A Birthday and the Holidays
Before I knew it, it was October, Mom’s birthday month. On her birthday my husband was on a 24 hour shift at the fire station. I spent the day going from one movie theatre to another trying not to think. I immersed myself in the darkness of the theatre and the plot of the movie. No one could hear or see me cry.
Just as I thought grief couldn’t get any heavier, it showed me it could. I thought the grief of Mom’s birthday was unbearable, and now the holidays, an added reminder, were quickly approaching.
My husband and I decided to spend Thanksgiving in Seattle with my oldest brother and his family. The presence of family was a big help; however, the first holiday season without Mom was simply bizarre. Not being able to call Mom or hear her voice on a holiday was something I was unprepared for.
My love for all things Christmas came from her. In my world, my mother was the holiday, and now Christmas was looming. For the first time ever in my life, the thought of not going on and simply giving up emerged. I couldn’t believe I was actually thinking such thoughts, but there were moments of grief that left me a shell of the person I had always known. Unwittingly, I had come to know despair.
Grateful for the love of God and my purpose in life, eventually I resolved to take the holidays full on and embrace what we had always loved. For Mom, for all of us, I was determined to make the holidays meaningful.
The first order of business was decorating the Christmas tree. I had all of Mom’s favorite ornaments which would be placed on the front of the tree. Mom and I had very similar tastes so our combined collection of crystal and glass ornaments easily complimented each other. The hearts, lockets, hummingbirds and diamond drops were among our favorites. After decorating with the precision and intensity of a certified tree decorator, I stepped back to admire the dazzling, nine- foot tree adorned with all of the beautiful crystal ornaments, red flowing velvet ribbons and hundreds of twinkling clear lights. I had dreaded decorating this tree because I knew it would be emotionally excruciating. Even though the tears flowed nonstop, it turned out to be a cathartic experience. My mother would have loved that tree and I could hear her excitement and joy as I took in the scent of Douglas pine and the glow of white lights in the darkened room.
I placed the angel ornaments that had meant so much to Mom on a memorial wreath. As I hung the wreath on the door of her bedroom, the blue spruce prickling my fingers, an unexpected sense of solace laid itself over me like a warm blanket.
Louisiana Seafood Gumbo
Next was preparation of the gumbo. I wasn’t ready to host Christmas dinner, but I would have my Boulder Briar Patch Book Club members over and I would cook Mom’s specialty, Louisiana Seafood Gumbo. We’re from New Orleans and she made gumbo like you would not believe. Her gumbo was the best I had ever tasted, and I vowed Christmas, 2008, I would master it.
Some say the tradition of Louisiana gumbo goes back to the early 18th century and is based on traditional West African native dishes. It is the most extolled and celebrated of all Louisiana dishes and is the hallmark of most special occasions in the region. People travel from around the world to New Orleans to experience this culinary extravaganza.
The most renowned gumbo is Louisiana Seafood Gumbo, which often includes shrimp, crabs and sometimes oysters. Vegetables include green peppers, onions, garlic, bell pepper and a small hint of tomato. Many add ham or tasso (spicy cured pork), hot sausage, chicken, andouille (Cajun spicy pork sausage seasoned with garlic) and smoked sausage. The secret to a great gumbo is the seafood stock and the base, or the roux, which is added at the beginning of the process. Additional thickening ingredients are included at the very end: filé (pronounced fee-lay), a powder made from dried and ground sassafras leaves, and/or okra, which can be floured and baked first so it thickens the gumbo. There are numerous variations to this beloved staple, but ultimately, they all aim to do the same thing—create a rich, intoxicating comfort food for the soul. Gumbo is the comfort food to end all comfort foods. It heals, it restores and it redeems.
The preparer of the gumbo ought to be as seasoned as it is, and should have some life experiences under his or her belt. The most revered gumbo is prepared in community and seasoned with the secret sauce, L-O-V-E. No matter the recipe, the sheer magic of gumbo is no two pots ever taste exactly the same.
Although I was well-seasoned with years of caregiving and months of grief, and although I had made many pots of gumbo in community, I had never before attempted making Mom’s gumbo without her presence. Whether in person or over the phone, she always provided direction, fussed at the healthy alternatives I wanted to use, and often complained if I didn’t do things exactly as she said to do them. I was immobilized over the thought of taking on this task without her.
In her absence, I contacted my grandmother and my mom’s sisters for tips. Their input was essential. I needed to have Mom’s spirit in the room this holiday season. I was coming to the realization that I was no longer sure who I was without her. Funny thing was my aunts all had their own variations of the perfect pot of gumbo. Somehow, I would figure it out. I was convinced that making gumbo and making it perfectly would be the only way I’d get through the holidays. I moved forward with the confidence of a highly insecure person.
