Monday, December 06, 2004

The Bare Necessities: Food

December 6, 2004
This post is a continuation of the previous one, "Paris," in which I descibed Timmi's and my trip to Paris five years ago.
Tonight we’re taking Aimee and Danny out to dinner. This is part of a revolutionary new system that we’ve very recently adopted – regular meals. OK, so it’s not revolutionary, but it is a re-normalization of a very important part of our family's life, a part that had fallen victim to our chaotic lifestyle when Timmi was ill, and to Don’s and my emotional exhaustion after she died. It’s one more example of our having to work hard to get to a place that most families take for granted.

Food, as everyone knows, is more than just a bare necessity. Eating can be one of life’s true pleasures, or it can be a source of tension or obsession. How we eat together also has a great deal to do with a family’s dynamics, and with the various relationships and interrelationships among its members. I was always proud that we made sure to have a family dinner every night. I’ve heard that the members of two-career families often eat separately, each according to a seldom-overlapping schedule. But I love eating with my husband and children. As a mother, especially, eating with my children gives me the biological satisfaction of seeing nourishment go into their bodies, and the deep happiness of spending enjoyable time together.

One of Timmi’s symptoms when her cancer first surfaced was a loss of appetite, and she started getting thinner and thinner. This was especially striking because Timmi – like all my children – had loved to eat. As with her other symptoms, we couldn’t figure it out. Because her Bat Mitzva was coming up, it was easy to think that she’d stopped eating out of worry or nervousness. Many people told me stories of other girls who at the age of eleven and a half had stopped eating or suffered all kinds of inexplicable symptoms, which miraculously disappeared after their Bat Mitzva ceremony and celebration.

A scarier possibility was an eating disorder. When Timmi was first hospitalized for tests, doctors and nurses kept asking her about her eating habits. One of them asked her if she thought she was fat. She answered, “Are you kidding? Look at me! And you might as well accept it – No, I am NOT anorexic.”

As it turned out, her bone marrow was stuffed solid with leukemia cells, and the resulting anemia was what caused her appetite to fade away. And that, of course, was only the beginning.

During the treatment for Timmi’s first bout with cancer, and then again after she relapsed, food became a source of near-constant worry and tension. Chemotherapy, radiation and the effects of her bone marrow transplant made her unable to eat for much of the time. Things lost their taste, or tasted different, or hurt her mouth to eat. Just when she could have used any physical comfort she could get, food lost its pleasure for her.

We set about trying to get Timmi to eat any way we could. Hospital food was, of course, out of the question; it didn't appeal to her in the least. We ran all over the hospital – and the city! – buying food that we thought might tempt her or that she felt she wanted. More often than not, she would take two bites and reject the rest. It didn’t taste the way she had fantasized it tasting, or she just wasn't hungry enough to make the effort. She continued wasting away, and there was nothing we could do about it.

(There were, of course, those wonderful times during remissions, when Timmi could again taste and appreciate food. For me, few pleasures matched watching her eat with appetite and enjoyment. The restaurants we visited in Paris were every bit as central a feature of the trip as the city’s museums, monuments, parks and cultural events. She especially loved those chestnuts that sidewalk vendors there wrap up in a paper cone and serve hot. And just as I loved feeding her and watching her eat, she loved sharing the bounty by feeding pigeons and other animals in the Paris streets. I have several pictures of her, for example, sitting outside the Notre Dame cathedral with birds perched along both her arms, on her lap and on her head, where she had pretty much invited them by scattering bread and other goodies for them.)

Our food troubles didn’t stop at Timmi. Due to the demands of her care, the other children’s needs and my job, I was unable to cook for that entire first year. We hired women to take the kids in the afternoon and to cook dinner, and members of our religious community cooked us nearly all of our Shabbat meals. After a while, the children started complaining that they didn’t like the food in the house any more. So I constantly worried about getting food not just into Timmi, but into the other children as well. And as for myself – well, I gained about 16 kilograms (35 pounds) that year, from grabbing meals here and there when I could, from eating out of anxiety or depression, from eating the sweets and snacks people brought Timmi and she could barely look at, and from hundreds of hours sitting on my behind in the hospital.

