Excerpt From Cooking for GracieBy Keith Dixon
May 17, 2011
Following is an excerpt from “Cooking for Gracie,” a memoir with more than 40 recipes that recounts a year in the life of a new parent learning to cook for three.
Just weeks into the experience of parenthood, I seem to experience a fresh epiphany about every other day—moments of clarity, addicts call them, in which the camera lens of life is screwed sharply into focus, and the afflicted suddenly realizes what path he must take.
I’m having a moment of clarity now, alone here in my kitchen at night, where I’m spooning and spooning cold cereal. This is dinner, these days: standing at the kitchen window with a bowl of breakfast. I’m nettled by problems with sleep, and with timing, and with other things. The hour is late enough that even the pointillist panorama of New York, a city I’ve called home for fifteen years, seems almost subdued; York Avenue, five stories below, is nearly deserted, and taxis streak by only occasionally. Summer is barely hanging on, having exhausted itself with hot September. The scene appears tranquil to the naked eye, but it’s really not—if this kitchen were the galley of a Boeing jet, the Fasten Seatbelts sign would be blinking right now, directing all passengers to buckle up and prepare for terrible turbulence. I’ve ruined dinner, blackened it to the pan—the haze hanging below the ceiling is the proof. My wife, Jessica, and I were going to eat six pristine lamb chops an hour ago, but as we sat down at the table our weeks-old daughter, Grace, gave a cry of hunger from her room—and I looked up with the troubled expression of a picnicker who hears distant thunder.
Just weeks in, and I’m already a worried dad. The big questions seek me out after midnight, and apprehend me at the moment of sleep—there in the night, that grand unifier of parental anxiety. Every night I face down the stark information of Gracie’s low birth weight— these are delicate subjects, these subjects of Gracie, birth weight, and nourishment, and when our daughter delivers a cry of hunger we answer it. So an hour ago we abandoned dinner, and just now I blackened the chops trying to reheat them. I’d thought this would be a simple process of applying the flame, the necessary heat, but things moved much faster than I expected and quickly evolved into a Larry, Moe and Curley scene of the highest order. As I heaved the window open, fanning the smoke out into the night, I wondered if it was possible to be mad at a kitchen implement. But no, it’s hunger itself that I’m mad at—I was hungry for those chops, and now I’m having a bowl of breakfast instead. There was a time when I thought of hunger as a useful, instructive thing—not just physical hunger, but hunger for things like success, or romantic love. The idea was that the wanting could teach things about yourself, about your various prowling appetites, and perhaps I was right in that, because tonight’s hunger has propelled me into a moment of clarity, with all of its dreadful data about my situation.
Here is what I’m coming to understand: What is broken in the kitchen is broken elsewhere—the problem would appear to be that life no longer moves according to my schedule. If you’re a writer or a cook, timing is crucial; if you happen to be both, as I am, you’re finished without it. I used to have it, this timing, in the kitchen and on the page, but now it’s gone. I’m a beat behind in everything I do—I go around half the time feeling like an actor who belongs in a drama, and finds himself, instead, in a comedy, where the jokes are all at his expense.
I’ve felt this way for weeks—since September 9, 2007, when I surfaced from a deep sleep around 4 a.m. and found Jessica standing over me in the pale bedside light. Marriage has taught me a few things, among them that you should be worried when your pregnant wife wakes you at 4 a.m. by standing over you with the lights already on.
