Last month, my daughter texted me from school to ask me if she could buy a panini press.
“Where would you buy a panini press?” I asked her, mentally picturing the route home from school which includes only an indoor play space for toddlers and a gas station.
“At the school store,” she answered. “With my points!”
It turned out that, against all odds, there was a panini press at the school store where students can “buy” things with the points they earn for good behavior. I tried to figure out how it fit in with the erasers and plastic jewelry and school swag and soccer balls, but I gave up. Maybe it was a toy.
“Sure,” I tapped back into my phone.
By the time she came home, I had already forgotten, but there she was, grinning broadly beneath cheeks flushed with the cold, clutching a gift bag that sagged with the weight of a used panini press. She’d spent half of her points for it, and the teacher who’d packed it away had asked her if it was a gift for me.
“I told her no, it’s for me. I love paninis!” my girl told me triumphantly, hoisting it up onto the kitchen counter.
She had tried a panini for the first time in sixth grade, at a party given by one of her friends from Hebrew school. All the girls had crowded around the table of sandwich fixings and watched as the hostess expertly put bread, cheese, grilled vegetables, and olives into the machine. It sizzled, and they all jumped back, squealing. She fell in love right away, the toasty, greasy, oozing sandwich her new favorite thing.
Two summers later, she’d gone away to sleepover camp for the first time. She was all the way across the country, and we never received a letter home from her. I’d been worried about what she’d be eating, though it had been a long time since I really needed to worry. When she came home, she missed — among a hundred other things — the “amazing, delicious” paninis at camp. When we told her she could go back this summer, she said, “oooh, more paninis!”
At restaurants, if they have a panini, she orders it. After thirteen years of our family seldom going through a loaf of bread in a month, there are sandwiches happening again, which makes me aware, every time, of how little of my current life I could have predicted five years ago. The teenager who hoisted a panini press onto my counter last month somehow sprouted from a little girl who changed my life completely one Tuesday afternoon in October, 2014.
It had been months of worrying, by October 2014. The previous April, she’d had surgery to free her tangled esophagus from the various adhesions in her chest and her persistent meandering aorta that was compressing it. Before then, she’d hated eating anything that wasn’t mostly liquid, but they told us that the surgery had solved all problems that kept her from swallowing. Her reticence after that point was habit, engrained into her by years of choking, gagging, and feeling her food rise above the right angles in her gullet. I’d tried patience. I’d tried waiting. I’d tried serious talks, crosslegged on the couch or opposite her space at the dining room table. Nothing convinced her to eat faster or more. Nothing moved her favorites past raspberries and soup.
Finally, I’d driven her to a special feeding therapy practice in the suburbs, where she’d spent the summer learning how to eat. It improved her speed (a little) and my understanding of what she needed (a lot). It had her eating the things she liked more quickly, and it had me more relaxed.
Then one day, at the beginning of the school year, I’d asked her the same question I’d been asking her occasionally for years, staring into the fridge for leftover soup or lentils for her lunch.
“Hey, sunshine,” I called across the kitchen, “do you feel ready to try a sandwich for lunch?”
She’d never answered yes, until this time, when she said, slowly “Ok. Sure.”
My stomach leapt, but I calmly surveyed the contents of the fridge and came up with something I thought would go down easily. I made her my favorite childhood sandwich, which tasted like cheesecake and summer. Cream cheese and strawberry jelly.
For several days, it came home half-eaten, and I’d sit next to her at the counter, reminding her to take another bite until she’d finished it. Then, one afternoon in October, I watched from a bench in the lobby of our synagogue as she chatted amiably with her friend while distractedly eating the rest of it.
It was the beginning of sandwiches. It was the beginning of ease in her eating, of food with density, of being able to say “let’s just grab a sandwich.” It was the beginning of the rest of our lives.
And now we have a panini press, which is pretty cool too.
This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post with the prompt of “The day that changed me…” hosted by Kristi Campbell of Finding Ninee.