After a year of no cooking, I lost my love for it. Cooking became a chore and a burden, and meals at home became simpler and less creative. But at that point there was still some stability for the children. They didn’t complain about our meals because we did manage to have a family dinner most evenings, and anyway children can happily eat pasta or potatoes every night. The main thing was that Mama made it. So, as time went on and Timmi’s remission held, we regained a certain equilibrium as far as food and meals went.

After Timmi died, I lost what balance had remained in my life, and cooking, like most other non-emergency activities, fell by the wayside. Don was also emotionally squeezed out. So we started bringing home bagels, ordering pizza or Chinese, or scraping together fast meals from the freezer. We tried splitting responsibility for cooking into his days and my days, but our lack of energy for the task meant that very little got cooked from fresh or whole ingredients. Don and I developed dietary limitations, and the children adopted others (Elaine became a vegan for a while), so that between these limitations and the children’s differing tastes it became almost impossible to serve one meal that everyone could and would eat. As time went on and the children became busier with their own schedule, we cooked fewer and fewer fresh meals. (Shabbat saved us from total abdication - we continued always to honor the Sabbath with hearty meals.)

In a sense, we were repeating what Timmi had gone through. Can’t eat this, won’t eat that, what I want isn’t available without going to a lot of trouble, and I don’t have the energy to take the trouble…

As things got worse over the past year – at least from the point of view of home-cooked meals – Danny and Aimee reacted by absorbing our home’s culinary chaos into their own lives. Most nights, Aimee would stay out with her friends and would eat either nothing or something fast but not particularly healthful. Danny’s eating habits also became increasingly irregular; he would sometimes go for almost 24 hours without eating at all or eating nothing but plain bread. Needless to say, this didn't do much for his emotional or physical state. Explanations were useless, and more than once he told me flat out: “Mom, if I hear another word about protein and vitamins, I swear I’ll go nuts!”

Recently, we brought up food, eating habits and mealtimes with the parenting consultant we’ve been seeing. It was clear to both Don and me that things had to change. We missed having family dinners, and for that matter nutritious meals. We quickly decided to reinstate dinner together as a regular and reliable part of our family life, whether or not everyone is home to eat it; it is worth cooking for “only” two or three people. And once we gave meals together a high priority, we were able to think of ways to accommodate everyone’s dietary needs and preferences, involve Danny and Aimee as active partners in the process, and make eating into a fun activity once again.

Now we have a schedule that really seems to work; it’s been in place now for about two and a half weeks, and I hope it continues to go smoothly. On Sunday, Don works late and I cook for myself and the two children who live at home. Monday is restaurant night, and we take them out to an inexpensive place (they alternate choosing the restaurant). On Tuesday, Aimee plans and cooks diner. Wednesdays, Don and Danny plan and cook together, if Danny has no other plans for the evening. Thursdays we improvise, and I cook for Shabbat – as I've always done – on Friday.

Preparing meals is very routine for most people, and you may be wondering why I’ve spent all this space on the subject. The answer is that I've found the subject to be absolutely crucial. Our new dinner routine has brought our family closer together, just as the old lack of routine was driving us apart. Aimee now comes home for dinner most nights, and Danny has begun to eat a more balanced diet – both at dinner and at fairly regular intervals during the day. He’s even willing to listen when I speak to him about nutrition. The four of us are all pulling together, and enjoying each other’s company in the process. When our older daughters drop by at dinnertime, they find both good food and good company.

In this small (or perhaps not so small) part of our lives, I believe, our family has taken one more step in our journey toward healing. Now, when I think of feeding my children, I feel far less of the frustration and failure that I felt first when I couldn’t feed Timmi at all and then when I couldn’t seem to manage to feed my other children properly. Now, I feel far more strongly an echo of the joy I felt in Paris, as I watched Timmi munch happily on warm chestnuts and share her pleasure in being alive with the other living creatures that she loved to feed.

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