Recipe for lemon crisps
Normally, I gobble it up by the spoonful. But in the fall of 2004, I was 20 weeks pregnant and undergoing the second round of a grueling form of chemotherapy that left me so nauseated, even the aroma of cooking made me want to throw up. Yet I needed to eat, needed nourishment for this baby despite the toxic cocktail of drugs being administered to combat stage 4 anaplastic large cell lymphoma.
The treatment is known as CHOP therapy. Each letter stands for a drug. But I like to think it's called CHOP because it chops up cancer cells and gets rid of them. I pictured the drugs with boxing gloves, delivering knockout punches to the deadly invaders. Food played no part in my imagery of recovery until the day I got a call from my friend Kristi Piehl, at the time a colleague at the TV station in Dayton where I'm a news anchor. "I'm bringing over chicken enchiladas," she announced. "Great," I said with false cheerfulness. "Yuck," I thought to myself. How could I dig into chicken enchiladas when I couldn't even stomach looking at a jar of peanut butter? Kristi arrived with a basket much like Dorothy's in The Wizard of Oz. Instead of Toto, the cloth concealed a warm meal that quickly spread the smell of home-cooked food throughout my kitchen. Amazingly, I didn't feel an immediate urge to heave. Instead I watched in anticipation as Kristi emptied her basket: enchiladas, tortilla chips, tangy cheese dip, and my favorite dessert, crème brûlée.
Before she left, Kristi also fed my appetite for industry gossip with delicious dish. She hadn't been out the door more than a few seconds before I stuck a fork into the enchiladas. As I swallowed, I made one of the many discoveries I was to accumulate during this journey: Food takes on a new flavor when someone else cooks it—someone who wants nothing more than for me to get better and deliver a healthy baby.
So began Meals for Michelle, a small brigade of friends, neighbors, and coworkers who brought me three home-cooked meals a week. At first I said no; I couldn't accept that kind of help. There were so many other cancer patients with fewer resources, fewer support systems. Thank God my friends ignored me. They brought chicken with sautéed mushrooms, squash bisque, and an Oreo cookie cheesecake that melted in my mouth.
They also brought comfort and chatter. The visits reconnected me to the outside world. I was fed up with being couch-bound. Only a few months earlier, I'd learned I was pregnant with a long-awaited second child. These were supposed to be the carefree days of getting the baby's room ready and helping my 2-year-old prepare to become a big brother.
Those happy hopes had exploded the day the doctor I'd consulted about a lump in my neck gently scooted his stool up against my chair and took my hand. I could tell by the look in his eyes that something was wrong. "Michelle, you have a rapidly expanding large cell lymphoma. You'll need chemotherapy right away—and I don't know what it means for your baby." I sat crying uncontrollably as I waited for my husband, Steve, to arrive. Coming home to my son was both comforting and heartbreaking. I lunged at him, hugging tighter and longer than usual. "I have to be here for him!" I thought desperately.
In our bedroom, I wept in Steve's arms, thinking about the child inside me. "My poor baby, my poor baby!" I kept repeating. Finally, Steve blurted out, "What about you, Michelle?"
"What about me?" I thought. "What happens if I die? Casey won't remember me; my baby will never be born; my husband will be alone." For an hour or so, horrifying scenarios spooled through my mind like a VCR on fast-forward. Then I decided there was no time for this kind of angst. I looked my husband in the eye and said, "It's time to kick butt."
Emotionally, I began detaching myself from the pregnancy. I couldn't think about never getting the chance to meet the child I started referring to as "it." I wondered whose life I would try harder to save—mine or "its."
Nine days later, I learned I didn't have to make the choice. I discovered that certain types of chemo are less likely to jeopardize a healthy pregnancy. Yes, there are risks—low birth weight, premature delivery, and restricted growth—but all pregnant women face risks.
Meals for Michelle proved a great antidote to the exhaustion of chemotherapy and anxiety about the baby. One day my friend Kelly Welsh brought over homemade soup that reminded me of my grandma's—big chunks of chicken, carrots, celery, and flat noodles. "I should ask everyone for her recipe and put together a cancer cookbook," I told her.
As the words left my mouth, I knew I would never get it done. Some days, just reading my son a storybook required too much effort. Kelly heard the desire in my voice—and the defeat. So she and a small army of friends collected their recipes—everything from zucchini pizza to tart lemon crisps —and published Reporting the Local Meals , a cookbook created in my honor. As the weeks went by, I no longer referred to the baby as "it" but "my little buddy," my companion throughout the intensive cancer treatment. The baby often kicked and moved as nurses pumped chemo into my system. On April 27, he became Robert, named after Steve's father. I held my breath until the doctor said he was 100 percent healthy.
At a neighborhood party on Memorial Day weekend, the cookbook committee presented me with a check for $3,600, all of it earmarked for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, a national organization dedicated to funding blood cancer research and education. I shared some good news of my own. "I had a PET scan yesterday," I told my friends with a huge smile. "I'm cancer-free."
I miss the visits from the culinary crusaders who fed my body and soul, but I'm reminded of them every time I thumb through my cookbook or look at Robert, now a bouncing 18-pound butterball.