Finding Peace in the Kitchen when Living in a World of Distress

It felt as though my heart had stopped on January 18th of this year, a mere 40 days before my youngest son Will’s heart actually did. That was the day my world tilted off it’s axis. That was the day the call came from Will’s cardiology team; three years old and he was going to undergo open heart surgery.

My grandfather went through open heart surgery, albeit for a different reason, and I didn’t blink an eye. I always rolled my eyes behind his back when he would show off his scar. As a kid, I just never understood what it meant. The risk, the aftermath, they became all too clear when my three year old was facing the same thing.

Will was born with a Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD), simply put, a hole in his heart, which we knew about before he was born. We met with cardiologists who assured us that many of these holes close on their own or otherwise become a non-issue as the child’s heart grows larger. We saw the cardiology team every two weeks for ultrasounds during my pregnancy, and every three months after his birth. He always did great at these appointments. I would lay on the exam table next to him as the ultrasound tech put warm jelly on his chest. Will would watch Mickey Mouse on the TV, and I would watch the ultrasound screen, wondering what all the blue and red flashes meant, if that murmurous heart beat was as bad as it sounded, and if that pesky hole was still there. It always was.

Our appointments became less frequent. We even got to the once a year point. It was during that first year of not seeing the team that the VSD became a problem. That’s when the cardiologist broke the news. Will’s heart was letting too much blood pass between the two ventricles, and now his left heart chamber was much larger than it should be. The cardiology team unanimously agreed that we needed to operate. I held it together in that office. I’m not one to show emotion in front of others; I hate crying in public or looking weak. I walked to my car, buckled an unusually quiet Will into his car seat, got in, and lost it. I cried myself silly. How could I explain to my three year old what was about to happen to him? How could I call my husband and tell him?

I often describe this time as a spiritual skydive. I thought the day of surgery was when we would be jumping out of that airplane. I realized half way through, we were already in free fall.

I often describe this time as a spiritual skydive. I thought the day of surgery was when we would be jumping out of that airplane. I realized half way through, we were already in free fall.

We had jumped when they called to confirm we needed to move ahead with surgery sooner rather than later. I alternated between sheer panic that my parachute would not deploy and absolute awe at the fall and the beauty of God’s creation on the way down. What surprised me more than anything  was that I was GRATEFUL. I was scared and worried, sure, but more than anything else I was grateful for the whole experience. I was “terrifyingly grateful” as I liked to put it at the time. So many times in life we operate on autopilot; going through the motions, focused on living, but not really feeling, experiencing, or needing God. I suddenly needed God in a way I had never needed Him before and He was there. I tell you He was there. It felt like I was basking in the sun. I felt His presence in my life as I had never experienced it before and I was so grateful. I wasn’t naive enough to think it would all be okay just because it’s what I wanted or because I was experiencing God in a way I never had;  I was beaten enough to allow God to carry me.  I was grateful to be alive, to be faithful, and to have my son. I knew from the moment I met Will that he was going to teach me an important lesson, just as I knew during that waiting period I would write this. HAD to write this. It’s impossible to experience the glory of God and not share the good news.

I suddenly needed God in a way I had never needed Him before and He was there. I tell you He was there. It felt like I was basking in the sun.

Will’s surgery was scheduled, so we prepared. I bought a robe and slippers for him to use at the hospital, I made spread sheets with instructions for the family who would watch my oldest son, Jack, and our dog, Frank. But what I focused on the most was what I termed Will’s Last Meal. I promise it wasn’t intended to sound as morbid as it does. I just knew life would be different after that night, for better or worse, and so we would celebrate.

We had lots of family in town to help out, so I invited everyone over for this meal. I think my relatives all questioned my sanity.  More than one of them asked “Are you sure you want to cook for us? You’re really up for this?”  I know it’s not for everyone, but cooking is my zen place. I find peace in the kitchen, focusing on nothing else but the task at hand. Tasting, stirring, sautéing, chopping, seasoning. When I am focused on that I can let go of everything else. You see, one of the things from this whole experience that I couldn’t stop fretting over was the night before surgery. How would I ever sleep? How would I enjoy my time with Will and not sit in the corner crying my eyes out? How could I make it a fun night for my scared family? The answer for me was to cook. I focused on that one meal for weeks, planning and preparing my heart to get through the toughest night of my life.

