The smell of garlic tickles my nostrils, yanking me out of my editorial daze, and making me curious about its source.
I close my laptop, get up and breathe in, following the smell that leads me to the kitchen where my stepmom is peeling dozens of garlic cloves ahead of a family dinner. There’s something in my eye again so I blink quickly, swallow back the hockey puck in my throat, and ask her what she’s cooking.
My stepmom has been tangling with Stage IV cancer since last September and is having a hard time with her new treatment. Of the many side-effects, one is that food has become torture, not just eating it but also preparing it. Anything green, for example, causes reflexive revulsion. Because she’s headstrong, she will do battle with runner beans and salad while heaving. “Your dad still needs his greens,” is how she justifies it even though his hands still work, he’s an accomplished cook, and he could prepare them himself.
Tomorrow she’s invited her son and his girlfriend for dinner, and is going all out to cook us a meal she’ll barely be able to pick at.
Food is a big deal in my family. My parents are best described as lifelong gourmets and my stepbrother is a classically trained French chef. My own culinary proclivities as a vegan is an endless source of amusement to them, especially when I bring out the nutritional yeast. “Yum flakes! Want any?” I ask but no one ever takes me up on it. “Your ratatouille has dandruff,” is a more likely reaction.
Good food and good company is how we celebrate our shared humanity in France as we gather around the dinner table for a meal that can last several hours.
Not that we’re always chewing, mind you. We tend to talk and laugh a lot as we enjoy what the Portuguese call “convívio” or camaraderie, i.e. the art of being together.
And nothing makes my stepmom happier than hosting a dinner party. Over the last twenty-five years or so, she’s hosted one most weekends, as well as spectacular end-of-year feasts known as “réveillon.”
My offer of help is politely turned down.
“Back to work with you, I’m fine, it keeps me busy,” she says so I return to my laptop with a heavy heart, determined to do my part. Right this minute, it means knuckling down on the writing so I can take Sunday night off and enjoy family time rather than have to work after dinner. I pull another all nighter, collapsing into bed for a nap in the early hours of the morning.
While this relentless pace is starting to catch up with me, needs must. Although home is in the Pacific Northwest, I’m moving to Portugal for the rest of 2019 so I can be present for my family as Lisbon is about as far as I can go from Paris while remaining responsive. Staying in the US isn’t an option, airfares are too high, especially last minute ones, and it takes some 14 hours to get back to Paris and never on the same day. Against 2.5 from Lisbon.
What’s more, Portugal will give my parents somewhere sunny and warm to escape to when they get some medical respite. There hasn’t been any yet, but the hope is that there will be at some stage. When my stepmom has gotten used to the new treatment. Before or after mastectomy. Ahead of radiotherapy. We don’t know yet but as the oncologist explained he was a proponent of the maximalist approach, it sounds like we’re in for all of it.
Portugal once used to be home, and Portuguese is one of my working languages and a lifelong love story. While it is the only place in the world that can hold me together through this, the logistics of making such a move happen are complex. Not least because I lost the last five years of my life to depression, am only just getting back on my feet, and my income is currently based on the audience engagement model. In short, welp.
But the relief on my parents’ face when I told them about my plans was everything. Although I do have to go back to the US at the end of March, I’ll be turning around quite quickly.
You only have one family.
I’m luckier than most as I have two moms rather than just the one, about the only good thing to come out of my parents’ acrimonious divorce when I was a kid, but depression nearly cost me my relationship with them all. While I don’t have a time machine and can never make this right, at least I can help take some of the load off.
Although I’m constantly on the edge of collapse, what worries me more is how exhausted my parents are. My stepmom is sick so it’s to be expected but my father is running himself ragged through stress.
None of us sleep well. Sometimes, my stepmom and I meet in the middle of the night. She walks around the condo to pass the time, I write on, we wave at each other, her half-asleep, me amped up on extra-strong tea and chewing my way through yet another pack of gum to focus.
Every now and then, the magnitude of the task at hand becomes anxiety-inducing.
The last oncology appointment made no mention of remission, not even partial. While many metastases are no longer visible, some remain. I sat in on the consult and will attend the next one in early May. Until then, we’re all holding our breath, with more or less success.
My stepmom has started cracking more death jokes with me, which means she’s comfortable sharing how she feels. There’s never been any filter between us, and the relationship I have with her has always been far closer than with my birth mom. Also, we often have to put up a united front against my father who can be difficult and complains about everything even though he’s never malicious. Kvetching is how he vocalizes his stress, including while taking a shower with no audience around. I walked past the bathroom door once and heard him engaged in a tirade against something or other. I didn’t stop to listen, it would have been too strange.
“You know, he collapsed in on himself when he heard the news,” my stepmom tells me one day my dad has gone to the store to get some groceries. And I know exactly what she means because the dad who greeted me at Charles de Gaulle airport at the end of December isn’t the dad I had last seen 6 years ago. Shock and distress are etched all over his face and come through his body language, too. Two months on, I still haven’t processed this and am reminded of it every single time I look at him.
But I’ve finally learned to deal with his constant complaining and even turn it into a joke rather than burst into tears as I did for the first two months. Regrettably, exhaustion, emotions, and depression don’t mix. And he had every reason to be mad at me for staying away for so long though through no fault of my own — I couldn’t afford therapy any more than I could afford to travel.
More than the inevitable advance of death we have no control over, what scares me is failing my parents and yet I know I cannot let them down. Which means there’s no time for self-doubt or inertia as Stage IV cancer waits for no one.
For us all, what’s important is to live. Now.
“I’ve spent my entire life enduring,” says my stepmom, who has never had it easy, “and I’m tired. I have to be strong for your father, I have to be strong for my son, I have to be strong for…”
“No, not for me, don’t worry about me, please. You have to be strong for you, that’s it. I’m here, we’ll stick together, you take care of you,” I say as her face lights up with surprise and delight upon hearing about Portugal, and my staying in the EU.
It’s not much, it won’t be enough, but it’s what I can do.
Love is as love does.
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.