So my friend Mr. S–who is in his nineties–is in a great deal of pain. He has been in pain for most of his life, in fact, because he fought in the Pacific during WW2 and received a wound that has remained open, painful, and constantly infected ever since. But now he’s got some kind of affliction (cancer, maybe?) on his face and he is almost completely blind. When I saw him on Saturday night, he was in so much pain that he would pause, close his eyes, and be silent for a moment before continuing to speak.
He’s never been a complainer. Not ever. Maybe that comes from being an old-fashioned Yankee; maybe from being part of the Greatest Generation; maybe that’s just who he is (and maybe some of each.) But lately, he has been more willing to admit that he is in pain. He has even mentioned some of his war experiences–something I’ve never known him to do. He feels very alone and forgotten. (Mrs. S is there, of course, but staying in a nursing home can still be pretty depressing and lonely)
Bringing dinner on Saturday nights, then, feels like much too little. It can’t take away the pain. In fact, he’s in such pain that he can’t manage to eat much anyway.
We keep going, of course. With food. Because even if he gets down just a few bites, it’s a few bites of something that tastes good and, hopefully, brings just a bit of comfort.
(I should add that Mrs. S has no problem enjoying her food. She eats quietly, deliberately, and heartily.)
This week, I was going to make a variation on the Tuna Noodle Casserole in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook (11th. ed.), substituting canned wild Alaskan salmon for the tuna. However, I forgot to put the salmon in, so it was simply Noodle Casserole. It was, if I may say so, quite good. But it wasn’t much like the recipe in the book. (I’ll share it soon. Spoiler: is topped with crushed potato chips, which you leave off at your peril.) Mrs. S. loved it. Mr. S. took only a few bites, but pronounced them ‘good.’
- can’t believe I forgot the salmon. my mom wisely pointed out that having salmon in might’ve filled us up too much and cut into our appetite for chocolate mousse.
I wanted to start the meal with some kind of salad that would be seasonal and easy to eat, so I pulled a few beets from the ground, plucked some fresh mint and made a beet and mint salad with vinaigrette. (I don’t even like beets that much–except for beet cake, of course–but this was good, too.) To my surprise, Mr. S. ate almost all of his. Beets can be comfort food! Who knew?
Of course, I had to make something chocolate for dessert because Mr. S. loves chocolate and because a creamy noodle casserole just calls for some kind of chocolate pudding as a finishing course. So we had a French chocolate mousse, made with the help of my beautiful new Kitchen Aid mixer that my mom got me for my birthday. Oh, yum. I made it with Dutch-process cocoa, sugar, butter, brandy, and eggs. (Mr. S. ate a good bit of this. Mrs. S., who is very quiet, gave a hearty “yum!” after her first bite and scraped the dish clean.)
I love this kind of cooking: it’s comfort food–soft, easy to swallow, creamy–from real ingredients. And when you’re cooking for old people and sick people, what can sometimes be comes a liability when cooking for others (for example, lots of cream and butter) is actually an advantage (calorically-dense foods are often just what sick folks with poor appetites need.) I love cooking for my old friends.
I don’t kid myself that this food is going to work any miracles. Sometimes, for Mr. S., at least, hunger for food is obviously a distant second to hunger for company. This past week, I was pretty sure he would’ve preferred a dish of pain meds to the dinner I brought.
But maybe the comfort is not just in the food. Maybe it’s in the fact that with the food I bring hot, black coffee–his favorite–into a nursing home where the coffee is weak and tepid. Maybe it’s the way my mom insists on helping him cut his food and tells him that he’s not allowed to argue about it. Maybe it’s that we bring cloth placemats and real china and make a big fuss over them in a place which provides quality care but no extra touches.
Maybe we can’t eliminate pain in this broken, hurting world. Actually, I’m sure we can’t. But maybe we can offer each other comfort–the temporal comforts of hugs, puddings, hot drinks–that points to an even greater Comfort–the hope of One who shared our brokenness to the point of allowing himself to be broken, but rose again, securing our healing and wholeness and that of this whole broken world.