Growing up in the South, I have witnessed the covered dish in all its forms: church social, holiday picnic, family reunion, and sick friend. It was the answer to all ills and the basis of any reason to gather. Yet, until recently, I never quite appreciated its ability to nourish the spirit.
This summer, I almost lost my husband. An autoimmune disease easily controlled for several years began a slow, persistent march in the face of an ever-increasing variety and dosage of medicines. The discomfort of April devolved into overwhelming concern by July. After two trips to the emergency room in two days, we saw another specialist in his disease area who, in the calmest way possible, told us she was alarmed enough at his condition that she was calling an ambulance to take him back to the hospital, though we’d just left the ER for the second time only a few hours before. The hospital was one block away, but she was not comfortable with him even walking that far.
For a good portion of the following 97 days, my husband’s life hung in the balance. Attempts at treatment turned into emergency surgery. This led to enormous complications: a worse-than-expected deterioration of his condition, bleeding from internal damage and two weeks of induced coma while he underwent surgery after surgery, after surgery. Infection in the surgical area was accompanied by sepsis of the blood and followed by a list of other horrors. Malnourishment from 50 days of only intravenous “nutrition” made it difficult for his body to heal. It was the worst thing that has ever happened to either of us. I hope nothing ever beats it for that top spot.
While there were more questionable days than I care to remember, this story does have a happy ending. Fortunately for us, our blessings came in many forms. One of the most surprising was the covered dish. As a good Southern friend of my husband’s said to me, in times like these you feel compelled to make a casserole.
For the duration of his stay –more than three months– I was at the hospital every second I was allowed, and many for which I wasn’t. During the darkest weeks, it would have been easy to lose all grip on life but, behind the scenes, so many wonderful neighbors were helping out. I’d come home each night to a stale and empty house but when I opened the refrigerator it would be filled with reminders of the people who love us. You see, a neighbor had told people that if they wanted to do something for us then they could stock the fridge with food. Another neighbor was collecting and bringing it over during the day.
It was nourishment for the body and the soul. I never once had to eat in the hospital cafeteria, which was certainly nice. But more importantly, as I’d eat each delicious meal, it would make me think of the person who prepared it and the liveliness of their home. It is hard to explain, but it was like a reminder of the warm, domestic routine to which we would eventually return after escaping the stress, uncertainty and sterility of the hospital.
This action fed my body, arresting my own wasting-away from helplessness, fear and worry. But, more importantly, these thoughts and the daily, tangible connection to all the people who were thinking of us, fed my spirit. I was then able to turn around and give that warmth, hope and steadfastness of spirit to my husband. It helped save us both.
Once my husband recovered enough to eat, I began to bring enough food from home for him too. There were also contributions from chef kids, homemade “Get Well Soon” cards and drawings to accompany the meals and, sometimes, special deliveries of favorite dishes to the hospital during the day. Doctors and nurses noticed the difference – a piece of Capitol Hill had sprung up in a hospital room in Foggy Bottom. Even when my husband was too sick for any visitors aside from family, his room was full to bursting with the people who were doing the one thing they could to remind us we were loved and had a stadium full of cheerleaders who, like us, would never give up.
My husband has been home for over a month now and he will, thankfully, make a full recovery. Miracles come in so many forms and I am now fortunate to have witnessed several. But none was more surprising, or welcome, than those delivered in the innocuous form of the covered dish.