Let me begin with this: Little Bean is fine.
We were silent here for a time because we were in the hospital. I thought about writing posts before we left, sunny and breezy, about ranch dressing and being imperfect. But as the days counted down, and all we wanted to do was sit on the couch and hold our girl close, recommendations of yet another gluten-free bakery felt ridiculous. So I left the space empty, instead.
Ten days ago, Little Bean had major surgery. It was planned from the week after her birth. The terrifying clang of her breathing troubles the night she was born continued to reverberate for months afterward. We knew this was coming since she was 5 days old. I’m going to hold off on explaining the procedure here. She’s too young to decide if she wants this story told. Suffice it to say that she has always been delightful and healthy. And she needed this surgery to give her brain room to grow.
And so, ten days ago, Danny and I sat in a waiting room, whiling away the long hours with bad magazines and great-stupid internet sites. We held hands and made ludicrous jokes. We paced. We drank too many paper cups full of bitter coffee. And we tried our best to stave off the image of our little one on an operating table.
The gas they gave her, as I sang to her while she drifted into sleep, smelled like strawberries.
9 hours we waited. 9 has always been our lucky number. This time, we weren’t so fond of it.
She emerged, alive. She opened her eyes when she heard our voices, just as we entered her ICU room. And then she slept again, for most of the next two days.
We lived in the hospital for almost a week, watching her return, bit by bit, each few hours. Those were hard days. I’ve never known such stomach-wrenching agony, watching our child in pain.
We stayed by her side the entire time, one of us sleeping on the couch by her bed, the other in a chair or on a hard bench in the hallway for a few hours. That doesn’t make us heroes, just her mom and dad. Every room around ours contained recovering children and huddling parents. Even though we hated watching her suffer, we knew it was temporary. In the pantheon of that hospital, we were small voices.
During her surgery, when we wandered every hallway of that hospital, we walked into the parent resource center to ask about the wifi connection. A tired-looking man with a red baseball cap pushed down over his eyes volunteered information.
“Wow,” I said. “You know what you’re talking about. How long have you been here?”
“Seven weeks,” he muttered, as his weary fingers turned the scheduling pages for parent massages.
Danny and I looked at each other. “Is there any hope in sight? Soon?”
“Ahm, about six more weeks, if we’re lucky.”
He walked out the door.
I couldn’t give him a massage. But I wish we had seen him again so I could have offered him some of our food.
Why am I telling you this, other than to answer the questions of those of you who have been kind enough to worry about our absence? Because this experience made me realize two things about food (and entire worlds of other lessons I’ll keep to myself).
Sometimes I tire of talking about being gluten-free. Every word and meal on this site contains no gluten. But to only talk about substitute baked goods or the new Betty Crocker gluten-free mixes (yes, it’s true) bores me to tears. There is so much more to life.
And then I stepped into the cafeteria of the hospital where Little Bean had her surgery.
It reminded me of my high school cafeteria, except smaller, with more breading. Every bit of food offered came in a bun, with crumbs, or under a layer of flour. The bowl of wilted and rusty lettuces contained croutons. The hotel pan full of heavy melted cheese for the nachos could have come from a factory that processes gluten, as could the corn chips. And the sign next to the row of metal lids said, in big letters: “Our soups contain gluten.”
I was left with a small bag of Cheetos and a packaged vegetarian sushi roll.
I’m lucky. We discovered this early, during one of the many pre-op appointment days we had at the hospital. We made other plans. But while we were there, I kept thinking of the kids sitting in hospital beds, receiving breakfast trays from this place. Were the ones with celiac getting anything to eat? Or were they growing sick from cross contamination and chicken nuggets?
This was at one of the best hospitals in the nation. This is a health issue.
We have to make the awareness of the need for gluten-free food even greater. I’ll keep doing the best I can.
And finally, food.
As you can imagine, I didn’t think much about food that week. I could have gone days without eating, not missing the taste in my mouth. However, we have wonderful friends who planned ahead for us, made a schedule, and brought us meals in waves. And we were grateful, to see them in the waiting room of the ICU, and then in the more relaxed post-surgery ward. We needed the bits of news from the outside world, the full embraces, the unexpected space to joke and hear their stories.
Now we’re home, and I’ve been thinking about the potato-leek soup and chocolate cupcakes and carrot salad put in our hands by loving friends. It’s easy, in this blog-writing, food-critic world, to think about bests and essential experiences and big awards. I can ponder long moments how to describe the taste of strawberries and the shared pleasure of rhubarb memories. I think about the smell of ginger and yuzu together and try to step out of the way of my brain to let the association flood in.
However, the week we were in the hospital, I didn’t think of any of that. Instead, food became a series of solid senses, a chance to remember what is important again.
When Tea sat with us in the waiting room, we three sat around a bench the height of our knees, plucking up yellow lentils and spicy lamb kitfo with torn pieces of injera bread. That was familiar in the midst of great uncertainty. Kim’s basket of goodies quiche with roasted carrots and asparagus; Marcona almonds; banana bread; blood orange juice was a bright splash of sweetness in the morning after a night without sleep. Lorna and Henry’s lion’s head meatballs woke us up in the afternoon, when the nurses shooed us out of the room of the sleeping baby and told us to revive ourselves. A few slurps of Pia’s warm hazelnut white bean soup (from Eat Local gave us both enough sustenance to go back again when she couldn’t hold down anything she was drinking. Francoise’s block of oozy Brie cheese felt like comfort on the tongue late that night, when the worst of it was over. The spread of salmon, crab, and salads that Danny’s cousin Tasha made for us tasted like family. The Vietnamese pork dish that Molly and Brandon brought from Green Leaf felt like celebration, because she was seeing the world and singing by then. Becky’s chocolate cupcakes with ganache were triumph we were going home that morning. And Rebekah’s thick Greek yogurt with homemade rhubarb compote, which we ate in the car as we raced toward the ferry? The one that made Little Bean so excited to see that I spooned some of it in her mouth, and she smiled? That was good.
And now, at home. As I write this, Little Bean is sitting in her highchair, watching her papa mash up an avocado with a fork. She is clapping, a new habit she picked up after the surgery. She seems to be saying, all day long, “Hurrah! Hurray! We made it here.” There is still some recovery to go, but she’s doing splendidly. She needed the surgery we can tell the difference. All day long, she chatters and crawls, giggles and wriggles out of our arms.
And as I watch Danny spoon that avocado into her mouth, the only thing I can say about that food is