Today, I Screwed Up the Rice (A Life Interrupted)

“Cooking and mealtimes are some of the most overlooked aspects of grief,” Heather Nickrand, author of Culinary Grief Therapy

Taco dinner complete with pico de gallo, black beans and Mexican rice.

My mother was a fabulous cook. She had this amazing way of making something truly delicious out of nothing at all. Looking back, she would have been a great contestant on The Food Network show, “Chopped.” You know the one where they give you a mismatched basket of food items and ask you to miraculously make something amazing out of it in 15 minutes flat. She was that good. One of my favorite memories of her cooking was just how much she could do with eggs. She could make them a million ways and they were always BOMB—and if she had cheese and tortillas—lookout because you were about to meet your new favorite dish. Breakfast for dinner was an absolute treat as a kid. She was creative, innovative, and basically a food magician. I miss this about her.

I’m not really a cook. I mean, I do cook, but I’m definitely not on her level. I am a baker though. We complemented each other this way. She would make my favorite dish when I would visit home (tostadas) and I would make oatmeal chocolate chip cookies or apple pie. In those moments, all was right with the world. And while I don’t consider myself a great cook, most of what I know, she taught me.

When my son was still a baby she showed me how to make Mexican rice. Sean loved to eat it, it was soft, fluffy, and flavorful. I can remember the first lesson in my kitchen and the subsequent lessons in her kitchen as she helped me perfect it. Mom cooked according to looks and taste, I, however, needed a mathematical formula. Through a series of trials and errors, I finally figured it out. Using an equation (yes, I am a nerd), I can figure out how to make any amount of Mexican rice needed to feed any size group. You can call it a gift…but mostly it’s a nerd thing.

After my Mom passed away, life was a blur. Daily chores were neglected, my mind foggy, I felt extremely lost. I’m sure I was exhausted in every sense of the word—mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually…you name it. And yet, people needed to eat. It was probably three weeks later when I finally got around to cooking something “real.” I decided on tacos, a dish I was certain I could make in my sleep, and of course an accompanying pan of Mexican rice. Every part of the process was agonizing. Each ingredient a tangible reminder of the mother/daughter and teacher/student relationship we had when it came to food. I immediately went to my Mexican rice math equation, but there was nothing. After almost two decades of memorization, my reliable recipe (formula) escaped me. I stood there looking at an empty pan, uncooked rice in hand and I couldn’t remember step one. Nothing, then tears.

I remember thinking, please, Lord, don’t let me forget this! I need to know how to do this. I can’t lose this. I’ve already lost too much. Please, help me to remember.

Here is the part where you might expect a sudden revelation. I hate to tell you this, but there was none. I tried. I cried. I screwed up the rice. Not only that, but I screwed it up the next time and the time after that. Time and time again I stood there, dumbfounded and lost. In the big scheme of things, forgetting how to make Mexican rice doesn’t seem like a disaster and yet it was. It all was. The pandemic, losing my Mom, coping, and trying to move on. It was all a disaster. The kids ate variations of crunchy, under seasoned, too wet, blah tasting Mexican rice…encouraging me all the way. I can remember my daughter, Casey, saying, “You’ll figure it out. Go slow.” These are phrases that I often say to my kids when they’re struggling and being hard on themselves. Hearing these words directed at me stopped me in my tracks. When a child repeats something you have frequently (or incessantly) told them it’s a parenting compliment, a parenting win. Honestly, though, I think it’s just called the circle of life.

I remember the frustration of learning new things as a child. Somethings came naturally, but for me, cooking wasn’t intuitive. My Mom was always gracious in her teaching. I went to college only knowing how to make cereal and grilled cheese, but through her guidance (and many telephone calls) learned to make so much more! I went through my Rachel Ray phase about the same time the internet and smartphones became a part of daily living enabling me to share my mealtime creations with just a click. I remember a phone conversation where she walked me through making a rue. I was terribly unsuccessful. We tried an in-person lesson on my next visit home. Still unsuccessful. It probably took me five years to learn, all the while she would say, “You’ll figure it out. Go Slow.” Yes, definitely, the circle of life.

