Someone is ringing the doorbell with insistence and beating on the door.
Enter S., my parents’ formidable 80-year-old neighbor, a tornado in human format who decided on a whim my stepmom should have the night off from cooking. S. is bearing a giant pot of soup and a smaller one containing ratatouille because she felt The Vegan — i.e. me, complete with caps to underline the strangeness of my eating habits — deserved something special.
This is a measure of how thoughtful and solicitous S. is.
Since September 2018, my parents have fighting off my stepmom’s stage 4 cancer and some days are easier than others. The fight is a team effort and S. is part of the team, along with our family and my parents’ extensive social circle.
At the time, I’ve only met S. once and I’m blown away by such kindness, which the woman seems to embody. “Nice to meet you at last! I love your parents,” is the first thing she ever said to me.
Her gift of homemade food means a lot; it is an acknowledgement of our fight, an act of love, and human warmth made edible.
This form of culinary communication is also deeply ingrained in our culture; many of us in Europe still cook from scratch and harbor a healthy disdain of junk food.
In many French households like ours, food is still a means of self-expression, a way to nurture those you love by ensuring they eat well.
My stepmom is a formidable cook, my stepbrother is a classically trained chef, my father is a bon vivant, and I, well, like to eat a lot of vegetables.
And since I came back from the US, my parents have become endlessly knowledgeable about tofu, nutritional yeast, and where to buy the best nuts.
Fast forward a few months and I’m spending some time away from Paris in Amsterdam.
Although I’ve been working on rebuilding a life word by word for almost a year now, living out of a suitcase is catching up with me. The more pieces of my shattered self I put back together, the harder it gets to process the five years I spent wondering how best to die.
The contrast between life as it is now and life was it was then frequently gets unbearable as I struggle to process and understand what happened. And how I could let it happen for so long without pushing back or why I gave up on myself so completely.
Part of getting well involves facing up to innumerable inconvenient truths.
For example, the loss of romantic love and the gradual erosion of self-worth aren’t only linked to depression but also to a marriage that looks like it’s made of empty air. Although I’ve had to detach from it to function again, it is a non-negligible source of pain that continues to impact my interactions with others.
Having internalized worthlessness, I have a hard time accepting anyone might mean me well without having a hidden agenda. If happiness is a side-effect of being among kindred spirits who value connection and care, it also causes my brain to short-circuit on a regular basis.
I am not used to safe places nor to humans who do not recoil when faced with unredacted humanness. The freedom to be fully oneself without fear of judgment is a habit I’ve been trying to relearn since I arrived in Amsterdam. Despite steady handholding and more kindness and patience than I’ve ever been on the receiving end of, I crash hard after a few days.
So hard I see my life collapse again like a house of cards as the rabbit hole starts closing in on me.
Reaching out when in the throes of mental turmoil is nigh on impossible.
Even when language is your vocation and you’re a communicator at heart, the depressive mind can quickly become a jail cell. Words elude you, looking a fellow human in the eye is difficult, and much as you might desperately need a hug, chances are you’re unable to ask for one.
Unless those around you are keenly attuned to your distress, you could find yourself cut off from the world in an instant.
This was my default for five years so when I caught a glimpse of the past on Saturday afternoon, I went into a blind panic that nearly had me pack my bags and leave.
There’s nothing more terrifying than illness swooping down on me because I don’t think I’ll have the strength to pull myself out of it again.
I’m not a tank. That I’m still upright against all odds is thanks to stubborn genes, necessity, and good people.
But the people element part of the equation is one I have issues with as the one person I trusted to have my back “in sickness and in health” did not. Having convinced myself people are by definition unreliable, this is what I expect rather than the opposite.
And yet, I’m keenly aware of the urgent need to fight against what could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If I disregard all that is good in my life right now, I could end up destroying it by paying more heed to unfounded doubt than to the evidence of benevolence.
This benevolence is all around me, it has been holding me together for months, it has now given me a safe place, and it is even protecting me from myself.
Wiping a face that panic has liquefied, I gingerly make my way to the kitchen.
Nothing, not even my meltdown, can detract benevolence from soup making.
I watch nimble fingers throw herbs and spices into a pot following a recipe created on the fly. Intuitive cooking is how I too prepare food and witnessing kitchen magic fills me with so much joy I’d like to freeze-frame this moment forever.
Kindness is a pinch of this, tenderness is a pinch of that, patience comes through in the steady hands peeling and chopping ingredients.
Much as I want to curl up into a ball on the sofa and lick my wounds, I take a deep breath and offer to help instead. Cooking has always had a meditative effect on me, and although I never engage in it when upset, right now it might just help me steady my nerves.
Thus begins a strange choreography of hands and knives and spoons. Our gestures complement one another as we fall into step effortlessly and our respective cultures blend into one dish.
Despite appearances, there’s nothing quotidian nor commonplace about preparing this meal. By the time the soup is ready, I swear you can taste all the tender loving care, enthusiasm, and commitment that went into making it.
It is so delicious I have no words, only a huge grin stretching from ear to ear and gentle “Hmmmm” sounds of delight. Being taken care of in such a heartfelt way demolishes my defenses. I am so naked, exposed, and vulnerable I fear I might self-combust on the spot.
All because the acknowledgement and human warmth I’ve yearned for during those dark years are right here in a bowl.
“You made me soup,” are the only words that successfully make it out of my mouth between repressed sobs. But what I mean to convey is a lot closer to “Thank you for giving me the moon on a stick.”
Life is a collection of ordinary moments; woven together, they lead to contentment, joy, and random bursts of happiness.
Food is wordless communication; food is love made manifest and permanent since we need it to survive and thrive.
If we are indeed what we eat, we are also what we feed others.
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.