Comfort, food

Siste kveld, by Simen Idsøe Eidsvåg on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

So I take it this Danish concept, hygge, is all the rage. (You can pretty much figure it out from the photo.)

We aren’t in Denmark, nor is it particularly cold yet (at least not today). But I am quite cozy right here at home and wanting to deconstruct why.

There’s the obvious – I am finally feeling close to normal! I don’t wake up in the night with a foul cauldron where my belly should be! I don’t wake in the morning with dread after a night of no sleep. I’ve cracked the code that lets me eat frequent meals, even if they aren’t the most desired or exciting.

J has been making beef stew since this morning. It’s intoxicating me, the smell of it. I have no doubt it’s going to be the best stew he had ever made. Even though I won’t get to taste a bite (I may take a teaspoon of the broth).

Does this make me seem like a masochist? I can’t imagine the old me being okay with a situation like this. I am happy about the stew, and happy near it. Primarily because we’d planned to make it last Sunday, and my condition intervened, and it didn’t happen then. We had made the mistake of mentioning it to Young J, however (a boy who wants to know what’s for dinner as soon as he swallows his breakfast). He was incredibly angry and disappointed it didn’t happen. His anger and disappointment have been powerfully magnified lately.

The youngs slept over at their grandparents’ last night. They came back in the afternoon full of stories of apps and movies they’d watched (we don’t have an iPad) and how much apple crisp they’d eaten. Young J sniffed the air, smelled the stew, and I could see happiness and relief in his pale face. At dinner, I know the kids will stop eating and get up and hug the daylights out of the chef, which is what they always do when we’ve done well by their tummies. I’m going to make an effort to eat my two-minute meal at the table so I can witness that moment of stewy abandon. I’ll savor the tiniest taste of the broth, and see how it lands.

But I’m going to really dine on the feeling. The warmth. The slow, careful knitting back together of our family after three weeks in a dungeon.

(Rice krispies, you may not have known, also are super hygge. I sat them in some almond milk for my 4 o’clock, and their crackling was not unlike a fireplace. I put them on my nightstand to warm up a bit and enjoyed the sound and the almond perfume.)

Food – bringing comfort in unexpected ways. Perhaps tonight instead of a pillow I’ll clutch a bag of dried pasta, to bring on nice dreams.


Every two hours I eat. It doesn’t take me long to eat what little I can manage right now. Accounting for preparing to eat, eating, and thinking about what I ate and how I’m feeling about it, that leaves about 100 minutes between meals for contemplation.

I just had my 10 o’clock (applesauce, graham cracker, almond milk). It felt good. I started feeling grateful. The mind begins to make less rudimentary connections once you are no longer starving. I started thinking about gratitude, and a poem came to me immediately. A poem written by a friend, a very fine poet, who was crushed by the weight of the world just over seven years ago – prompting a mutual friend to eventually write this. I’d been thinking about her these days, because J and I just celebrated our anniversary. She danced at our wedding.

Here is her poem. Thank you, Sarah. I miss you.

For the Fog Horn When There Is No Fog
Sarah Hannah
(as published on Verse Daily)

Still sounding in full sun past the jetty,
While low tide waves lap trinkets at your feet,

And you skip across dried trident trails,
Fling weeds, and do not think of worry.

For the horn that blares although you call it stubborn,
In error, out of place. For the ridicule endured,

And the continuance.
You can count out your beloved—crustaceans—

Winking in spray, still breathing in the wake,
Beneath the hooking flights of gulls,

Through the horn’s threnody.
Count them now among the moving. They are.

For weathervane and almanac, ephemeris and augur,
Blameless seer versed in bones, entrails, landed shells.

For everything that tries to counsel vigilance:
The surly sullen bell, before the going,

The warning that reiterates across
The water: there might someday be fog

(They will be lost), there might very well
Be fog someday, and you will have nothing

But remembrance, and you will have to learn
To be grateful.


Labyrinthine circuit board lines by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

We interrupt this hard-won linear progression toward my health and general well-being with a harrowing episode, the likes of which can only be properly accounted for when the movement through space and time of a loved one towards his or her bus home chafes against the intractable predisposition of a 100+ year old municipal transit system to create general havoc, especially on a weekend.

J took the youngs to a birthday party mid-morning (after a fearsome and long-dreaded tantrum from Young J, who is starting to go to pieces the longer I stay in bed). Then they had flu shots scheduled.

Mom was leaving today. Her bus was leaving at 2 pm from Penn Station, so I would accompany her to the subway station with her suitcase and she would take it from there. She and I enjoyed a few minutes of calm. I made a feeding schedule for myself (every two hours – just like a newborn) and wrote down all of the possible permutations of micro-snacks and doll-sized meals I can “enjoy,” so that I stay on top of things and don’t space out and go for six hours without eating. I felt good and empowered and ready to handle it all. I walked down the flight of stairs and the stoop carrying her suitcase and didn’t feel light-headed at all.