I did the necessary shopping. I already had the seafood in the freezer from my recent trip to New Orleans. At the appointed hour, I chopped, I diced, I peeled and deveined the shrimp, and I sobbed and mourned. By the time everything was prepared, the big pot had come to a rolling boil with all of the seasonings. I began the task of preparing the roux. Mom would always say, “It should be dark caramel, but never, ever let it stick or burn.” I was flooded with wonderful memories as I worked and tried in vain to hold back the tears.
As I diced and chopped and cut and stirred, my mind drifted to a memory that my heart needed in that solitary moment. A couple of months following Mom’s stroke, four years before she died, my sister Metrice, sister-in love Tina and best friend El all gathered together in the kitchen to make a pot of gumbo. Mom was in her wheelchair giving orders about what we needed to do, how to do it and when to do it. It was a lot of hands and a whole lot of secret sauce that went into making that special pot of gumbo, which was exceptional, as, of course, were all those that followed.
This Christmas however, I was alone and on my own. The roux was done, the pot was boiling and all the necessary base ingredients had been added. I simply needed to wait and see. I sampled a taste to see if I was on the right track. Oh my gosh, it was a mess! The gumbo stock tasted horrible! It was bland and actually had a bitter tinge to it. I had no idea what I had done wrong. I adjusted the pot to a low fire, left the kitchen, went to my bedroom and collapsed on the bed. I was alone, distraught and in physical and emotional pain over the failure. Somehow, I had managed to ruin Mom’s cherished gumbo!
I set the alarm so I could check the pot in another hour and fell into a deep slumber. I didn’t even hear the alarm go off. I awoke, in a complete panic, sniffing the air for the horrific scent of gumbo gone wrong.
As I came to my senses, I realized what I smelled wasn’t a burnt pot of gumbo at all. No, the aroma was magnificent. It was the scent of all things right in this world, sunshine, blue skies and the kiss of a light sea breeze on my cheeks. It was the indescribable, incomparable smell of a hearty, delicious pot of seafood gumbo. While I slept, the seasonings had blended over the low heat and created a beautiful harmony of aromatic flavors and richness. Those in the know, know that you can tell how good a pot of gumbo really is based on how it smells.
The smell wafting throughout the house wasn’t just good—it was divine. I was elated! Surely Mom had come to visit and blessed that pot. When I tasted the gumbo, I was overjoyed. I was literally tasting my mother’s recipe! As I stirred the pot, tears streamed down my face and into the gumbo. These were not tears of sadness but of pure, unadulterated joy. I did my Happy Dance, y’all!
At that exact moment the voice I had heard a year earlier spoke again. It reminded me of The Assignment. The assignment I had received and had somehow forgotten about or ignored—to help other family caregivers in their quest to care for their loved ones in the home. It was the assignment I was certain of when my friends, Dolores and Derrick, asked for my help, the assignment to be a sounding board and a support system for caregivers. This assignment was now so clear, to launch the business which would serve as a tribute to my mother, The Caregiver’s Guardian, LLC.
Weeping may endure for a night, But joy will come in the morning.
I heard this scripture over and over again after my mother passed. I kept waiting for the morning to come. I wanted it to come much sooner than it did and when it finally arrived, I didn’t want it to leave ever again. It did leave and to this date, in varying degrees, grief continues. After eight years, I suspect I will grieve the loss of my mother until my final breath. I am coming to terms with that, and I now give myself permission to feel what and how I feel. I now know the depth of my grief is correlated to the depth of my love and the unique relationship I was fortunate to have. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. This is my process, my journey, and is exclusively mine to bear. I used to be so ashamed of the tears. I have now learned to embrace them.
recipe card: Tears—2 Quarts
1. Allow tears to flow liberally and freely. It’s OK!
2. It’s a fact. Life is not fair.
3. For caregivers, grieving is part of the process which can begin at the moment of diagnosis or as soon as your loved one begins to decline. This is known as anticipatory grief.
4. Give yourself permission to grieve. Grieving time is unique to each individual and must be adjusted accordingly.
5. You cannot fast cook grief. It takes its own sweet time and may never, ever be done.
6. Identify that special ingredient, that special thing your loved one cherishes or covets.
7. If it brings them comfort, learn how to do it. It will comfort them and later it will comfort you.
8. God, Spirit, The Divine has answers for you. Ask, listen and answers will be revealed to you.
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