Papi and I have shared some of our best meals in Christ Hospital. On the heart-healthy dinner menu Wednesday, March 15: chicken, rice pilaf, green beans, whole wheat roll, vanilla pudding, hot tea, non-fat milk. Papi needed help eating all five days he was in the hospital. The gauze packed and clamped into his nose to staunch the massive nosebleed that had gained him admittance made breathing difficult, and it was hard for the poor guy to manipulate utensils and guide food to his mouth with all the multiple IVs and monitors attached to his arms.
I buttered the roll and cut that, as well as the chicken and green beans into pieces the flimsy plastic fork could manage. We had a system: one forkful for Papi, followed by a forkful for me. I mixed things up: a piece of chicken with rice or green beans, sometimes rice and green beans without chicken, a piece of buttered roll intermittently. His diminished appetite and my limited time to get my own meal (and where would I have gone? The Dunkin Donuts and Subway on Palisade Avenue are not acceptable dinner options, no matter how dire the circumstances) allowed us to finish everything on the dinner plate. We shared the pudding and joked that the sixth floor evening nurses would be impressed that Papi could be a healthy eater even in his uncomfortable condition.
The food had been just fine: the chicken tender and juicy, the pilaf flavorful (though we agreed Mami’s yellow rice, made with her special sazón criollo, is the gold standard), the beans bright and green, not grey. Our mood during the meal had been calm and cheery, despite our sorry states. There was dried blood around Papi’s packed and clamped nose, and it stuck stubbornly to his increasing stubble. His thin and ashy legs stuck out from the white-and-blue patterned hospital gown that had been fresh hours before dinner, but had collected blood throughout the afternoon, as well as tea dribblings during the meal. My kinkies were somewhat restrained in hasty, frizzy braids. There was dried blood on the stitch holding my healing upper lip (backstory: I’d arrived to the hospital on Tuesday morning—yep, Winter Storm Stella day—and the anxiety-on-an-empty-stomach combined with the sight of blood caused me to pass out, fall to the tiled floor, split my upper lip, and chip my tooth), and my face, as well as most of my body, was red, patchy, and flaky from a well-timed eczema eruption (hello anxiety and perfunctory personal hygiene!). My clothes had not been fresh when I’d thrown them on Tuesday morning, and were not fooling anyone 24 hours later into thinking I was clean or well put together.
We kept Papi’s half of the room dim. The window by his bed overlooked the lights of Journal Square and Secaucus, bright against the night sky. There were no distracting laptops nor phones nor televisions; the only screens that glowed were those of the medical monitors and devices. Shielded by the room-dividing curtain from the mumbler grumbler in the next bed who kept trying to take out his IV, it felt like it was just Papi and me sitting so close on that bed in front of the window. We talked about the meal, how it compared to past meals at Christ Hospital, to Mami’s cooking (we agreed: no comparison). We talked about my various in-progress writing projects. Papi reminded me to jot down the numbers of his shared room, those on the monitors, and on his wrist band. He was sure at least one would hit… because, as every boricua knows, nothing is luckier and most likely to win a jackpot than a number found in a hospital. We talked, just the two of us, filling silences with old, long-standing jokes. And we knew when it was better to be silent and just be together. We were two people, with a shared lifetime, able to anticipate so much about the other.
The meal was not gourmet. Neither Papi nor I were at our prettiest. The ambience was challenged. However, the intimacy made that shared hospital dinner delicious. That and our past hospital meals have often been just the two of us, unguarded and vulnerable, which we rarely are in our real lives outside of the hospital. With each other, we know we can be. Papi is 83. I’m 45. Both adults, but neither of us superheroes. We can’t make everything all better, no matter what we think of our powers and abilities, and no matter how hard we try. At the moments of those hospital meals, though, being together is all it takes to make our world right, just for that moment.
That’s so yogic. And Papi has always been a real character, like another Yogi. Papi has given me plenty to think about and reflect on, over his most recent hospital stay and throughout my life. I’m grateful that he’s home, recovering, and still able to anticipate and know so much about me, and still able to surprise me with his resilience, strength, humor, and insight after all these years.
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