Monday, January 17, 2011

BREAD OF HEAVEN

The snow clouds that only threatened yesterday are making good today on their promises: it's beginning to snow outside and I can see this clearly from the hospital window where I have taken up my second-morning vigil. Large, irregular-shaped flakes are slamming wetly against the panes already and the nursing staff arriving for the day shift are pink-cheeked and glad to be indoors. The morning temps are hovering around 20 degrees and, while there's no wind today, it's damp and cold and miserable out there: a good day to be inside, out of the weather of the day. Or so they tell me.

So then, why do I want to be out there in it myself? Or, rather, to be well enough again to be out there in it, to be part of the whole rushing, slushy, wintry morning and those who are traveling miserably through it. There is nothing like a brush with serious illness to make you see something that ridiculous, this clearly.

Sitting here in the high-backed chair at the prow-front windows of my fourth-floor room, looking down on the streets and the hills far off to the west that I can only barely make out now in the early flurries of the day, I think this early-morning view may still be one of the most beatific I've seen in a long while. The city seems wrapped in its soft gray flannel and the streets are shining with snowmelt already. The dullness of the day makes the particulars of all the small bright things stand out today starkly so that I notice them when I didn't yesterday: tail-lights and brake-lights on the commuter's cars, the bright green wreaths on the door and windows of the house below me, and the elementary school children in their bright parkas and boots, walking down the sidewalks together towards school. And that little church with the wooden cross on its front – the Lebanon Wesleyan Church – which has a sign out front that reads, "Many an argument is sound – and only sound."

I've been puzzling on that one this morning. Do they mean "noise," as in full of sound and fury? Or do they mean "solid," as in sound of mind? Or are they implying that being sound is just not sufficient unto itself? That's the problem, I suppose, with signs and bumper-sticker slogans and their employment of clever twists and turns of phrase: it's so easy for the meaning to slide right past you and to saunter on down the block.

Farther down the block, the rowhouses still gleam in their bright colors but today they look wet – as if some painterly hand has just laid on the colors – and today many of their chimneys have small spires of hearth-smoke rising out of them.

It's not exactly a Norman Rockwell scene from middle America, but it's got a certain appeal and charm today for someone like me.

* * * * *

In the two days I've been up here on the fourth floor, I have learned a secret about this hospital: the dietary services food staff makes and serves the best warm bread pudding that I have ever put into my mouth. I know bread pudding – in all its various and nefarious forms – and I'm not exaggerating here. It is warm and buttery and sweet and the whole concoction is swimming in butter. It's like a wallow of all my favorite ingredients: flour, sugar, eggs, butter, and a little cinnamon. I found it my first day here on the dessert part of the menu the staff hands out to patients, and it's available every day at two meals: lunch and dinner. You can have as many sides and appetizers as you want – unless you happen to be on a restricted diet, which I thankfully am not – and you can have as much bread as you want. Drinks too. But, they warned me, you can only have one entrĂ©e and only two desserts.

Two desserts!

Two desserts. It's a bit like having died and gone to kindergarten heaven. Never have I been allowed to even think it is proper to have two desserts at one meal. Yet here is the dietary services corps of the Good Samaritan Hospital giving me permission, in my illness, to indulge in such sweet madness. Still, my upbringing won't let me take two: the guilt of it would do me in. But I do order one warm bread pudding with each lunch and dinner I have. I save the pudding for last – along with my half-pint of cold whole milk from the local Swiss dairies – so the little dish of warm bread pudding is the last-and-best thing I will savor of the meal. Just like I used to tell my undergraduate students in Composition classes: save your best point of persuasion for last.

When I was a little girl, my grandmother used to warn me, Never eat food made by a mean-spirited cook. (Or a sick one, or a spiteful one, or a sad one: the saying shifted slightly to accommodate the proper lesson for the day's woes.) She said that kind of cook would poison the pot and, if you ate the food, it would bring you no end of trouble, digestive and otherwise.

That may sound like charming folk wisdom. Like an old wives' tale. Like some quaint grandmotherly expression. But my grandmother was always tapped into some deep knowing about how things actually worked and I knew that even then, so I tended to pay attention to what she said.

So here's what I think today. The antibiotics and steroids are doing a little work towards making me healthy again. So is the respiratory therapy department. The nursing staff of the hospital helps it along a little more. The rest and sleep surely help healing along too. But as good as those things are, they fall just slightly short, pointed as they are and relentless about the push towards health.

But I'm pretty sure it is that cook – that happy, indulgent cook baking away in the hospital kitchen – who is doing the heavy-lifting work of making me well again right now. All that voluptuous attention to taste, to something sweet and warm. All those eggs and milk and flour. All of it beat and stirred and poured into a pan and sent into the heat of the ovens. And that final little whiff of warm cinnamon every time it comes to the bedside table! The whole thing is working towards the satisfaction of some longing I didn’t even know I had. It's not even meant to be healthy for me; it's a dessert, mind you, and its sole purpose is to move at someone with the intention of delivering a sudden jolt of pleasure and satisfaction through the teeth and tongue and taste buds and down into the stomach. For an unapologetic hedonist like me, that IS the ticket to well-being. At least it is for today.

I don't know who here gave this dish such a modest name, but I think it might be something more than just the "warm bread pudding" it's billed as. I think it may be the Bread of Heaven, going incognito as ordinary pudding, a poor man's dessert made from leftover crusts of bread and sauced up with eggs, butter, milk, and cinnamon. Or maybe the bread of heaven IS just ordinary food, a warm dish made by a happy cook in some kitchen that is not your own, and served up to you by a Mennonite volunteer who delivers it to you, smiling, as if it were not the miracle it really is sitting there in its steaming little white ceramic dish, waiting for you to take it into yourself and be made whole – or at least pleased – again in a way you can't remember having been since childhood.

photo by the author, December 11, 2010