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Cháo for Sickness (and the Sadness)

Sometime after Halloween, I was invited to a friend's belated Halloween party. I was feeling up for it this time and had been planning out what I would wear to the get together. She and her roommates were the type to be serious about their outfits and were definitely going to lowkey (or maybe not so lowkey) rag on people who weren't dressed up to par.

That Saturday, I sat surfing the internet, waiting until it was a good time to start getting ready. I got an unexpected text: my friend was admitted into the Emergency Room. She said something vague about stomach pain and that she was fine, but she just thought that I should know. I asked where she was and headed to the hospital.

I had been in New York when my dad was admitted to the ER, and there was nothing I could do about it. Having the opportunity to check in on my friend almost felt like I was making up for lost time. After going through security and navigating a crowded ER, I finally found her. We sat and talked for hours while we waited for the medical professionals to run tests on her. We hadn't really had time to catch up on our lives because returning to Columbia after my dad's death had mostly just involved me catching up on schoolwork.

I wondered what it would have been like that night in the ER. I remember talking to my sister on the phone that night, with my mother wailing in the background. The only time I'd ever heard my mother cry like that in my life was when her own mother had been taken away from her tragically and suddenly. Would I have believed the news if I had been there? What would I have done that night? Could I have changed anything? Such questions all stem from knowing a single fact: I was not there that night. A typical response might read something like well you couldn't have been and you couldn't have predicted a thing. But that doesn't take away from the ever lingering question: but what if I had been there?


I stayed with my friend for some time and wandered out to get her some water and some heat packs in hopes of helping to ease the pain. Eventually, the doctor decided to give her an IV drip so I slipped out to let her rest. Shortly after getting home, I messaged my friend that I wouldn't be able to make it to the Halloween party. I then headed out again to buy some cilantro, ginger, and chicken to make her cháo, also known as rice porridge or congee. It was something that my mom and grandmother had made me growing up when I was sick, and we both agreed that cháo might be something she'd be able to stomach after not being able to eat all day.

I cooked as I waited for her to text her status. The tests were taking longer than expected so it was several hours later than expected when I finally heard back from her. I walked to the hospital to walk with her home, grabbing a jacket for her to wear in the impending chill of early November.

I remember the steam rising as I opened the lid to the pot, reaching in to shred up the bits of chicken. Chopping the cilantro, topping off the bowl with a drizzle of sesame oil. There was a difference between her visit and my father's. With her, we went home and I could fill up her belly and do what my mom and grandmother had always done to make things better. With my dad, my mom and sisters had to leave his body at the hospital, and there was not much to do at all that would have made things better.

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