Food, Family, & Feelings: Doin' What You Gotta Do
I could eat chorizo con huevos, papas y tortillas for breakfast every morning, if I had the time. By which I mean I am not currently, nor have I ever been, the kind of person who wakes up early enough on a work day to make a real breakfast.
When I was home visiting my abuelitos this past week, we had chorizo breakfast (menos the potatoes) each morning. The first morning, was exactly like the mornings when I was a kid. I got up earlier than my sister, but later than my grandparents. Walking out of the bedroom, into the short hallway, I could smell coffee and cooked eggs. My grandfather always ate first, partly out of patriarchal habit, but also he just got up earlier than the rest of us. Now, he not only wakes up earlier, but he’s on a strict diet and eating timetable to help control his diabetes, which affects every other aspect of health. Like me, my grandparents don’t eat real chorizo for breakfast anymore. A number of years ago, after I became a vegetarian, I discovered soy chorizo – soyrizo. It was an exciting find since that was the only meat I ever missed eating. I brought it to their house and made some for my grandma. “Es soya,” I said. She looked at the package, saw the calorie and cholesterol count and became a soyrizo convert. My dad refuses to eat the “fake stuff.” He thinks it’s a sad substitute for the traditional breakfast. My grandfather doesn’t seem to mind the difference though. Since before and after having stomach surgery a year ago, eating has become more of a chore than a one of life’s joys. Except for peanut butter. He loves eating peanut butter and a banana at 11 p.m.
I pad in stocking feet (what my other grandmother, my mother’s mother, used to call walking around in your socks) to the kitchen. My grandfather, just has he used to when I was a kid, is sitting at the dining room table with his “kerfee” (how he jokingly refers to coffee). The Merced Sun Star is spread out on the table in front of him and the Modesto Bee just to the side, waiting its turn to be read.
When he sees me (he definitely didn’t hear me coming, he can barely hear a person talking when they are sitting across the table from him), he smiles and asks, “Gonna get you a cup a’ kerfee?” His smile, which is not crooked, but just the same as last I saw him – broad, showing straight, coffee and nicotine stained teeth – and the familiar question he’s been asking me since I was of coffee-drinking age is almost enough to make me cry.
For almost a year, I’d been planning to attend a big writers conference in Los Angeles this month; I was especially excited about the panel I put together and seeing friends who are scattered across the country. My round trip ticket had been booked four months back. I was set to arrive on the day before the conference began and to leave the Sunday it ended. I had my classes planned out and covered, and my book-buying budget set. Then, a few days before the conference, I got a text message that my grandfather had had a stroke. The text said he was coming home that night, had been in the hospital for a few days already. That was it. Just: stroke, hospital, going home, and don’t worry.
First seeing the text, I was livid. Why hadn’t I been told the day it happened? I could have called him at the hospital, called my grandma to give words of support, sent flowers, flown out, at the very least sent him healing thoughts. Instead, I was getting incomplete information, barely an outline of what happened two days late, ten minutes before I had to go teach. I barely had enough time to respond with a few basic questions, and instead of beginning with those questions: what kind of stroke, where in the brain had it hit, did he have any other injuries subsequent from the fall (oh, yeah, and there was a fall where they think he hit his head, but no one is sure), I responded with anger at the late notice. My anger was met with anger, as is usually the case.
It’s not like my temperament toward anger is a novelty in my family, especially the Chavez side. Learned behavior maybe, or some scholars argue that marginalized groups carry the trauma of centuries of discrimination in their blood like a DNA mutation. That would certainly help explain the ease with which me, my sister, dad, and tíos can become outraged at even the perception of being slighted. This can be a productive trait when controlled and focused on activism, not so much when dealing with family emergencies.
During the short time before my trip, I was able to piece together information from different sources. I was able to call and talk to my abuelitos, hear their voices. I listened keenly for changes to my grandfather’s voice; was it slurred, did he seem to be having trouble with word recall? He’s hated talking on the phone for years though because his hearing aids are bulky or there is feedback, so over the phone, all I really heard were mumblings in the background and my grandma repeating what he supposedly said. That was not enough for me. Being told something is okay, or really any vague, subjective opinion of an event, is never enough. I have to know concrete details: when, what time, where, exactly how was, who was there, what did they say, was this question asked, what did you do, how did you respond . . .? This behavior has only increased in intensity living so far from family.
