Last Saturday my youngest brother Chris died. An hour later I was standing in his kitchen making a pot of chili. My other brother Dan, also emotionally exhausted and sitting at the dining table, gazed at me silently as I stirred the pot on the stove.
"It's something I can do," I said.
Twenty-one years ago, when our first son Evan was born, the women of our local church showed up at our door with fully prepared meals, ready to be heated and eaten, or frozen for dinner another night in the days and weeks ahead. Wrapped in aluminum foil, with tabs of tape and simple instructions, ("Heat for one hour at 350 degrees"), these casseroles were a godsend when my husband and I, ecstatic and nervous new parents, simply had no brain cells left over for cooking, after learning how to care for a tiny infant who riveted our attention and commandeered our lives and hearts.
It was such a surprise, this unexpected blessing of food from other homes and hands. How did they know that the regular, unthinking routines of grocery shopping, cooking and eating were going to be eclipsed and oddly cumbersome, as if we had suddenly forgotten how to brush our teeth? But they did know, just as neighbors and co-workers and communities of all religious faiths have known, ever since the first cave persons brought a torch and a bundle of food to the cave next door. They know because they've been through it too.
Chris was only 49 years old when he lost his battle with cancer. He died peacefully in his home, with his wife Anne and his family by his side. I was blessed to be there, to cook chili and bring cupcakes for the neighbors who would show up and cry with us. Those of us who loved Chris are truly helpless in so many ways, yet we can bring the gift of our presence to one another, and we can feed each other, in body and spirit. We can make a sandwich or bake a cookie or bring a box of take-out from the deli. We can pray, and we can remember. And that counts for something. Indeed, it may be all that counts in the end.
Food is about daily sustenance, celebrations, traditions and pleasure. It is also about comfort, especially in times of grief. And whether the food is served at a picnic or a wake, it is always an offering of love.
"The Divine has no body on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which the Divine compassion is to look out to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now."
--Teresa of Avila