When the Hospital Calls

This is another piece I wrote for school. We were learning about fragmented essays and how to tell a story in a format other than “Once upon a time…” I wrote this with the idea of a recipe.

It is extremely hard to refrain from making further comment or excuse. So I’m just going to say here it is, and sit on my hands.

When the Hospital Calls

homer xray

1.) Wake up. Try to take in what the doctor is saying. Don’t ask questions yet: you might not need to. When the doctor is done, ask questions. Make him repeat the story a couple times in the process. Ask things he cannot answer.

2.) Start to call your boyfriend, Joe, but don’t complete the dial. Remember, the doctor just said they’re prepping him for emergency brain surgery. Hang up and call your mother instead: she’ll know what to do. Sob into the phone. Try to be clear, but talk much louder than you intend. Let go of your emotion: it’s too heavy for you to hold on to.

3.) Go about your day. There’s nothing else you can do. Falling into your everyday routine will bring you a sense of normalcy, which is what you desperately need right now.

4.) When his 80-year-old mother calls to tell you what happened, try to act surprised. She needs to feel in control. She will not be happy if she knows Joe had the hospital call you.
a.) If you do tell her that the hospital called, take the focus off of yourself by asking her how she is doing, and if there’s anything you can do for her. Treat her like a grieving widow.
b.) If you fail to do this, prepare for her wrath. Starting today, throughout Joe’s fragile recovery, and until her last days on Earth, you will be enemy #1.

hospital 1

5.) When the hospital calls again, go visit Joe. It might be 3am, after your shift at work, but that’s okay: neurological ICU is open for visitors 24/7. The scent of rubbing alcohol and floor cleaner will pass into the elevator as you exit. Despite the scurry of nurses and the beeping of unseen machines, the entire floor will be eerily quiet. Joe will still be under heavy sedation. He will look very, very bad. Half of his head will be shaved, and a huge incision from the top of his head to the top of his ear will be stapled shut. His eyes will be swollen. His skin will be sallow. There will be monitors the size of pencil erasers screwed into his neck on either side, like Frankenstein’s monster. Tubes and cords will form a spider web over him. It’s okay to be afraid, and cry. The nurse knows how to comfort traumatized visitors.

6.) Call the hospital yourself on the days you can’t visit. When Joe’s mother calls to update you, do not…I repeat DO NOT…tell her you already know. You want her to know that you’re doing your best, I understand, but trust me on this one. Don’t tell her you visit. Don’t tell her you call. Just like before, let her tell you. Ask her again if she needs anything.
a.) If she knows that you visit and call, she will cut you off. She will tell the hospital that no one is allowed access to Joe without her. No visitors. No phone calls. You will be devastated.
b.) If this happens, tell Joe’s best friend, Erick, as soon as you can. Erick will visit Joe himself. When the hospital denies him, he’ll stand in front of the elevator for an hour. When that old woman emerges with her church friends, Erick will cuss her out in front of them. You’ll have access to Joe immediately. Call the hospital: the staff will be happy to hear from you again.

hospital 2

7.) Joe’s mind will not be right. The surgery affected his memory. It will be disturbing, but stay strong. Bring him balloons and cards and pictures. Point them out when he wakes up. Tell him about Erick’s first visit, because you know he doesn’t remember. Tell him how he took two shaky breaths, and then tried to hand the oxygen mask to Erick like a joint: puff-puff-give! Tell him how Erick was too traumatized to get the joke.
a.) Joe will fall asleep. Wait for him to wake up. When he does, he will have forgotten you were there. It’s okay to repeat the conversation you just had: why waste a perfectly good conversation, right? In ten years, his favorite story will be about how you had the same conversation six times in one visit.




An essay for school.  It also counts for Mellow Yellow Monday.

Butter cake

Butter cake

Every Christmas, my Dutch grandmother used to bake what seemed like hundreds of buttery golden cookies called boterkoek.  Oma never used measuring cups or spoons: only her hands and memory.  A week before Christmas, she would pull out a massive green CorningWare mixing bowl.  Into it she would heap handfuls of white flour and sugar, counting quietly to herself with each dump.  Eggs would crack in next, sliding down the powdery mountain of dry ingredients like miniature round saucer sleds.  Vanilla would stream straight from the bottle into the middle of the mound before yellow bricks of butter were released from their waxy paper wrappers, tumbling into the bowl with a muffled thud.  Then she’d plunge her bare hands into the mix, squeezing cold butter and eggs through flour and sugar, until the mass of simple pantry staples emerged as decadent cookie dough.

