The morning of Shawn’s funeral, I went to put on the one black skirt I had, and it literally fell off my body.
I hadn’t realized until that point how much weight I had lost over the previous six weeks. My sister helped pin the skirt on me, and told me that really, it didn’t look that bad. “No one will notice,” she said. She was trying to be comforting, but it was probably true. No one was going to care what I was wearing. Including me.
I hadn’t been able to eat much at all throughout Shawn’s hospital stay. At times, I was outright banned from eating in his room, as the doctors worried it would worsen his pancreatitis (or something like that – those details fail me now.) In any case, it was the middle of one of the coldest winters DC had ever seen, and I certainly wasn’t about to leave my sick husband do go out in the ice and snow and find a good sandwich. On top of that, I felt constantly anxious and the thought of food made my stomach turn. Consequently, the weight fell off of me.
Sometimes friends would bring food. I have vivid memories of the bagels that my friend Jason brought when Shawn had his first surgery and the ones he’d arrive with almost every time after that when he visited. I remember the dumplings I ate with my friends Becky and Michelle one afternoon and I remember the food that my friend Rachel brought me, even though I said I didn’t need anything. And there were so many more people who did the same. I wish I could remember all of you. I do remember gratefully accepting everything that anyone brought.
I also ate a lot in the NIH cafeteria. There were two – a bigger one where I ate sometimes with Jason, and a smaller one that was closer to Shawn’s room. I didn’t often go to the bigger one because it was harder to navigate, and the first time I went there with Jason was when we really, honestly discussed the fact that Shawn might die. I remember where we were sitting and what it felt like to realize that it wasn’t just the doctors saying that my husband might die. It was also my doctor friend saying that. The look in his eyes was one I couldn’t forget, and when I’d see that cafeteria, I could only think of that moment when I started to truly comprehend that Shawn might die.
So I usually ate in the smaller cafeteria. It was fairly utilitarian – pizza, burgers, sandwiches, that sort of thing. I never ate much, even if I was starving. I’d look at the food and feel my stomach turn over and then I’d walk around and around the salad bar endlessly trying to figure out what to put in my mouth.
One day early in Shawn’s hospital stay, the burger bar was serving sweet potato fries. They’ve always been my favorite. I took some, and found that with plenty of ketchup, I could eat them all.
Those sweet potato fries became my go-to food. It was the one thing I could stomach, and I felt a little bit sadder on the days when they only had regular french fries. The ladies behind the counter got to know me, and by the end of December they would say, “sweet potato fries?” whenever I came up to them.
On Christmas Day, I was at NIH all afternoon. I’d spent the morning at home with the kids and then headed to NIH where everyone who greeted me did so with great kindness. The man who checked my parking pass held my hand in his and wished me Merry Christmas, and the nurses all asked about how things had gone at home with my children.
By mid-afternoon that day, I was really hungry. Not hungry in the I-really-want-a-good-meal hungry, but hungry in the my-stomach-hurts-because-I-haven’t-put-anything-in-it hungry. The halls were mostly empty at NIH, but I crossed my fingers that my little cafeteria would be open.
It was. There was just one woman working behind the hot food counter. A few things sat under the warmer – but no sweet potato fries. She looked at me, and I saw her smile. “Merry Christmas!” she said to me.
“Merry Christmas,” I said back. “Any chance you have some sweet potato fries back there?” I smiled sheepishly. I didn’t usually ask for them to be made for me.
“For you honey, of course,” she said. “It’s Christmas!”
It took her a few minutes, but she made them. They were piping hot, and she piled up two helpings worth on a single plate. As she gave them to me, she reached out and touched my hand. “Merry Christmas,” she said again, this time with a softness to her voice.
It took a few months after Shawn died before I could eat sweet potato fries again. But even though I still love them, the taste of them will never be as good as they were that day. I’m sure that woman behind the counter had no idea what her gesture meant to me, but I remember exactly what it was like to eat those sweet potato fries that day. They burned my mouth, and tears streamed down my face as I ate alone in the cafeteria.
Alone. On Christmas.
But when I think back on that day, I also remember all those people – from the security officer to the office assistant to the woman who made me sweet potato fries – and the way they treated me with such profound humanity.