Meal Train Fraud? Friends’ Generosity Forces This Patient to Question her Worthiness

When my surgery was scheduled, my friend Lisa organized my pals to prepare a two-week stream of dinners without my prior knowledge. At first I was embarrassed—the surgery was major, but not dire. It involved general anesthesia, an overnight stay, and no lifting for eight weeks. But my husband, Mickey, can cook, and I figured we could supplement with takeout. There were our two teenage sons to think of, though: Because of their involvement in varsity and club sports, our household calorie consumption was at an all-time high. My mom offered to stay with me for a few days after surgery when my husband would be out of town, but as a hyper-vigilant retired R.N., she would be concerned with me, not meals.

“You have always told me you wanted this,” Lisa said about the casserole conga line she initiated.

“I said I wanted it if I were to get cancer or become ill.”

“Same type of deal. And trust me, you’re going to love it. Besides, people want to do it.”

I was irritated by Lisa’s lack of boundaries and told her so, even if it was in the name of my well-being. But I had to consider that she really knows me—and my love of eating. It doesn’t hurt that she has great administrative skills and is well-connected in our tight-knit Lemon Heights community.

Sure enough, I began to warm to the idea. I lurked on the meal website, refreshing it to see who had been roped in, what they were going to bring, and if all the dates had been spoken for. Lisa is a closer. She hand-picked the list of participants and got 100 percent compliance. Friends made time to fill out the meal calendar with a brief description—and ostensibly to deliver when the date arrived. Touched, and curious, I perused each entry.

Day one: a curmudgeonly “I’ll figure it out.”

Day two: “Homemade avgolemono (soup), salad, and bread.” Thank you, God!

Day three: a whimsically expectant “something yummy!”

Day four: “Chicken piccata.” Mmm, she’s a great cook; used to work at The Ritz!

Day five: Wait—she doesn’t cook. “Pasta from Da Bianca Trattoria.” Jackpot!

As the surgery date neared, I got anxious. The nebulous fears I associate with hospitals became a mental grab bag of potential pain, disability, and death, with the consolation prize of a dirty house. I ordered some pre-surgery meditations that helped. In one, I was to visualize “a magical band of friends and allies surrounding me with their love and support.” I mentally substituted “love and support” with “short ribs and risotto.” In my book, they are synonymous. My mood lifted considerably as I focused on the post-surgical repasts my tribe would prepare.

When the day of the surgery arrived, Mickey drove me down the 5 Freeway to Saddleback Hospital just as he had twice before—14 and 17 years earlier for the birth of our sons. Those had been fantastic experiences, and I told myself this would be, too.

The surgery went smoothly. The next morning, I received a hospital tray containing a cup of wan oatmeal, inexplicably garnished with a packet of Mrs. Dash. Mickey described the lamb ragu with spaetzle he enjoyed at nearby Break of Dawn while I was under the knife. I knew then that I had to meet the post-surgery discharge criteria ASAP.

My first night home, Mickey tied a water-ski tow rope to the foot of our bed so I could hoist myself up to see the victuals when they arrived. A friend dropped by lugging two huge bags from The Catch. Inside were burgers with white and gold American cheese, caramelized onions, vine-ripened tomato, and creamy remoulade accompanied by garlic-parsley fries and bacon mac ’n’ cheese, along with wedge salads with Maytag blue cheese, pickled red onion, and an herb vinaigrette. Food never tasted so good. I called Lisa to apologize.

Her meal train, which began as an embarrassment, had suddenly become the highlight of my day—from the practical need it filled to the financial and physical burdens it lifted to the more esoteric pleasures it offered, such as the tempranillo wine made by a friend’s brother, which accompanied her chipotle-marinated tri-tip. I spent my first few days mostly in bed, but gradually I began to venture out of my room and into the kitchen. When friends left, I rifled through the contents of bags, sampling things and pouring myself a little of the wine. If a meal was delivered well ahead of dinnertime, there was no guarantee my family, away at school and work, would ever see some of the food. This made it self-incriminating and awkward when the friend asked how “we” liked it in front of them.

I continued to question my worthiness as a meal recipient. At first, my need was obvious—but I was feeling better now. I was recovering quickly. Too quickly.

It had only been six days, and already I hardly needed the ski rope. I waited nervously for my next meal to arrive, feeling like a big fraud.

At 6:30 p.m. there was a knock at the door. It was my friend Bill, bearing his wife’s handiwork—a medium-rare roast, grilled asparagus, fluffy couscous, a bottle of cabernet, and a tin of brownies. He handed it all to my mom and came over to check on me.

“How are you doing? Are the drugs good?” he asked.

I nodded, though by this time I had ditched the pain medication for pinot grigio. He began to describe the spinal fusion he underwent a few years ago.

“Yep, they cut me from here to here,” he said, pantomiming a long midsection incision, “and then they flipped me over and started in on my back.”

I began to measure his meal train worthiness against mine. There was no comparison. I had keyhole incisions; Bill was filleted open like a bluefin tuna and had the scars to prove it. I shrunk down into my pillows, but Bill just smiled. He wasn’t judging.

The next day, there was a dip in my recovery. It came with the caregiver shift change from my former-nurse mom to my husband, who had just returned from a three-day rock concert in Del Mar. My bedside table—once holding three icy beverages, pain medication dosing charts, and a double portion of whatever food had been delivered—was now bare except for an empty water glass and a banana peel. Mickey has many great qualities, but bedside manner isn’t one of them.

In the meantime, Lisa called—a friend from out of town was visiting and wanted to join the meal train. Would I like dinner from Roma D’ Italia? Zov’s? The Crab Cooker? I waffled, still feeling guilty about accepting these meals, now that I was regaining strength. But what was so bad about being on the receiving end for a few extra days?

“It’s too much,” I told Lisa.

“Well, she won’t take no for an answer, so you might as well order up.”

Lisa’s no-nonsense urging got me to think—maybe accepting the generosity of friends is OK. What if I was getting better quickly in part because of the meals? And if that wasn’t the case, what if I accepted them anyway? Would anyone be offended? After all, I was the only one playing meal train police. I decided to let the last week of meals play out.

I thanked the friend who made the avgolemono, confiding that I felt reluctant accepting the rest of the meals since my recovery had accelerated. She reminded me that I had cooked for her when she was in a similar situation years ago.

I felt tenderhearted recalling this friend, who is the picture of health and vitality, in a vulnerable state. Her situation was more serious. Accepting help over and over meant acknowledging that she was human and sometimes fragile. This was something I had yet to do.

“Accept the love while it lasts!” she said knowingly. And I finally did.

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