September 1, 2014 by The Citron Review
by Mark Liebenow
When my wife Evelyn unexpectedly died in her forties, food tasted like sawdust. I couldn’t smell anything, sunlight felt faint, and the sounds of the busy city were muted. Alone in my house with white stucco walls and dark green carpet, I lost ten pounds that first week. Bev and Dean brought a gallon of chicken soup over so I ate that until it was gone. Then I began to cook chicken and vegetables—only to stay alive.
After a month I can’t face baked chicken anymore and risk going out to eat by myself for the first time. Call it survivor’s guilt, but it’s hard to enjoy anything knowing that Evelyn can’t. And tonight I need people around. I pick the Black Angus Restaurant in San Leandro, one of the places we went to celebrate something, even if it was just being together in our struggles with bad jobs. Ev would have the prime rib with the horseradish sauce that had a kick, while I often chose the sampler platter. I order it again tonight, aware every moment that someone is missing across from me, and trying not to care what other diners might think.
In the past I’ve noticed people eating by themselves and wondered if it was because of grief, a personal choice, or some behavioral quirk, and felt sorry for them. Now I know that widows and widowers are trying to piece together enough moments of diversion to fend off the depression that the absence of a loved one brings. Coming to a restaurant and eating alone is a step forward, even if it takes all of our strength to do just this. It’s easier to stay home, eat something filling from a box, and open another bottle of wine. I take my time with the warm cheesy texture of the potato skins, the buffalo strips, and the fried garlic zucchini. Warm and fried I can taste. When I finish, I do not look to see if anyone has been watching. I do not want pity.
A few months later, on the way home after another dull day at work, I stop at Ruby’s Café for Szechwan pork and garlic green beans. With the first bite, a shudder runs through my body and I stop eating. What are these wonderful flavors on my tongue? An exquisite pleasure has flooded my world and pushed the heaviness aside. I devour all the pork, pour the rest of the sauce over the sticky rice and gobble that up between gulps of jasmine tea. I consume the egg roll in two large bites, its succulent, crunchy vegetables filling my mouth with textures and flavors, then munch the fortune cookie and lean back full, with a surprised and satisfied grin.
Where did this sudden joy come from? I could taste all the spices! But this was about more than good food. This transcended the physical sensations. Hungers that rose from sorrow were also being fed.
In the next days and weeks, food continued to be visceral and vital. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, excited for what I might eat next, thinking about the tastes, smells, and textures of food — spicy and sweet, tangy and tart, gooey and crunchy. I’d fill the fridge with ingredients for Southwestern cuisine, which was too spicy for Ev, and make grasshopper pie for dessert, using extra crème de menthe for the buzz.
After work at midnight, it’s sharp cheddar quesadillas with hot, garlic salsa. Once a week I make a big bowl of spaghetti for dinner, trying out different sauces and combinations of oregano, basil, rosemary, and sage, and tear apart entire loaves of fresh and crusty sourdough bread from a San Francisco bakery; fresh almond bearclaws from the Bit of Ireland Bakery, Kung-pao chicken from Ruby’s Café, and Duffy’s double-dark chocolate ice cream made fresh down the street. My proverbial cork has popped and though I have nothing to celebrate except the food, I’m relieved that I care about something again.
An email from my friend Tom gathers members of Evelyn’s Revels theater group together for a one-year wake at the Pacific Coast Brewery near the Oakland waterfront. I order the Gray Whale Ale, a medium-bodied amber with a balance of bitter and sweet to match my life. We go around the table and toast Evelyn, still feeling shock at her dying so young. My favorite toast is Miko’s: “To the many sweet memories of our dear friend. Not lost, just gone before!”
We settle on four appetizers: spicy chicken wings with blue cheese dressing; mushroom caps stuffed with crab, artichoke, and cheddar cheese; beer-battered zucchini with lime-chili aioli; and prosciutto and melon with parmesan and crostini; then share stories of Evelyn. Hannah tells about the diva parties she and Ev threw for their birthdays every year, complete with cheap tiaras, spoofing all the actresses they had to work with that demanded special treatment.
The evening of remembrance and celebration ends by singing one of Evelyn’s favorite songs from a Revels show and passing around a pint of her favorite ale made from apricots. She wasn’t much of a beer drinker but came here one afternoon with some of these friends. They ordered the sampler platter of six beers and Ev settled on this one. I steel myself for a beer made from fruit, yell “For Evelyn!” and take a long drought of the bright orange stuff.
Mark Liebenow’s writings on grief have been published or are forthcoming in journals like River Teeth, Under the Sun, and Modern Loss. This essay is from his unpublished grief memoir. His account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with grief, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. His essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and named a notable essay by Best American Essays 2012. His grief website is http://widowersgrief.blogspot.com.