Today marks 6 months since this blog’s fearless creator, Paul, left this world. It’s still tough to believe that Paul, who spent his time traveling to foreign countries, engaging in conversations with long-distance friends, tending to the community garden, writing for this blog – truly living in this world – is no longer here.
Though he had a friendly, social nature about him, Paul was a very private person. When he was first diagnosed with cancer in early 2018, very little of his network but immediate family and a few close friends were aware. He continued working full-time, attending Rotary meetings, gardening, cooking, and writing.
He was fiercely independent and was determined to remain so even as the disease progressed.
But after a major surgery, Paul casually mentioned to a friend and fellow Rotarian that it was difficult for him to prepare meals. In fact, I later learned that Paul was completely unable to prepare meals while recovering from this surgery. The recovery ahead would be weeks, and his family had taken turns traveling from out-of-state to stay with him, so that in those first few weeks, he would always have someone there. Meals were taken care of, as Paul’s mother, an avid cook like Paul, prepared them, and often brought meals with her from her home. But Paul, never wanting to be a burden for others, mentioned that it would be nice if his parents had an evening at his house for which they didn’t have to worry about what was for dinner.
So, in hearing this message, the Rotary created a Meal Train for Paul. It began while Paul’s parents were staying at his house, and continued after they left.
I was first on the list. I signed up to bring spaghetti and meatballs.
This meal had several stipulations.
First, there were a few dietary requirements, straight from Paul’s doctor:
- red meat was a priority, so the meatballs had to be beef
- nothing too acidic, so the tomato sauce had to be diluted
- nothing spicy, so the tomato sauce had to be mild
Second, because of when Paul’s follow-up appointments were scheduled, I had to bring this meal to Paul and his parents on a Friday night.
And third, which was my own stipulation: this meal had to be top-notch and quality.
Paul was quite the foodie, with an admiration for fine dining. He enjoyed trying the tasting menu at critically acclaimed restaurants, spending hours savoring and analyzing each course: the ingredients, the taste, the presentation, the service, the atmosphere of the restaurant, the demographics of the other diners. Food, to Paul, was an experience. Read his review of the tasting menu at Double Knot Philadelphia here.
Now, with Paul unable to dine out, I deemed it even more critical that my meal be an experience that Paul would appreciate.
Also, Paul’s mother was Italian. Making homemade meatballs with homemade sauce was probably the most difficult meal I could’ve chosen.
Lastly, I’d never met Paul’s parents, except for briefly seeing them in the community garden a few years earlier.
It was time to make an impression with these meatballs, stipulations and all.
I’d chosen spaghetti and meatballs because they could be made in the crock pot, and I believed I’d really mastered making turkey meatballs and tomato sauce that way.
A few days later, on a Friday morning, I put my skills to the test.
Combining 80/20 ground beef, breadcrumbs, an egg, sautéed garlic and onions, and a few mild spices, I formed about 20 meatballs and added them to the crock pot. Next, I poured a can of crushed tomatoes, two cans of tomato sauce, and a can of tomato paste over the meatballs.
I set the heat on low, set the timer for 8 hours, and waited.
Close to 5:30 (perfect timing for a 6:00 arrival!) the meatballs were ready.
Not wanting to risk any contamination for Paul, whose immune system was still weak, I didn’t try them. I would be blinding delivering this meal to Paul and his parents. I was nervous. I prayed that the meatballs wouldn’t be too dry and I hoped that the sauce was up to par.
I placed my crock pot in a cardboard box for easy transportation, placed the box on the floor of the passenger seat of my car, and drove the 4 blocks to Paul’s house. I drove extra slow across town, checking often so as to be sure that the tomato sauce wasn’t running down the side of the box.
I carefully parked, and then walked even more carefully to Paul’s front door.
“Hello,” a man with white, wavy hair and a wide, friendly face said as he opened the door. “Nice to see you, Sarah,” Paul’s father said.
“Nice to officially meet you,” I said.
We shook hands, and I climbed the stairs to the first-floor landing of Paul’s house.
Paul greeted me with a wave from his spot on the brown leather couch in the living room. From what I could see, he looked tired, but his voice sounded like Paul.
A petite woman with thin brown hair was hurriedly drying dishes at the sink. She looked up, white dish towel in hand.
“Hi, thank you for coming by,” she said. She spoke quickly and her eyes looked worn out.
She looked at me for a few long seconds. I wondered if she’d approve of my meatballs.
“Paul!” she shouted. “You want something to drink?” I noticed that she had a New England accent, the kind where you don’t hear the “l” pronounced in the name “Paul.”
“No, Mother,” Paul responded.
“Here, why don’t you put your things down, and we’ll get this together,” Paul’s father told me. He took the crock pot box from me.
I crossed through the kitchen to the living room where Paul sat.
He looked thin, half of him covered by a grey jersey blanket. He was lying flat on the couch, a bed pillow propped behind his head. When he talked, he was the same Paul. We chatted like usual. While his parents boiled water for pasta and assembled plates and silverware, Paul asked me questions about the upcoming Rotary meeting, talked about when he was going to turn over his community garden plot for the upcoming winter months, and shared the monthly stats in WordPress for the blog. I owed him a blog post…
The water boiled. 10 minutes or so until my meatballs would be put to the test.
Paul shared his topic for his next blog post, a recollection of his visit to Germany during the fall of the Berlin Wall (you can read that post here).
While we talked, Paul’s black and white tuxedo cat, Billysky, sat perched on the landing of the stairs to the second floor, peering at me.
Billysky descended the landing, taking the two steps to the floor, silently scaled the back of the couch, and appeared at Paul’s feet, still looking at me.
“She’s warming up to you,” Paul mused. I have a fear of cats, and Paul had been trying to help me overcome that. You can read about how Billysky helped, as well, in this post.
“We’re ready to eat,” Paul’s father announced from the kitchen.
“Do you want to eat with us?” Paul’s mother asked me.
I honestly hadn’t thought of that, as I didn’t want to take one of the portions that could be used for leftovers for Paul, so I declined.
Paul’s father offered me some red wine, and I accepted. He poured two glasses and brought one to me. Paul’s parents ate their meal at the kitchen table, which was adjacent to the living room, while Paul ate from his spot on the couch and we continued chatting. Shortly, Paul’s parents joined us, his father in a kitchen chair and his mother in an armchair across from mine.
No one said a word about the meal. I was really desperate to know what they’d thought of it, if they approved. Paul and his parents looked content, with the satisfied look of having eaten a good, filling meal. Is this good or bad? Is this how they always are, or is this unusual? I wondered.
“How were the meatballs?” I asked, taking the safer bet of directing the question to Paul rather than to his parents.
“Really good,” Paul said, nodding.
His father nodded enthusiastically. His mother smiled.
Not exactly a raving review, but the conversation continued.
We’d moved on to the topic of traveling. I’d lived in France a few times, and Paul’s parents seemed to enjoy my stories of studying abroad and living with a host family in northern Paris.
Paul’s mother asked a lot of questions, which didn’t bother me because I’m the same way.
His father didn’t talk as much, but he smiled and nodded often. He seemed to have have the same response to my answers as he had to my question about the meatballs.
When the wine was gone and the meatballs had long been stowed away in Tupperware, I realized that it was 9:30. I’d stayed for 3 hours!
“Sarah, thank you so much for doing this for my parents,” Paul said sincerely.
Later that evening, I received a text from Paul:
After you left, my mother said, “I hate to admit it but that sauce might be better than mine.”
I was shocked. I’d succeeded!