I wanted to fill our stomachs and hopefully our hearts with a  meal made of equal parts love and fear. I’m not sure about anyone else, but that meal saved me. In serving others I saved myself.

I made my family’s favorite meal: Crispy fried chicken, quick cooking collard greens, creamy mashed potatoes, and chocolate cake with raspberry jam. I wanted to fill our stomachs and hopefully our hearts with a  meal made of equal parts love and fear. I’m not sure about anyone else, but that meal saved me. Instead of stressing, I lived. I focused on getting the chicken skin crispy, the potatoes smooth and fluffy, the greens full of flavor…anything besides my son’s heart. In serving others I saved myself. I was able to focus on the present, to enjoy my son, my family, and to sleep. I won’t say it was the deepest sleep of my life, I still woke up with a heavy heart the next morning, but I woke up rested and ready.

On February 27, 2017, Will’s heart stopped for the first time since it had begun beating in my womb three years before. The moment the surgeon called to say that he was now on the heart-and-lung bypass machine was a terrifying moment, but we got a second call forty-five minutes later relaying that Will’s heart was fixed, that it was successfully beating on it’s own again, and that call far outweighed any other. It felt as though he had just been born, again. The scary part was over. I was able to breath again. After a tough week recovering in the PICU, Will came home.

Our friends signed up to bring us meals after we got home from the hospital, and the love poured into those meals allowed us time to focus on Will. Through their own kitchens, those friends helped us to heal. In eight weeks Will was back to his old self.

With the blissful joy of knowing it was all over, a seed was planted and started to grow in my mind. I cultivated it, brainstormed, and worked on it. I wanted to share my food with others.  I started my blog, The Anchored Kitchen. My kitchen anchored our family through one of the toughest times we’ve ever experienced, and our friends’ kitchens kept us tethered in the aftermath of the storm. I wanted to share that. I wanted to make the kitchen an enjoyable place.

 

My kitchen anchored our family through one of the toughest times we’ve ever experienced, and our friends’ kitchens kept us tethered in the aftermath of the storm. I wanted to share that. 

I started making weekly meal plans with printable grocery lists for busy people to make meals in their home more easily. To cook while their kids do their homework, the smell of sautéing garlic in the air. Kids setting the family table, parents tasting their creation, and a family enjoying the meal together. Especially during the school year, when life is full of activity, soccer practice, school functions, and work travel.

The table, the kitchen, these are important places. They bring a family together to break bread and enjoy one another. It is a tradition that is extended to friends and loved ones. When you are grown and go back home and have your favorite meal are you not flooded with memories? Memories of laughter and time spent together at the table you grew up in? Food is important. Just as a particular perfume scent can transport us, so can a dish of chicken and rice, or red sauce, or a perfectly cooked pork chop. These meals are important not just to the individual family member but to the family’s soul. These recipes and beloved dishes can bring back memories from decades ago, and you can create the same feelings with your family. It’s a cycle. After the table is gone, traded up for a new one with fewer water stains and sticky finger prints, the kitchen still exists and can be brought back to life through a simple meal.

These meals are important not just to the individual family member but to the family’s soul.

If I think back on Will’s Last Meal, I’m not met with trepidation like I am when I remember saying goodbye to him in the hospital hallway. That Last Meal makes me think of joy, love, and laughter. A wonderful gift. As God patched up Will’s heart, he forever changed my soul. I’m a stronger and more resilient person because of our experience. I’m aware, now more than ever, that life is too short and too precious to never chase your dreams.

God’s gift to me was not only a spiritual awakening, but a personal one as well. What do I have to lose? I know now if I falter, if I stumble and fall, He is there to carry me again. Eternally.

Brittany Graham is the author of The Anchored Kitchen. She believes in the healing powers of food, the kitchen as the soul of a home, and the need for good recipes. She cooks for her two boys even while her husband is deployed, and found food to be a healing force when her younger son faced open heart surgery. Her food blog makes life in the kitchen easy, providing recipes, weekly meal plans, and grocery lists.

brittanyggraham

Brittany Graham is the author of The Anchored Kitchen. She believes in the healing powers of food, the kitchen as the soul of a home, and the need for good recipes. She cooks for her two boys even while her husband is deployed, and found food to be a healing force when her younger son faced open heart surgery. Her food blog makes life in the kitchen easy, providing recipes, weekly meal plans, and grocery lists.