It was that time of day when the light would retreat from the room. The close of the workday. The dinner hour. The heater would kick on, and I’d approach the kitchen.
As I wrapped my hand around the refrigerator handle, my mind would take an inevitable journey: I’d see myself cook dinner, my children would eat said dinner, and they would become violently ill as a result of eating this dinner. I would rush them to the hospital, but it would be too late; they would die. All this before I even heard the suck of the refrigerator door opening.
Every night my throat would tighten and the pain in my chest would kick in. The panic attacking. Peter wasn’t coming home.
For more than 20 years, my husband had been in charge of dinner. When we moved in together, we had practical discussions — whether to leave the shower curtain opened or closed after use, which way to hang toilet paper — and divvied up the chores. Peter got dinner: planning, shopping and cooking. I got everything else from toilets to taxes. My husband lucked out in that his household responsibility turned out not to be a chore but a passion. None of mine developed as such.
Over the years, Peter went through cooking phases. Shortly after we got married, his father sent copies of his handwritten recipes, including my favorite, Hungarian goulash, which Peter perfectly replicated. After we had children, he moved from the mini-cookbooks at supermarket counters to Cook’s Illustrated. He bought cooking gadgets and used them! When he returned from a business trip to Italy, he became obsessed with their food and began trying dishes from different regions, pairing them with the appropriate wine. For a few years, he cooked a different type of cuisine — French, Mexican, Irish — each month. We enjoyed his cooking, and he was excited and enthusiastic to be doing it. Many a friend was jealous that my husband cooked dinner every night and not just ordinary fare.
Dinner was his favorite part of the day. After a full day of work he would walk through the door around 6:30 p.m., grocery bags in hand and always with a plan. Often that dinner didn’t get on the table until 9 p.m. and we’d all be cranky with hunger, but the food would be delicious. Pork loin cooked to pink perfection, smooth pureed parsnips, green beans the kids would eat. We would have to admit it had been worth the wait.
While Peter loved to cook, he was also very territorial about his kitchen. Mostly because he had a plan. I couldn’t just grab anything from the fridge. I had to check with him: Can I use this cucumber? This yogurt? Often the answer was no; it was a designated dinner ingredient. In the same way, I couldn’t spontaneously invite people for dinner, because he’d purchased the exact amount of fish for our family of four. Gourmets tend to be precise. His cooking endeavors were a solo routine for the most part, although he’d begun training the children. My efforts weren’t required. Occasionally he’d call, before leaving the office, and ask me to put on a pot of water. Upon arrival, he’d check that I did it right. For this I teased him mercilessly.
When my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the question he asked of me again and again was: How are you going to feed them? Feeding them, feeding us, had always been Peter’s job. I’d been spoiled for decades by not having to think of the last and hardest meal of the day. It’s not that I couldn’t cook, but I wasn’t the cook he was. He was irreplaceable. Chef was a role he cherished, a daily expression of his creativity and his love.
Now, the dinner hour arrived and Peter did not come through the front door, grocery bags in hand with a plan. It was just me staring into the refrigerator, wondering: How are you going to feed them?
Six months after my husband died, I took a class in mindfulness and stress reduction. One of the skills they taught was: “Stop. Breathe. Be.” Throughout the day, you’re supposed to stop in the middle of a conversation or while running errands or chasing your children around and breathe. You watch your breath — in and out — a few times and check in with your body. I tried this one night when I approached the kitchen, the tension already building in my chest. I stopped, took a few breaths, and found myself saying: In this moment, everything is okay. In this moment, no one is dying. No one is dying.
For nearly two years it had been true — someone had been dying. For those many months, I would wake in the middle of the night and check for my husband’s breath. With each dinner up until the final meal, I wondered if he would live to make this dish again. Gazpacho was the last food he fed us.
So there I stood in the kitchen, my hands pressed into the cool marble counter, steadying myself as I breathed in and out again. In this moment, everything is okay, and it is true. No one is dying. I would not kill my children through incompetent cooking, even if I had to overcook the pork to be safe. Dinner would probably always be a chore for me, but it was one I could do. Eventually I learned to see the dinnertime thought-loop of sickness and death, the panic attack, coming toward me, and I’d shut it down: Stop. Breathe. Cook. That was how I fed my children.