My sister, Suzanne, and I make our way south on 95 to see our first cousin Stephanie, a 51-year-old cantor at a reform synagogue, and to meet her young wife, Sarah, and their 18-month-old daughter, Sawyer, for the first time.
They have temporarily relocated from Florida to stay with Sarah’s family in Delaware for support while Sawyer undergoes treatment for the Wilm’s tumor growing on her kidney. Surgeons recently removed the organ and its parasitoid. The subsequent chemotherapy has been grueling for them all. Her prognosis is good, but the strain has been enormous. We hope our visit will provide a much needed, albeit brief, respite from their relentless routine.
We get off the highway, hungry, but see nowhere to stop. Nowhere that we’d actually be willing to eat, as we’re not yet desperate enough for gas station nachos. Deep into a Delaware we did not know existed, and would otherwise never have visited, we feel a bit like foreigners.
“Seriously, how far away is this?” I ask Suzanne. “We will be in Mexico soon.”
“I have no idea. Where are we?” she answers.
We drive on, incredulous, off the barren main road onto a more barren side road, and meander as the distance between houses and the sizes of the fields between them increases.
“What do they grow here?” I ask, in agricultural ignorance.
“Nothing.” She says, “Now. It’s cold.” Good point.
Finally, nearly believing we may drive off the edge of the flat earth, the GPS unit says in her gentle, robotic voice: “You have arrived at your destination.” She says nothing about a parallel universe, although I’m fairly certain we are there, too.
We pull up to the white, porch-wrapped house, just as a silver jeep full of cammo-clad men makes a quick U-turn in front of us in the driveway, spraying gravel as it screeches out.
Stephanie greets us at the door in a fervent embrace. “I am SO happy you’re here,” she says in exhaustion and relief. Her own parents have not visited since Sawyer’s diagnosis, and Suzanne and I are, in some ways, surrogates. Dead now, our mom and dad had a special place in their hearts for Steph; they would be as happy as we are that we’ve made this trip.
“Thank you so much for coming.” She fights back tears as she lets us go.
Sarah’s mother Leslie, only two years older than Steph, meets us with an unguarded, genuinely warm hug.
Sarah sits in a recliner in the corner of the den. Sawyer, tiny for her age, perches on her lap, staring at us intently and suspiciously.
“It’s so nice to meet you finally.”
“Don’t get up!” we tell Sarah, and focus, mesmerized, on Sawyer. “HI SWEETHEART!” in that universal high-pitched sing-songy voice that adults believe builds some sort of credibility with toddlers.
She looks askance at her mothers for confirmation that these chirping strangers are neither aliens nor visiting nurses who come to poke and prod her in between chemo treatments. She softens a bit as Sarah says, “These are Mamo’s cousins! Diane and Suzanne!” But wracked with both a nasty cold and the cumulative effects of the chemo, she remains guarded and clings to Sarah for most of our visit.
We sink into the camel-colored sectional to chat. The décor is more Cracker Barrel than Crate & Barrel, all warm and wood and cozy. Leslie explains that they own the vast expanse of farmland across the street and that most of the family lives only a stone’s throw away. “We’re just simple country folk,” she repeats, almost apologetically, all through the day. I feel a little self-conscious and hope that Suzanne and I are not giving off some repellant Fairfield County vibe.
The family is deeply religious, she tells us; we can easily see that from the abundant Jesus memorabilia. And they are hunters. The jeep that peeled out as we arrived contained several of Sarah’s father’s hunting buddies who are staying at the house as well.
I keep thinking that Leslie must have momentarily misplaced her halo. She, a true Christian, has welcomed a Jewish woman nearly her own age and same sex, as her daughter’s wife, and as a long-term houseguest under the most stressful conditions. She’s calmer in this crisis, iced with an olio of visitors, than I am in lotus pose on my yoga mat with my eyes closed. She embodies and exudes unconditional love. She is my new role model.
We pass the afternoon getting acquainted, sharing information about Stephanie’s absent family and gathering information about Sawyer’s treatment and prognosis and Sarah’s pregnancy. She is due to have another baby girl and has preeclampsia. They found out she was pregnant only a week prior to Sawyer’s diagnosis. The undercurrent of shared desperation for good outcomes tugs at us all.
Casts of thousands (well, 20 at least) descend on the house for dinner. Another toddler, hunters, and relatives – I lose track of who belongs to whom and just tuck into the gooey, warm lasagna, which Leslie has graciously made with ground turkey instead of beef, in deference to me. And I try really, really hard not to look at the dead bear-turned-rug on the floor right next to me while I eat.
“We had to take the rifle off the couch once the babies could reach it,” someone says casually. Yes, yes, I bet you did, I think. At certain points I resist making eye contact with Suzanne, even though the touch point with familiarity would help center me, because I’m afraid we’ll roll ours if I catch hers. No, Toto, we are surely not in Connecticut any more.
After dinner we prepare to make the two-hour drive to Wilmington where we’ll stay overnight before returning home the next morning. Ten hours is too many for me to drive in one long day.
“Do you like turnips?” an uncle asks.
“I just picked some! Let me get them for you.”
While we await his return from the turnip truck, the hunters, eyeing us ever so skeptically, offer up another local delicacy as a parting gift.
“Try some of our moonshine before you go!” they seem to dare us. I think how moonshine and driving might not mix, but the entire entourage has now quieted and expectantly awaits my reply.
“I’d love to.” Everyone grins and relaxes. I bet they thought I’d demure, but they have all gone so out of their way to accept and care for our cousin, Sarah, and their sick child – despite much of their lifestyle going very much against the grain. So grain alcohol it is. I would not think of refusing this extended courtesy.
“Try the peach/cherry first.” Now they’re animated. I feel like I’m in an episode of Duck Dynasty Meets Animal House. Drink, drink, drink! Sh*t, I think. First?
I take a sip of the pinkish liquid with maraschino cherries floating in it.
“Interesting, but a little too sweet for me.” It tastes like spiked cough syrup.
The men nod. That must be the girly stuff. “Here,” one of them unscrews the top of a mason jar of what looks like water.
I try to suppress the knowledge that I will now ingest not only the equivalent of rubbing alcohol, but all their germs, too. They’ve been passing this jar. But then I reason that grain alcohol would surely kill anything that ails them.
“Bottoms up!” Leslie smiles. She seems genuinely pleased and gently tips the bottom of the jar up as I sip.
I swig and swallow, eyes closed, and wait a full moment as my esophagus struggles to extinguish the flames. “Whoa! That was good!” I gasp.
They let out their collectively held breath. Smiles all around.
“Thank you again so much,” we say, black trash bag of turnips in hand. “It’s been amazing.”
And that is the absolute truth. We look up at the sky, filled to bursting with stars that we just can’t see at home. Steph holds us close again. “Thank you so much.”
Suzanne and I are silent for a while, digesting and processing. Finally we debrief as we retrace our steps out of the hinterlands. It was a clash of traditions, beliefs, religions, and ways of life. On both sides.
What we realized, though, was that no matter what you wrap it in, camouflage caps, endless reruns of Reba, or country moonshine, love is love is love.