Slow Cooking

The sangrias were made at ten in the morning. Lemons, limes, melon, rum, white wine, sugar, ice. By the time the juice from large glass pitcher was transferred into a thick white thermos and brought down to the beach, six hours later, the fruit no longer tasted like itself and more like the rum it was bathed in. By the time the ribs, slow cooking in the low temperature oven, were ready for the final grilling touches, the saturated fruit was all gone and the straight, unadulterated wine was flowing.

There were at least 20 people in the house for dinner. There were so many relatives coming and going, it was difficult to get an actual head count at any single point in time. The hosts: Eddie and Maddy had two sons, 19 and 16. Eddie’s cousins, six siblings, were visiting for a week. The characters:

Paul and his girlfriend, who was best friends with his ex-wife, and his two sons, 17 and 13, from that marriage

Lizzie, a nurse, and her husband, a doctor, with three children, two boys, 17 and 16, and one girl, 13

Mary, divorced, a math teacher, with her two boys, 17 and 16

Joe, who talks too loudly and sets his wrist watch alarm to keep track of the hours and might have a drinking problem, and nobody is quite certain what he does for a living

Taylor, single, adjunct chemistry professor at three community colleges, long gray hair and a new hip

June, the oldest daughter, born with the umbilical cord around her neck and forever retarded, except when she became developmentally disabled, will, like the child she is, be in the water for hours

Their mother is also visiting for the week. She is a 91-year old motorcyclist who arrived with shopping bags full of books, mysteries, for all to read

You count it up.  If it doesn’t add up to twenty, it is because the visitors who just happen to drop in, aren’t included in the list. There’s reading, talking, gossiping, swimming, biking, jet skiing, sleeping, dancing, laughing, story telling, tubing behind the jet skis, sitting on the floating mat, wrestling on the floating mat, running on the floating mat, walking on the beach, setting up the beach umbrellas (Eddie takes charge of that task, which is impressive, considering his illness), photographing, painting of toenails (the only teenage girl takes charge of that, all gendered toes are painted yellow or blue), cooking, a bit of sweeping and washing dishes, and the clutter – of homeless, unzipped suitcases, coolers of beer and soda, board games in progress, dropped wet towels, shoes and flip flops – remains untouched.

Maddy has finished her 30 mile bike ride and runs down the flight of stairs beach to see Eddie, who has set up five beach umbrellas and is sitting in his chair, clip board, holding folded stacks of unfinished newspaper crossword puzzles, in his lap.

“Need anything?” she asks.

He scowls. She hopes he is thinking.

“Water.” He hands her his bottle.

“How about lunch? Can I make you a sandwich?”

“I’m not hungry. I have my cookies. What’s everybody doing?”

“Beats me!” She laughs. Maddy heads back to the house and Eddie shuts his eyes.

Slowly, the group descends to the beach, the chairs in a circle. Paul grabs another beach umbrella, jabs the pole in the sand, and pushes it back and forth to wedge it in. As he is placing the umbrella on top, Eddie tells him he has to dig a deeper hole or the wind will yank the pole up.

“Okay,” says Paul. Eddie turns his whole body to watch Paul. His neck is stiff.

Lizzie asks him if his neck is sore. He tells her the tumors are throughout his spine and into his lower neck. It hurts to turn his neck. She nods and then shakes her head. She asks him if he doesn’t mind talking about it. He tells her he likes to talk about the cancer. It helps him think about it and understand it better. He has a rare cancer: one in a thousand has this kind of pancreatic cancer. There are so many types of pancreatic cancer. Mine is like Steve Jobs, he says, only different. This new treatment, that they didn’t think I would be eligible for, they told me there was nothing left for me to do, but then I am accepted into two different programs. One is immune therapy. The other is more chemo. There was a 3% chance of getting into the first program; 30% chance of getting into the other. I got into both. Might give me another year.

Maddy has returned to the beach.

“Anybody want chips? Popcorn?  Anybody want to lay out on the raft with me?”

Eddie talks about his hair and how he likes how it has grown in. He didn’t really like being bald, but now he looks like he has a great hair cut. Nice graying around the edges.

“Remember on our first rafting trip,” interrupts Maddy, “when we all went overboard except Lizzie? You held on so tight. Screaming. And we all came up laughing.”

Eddie says the doctor never believed him that there was something really wrong. It was more than just a ‘tummy ache’.  For a year he told me it was nothing.  I like the guy and for some reason I still trust him. He feels pretty bad.

Maddy walks to the water. Eddie asks her if she brought his water bottle back. Oh man, she forgot. She even put it in the freezer to get it really cold. She’ll go get it. Never mind, he replies. He will probably go to the house soon and take a rest. I don’t mind, she says. I’ll be right back. Anybody else need anything from the house?

