About a year ago, my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian and colon cancer, and there were complications between the two types. The doctors explained the spread of her cancer throughout her mid-section as: “Take for example a bag of groceries, and imagine that in that bag, there is a bag of flour that’s been punctured; the cancer is like the flour – there’s a little of it on everything.”
So, in other words, a lot of stuff had to be removed surgically and even then, there was all that cancer-flour to dust off the rest. Mom was in for a rough ride.
Because I am an only child with four children of my own, and I had just gone back to work, Dad shouldered almost all of Mom’s care. As the weeks ticked by, one day I said to him, “Dad, you need to start telling people. Tell your friends, tell her friends, tell people in town what’s going on.”
He strongly resisted. He insisted he didn’t need anything, and that my mother wanted to keep all this private until she could make sense of what had happened and would happen going forward; there were too many variables and they still weren’t quite sure what to say or how to say it.
The poor man was going home to a dark, cold house and eating take-out every night, if anything at all. It was making me sick thinking about it. I felt useless and far-away and fantasized about putting an ad in their local paper:
“Mrs. Shea has really bad cancer and Mr. Shea could use a roast chicken and the number for a good lawn service.”
Out of respect for them I chose not to, instead shouting at my father over the phone: “My God Dad!! Don’t you like lasagna?! People will just bring it to you. They bring lasagna at times like these Dad!”
I don’t know what it is about roast chickens and lasagna, but if anything happens, people who love you, people who remotely like you, people who are good show up and bring food. In disposable catering trays, in their own baking dishes. They leave muffins on doorsteps and cookies on porches. They come. And it feels … good. It feels like love.
Once Mom was better and home, the food came. Lots of baked goods. And it delighted her. I knew it would. Little gifts, little signs of care, of sympathy.
I’ve been the recipient of a lot of muffins and roast chickens and lasagnas over the years. There have been babies, and Mom’s cancer, and most recently my own broken foot. Once, a girl I barely knew through our church moms’ group brought me a whole meal complete with the world’s most delicious apple pie and coloring books for my kids when I had my third baby. She later became my business partner and one of my most beloved friends. Another woman sent in catering when she heard how much my husband traveled when the oldest ones were very little.
In tragedy and hope, in sympathy and new life, in joy and in pain, a few constants remain – carbohydrates, protein, and love.
Sometimes the lasagna isn’t something you eat. Sometimes it’s a ride for your kids, a shoulder to cry on, or the alternative crutch-device thing one friend found for me when I broke my foot. Sometimes it’s months or years of unreciprocated playdates because you just don’t have the bandwith to pay back. Sometimes it’s company – a babysitter who isn’t really there to babysit but to help in general, a happy face who pops by for a cup of coffee. An unexpected hand-me-down. A call out of the blue. Legitimate, consistent, heartfelt prayers on your behalf.
Maybe you didn’t bring me lasagna today, and maybe I forgot yours yesterday. This is all okay, because every occasion doesn’t involve every friend, and we all care for each other, in one way or another, as best we can over the years.
Sometimes we give and give as much as we can; other times we don’t have the bandwidth to do a single thing. Many times, we think to do something and never follow through. Sometimes, we don’t absorb the weight of what someone else is going through. Others it hits so, so close to home. That’s the beauty of the giving tapestry – you never know who you’ll feel compelled to help or who might show up for you. It ebbs and flows, and this is the beauty of community.
It’s all lasagna.