You might be surprised to know that cooking wasn’t my Mom’s favorite thing. Talented as she was, and I’m convinced food was one of her love languages, she did it for us and for others lucky enough to be at her kitchen table. And, she always made it fun! I come from a large family, so preparing meals for gatherings was time-consuming. No matter, we all just piled into the kitchen and got to work. Mom was great at delegating tasks according to our abilities. This makes me laugh because most of my expertise was in chopping vegetables while my sister, Amanda, was in charge of more complicated (and delicious) menu items that required actual cooking and seasoning. All the granddaughters would get involved —assembly-line style—for enchiladas (a family favorite!) No one ever complained as being a part of Mom’s kitchen crew meant lots of taste testing and samples. A huge perk to the process! By far, the biggest win for me personally was the day my Mom complimented me on my Mexican rice. I carry those words around like a badge of honor, then and now.

So when I failed to remember how to make the Mexican rice, it felt like I was losing something special. In true resolute fashion, I refused to give up. With my Mom’s words in my head, I kept trying. Shortly after she passed I came across a social media post that said, “Be the things you love about the people who are gone.” I saved it on my phone, a poignant reminder on the hardest days. I’m not a cook. I don’t believe I’ve been gifted with that ability, but for my family, cooking and time in the kitchen were so much more than that. I believe my Mom cooked because she loved us and it kept us close. The kitchen was always the center of our home life growing up. The heart of the home, it’s still one of the rooms I spend the most time in, my kids, too.

It’s been more than four months now, and I’m not screwing up the rice anymore. I finally remembered the recipe (formula) and hope that I’m never in a place to forget it again as part of my Mother’s memory lives in the kitchen. She’s in every drawer as she has gifted me with a number of utensils and tools. She lives in the cupboard and the refrigerator as she has influenced the things I love to eat and feed my family. She lives on the countertop, her whiteboard taking up center stage on the kitchen island. And she’s certainly in my cookbook as I try to maintain the recipes and traditions that I’ve grown up with and pass them on to my own children.

May I be all the good things that I love about her…today and every day.

“Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10

“A Life Interrupted” is an ongoing series of blog posts dealing with the loss of my mother to COVID-19.

Renaming the Stages of Grief (A Life Interrupted)

This rainbow appeared in the sky on the evening of Mom’s funeral.

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”  William Shakespeare

You can call it a charmed life, a blessing or maybe it was just dumb luck, but my experience with grief has been minimal until recently.  I barely remember attending funerals as a kid and when we did, I really didn’t have a strong connection to the departed.  However, all that has changed in adulthood…especially in the last few years.  And here, in 2020, I feel like I’ve been hit with the worst heartache yet after losing my Mom.

Now that I find myself in the throes of grief I’ve become well aware of the stages that accompany it: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  As I continue to process, I realize that a more apt description might be “stages of loss” rather than grief as so many therapists acknowledge these stages include every type of bereavement and are most certainly not limited to death.  Regardless of the type of loss, the stages still exist and the process is never easy.

One of my strongest personality traits is dutifulness.  I clearly get that from my parents and it’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the last few months.  I approach life in a resolute fashion.  I like lists…there’s a certain satisfaction that comes with crossing things off.  I also keep a handwritten calendar and methodically cross off the days (I’ve been ridiculed for this one).  I set reminders, use post-its, carry a reporter’s notepad, etc.  All of this helps me keep up with my commitments and uphold my obligations.  I know that people expect things from me and I work hard to fulfill my responsibilities. It’s important to me.  So when approaching loss I immediately went to research the stages of grief and anticipated checking them off one by one.  Let me tell you, this is not how grief works.

Turns out the stages of grief don’t necessarily go in order and they can (and often do) repeat, sometimes more than once…if not endlessly.  This is problematic for stoic types like me who eagerly want to cross things off the list and move forward.  I am not a dweller, but my pragmatic approach to grief isn’t really working out.  I’m not sure what I expected here.  I knew the road would be hard. And while most buy into “the time heals all wounds” camp, as a realist, I know that time doesn’t necessarily heal anything.  A loss will always be a loss— a hard consequence of love.

As I move through this process, I’ve taken it upon myself to rename the stages of grief…making them more applicable for me.  Do with them what you will, but I’ve found these slight variances helpful, healing, and hopeful as I continue to sort out the emotions of losing one of the most beloved figures in my life.

