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Two years

You may have heard me speak of my dad: the man I called “Burg,” the one who took me to Paris for the first time when I was only ten, introduced me to caviar long before puberty, revealed to me at sixteen the homely pleasure of rice pudding, and gave me a Cuisinart—carefully selected from his favorite shopping spot, eBay—for my 24th birthday. He loved to spoil me.

Today marks the two-year anniversary of Burg’s death to advanced-stage cancer of the kidney. He lived only ten weeks after his diagnosis. The disease had already spread to his spine and pelvis, skull, and legs. As a radiation oncologist who’d spent nearly fifty years treating and curing patients, his most poignant remark was, “What a kick in the ass.”

I miss him. Mostly I miss cooking with him, and for him. He was a man of many passions - from fly fishing to France, Gene Krupa to majolica, crossword puzzles, Dixieland jazz, dirty jokes, Dylan Thomas, and an old Alfa Romeo junker that sat in the driveway - but among the things he most adored were the kitchen and the eating, drinking, and laughter so vitally connected to it.

Some of my strongest memories of his illness - and of my last days with him - involve food, cooking for him and feeding him as he lay in a rented hospital bed in a room just off our kitchen. Though our family came together seamlessly to care for him, I often guarded for myself the task of preparing his meals: buttered rye toast, scrambled eggs with chevre, or reheated stew from the neighbors. I’d wake every morning to stir lumps of butter into his Cream of Wheat or half-and-half into his oatmeal, spooning it into his mouth in frantic disbelief as his belly - the target of many years of nagging - slowly melted away. As his pain worsened and the level of his medications increased, his eating grew more creative. One day, over a plate of eggs, he told me excitedly that we were in Italy having a picnic, and that when we finished eating, we’d go for a swim in the grotto. His hallucination blurring into reality, he called my scrambled eggs “Italian grotto eggs” from then on. I loved that. Somehow his brain, through the food on his plate, could bridge the gap between his blurry, transient dream-world and the very real present. I guess it was his way of leaving that bed, of escaping winter-locked Oklahoma, of fleeing the body that had carried him for 73 years and suddenly dropped him without warning.

Lying there, he traveled. We spoke French sometimes, his shaky command of the language better than it had ever been when he was well. One day, while searching for a phone number in his organizer, I happened to glance at the schedule pages from the previous spring, when he’d come to visit me in Paris, where I was living at the time. He’d written down the details of everything we’d done and nearly every meal we’d eaten: rhubarb clafoutis here, marinated fresh sardines there. I am no doubt my father’s daughter.

Some days his absence feels heavy, almost tangible. But most often I think of him in quiet celebration, with a sort of gratitude, a lightness. Burg loved words and puns and poetry; he’d be thrilled to see me writing. Or rather, I think he is thrilled. He’s around somewhere, watching - even when I wish he weren’t. In many respects, I write for him, for all the times at the dinner table when he’d lift his head, fork in hand, and exclaim, “You know, we eat better at home than most people do in restaurants!” My brother David and I used to tease him for it. I thought he was bragging. But I’d be lying if I said that Burg’s exclamation doesn’t ring true today, when I sit down to my own table. I know now what he was getting at. His silly old saying was - and is - a testament to the profoundly human joy of making and sharing food with the people you love. It’s a celebration.

Today I’d like to share a poem by James Wright, an American poet who died in 1980 after a very short but intense battle with cancer, like Burg. The year before his death, Wright spent nine months traveling in Europe with his wife, waking early to write poems. This poem is from a collection written during Wright’s final travels in Europe and published posthumously. My siblings and I all spoke or read at Burg’s memorial service, and this is what I chose. He would have loved the fact that this poem allowed me to say “making love” - while wearing fishnets, I should add, an edgy touch he would have also applauded - before a priest, a bishop, a rabbi, and an overflow crowd of 550 people in an Episcopal church in Bible-belted Oklahoma City. I am so my father’s daughter. I can almost hear him laughing now.

Yes, But

Even if it were true
Even if I were dead and buried in Verona
I believe I would come out and wash my face
In the chill spring.
I believe I would appear
Between noon and four, when nearly
Everybody else is asleep or making love,
And all the Germans turned down, the motorcycles
Muffled, chained, still.

