Notes From The Coast

The beach does funny things to the brain

The Quick Fix

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When I was a kid, we never had a microwave oven. That marvel of early 70s modern technology that everyone seemed to simultaneously purchase, adore and tout, never graced our kitchen counter. No beeping. No Popcorn button. No reheating leftovers in 23 seconds flat.

No, we did things the old fashioned way because my Mom was convinced that the microwave oven was unhealthy in some way, even though she was clearly enamored with it. She would commandeer the magic machine to warm up her coffee whenever she visited her friend, Judy. Then she would inspect and judge the contents of the cup, convinced there was a change in its taste.

For us kids, the wonders of microwaved food fed our curiosity. Why, when heating spaghetti, did the inside remain cool while the edges were as hot as molten magma? What happens if you put tinfoil in it? How fast can it heat a pudding cup before exploding?

But even given these microwave mysteries, I never missed not having a microwave. In fact, I took pride in the fact that I still made my corn in a pot, with water, and I waited for that water to boil, like a normal person. It made me feel superior to cook real food on the stove or in an oven instead of “nuking” my meatloaf.

The microwave clearly had limitations, too. It made tortillas and pizza crust spongy. It failed miserably at chicken by turning a perfectly good thigh into a rubbery hockey puck of poultry. And it definitely didn’t do French fries any favors.

So I scoffed. A microwave would never find a place in my home.

But then, my Mom was diagnosed with cancer. It doesn’t matter what kind. It was the kind that ate away at her body and her peace of mind in equal measure. She lost fifteen pounds in a month. Then she lost another ten. I could see her vibrant spirit beginning to fade with every doctor visit, like petals falling off a flower. The doctors told her she needed to eat. Keeping her weight up meant she could fight when she needed to. Food gave her energy, pacified her worries, and gave her the glucose, proteins and carbohydrates she needed to wake up and fight another day. But it takes an appetite for a cancer patient to eat. And that is the one thing cancer patients simply don’t have.

So, we got a microwave. Because when my Mom got hungry it was a fleeting, elusive appetite that demanded immediate action otherwise it would go back into hiding for days. Hers was the fickle, stubborn Scarlet O’Hara of stomachs.

But when it did show up, her appetite gave me hope. It was one of those small, irrational signs that made me think things were getting better. For instance, one evening I had to shave her legs. The hair on her legs was getting so long her vanity kicked in. My 21-year-old naïve brain was so willing to grasp onto the smallest glimmers of hope that I thought if the hair on her legs kept growing, that must mean her body intends to stick around for awhile. She sat on the toilet, propped up by a pillow as I took a clean razor to her pale, hairy legs. It was a happy moment between us. I failed to make the connection that involuntary body functions keep going, sometimes even after someone dies, and that other cancer patients are not completely hairless. Coping strategies of the heart.

Oatmeal was a big star in those moments of appetite sneak attacks. Spoonfuls of buttered and brown-sugared goodness delivered life giving nutrients, or at least calories, to her ever-shrinking frame. Another favorite was fingerling potatoes with butter and sour cream. Simple carbohydrates eased our complicated emotions. These hurriedly heated dishes would satiate her and put her to sleep. They would ease my mind and allow me an hour or two of cancer-free thought while I zoned out on reruns of Law & Order.

It’s no secret I’ve got a few extra pounds on my bones. But I can’t help thinking that my weight might be rooted in a subconscious fear of watching her get weaker and feeling utterly helpless. To me, skinny means sick.

I’ve since softened my stance on microwaves and their nuclear cooking methods. But I still don’t trust them. The only time I ever really use them is to heat up water in record time to make French Press coffee.

But now, my Dad is sick. And just like my Mom before him, he’s lost fifteen pounds. And all I can think about is buying him a microwave so I can make him oatmeal and potatoes with butter and sour cream. I want those fifteen pounds back. I want his health back. I want Mom back, too. The microwave did not provide a miracle. But it did give us a way to warm up food and stoke hope in the moment. And at least we had that.

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