My confusion resolved itself quickly enough when Jessica told me in no uncertain terms that she hadn’t slept one minute all night, and added that she was pretty sure our baby was on the way, showing me startling evidence to the same. (I’ll not describe it here, but rather note that the condition “bloody show” is very well named indeed, and as bracing as two strong cups of coffee to see. Google it.) I slapped around on the floor for about ten minutes, searching for my clothes, and we phoned the obstetrician. The baby, if she came today, would be five weeks early. At our latest sonogram we were told that the baby’s weight was just north of four pounds. In most cases an obstetrician encourages a couple to remain at home until the woman is through early labor, but the fact that we were five weeks early, combined with other unusual conditions of the pregnancy, was enough to cause him to tell us to come on in, and right away. There were no cars out so early—we hunted down a cab, and the driver seemed to understand everything with a glance. He thundered through intersection and along crosscut, around hairpin and down avenue. Jessica was in that trancelike state women achieve when the biological imperative asserts itself; that is, she was an arresting example of female can-do. If there’d been any time to stop and think I suppose I would have panicked, but I was fully occupied by the events unfolding around me and, anyway, I was still shaking off the anesthetic effects of the martini I’d had at dinner the night before. We swept past the sleepy hospital admitting desk and were fired skyward by the express elevator to the birthing floor, where an IV was inserted into the back of Jessica’s hand. At this point Jessica’s blood pressure swirled upward like a cartoon barber’s pole, and I heard a staffer in attendance use the word preeclampsia. A monitor strapped over Jessica’s navel began delivering data to a printer beside the bed—a measure of the contractions she was experiencing. This immediately began drawing rolling ocean swells, and for a moment the illusion was complete: I imagined that this was indeed an ocean liner, and here were the heavy seas. But then the IV began to do its work, Jessica’s blood pressure eased, and the printout swells subsided into barely-noticeable upticks.
That’s it? I asked, and the attending doctor repeated my question in the declarative.
During the cab ride home I was electric with the cherry high of someone who has been granted a reprieve—every other block I felt the urge to seize the cabbie by the shoulder and say, “That was a close one, wasn’t it?” Now I had time to prepare for this thing I hadn’t been prepared for. I helped Jessica into bed, seared a grilled cheese sandwich for her and watched her eat, then pulled the covers over her head and drew the curtains. After offering a heartfelt plea that she rest, and rest well, I stepped into the shower. What a still moment that was, standing blameless beneath the roaring benediction of the showerhead, nodding to myself, arms crossed, eyes closed, breathing deeply through my nose and reflecting on the near-miss of a five-week premature birth. Close, Keith, I said, so close, too close, and then hollering Jessica ran into the bathroom and leaped, fully dressed and exultant, into the shower with me. Her water had broken. The warning shot had revealed itself to be the report of a starting gun.
We stood in silence for a moment—facing each other, hands clasped, like a couple about to recite a marriage vow. Even the most vivid memories tend to fade with time, but decades from now, when Death appears in my doorway and beckons with a bent finger, this is the image that will burn brightly in my mind’s eye—Jessica standing fully dressed in the shower, clothes dripping, wet hair plastered to her face and neck, and the waters that had protected Gracie for the first thirty-five weeks of her life now swirling around my bare ankles.
Here comes the future, at one hundred and forty heartbeats per minute.
I have a funny relationship with pain. The experts tell us that pain is trying to tell us something, that it is delivering a distress signal from a body part that is being misused, and that we ought to listen to that signal. For that very reason I don’t mind small amounts of pain—I’m strongly resistant to taking aspirin, cough medicine, allergy medicine, and other such palliatives for headaches, scrapes, burns, cuts, etc. & etc.—but I just can’t stomach the bad stuff. When it comes to the big-ticket items—knee operations, cavity fillings, room-spinning migraines—I immediately cave, jettison all principles, and request as much painkiller as possible, and the sooner, and stronger, the better. Were I faced with the prospect of eight or more hours of labor, I would surely arrive at the hospital pre-tranquilized, all but holding out my arm and slapping the vein to show the doctor where she should thread the needle. Jessica, on the other hand, has always been a believer in using aspirin and other painkillers to ease the discomfort of everyday headaches, sore muscles, cramps, etc.—which suggests that she believes in using modern medicine to ease pain. I was surprised, then, to learn that she planned to scale what is considered by many to be the Mount Everest of pain: to push a baby out with a drug-free birth. Upon hearing this news, my first thought, selfishly, was to fear that in this extreme circumstance I would be placed in a position that any husband deeply dreads: that of feeling essentially useless.1 There were a number of logical fallacies we employed to mitigate my (and Jessica’s) fear about meeting this challenge. “It’s temporary,” she would say, referring to the pain, “it’s temporary,” and I would nod my head and say, “Yes, it’s temporary”—thinking, But, Jessica, this is a very long temporary, lasting hours (or even, God help us, days) instead of moments. Nevertheless, we stuck with this line of logic, to great success. “It’s temporary,” she would say, and I’d nod my head and repeat the phrase back.
