The summer after I graduated from college, I was jobless and lying around at my parent’s house pondering my existence in the world. My grandma, Della, called me and told me to come see her. Della and Don Corleone shared this sort of control over people, when Della told you to do something you didn’t argue. Della had been sick, and since I was not working, and she needed help, it made sense for me to go. I was glad for the chance to escape since I hadn’t a clue what to do with the degree or my life. I was on the plane the next day heading for Pueblo, Colorado.
I wasn’t prepared for the woman who awaited me at the airport. She had lost weight and looked older than her sixty-five years.
“I am dying you know,” she said after we hugged.
“We’re all dying,” I replied. In my family, the women are the backbone. Weakness of any kind in the girls is considered one of the deadly sins.
Della wasn’t exactly cover material for Redbook. She was definitely not a blue rinse, Bloomingdales sort of lady—she clipped coupons, a scarred survivor of the Depression and was prone to hoarding cans of SPAM—and when the grey started weaving its way into her thick head of hair she opted for Lady Clairol’s Cherry Silver. She gave me a couple of days to enjoy our time together before we hit the Dialysis Center, and visited with her Doctor. Our meeting with him set the tone for the next couple of weeks.
“Your kidneys are failing, and dialysis is no longer a viable option.” Dr. Mong was matter of fact. “Mrs. Ortega, there is little we can do for you at this point. I suggest you tidy up your affairs and make final arrangements. Is there a Mr. Ortega? I’ve seen a couple of gentlemen come and go, but I wasn’t sure if one was a Mister.”
“There hasn’t been a Mister for quite some time, but there have been several SOB’s since Mr. Ortega left.” Still smiling, Della continued, “How much time is left on my limited warranty?”
“When is my time up? It can’t be that hard a question to answer. Is it hours, days, or weeks? Is the answer somewhere in those papers you are looking at?”
“Mrs. Ortega…” He paused for several seconds before lifting his eyes from Della’s chart. “It’s difficult to put an exact date on your warranty, but I suggest you gather your family and take care of any unfinished business. It’s a matter of weeks.”
“Thank you, Dr. Mong. Come on Hijta, let’s go to Passkeys Bar and have a cold beer, maybe some lunch, make some plans, and celebrate.”
“Thanks, Dr. Mong. OK Grandma, lunch it is.”
Over the course of the next week, the rest of the family flew in and took care of the final arrangements. I was at her side for whatever she needed. It was only fitting since she had always been there for me over the years. I had one more lesson to learn she told me the last night we were together.
“I haven’t given you my recipe for green chili stew,” she said.
I knew how to make it, had for years. I spent too many hours on her heels in the kitchen while growing up not to have learned how to make it. Since we were snuggling on her bed, I didn’t argue.
Her shunted arms pulled me in tight. The Este Lauder Youth Dew perfume she was so fond of wearing wasn’t strong enough to mask the smell of illness, which clings to the body after a hour in a hospital bed. We lay intertwined for a long while. She drifted in and out. I hadn’t had to confront death before nor was I sure what I was going to do without Della. She was always there with an answer, even before I knew the question.
“Hijta, I want to tell you how to make Green Chili Stew because you won’t find this recipe in Betty Crocker.”
“You need some pork, buy the cheap cut, pork shoulder is best and then cut it into bite-size pieces, fresh or canned tomatoes, and only use fresh roasted green chilies and jalapeños, chopped onions, fresh chopped garlic.” Then she explained how to cook it, “First you have to brown the pork, after it’s browned, smother it with flour, and brown that too.” She was specific with the ingredients, but vague with the measurements and the time required per task.
“I won’t be here to help you along Hijta. Life is not something you can measure out in cups and teaspoons. Remember this, and you will get along just fine. Cooking chili is a good place to find the answers you are looking for.”
I listened attentively because I wanted her voice to go on and on and never stop. After she finished explaining how to make chili, she asked me if I got it. I did. I understood. Life was not something I would find in books nor could I measure it out perfectly, and regardless it might come out differently depending on the conditions.
She closed her eyes for the last time.
What do you do when you are struggling with a life challenge? (I cook.)