I hate this day. The sun is shining; the birds are chirping. Dammit. Why can't it be a gray, rainy day? I don't want smiles today. I can't handle optimism. Today, I want to wallow in the memories that brought us to this point. No. Dammit. I can't do that either. Today, I have to do the one thing that has always brought me joy.
My subconscious must have known what I needed. The refrigerator and pantry are full of everything I need. The more recipes I make at one time, the better to occupy my mind. With cookbooks open, and ingredients spread across the counter, my mind re-focuses.
It’s been four years since a simple virus changed our life. I still remember it so clearly.
I love feeling the constant pressure of the knife as it hits the cutting board. I love manipulating simple ingredients into a festival for the senses. Pans and ovens are pre-heating. Ingredients are coming to room temperature. I measure when needed, and follow my instincts the rest of the time. These are things I can control.
We were at a Mother-Son event for his school on February 4. He said he didn’t feel well. I put my hand on his leg and could feel the fever through his suit. The fever continued through the night. Cold compresses, Motrin, Tylenol. I stayed up all night trying to bring the fever down.
Chop, chop, chop. My eyes are watering. Maybe from the onions. Maybe from the memories. I add some oil to the pan, let it warm. When I add the onions, they are quiet when they hit the warmed oil. I add in the garlic and the spices. The smells arise almost immediately. Stir gently. Lower the heat. Keep moving.
We were quarantined in the hospital. No one could enter his room without a mask and a full body gown. The Influenza A virus is deadly this year, they said. We need to keep a close eye on him, they said. Tamiflu will help.
I use my hands to distribute the oil onto the vegetables. I feel the textures and make sure each piece is lightly covered. Sprinkle on the spices. They are ready for the oven. I rub the olive oil into my hands, and let it soak in. Take a breath.
The hallucinations started. He ripped out the IVs. He was protecting me. He thought there was a man in the room with a red backpack that was going to hurt me. Nurses came running. More meds to calm him, and another IV. He’s had a reaction to the Tamiflu, they said. I spend the rest of the night in bed with him, holding his arms at his side, protecting him from his nightmares.
I slowly squeeze the tomatoes by hand as I add them to the onions and spices. I stir in the love, just as grandma and mom taught me. I lower the heat and let the flavors develop. Take your time.
He was discharged, but he’s not better. Two days later, we go back to the doctor. This time they prick his finger and do a quick check of his blood. His diagnosis is Type 1 diabetes brought on by the intensity of the virus. I call my husband and we are both in shock. He leaves his office so he can be by our side, as we leave immediately for the endocrinologist’s office. It’s Valentine’s Day.
I measure the flour and yeast for the bread and place in separate bowls. I check the temperature of the water. Everything must be exact. I activate the yeast. I sift the flour. Combine. Cover. I let it rest. The resting encourages the rise.
We are learning. Two types of insulin and he has to test his blood before he eats or drinks anything. I cry when he gives himself his first insulin injections. He looks awful, and he still feels so sick. He’s barely eating. He’s resting but he doesn’t seem to be any better. We need to go back to the doctor.
I think to myself, "Can you smell the roasting vegetables?" I go to the oven to check. I flip them to make sure they are browning on all sides, but not burning or getting mushy. Find the balance.
His blood pressure is dangerously low. He has lost more weight. The doctor sends us straight to the ER. They draw more blood, but a nurse decides to start a saline IV immediately. She was saving him and we didn’t even realize it. Doctors are puzzled by the lab work results. We check back into the hospital for more tests.
I measure the flour and pour it into a mound on the counter. I create a well in the center of the flour. I feel the eggs. They are not quite at room temperature. I set them aside. I take my time. Don’t rush the process.
It’s his thyroid. He has a condition called Hashimoto’s Disease. When the virus was attacking his body and shut down his pancreas, it attacked his thyroid too. It will be okay, they said. He has to take this medication every day, they said. Two days later we leave the hospital with more medications and more to learn. We are still waiting on the results from the latest round of lab work.
