to what else might come out.
Words scatter. They rip their hair out with a sharp-edged W before running haphazardly to the bay in a distracted state of Y. Sometimes, you don’t need words at all. As I stood outside, my spine surrendered to the street sign, my husband watched through a glass door, reading my body language and knew the news was not good. We ate our dinner that evening numb. Instead of hot comfort spooned over rice, we found a pool of lackluster food. Further tests transpired. Decisions on what was to be done occurred. Preparations have been made. This week, I fly home one day before the fourth anniversary of my father’s death and two days before my mom goes in for surgery.
I’m not a doctor, though I will be surrounded by one at the pre-op meeting, wait to hear from one after surgery and perhaps get to know a nurse or two by first name on schedule rotation. I’m not a nurse, though I will play one for a few weeks, which serves me right, after tormenting my mom with a bell which I rang for sport once or twice when I was sick as a child. My childhood served as a good training ground for whatever child specimen I will bring into the world one day.
I am a cook. I make a decent bodyguard and once worked as a deejay in college. Lest you think I will be fending off rogue assailants with boom boxes of death metal attempting to accost my mom in the hospital or at home, I am going to be wearing more of a spa robe. In fact, I intend to transform her home into a retreat such that Canyon Ranch would cringe. Perhaps I shall assume a new name as well, something calming like Heather. Perhaps I can whisk my fire personality into one of air or water.
Three weeks ago I began a project of scouring cookbooks by people I trust who correlate food as medicine and the farmacy as assisting the pharmacy. I started concocting menus for the Superbowl of cooking in a way that Thanksgiving can never try to take on because where my favorite holiday imbues every good and lip-smacking food into one monstrosity of a meal, this is for a longer stretch.
Jutted up against leafy green vegetables, warm fluffy bowls of intact whole grains get gussied up with spices. The intention is to assemble easy meal plans of anti-inflammatory foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, some fish, spices and tea) for the non-cook in my nuclear family.
Growing up, we ate out of a lot of cans and boxes. As someone who can’t sweep to save her life, I get that not everyone likes every household task. I fully understand that cooking can seem like a burden or chore. Whatever cooking bone I have comes from my mom’s sisters, my Tia’s, not my Mom, though she is the first to champion any culinary concoction of mine, is my original taste tester and has perfected several dishes that are part of her culinary brain trust.
The menus include ingredients put together during a dysbiosis cleanse from my previous naturopath. They take into consideration lists from my acupuncturist of alkaline non-mucus forming foods. The intent here is to help the body heal itself as Western medicine does its fancy footwork on her body.
Sometimes it’s enough to bring what you can offer to a situation. Whether it’s company, a bit of humor or stirring a pot of slow-simmered beans, I am restless to be present in the same room as my mom. I never thought I would be saying, Happy Mother’s Day this year inside of a hospital room. Her optimism keeps me tethered to something solid when mine threatens to cave in under the rush of hot emotion. The prayers we utter nightly work as our foundation: short ones without any posturing, ones where we can breathe aloud the request for healthy cells and keep each other upbeat.
Inexplicably, the song, “Happy” claps along in my head in spite of the diagnosis. Today, she is alive. Today I can talk to her. Today, we get another chance to keep smearing the mortar along the edges of the bricks we have been laying over the years to build each other up. When my bearings begin to wobble, I can, in turn, build someone else up. She and I understand the eccentricities that make us mother and daughter. We are tear-up-the-wrapping-paper-on-packages kind of people- there’s too little time to be too careful opening the gift. It’s meant to be lived loudly now.
In my initial grief, I reached out to 10 fingerfuls of incredible cancer-free women. They are the unseen pillars I think of, the people I text or call when I want to hide in the days of happy ignorance, the days before this disease lay its finger on her body. I salute her persistent doctors. I enfold my mom in a bear hug for regular testing. I buy her yellow flowers that they may continue giving her sunny personality a visual cue. That doesn’t make me want this to go away any less. But, I get the honor of serving her as cook, bodyguard, assistant and always, as the precocious daughter. Some things don’t change.