Food. Such a universal way to bond. For me, a gift of homemade food is the ultimate gift of love. So when a patient brings me food, not like a box of chocolates, but something they have spent time preparing, I know I have touched them in a unique and special way. Here are a few of those stories.
Every December I see her for her annual exam. And every year for several years she has brought me a sandwich baggy filled with homemade holiday Chex mix. No pretty bag or bow, no pomp and circumstance, just a simple baggy. I imagine she rushed out the door, hair not brushed, no make up, clothes haphazardly thrown on, and then she remembered she wanted to bring me some and just threw it in the baggy. Although the bag was bursting to the brim with white-coated crunchy treats, I could also see in it the emptiness she felt as her daughters were growing , her marriage dissolving, her weight increasing and her identity adrift. She would hand it to me with a mix of excitement and embarrassment. Every year I would thank her profusely knowing the effort it took her to make it and bring it to her appointment. In the last few years, her annual appointment switched from December to the spring. Her life started to transition – she began working again, exercising more, getting to know her husband again in their empty nest. Around this time she stopped bringing the Chex mix. I comment about it and we both laugh. Now that she takes better care of herself, she has little interest in making Chex mix for others. I’m glad to see this transition in her and that she has outgrown the need to make her Christmas treat.
My beautifully loud Italian patient, with a large fibroid uterus that didn’t know how to stop bleeding, had finally agreed to the hysterectomy she needed. Although she had no desire for any more than her two children, somehow losing her uterus felt like a huge sacrifice. In pre-op, her “happy drug” Versed seemed to calm her nerves, but didn’t affect her rapid, non-stop monologue. As we got her on to the operating table, she was telling us about her yearly family tradition of making tomato sauce and wine. The women all work on the tomato sauce, with hours of prepping, cooking, and canning. The men, literally stomping the grapes, start the fermentation process all the while drinking last year’s wine. As she was talking, I can smell the sauce, hear the women talking and laughing, hands flying everywhere. It’s late morning and I’m starving. She didn’t stop talking until the drugs finally forced her to sleep. When I saw her the next day, I asked her if she remembered what she talked about before her surgery. She had no idea and a big grin surfaced when I recounted her stories. Six weeks later at her post-op visit, she had this lovely gift bag for me filled with a jar of her homemade sauce and special instructions about how to prepare it with the addition of oxtail. I didn’t follow all of her instructions, as oxtail is not something I can stomach, but I still tasted every ounce of love and laughter that was cooked into this sauce. And, every year since then, she brings me a jar of this pure love sauce.
Chocolate Chip Cookies
I was a young attending and she was a young mother-to-be. I knew all her sisters and her mother because they worked at the hospital, so I felt we were almost family. She was a no-nonsense kind of person – a tough armor formed by being the youngest of four outspoken sisters, but with a soft underbelly I occasionally caught glimpses of. Being a private person, she only wanted to see me during her pregnancy and asked that I be there for her delivery. At that time, without a family of my own, I would agree to be there for patients that requested this. Her pregnancy and delivery went smoothly and quickly, partly a results of her toughness in “getting the job done.” At her postpartum visit, she gave me a huge bag full of homemade chocolate chip cookies. These were those kind of cookies that were large and fluffy like clouds with the perfect ratio of chocolate chips to not overpower the cookie. Just heavenly and I didn’t share them with anyone! Three years later, she was pregnant again, and by this time, I was part of a larger medical practice. She insisted that I be the doctor to deliver her baby, rather than someone else in my practice, and she wanted a specific date. “I will bake you cookies for the rest of your life, ” she desperately said, in an effort to clinch this deal. I laughed and told her not to worry, I would be there – how could I not with an offer like that? Her first child is now old enough that she is my patient also and every year I receive my bag of wonderfully soft and fluffy cookies that I still don’t share, each bite filled with her little seen tenderness and affection.
This thin Italian woman, so full of life, you just know she loves to cook for others. She and her sisters are my patients as well as her daughter who is now pregnant. Three generations in my office at once is quite an achievement. I’m pretty sure this grandmother-to-be never goes anywhere without some homemade treat in her bag because every appointment her daughter had, she came as well, bearing homemade biscotti. Each visit was a different flavor, with a different beautifully colored cellophane bag. They were absolutely divine and I couldn’t wait to rip the package open to try the new flavor. “The secret is twice baking at a low temperature,” she would share with me, but never a recipe. The months and weeks passed, she was blessed with a beautiful granddaughter that she just adored. And as she became more involved with this child and others that followed, she didn’t have as much time to bake. The biscotti stopped coming, but one day, at her own appointment, she was frantically scribbling away in the waiting room, on some paper she found in her purse. The words were written sideways, over lists of things, front and back of small scraps of paper. She handed me the pile of paper when she got in the exam room. ” Here, the biscotti recipe.” I was now truly a part of the family.
I hope for many years to come to receive these homemade treats, as nothing speaks so lovingly and from the heart as these gifts.