There is a giant heart made out of heirloom tomatoes on the kitchen table.
While my stepmom and I were out, my father went to the store and got creative in the most unexpected way. At 71, he’s still the happy soul he always was although his heart has been breaking a little more every day for almost a year now.
His world fell apart in a hospital corridor last September after his beloved wife received a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.
The minute he called me, I knew I had to come back to Europe and be with my parents so I did and have been living out of a suitcase for the last six months.
Right now, my stepmom is on her third round of chemo and her hair started falling out again a couple of days ago, which is as dispiriting as it is traumatic. And painful because it feels like someone is pulling on it day and night.
This is one of the many side effects of chemo and the only way to stop the pain is to shave it all off, as she did before. Only last week, she sent me a text message when I was still in Amsterdam that read “Just got my hair cut! I can feel myself coming back to life.”
Alas, she can also feel the tumor and the metastases growing and her tiredness levels are so epic she’s often frustrated because she can’t do more.
Seeing your face reflected in the Grim Reaper’s scythe whenever you close your eyes is hardly conducive to a good night’s sleep.
In my family, food is a love language.
We’re French and we proudly live up to the cliché. In this household, food is an obsession, an art form, and a reliable source of joy and togetherness.
And what better way to make the most of the present moment than with a good meal made out of fresh and nutritious ingredients?
“Even if you’re going to die, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat well,” my father blurts out while I’m tidying up the kitchen after dinner.
This is the first time he’s ever let on he understands his wife is dying; whenever she cracks a death joke, he always pushes back and tell her she’s exaggerating.
For a minute, I become Dad.
“Oh, Dad, come on!” I chide him, hamming it up so we can share a laugh.
Humor is our other love language and the way my father copes with everything because if you can send it up, whatever it is, then it never looks as bad.
Seeing your person, the love of your life, get weaker and weaker every day is a living nightmare, one he tries to deflect with devotion and pragmatism.
As a result, we’ve all become dab hands at making the most of the present moment and squeezing joy out of the little things and everyday interactions.
The final tomatoes configuration took some time to happen.
I’m still standing at the sink when Dad takes out his smartphone and shows me the many pictures of his vegetable work of art in progress.
I take a deep breath and force a smile, trying to hold back tears.
This is what our daily reality is like, high on emotion, chock-full of random kindnesses, and wildly unpredictable.
We’ve all learned to roll with the punches and focus on living, which translates into taking care of one another in whichever way we can.
“Later” isn’t something we can rely on anymore; no human ever can but we like to pretend otherwise because facing our own demise scares us.
And yet, we start dying the moment we’re born. For some of us, death is that constant companion biting at our heels and whom we try to keep at arm’s length for as long as possible.
Refusing to squander precious time worrying about things we can’t control is one way to remain firmly grounded in the moment.
Here, each new day is a gift we welcome with open arms, an open heart, and gratitude.
So much gratitude.
Our dinner soundtrack is a chorus of appreciative noises.
Dad chose each of these tomatoes with love and care and my stepmom and I prepared them in the same spirit.
And of course they do taste delicious.
“Girls, you’re eating my heart!” he jokes.
But he’s not wrong, not really.
His wife is gravely ill, I technically live in the US, and he stands to lose us both at some point. Or at least this is the way his mind processes the data he has although some of this data is either being withheld or not yet available.
The next oncologist consult is mid-August, I’m still sorting out an EU base, and my stepmom is still very much alive.
Regardless of how you might feel about it, life is.
Neither fair nor unfair, it is the force that animates all humans and to hand it over to fear and allow ourselves to be consumed by worry is to waste it.
Love is the energy that multiplies itself the more we share it.
It is also the opposite of fear.
The human heart is a remarkable repository of strength, hope, and resourcefulness in the face of adversity.
And when we choose to follow its guidance, we can’t go wrong.
I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.