The first outing was to the office of the funeral parlor that would handle my brother-in-law’s cremation. We dressed in ‘civil’ clothes – as opposed to hospital-suitable yoga pants and hoodies- and loaded into M’s car.
M is my sister’s best friend. She and her husband are my sister’s housemates. For more than 3 years they have looked after the house and doggies while my sister and her husband spent months away working as entertainers on a cruise ship. They have been crucial to my sister surviving her husband’s sickness with any semblance of sanity and a semi-healthy BMI.
This cremation company had been selected from a list provided by the hospice because they offered a ‘basic’ package. My sister had been crystal clear on the phone when the appointment had been set about what she wanted from them: his ashes and 2 death certificates. That was it. No memorial service. No fancy urn. No temporary urn. No custom made themed urn. Nothing but his ashes and 2 death certificates.
We could –and should- have been in and out of the place in 5 minutes. Sit down, sign papers, pay and leave. Instead we were bombarded with 45 minutes of sheer babbling and unintelligible sales pitching. The kind that after the first quarter you only see the mouth moving but you cannot make out the words. People must regularly agree to a whole bunch of stuff they do not really want just to get this guy to shut up.
My sister handled it with grace and relentless determination; albeit with a few eye rolls and eyebrow lifts thrown in behind the babbler’s back. I held my poker face and M glared at him. Eventually he gave up and my sister was able to get him to hand over the papers so that she could sign and leave. But it took everything she had. Which, of course, after the 3 brutal months of her husband’s sickness, was not much.
Back in the car we started discussing lunch options. Our first choice restaurant turned out to be closed and then M, a first generation Vietnamese immigrant, came up with the best idea in the history of ever (only a slight exaggeration): ‘let’s go for pho’.
This is the reason why you need girlfriends in your life.
Pho is the Vietnamese national dish and it consists of a rice noodle soup made with herbs and meats in clear broth and served with basil leaves and bean sprouts on the side. But then, as with any well-made soup, it is so much more than its ingredients.
I have always been wary of people who don’t like soup. I secretly suspect that they lack the capacity for deep empathy and the ability to relax deeply.
Each culture has known the magical healing and comforting properties of its own traditional soup for as long as they first gathered as a group. That might even the core definition of what makes an assembly of people a culture, a nation.
Do you crave ‘asopao’ when it’s raining? You must be from the Caribbean. Do you want pho when a boyfriend breaks up with you? Your roots must be planted in Southeast Asia. Your head is exploding from a nasty sinus infection and you want tomato soup? The USA must be where you were raised. Caldo Gallego or Cocido? Spain. Burnt Flour Soup or Barley? Switzerland. Caldo Verde? Portugal. Though I suspect that Chicken Soup is universal.
But the healing benefits of these magical broths are not always the same. They vary according to how the soup was made and who made it for you.
At the entry-level of the restorative scale is a can of Campbell’s soup – tomato for some, chicken noodle for others- opened by the person in need, slopped into a bowl and heated in the microwave. Ok. It will keep you from dying. But this soup will only help your body, it won’t nourish your soul. Ramen noodles that come in a cup might be a just a tiny notch above.
The next step up in the healing ladder, but still within the self-made category, is pouring an envelope of Lipton’s soup or any other bag of dry noodles with prepackaged seasonings into a saucepan. If the sick person is up to adding a few frozen veggies, an egg or any kind of leftovers then its therapeutic powers will instantly go up.
But if the same soups are made by someone else, then their curative properties will double at the very least. If it is your own kid making them, it probably triples. But the medicinal powers of a cup of soup made by a beloved aunt, a caring mother, or indulging grandparent (my grandma could not cook to save her life; my grandfather was the kitchen wizard) are unrivaled.
Nothing will ever heal you as much as a steaming bowl of soup, served with love, and brought to your bed or couch as you mindlessly binge watch Gray’s Anatomy, The X Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes for the umpteenth time.
Soups made from scratch are in an entire different category; even if self-made. For the subset of humans that like to cook, even the action of chopping the vegetables is soothing. The chop-chop of the knife, dicing onions and carrots, peeling potatoes…. All these physical movements help to restore order within our Universe.
Heating something up cannot compare to the enticing smell of onions and garlic hitting the hot bottom of a pot. Of course, since making a great soup will require a few hours of simmering, the house will be filled for a long time with delicious scents every time the lid is lifted or the pot is stirred. Aromatherapy at its best.
M ordered bowls of pho for the tree of us. While we waited we sipped on our glasses of wine and chatted unhurriedly. My sister slowly beginning to ease into the change of pace from running around at full speed in between administering medications: Slow morphine, nausea, fast morphine, dizziness, anti acid/diarrhea/constipation, injections for one thing or the other. The later stages of his sickness were as physically and mentally demanding for her as having a premature newborn.
I could see my sister’s face relax even further as soon as the bowl was placed in front of her. ‘Doesn’t that just smell great?’ She quietly said as she inhaled deeply. Heartache loosening its hold momentarily. Garlic, ginger, lemongrass, cilantro, ginger, scallions, basil…. the steam emanating from the bowl of goodness perfectly conveying the aromas into our nostrils.
I could actually see the start of ‘the thaw’ going through her as she took her first sip. Her shoulders came down another half an inch. The soup magic was working. The grief frowns on her brow were less deep. A little smile appeared here and there.
We drank the broth from the big spoons, inexpertly twirled the noodles with the slippery chopsticks, and talked about how she would find and define her new ‘normal’. About taking as much time as needed to heal. About not letting anyone dictate what her future will look like. About not being pressured into rash decisions. When we were done we toasted to her husband, now free of pain and labored breaths.
As we walked out, M said: ‘Let’s go get our eyebrows threaded!’ My sister, now fortified by this magical soup, agreed enthusiastically. And this, in a nutshell, is exactly the reason why you need soup. And girlfriends.