48: Comfort Food

48: Comfort Food

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Miraculous Messages from Heaven

Comfort Food

No matter what else they’re doing, women are also always nurturing.

~Cokie Roberts

My oldest sister, Joyce, was diagnosed with cancer on her sixty-fifth birthday and died three months later. In her final days, family gathered around to say final goodbyes. With each of us she would ask, “Are you okay with this? Is there anything I can do to help you find peace with my dying?” That’s the kind of person she was — thinking of others when it should have been the other way around.

Before Joyce went into her deep sleep, she lay in her sick bed discussing favorite foods with me and another sister, Vina. Seafood was a favorite for Joyce; Mexican was my and Vina’s favorite, with seafood a close second for both of us. Vina asked Joyce, “Have you ever eaten coconut shrimp?”

“I’ve always loved fried shrimp, grilled shrimp, shrimp scampi… any way it’s cooked I love it. I haven’t ever tried coconut shrimp though,” Joyce replied with a wistful sigh.

My eyes met with Vina’s in a silent agreement. Joyce would have a chance to try it this very day. We went on discussing favorites. My favorite Mexican food is chile rellenos. It happens to be Vina’s favorite as well.

“You’re looking tired, Joyce.” Vina stood and motioned for me to come with her. “We will let you get a little rest but we’ll be back in after you sleep.”

Vina and I found a nearby seafood restaurant in the phonebook and called in an order of coconut shrimp. “You stay here, Chris, and I will go pick it up and bring it here.”

Vina returned shortly and Joyce was awake. We took the food into her bedroom and got her fixed up with a bed tray. “You two didn’t have to do this, but thanks.” As she thanked us she bowed quickly to bless her food, then picked up a shrimp and quickly put it down again on her tray. Her voice was weak and fragile as she said, “I will have to try it in a little while, I guess. I need to close my eyes for a few moments.”

We quickly took the tray and made our exit. “Don’t worry, we’ll save it for you,” we promised. I placed it in the refrigerator, along with the casseroles and sweets. It was the very last food discarded. Perhaps both Vina and I hoped she would miraculously awaken and want it.

Joyce never came out of that sleep. She had spoken her last words and then went into a coma. We called in friends and family who had not had a chance to say goodbye and we waited. Taking turns we each sat by her side and held her hand. She lingered in this state for three more days.

We had a kitchen full of fried chicken, casseroles, and desserts that people had brought and left for us to eat. The house was over-filled with people now. My brother, sister and I decided we needed to leave for a short while and could use some food other than chicken or casseroles. We decided on a nearby Mexican restaurant. My nieces and nephews joined us, and we munched on chips and salsa with hardly a word spoken between us. Vina and I had both ordered chile relleno platters. Just as the waitress had delivered everyone’s plates, and before anyone even took a bite, our cell phones began to ring. We knew before the words were spoken that my sister had died while we were all absent. Silently, we all stood, left our food untouched, paid the check and returned to Joyce’s house.

The next few hours and days were spent in a fog. We all did what had to be done. However, Vina and I both shared a deep regret that we had not been there when Joyce took her last breath. It was almost like we felt we had deserted her for the sake of a tasty meal. Neither of us voiced this sentiment but it was there nevertheless. Guilt is such a senseless enemy.

For many years afterward I could not eat a chile relleno. I somehow associated this food with my failure to be there in the end for my sister.

Recently, my husband ordered for me while I was in the ladies’ room. He had done this often before. He knew what I liked. “I ordered you a chile relleno. Is that all right?” he asked upon my return.

My pulse quickened, and a lump formed in my throat. “Yes, thank you,” I replied.

How could I enjoy this meal? How could I even manage to take the first bite? My heart filled with sorrow and guilt. I picked up my fork but just could not make myself eat. Then I saw it. Right there on my plate, beside the rice and beans, a lone shrimp… a coconut shrimp… in a Mexican restaurant! “Did you order this shrimp for me?” I asked my husband.

“I didn’t know they even serve shrimp here. Guess it comes as a food garnish or appetizer,” he answered. “If you don’t want it, I’ll have it!”

My eyes filled with tears even as a smile covered my face. “No, I think it was Heaven sent… just for me!” I replied. My heart swelled with joy and peace.

I was able to eat my meal that day and have eaten many chile rellenos since. Although we discovered that coconut shrimp was indeed on the menu, our waitress assured us that it was not their policy to put them on a Mexican dish. How one single coconut shrimp ended up on my plate was a mystery. But I knew.

My sister managed to send me a message that only Vina or I would understand. Though Vina had let go of her sense of guilt, I never had. I am convinced that’s why the shrimp was on my plate!

~Christine Smith

More stories from our partners