Restoring the Natural Order
We sat down at my kitchen table for lunch, my dad and I, just like we have dozens of times since I bought this fixer-upper four years ago. This house has been a joint project for the two us: me, the owner and supplier of materials; and my dad, the one who does all the work. On this particular day, Dad was cleaning the gutters, scraping out the sticks and leaves that had accumulated from spring storms that had blown through in waves. Though his handiwork fills my house—from the closet doors to the kitchen sink—that day was only his second workday since he had heart surgery back in February.
As we sat down to eat, we bowed our heads over steamy plates of squash frittata and creamed peas, hints of basil and dill mingling with gratitude and hope as words and tears spilled out of my dad. “We’ve had quite a year,” I said, after the “amens” were whispered and the eyes wiped. Dad nodded. It happened to be my nephew’s birthday, a one-year-old thriving after an early and abrupt entry into the world that required him to spend his first five weeks in the NICU. My dad was still recovering from the heart surgery that had come just as unexpectedly.
And I had nervously awaited results of test after test every three months, each time relieved that no further signs of cancer had been found after a stage 4 diagnosis just three years earlier. We picked up our forks and each began examining our first bites of frittata, hopeful that it would be palatable. It was one of my made-up recipes, a way to use an overstock of chard and zucchini accumulating in the fridge. The taste was unique, even good, but the earthiness of the chard reminded me of the days when everything tasted like dirt. Nausea and food aversions had been the worst side effects of the chemotherapy. I lost more than 20 pounds during those months when all I could eat were Cheerios, baked potatoes, or toast.
My parents were kind and helpful, staying with me in the hospital, preparing food I could stomach, helping me with simple chores. And though I never heard them, I know they also were praying that I wouldn’t die before them. That was the most difficult part of being diagnosed with cancer at age 37; I grieved the loss of one day being able to care for my parents in their last years. Each time I grabbed one of their arms just to walk to the bathroom, I mourned the years I would miss when they needed an arm to hold on to.
Sitting with my dad over lunch that day, though, feeling healthy and eating food that would have made me sick two years ago, I realized that maybe I had mourned too soon. Dad complimented the frittata after the first bite, but quickly directed his attention to the creamed peas. He had told me stories from his childhood of his mother sitting in her rocker shelling peas so that she could cream them for supper. I added baby potatoes to mine, and a hint of clove, accidentally, but he said they still tasted like he remembered.
Seeing Dad happy and hungry brought tears to my eyes as I remembered those days with him in the ICU just last February when the thought struck me that the natural order had been restored and maybe my dad would die before me. Dad’s quadruple by-pass had been unexpected. We thought he was just having an outpatient procedure. But then I heard my sister’s voice on the phone, “It’s bad.” I couldn’t get to the car fast enough, only to spend the one-hour drive to the hospital in panic mode. Complications after his surgery led to extra days in the ICU. He was incredibly weak and couldn’t eat or drink for days. Before Dad even left the hospital, we were once again arm in arm on the way to the bathroom; only this time, he was clinging to me. Neither of us could have imagined that just five months later we would sitting at this table again, working on the house together.
As we finished up the last bites of creamed peas and frittata, I cleared the table, getting my dad another glass of water as he went back to work on the gutters. I followed him outside, reminding him not to get dehydrated, to mind the heat. He said that he knew, that he would be careful. Then I went back to the kitchen and began making cupcakes for my nephew’s birthday party. We had a lot to celebrate.