In middle and high school, I used to fall ill, and this is not a metaphor. My body collapsed, as if a puppeteer had suddenly abandoned the strings. I spent months lolling in my parents’ bed, watching movies and sleeping. My room didn’t have a TV or my favorite music box, the one with the ballerinas, stiff-skirted and precise. When I needed to go to the bathroom, I rolled to the edge of my parents’ mattress, flopped on the floor, and crawled along the gray-green feet-flattened track of carpet.
Fevered, dizzy, disoriented.
Too sick to walk, that’s how sick I was. Too sick, even, to think.
Sometimes, before I got to the lip of the dressing room, my mother materialized. The thump of my body hitting the ground had alerted her to my intention. She rushed from her life to mine, offering her hands, her body, her adult strength. I let her lift me, pull me, prop me.
Am I going to die? I remember asking her a few times.
She told me I’d be fine. I’m not sure she believed herself, though.
During those agonizing and terrifying weeks, my mom appeared in the room she had ceded to me. With bundles of homework a friend had sent home. With movies from Curry, the rental store that kept track of all the ins and outs with handwritten ledgers, a mix of Disney and grownup comedies. Also with trays of food for me to pick my way through. Crackers and cheese, apples and thin-sliced carrots. Hot spinach sprinkled with lemon. Green soup filled with ribbons of noodles.
In case you’re hungry.
If you’re feeling up to it.
At one point, my mom discovered a vitamin molasses supplement and wrote away for bottles of it. She urged spoonfuls down my gullet—a cure!—and with the zeal of the terrified, I ingested daily the noxious thick promise. It didn’t taste like hope, it tasted like despair. Like my mother had finally answered my question more truthfully, not in words, but with her intense belief in this reputedly magic formula.
And then, a miracle: One day, I got better. I could stand, stretch, walk.
Until the next bout, the next dizzy spell, the next fever.
My mother cooked for my dad and me for years, a duty more than a love, but during these sick times, she approached the task with fervor. The right protein, the right vegetables, a snack of this, a daub of that: Perhaps loving, in this way, would cure her only daughter.
Peanut butter sandwiches. Bologna from the butcher on Broad Street. Dripping sharp-edged pentagons carved from sweet melon.
You must be hungry.
Have one more bite and then I’ll take it away.
I imagine my mother in the kitchen, blinking salty tears into the frying pan to season an egg that she would scramble and carry upstairs to my pasty, not-hungry mouth.
It was diagnosed as ear infections, flu, mono, or a virus called CMV. The prescription was: bed. School and friends were forbidden. My mother continued to ply me with milk, juice, iceberg lettuce, with promises on the brown tray that my energy would return. I picked at all of it, a gentle sip, another bite. Better yet? She would bring a few items at a time, retreat, come back for the dishes, measure how much was gone and call that hope.
My mother believed in the doctor’s fancy degree, taking his authority over her own when it came to my health. But I think I burned myself from the inside. I worried: about friends, about boys, about whether anyone besides my parents would understand me and still like me. I refused to fail, so I kept trying all sorts of things I had no talent for, flinging myself into the world to prove myself to myself, until my body collapsed and my mother helped me into bed. I swallowed the love she brought upstairs to me until I felt well enough to climb out of bed, pick up all my existing and imagined responsibilities, and go.
I kept collapsing through college, my early jobs, even through the early days of motherhood. There’s no end to this tale, or a diagnosis that puts it all into context. I’m clearer about how to take care of myself. My kids are old enough that I can go to sleep at the same time they do, or sometimes earlier. I traded the molasses supplement for my naturopath’s recommendations, and team sports for a simple yoga practice. I built a small business I can manage from bed, if I need to, as long as my laptop has battery.
And just recently, after years of my husband being the primary cook, I have taken over the daily meal planning and preparation. Kneading dough that will become bagels tomorrow, stirring complex sauces, and chopping veggies—another way to nourish my daughters, another way to tell them: You matter. I’m even tending a sourdough starter, taking care of it so it will feed us.
My girls don’t agree on taste or texture, and they have different health needs. I chop cauliflower and set some uncooked pieces aside for the one who likes her veggies raw; I roast the rest with olive oil and a dash of salt. One loves nuts; the other plugs her nose if a nut comes anywhere near her plate. They’ll both eat soup, but different kinds. I set aside ingredients as I build our adult meals—sauceless noodles, crispy slices of raw bell pepper, generous dollops of hummus, small mounds of shredded cheese, plain romaine—sure that the children will, at least, devour these with joy.
When my daughters are sick or too overwhelmed to carry themselves through the ritual of dinner, I bring a tray of home-cooked food to their rooms, tell them it’s okay, they will feel better tomorrow, or the day after, and here, maybe this will taste good to you right now.
Laura Stanfill is the publisher of Forest Avenue Press in Portland, Oregon.
A Teen Sickbed Tray
Serve two or three options per visit to the sickbed, mix-and-match style, with regard to the teen’s preferences, mood, sore-throat status, and degree of sickness.
Peel and thin-slice carrots.
Slice apples. Skinned, if preferred.
Make homemade soup. Or pop a can, heat, and put into a mug with one ice cube. Or tear open a packet of noodles and broth, add hot water, stir. The salt, you hope, is a balm.
Make creamy noodles with chicken and offer a small reheated portion at a time.
Deliver cooked spinach, bright tasting with lemon (for the throat).
Try chips—salty! But too abrasive? You can ask. You can try.
Spoon applesauce into a custard cup. Serve with a tiny spoon.
Make tea. Suggest coffee if the teen complains of a headache. Offer both and/or a cold glass of apple juice.
Put two cookies on a napkin—is sugar even tempting?
Deliver some version of this snack-meal every three hours, knowing it’s not food so much as a tray full of hope, of get-better, please-be-hungry wishes that keep you up in the middle of the night.
Tiptoe back out of the room if the teen is sleeping.
Check clock. Go upstairs. Check the tray. Remove the empty bowls. Refill with new options.
Return, return, return.