Food. Such a universal sign of love. 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 considering and preparing, I know I have touched them in a unique and special way. These are a few of those special stories.
Every December I see her for her yearly 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 makeup, 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 goodness, I could also see in it the emptiness she felt as her daughters were growing, her marriage dissolving, her weight increasing and her identity lost. 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, somehow her annual appointment switched from December to the Spring. She doesn’t bring me Chex mix anymore; I comment about it, and we both laugh. I’m glad though that she doesn’t bring me this somewhat disheveled gift any longer because over the years, she has grown to take better care of herself and she has really outgrown Chex mix.
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 loss.
In pre-op, she received her “happy drug” Versed, to calm her nerves. It didn’t seem to affect her rapid, non-stop dialogue. As we got her on to the operating room table, she was telling us all about her yearly family tradition of making tomato sauce and wine.
The women all work on the tomato sauce, hours of prepping, cooking, and canning. The men, literally stomping on the grapes, then starting 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 had a big grin on her face 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 how to prepare it with the addition of oxtail. I didn’t quite follow her instructions, as oxtail is not something I could stomach, but I still tasted every ounce of love and laughter that came in 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 all worked at the hospital I was at, 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, her toughness “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 over power 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 in a larger practice. She insisted on only me delivering her, and she wanted a specific date. “I will bake you cookies for the rest of your life,” she desperately said. 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 soft underbelly of 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 beautiful 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.
Andrea Eisenberg is a obstetrician-gynecologist who blogs at Secret Life of an OB/GYN.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com