January 8, 2016, My Apartment, Texas
“When are you coming back to Texas?” he asked me for the fifth time that week. “Did you not get my text message asking about your return dates?”
An invisible force squeezed my heart. It hurt deeply to be away from him during this time of year. But I had no choice. If I was going to be a support to him and pay my own bills, I needed to work (which meant traveling) during the Christmas and New Year holidays.
I felt like I was leaving him vulnerable and in danger. I’m writing about my friend from an earlier post The Halal Guys. Metaphorically speaking, he was side swiped by an eighteen wheeler of mental illness which included the trifecta: psychosis, severe depression and agoraphobia. This illness interrupted his exuberant life and slammed into him out of nowhere. And January 8, 2016 is year two of being one of his caregivers. There are three of us and we each take turns making sure he has what he needs to move through a day like the rest of us.
We know that it’s much worse for him than he lets on. Our vigilance for his care is sometimes sidelined by the management of our own lives. But he is my heart and one of a half dozen people that I call ‘inner circle friends’. During this time his physician hadn’t yet found the magical combination of medication to help him balance his mental state as well as his perception of the outside world.
In addition, there were no wide strides in his recovery only baby steps. For example, if I insisted that I go with him to the grocery we could only be gone thirty to forty-five minutes. After the thirty minute mark he is squeezing the grocery basket handle so tightly his fingers and the tops of his hands are white. He would come to a slow stop in the middle of the grocery aisle and stand with slumping shoulders and his head bowed. Moving only his eyes he would look up at me and speak in a trembling voice.
“I’ve been gone too long…can we leave now?”
I remind him that we’ve only been gone thirty minutes and that we have ten more items to mark off our shopping list. There is no response only movement toward the registers. I remember how chaotic that area of the store was and how it made him nervous. I could see him look up at good looking men in the register lines. I wondered if he was comparing aspects of his life to aspects of other people’s lives: fitness, youth, income, job, style, friends in tow, etc. For most everyone in the store it was a casual shopping day but for him it was a dangerous safari. He stayed as close to me as possible using me as a shield against the unexpected intrusions of sound.
As I drive home to Texas I’m remembering episodes like these and trying to formulate a plan for the week so I can bring some joy into his life.
But unbeknownst to me he already has a plan and is beyond excited that I am only forty-five minutes from home and even more excited that I’m heading to his house first. As I bring my car to a stop in his driveway I notice that he is waiting for me. He is fueled with more physical energy than I’ve seen in a while. He walks out to greet me and practically drags me into the house with excitement. He is in an unusually different mood. I see the familiar glimmer of my sweet friend. I knew he was still in there!
He is excited about a box and pulls me into the kitchen. There are two large boxes of food that are covering most of the kitchen counter. Canned sweet potato’s, canned corn, fresh onions, oranges, apples, two boxes of Stove Top Stuffing, and two cans of cranberry sauce. He sees me grimace at the Stove Top Stuffing and the ‘canned’ cranberries.
“Oh will you please make us Christmas dinner with this food? I know you wanted to cook for me when you got home. Can you please use the same cranberries and stuffing they gave us? They gave me a giant turkey too but I had to put it in the freezer at your apartment. Oh, Wally, it’s the biggest turkey I’ve ever had.”
A turkey and all of its accessories was given to him by a local nonprofit that was helping him get better with mental health counseling and guided him through the confusing maze of public assistance for medical care, psychiatric care, food stamps, short term disability, dental care, etc. It made him cry when they called him and told him they were giving him a box of Christmas dinner.
Part of his tears came from the state of his situation which has many times been hopeless & dark and the not knowing if he will ever get well. And, the other reason he cried, I think, was the surprise of kindness shown by this multi-million dollar agency — that they would look downward toward those clinging to its ankles and provide this type of nourishment and more importantly, acknowledgement.
