Wow, two years already. On the evening of August 20, 2016, my 23-year-old cousin, Brett Andrew Neal, died when a truck ran a stop sign crossing a county highway in Iowa. The truck hit Brett’s car in the driver-side door, tossing him and his car end-over-end into an unharvested cornfield seventy-five miles northwest of our hometown. I remember the moment I received the news in the entryway of my aunt and uncle’s dimly lit house that night. Without notice, the pain overtook my body as I collapsed to the hardwood floor: a heavy lump in my throat and a punch to my gut that, at once, made me lose my strength, my breath, and my appetite. There is something disturbingly visceral about the shock of losing a loved one unexpectedly. For the rest of that dreadful night, I had a deeply embodied sense that life just got emptier and no amount of time or justice or food could fill it back up. And so, unable to fall asleep after returning home, I lay awake in bed until morning, famished but not hungry, parched but not thirsty.
The next morning, as news spread of Brett’s tragic death, people near and far began expressing their sympathy in a variety of ways. From cards to Facebook messages, flowers to monetary donations, people who knew Brett—and many who didn’t—found ways to support our family in our time of grief. Among the most common, however, was people’s impulse to give food in the immediate aftermath of the incident. Within twenty-four hours, food donations and “sympathy meals” began to accumulate until the fridge, freezer, and counters in my aunt and uncle’s kitchen overflowed with enough food to feed the whole neighborhood. It has always been a curious thing to me that people give one another food in times of loss and grief. Perhaps people give food to the bereaved because words escape them. More practically, perhaps the intent is to free the family from having to overcome their sadness to cook themselves a meal. Or, maybe we turn to eating because in our encounters with death we have an instinctive urge to exaggerate our aliveness in embodied ways (e.g. yelling, crying, eating or drinking in excess, engaging in dangerous activities, etc.). Whatever the case, a smorgasbord amassed so quickly that my Uncle Les suggested our family come over to help get through all of the food. The way he presented the offer, it seemed a practical matter: there was too much food, so we should come over to eat so it would not go to waste. But below the practical veneer, amidst his feelings of loss and helplessness, it seemed he was also saying, “I need us to share a meal together.”
And so we gathered the day after the accident—Uncle Les, Aunt Sheryl, Cousin Jared, Grandma Norma, Mom, Dad, Mark and I—standing around the kitchen island overflowing with lasagna and mashed potatoes; store-bought French bread and homemade yeast rolls; green beans, carrots, broccoli, and tomatoes; deli meats, cheeses, and crackers; enchiladas and rice; an assortment of salads and casseroles; cookies and muffins and brownies and lemon bars and cinnamon rolls… such a mountainous cornucopia of mostly homemade foods prepared and shared to be vessels of love. With mindfulness we received. Hands joined, encircling the bounty before us, we wept and gave thanks to God for this overwhelming outpouring of love and for the familiar comfort of sharing a meal together. What followed the prayer can only be described as Eucharist. Like never before, I saw the body of Christ in the food before me—broken and shared in love so that in the face of death we might know with abundance what a gift life is. In that moment, the food was much more than a mere reminder of God’s love; it was God’s love incarnate... God's love made tactile and delicious. [For more on this theology, see Norman Wirzba’s Food and Faith]. Suddenly, then, partaking together seemed a sacred act.
Amidst my sadness, the act of eating itself brought life. The food—God’s love made physical—slowly enlivened me from the inside out, providing some of the first real pleasure I had felt since Brett’s death. Never before had my eating been so mindful, so unhurried, so deliberate, so purposeful. For, each food item carried with it a name, a love, and—in some cases—a memory that transcended what any written or spoken condolences could express. Two examples deserve mentioning. First: of all the desserts scattered throughout the kitchen, there was one batch of particularly gifted cookies that stood out among the rest… The sort of hearty oatmeal-butterscotch cookie that was undoubtedly the pride of the donor’s recipe box. Each time we gathered that week, my aunt, uncle, brother, and I teased each other by hiding the bag of quickly vanishing cookies somewhere deep among the pile of desserts, joking that there were none left so we might save more for ourselves. These delicious cookies were a respite, an excuse to trade in our solemn tears for teasing smiles, if only for a moment.
Second: when Mark and I were young, we spent a day each year at the house of our family friend, Jan, baking cinnamon rolls and fruit pies together around the holidays. For us it was a play day in the kitchen; for our parents a much needed break; for Jan a labor of love. Ever since our annual bake days came to an end, Jan has continued to make cinnamon rolls for our family on special occasions. So I have always known this is her way of showing love. And, oh, are these rolls heavenly… Pillowy sweet dough swirled with a generous helping of cinnamon, topped with a cloud of cream cheese frosting so smooth it cascades down the soft edges of the roll when melted. Needless to say, it is no mystery—to myself or my loved ones—that these rolls are a true labor of love, the result of a full day spent in the kitchen. And so, when I first caught a glimpse of Jan’s cinnamon rolls buried deep, barely visible beneath the mound of food donated after Brett’s death, a reassuring peace came over me… “Of course they are here,” I told myself. In that moment I could imagine no greater sign of God’s love, no clearer display of God’s comfort and nearness. So, rather than hiding them like the oatmeal-butterscotch cookies, we were intentional about dividing the four dozen cinnamon rolls evenly among each family unit; for, this love offering was too generous, too heartfelt, too special not to share.
These foods were much more than sustenance, much more than delicious; as manifestations of God’s love, they were avenues for healing. Baked deep into their savory sauces and sweet, yeasty centers was an earnest love that held for my family a much-needed reminder: we are not alone in our grief. A professor of mine at Duke Divinity School, Dr. Norman Wirzba, shared in lecture, “Food is the daily exhibition of the nearness of God’s love,” ...and God’s nearness was so evident to me in this gift of food that I could feel its texture, smell its aroma, and taste its goodness. For an entire week we returned to Les and Sheryl’s house for every meal, as together we slowly ate our way through the food gifts. At the family’s invitation, guests came to the house to be filled with food and left having been filled with the Provider’s bounty and healing. Our mealtime together became a sacred pause in the midst of chaotic days, an intentional time for sharing memories and resting in God’s presence instead of worrying about funeral logistics. By the time Mark and I left for Durham to start school a week after the incident, those meals were host to smiles in addition to the tears.
Before Mark and I left town, though, my family and I drove to the site of the crash. Gathered on the side of Highway 169 south of Fort Dodge, we stared into the corn field where Brett’s car had flown one week prior. Busted headlights, shards of broken glass, and crumpled metal still lay among the broken cornstalks, once seven feet in height but now matted down by the car’s violent entry into the field. In that moment, the cornfield was a place of violence for me: the ground where my cousin died, alone. I watched my uncle pound a cross bearing Brett’s name into the same soil that nurtured a healthy crop of corn. Beyond that, any recognition of the connectedness between corn and car, soil and Brett, life and death escaped me, and I returned to Durham stricken by the violence of it all.