A few weeks ago my grandfather died. The next Sunday, I made this dish.
There was something very odd about working in the hospital just hours after we lost him.
Just a few weeks before, I was in the intensive care unit and my mother called to let me know my grandpa was sick and should he go to the hospital? I excused myself from work, hid in a stairwell in New York City, listened to a nurse in Washington State read me my grandfather’s lab values, and told my mom that I thought he did need to be in the hospital. As he continued to decline over the next few days, I decided to fly home so I could say goodbye, bought a ticket and got on a plane a few hours later. When I got there, I listened to the doctor explain his prognosis, sat in on palliative care discussions with my mom and discussed the difficult decision of whether or not to go to hospice. Miraculously, Grandpa pulled out of that emergency, and I went back to New York to have the other end of the conversation with my patients and their families. It was a weird flip-flop to be the one seeking advice in Seattle and the one giving it in New York.
Then I transfered to a new floor with a new team and debates about hospice seemed remote because my grandpa was stable and the real question was what we would do with the next emergency. My parents came out to visit my siblings and I on the East coast and we all went up to Grandpa’s childhood home and saw his brother and walked through his town. The next day, Grandpa died.
It was completely unexpected and totally anticipated; he’d been sick for years and had outlived multiple doctors’ prognoses. We’d thought we would lose him many times and he always pulled through, but this time, there was no emergency and no acute illness – he was just gone. It’s okay, because we know we’ll see him again and we know the only reason he was still here was that he had a servant’s heart and didn’t want to leave Oma alone.
But still. I walked into work a few hours later, and someone asked me how my weekend was. “Kinda crappy,” I said, and that was the end of the conversation. I checked on my patients, wrote notes, snuck out once to cry, and tried not to see him in every hospital bed I passed. My team didn’t find out why I was so quiet until three days later, when I needed an excused break to call Oma. But what do you do, walk in on Monday morning and say, “Excuse me, everyone, but my grandfather died.” People die on our floor all the time, and we keep working. Everyone I care for is somebody’s grandpa or sister or crochety, next-door neighbor and while it’s a sad part of the job for the medical team, it’s life altering for the people losing their loved one. Try being the medical team for some people, and the bereaved for others and not getting your emotions confused while you switch back and forth between phone conversations home and care plans for your patients. The most surreal moment? Flipping between “E-How To Write an Obituary” and “Discharge Planning in Acute Hypertensive Crises.”
Me aside, how difficult must this be for my Oma and mom and aunt? He was my grandpa, but he was their husband and father. I want to help my mom, but I can’t fill in the gap she has when she knows she’s not going to see her dad until she gets to heaven. My grandparents had been married for 54 years – thirty years longer than I’ve been alive. How can Oma deal with not having him after that? Even though he’s not in pain and he’s waiting for us in heaven, we’re still lonely for him.
The next Sunday, I made this dish because it reminded me of him. When I was 11, he was so excited to grill Cornish Game Hens for my birthday dinner and I was just about over the moon. I’d never even HEARD of Cornish Game Hens before and then suddenly I arrived at his house and there were these teeny tiny chicken things – one for everybody! I wasn’t going to have to share! It was such a novel concept and forever labeled the little birds as the epitome of a special meal to me.
But then..disaster struck. Grandpa said the birds were supposed to grill for 10 minutes on each side and then we’d eat. But twenty minutes later, the meat was still pink and the juices ran bloody. Puzzled, he put them back on the barbeque for another ten minutes. No good. Fifteen minutes later, they were still raw. By now, I was a very hungry 11 year old and quite puzzled as to how my grandpa, who knew everything, could be so wrong about cooking mini-chickens. Somehow, it took those little, one pound poultry an hour and a half to cook, which is a very long time if you’re sitting on a swinging bench, watching them sizzle. I don’t even remember what they ended up tasting like, but every time I pass them in the grocery store, I laugh, and think of Grandpa. Grandpa, I love you, and I’m going to see you in heaven someday. Start the game hens now, so they’ll be ready when I get there, okay?
John 11:23-26 Jesus said to her, “Your brother [grandpa] will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
Cornish Game Hens with Braised Leeks
Serves 4. Allow 45 minutes.
1 cup chicken broth
2 1-lb cornish game hens
2 tablespoons soft butter
1 teaspoon of flaky sea salt
1) Preheat oven to 425. Line a 13″x9″ baking pan with foil.
2) Trim the roots and the old, green, outside leaves (save these) off the leeks and slice in half lengthwise. Place cut side down in the baking pan and pour the chicken broth in around the leeks.
3) Rinse the hens and trim off any tails, extra skin or extra fat. (Save that for soup.) Rub them inside, outside, and under the skin with the butter and sprinkle with salt.
4) Slice the lemons in into quarters and stuff the cavities of the hens with the lemon quarters and the outside leek leaves.
5) Place the chickens breast side down on the leeks.
6) Bake the hens for 25 minutes or until juice runs clear or meat thermometer reads 165F. Baste once or twice during the baking to ensure moist meat.
7) Remove from the oven and allow the hens to rest. Cut the leeks into bite size pieces and slice the hens in half. Serve some of the leeks with half of each hen.