A day or two later I awoke very early to start all of the preparations for our celebratory meal. And it is with much trepidation that I am preparing this meal because of its significance to him and that he wants to honor those who acknowledged him in his need.
And, then, the other shoe drops. He asks,
“I know it wasn’t in the food box but are we having gravy?”
“Do you want gravy?” I ask.
“Please? Is it okay? I’d really love to have some gravy with this meal.”
He writhes his hands together like a little boy asking for the biggest favor. His posture is humble and timid; he is mildly afraid that he will inconvenience me. I wrap my arms around him tightly and kiss his cheek and reassure him that we will, indeed, have gravy.
It’s still early in the day (thank God). I had totally forgotten the ‘gravy’ part. Auuuugggghhhh. I’ve only made gravy once. And, I’m not good at it. How do you get good at making turkey gravy if you only make it once a year?
I sat in front of my computer and knelt before the food gods and implored their guidance. From a Google search I found a web link from one of the younger deities whose name is Ree Drummund, aka, The Pioneer Woman. I’d seen a few of her shows and I liked her style.
I’m reading her recipe for giblet gravy and laughing out loud. She and I have the same attitude toward the preparation for giblet gravy: “GROSS!!”. She writes,
“…as you’re peeling the meat off of the neck, try not to think the phrase ‘neck meat’ as you’re doing it…”
When I made my very first turkey it was 2010. I was rinsing this twenty pound turkey side ways and front ways under the faucet and trying desperately not to drop the damn thing back into the sink. Suddenly I heard a THUNK THUNK.
“What was that noise?” I asked David, my boyfriend at the time.
David slowly raised his arm revealing an intestinal-like creature dangling between his fingers.
“I think it’s the neck,” he said not quite sure himself.
Instantly, my entire body was covered in creepy goosebumps. The muscles we use to keep us standing and upright all raised their hands in disgust leaving their posts which left me weak enough for the turkey to slip through my gorilla hands and fall back into the sink. I fell to one knee hanging on to the sink’s edge with my right hand and maintaining my balance with my right forearm.
“The, (gasping), the…what?!?! The…..neck?!?! I think I’m gonna hurl.”
I didn’t hurl, but, I did need a moment to breathe through it.
“THROW IT OUT!” I instructed.
Like a five year old holding an interesting foreign object that captured his curiosity David continued to hold the turkey neck at eye level and studied it with somewhat of a grin on his face. That grin looked like he was challenging it to move with his eyes. He was not undone by its skinless and creepy appearance as he made his way toward my foot-operated trash can. After he dropped it into the white plastic abyss it took five seconds for that damn lid to lower thanks to the fancy trash can lid shocks from Bed Bath & Beyond.
I followed the Pioneer Woman’s recipe for turkey gravy and it seemed to satisfy his holiday meal craving. The entire meal was a success actually. The turkey (which I thawed for two days in advance) came out of the oven so juicy and tender even I was surprised. For the turkey, I followed a recipe from the Barefoot Contessa. You can never go wrong with her guidance. I also made decaf Lipton iced tea which is always a staple at dinner. I don’t remember what we had for dessert, if we had dessert.
After dinner I could tell he was getting sleepy and set him up with sleeping accommodations so he could go right to bed. He gets very sleepy after I fill his belly with home cooking. I don’t get sleepy after dinner. I get sleepy after wine. If I have wine at dinner I’m ready for bed after the first glass. After two glasses I am very affectionate. After three glasses I’m showing you my tan lines.
The next morning he complimented me on the amazing Christmas dinner we had two and a half weeks after the holiday. He looked forward to seeking out and thanking those at the agency who helped arrange for him to have these provisions at Christmas.
It stayed with me a while how much this simple gesture meant to him. It reminded me of a crowd you see standing along the sides of the road during a marathon. They holler and cheer for the runners and hand them water. And I am so grateful that a big ass agency like this one allocated time and resources to cheer on my marathon runner who once long stood along the side of the road to cheer and hand out water.