Over the last few years, I’ve come to understand that these questions may not always carry the tone of the deeply genuine concern (and fear) they stem from. They sound like doubt, like mistrust, as if I don’t believe whoever it is I’m talking to is doing the “right thing.” My offers to call doctors, to send a list of questions to ask are not received as helpful, but rather a nuisance, another burden to deal with on top of the burden of whatever situation is at hand.
I decided I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t go see them with my own eyes, hug them with my arms to feel if there was more frailty. Because of the conference, I was going to be within four hours of them anyway, so I changed my flight and rented a car. I needed to sit with them, eat with them. I needed to cook with my grandma, needed to see if my grandfather could still tell me the same stories. I wanted to see the house, look for ways I could help. Forget that I miss my grandparents like crazy all the time and that I carry atomic, Catholic-levels of guilt over so many missed birthdays and Fourth of July grill-outs (I’ve stopped calling them BBQs after having lived in the Midwest and South East – apparently if there is no BBQ sauce, that is most certainly not a BBQ); I needed information.
I already knew that my method of handling these types of situations was by doing things. When my Grandpa Shannon was in the hospital before he passed ten years ago, if I couldn’t be in the room with him, I was getting something to drink for my mom, for my grandma. If they wanted to talk to the doctor, I’d be the one to hunt him down. I’d move the car. I’d go pick up lunch. I would straighten the magazines on the short cheap side tables in the intensive care lobby. My mom’s side of the family are not do-ers; our coping strategies are complimentary and can co-exist in the same space. They become paralyzed by grief and fear. I move around as if I were to just move fast enough, whatever it is won’t be able to take hold. If I’m productive, I, my family will somehow be rewarded by the universe. I know this about myself. But the desperate need for information, that I’d never really reflected on before.
Seeing my grandparents, getting to stay at their house for a few days, talking to the neighbors who live across the street and have daily contact with them, seeing and talking to my sister, my uncle that lives in Merced, all of it made me feel immeasurably better. I could ask my questions slowly. I could think my questions and answer them for myself through observation. I could catalogue my thoughts in a notebook. I recorded my grandparents talking so later I can compare his voice then with his voice now. I won’t have to rely on the spotty accuracy of memory filtered through the perception of someone who doesn’t want to think something is wrong and conversely my own predispositions that everything might be wrong. Now I have facts: numbers, dates, the nurse and physical therapist schedule. Facts can be recorded, kept, they can be referred back to.
It's a fact that my grandpa and I are silly
On the plane ride back to WV, I kept thinking about whether or not I have a right to information about my family and their health. Do I have the right to ask all the questions my brain and research produce? My knee-jerk reaction is, “Yes! We are familia!” But rationally, I recognize that it’s not that simple and lumps these people who happen to share blood and a surname together, as if they are not individuals with their own anxieties and ways of coping. And I suppose that is the real underlying issue: how do we – whether it’s family or friends – negotiate the manifestation of our anxiety? How do we look through to the center of what begins to grow out of focus, to even identify that the feeling is fear and remember that fear can only be born of love?
For lunch today, I had soyrizo con huevos, papas, y tortillas de maiz (for breakfast I had an off-brand strawberry pop tart slathered in peanut butter, but that is neither here nor there). I made it in the small cast iron skillet I bought because it was the same brand my abuela uses. For dessert, I ate one of the oranges I picked from their tree and stuffed between clothes in my suitcase, hoping they wouldn’t be confiscated by TSA or bust from the jostling of turbulence and the baggage claim conveyor belt. Eating this way makes me feel closer to them. There is the fact of ingesting less than half the cholesterol of real chorizo, of orange peel under my finger nails, the scent of orange blossoms filling the room.
Aren't these the cutest abuelitos you've ever seen?!