By Janeen Ellsworth
My dad, Jim, who's 75 years old and vibrantly healthy, is an amazing human and also one of my closest friends. It's statistically proven he's one of the most warm-hearted people you'll ever meet. I swear.
The last thing I want is for him to get taken advantage of, or to suffer.
Unfortunately, I'm only able to prevent one of those things from happening. So I'm going to cook my heart out for him like I've never cooked before.
A Navy veteran, former salesman for Bell Telephone, and once a driver for a local trolley tour service, my dad was the first wacko in Pittsburgh's old-school Lawrenceville neighborhood to make "jogging" a sport.
In 1961, no one, and I mean no one, would be caught dead running up and down Wickliff or Keystone Street, unless they were being chased by the fuzz. They didn't run for fun, and they certainly didn't do it for exercise.
But my dad did, in his Navy-issued, steel-toed boots. (Bricklayers' sons didn't know about athletic footwear, apparently.)
He also biked across the U.S. post-retirement, and still loves to pedal the roads now, twenty years later. He skis, and he hikes with his BFF, another Jim, regularly, and he would love-love-love the chance to sail his 17-foot sailboat, Helena, this summer, if only tragedy hadn't struck; if only he had a first-mate; if only it weren't such a chore at his age to get her onto the trailer and up to Lake Arthur for a sunset cruise.
A lifelong Catholic, my dad's actually gotten heavy into Buddhist meditation lately. While he's hilarious, ballsy, charming, a major flirt with everyone and always smiling, he's also one deep dude. He sings quiet, bedside, angelic hymns with an a capella group for folks in hospice care.
He volunteers at the Veterans' Hospital, never afraid to shake the hand of a dying soldier. The latest book he's been trying to get through, which has sat on his kitchen table unopened for the past month, is titled, "Advice for Future Corpses."
The dude has been processing grief, learning how to accept death, to not be afraid of it, and finding ways to make it easier for others his whole life. Something just draws him to deepening his already-deep well of compassion.
Why do I tell you all this?
Because, since he's such an amazing fellow, I've taken on Operation Nourish Dad Duty.
You see, nothing, NOTHING, could've prepared him for what happened this summer. His wife, my stepmother, had a catastrophic fall on June 2nd that's left her paralyzed from the neck down and on a ventilator, probably forever.
He's spent nearly every single day since then with her at different hospitals and rehab centers (the one day he didn't go was spent visiting nursing homes that might be able to house her, and talking to lawyers and financial advisers).
His days at these places are long and taxing. He spends them petting his wife's hair, kissing her cheek, telling her it's going to be alright, crying into his hands out in the waiting rooms or trying to make all of us visitors feel at ease.
Making us feel good.
Ordering a home-delivered meal kit actually started back in May, when my stepmom was just sick, not hospitalized, and they both needed support in the nutrition and grocery department.
Now, with her never coming home again, and him spending all his days at her bedside, my dad figured a meal kit would at least provide him a decent meal to come home to each night.
Here's how it works: You sign up, choose a general meal plan (like Vegetarian or Classic), decide how many meals per week you'd like to have delivered and for how many people, and then you peruse the offerings that are available under that plan for that week.
Make your selections, and then a week later a box of food shows up at your house that contains the ingredients for all of those meals in a brown bag (e.g., a red pepper, an onion, a packet of spices, a quarter-cup of rice you need to boil, a package of raw sausages, etc.), along with instructions for how to prepare them. All told, prep ought to take you about 30 minutes.
I hear this system works for young professionals who hate standing in grocery store lines. Or for single parents who don't have time to shop. Or busy people who still want the benefit of a "home cooked" meal but don't really know their way around a supermarket (or around a kitchen, for that matter).
I can imagine a meal kit might work for lots of folks in different situations. But it's not working out for my dad.
Dangit, the man is too tired to cook. Too distraught. Too overwhelmed with life.
What he needs is nourishment, along with comfort and lots of pampering. Unfortunately, a meal kit simply isn't what that offers.
It's my heroic sister, Liz, who goes to his house to prep these meals a couple of times per week so he doesn't have to, which is wonderful of her and which he so appreciates because he is beyond exhausted. Liz doesn't have kids, and she has a flexible schedule, so she's stepped up as Most Dutiful Daughter in this slow-motion train wreck. Thank you, Lizzy.
Our oldest sister, Gael, lives farther away but still local, and she's not just our protector, as she's always been. She's our ace in the hole when it comes to both prayer and research. She keeps us all informed as far as the complicated medical issues and financial considerations we need to make sure Dad takes care of. She also texts us the minute a dove flies across her path or any other biblical, symbolic miracle appears, making sure we know what it all means. Thanks, Gaely.
