A friend is going through something pretty scary and terrible right now -- a health situation about which most of us would say "Oh, that's my nightmare" -- and I haven't been able to figure out how to help her. I mean, I pray for her and listen to her and cheer for her, and I try to run interference when others ask too many (or too few) questions about her condition. But I feel like there's not much I can physically do to help. When someone you love is sick, don't you want to just wrap your arms around them and will the sickness out of them? I do. I want to use the power of my love to pull the illness out, like that big guy in The Green Mile. Alas, I can't do that, not ever, but certainly not this time. This time it needs more than hugs.
The air today is crisp in all the ways you'd imagine fall in New England should be: chilly and breezy and sparkling with sunshine. The leaves on our trees are just about at their peak color, which means the air around them glows. There's something about the light in autumn, isn't there? It comes at a different angle or intensity and everything looks sharper, more vibrant and urgent.
This is the kind of day you want to breathe in, absorb, bottle. I walked around the West End around mid-day, noticing people with hands shoved deep into pockets, scarves wrapped around necks, walking just a bit more quickly than usual. Winter is coming. (This line is as foreboding here as it is in Westeros, let me tell you; the biggest difference, so far, is we don't have White Walkers to contend with.) It's already snowing in Caribou, ME, and Stowe, VT. And as I burrow deeper into my coat collar, I am thinking of my friend, impressed with how she is adapting to her new normal. Every day must challenge and frustrate and embolden her, yet she's taking it as it comes. Mostly I am thinking about her freshly bald head, imagining how unusual this cold air must feel on head-skin that's always been covered by a blanket of hair.
I suppose winter takes on a whole other level of foreboding when you're dealing with radiation treatments and the uncertainty of your prognosis. I don't know how to help my dear friend, but as I walk through town today it strikes me: Soup. I can cook soup! I can't cure cancer, but I can provide nourishment and warmth and a delicious respite from take-out food. I can pour all my wishes and love for her into a pan, simmer it a while, and meditate on how blessed I am to know her.
When I get home and start gathering my ingredients, I realize most of what I'll use to make the soup has connection to our mutual friends: Potatoes from one friend's family farm. Carrots from our friend who bought too many at the farmers market. Kale that I picked out with another friend, laughing about the way Zippy eats raw kale out of the fridge like a bunny. As I scrub the potatoes, I pray over them. As I peel the carrots, I sing. And of course as I chop the onions I cry (but this doesn't count as special because it happens every time).
I'm putting together a Portuguese kale soup that my father's mother used to make for us (a recipe that Dad and I have simplified over time because who really has time to make homemade stock and boil dried beans?). As I brown the linguica, I think of my Vovo and aunts and cousins, invoking their blessings and love, too. I taste the salty cured sausage and transport to the warmth and laughter of my father's kitchen as he prepares linguica at every family gathering; it's hard to come by linguica in New Jersey so Dad hoards pounds of it in his freezer. He saves it only for special occasions, but I can find it every time I go to the market in New England.
Finally, I pour a little extra red wine in the soup and inhale as the alcohol cooks off. One of our favorite things to do together, my friend and me, is try new restaurants and enjoy good wine and food. And we laugh, oh we laugh.
I love to cook but don't do it often enough. Not like this, anyway. True cooking is an act of love that my family generally takes for granted. They turn up their noses at most of the new dishes I offer, so I tend to get into a rut, preparing only the stuff I know they'll eat gladly. Cooking Trader Joe's mahi mahi burgers or stir-fried chicken is not fulfilling, though. It fills our bellies but not our hearts. This soup is really the only tangible thing I can do for my friend this week. I can't take away her tumor, but I can peel and cube and sautee and stir, measuring carefully but tweaking here and there to add richness and complexity. I hope this soup warms my friend's belly and makes her smile. More than anything, I hope it fills her with the love and healing I've poured into it ... along with the extra wine.