Monday, January 20, 2014

Of Comfort, Cookies, and Casseroles

The most frightening phone calls tend to come in the dead of night, ripping you out of the cradle of sleep and dropping you on the floor.

The effect is only slightly less jarring when the phone call comes in early evening, because at least you're awake, but there is still the same sensation of life-as-you-know-it falling overboard.

Never mind that, in the end, everything turned out to be fine, and nobody is sick or in hospital, and life went on pretty much as before. For that moment, when you see an unfamiliar number on your phone and answer it and it's your husband and he starts by saying "I'm fine, there is nothing to worry about, but..." and reveals that he went into the emergency room a few hours earlier with chest pains and has to stay overnight for observation, your vision suddenly narrows to a pinpoint and sounds are muffled and the world seems to be contained within a bubble made of the thinnest glass, ready to shatter at the slightest motion.

Most likely the cause of this event was stress ("only" stress), of which there has been an abundance this year. Everybody gets a serving of this time and again in the feast of life.

And that's where the comfort, cookies, and casseroles come in, brought by friends and family who assemble like firefighters in an old movie with a big tarp stretched out between them, ready to catch you when you jump out of the top story of a blazing building.

When my family was gathered at the hospital for several days a few years ago, existing in that strange timeless place one inhabits when a loved one is in the ICU on the threshold of death, friends stepped in, unbidden, to relieve us of all responsibilities for everyday tasks. A friend with a key to our house made sure the dog got let out, walked, and fed. The child was picked up from school, fed, and cared for. The refrigerator seemed to fill up magically with food, with casseroles and other dishes that needed only to be reheated. Mail was collected and milk taken in.

Coming home after each exhausting marathon of anxiety and despair in that time was like starring in a production of "The Tailor of Gloucester," in which the desperately poor and worried tailor, sick and feverish, takes to his bed knowing that he will never be able to finish making a wedding coat for the mayor by morning and will therefore be ruined, only to wake up and find the coat exquisitely completed thanks to the hard work of an army of grateful mice who toiled all night, unseen.

Though this most recent event was short-lived (and hopefully just a wake-up call and not a general alarm), the firefighters that are friends and family immediately began to stir. Siblings called to let me know they were on hand for anything. Two friends appeared in the ER with homemade meals and treats to take home with us so we wouldn't have to worry about a thing. Other friends weighed in on social media and via email with advice, shared experiences, and concern.

The custom of showing up with a casserole may seem sort of quaint and funny to people who are still in the immortal stage of life, but when the going gets rough, it's immensely reassuring to have someone show up with one, even if it's just tuna wiggle. "Food has the power to heal, to comfort, and to convey care and affection," writes chef Joyce Goldstein in her introduction to the cookbook From Our House to Yours, which was published to benefit San Francisco's Meals on Wheels program.

I certainly don't mean to infer that the bringing of food is appreciated only in dark times. Having meals show up when you're taking care of a brand-new baby is a lifesaver, too. (And anybody who wants to bring me food when absolutely nothing of any importance is going on is quite welcome to do so.)

One of my favorite casserole scenes appears in  Lars and the Real Girl. Lars sits in the living room, tensely waiting for news about his beloved Bianca. Women show up with knitting and sewing projects to sit quietly with him. "We brought casseroles," says one. Lars thanks her and wonders aloud if he should be doing something. He's told, "No, dear. You eat." Another chimes in, "We came over to sit." A third woman adds, "That's what people do when tragedy strikes."

Tragedy, however, didn't get us this time, and we went on to have a perfectly lovely weekend, complete with a lazy morning cup of coffee and a sunny-afternoon walk on the Tolt Pipeline trail. With plenty of warm minestrone soup and garlic bread to come home too, and a pot of lentil sausage soup to look forward to (the chocolate chip cookies are already pretty much history).

We've done our share of providing comfort food, too, and life being what it is, will no doubt be on both the giving and receiving end of this tradition many times in the future. As Garrison Keillor says regarding living a good life, "do your part, and bring a hot dish when it's your turn."