on life and cooking

sky

I don’t often write stories this long, or this personal. But, I know that one day I’ll wish I had, so here goes. Be gentle.

I was on my way back from work one evening in May. My phone rang, it was my mom. I talk with my mom a lot on the phone, and I could tell the second I picked up that something was wrong. She told me she had found a lump in her breast and had gone to her doctor for a scan and a biopsy. She said it was most likely nothing, probably just a cyst, and she’d know for sure in a few days. I told her that I loved her, that I was sure it was just a cyst and that she should call me as soon as she knew anything more. I hung up the phone and cried, sitting in traffic on Highway 101, waiting to cross the Golden Gate Bridge.

The next day I was walking home from work. I was expecting a call from my mom and it came. The lump in her breast was not a benign cyst, it was cancerous. Just like the day before, I told my mom I loved her, that we would make it through this. When I hung up the phone, I cried. Screaming profanity on the the streets of my San Francisco neighborhood isn’t out of the ordinary, but that day was the first time for me.  As much as I wanted to, grasping onto the possibility that this was just scare, a scare ready to fade away into foggy memory wasn’t an option anymore.

My mom was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. We were shocked and devastated. My mom was the healthiest person I knew, she never stopped moving for a second, her biggest heath complaint was the occasional headache. With the benefit of the passage of time, it’s now clear that a positive cancer diagnosis is always a shock and always devastating, regardless of who it affects. But at the time, it felt like such a personal attack, on my mom and on our family. To say that my faith in the universe was shaken would be an understatement.

The irony of my mom’s diagnosis (if you can even find irony in such a thing) was that just a week earlier my mom and I had been talking about how we were so lucky, that our family was healthy and that health is something that’s easy take for granted. Though things might be tough—and it hasn’t been an easy few years for a variety of reasons—we at the very least could rely on our bodies to get up and do the things we needed them to do each day. My mom’s unexpected diagnosis felt like the universe was punishing us for speaking too soon, in the harshest possible way.

With a positive cancer diagnosis, your life is no longer yours. You go from the independence of normal adult life to an onslaught of doctors appointments, scans, surgeries, treatments. My mom never visited the hospital aside from her yearly mammogram, and now she was spending most of her time there. Trust me, it’s enough to shake a person. When you’re young and healthy like my mom, the doctors waste no time. Your cancer is treated aggressively, no holds barred. This is a good thing, it means your chances of making it though the other side cancer-free are high, and obviously that is what everyone wants. But while it is happening, you’re at the complete mercy of doctors, nurses and the body that turned against you. Brutal is putting it lightly.

There are more bad things about cancer than I could possibly name in a single blog post, but the worst for me was that cancer robbed me of any control. There was nothing I could do to make my mom better, there was no way I could make the coming months any less difficult, there was no way I could ensure a happy outcome. Knowing that you would do anything you could, but being powerless to meaningfully change anything, that is one of the worst things in the world.

Desperate for some relief from the sadness, anger and frustration that I couldn’t seem to shake, I turned to the thing that had helped me through tough spots in the past—cooking. Cooking once again became my therapy. I’d spend entire days in the kitchen, lost in recipes, sometimes making four or five new things at once, all available counter space covered in mis en place and open cookbooks. I would fall apart while mixing a dough or whirring my food processor, worrying about my mom, my family, the future. Everything felt uncertain, our lives outside of our control, and I wanted desperately for that to not be true. Still, cooking was a comfort. Hours would go by and I wouldn’t notice, absorbed in my work. It felt good. It felt constructive.

When I’d sit down and write about what I was cooking here on the blog, the worry that usually hung over me fell away. I’d get sucked into the story of the dish, transported to an alternate universe where cancer wasn’t torturing the people I loved most and we just happened to eat delicious things. It was a really lovely place to be, even if it was only for a few hours.  And I don’t think I could have made it through the past few months without it.

I know that by diving into my cooking and my writing over the past few months, I’ve pulled away from friends and family who were there to talk, who wanted to help me through this tough time. The thing was, I didn’t want to talk, it didn’t seem to help at all. I’m sure this hurt, and I’m sorry. Those epic days alone in my kitchen were healing, and writing recipes on this little corner of the internet helped me find some light in the darkness of the past few months, which I couldn’t seem to hold onto any other way.

My mom had her final dose of chemo last Monday. Her prognosis is looking good and we’re extremely hopeful. But, if the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that this journey isn’t over yet. For the future bumps in the road, I’m grateful that I’ve got recipes in the waiting and a blog to fill.

As always, thanks for reading.

Love, Emily