The boys, Eddie continues, say they want to take a leave of absence from school. To do what? Watch me die for a year? I don’t think so. Maddy and I want everything to feel as normal as possible. I feel fine. A few aches and pains and I get tired. But I feel better now than before they discovered the cancer, that’s for sure.  Oncology doesn’t quite know what to make of me. My humor. The fact that I am still alive. I am hoping for a miracle. Really.

Eddie frowns, not with a downturn of his mouth but with a crease between his eyes that are hidden by sunglasses.

Later in the afternoon, when the sangrias are pouring, Maddy tells the story of her wedding dress and how none of the past generation dresses fit her, even though she was a skinny little thing, her mother and aunts were even skinnier, and how they all laughed as she tried to get into the satin dresses until finally one fit, almost perfectly, and it was perfect but if you look at the pictures of her wedding, the breeze was so strong, pushing the fabric against her, it looks like she isn’t wearing anything.

After the ribs have been devoured, the adults (or as one teenager says, the drunk mothers at the end of the table) start a party game: write down what you would do with 100 million dollars, don’t sign it, and put it in this bowl. We’ll read the answers and try to guess who wrote it.

Maddy writes: I would get Brazilian waxes for all the men at the table.  She keeps her face still as a stone while the group tries to guess who wrote it. They think it brilliantly funny.

Mary takes a slice of blueberry pie to June, who had been by herself in a back bedroom through out dinner.

“Lizzie,” Mary screams and rushes back into the room. “June is in a diabetic shock.”

Mary’s screams were joined by June’s screams of ‘Help me. Help me. I am in pain. Help.’

The blueberry and peach pie desert plates are abandoned as June’s siblings, the nurse, the doctor, the teacher, the spouses, the motorcycle mother, and Maddy rush into the small hallway and first floor back bedroom and crowd around the writhing convulsing developmentally disabled woman. Eddie had already gone to bed.

Six years ago, Maddy lived with her mother for two weeks, as her mother died. She would wake in the middle of the night or in the early morning to her mother’s mournful cry for more morphine. Maddy would inject her mother on demand, not on the recommended schedule, over the hospice nurse’s objections and then fired the hospice nurse. 15 years ago, Maddy observed her father’s slow, debilitating death. She has learned, through Eddie, to face death with humor (Brazilian waxes).

June’s 91-year old mother found the insulin EpiPen she had packed and hands it to Taylor. He squints at the label, trying to find the directions on how to use it. He has no idea. Mary grabs the pen from him and reads the label and then screams, again, she screams, Lizzie, is this right? Should we inject her with insulin? No, shouts Lizzie back at her. Not insulin. That would kill her. Somebody, is it the doctor, says she needs sugar. Sugar on her gums. Somebody runs out of the room to get the sugar. June keeps screaming, Help. Somebody yells honey, get honey. Somebody else runs out of the room to look for honey. Nobody can find any honey in all the kitchen cabinets. Maple syrup. I’ve got maple syrup. Try maple syrup. June keeps screaming. Sugar water. Try sugar water. If we can’t get this under control, we’ll need to call 911. June yells that she wants to go home. Eddie wakes up; he had just fallen asleep when he heard the commotion. He races into the kitchen, opening up and slamming the cabinets, grabbing a glass, looking for honey. Someone pours the juice from the blueberry pie into another glass and takes it into the room. Honey, we need honey. The teenagers stand in front of the closed bedroom door. What should we do? Nothing. Mary comes out of the room, hyperventilating. Like a good sister, she claims that June is just acting out because she didn’t get enough attention today. And then says, I could have killed her. If I had injected her with that insulin pen, I would have killed her. We need honey. A spouse comes out of the room. How could they have brought the wrong medicine? Somebody needs to check on the mother. She’s 91, after all. You all need a better plan. Eddie shouts: I found the honey. Here’s the honey and runs into the bedroom. Put it on her gums, says the doctor. Smear it on her gums.

Finally. June is quiet. Lizzie comes out of the room, finds a bowl of left-over pasta, smothers it with butter and microwaves it. Now June needs carbohydrates. The teenagers have taken themselves down to the beach, with a cooler of beer.

Maddy comes out of the room for the first time. She faces the wall and wraps her arms around her head for extra support. Everyone is in the kitchen, sweeping, cleaning, talking, breathing, exclaiming, opening another bottle of wine.

Maddy climbs the stairs to their small bedroom. Eddie is under the covers.

“It’s happened before,” he says. “It happened when we were all together at the ocean. She went into diabetic shock. Remember? It didn’t seem to take as long to get it under control.”

And it will happen again.

She wants to slap Eddie across his ageing face. Or maybe she wants to slap her own stoic face.

She lies down, without undressing, on the lumpy, musty mattress that belonged to her parents while they lived in this white cabin on the shores of Lake Michigan. With one arm crooked over her face to steady the room and her other arm resting gently against Eddie’s side, she wonders if 100 million dollars could cure cancer.

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