Then the plump lizards along the Adige by San Giorgio
Come out and gaze,
Unpestered by temptation, across the water.
I would sit among them and join them in leaving
The golden mosquitos alone.
Why should we sit by the Adige and destroy
Anything, even our enemies, even the prey
God caused to glitter for us
Defenseless in the sun?
We are not exhausted. We are not angry, or lonely,
Or sick at heart.
We are in love lightly, lightly. We know we are shining,
Though we cannot see one another.
The wind doesn’t scatter us,
Because our very lungs have fallen and drifted
Away like leaves down the Adige,
Long ago.

We breathe light.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a beautiful and moving tribute to your dad, Molly! I am honoured to have been able to read it. I too would have liked your dad very much. Cherish those memories. You are a lucky, lucky girl. Hugs, Viv

8:07 AM, December 08, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Molly, what a lovely tribute to your dad - my brother. We celebrate his life each year on this anniversary, here in Maine, and send him flowers on the outgoing tide. We had shared many pleasures in our lives together, and I miss him in subtle ways that leave the outline of a hollow in my being, a void left wanting by his death.

12:07 PM, December 08, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Molly, this is truly beautiful. Thank you. As you know, my own mother died from cancer 6 years ago this December 27. And like your father, she too loved food. There are many things I miss about her, but I especially miss the smell of *her* kitchen. Since her death, my studies into cooking have been a form of remembrance and memory of her. They say that the sense of smell is an incredibly powerful way to awaken memories.

So let's raise our wine glasses to your dad and my mom. May they provide us with a steady stream of love and a pinch of guidance to our adventures in the kitchen!


6:05 PM, December 09, 2004  
Blogger lucette said...

Thanks for the Wright poem--it made me think of my own parents, gone since 1999.

5:07 PM, December 13, 2004  
Blogger Sam said...

this post is so beautiful. Boy, am I crying my heart out now.

10:33 AM, December 26, 2004  
Blogger dave said...

Hey Molly,
That's as sad as it is uplifting. I hope I'm able to have as good a relationship with my daughter.

3:52 PM, January 15, 2005  
Anonymous Tana said...

I am relatively new to blogging and to food blogs, but I subscribed to yours on first sight (site? heh).

And then I found that you, too, were tagged for the childhood food memories meme. (I wish I hadn't had to write that, as food was poor substance in our house.)

Reading your words about your father, well, I can only tell you that, even though I never saw my father after I turned three, and he died when I was nineteen, I can feel him hovering around. I think he turns my keyboard into some kind of silly/spooky/irreverent Ouija board, when he types "dregstores" instead of "drugstores," for instance.

I think you probably know what I mean.

Not a ghost, but his spirit.

Your father was so lovely, and you are so blessed to have known that love. Imagine that: the prototypical food blogger!

Cheers, m'dear. Thank you for the words, and especially for the poem.

10:44 PM, August 30, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Tana, thank you for your kind words. I know well what you mean when you say that you can feel your father hovering around. Although Burg and I were quite close, in many ways I feel almost closer to him now that he's gone; I notice more of him in myself and in the things I love. I even notice that I've taken up his love for punning, for better or for worse! But more than anything, writing (and cooking and eating) for Orangette keeps him with me. So thank you for reading, and for sharing this with me. Cheers to all of it!

12:27 PM, September 01, 2005  
Blogger Tea said...

Molly, this is so beautiful and moving. I have tears in my eyes now, thinking about you and your dad. And what a wonderful photo. You both are lucky

8:28 PM, January 28, 2006  
Anonymous Julie said...

Beautifully written and very moving. It brought tears to my eyes.

6:43 AM, February 13, 2006  
Blogger pomegranate said...

I have been missing my dad quite a lot lately and wanted to read this post you'd written about him.

It's a great post, like the others before me said.

4:25 PM, March 24, 2007  
Anonymous Shanna said...

I am so glad you linked to this post in your wedding one. I cried as I read your words and thought everyone should get to have such a moving tribute.

Thank you for sharing.

6:00 PM, July 23, 2007  
Blogger woof nanny said...

God, this killed me. You have a gift with words. What I have not been able to say about my own father you have said for me. Thank you for this post.

9:46 PM, September 02, 2007  
Blogger jodie said...

i've been reading your blog for a while now but i never came across this post until now. it's really beautiful (and brought tears to my eyes). thank you for sharing.

2:04 PM, December 30, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful words. I am very touched by your tribute to your dad.

4:41 PM, April 15, 2008  
Blogger verolamb said...

You've made me cry.

3:50 AM, May 03, 2008  
Anonymous Stacey said...

I remember reading this a long while ago, and it struck a cord even though my father was alive and well at the time. My Dad died very suddenly three weeks ago, and I came to this page tonight to re-read your lovely tribute. I want to thank you for sharing this. I am especially comforted by your line, "most often I think of him in quiet celebration, with a sort of gratitude, a lightness." Thank you.

