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On eating and grieving and loving

Cold comfort

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It’s never a clean break. When you get the call that someone you love has died unexpectedly, the fissures begin, slowly, as the body attempts to process the news. There’s screaming and crying and whispers of "it’s not real, it’s not real." A new reality begins to take shape and you wonder why there aren’t grieving estates, places where families can go for weeks at a time to be together, quietly, alone. Without the obligatory obituary and funeral and death certificates. Without the visitors and cards and flowers. Without the interminable flood of casseroles, fruit plates, and cookie tins. Without the world.

But the world, after a nod and some condolences, moves on. The bereaved stumble forward, eyes wide and blank and bloodshot, like 6 foot 2 newborns, fragile as glass in their fully formed bodies. And all we can do is hold our breath.

Two weeks ago I had to leave town. I drove to central Florida with my fiance and soon to be little brother in law and stayed in the sunshine state for five days. My body went into auto pilot — I was the helper. The world was turning and theirs was staccato — forward forward, back back back. I sought solace around every corner. And around every corner was food.

It started with Stauffers lasagna and garlic bread served alongside a heavily dressed bag of bacon caesar salad. I presented the dishes, carefully plopped from plastic containers into colorful serving bowls, as a meek offering to my loved ones — I couldn’t fill the void. I couldn’t fix the unfixable. But I would keep bringing the food.

When we arrived the Florida fridge was overflowing with Publix fried chicken; deli meat and cheese; melon, grapes, strawberries; muffins, cookies, and cucpakes. But I still drove to the grocery store, every day, walking purposefully down each aisle, seeking fanciful snack food, reasonably priced Pinots, fresh produce, my fiance’s favorite sweet treat.

More offerings, tokens — I love you, I’m sorry, I love you. I became an expert at repackaging platters of food into smaller tupperware containers. I thought, if the raw peppers, cauliflower, and broccoli are stacked just so, someone will see it and they’ll crave it and they’ll eat it and they’ll be OK.

Every day was marked by what we ate: the 3 o’clock croissants, the 10 p.m. chicken salad sandwiches with Lays potato chips. The 11 a.m. Dunkin Donuts variety box followed soon after by a fritatta. The midnight blueberry muffin.

We took turns being ravenous, then sitting for hours with no appetite. One day the taco salad casserole tasted like caviar, the next it tasted like dirt. What is it about our emotional connection to food, to eating, in times of great distress? Maybe it’s because we realize we’re filling and fueling our bodies. And one day we won’t be able to. Eating becomes at once thoughtless and precious — we’re here, we’re alive.

After the funeral we sat around in our black dresses and suits, faces red and blotchy, devouring plates of catered subs and wraps. I blindly reached for a sugar cookie with green frosting and purple sprinkles — it was almost St. Patrick’s Day. I spilled cup after cup of black lukewarm coffee as I chased after toddlers also dressed in tiny dresses, in a tiny suit.

That night we would drink Old Fashioneds and red wine and lay out leftovers of barbecue, beans, macaroni, chips and dip, veggie and fruit platters, more catered sandwiches. We would squeeze tiny packets of mustard and mayonnaise on dry rolls and seek out plastic cups when the wine glasses clinked dangerously on the counter.

I would stash away a plate of food in the guest room for a late night snack, to enjoy, in my pajamas, on the bed, before everyone else said good night. Alone in the dark room I would feel hollow but hopeful, starting to plan the road ahead, the lunches I would pack and the dinners I would make, the new restaurants we would try. I wanted to fix the unfixable, mend the unmendable, piece together the jagged edges. I wanted to suck the sadness out of the air and hold it in my body, so I wouldn’t have to face the searching, tear-stained face I loved so much. I would keep bringing food, plate after plate until a smile appeared, and the world would turn again.

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