On every Thanksgiving but one, there’s been a turkey on our table. The singular exception was 16 years ago during our semester in Provence when our favorite rotisserie at the Lourmarin market recommended a Chapon de Bresse. (Turkeys were hard to find back then.) This year, Chez Manfull, there will be no turkey (or chapon), and other things will be quite different, too. But, as always, we will gather together at the table to express our gratitude for all our blessings because, even now in the depths of our sadness, there is much to be thankful for.
Since our only child died in August, exactly a month before her 27th birthday, we have found the table – where good food and wine are shared with friends and family – to be one of our greatest sources of strength. On this Thanksgiving, the most important day at the table in our country, I am reminded that coming to the table requires neither feast nor celebration. Its real value is the simple comfort of being among those you love – to break bread, pour some wine, and toast to life…even if those you love, now, lie only in your hearts.
It’s been nearly four months now since Alex passed away. Summer has turned to fall, temperatures have dropped 70 degrees, and we’ve seen some snow since the day Alex drew her last breath, turning our world, of which she was the center, upside down and adrift.
My husband and I fell into a state of shock, the body’s way of preserving the psyche for what is in store. How else could we possibly complete the tasks that would soon be thrust upon us? There would be conversations with stunned family members and incredulous friends, inquisitive detectives, curious neighbors, an empathic landlord, Alex’s neurologist, and Alex’s longtime mentor who was her employer and her colleagues with whom she was very close; visits to the Office of the Medical Examiner where we identified our daughter, and to the funeral home where we were asked to make decisions we had never imagined; choices about what clothes we would dress Alex in for our last rendezvous and which personal items would be tucked into her coffin (we chose Snappy, a scraggly stuffed dog that had once been mine, a poem written for her by Gérard Isirdi, a dear French artist friend, a plush blanket from her high school alma mater, a pendant from her college alma mater, and a few photographs); seemingly endless hours devoted to packing the rest of her clothes (many of which I had helped her choose over the years) and her personal belongings such as framed photographs of friends and family, her dog Penny’s bed and assorted toys, and her nascent collection of pots and pans, all of which she had just purchased in anticipation of actually cooking in a kitchen larger than the small closet that passed for a kitchen in Manhattan; the sorting of various drugs she kept on hand to deal with the ravages of the autoimmune brain disorder she ultimately succumbed to; and the wholly unanticipated discussions with professionals from NIH who asked that we donate her brain for further research to understand neuropsychiatric disorders such as the one that took Alex’s precious life: Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Streptococcus (PANDAS).
In the immediate aftermath of Alex’s death, while still in Washington D.C. where Alex had lived, the profound grief that would eventually envelop us had not yet set in. But we were untethered. Fortunately, family and friends knew it was the table – where we would be comforted by breaking bread with loved ones – that would help to ground us.
Just before collapsing at the end of our first day there, just 24 hours after Alex’s death, we propped ourselves up, at the insistence of my cousin Juli and sister-in-law Lisa, for a light meal. We had apéritifs with a rosé from Domaine de la Petite Cassagne in Costiere de Nimes followed by a Zinfandel from Lodi. Neither the food nor the wines were particularly remarkable, but the gathering was memorable and immensely therapeutic. We were in the Venetian Bar and Lounge in Foggy Bottom’s classically elegant Hotel Lombardy, where Alex and I had stayed twice when she interviewed for the job she ultimately took, and where my husband and I now stayed. Alex should have been there; it was surreal that she wasn’t. What kind of cruel god would pluck our vibrant, smart, gorgeous, funny, kind daughter from the prime of her life? How could this happen? We all sobbed as we raised our glasses many times to Alex: to our collective love for her, for gracing our lives albeit far too briefly, for her safe passage to heaven.
Another meal, sandwiched between two emotional visits with Alex in the funeral home, was more feast than meal. Lisa and her Moroccan-French husband Charlie prepared a dozen or so Moroccan dishes that filled the dining room with sweet and spicy scents reminiscent of our trip to that North African country some ten years earlier, one that Alex loved. Red wine from several châteaux in the Rhône Valley helped to wash away the grief that hung in the air.
On our first visit to the funeral home, early that Sunday morning before the Moroccan feast, it was just five days after she died, seven days after she had excitedly called us to tell us about her five-year career plan, and fourteen days after we had laughed together in Tucson. Now, she lay motionless in the black dress I had purchased for her last summer in Provence, one I had expected to see her wearing while drinking rosé in Lourmarin, the village where Alex went to school and where we had spent so many vacations. Instead, she was lying supine in a coffin in Bethesda, Maryland. A wail emanated from my gut that was so primal I didn’t recognize it as my own. The incongruence of our excruciating pain with her radiant beauty and peaceful appearance was jarring. I held her hand as I often did but it was cold and lifeless. The last time I held her hand was in Tucson where, as she left for her flight, she sought assurance from me that the upcoming treatment would work, and she would be herself again, free of the debilitating disorder with the strangely cute name, “PANDAS.”