10:07 PM, June 29, 2008  
Blogger Jackie said...

I'm reading your book. A recipe every night. Loving it.

The reason I bought the book. In a review, I read about your cooking eggs for your father who was ill and had not much appetite.

That resonated with me enough to get me to the bookstore and to buy it. But I had no idea just how much it would resonate.

My father passed five years ago. Also cancer. Also had metastasized throughout most of his organs. He had a tumor between each of his vertebrae. He passed a few weeks after being diagnosed. And during that time I was with him as he wouldn't eat and as he'd hallucinate about being 16 and driving fast cars. The humor and joy he had during the hallucinations were as much a gift as the few moments of lucidity when I could really talk wit him. Both were difficult gifts, of course.

I cried all the way through this chapter. It was a beautiful catharsis and so comforting to not feel so alone. Thank you a thousand times.

1:48 PM, March 26, 2009  
Anonymous Katie said...

Molly, I came across your blog by chance and have been reading the old posts to get to know you. You're a wonderful writer - this post, in particular, is beautiful.
I wish I could uproot myself from my home in Sydney, Australia, in order to eat at your table (if you'd have me).
Let me know if you ever need a chaperone down under :)

9:26 PM, April 13, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Molly - I greatly enjoy your blog and recipies. I wanted you to know that I sent this poem to my brother and sister. While we are older and our Dad and Mom have been gone over 4 years we are still so lonely for them. Poetry, Mozart arias and delicious eating reminds us to live our lives as fully as your dear Dad. Thank you

4:11 PM, May 04, 2009  
Anonymous Nurit said...

Hi Molly,

I am thinking about you and your dad and family, and how you describe in your book your family being together at home during his last weeks, taking care of him and of each other.
My dad is so sick. I don’t know if he’ll make it. But our story is so different. This is why I came to look again at your dad posts.
I want to write about it, to let it all out, but it’s scary.
My father left me when I was about 3 years old and moved to another continent and moved on with his life. Like a friend recently told me – I have already lost him a long time ago and practically all my life.
Our family is so separated too. I feels so lonely.
It makes me happy though to hear storied of families like yours, where people help each other, love each other.

(By the way, you signed my copy of your book “To Molly” – how funny is that?)

1:41 PM, June 15, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just shed a tear for your father...and for mine...

4:43 AM, July 24, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Molly,

I just discovered your blog about three days ago, working backwards through while I eat my meals! I just read this post and definitely cried the whole way through. My father and I were never close, but my father-in-law was amazing. He was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma a year after he retired and died a year later. Throughout his illness he couldn't eat many of his favorite things, but near the end, the doctor told him he could have his favorite, vanilla ice cream from Fenton's in Oakland. I remember helping him eat this favorite treat and him looking so very happy. Thank you for sharing this, it brought this memory back tonight.


10:27 AM, November 25, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had many big losses so far. I am sure I will have more. I still do not understand why good people leave us so early (and I am over my forties). That's why I believe like you that they are always around, even when they are not physically anymore. That's the only comfort I have found since my losses started. Thanks for sharing your history.

1:34 PM, April 14, 2010  
Anonymous gwen said...

And now I've joined the society of weepers.

My dad died long before I had the chance to know him and I went abroad this semester to the University he attended and lectured at in Sydney.

It makes me happy that such an excellent person such as yourself (I'd like to believe that no one could write as well as you do and not be an excellent person) had such a dad to know and love, plus we can't be wasting all of those excellent parents in the world on obnoxious brats now can we. I'm in favor of a ballot measure for the reappropriation of excellent parents. - sorry 2 AM logic-

8:37 AM, June 18, 2010  
Anonymous tom said...

Dear molly, from far away i come. just decided to read your blog from the start, as if it was a book, and not long after i'm already inspired.
The post, for I read many food blogs, is one of the best recipe for warmth I encountered with.

thank you M.

6:47 AM, April 15, 2011  
Anonymous Lauren said...

Molly - I read the chapters on your Dad's illness and death today on the train into work this morning. Your words there - and here, in this old post - were so deeply moving and hit a nerve for me in so many ways. I would imagine that anyone who's ever lost someone to cancer can relate, in a way, to what you've gone through with your Dad. Thanks for sharing such a deeply moving and personal story. And for the record, your Dad sounds like a hoot - I would have loved to have known him!

10:49 AM, June 22, 2011  

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