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.
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,
We breathe light.