The spicy lamb and assorted vegetables atop Lisa’s renown couscous calmed my nerves, and the various blends of the region’s signature Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, warmed my soul and grounded me for the return visit to the funeral home after lunch. The conversation was lively, mostly about Alex and, heartbreakingly, focused on the past as each of us sitting around the table carefully navigated the sudden absence of a future. I relayed the story of Alex accompanying me to the renowned Château Beaucastel in the southern Rhône Valley where she took photos and I interviewed fifth-generation vigneron Marc Perrin,
After lunch, we returned to the funeral home — the last time I would ever hold Alex’s sweet hands. We told her about the lunch and how much she would have loved it. And how she should have been there (and how we hoped she was). If the funeral home had not been closing, I would have had dinner brought in. It seemed impossible that we would never see her again. Even as I type these words now, I cannot fully grasp she is gone.
The same group of friends and family gathered the next night at an Indian restaurant a few blocks from Alex’s apartment and across the street from her office. My husband and I had been in her office earlier that day when we met her employer and the colleagues about whom she had spoken so fondly. We wanted to meet them, to match faces with names of the people, and to give her young colleagues some semblance of inchoate closure. That same day, in the morning, we had met Alex’s neurologist, whom Alex held in very high regard, and who had just formally diagnosed her three weeks earlier and determined the course of treatment Alex should have begun by the day we met. Both meetings were heart-rending yet satisfying. The outstanding array of Indian food and multiple bottles of Gentil “Hugel” – an Alsatian blend of Gewurztraminer, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Muscat – lightened the mood around the table.
Alex loved Indian food. On one of her early visits to the pediatrician – she was about four years old – Alex responded to a nurse’s question about her favorite food by saying “saag paneer.” The nurse, who must have asked the question in hundreds of other visits with young patients, could not decipher Alex’s answer. Alex tried a few more times before I intervened to clarify. The nurse told us that in her 40-plus years of pediatric nursing, she had never heard that answer from a child’s mouth. We told this story at the table that night and garnered some honest laughter for the first time since Alex had died.
Most of our meals in Washington followed long, emotionally grueling days, each of which underscored the death of our daughter in new ways. Most of those meals were quite simple. As prominent wine writer Gerald Asher wrote in The Pleasures of Wine, “It needs only a good bottle of wine for a roast chicken to be transformed into a banquet,” a sentiment with which Alex would have completely concurred.
Some of the meals we enjoyed included cheese pizza with pepperoni and Caesar salad accompanied by M Chapoutier’s Côtes-du-Rhône Red Belleruche (2017); Japanese dumplings filled with pork and paired with a white Rhône blend (2016) of Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc called T’aya from Kitá Wines in California (one we found in Alex’s burgeoning collection of wines that I knew was a favorite and one she tasted when we visited the winemaker Tara Gomez); and a cheese and charcuterie board with a huge arugula salad and crusty Italian bread assembled by one of Alex’s new friends, Steve, who brought it over to Alex’s apartment where we all met for dinner. We opened a bottle of Léoube Collector (2015) from Provence’s Château Léoube, also from Alex’s wine collection. (This was a bigger wine than our meal called for, but Alex, like our small group, would have appreciated it.) We were growing accustomed to meeting à la table where we would breathe a collective sigh of relief that we made it through the day, shed some tears, and tell some stories that, if we were lucky, elicited a few laughs.
The worst day was probably our last. We were down to the wire to close Alex’s apartment, so when the funeral home called to say that Alex’s ashes were ready – that is, the remains of Alex were in the Thai Buddhist bronze begging bowl that Lisa had given us – I volunteered to go retrieve them. It would soon become clear that neither my husband nor Juli (nor I) had thought this errand through as this task required me to be the sole custodian of Alex’s ashes for the 30-minute trip from Bethesda to D.C., alone in the back seat of a taxi. I wrapped my arms around the begging bowl now holding what remained of our only child in my lap, sobbing all the way back to Alex’s apartment. I will always remember the driver, a Muslim man who told me we were all family at times like these, did not charge me for the very long wait while I was inside the funeral home. I relayed these stories to Lisa and Charlie later that night over bowls of spaghetti topped with a red bison sauce that, in this case, more than compensated for the bottle of inexpensive Italian wine we paired with it.
We drove home the next day, the van we had rented filled to the roof with our daughter’s belongings. It was a drive we had made, in part, countless times over the last decade, sometimes with Alex and sometimes not, but always with a car full of Alex’s things. Alex moved to Princeton in 2009, to New York City for two summer internships and then, in 2013, for full-time employment, and, more recently, from New York to Washington, D.C.
