Comfort food and warm fires: savoring the moments before saying goodbye

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We pass through the hills and valleys surrounding the Chohocton River as we head home from Corning, New York. Tom is driving, while I look out the window. Our son Seth and his wife Maddie sit quietly in the back seat. It’s hard to bring ourselves to talk after saying our final goodbyes to Morgan, knowing we will never see him again. We know Morgan’s body is full of cancer, and that his days on this earth are numbered. We knew that saying goodbye was going to be a part of our weekend visit, but none of us could really imagine it.  How does one prepare oneself to say goodbye to someone so young, so bright, and still so alive?

As I choke back the tears, I can’t help but notice the mixed appearance of the trees on the hillsides. The barren branches of winter are slowly overcoming the bright fall colors with their gray, lifeless appearance. It won’t be long now. The dusting of snow tells us that winter is coming. And yet, autumn is hanging on with the glow of rusts and yellows that light up the hillsides with splashes of beauty. The sunshine through the clouds on the fall colors warms me like the fire in the Bolt’s wood-burning stove, and reminds me of the precious moments we were able to spend with our dear friends.

***

A friend of the Bolt family had dropped off some homemade cinnamon rolls. They were just out of the oven and Marv was spreading the icing when we arrived at the house. We embraced our friends, and began the easy task of reconnecting. We sat down at the table, letting the sweetness of those warm rolls fill our mouths, while the warmth of old friendship filled our hearts.

When Morgan and Christina came upstairs to join us, there were more hugs all around. Morgan was noticeably thinner, and his color was off, but his gentle, unassuming personality was unchanged. Christina’s loving and caring demeanor was evident in her concern for Morgan’s comfort as he took a seat in his recliner.

We delivered our care package: Sandy’s caramel corn, Mary’s granola, a couple of Notre Dame t-shirts, and a pile of cards and gift cards...sentiments from our church in South Bend, a community that loves this family deeply. Marv, Linda, Morgan and Christina were overcome, feeling the long-distance love. We were blessed to be the hands and feet of Christ, as we were four years ago, when Morgan received his cancer diagnosis and we made the trip to New York City, bringing loads of love in the shape of gifts from their former church.

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We polished off most of the cinnamon rolls while catching up and hearing about the two books Morgan had just had published. (We look forward to reading his YA novel: The Favored, as well as his reflections on cancer, faith and culture in Cancer Just Is.) We heard about their dream trip to Europe, the castles they saw and the cobblestones Morgan had to maneuver with his walker. We chatted for an hour or so, and when Morgan’s energy waned, he and Christina headed back to their downstairs apartment for a rest.

After our leisurely morning, the rest of us found other things to do as well. Seth and Maddie went out to explore Corning and the Museum of Glass. Tom and Marv bundled up to work in the yard. And Linda and I set off for brunch at Poppleton’s in town.

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Still in the mood for sweets, we both ordered crepes with bananas and Nutella. For me, the coffee bar was a perfect complement with choices like Pumpkin Spice and Finger Lakes Blend. Linda’s hot chocolate with a homemade marshmallow gave her the double dose of sweetness she was in need of at the moment. We talked friend to friend, mom to mom. Just like old times, we talked about each of our kids--their struggles and triumphs--and we shared our joys. Unlike old times, Linda shared sorrows, fears and disappointments we never would have imagined even five years ago. I tried to be a comfort, but sometimes there were simply no words. We sat there for a long time; long enough for me to refill my bottomless cup 3 or 4 times. This coffee date was something to be savored.

As we got up to leave, we saw the texts from our husbands: the power was out at the house, and a tree was on fire, having fallen across the power lines. In need of a little distraction and excitement, we hurried home. As we pulled into the driveway, we met a firetruck on its way out. Peering into the backyard we saw the still-smoldering limb suspended by the wires, and the electrical workers surveying the situation. While our husbands stood outside in the cold nearby, we watched from the dark house, enjoying the warmth of the fire in the wood stove. Morgan soon came upstairs to join us.

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The workers had a very long telescoping pole to which they had attached a small saw. They began the arduous task of sawing off the limb. We couldn’t understand why they were sawing away at the strongest part of the tree. Why not cut where the wood was already thin and weakened by the fire? From our vantage point, we felt like they were doing it all wrong. It took a very long time, but eventually they were able to cut through that strong trunk, pull down the other side with a rope, and since they had kept the falling tree away from the the wires, they were quickly able to restore our power. The foreman had a plan all along. We just couldn’t see it, and probably never would fully understand.

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With the power back on, I commenced dinner preparations. The lasagna was assembled in layers: meat sauce, noodles, ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan. Repeat. I fell into this easy rhythm, the sensical order of things. While I cooked, the guys watched football. The “kids” played an X-box game downstairs. Things seemed very normal. Linda said she was going to take a nap, to make up for her sleepless hours during the night. I realized I had messed up and put the sauce on the noodles. I scraped it off and replaced it with cheese, careful to get things back in order.   

It was dinner for eight: two parent couples, two young couples. We joined hands as we asked God’s blessing, and joined hearts as we broke bread together. Together we savored the comfort food. We poured the wines we had brought from Michigan: Moondance Merlot and Vineyard Tears-- bottles we save for special occasions. Our time with the Bolts was about as special as they come.

After dinner we gathered in the living room for some light-hearted fun. Normalcy is a good thing. We watched Notre Dame go 10-0 on senior night. Morgan explained details of the rules of football that many of us (or at least I) didn’t know. We laughed about throw pillows, Bitmojis, cats, dogs, and silent commercials. We reminisced about swing sets and broken legs, Super Bowl parties and wardrobe malfunctions; we discussed the political correctness of mascots like Seminoles and Fighting Irish. We ate Sandy’s sweet, sweet caramel corn until it was all gone.

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The next morning, it was breakfast for eight. Marv had gotten up early to make mountains of pancakes. They were made from scratch with “Lenny’s” recipe. Len was the pastor we shared when the four of us were young parents, when our boys raced pinewood derby cars together, when the moms shared babysitting “blue tickets,”  when we dreamed big dreams for our little girls and boys.

Some of us ate pancakes with traditional maple syrup. Others spread on the brown sugar or strawberry jam. Linda and I opted for more bananas and Nutella. We all took in the sweetness in our own way as we sat around the table in quiet conversation. At times we sat in silence, just tasting the sweetness and savoring the moment.

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And then, because we couldn’t push it off any longer, we lifted ourselves from our chairs and picked up our dishes from the table. It was time to say our goodbyes. There were long hugs, tightened throats, and tear-filled eyes. There were thank-yous, and take-care-of-yourselves, and spoken and unspoken I-love-yous.  

The moments were so sweet. The memories so special. But the goodbyes so hard. We knew they would be.

***

As I lift my gaze to the hills, and see the mix of warm autumn colors alongside the barren grays of winter, a song by Casting Crowns begins to play. The words remind me of the One who is the source of all the beauty, warmth and sweetness in our lives; the source of love and friendship. And I know that in the cold winter ahead, when the fire finally goes out, He will also be our source of help; our only comfort.

I lift my eyes unto the hills. Where does my help come from?

My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.

And I'll praise you in this storm, and I will lift my hands

That you are who you are, no matter where I am.

And every tear I've cried you hold in your hand.

You never left my side and though my heart is torn

I will praise you in this storm.