In 2001 I was living in Maryland, and had recently begun dating my future ex-husband. About five months into our relationship, his mother, Darriel, was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer. It had been just over a year since I had lost my own mother to cancer.
The next few months preceding her diagnosis, she and I grew incredibly close, each having something to offer which was exactly what the other needed. I was able to share with her my insight, how I had watched my mother deteriorate, then rebound, then nose dive, then endure. I passed on the hope and optimism and positive thought that undoubtedly bought my mother precious time. I shared my observations of treatments and trials, remission and recurrence, symptoms and side effects. In turn, we felt an unrestricted ease in talking to each other.
She was scheduled for her second round of chemotherapy the end of November. It was Thanksgiving, and her son Koby I were visiting family in Virginia at my Aunts house. He signaled me out onto the porch and handed me his phone, “It’s my mom. She wants to ask you something.”
Apprehensively, Darriel asked if I would be willing to come and stay with her in New Orleans for a week preceding her next round of chemotherapy. Her husband had a business commitment out-of-town, and she was insistent he not cancel his trip. It was obvious how important it was to her not to put that burden on her husband, anymore than she wanted it on her children. I was far enough removed to be compassionate yet still objective.
From her initial diagnosis, for what may perhaps have been lamentably divine reasons, we became unexpected lifelines for each other. Having been down this road very recently with my own mother, she felt comfortable enough with me to talk openly and freely about her fears and feelings in a way that she could not speak to her own three children. I in turn, had learned to listen to such conversations, and was enlightened with an understanding of what my mother must have been feeling, but could not bear to burden me with. The taboo of death and dying were swept off the table, and in those deeply philosophical and esoteric conversations, life sprung forth.
It resonated why she could not speak this profoundly with her own adult children. A mother cannot infuse her own fears into her children, when she aches so deeply with the knowledge that they are already fearful enough. I was honored that she trusted me enough to comfort and care for her. It gave me the cathartic opportunity to help by putting to use the knowledge and understanding I had acquired in my experiences with my mother. I knew what was in store, and a week later I boarded my flight to New Orleans.
Darriel was a woman of great poise, determination, resolve, strength, depth, intelligence, grace, competence and beauty. She took Pilates, rode a Vespa, spoke Italian, gardened with fervor and baked with unparalleled passion. She laughed with the innocent joy of a schoolgirl.
I saw the telltale dark circles, the transparent crepey skin, the shadow of a figure under her thin, linen nightgown, and those deep brown eyes swimming in emotion. And then, her smile would floor you. Full and wide, beseeching an ineluctable hug. I could feel the hard contours of her shoulder blades as I wrapped my arms around her.
On this particular morning nearing the end of my stay, she stood shakily in her beautiful kitchen. Leaning on her butcher-block island, surrounded by soapstone countertops and commercial-grade stainless steel appliances, she told me that she wanted to teach me how to make farmer’s bread.
She had always been an exceptional bread maker, and farmer’s bread was one of her specialties. She directed me around the kitchen to assemble the necessary ingredients and utensils.
Darriel was a perfectionist, meticulous, and had an affinity for beauty in its most simple forms. The ritual of bread making was as beautiful as the proud, browned loaves themselves. We activated yeast, I pounded and kneaded dough until my arms were sore and limp, and was then instructed to punch it down and knead it again, adding increasing amounts of flour until the dough lost its stickiness and became stiff.
She kept habitually pulling the dough from me to “show me” how to do it, but her frail arms were so weak that she passed it back with a mixed expression of defeat, acceptance, pride and gratitude. The balls of dough were covered with thin cotton tea towels and left to rise for an hour and a half in the warmth of the New Orleans afternoon.
Dusted with flour, we sat and sipped kiwi-pear tea on the shaded back patio by the pool. She asked if I was hungry, and I could tell that it was important for her to do something on her own. I said that I was, and I did not protest as she slowly got herself to her feet, without my assistance, and walked into the kitchen.
She emerged a few minutes later with a beautiful assortment of fresh humus, arugula, some rustic bread and the most beautifully embarrassed cherry tomatoes I have ever seen. We sat quietly, assembling bites and taking in the smells of her rosemary bushes and magnolia trees, heavy in the humid air. Her gardens surrounded us. Herbs, trees, and flowers, this was a magical garden of eclectic synergy. Her back and arms, toned and browned from hours hunched over in the dirt were paling and fragile under her thin nightgown.
The timer rang, at which point the fat dough was punched down, releasing the air that had caused it to rise to the top of the silver bowl. It was then flipped, punched again, and then two lightly oiled balls of dough were each placed into a 9” round baking pan. Again, they were covered, and left to rise for another 45 minutes.
Her exhaustion was obvious, and I led her over to the couch where warm sunlight was streaming in the windows. She tucked her feet under her in a sea of comfortable pillows, eyelids closed by the time she laid her head down. I covered her with a thin chenille throw, and quietly walked back into the kitchen.
She wanted so badly to finish the bread with me, but I had assured her I would follow her directions, word for word. There was so much love and energy that went into making that bread, and a part of me was terrified of burning it or having it not rise correctly. With all of my being I wanted that bread to be perfect for her, for us, for all that it represented and all that it promised.
I uncovered the two 9” rounds; the dough had puffed up beautifully like a bakers hat itself. I gently slid them into the perfectly preheated Viking oven, and prayed to a God of my misunderstanding to watch over this bread, and to take Darriel’s cancer away.
I’m not sure if it was the smell of the bread baking or her mental alarm clock, but 2 minutes prior to taking the bread out, she careened into the kitchen with a sleepy smile and sat at the counter, watching me pull the beautifully browned loaves from the oven.
She nodded her head in approval to continue on my own, in a way that both fostered and soothed the cavernous motherly void in my heart. With a towel over one hand, I gently flipped the loaf out of the pan, and as she had instructed, I knocked on the bottom, listening for the hollow sound that ensured the bread was cooked through. She heard the sound and smiled slowly, “Perfect!” she said, from a dry throat, trying to disguise her pain.
In those next few moments, I saw only her beauty, her love, her passion and the vitality that still resided deep inside her. As I cut thick, steaming slices onto the butcher block, she slathered hers in honey. From across the counter, I watched her take the first bite.
Her features warmed and softened. Savoring the memories that attached themselves to the flavor, and her eyes closed lazily as a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. She giggled with the purest delight as she wiped the drizzle of golden honey from her chin, and in that moment, there was no cancer, only perfection.