I found my calling at Whole Foods.
Fourteen years ago, one of my kids developed anaphylactic allergies to nuts, and the other was diagnosed with celiac disease and ulcerative colitis. These issues required a stringent diet that forbid not only gluten (which, back then, almost no one had heard of) but sugars, starches, grains and nonfermented dairy.
Whole Foods was my only hope.
It took an hour of shopping — cross-referencing allergen pamphlets, reading labels, and calling manufacturers — before I realized: Whole Foods did not carry any packaged items that were gluten-free, starch-free, grain-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, and nut-free, which probably meant they didn’t exist at all. An employee who’d been helping me said, “Processed foods are terrible for you, anyway. You just need simple dishes with whole foods. Easy!,” and proceeded to describe how to make “spaghetti” (which I’d said was my kids’ favorite) — by steaming spaghetti squash and gently teasing out the strands with a fork.
I wanted to tell her the truth — that I’m a horrible cook who could no more use a fork to gently scrape spaghetti strands out of squash than I could use a fork to gently take contacts out of my eyes — but I thanked her, stretched my lips into what I hoped resembled a smile and plopped a squash into the cart.
It dawned on me then that I’d need to make every breakfast, lunch, dinner and even snacks from scratch. I pressed my chest into the cart handle to quell my rising panic, but images of all that we’d been through with our children overwhelmed me — my toddler’s tiny face swollen nearly beyond recognition, one eye shut, after a bite of peanut chicken; the raw, animal wail from my other son, waking after surgery.
Just as the tears started falling, I heard, “Angie? Is that you?” And there was Kathy, a fellow mom from a local playgroup. I considered hiding, but before I knew it, she was enveloping me in a hug, asking what was wrong, and I was telling her. She listened and told me about a mutual friend whose son had recently developed life-threatening allergies and how she’d been crying in Whole Foods, Safeway, Giant, everywhere. Soon, we were laughing about gently forking squash, and I felt better.
The act of telling my story out loud and hearing about another’s experience made me feel not only less alone, but strangely, less overwhelmed.
When I got home, I made faux spaghetti using the squash. It took me four hours. Predictably, the “gently teasing out the strands” plan didn’t go well, and I ended up scooping out blobs of squash meat that didn’t resemble any type of pasta. The only reason the kids ate it (with much gagging) was because I’d bribed them with unlimited TV if they’d please just swallow and not throw up.
It was past 9 when I got them in bed. I felt exhausted and, worse, incompetent — a bad cook, a bad homemaker, a bad mother. There was much to do — my husband was away, and dirty dishes and globs of food littered the kitchen. But I ignored it all and opened my laptop. I suddenly knew I had to write. I wrote a vignette of the moments that most haunted me from my four years as a mother to kids with a dizzying array of medical issues. I wrote in the same way I poured out my story to Kathy. That was the first time I realized the cathartic, seductive power of putting words on paper.
Which is to say, that was the night I fell in love with writing and started to become more me in the midst of all the worry.
My turn to fiction came after another medical diagnosis, this time for my third child: microcephaly (“small head”). His head circumference as a baby was alarmingly small and could be due to irregular brain development, skull abnormalities that would require brain surgery, or perhaps nothing. We wouldn’t know until he got older.
By this time, three years since that Whole Foods episode, I’d written essays about my experience navigating my kids’ medical issues. But something had stopped me from submitting them, putting them out for public consumption. I’d told myself that my essays were about me, my parenting experience, not about my kids — not their thoughts, personalities, or friendships. But this latest wrinkle in our family’s medical journey brought into focus the real problem with these essays. If I published that piece I wrote about the moment I googled “microcephaly,” and my son ended up having neurological deficits, how would he feel, reading that I, his mother, grieved him being who he was rather than some other, so-called normal person? How would his brothers feel? My husband? Yes, my essay was focused on my feelings. And yet, it wasn’t just my story. Did I have the right to share it without everyone’s permission, including the kids’, which, given their young ages, they couldn’t possibly give?
I decided I couldn’t submit my parenting essays for publication. But I kept thinking of the mothers like me, standing in the middle of Whole Foods, crying. I wanted to tell them every shameful thought I’d had in that moment — the hatred and envy of the other moms who were gallivanting around, squeezing melons and tasting different cheeses, the momentary wondering of why I’d had kids, then the instant shame of having thought such an unmotherly thought. I wanted to rail, be painfully honest about how hard it is to be a Good Mother and how sometimes, you have ugly thoughts you can’t say out loud.
That’s when I turned to fiction. I started slowly, by taking an essay and changing our actual lives into a parallel-world me, making different decisions than I had. Through the fictional me, I explored my pain and angst, and I felt that same release, the sense of having shared something of my experience with others who would hopefully read my words and feel less alone. The first story I wrote like this was about a mother who spends her days making faux spaghetti out of squash. It was funny and a little bitter, and it got accepted by the first magazine I submitted it to, Roxane Gay’s PANK.
When I brainstormed ideas for a possible novel, I thought of the community of families I’d encountered in our medical journey. They’d had rich, moving stories that I wished I could write about, but didn’t want to invade their privacy. By creating fictional characters, I could take bits and pieces of different families’ experiences, including mine, and conflate, mix, shape, intensify, until they became completely different people altogether. I could render them into stories that belong to no real person and, in the process, belong to everyone.
The kids are older now. The ulcerative colitis is gone, as is the microcephaly concern, with the doctors having determined that he just has a pointy, thin head (which, it turns out, I have as well). We’ve talked about everyone’s medical histories as a family and set guidelines, such as not using the kids’ names and running everything by them and my husband first. And with all that in place, I can and will tell more and more of my and my family’s story.
In the meantime, my debut novel, which tells the stories of families involved in a medical experimental therapy, was recently published. Throughout this publication process, my most gratifying moments have been receiving messages from early readers who have experienced medical issues with their children, saying how much it’s helped to see the characters have the same thoughts they’ve had, to know that what they’re feeling is normal.
That’s why I started writing, why I turned to fiction, why I found this calling that started in Whole Foods. I want to help mothers like the woman I was, shopping for squash. And if I can do that, if I can help to build even a pinch of empathy for this overburdened group of parents, I’ll have accomplished something I can be proud of.