Cooking, without any regard to health or one's longevity, is very liberating.
I learned this after my husband was diagnosed with stage-four brain cancer the day before Thanksgiving last year. He was given, at most, six months to live; it was devastating. The tumor was right in the middle of his brain and the outlook, even with treatment, looked pretty grim. We had just gotten married a year ago, too.
There are a million coping mechanisms for dealing with news like this. One of the [things] that I poured myself into was making sure that every meal that he had was as good as it can be. That, along with picking up a good sense of gallows humor, because I knew that if I wasn't healthy enough emotionally and physically, I wouldn't suffer the most—he would. If I wasn't on my A-game for him all the time, who else would [be]?
I made sure that anything I cooked for him from that point forward would enliven his senses, and that it would look good, smell good, taste good, and be luxurious as it can be. We were looking at his own mortality. When this is the case, pretty much anything goes in the kitchen.
All cancer patients approach diet differently. It varies on their treatment plan, mostly. Originally, my husband's treatment plan that doctors recommended was incredibly aggressive. It involved radiation and chemotherapy administered at the same time. These treatments can alter the way your taste buds work. When we found this out, I imagined the feeling of betrayal that a cancer patient must feel when they eat their favorite comfort food and it tastes bitter instead of pleasant. This realization was definitely not the primary factor in his decision to let the cancer go untreated, but it was it was one of them.
We felt that the aggressive treatment's effect on his quality of life was not worth the loss of being able to eat well. He wanted to be able to take in the care and attention involved in making the bread, lasagna, and soup that his friends drop off as a gift. He wanted to have the energy to enjoy an afternoon with the dogs or with friends. All of these things become compromised when you pursue aggressive treatment.
Simply put, my husband wanted the remainder of his time on this planet to be filled with as much enjoyment as he was capable of embracing. For him, this means being able to eat—and God, has he been eating.
He was born in 1958, so I've been doing things like Salisbury steak, because the nostalgic power of that dish helps that part of his brain.
A typical day's diet for him is egg and chorizo breakfast tacos that are lightly fried on the pan to get a little crispy; a sandwich piled high with butter, and thinly shaved Spanish ham that goes for $20 a pound for lunch; a rack of lamb with gremolata, red wine reduction, and broccoli as a nod to health for dinner, and mini eclairs made from scratch for dessert. He also has a steady supply of ice cream. Also, flan. He loves flan.
My only goal when cooking for my husband is to elicit pleasure.
He was born in 1958, so I've been doing things like Salisbury steak, because the nostalgic power of that dish helps that part of his brain. The tumor in his brain has affected both his long-term and short-term memory. The food that I prepare for him will invoke a remembrance for him. He loves French cuisine and the giant mound of butter that you have to go through in all of the dishes, so I've been blowing through Cognac and butter like crazy.
One time I served him a salad, and that didn't go so well. He looked at me like I was crazy.
Some people have told me, "Why don't you just cook the same thing that he had for dinner, since he probably doesn't remember what it was?" As his caregiver, feeding him the same thing over and over seems like a horrible crime. So I've really been going through cookbooks looking for inspiration through recipes.
He doesn't have the strength to cut meat anymore, but that hasn't stopped me from making him a medium-rare ribeye. That's one of his favorite meals, with some red wine compound butter on top and a salt-crusted baked potato on the side. I've kept a meal journal of all his meals, and it's been helpful for me because it lets me know the way he's heading.
One time I served him a salad, and that didn't go so well. He looked at me like I was crazy. "I don't know how much time I have left. I'm certainly not going to waste a meal on salad," he joked.
We're all mortal, we're all going to die. This is the only guarantee we have in life. The plot twist is that we don't know when. For my husband, we have a general timeline of that. There is beauty in this fact because he's able to truly live according to pleasure only. It's a luxurious way of eating food that isn't really sane, but given that we know that he will be gone soon, it was totally OK.
As long as he can lift a fork on his own, he will decide what goes on it. Eventually, that fork is going to fall out of his hand and he is not going to be able to pick it up. When he is no longer able to swallow, he will have seven to 12 days left. We're not there yet, but that is the direction where we are headed.
My aunt died of a very similar brain tumor, and I remember shortly after my husband was diagnosed, my cousin came over and told me, "This is going to sound crazy, but enjoy this time." At first, I was like, "The fuck? The love of my life is dying. We just planted fruit trees in our backyard and he is not going to watch them grow! I am wrecked with grief and mourning for the loss of my husband. How am I supposed to enjoy this time?"
However, I have come to agree with my cousin.
There is nothing that I can do to change the diagnosis. Once I processed my grief, I realized that it need not be the only thing that I experience through this process. I learned that it is important to step back from the sadness that I was experiencing and still live with him as his loving wife.
That Thanksgiving was the best one that I've cooked yet.
As told to Javier Cabral
This article was originally published on MUNCHIES on February 22, 2016