Last week my husband’s younger brother, Paul, died of cancer. He had gone to the dentist, had a tooth pulled, and discovered cancer in his jaw. Two days later, he died in bed. Although he had cancer in his mouth, the cancer he had in his heart was the primary cancer. He died when part of his heart stopped pumping blood to his brain. My husband and I made the journey back from our small town on the shores of Lake Michigan to Toledo, Ohio where we had both grown up and where Paul had lived his whole life.
As we drove, we tried to wrap our hearts and minds around what had just happened. Because of the type of cancer he had, we knew this sudden death had been a severe mercy for Paul, but we ached for his wife and his two sons in their early twenties who were just starting to launch into life. We passed through the Ohio border, and the sign, “Welcome To Ohio, The Heart Of It All” had a new meaning for me. Everything is about our hearts. Ohio was where our stories had begun for us, this man and I, who have been married for 42 years. All of the struggles, heartaches and healings we have known are linked to this place in our hearts, Toledo.
Time often seems to stop for me when we visit Toledo. So many of the friends and relatives who had lived there for their whole lives seemed to not change. It always was a paradox; the comfort of a home to return to no matter how uncomfortable it was. My husband and I grew up in the same neighborhood and lived as children in the same very Catholic ethnic culture. Things are done in a very set way, and we always knew what to expect no matter how painful. Even though Tim and I had made different choices with our lives and had left that culture, the comfort of the sameness and the ritual was there. We would always return for Christmas, Weddings, Baptisms, Graduations, and Funerals.
We had buried our parents there. We had grown up with many of the people who came to the funeral, but this time home was different. I didn’t feel the comfort. I had to be comfort for others and I felt so empty. My words felt hallow, so I got quiet. Everyone looked older now, more fragile, and more precious. What hit me is that from now on we would be burying the “kids” all our siblings, and eventually, Tim and I. While I was not noticing, the years had flown by. After the funeral and luncheon was over my husband and son changed into their hunting clothes and drove to their Deer Camp in Northern Michigan. I was so glad for that. Our son Jack, now married and a father of 3 himself, was going to drive his Dad. The transition of Jack taking charge marked some change of power for me that had probably happened some time ago, but I hadn’t noticed. It was sad …. And …. I was never more grateful for my son. I was so grateful for their relationship. He was a comfort. I knew their conversation in the car would be healing and holy.
And then I was alone. I began the drive back to Michigan. My heart seemed to explode in the car as I crossed the Ohio border to Michigan. I felt so empty, vulnerable, tired, and confused. My husband had been a solid foundation for our family for 42 years; what would happen if I lost him? I felt once again like the little girl growing up in a home dominated by alcohol that needed comfort and healing, and I was alone again. Struggling with a food addiction for many years, I have spent these last 10 YEARS taking care of that little girl inside and giving her the loving comfort of 3 healthy meals each day. I take her to food recovery meetings so she won’t feel so alone. Most days now I eat to live instead of live to eat. I don’t eat sugar because I have a pattern of doing violence to myself with it.
One of my friends from recovery called me on the way home to see how I was doing. Good friend that she is, her parting comment was, “Don’t stop at the bakery on the way home.” I began to wonder if she could read my mind. So halfway home, I decided to eat lunch at Culver’s, where I often go, because they have great salads.
But I know they have other things at Culver’s that I used to eat compulsively. I have seen the pictures when I buy my salads, and it is like food porn for me. I have to turn away. As I drove into the Culver’s parking lot my screaming, lost, little girl heart said “Wait. She said, ‘Don’t stop at a bakery, but she didn’t say Culver’s!’” So I drove over to the drive through, too ashamed to eat this stuff inside. I drove up to the big black order box, and to the young voice of “May I help you?”
I said, “I want a LARGE FRY….and one of those mixer things that you put candy in.”
So she asked me what I wanted in it and I said I didn’t know, “What do you have?” She read off a list of possibilities. And, I don’t know, maybe because the box looked like a confessional, very anonymous, I said, “You know, I just came back from a funeral and I am having a hard time choosing.” She said, “Well, our salted caramel is good.” And I said, “Great, give me the biggest one you have.” And from this black box I heard the kindest response ever to my lost little girl heart, “I like where you are going with this!” I felt delighted in, not shamed. I felt as if my loss was seen and affirmed. I began to feel calm inside for the first time in a week. She told me how much I owed, and then said very slowly, “I am going to make this mixer for you, and I want you to taste the LOVE in it.” And then I knew. It was Jesus speaking through the young thing at Culver’s. I recognized his voice.
I began to sob as I drove around to pay for my food. Someone brought out the fries and the mixer and I angled parked to eat the food in my car. Then a knock came on my window and it was the girl from the black box and she said “Did you taste the LOVE in it?” I told her I did and she walked away, smiling. And, I ate half of the French fries and took 3 bites of the mixer through my tears and knew I didn’t need any more of it. I had gotten what I had longed for. The Comforter had come to me at Culver’s. In the past once a binge had started, I could never stop it, but my heart had gotten what it needed. I put the ice cream mixer into the bag. I stopped at a grocery on the way home. I threw the ice cream and left over fries into the trash as I walked into the grocery store for vegetables to cook lovingly for myself that night. I heard Jesus speaking through the black box at Culvers saying, “Let not your heart be troubled little girl; you are never alone . I am with you always. I am the heart of it all.”
Michelle Reineck has been married to her Junior High sweetheart for 42 years now. She is a mother of 3, grandmother of 6 who loves reading (anything) and writing in her journal. Lately she has found herself creatively drawn to collage, combining it with writing. Her hobbies include biking, yoga, and knitting. She loves living in her “Mayberry of the Midwest”: South Haven, Michigan.