Before leaving the house Mom asked if I’d checked the subway service status online. I had not. I took a look and it said Planned Work. I clicked through to find about three pages of deviations, warnings, and closings. My heart quickened and then sank. We hadn’t allowed for enough time to take a cab. It was subway or bust.

We took a train that doesn’t typically run on our line. I figured I would figure it out as we went, but the more I thought about it, the less sense it made. Before the train left Brooklyn I spied a chance to switch lines, and took it. It happened to involve the longest walk inside a station in perhaps the entire city, from the 4 at Borough Hall to the R at Court St. On a good day, in top physical condition and with no one else on the platform, one might need 15 minutes walking briskly to traverse this underground passage.

But this is me we are talking about, and Mom, who, even relieved of her suitcase (which I was wheeling) cannot walk all that fast. I felt we lost at least an hour, which cannot possibly be true because of the eventual outcome. There was luck in the sense that we were able to use both an elevator and an escalator during this leg of the trip. But I was growing more panicked by the moment (she wanted to be in line for the bus an hour before departure, and it was already 12:40). At one point as I glided down the empty escalator I started yelling up to Mom, “I JUST NEED YOU TO FOLLOW ME AND NOT SAY ANYTHING!” I wonder if Virgil ever said that to Dante?

We arrived on the platform to wait for an R train, and there were no benches in sight. I leaned against a post. Mom said I wasn’t looking too good. I was sweating. Mom opened her magical purse of wonders and came to my rescue with a Jolly Rancher. I popped it in my mouth and my mind went APPLE APPLE APPLE GREEN GREEN APPLE APPLE GREEN and then I was much more calm. (Note to self: Carry hard candies. They are important.) The train arrived and it was empty and we made our local way to Manhattan, Mom seized by guilt at having drawn me into this transit vortex.

The apple candy went down easily and I decided to have a cherry one. Its flavors were unbelievably nuanced. I tasted something Indian, like rose water. Jolly Rancher, who knew a starving person could find such inspiration in your humble taste? After that I was really okay. I was so okay, in fact, that as a true New Yorker I never stopped looking for an opportunity to switch to a faster train. When we were at Union Square, I saw it, and before Mom knew what I was doing I was barreling across the platform to the Q (which, by the way, would have been the better choice of train for us from the get-go). There was someone crossing in front of me and I literally bent my body in half to keep them from blocking our path to the open train doors. Mom said she nearly had a heart attack. I don’t know what I was having, but I was still kind of high on the Jolly Ranchers I’d had so it almost felt like the opposite of a heart attack.

One station later, we arrived. I could have found a stranger to carry Mom’s suitcase up the stairs (as she often has when she is alone). But I had a daughter’s duty to fulfill. I was going to walk her to the corner of 30th St and point her in the right direction, then turn around and take the train right back home. (She had insisted I take a cab back, but I’d had enough of uncontrollable variables for the day.)

And I made it. WE made it. Little Mom and desiccated, half-starved me, walking through Koreatown/Accessories World together. We parted on the corner and it was only 15 minutes later than she’d wanted to be, a miracle considering what we went through to get there.

On the subway ride home I kept my hand tightly coiled around the third Jolly Rancher in my pocket.



Sleep is returning to my fold. I first started believing it when the kids left for school yesterday and instead of tossing around in bed, feverishly typing another post here or refreshing Facebook like an obsessive, I felt my head hit the pillow with a thud. The next two hours I grappled with sleep, even with my hands, feeling as though I was being pulled below the surface of a lake and even though I was trying to fight it, I finally gave in. I woke at 11 a.m. feeling lighter than I have in weeks. I scrutinized my irises in the bathroom mirror and found that the darkness camping out there had moved on.

It’s the steroids. They are dialing me down off them over the weekend. My high score daily dose was at one point 100mg, which sounds scarily high (especially the one day that I had them intravenously). I am now down to 30mg once a day, and after the weekend, if all goes well, it will keep decreasing. I hope by Thanksgiving to be pretty close to a normal facsimile of myself.

I feel the difference – going even from a dose of 40mg to 30mg, there is a loosening in my chest. A lifting of anxiety. I can spend x more minutes with both kids in my bed before shooing them away.

There are still things I cannot quite face – like most of the rest of the apartment. Things have piled up. A lot of things. All of them seem to be made of Legos and books. When I go out to the living room to administer Netflix to the kids, I have to keep tunnel vision or else I start hyperventilating right away. Our cleaning person comes on Monday, after I put her off for a week already because I wasn’t ready for that kind of upheaval. My pre-cleaning regimen, under normal circumstances, is exacting and exhausting, because I don’t like leaving out anything that could be permanently misplaced. My standards are high, and I don’t know how I’ll meet them this time. The kids are off for a sleepover tonight and I have little doubt J and I will spend our evening in cleaning preparation (which will probably involve me barking orders from the couch).