We would discuss this matter of painkillers nightly, sometimes more than once a night, and we even took a weeks-long class on how to survive a drug-free delivery.2 Through the early stages of this, there remained an element of unreality about the whole thing, which helped tamp down the urgency of the discussion—many first pregnancies, after all, don’t begin to show until some time during the second trimester, which means that even as you’re having these hard discussions about things like painkillers, the whole enterprise at times seems almost theoretical, as if you were being rooked by a slew of doctors and baby-gear vendors trying to separate you and your wife from your last dollar. The doctors keep telling you that a baby is on the way, these men and women dressed in long white coats, all busily poking columns of blood test results, a tax audit’s worth of facts about height, weight, bone length and fetal age, and the occasional sonogram photograph—but for the first five months you study your wife’s belly region and see no obvious evidence that any of this is true.3 I remained silent through much of the drug-free delivery sessions, thinking, Well, it’s her call isn’t it? But I also remained silent because a significant part of me believed that this would all resolve itself when the first wave of contractions hit and Jessica, duly startled by the size of the pain, would raise her hand and call for an epidural, and perhaps even a martini on the side to hold her until the anesthesiologist had done her work. I had this opinion because this is the way I would have come at the birth4—so I was doubly ashamed by my self-assured outlook when Jessica devastated all parties involved by seeing her way through labor without so much as an aspirin to blunt the edge of the contractions, even though near the end of it the pain was so intense and went on for so long that it caused her eyes to roll up until the whites showed, and forced her to grip me so tightly about the waist for support that she threw out my back.
Seemingly all at once, with the fury of a tornado that had gathered for hours and then dropped out of clear blue sky, here was the moment of birth, and here was Gracie, born at four pounds—her skin alarmingly gray. Just seconds old, the obstetrician held my daughter aloft with a single hand, then carried her over to the heat lamp, where an attending staff-member rubbed her dry with a towel, her color rising now, the staff member suddenly sweeping past me, taking Gracie out of the room in a cart, things already moving faster, and Jessica didn’t bother to remove her oxygen mask when she lifted her head and said: “Go with her.” Then down the hall, through the double doors and into another wing, this one as harshly-lighted as an interrogation room, Plexiglas isolettes lining the walls, each occupied by a tiny baby, and I thought, Ha ha, very funny, joke’s over, the NICU is where Other People’s children go. Isn’t it?
But I was now Other People, the person whose misfortunes you talk about in hushed tones, and the joke was on me. The unreality of the moment was scored by a sort of electronic symphony, alarms sounded by individual heart-rate and blood-oxygen monitors. Gracie now had one around her foot. The alarms are false, a nurse said, grasping my elbow for effect, no need to worry, it just means the baby has shaken the cuff so that it’s not getting an accurate reading—but later that night another baby’s alarm went off, and this time a pair of nurses seemed to materialize out of thin air at either side of the isolette, one with her hand inside going about some sort of complicated business with a baby the size of her palm. When I got it, when I realized what was happening, it was like being dashed with a bucket of cold water: the baby’s heart had stopped or the rate had grown erratic. The nurse was giving it CPR. I watched the nurse bring the baby out of it, my heart in my throat even though it wasn’t my kid, and I reflected that if you’d asked me before Gracie had arrived what emotion I thought I would have experienced in such a situation, I probably would have guessed sadness. And I would have guessed wrong. This was something more like waking from a nightmare long after midnight and sensing, with the decisiveness of a hatchet stroke, that someone was in my room and was here to harm me. Except this predatory force wasn’t here for me—it was here for my baby, and I could do nothing to protect her.
Three days later I was introduced to a diagnosis known as Failure To Thrive. The parents of its victims may feel inclined to ask why the name must be so literal. Perhaps we should rename hypothermia Failure To Keep Warm. I learned about this condition when my Gracie Failed To Thrive, and seemed to waste away before our glazed eyes, her weight sinking below four pounds. First she became too exhausted to eat; and because she was taking in no nourishment she became even more exhausted, the situation rapidly deteriorating from there. During the midday feeding she was nearly unresponsive, asleep in her mother’s arms while all around us babies were crying out for food. I was paralyzed emotionally. It was like trying to feed a plastic doll, and I suppose we were as naive and deluded as children playing house that afternoon. The nurse assigned to us, who had hovered at a distance for a day, now moved in, as if cued by a director with very good timing, and with gratitude I felt control being taken away from us. We were told that Gracie would be fed with a feeding tube that night, and were sent home. The last stage of my grandmother’s life began when she was fitted with a feeding tube. I was helpless to avoid drawing parallels. I found myself thinking, You need to begin dealing with this now. You need to accept what may happen. If you don’t, this is going to send you all to pieces. You will not recover.
