I wore glasses in the seventh grade, but I viewed the half–hour drive from my childhood home to M.D. Anderson hospital as if they were speckled by rain. However, the one thing that always glowed in bright pristine color, a sight I never wanted obscured, was the brilliant red Chick–fil–A sign.
My mom’s cancer—discovered, ironically, in the elated seconds after her second wedding dress was unzipped and pooled on the floor of the Grand Bohemian Hotel—surprised us all. I no longer hungered for Mom’s homemade avocado and brie sandwiches, my stomach tightening at the thought of ice cream or fresh pineapple. My stomach was full, instead, with worry, frantic plans, thousands of questions, and the reduction of decades of love I thought were promised to me.
Moments that had yet to happen, moments I took for granted, were suddenly distilled into questions, churning like gravel in my stomach. Images of Mom walking me down the aisle at my wedding, of her clapping proudly at my high school graduation, rolled into sticks of dynamite that took turns exploding in my gut.
Prior to Mom’s diagnosis, I didn’t know that chemotherapy weakens one’s immune system to the point where raw foods were verboten. Certain meals were not only unappetizing and nauseating, but now also dangerous. Family friends offered empty attempts of assistance; one of them showed up with a bowl of tomato soup and a smile dripping in expectation. I thanked her, dipped a pinky into the soup, tasted the thick milkiness of too much sour cream, and dumped the rest down the drain. Our kitchen had been bleached of laughter; food became simple sustenance, nothing more. When my stomach rumbled, I viewed it as just another audible complaint against the unfairness of sickness, not as a plea for taste and calories. Mom’s face went from lobster–red to broccoli–green. Comfort food was the antonym to its own name.
“Guys, let’s get Chick–fil–A for breakfast today.” Mom’s suggestion pierced the haze in my head. We were once again on our way to the hospital, and my mouth watered at the thought of honey–dipped mini biscuit buns snuggling the chicken nuggets I had grown up loving. Chick–fil–A had always been our favorite fast food place, and really, the only fast food Mom would buy us. We’d never eaten any sort of red meat, so places like McDonalds and Burger King were unappetizing, with walls and chairs seemingly spotted with grease. When a hurricane knocked out the power in our neighborhood, leaving my family without air conditioning for the entire grueling Florida summer, the three of us spent many hours lounging in the booths at our local Chick–fil–A, exchanging fries and jokes in the cool air. We started viewing it as an island of cold ice cream, safe from the Florida heat. Chick–fil–A dates all the way back to 1946, when Truett Cathy opened his first store in Hapeville, Georgia. Since its inception, Chick–fil–A has pledged to remain closed on Sundays. Facing public outcry in 2012 when Chick–fil–A’s chief operating officer, Dan T. Cathy, was involved in reports opposing same–sex marriage, this fast food chain was built using many pillars that I don’t support. But when our house was a sweltering blister, we didn’t care about the controversy.
The first day Mom suggested we stop for Chick–fil–A, foregoing our usual breakfast of frozen Eggo waffles, was a Friday. We pulled through the drive–thru, ordering three four–pack chicken minis, and three sides of hashbrowns, even though I was the only one who would eat them. Something about that morning felt lighter, and my stomach ached with a familiar hunger that was slowly pushing away the leaden lump of uncertainty and dread that had filled my gut for so long.
“I wish we did this every morning,” Rachel said, a bundle of chicken poking out from inside her cheek, a smile poking out the other.
“I don’t know about every morning, but how about every Friday morning? To celebrate the end of another week.” The implications behind her words rippled in front of me—a congratulations for surviving another week of treatment, and a sense of gratitude for any week we all pulled through together.
“I would love that.” Rachel said, and I nodded in agreement. For $3.39, Chick–fil–A gave me, Rachel, and Mom something to look forward to...something to hunger for. The strict demands of cancer were unfaltering: waking up at five in the morning to go to the hospital was a necessity; watching her suffer was a necessity; Chick–fil–A was a treat—a small present wrapped in white cardboard boxes that left snail tracks of oil on our fingers. It was a way to mark the passing of weeks, not in the amount of times Mom vomited or the amount of times my friends asked why she was bald, but in a way that made my little family happy and full.
Most families would make reservations at the kinds of places that wouldn’t serve you if you were in jeans. Although unrealistic to sustain weekly, an outing to a fancy place seemed warranted—perhaps even a return to the Grand Bohemian Hotel would provide just the right amount of sickly–sweet irony. When even a smile had become a form of makeup, any efforts to feel beautiful often had the opposite effect on Mom. We wanted affordable and fast, something that allowed us to slip into the real world just long enough to order, and then blend back into the oblivion of doctor's appointments and hospitals, grease adorning our fingertips like ink. We left Chick–fil–A like bandits, stealing a few happy moments from their friers.
Cancer bit out of us a raw chunk that it chewed like gum, leaving Mom to bleed out dollar bills like blood cells. For 350 calories and 37 grams of carbs, we could replenish ourselves slightly. I can never forget the many mornings my sister and I spent under hospital lights, ignoring everything around us except the little white box in our hands. I focused all my energy on tearing open their miniature ketchup packets, not allowing my field of vision to expand and encompass the rest of the waiting room. My world was my breakfast—not the smell of rubbing alcohol, but the smell of honey glaze and the fried warmth in my stomach.
I’ve been fully vegetarian now for almost three years, but every time I see a Chick–fil–A, my mouth still waters for their breakfast menu, and I’m tempted every time.