During those long drives, our conversations, if not directly about Alex, would always loop back to her. We marveled at her resilience during the most challenging periods at Princeton, we basked in the pride of being her parents when she coxed the men’s lightweight rowing team to a huge win, we laughed when she sounded more like an old sailor than a young female coxswain in that boat, we delighted in meeting her friends and their parents, we wondered where she would live after graduation, what she would do with her life after she launched her career in finance, whether she and her longtime steady boyfriend would marry, and we counted our blessings that Alex was in our life.
Now, it was all we could do to imagine cobbling together a life without Alex. We were on our way to a home that I couldn’t imagine ever feeling like home again. For 26 years, we had lived at this address with Alex. All that gave purpose and meaning to our lives – both before Alex and after she was born – seemed hollow without Alex. As a close family of three, our lives were braided together, and, without the thick blonde center strand around which ours were wrapped, I wasn’t sure what remained would be held together. For almost all our marriage, for nearly half our lives, we were parents: volunteer classroom parents, crew parents, soccer parents, squash parents, Alex’s parents. Who were we now? We didn’t dare broach what the future held for us while suspended between what was and what we had always expected would be, but no longer is.
Profound grief, now enveloping us, defies words. Once back, I found that where love once knew no bounds, pain knew no bounds. Listlessness and my indifference to it led to long days in which morning, afternoon, and evening were blurred until, mercifully, sleep would return
Our saving grace during these heart-wrenching months has been the table. The table, where once we three gathered, now we two gather, often with friends who, initially, brought all the food: an amazingly generous bounty of food, I hasten to add, that, as David Scott Allen observed, included not a single prosaic casserole. Every dinner, as best I remember, has included wine. With our long dining room table in temporary use as a repository for Alex’s things, our humble kitchen table has been the site of our gatherings. I think of these times together at the table as our anchor to the untethered hours of our days, especially those early days. Gradually, they have provided structure to our days and given us a platform for difficult questions to seep out. No matter your history with death and the religious or philosophical framework with which you understand it, you know that for most of these questions, there are no clear answers. But we ask them anyway. Over and over. It is part of the grieving process, especially when a life has been cut tragically short.
Alex was just beginning to develop her palate for wine, and it was already quite sophisticated. She loved finding just the right words to describe the bouquet she noted and the flavors she detected. She had already accompanied me to several wineries and to one significant tasting of organic wines called Millésime Bio. In Montpellier, for three long days, she juggled translating French with photographing winemakers, all the while tasting a little wine, too. She loved it. She was a natural and, sadly, left some unfinished projects from that tasting (notably, the video of my interview with a consultant on biodynamic winemaking for Domaine Richeaume).
I think Alex would have liked the (2015) Gigondas from Clos du Joncuas (as she met the winemakers in Montpellier) we served with the roast chicken one of our dear friends left for us and the biodynamic red Château Fontvert (2015) blend (as she knew this Lourmarin winery well) we paired with the spaghetti sauce we fell in love with. I wonder how she would have liked the Viognier from Acquiesce Winery (2016) that we paired with the salmon that we found waiting for us on another day. If she is looking down from heaven, I am sure she was smiling with all the wonderful soups and salads we received. David Scott Allen and Mark Sammons made mac ‘n cheese out of the cheeses left from the reception following her service and I made a vegetable stock from the beautiful vegetables left from the huge vegetable platters which I then used to make celery soup. And when we weren’t drinking wine, I know she would have loved the iced tea Betsy Tabor kept us supplied with.
Honestly, we might not have eaten had this network of dear, dear friends not risen to the occasion in their respective kitchens to make such sustenance for our table. Their food not only fortified our physical bodies, it nourished our souls in ways I never imagined. They told us that their shopping and cooking was a labor of love, that it helped them by helping us; but, truly, the great gift of freedom it gave us to grieve is one we can only repay by paying it forward.
Which wine pairs best with grief? The wine that warms your heart. The wine that comes with a story that recalls a place and time. The best wines are made from grapes that are grown with a deep love and respect for the terroir, harvested with tremendous care, and vinified with an unrelenting confidence in the grapes themselves. Therein lies the beauty of the wine, and of life itself. And, in both wine and life, there are profound disappointments.
We will set a place for Alex at the Thanksgiving table and pour a wine we know she loves. We will tell stories of Thanksgivings past and count our blessings she graced our lives.
Happy Thanksgiving to all. À la table!
To read more about the autoimmune brain disorder that took the life of Alex or if you would like to contribute to her fund to help all young people with PANDAS, please visit: http://pandasnetwork.org/alex-manfull-memorial-fund/