My mother: ‘It’ll be okay. Babies are tough.’ But I’m not. At home, seeking comfort, familiar rhythms, I made dinner with ingredients from the cabinet. It didn’t help. She’ll come out of it. You’ll see. Sometimes I’d feel all right, almost human for ten or even twenty seconds. And then I’d picture my three-day-old daughter limp in her mother’s arms, unresponsive, and all at once I’d feel as if the ground had vanished beneath me.
This is how I feel when I fly over water at night—out of control, beyond the help of a higher power, and reliant on nothing but faith I’ve whistled up out of nowhere.
I push the plate of lamb chops aside and set the bowl of cereal on the counter. I’m no longer hungry; not for food, anyway—it’s something else I want, something I’m having a hard time identifying. Gracie is hungry, and I’m hungry. She did come out of it, just like everyone said she would. Our daughter is home with us, gaining weight—but in many ways I’m still back there in the NICU, a spirit haunting the waiting room.
I snap off the overhead light, then wrap up the chops and open the refrigerator door— the fluorescent interior light bathes the kitchen surfaces in soothing lunar shades: ultramarine, cerulean, bondi blue. I’m tempted to remain here, where things are being shown, if only for a moment, in the kindest light. In a little while I’ll have to come up with something for Jessica to eat—I want her to eat well, which will help Gracie get the nourishment she needs.
A simple syllogism that keeps playing its logic in my head:
Major premise: I’m cooking for Jessica. Minor premise: Gracie gets all her nourishment from Jessica. Conclusion: When I cook for Jessica, I’m cooking for Gracie.
Eventually Gracie is fed, rocked, and gentled off to sleep, and Jessica joins me. We watch a movie that makes us laugh, but my attention is divided. I realize what it is I’m hungry for; it is a lack of reassurance that has left me famished. But reassurance is in short supply these day, and it will be left to me to supply my own. Caring for my daughter—cooking for her—helps me cope. And it’s becoming increasingly apparent that when I cook for Gracie, I’m caring for myself.
And I’m doing it poorly. In this situation you don’t make delicate lamb chops, not if you’re wise to the new timing—you make lamb shanks, or braised veal, or short ribs, or a chickpea stew. You make something that can cook away all night, if need be. I must adapt, or we’ll all do without.
Soon I’ll have to learn to cook all over again.
1 This turns out to be a position that fathers-to-be find themselves in regularly. Throughout the many weeks of the pregnancy the father is often, much to his dismay, reduced to following stage directions—and he finds himself, paradoxically, in a key role that has virtually no lines.
2 And here I didn’t exactly earn votes for the title World’s Greatest Husband. This class was important to Jessica and, precisely because it was so important to her, I should have attended cheerfully and without complaint and in fact made a point to tell her that I believed in her and was here to support her—but instead I grumbled about the quasi-new-age aspects of the class, the paltry snacks on offer for pregnant women who were skipping dinner, the hours-long commitment, etc. & etc. In a nicely symmetrical come-uppance, the class turned out to be of great benefit to me: we had planned to hire a doula to help us through the birth, and when Gracie arrived early, before we’d had a chance to locate a doula, it was exactly the practices I learned in this class that allowed me to help Jessica through the delivery.
3 Though I should qualify—although in the first few months I saw no evidence of the baby in my wife’s belly region, I did see dramatic evidence that her body was going through remarkable physiological changes, viz., that this author’s wife, at the late first-trimester period of pregnancy, suddenly blossomed into a striking Playboy-bunnyesque build, one sharply arresting in its perfect recollection of many of this author’s latent adolescent desires, but enough about that.
4 An outlook surely informed by the fact that I am the son of a doctor and a trained nurse, and have developed a engrained trust for modern medicine and its practitioners.