TO GREEN HIS CELLS
Dad brings me basil from his garden, wrapped in a damp paper towel, a voluminous green
bouquet of it. I sit him down at my kitchen table and offer him lunch, not commenting on his
cough. “I’m not all that hungry, sorry,” he says, removing his glasses to knuckle his eyes, swipe
at his beard.
“I know, but try a little.” The chemo having sapped his appetite, he now eats in accordance with
the childhood dictum: Clean your plate, remember the starving children in Biafra. He chews and
swallows a portion of potato salad with cherry tomato halves and herbs. He tries a small bowl of
bean soup, and nibbles a rye cracker with olive oil. “It’s not bad,” he says.
The outdoorsy sweat smell of him, his dirt-soiled T-shirt, the muddy work boots he left at the
door, all tell me he’s just fine: It’s a normal day for this hardy retiree who has gardens to tend all
over town. One of many such normal days yet to come.
But then he needs to lie down, and I offer him the guest bed. The chemo, intended not to save
him but to preserve some quality of life in his remaining months, has done nothing but strip his
energy and collapse his appetite.
I hear him coughing behind the bedroom door, then quieting, and I’m gripped by a sudden terror:
What if he dies in there? I slip to the door and listen, willing the room to expand and contract
with his breath like a giant lung. A momentary shuffling sound tells me he’s all right.
To counter the sense of doom accompanying the terminal diagnosis of this man I adore, I start to
process the basil, stripping each leaf from its stem and placing in a colander. Dad’s basil is
surpassingly healthy, unlike mine—outside my back door are plants pockmarked from stress, the
leaves shriveled, pulling sparse nutrients from my inferior garden soil. These leaves are a deep
green, smooth between my fingers.
The nails of my index finger and thumb blacken as I pinch each leaf from its stem. A sharp smell
a bit reminiscent of cat pee infuses my kitchen. How can something that smells so rank taste so
Dad has planted basil in his home garden for years, and has made pesto every summer. His
version of the spread incorporates a bizarre mishmash of whatever herbs he needs to use up that
week—cilantro, dill, garlic chives, basil, shiso, mint perhaps—with plasticky soy cheese subbed
for the parmesan, in a nod to Mom’s halfhearted veganism. I’m more of a purist in my
pestomaking, preferring the traditional basil-parsley combo. So I usually steer clear of his
concoctions, disliking their stringy mouthfeel and discordant flavors.
Still it’s always cute to see him truck some out and park it on the table at family dinners or
potlucks. “Pesto? Anybody want pesto?” He’d hold it out, his bushy eyebrows up in invitation,
and demonstrate its tastiness by mashing some onto a cracker and popping the whole thing into
his mouth, in defiance of its grassy appearance. Every summer he froze massive amounts of
herbal glop in tiny containers to pull out all winter long.
When the basil started coming along well this summer, he offered it to me, saying, “I’m just not
interested in doing anything with it anymore.” Which prompted a surge of the sick feeling I’d
been pushing down in my belly ever since that day in the oncologist’s office. Here was an ending
before the big ending. One of many, as it would turn out.
I fought it, this little death. I said, “What if I pick it and make pesto over here in your food
processor? And you can hang out with me in the kitchen.” Hoping to preserve some of his
interest, and create some sort of memory together. He shrugged. The scene I envisioned—
father-daughter time with leisurely food prep and lots of teasing and tasting—never happened.
Instead he’s brought me the basil and gone to bed. So here I am alone, picking the leaves off,
while he rests between outdoor tasks that are more and more difficult for him, but higher on the
passion scale than processing herbs into food that may or may not taste good on his tongue—that
he may or may not even be around to eat.
The caustic scent of the herb adds to my throat’s burning. This can’t be happening, I think for the
umpteenth time. I must have fallen into someone else’s life, some daughter of a man who
smoked or breathed asbestos or otherwise abused the beautiful pink tissue of his lungs. I don’t
believe that bad things only happen to bad people, or that people who get cancer somehow
deserve it, but some part of me wants to see the logic here, and I don’t. I am holding my jaw
tight, tight, not letting in the thought that Dad might not make it. He’s got this great food, he’s
got love, he’s got a body that’s always been healthy as a horse’s. Surely all that will play in his
favor. He will defy the odds.
I lift my shoulder to swipe at a tear threatening to fall, keeping my hands moving. Tired of the
repetitive leaf-pinching, I attack the garlic, and the papery skin sticks to my fingers. I get mad at
it, whack my hand on the edge of the compost bucket. Wonder if I should be saving the skins to
put into vegetable stock, then think, Whatever.
I have some Indian music on Pandora, softly so as not to disturb him, and the bouncy Bollywood
rhythms jumble my thoughts while I collect a full colander of leaves. It takes a long time, and
when it strikes me that Mom might be wondering where he is, I wash my hands to give her a call.
“He’s napping,” I tell her in low tones, as if he were a child, our shared charge. He emerges a
few minutes later, just as I’m measuring how many cups of basil leaves I actually have—enough
for a double batch of lemon-basil drizzle (recipe courtesy of a cancer cookbook), as well as a
double batch of regular pesto. I’ve zested a lemon, using a little square grater and crossing my
fingers that no pesticides are in this particular lemon rind. I’ve taken the denuded lemon half and
pressed it onto the glass dome of the juicer. Splashing the juice into the blender, fishing out
errant seeds, adding salt—presto, lemon-basil drizzle, a phenomenal taste explosion. After
sampling, I pour it into two containers—a small one for me, a large one for Dad.
He sits and rubs his face blearily while I finish up with pesto, for which I sub white miso—with
live cultures! reads the lid—for the traditional parmesan cheese, in hopes of reducing the mucus
factor and increasing his healthy gut flora. He shakes his head, oh my, oh my, as I set him up with
a little cooler filled with leftovers from my fridge as well as these newly made delicacies. He
doesn’t want a fuss made, nor do I want to be a fusser. To let him know he’s not beholden, I
remind him, “It’s your basil.”
I myself have a hard time remembering, from one time to the next, the amount of effort such
projects require. Hand stripping basil leaves, for example. A recipe might call for two cups of
leaves, thrown in a food processor with a few other ingredients, and I will think, That’ll be a
snap, should take 10 minutes, tops—forgetting that the bulk of the time in cooking, as in painting
a room, is involved in prep work. Not to mention cleanup.
But I don’t say this to Dad. That little lick of lemon-basil drizzle I had? It was full of life. They
don’t call it zest for nothing.
He’s not hungry—he never is, anymore—but I wish Dad would eat some right now in front of
me so I can see his momentary slump of pleasure, hear the involuntary “mmm” I hope he will
And maybe it will do the trick, maybe this food will turn the key. I envision him spooning the
drizzle on soups that go down like silk. I see him spreading the pesto thick on a rye cracker,
downing it with gusto and asking for more. I see him returning to eating as a delight. No more
dutiful chewing, no more putting food into his mouth out of pure mechanics.
I see him reviving, his very cells greening up and growing, rooted in his own soil, for good.
Shawndra Miller’s work has appeared in Lavender Review, Kiwanis
Magazine, Edible Indy, Indiana Living Green, and Angie’s List Magazine. Currently she’s
working on a nonfiction book interweaving her personal journey with profiles of communities
working toward resilience. She blogs about the community resilience movement at shawndramiller.com.