Mom leaves again today. It doesn’t make sense for her to come back next week because of the holiday, so this is another source of stress. I feel as though if I can have everything arranged just so, with most of the kid wrangling handled by others, I can get through three days on my own. I dearly hope I’m not overestimating myself. I feel incrementally stronger, after each meal, after each night of actual sleep. But the gulf between stronger and back to normal operations is still quite significant. Wish me luck.

Last night J and I huddled in bed and watched (well, I dozed on and off through it) the intriguing 2009 movie “Moon,” with the excellent Sam Rockwell as essentially the only live actor, playing clones of himself on a lunar power station. Watching the same person interact with himself in various states of physical decay made an interesting bookend to my ordeal.

Controlled substance

Fizzy Purple Grape Soda by D Sharon Pruitt on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

It’s 4:20 in the morning. In the night. A time I have become well-reacquainted with in the past weeks. I become aware now that I have been limiting my window for this period of unpleasantness to two weeks, a moving two-week window of hell, because I keep thinking back to the beginning and realizing, Oh, that? That wasn’t NEARLY as bad as it got.

The actual fact is I’ve now been robbed of three full weeks. And there are certain habits, dependencies, which settle in after that period of time, which may be hard to break.

I spend my day in bed. I do not aspire to leave my bed, because leaving it has generally meant rushing to the bathroom, and an hours-long cycle of pain and relief and more pain filling in where the relief tried. When I am feeling at all better, I get back in bed. Standing up is hard when you have not eaten much, and my height makes it feel like even more of a challenge.

The bedroom has become my fortress. I wonder if I’ll ever continue this blog from anywhere but there, hunkered down with my smartphone.

When a cycle of cramps starts I assume a certain position for self-soothing, rub my belly in a way that does help, fire up my ancient heating pad (it belonged to my grandparents, and when it reaches its full temperature evokes the smell of their old apartment, which is soothing).

What I’ve noticed is that I do this now even when the “pain” is actually a minor gurgle of digestion. This means I’ve downgraded my pain standards. Which had been quite high before. I birthed two boys weighing over nine pounds without much more than some Advil and stitches after. Yes, it goddamn hurt. But there was ample payback there, in oxytocin.

The pain I have been in recently affords no such glory. I haven’t even been able to talk about specifically what the pain is all that much (except here), because it turns out that nausea and vomiting is a lot more socially acceptable to speak about and suggest remedies for than chronic diarrhea. (This seems like a socioeconomic discovery, somehow. Only in a society with ample access to safe drinking water can we afford ourselves the luxury of distancing diarrhea to the furthest corners of conversation.)

Before going to bed last night (nervously, without the second dose of steroids I’ve become accustomed to), I held court for Mom and J and told them feverishly about my hopes and dreams for my digestion. “It’s a whole new world out there,” I was saying. “How often do you actually get a chance to start your gut over again? Maybe I should make some changes,” I said. “This is an opportunity. There have been so many discoveries about how food works. And my metabolism had slowed to a halt anyway.” I spoke of caffeine, and other ills and other promises.

Mom and J sat there nodding and bemused, enabling my rant but not encouraging it. I hadn’t chosen the right audience for this sermon. My father, a long sufferer in matters of digestion, would have engaged me immediately in matters of science and nutrition. There are scores of friends on Facebook standing by with advice for me. But I don’t know that I’m looking for a conversation just now (except by phone, in the morning, with the nutritionist at the cancer center, because I am afraid to face the weekend without her guidance).

I’m not looking for a plan yet. I’m not looking for strictures yet – there are more than enough of those. I don’t want to find a forum or self-identify with any group.

I suppose what I want is to return to how and who I was, but with the knowledge of my present suffering never far from me when I decide to eat something. Eating for me has long been a tool of anesthesia, a tool for distancing pain. I know that isn’t healthy, but it’s something I learned long ago from Mom (who has herself been on a long journey in this regard, and is currently in triumph and is my hero for it). When I’ve been really sad in recent days I’ve tried a meditation of walking through my neighborhood and stopping in each place that sells good things to eat (and there are, of course, many) and imagining myself tasting each thing for the first time. It was satisfying… until it wasn’t. (And I kept going back again and again to the place with the Brussels sprouts.)

Somehow I have managed to raise kids who have a much greater sense of balance and proportion when it comes to good and bad eating than I ever had in my little finger. They hauled in an enormous bag of candy in an hour on Halloween afternoon. There was intense interest in it for exactly 36 hours. It has since sat in a bulging shopping bag on a high shelf, untouched and unrequested and possibly even unremembered. Halloween was the very start of my troubles, and as is my way, now that I write about it I want to feel guilty that my pain eclipsed the presence of all that candy. But that’s not it at all! Young J drinks green juice because of the broccoli content. Young A snarfs cherry tomatoes and edamame like candy. These are healthy eaters and yes, they like their sugary treats, but they have their heads on straight about it all.

Which is the most I can hope for myself, and soon please.