DISBELIEF, not denial.  I know my Mother is gone.  I very well remember speaking to her when she tested positive for COVID-19.  I recall the day she told me she scheduled the drive-thru appointment and we went over her symptoms.  I remember the first and second time she was taken to the emergency room.  I don’t deny the fear and angst that followed.  None of us can deny the three weeks she spent in ICU.  We can’t deny the emotional ups and downs that accompanied the good and bad days in the hospital.  There is no denying that she is gone, no denying the funeral, and no denying the loss.  She isn’t here and I feel it every day, but sometimes I can’t believe all of this happened.  Not to her, not to my strong Mother.  I can’t tell you how many times I still reach for my phone…to call her, to text her.  We had so many plans.

AVOIDANCE, not anger.  I’m not really an angry person.  I can get mad, I can even be a bit of a hothead if you catch me on a bad day.  I have a passionate nature, but I’ve never seen anger solve one single thing.  For me, anger has no purpose.  People have asked me if I’m angry at God.  I am not— the thought hasn’t even crossed my mind.  What I do know is that lately it’s been easier to just avoid emotion altogether.  The loss is raw and if I think about it too much the sadness can be overwhelming.  I know that’s to be expected, but I feel like I can’t live in sadness.  For better or worse, I am guilty of avoiding the emotional component of grief until it seeps out from the corners of my eyes.  I’m doing the best I can to deal with it in small doses.  Losing my Mother is not fair, but it’s not fair for anyone who loses a loved one.

UNCONTROLLABLE TEARS, not bargaining.  As I move out of the “100-day fog,” I am reluctantly beginning to accept the new normal…and right now the new normal involves a lot of tears.  I’m not bargaining, there’s nothing to bargain about.  Therapists often say that “guilt is the wingman of bargaining.”  This is the part of grief where the questions and “what-ifs” take over, followed by guilt for not doing more, making different decisions, and on and on.  What if COVID-19 didn’t happen?  What if we made Mom stay home?  What if we had sought care sooner?  What if…what if…what if…?  The never-ending questions remind me of the old adage about worrying and rocking chairs, both give you something to do, but ultimately get you nowhere.  I know better than to negotiate over things I cannot control and I guess that’s where the uncontrollable tears come in.  Death and loss, they humble you.  They remind us of our humanness, our vulnerability, and that we are most certainly not capable of controlling most things in this life.  I cry over songs on the radio, television shows, photographs, and memories…both good and bad.  If I could make things different, I would…but I can’t…and thus, the tears.  You can’t bargain with tears.

GOOD/BAD DAYS, not depression.*  In my heart of hearts, I truly believe that it’s ok to be sad.  I remember journaling once that to truly know good, one has to fully know bad.  I have been asked countless times over the last few months if I am depressed.  I am not, but I am sad, grief-stricken, heartbroken, and emotionally exhausted.  My Mother is gone.  My world forever changed.  I will miss her every day for the rest of my life.  And yet I know, forward is the only option.  Forward is the best option.  On good days, I laugh and smile remembering and retelling funny stories and sharing treasured memories about my Mom.  On bad days I pray for peace and comfort knowing how fully blessed I am to have called her my Mother.  Then, the process repeats.

PEACE, not acceptance.  In the stages of grief, acceptance comes when one faces their new reality.  There’s an understanding that things will never be the same.  For me, acceptance is not that far removed from denial.  I knew from the moment I received that phone call that things would never be the same.  Not “accepting” the circumstances didn’t make them less real.  There’s no denying the loss and accepting the situation wasn’t negotiable.  Throughout this whole process, I have prayed for peace, an emotional status where there is tranquility and my soul is well.  I have seen this.  I have experienced this.  I have felt this with my whole being.  Right now, that kind of peace is inconsistent, but I know and trust that a feeling of permanent peace will fill my heart one day.

Obviously, the grieving process is difficult.  There are no shortcuts, although most of us will try to find some.  When I talk to my kids about the stages of grief I remind them that there’s communal grief and personal grief.  The communal grief we experience together, as a family.  We deeply feel this type of loss at family gatherings and holidays.  The personal grief is how we process the loss individually.  For most of us, this type of grief is so much harder, but avoiding the stages of grief doesn’t help.  Postponing the sadness will not move us forward.  It’s ok to be sad.  It’s ok to have all the feelings.  It’s ok to talk about the loss because losing someone changes you.

Losing someone changes you.

