“Cheetos, a glass of wine, and a cigar, please.”

This is what my father asked for after suffering what we thought was a mild heart attack just hours earlier. He lay there, slightly uncomfortable in his tiny hospital bed, while the nurses laughed and joked with him about how they might allow him the glass of red wine, but certainly the other two would need to be debated over the next few months.

Twelve hours later, my husband and I were standing in the Minneapolis airport after hearing only a few hours earlier that Dad had somehow taken a critical turn for the worse.

Ten minutes after deplaning, my mom hesitated on the phone: “Sarah, your daddy died.”

Now, my heart was failing. The little I had managed to consume that morning immediately hardened in my stomach as my mind shifted focus to the part of me that contained the very most critical of emotions. Every single part of my body hurt as I collapsed next to my husband in complete disbelief. My worst fear had just unfolded on the other end of a cheap cell phone. He was gone. Unexpected. Premature by at least two decades.

Not even two hours later, we arrived at my childhood home, where the rest of my family was waiting, along with neighbors, extended family, and a few old friends. My father had been dead for less than four hours and our kitchen was already magically filled with containers of food. Cookies, veggie trays, and “hot dishes” piled up…as well as a catered meal from none other than Olive Garden (a Midwestern staple in times of need.) None of that even looked appealing in what felt like the most shocking moment of my entire life. For the first time, my appetite had completely disappeared and was replaced with what felt like complete horror…and denial.

Throughout the day, more people came and more food was placed into our refrigerator and freezer while folks lingered for a few moments with shocked and sympathetic expressions on their faces. They had no idea what to do or say, so they brought us dinner.

Each new hug from every new person squeezed whatever stability I had left inside of me and before I knew it, I was doubled over in my childhood bedroom, my husband holding back my hair while I threw up the pretzels and half of a garlic bread stick I apparently thought I could handle. My body was rejecting everything besides the intense feeling of undeniable grief.

Two days passed. Funeral arrangements were made. More food arrived.

I woke up that Tuesday morning at 5am and crept downstairs to see if anybody else was sharing in my insomnia. I had been sleeping with my mother so as avoid her waking up in the middle of the night to an empty bed, thus catapulting her into what we all imagined would be uncontrollable grief…as if that was even avoidable.

As I walked through our family room (which was now doubling as my brother’s bedroom) I saw that he was also wide-awake at this ungodly hour, sitting on the couch with his girlfriend. They moved over and welcomed me on the couch as we snuggled under blankets. Within moments, my mother had crept down the stairs and crawled next to us, holding us while wiping tears away…remembering Dad. After several moments of more shared memories, my brother paused and said, “I’m sorry, guys, but I am so hungry. I really need some French toast immediately.” We laughed and agreed that for the first time we all felt the need to really eat. We started clanking around the kitchen before daylight had even broken, making an epic breakfast of scrambled eggs with cheese, French toast, hashed browns, and some banana muffins and fruit that had arrived the day before. We filled the void with a homemade meal that we created together as a broken family.

Later that day, a package was delivered to our house full of several meals–all vegetarian. One of my best friends back on the east coast grew concerned about our well being after spending some time in the Midwest and realizing that vegetarians didn’t always fare well. She hopped on Google and found a restaurant that had several animal-friendly options and ordered the entirety of their vegetarian menu and had it delivered for us. We were touched not only by her consideration to feed the hippies, but also her intuition to know that this was not a time to ignore our own bodies and what they needed so desperately.

At one point my brother’s new girlfriend, thrown into the mix at the worst time possible, looked at my mother and said in the simplest of ways “I really think you deserve a treat.” She then proceeded to direct us to the nearest McDonald’s, where we all indulged in McFlurries and super-sized fries just moments after picking up the local newspaper that held my father’s untimely obituary, which we read under the influence of ice cream headaches.

Two days later, we gathered at what would now be called “Mom’s house,” with the extended family and friends, just moments after saying our final goodbyes to a casket containing my father’s body. It wasn’t really him in there, was it? As people started to disappear, I turned to my husband and asked him to bring up what was possibly the most special bottle of wine that I had ever purchased for my dad. We opened the 1999 Ridge Monte Bello with my Uncle Jimmy and his family in honor of the bond the two brothers shared over wine…a bond that my husband and father had also shared. We led the group in a tasting of what might possibly be the finest bottle of wine that any of us would ever indulge in again. We raised a glass in honor of a man that had collected over 70 bottles of wine and kept them each for a reason. He kept them to share with the people he loved.

Dad corrupting Sophia

If only we had cigars and Cheetos to top it off.

Several days later, we arrived back in Park Slope with heavy hearts and broken spirits. Good friends and a well-stocked refrigerator full of food welcomed us home. The next week was full of visitors bringing a variety of meals in the form of soups, salads, cakes, desserts, coffee, groceries, and beer.

A delicious cake made by Susie Giboni. It didn't last long...

So my dear readers, though you are few, I write this only to help remind everyone of the importance of what it is that we all do here. We create food not only in celebration, but in times of sorrow and pain, all of which creates a deep need within each of us. Sustenance is essential to survival and as the living we must enjoy every bite.

My father was a man who loved food, but never abused it. He died unexpectedly of something that was not caused by being unhealthy- in fact he was what his doctors described as the picture of health. It was a disease completely unrelated to anything, like dying tragically in a car accident…and it could have happened to anyone. I write this knowing that he would want my readers to continue to eat, drink, and merrily enjoy what life we all have left inside of us.

No man was like him. I miss him dearly. Cheers to him.

Dad and Oliver sharing a meal made by Park Slope Kitchen, Christmas 2009

Dad's 60th Birthday, Grand Cafe Minneapolis, 2009

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