When we don’t know what else to do, we cook.
Seasoned tri-tip roast nestled in a bed of organic broccoli slow-cooked to palate-tempting perfection. Beef for stronger blood, broccoli to repair the immune system. Dishing out hope against hope, heaping spoonfuls of guarded promise carefully plated and set on the table.
Pulling a big knife from the block I chop watermelon into sweet red cubes, dice redolent minty green leaves and section an orange. Sprinkling feta cheese over the mix I serve it up on a white plate, a life-restoring offering.
I stand over a stainless steel pot of black beans infused with onion, garlic and spices, my wooden spoon moving in slow circles to meld the flavors, my nose twitching at the aromas. She loves my black beans and will ask for them several times this week. How little it is, but it is all I can do. We are all helpless when we see death in the waiting room, biding its time.
Broad layers of pasta noodles in the casserole topped with meat, yellow and green vegetables and scarlet marinara remind me of the cooking course the two of us took outside of Rome that autumn week. We cooked two huge meals a day—and ate them—laughing the whole time, learning from Italians who had no English. We were fluent in the language of the kitchen and we speak it still, even as we watch the stopwatch tick steadily the minutes of her life, our lives.
We will speak it until the end.
How did we get here so fast? I wonder, as carrots, zucchini, onion and green beans simmer in the soup pot, my face hot in the steam, holding my tears in the corner of my eyes, blotting them before they fall. I am afraid if I let them go they won’t stop: tears for the women we were, the women we once were, the women we are now, but mostly for what she’s going through, her disease picking up speed now. They can’t infuse bags of blood and platelets fast enough to keep up with it. I can’t infuse food fast enough, either.
I didn’t draw a lucky family card and longed for the kind of sister mine would never be. I was 33 when I got someone better, this sister-friend who is now dying.
Who can explain the alchemy of sisterhood, when masks drop away and souls connect? How is it that we can have it with one and not another? What will I do when she is gone?
We’ve sat together at many tables, for meals, for cocktails, pouring wine and pouring out our souls. Now, she insists on rolling her walker to the dinner table and sitting for as long as her disease will let her, even if it’s just minutes.
Through onion tears I can barely see the knife move on the cutting board. If I’m not careful I could slice my finger and I almost want to, to feel something other than gut-wrenching sorrow.
Endings have never been my strength; I’ve always kept people in my life long after the relationship had wilted around the edges. But this one stayed fresh through each stage of our lives, though we had little in common, nothing obvious, anyway.
I grab seasonings from my rack. She’s always loved her food spicy, but now it takes more than simple spices to tempt her palate. I double my usual measured spoonfuls and add oregano and seasoned pepper to the waiting stock pot, and then, hot pepper.
When we met she was a stay-at-home wife of a prosperous executive and mother of two. Divorced twice and childless, I was trying desperately to find a job in a new city, new state and new industry. Her long, graceful fingers sparkled with diamonds and gold, while my one solitaire sat in a drawer, a symbol of my failure. Her friends were all ladies who lunched and I was a woman with a briefcase and a 1980s business suit.
But we “got” each other instantly. Maybe it was because we shared Italian heritage, maybe because we were both transplanted Californians from the northeast. I can’t explain it, and really, it’s not important. What’s important is that we connected. It stuck, too. Our bond would carry us more than 30 years, through love affairs, divorces and remarriage; through new jobs and graduations; through earthquakes, dinners in Italy and wine drunk in in Napa. And through secrets, shared and unshared.
Later, it carried us through ambulance rides to the emergency room, three different wheelchairs, two walkers, stints in the intensive care unit; through chemotherapy, opportunistic infections and then, through celebrations of miraculous rallies. Now, though, in a final test, it’s carrying us through her death.
That 30-year span of friendship was unfathomable when we met, but now, as the end is foreshadowed, I’m startled at how quickly the days have passed and are still speeding by, way too fast. I want to stop time, freeze it in place, keep her with me. I can not fathom the world otherwise.
I hold on to the cutting board as if I were holding on to her life, chopping furiously, furious at the loss that is to come, each chop a No!, half pleading and half demand.
Broth is simmering on the stove, waiting for me to add the last cup of her favorite vegetables. She’ll have the soup for dinner tonight, served hot, not lukewarm. She hates her food lukewarm.
I scoop bright green florets of broccolini into the water, add seasoning and cook.