Because the LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.  Psalm 34:18

*Depression is real.  If you need help, please reach out.

“A Life Interrupted” is an ongoing series of blog posts dealing with the loss of my mother to COVID-19.

 

 

 

The Great Humbling (Responding to a Pandemic)

What humility does for one is it reminds us that there are people before me. I have already been paid for. And what I need to do is prepare myself so that I can pay for someone else who has yet to come but who may be here and needs me.

Maya Angelou

I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist.  I categorize myself simply as a realist.  Midlife will do that to you.  I fully believe in the good of mankind.  I have high hopes for myself and the human race.  I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.  I choose kindness and grace at every opportunity.  I believe in going the extra mile and not expecting anything in return. And yet, I confess that I’m skeptical.  I’ve seen enough to know that we (myself included) don’t always rise to the occasion.  We are flawed, broken, weary, judgmental, and more than these we are fully human seeking to serve self first.  We (again myself included) hate to hear the word “no.”  Pride is incredibly insidious and has earned its rightful rank as one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

In light of current events, both our collective and personal flaws have become more evident.  The hoarding is just the beginning.  The outright backbiting and blaming on social media, television, radio and in-person are a reminder that we are not operating as our best selves.  Dismissing and cutting down noted medical professionals and downplaying directives from our elected leaders demonstrates our inability to hear the word “no.”  My first thought was that this was entirely an American phenomenon, but that’s not the case.  Selfishness exists around the world.  We’re all guilty here.  People I know and love are presently operating out of this selfishness and privilege.  While we are collectively coping with this pandemic, the root of this global “me-first” perspective is pride.  And pride is a human condition, one than equally affects politicians, religious leaders, CEOs, celebrities, athletes, influencers, neighbors, family members, friends, you and me.

Yet, hope is not lost.  There is good.  I’ve seen it.  You’ve seen it.  We’re all trying.  And let’s be honest, some days are better than others.  I truly believe the difference maker here is humility.  The dictionary defines the word humble as not proud, haughty, arrogant, or assertive.  To be humble is to express deference or submission.  In a culture that values status and seeks accolades, it’s easy to note our lack of humility.  It’s not because we don’t understand the definition.  We do.  We just don’t like it.  We don’t value it. Plus, the messaging has always been confusing.  How am I supposed to stand up for myself, value myself, claim and proclaim my self worth, and cultivate healthy self-esteem if I put others above myself?  No one wants to be walked on, dismissed or set aside, and yet that remains the connotation.

The Bible offers us another perspective on humility.  One where we earnestly value others, where we understand that we’re all in this human experience together, one where my life is no more significant than any other life.  I have no right to anything or anyone.  My life is a gift and I’m called to live in response to that.  I have been claimed by an almighty and powerful God.  My eternity was bought and paid for by the sacrifice of a Savior.  I am not called to react, but only to respond.  And that response is humility.

Years ago I heard a Christian leader describe the Bible as God’s great love story.  It changed my perspective.  The Bible was no longer a collection of books, but one big narrative about a Creator and His creation.  My understanding grew.  I could see new and more meaningful connections not just between its chapters and characters, but between then and now.  The Bible became not just a love story but a living, breathing, and extremely timely on-going narrative for Christians today.  And that story continues.  As followers, our lives are an unwritten testimony for all to see.

The reality of the pandemic has weighed heavily on my heart.  My reflective nature and night owl tendencies have given me a lot of time to ponder.  When stress, worry, and anxiety fill my thoughts, I pray and think about the things I can control.  And I am grateful for a faith that I can rely upon.  I wholeheartedly believe that while these days are scary, uncomfortable, and unpredictable, there are lessons and blessings to be found.  Still, I am not naive.  We are largely walking through unchartered territory and we will all respond differently in the days, weeks, and months to come. Fear will take over at times.  Tensions will run high.  We will be tested.  We will fail.  And again, some days will be better than others.  But, there will be opportunities for us to be a light, to meet the needs of others, and most of all, opportunities to respond humbly.

Life isn’t a short game.  It is a journey.  Are you able, or more accurately, are you willing to make sacrifices, submit to those who know more than you do, and go without?  Can you pause, wait, and humble yourself before God and neighbor?  My prayer is that each of us will respond accordingly and do our part.  Stay home, wear the mask when necessary, and don’t forget to wash your hands.

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.   James 4:10