Every Christmas I compile a mental list of childhood treats I want to make for my own family.  And every December ends with a cold, empty, unused oven in my kitchen.  I’m not much of a baker, but this year I’m compelled to finally make boterkoek.

I call Oma and ask her for the recipe.  She writes it down and gives it to my more computer-savvy step-mom, who emails it to me.  Three days before Christmas, I print the recipe and start to compile my shopping list.  My heart sinks.  Despite my lack of culinary knowledge, I know the recipe is wrong:  too much flour, not enough butter, no sugar.

As a little girl I’d stand on tiny tiptoes to watch Oma work her magic in her blue and white kitchen.  Once the dough was finished, she’d pinch off a piece for each of us to eat right away, raw eggs be damned.  Half of the dough became round cookies. Oma would roll Gobstopper-sized balls of dough between floured palms, flatten them onto an aged cookie sheet with the tines of a fork, and brush them with beaten egg.  In thirty minutes, crisp cookies with glossy, tawny edges would emerge from the oven. The rest of the dough would be pressed into a rectangular cake pan, baked for twenty minutes, and sliced into thick, soft yellow squares called butter cake. I could make myself sick on butter cake, and easily go back for more. The smell of sizzling sugar, butter, and vanilla became the hallmark of a proper Christmas.

Boterkoek 1

Butter cake, up close.

As a little girl Oma and I giggled together as she flipped through her mental rolodex trying to remember a name, or when she’d accidentally speak to us in Dutch instead of English.  Today we gloss over her memory loss as a rule.  Pointing it out to her is outright forbidden.  Afraid to breach the canons of Alzheimer’s care for the sake of a cookie recipe, I call my step-mom, the patron saint of impossible situations.

No luck.  Oma insists the recipe is correct.  Forgot the sugar, you say?  Then add sugar, for heaven’s sake. How hard can that be?

Very!  How much do I add?  What about the flour-butter ratio?  There is no pressing her further:  I’m stuck with what I have.

I refuse to panic yet.  I still have one more trick up my sleeve:  the Internet.  I don’t expect much diversity in the recipes, since boterkoek is specific and regional.  I should only need two or three references to reconstruct Oma’s recipe accurately.  I head to the Big Bad Web and start my search.

Leon, Oma’s second husband, took her traditional recipes and ran with them.  He adapted her boterkoek recipe to an icebox method.  Instead of turning bits of dough one-by-one into little balls, he’d wrap the whole thing in wax paper, roll it into a big pasty log, and refrigerate it overnight.  The next day, Oma would slice the hardened dough into cookie rounds, sweep fork tines and egg wash across the tops, and bake them for about twenty minutes.  Leon’s method cut the prep time in half and made the cookies more uniform.  Oma declared him a genius. Eh. I still preferred butter cake.

Boterkoek 2

Dutch butter cookies

Leon passed away several years ago.  The scent of homemade boterkoek hasn’t curled around the corners of Oma’s kitchen since.  Plates of sunshiny butter cake and browned-butter cookies, accompanied by tall glasses of milk and mugs of dense black coffee, no longer grace the breakfast nook during the holidays. I need to resurrect this recipe, and perfect it, before I become a grandmother myself.  My kids are teenagers now.  My time is running out.

My Internet search has turned up lots of boterkoek recipes.  None of them are the same.  All of the ratios are different.  There is too much discrepancy from one recipe to another.  I cannot recreate Oma’s recipe.  Christmas is tomorrow.

I pour sugar into the biggest mixing bowl I have.  I estimate the measurement based on my Internet findings.  I use the rest of Oma’s recipe as-is, even though I know it’s wrong:  a mountain of flour, one solitary stick of butter, an egg or two, and a splash of vanilla.  My bare hands plunge into Mt. Boterkoek as a small puff of flour spills onto the counter.  Maybe I can’t make the boterkoek of my childhood, but I can still use my grandmother’s recipe.