Widows often say that they’ve stopped cooking. They don’t have the heart, they say. They no longer care what they eat, they say. They can’t bear to eat alone, can’t bring themselves to shop and cook just for one.
I admit that I don’t cook the way I used to, but I have kind of prided myself on the fact that I do cook for myself, do make an effort to eat well, go to the farmer’s market, frequent the good butcher shop, take care of myself as best I can.
And I’ve made sure that I always have something to read when I sit at the table alone, and I’ve mostly tried to taste the food and not just lose myself in a novel, as you might in a good conversation. Eating alone is one of the hardest things, it seems like an act against nature. But for two years and three months I have sat alone with a plate of something or other, and I have managed, as my grandmother used to say, to keep body and soul together.
Then tonight, don’t ask me why, I decided to roast a chicken. I’ve cooked and eaten a lot of chicken over those twenty seven months, but for some reason I’ve never actually roasted a whole chicken. I’ve just made pieces and parts for myself, as if I didn’t merit a whole bird. And as I was stuffing that chicken with garlic cloves and lemon slices, and showering it with salt, I found myself wondering whether I should make gravy with the drippings.
One minute I was contemplating stirring some good cream into the fragrant juices and reducing them, and the next minute I was doubled over the sink, wailing, tears slicking down, out of nowhere. Because, of course, a roast chicken with lemon and garlic and cream gravy was Shel’s favorite dish, and I’d forgotten all about that. If I’d remembered, in the butcher shop, I would have bought more bits and pieces and fed them to myself, never thinking about missing the whole. But now, it’s too late. The chicken is in the oven, roasting away as if he were here to eat it. I’ve avoided this pain so far -since his death I haven’t baked chocolate chip cookies or pound cake or biscuits, the things that remind me unbearably of my former life in the kitchen. But the chicken sneaked up on me, ambushed me after a hard afternoon of muddling through winery math problems. Cooking was meant to be a respite from that work, but instead tumbled me headlong into a sinkhole of grief.
I can smell it now as it roasts, the lemon note floating above the garlic, the golden skin crisping. It’s the thought of the gravy that undoes me. Yes, I know I can sauté those tiny eggplants with my friend’s zucchini, I know I can pour wine, because I can always pour wine. But do I have the courage to make that gravy, and serve it to only me, myself, and I? There’s still twenty-five minutes on the timer. Twenty-five minutes to face the fact that he will never again carve the chicken, serving himself the breast and me, the leg and wing. Twenty-five minutes to stare into the face of loss. What would you do?