Shana, number 2 in the sister lineup, lives in California, which is a blessing. So does my dad's closest sibling, sweet Uncle Fran. The two of them, both with their golden hearts and smiling Irish eyes, stand sentry on the West Coast, shoveling prayers for healing out into the Pacific and beyond. Shana steps in as the voice of reason for us, too; a clarifying, objective person we all dump on when it's just gotten too real here. She feels torn because of her distance in all this, but she has no idea the comfort she provides in just being able to offer perspective. Thank you, Shana.
Even our mom, Pat, whose marriage to my dad disintegrated 30+ years ago, keeps making him blueberry pies for the sheer comfort of it. I think she knows, deep down, that her pies were some of the things he probably always liked best about her. What else could she do?
Our step-brother, who probably won't want to be named here because he's an internet security guy, is frantic on the inside, understandably, but has designated himself his mom's number one cheerleader. The dude is unshakably positive. He's at the hospital with her and my dad almost every day, too.
My role in this? After the first two weeks, when we were all together with him at the hospital for several hours every day, I stopped visiting regularly. I just couldn't: kids, summer camps, work, schedules, life. Instead, I visit once a week or so. I call and text him every day to check in, send him encouraging quotes of the mystical sort, send him prayers.
I made sure he got to church this past Sunday. I've brought lunch to Dad some days to supplement his nutrition, make sure he's keeping his blood sugar up. I've set alarms in his Android to remind him to take his blood pressure pill, which can become terrifyingly high under stress like this. I'm still not sure he's taking it on time most days, because hospital time pivots quickly: doctors and nurses appear out of the blue, at the most random moments, to deliver urgent, often life-altering news that washes over him with a whole new level of sad.
I'm also the one going into his online meal kit account to place (and oftentimes cancel, because it's just too much) his weekly orders. He doesn't have the patience for and can't figure out their not-intuitive platform.
For instance, I can't seem to take a look at all the meal choices on my own that are available until I commit with a credit card. And the 'cancel subscription' button is somewhat buried (I found it, but my aged, exhausted dad couldn't).
Plus, while they're pretty tasty (Liz vouches for that), Dad feels like the menu choices are often too spicy, they upset his GERD, and I think they probably contain too much sodium for his high blood pressure diet.
He also says the menu offers way too much meat: there's an abundance of choices for Italian sausage and pork chops and tilapia and steak and chicken--there's even duck!--but not nearly enough meatless choices for anyone who's ever heard the phrase Meatless Monday.
Unfortunately, with this particular service, there's no option to have a meal delivered for just one person. Now that my dad is eating alone every night, barely able to hold his head up long enough to get a fork into his mouth, what with all the mental and emotional anguish he's going through, it seems wasteful to have so much food coming in that he doesn't have the will to prepare.
All this costs about $54 per delivery, which comes once a week and includes the three meals for two people, plus $6.99 in shipping. He just knocked that down to two meals per week, but the shipping costs went up a dollar.
Dinner at home shouldn't cost this much. A quarter-cup of rice and a red pepper with some seasonings we already have in our spice cabinets, maybe with a little meat, ought to amount to about $4 per meal, which is the national average of a decent meal made out of grocery store food.
Compare that to the average $10 my dad is spending per meal, and it's easy to see this is a grotesquely expensive system. And it's also burning a whole lot of fuel and requiring a lot of packaging, so it's not an environmentally sound way to live.
It also deprives Dad of one of his great joys in life: a waltz through the aisles of his local Aldi, or the the East End Food Co-op or Trader Joe's to see what new foods are out there that he might like to sample.
Not that he has time for any of that these days...
Seniors who are taking care of other seniors, or who are barely able to take care of themselves, need nutritious, healthy, not-exotic, medically-appropriate, fully prepared, single-serve meals they can zap in the microwave the moment they remember to eat.
Luckily, Meals on Wheels already thought of this, decades ago. They've been delivering meals to low-income seniors--and thereby providing companionship as well as an extra pair of eyes to see if folks are okay and alive, even.
If you have disposable income, consider donating to MoW. They do truly good work. My late grandma, Mimi, used to volunteer there, building sandwiches and cooking soups for seniors, before she became a MoW recipient herself.
Dad probably doesn't qualify for Meals on Wheels (yet), but that doesn't mean he's stuck with this meal kit delivery service, either. Which is why I'm taking charge of his dinners from now on.
I've designed a starter menu with some of my family's favorites, things I know he likes, too, and we'll double every recipe, freeze some in containers he can thaw when he's ready, and we'll set aside manageable, single-sized portions for him, bringing whatever fresh toppings, breads, or sauces need to be included at delivery time.
Feel free to download a copy for yourself, if you're feeling stuck on meal plan ideas or if you have a person you'd like to prepare meals for. Recipes aren't included, but ingredients are. Maybe you'll find it useful. Maybe you'll save some money.
Wishing you and your family peace and health today and every day.
Check back soon for individual recipes! Or check out some others here.
I'm Janeen; writer, mother, wife, and full-time, radical Reductionist. I share stupid-easy tips on how to save money while reducing your impact on the environment, & I'm committed to helping others live a life of simple sustainability.
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