One of the first things my dad did when he moved in with us was to take over the breakfast duties. He was not a chef, but his eggs were always perfectly fried, and every morning he met me in the kitchen as the sun was rising and said, “ready for breakfast?”
I ate little at that time, but I said yes, more because I wanted to remember what it felt like to sit with him as the day began. His movements in my kitchen reminded me exactly of the way he’d inhabited our kitchen back in Oregon, slamming the cabinets just a bit harder than was needed and jangling the pots as he wrestled one free from the shelves. Even then, he played soft music, humming a bit as he put butter in the pan and waited for it to sizzle before adding the eggs. He made those eggs the next day and the next, always trying for the perfect runny yolk. In the rare instance when he broke the yolk, he’d turn the breakfast into something more like scrambled eggs, smiling when he set it down in front of me. “Well, I broke the yolk,” he’d say, in his Texas drawl, which was thicker in the morning. “But it all goes in the same place, right?”
He usually made the kids thin, crepe-like pancakes that he piled high on a plate and they covered with syrup. “They’re made with plenty of eggs, which makes them healthy!” he’d say when I wondered aloud whether it was a great breakfast for them to be eating every day. If they managed to get through all the pancakes he served them, he’d put an extra one on the plate without them having to ask.
He made us breakfast whenever he wasn’t at the hospital that winter, pausing only when I was too grief-stricken to eat anything at all. In those early days, he always asked me if he could make me eggs, even though he knew the answer. When my friends would encourage me to eat, he’d interrupt and say, “she’ll eat when she’s hungry.”
He also took over the grocery store runs, seeing a fully stocked fridge as a sign of stability in our house. In fact, every night at dinner when we’d sit with the kids and discuss our days, his recollection always went something like, “I took you all to school and then I went to the grocery store. I had a long walk there and a long walk home and then I read a book. It was great!”
At first, I tried to convince him that we should just get groceries delivered. “Heck, Marjorie,” he said to me in his booming voice, “I can do that myself. Why would we pay someone to do that?”
My friends saw him walking all over town, bags of groceries in hand. “Just saw your dad,” one neighbor would text. “Did your dad buy two gallons of milk and walk all the way home with them?” another friend would ask.
“Can I bring you all groceries?” was a common question I got that first year. I always rejected these offers. My dad liked the grocery store and he didn’t mind walking home with heavy bags. I wasn’t quite sure why, but he insisted that this was the best way to get the food we needed.
One night, when my dad was feeling a little under the weather, I told him I’d handle the grocery store run the next day. “Dad,” I said, “I’ve been going to the grocery store after work for years. I can handle it.”
“I can do it,” he said.
I knew at this point he wasn’t going to let me, but I still kept protesting. “I know, but so can I.”
“You have a job,” he said. “I know you come home tired after work. I remember what that was like.”
“You mean when mom was sick?”
“Yes. It was really hard.” He was looking at the wall, seemingly thinking back in time. “I tried to do everything. I went to the grocery store, I cleaned up at home, I ran you and Lindsay to all of your events. And of course I was working, too. It was overwhelming.”
I didn’t remember my dad ever being stressed out when I was a kid. I remember that emotion emanating from my mom, but not my dad.
“The least I can do is go to the grocery store for you,” he said. “That’s my job here.”
It wasn’t easy, that much I knew. It had been much of what I did for the family before Shawn died, and I knew that cleaning and cooking and grocery shopping, not to mention childcare, could be a full-time job. I told him as much.
“I know you think I do too much around here,” he said, “but really, I don’t. You’re doing the hard stuff.”