I place the meat into a large bowl. I squeeze out the extra milk from the bread that has been soaking, and I shred it with my hands into the meat mixture. As I crack the eggs, I let the yolks run through my open fingers to break them open. I add the spices, and take a deep breath. I love the smell of fresh parsley and freshly grated nutmeg. Slowly, I begin to combine it all together. I want the meatballs to be tender. Be gentle.
We begin to settle into this new life at home. Re-learning how to calculate math ratios to give the appropriate insulin for the carbohydrates he eats. Too much can kill him. Too little can kill him. We buy snacks and juice boxes to help him when his sugars are too low. We keep journals and spreadsheets. We set timers for when to check blood sugars and when to take medicines. He’s so pale and so thin. We let him rest and we try to do the same.
I stir the sauce. It’s coming along. I remove the roasted vegetables and set aside. I peak under the towel to see that the bread dough is still rising. I go back to the pasta. I crack the eggs into the center of the mound of flour. Using a fork, I slowly begin to incorporate the eggs into the flour. Bit by bit, the flour disappears into the golden dough. I use my hands to knead the dough, gently but firmly. Fold, push, pull. Smooth and golden, it’s ready to cut into shapes. I want them to cook evenly, so all should be the same size. Be consistent.
My phone rings on Sunday, February 25. It’s his doctor. She says, “Listen to me and do exactly as I say, immediately.” I follow her instructions. We rush to the pharmacy for a different medication, a steroid, and he takes 30 pills at one time. We still don’t understand why, but she has promised to explain everything tomorrow morning in her office.
I preheat the oil in the electric skillet. This time I want the sizzle, and the heat. I carefully pick up chunks of the meat mixture and gently roll it between my hands. I toss the ball into a bit of breadcrumbs and drop the meatball into the sizzling oil. I feel its heat. I’m used to the sting of the hot oil that licks my skin. This process goes on and on. I get into a rhythm. Gently rolling, then dropping into the sizzling oil. Handle all of it with care.
The doctor thinks his adrenal glands may have been affected by the virus. She wants him to continue to take the steroids as she runs more tests. We are supposed to leave for a ski trip in five days. She says she should have the results by then. We wait.
The focaccia bread dough is ready to knead. Gently, I fold it over and onto itself. I coat the pan with oil. Gently pull the dough to reach the corners. Add more oil. Combine salt and water to make a brine bath; set aside. Starting in the corner, I use my fingers to poke the dough and make little holes. As I slowly pour the brine, I watch the holes overflow, creating little puddles that will make the steam. Bread-making is new to me. I hope I'm doing this right. I check the recipe...and then check two more recipes. Once the dough is in the oven, there's nothing to do but wait. And hope.
It's the diagnosis he's been dreading; another autoimmune disease. This one scares him. My husband and I meet at his school. This is the kind of news that can't wait until the end of the day, and we have to see him in person.
The bread is baking. The meatballs are crunchy brown on the outside and tender on the inside. The pasta has dried, and the water is boiling. The sauce has been gently simmering for four hours. It’s all coming together beautifully. The kitchen is filled with the smells of my childhood home. I’m comforted as if wrapped in a warm blanket. My back aches but my mind has been gloriously occupied for hours. My heart and my head are calm. Everything is going to be ok.
He has a rare combination of three diseases, brought on by a virus. Type 1 diabetes, Hashimoto's disease, and Addison's disease. Only 7,000 confirmed cases in the U.S. Little did we know at the time, those 30 steroid pills saved his life. Little did we know the journey we were about to embark.
It's been four years. My heart and head are filled with memories. Some days, I am in wonder of how we got this far. On other days, I am thankful for the journey that has brought all of us closer together. He's coming over to eat this food. He will smile and laugh and probably not even remember that March 2 is his diagnosis day. But I cannot forget. So on days when I need to shield my heart from my head, I create and I try to heal.