I pushed the dry potato cubes with my fork against my TexMex omelet.
“This is not what I ordered,” I softly scoffed at the potatoes on my plate and laid my fork aside.
My mom and I were somewhere between Paducah, Kentucky, and Marion, Illinois, at a four-month old Holiday Inn plopped in the middle of farmland, pin-marked on my Google map as a corn field. We were road weary, starting early on day two of our summer road trip to Minnesota to see family, our first visit since Aunt Lois’ funeral last year. I’d somehow overlooked the lack of a free continental breakfast in our reservation, so we resigned ourselves to a breakfast expense at the hotel's restaurant for which we’d not planned.
A couple of businessmen, the only other guests in the restaurant, were seated two booths behind Mom. Murmuring about meetings and travel schedules, their voices were barely audible over the tv’s morning news broadcast.
The waitress had dropped our breakfast on the table and scurried away before we had a chance to let her know if we needed anything else.
Measuring my disappointment, Mom replied, “You ordered yogurt as a side, didn’t you?”
“Yep.” I pursed my lips.
I felt slightly guilty over such a First-World problem, but still, it had been a simple request based on one of three side options on the menu. I craned my head around the booth, but the waitress had already made a stealth-like disappearance into the kitchen. I wondered if the businessmen two tables down had gotten what they ordered or had the opportunity to ask for anything else.
As I mulled over my breakfast fate, a memory flashed to a scene 12 years earlier at the Five Star Day Café in downtown Athens. My family of five pondered the Sunday brunch menu, but my daughter Rebekkah knew exactly what she wanted before we sat down. When the waitress arrived, my 12-year-old with Down syndrome wiggled into a proud, straight posture and, despite her speech impediment, ordered her usual breakfast fare: scrambled eggs, bacon and toast with orange juice. The waitress jotted down our orders, smiled and turned heel toward the kitchen.
A few minutes later, the waitress emerged with an enormous food tray. I don’t remember my order that day, as it’s been permanently replaced with Bekkah’s wide-eyed surprise when the waitress set the large plate of pancakes and a side of bacon before her. There was no toast, no eggs—only the prospect of sugary carbs and crunchy bacon that would have her floating the rest of the day. Her speech impediment inadvertently landed her the jackpot of breakfasts.
“Bekkah, I thought you ordered eggs,” her oldest stepsister broke the silence after the waitress left.
Bekkah paused a moment, looking from her stepsister to her plate and back again, then replied with a wide grin, both index fingers pointing to her plate, “Yeah. But, PANcakes!”
I reflect on this pancake moment from time to time when things don’t go as planned. I once bought a dress online only to have it fit like a potato sack, so I took it as a sign that I needed to buy a better—ahem, more expensive—dress from a reliable vendor. When I got turned down for the Fulbright Fellowship, I instead got to teach at my alma mater and have my turn as a magazine editor. Wow, what a terrific stack of pancakes! But applying this simplistic, silver-lining, pancake thinking to deep grief is unreasonable.
In 2014, nine months after Bekkah’s death, I decided to manually shift my dark focus. I was tired of being depressed and feeling hopeless. Every time I looked at a pancake, I'd think about Bekkah and cry. I began a simple New Year's Day list of things for which I was grateful. It was a short list: I woke up, I could walk, I had a roof over my head and food to eat, and I had job that kept my mind preoccupied. I thanked God every day for those simple blessings, as much as I resented having all those things without Bekkah. My theory was that if I focused on the good for long enough, the heartache would lessen.
My daily gratefulness list grew over time, which I incorporated as recitations into long hikes with my dog Honey. The gratitude-prayer walks, along with effective therapy (which I can't recommend highly enough), eventually lifted the darkness enough for me to look forward to the next day. Today when I hike, scarcely before my foot touches the path or a word parts my lips, my worries drift into the intoxicating aroma of cedar and soil, lifted away into the treetops by the soothing lilt of cardinals and Carolina wrens. Focusing on the good always, always gets me back to a better state of mind. My recitations now include gratefulness for the experiences that led me to teaching and editing. I realize that if it weren't for Bekkah and her brief journey, these accomplishments would likely have never happened.
Now, in the ninth year without my Bekkah, pancakes have come to symbolize resilience and hope. When it feels like I’m teetering once again toward darkness, I know I can return to the table of gratefulness and be filled with the prospect of pancakes and good things, even when it's not something I ordered. And even when I get hard cubed potatoes, I'm reminded of Bekkah's grace in that pancake moment and the importance of giving thanks for those things that are most unexpected—a memory of my sweet Bekkah.
I eventually surrendered any hope of yogurt at the Holiday Inn restaurant and begrudgingly ate a couple of cold potato pieces. Our waitress came back only once—20 minutes later to drop off our check and collect our service-appropriate tip.
Mom and I continued our road trip toward family, thankful for our time together. I ate pancakes three times during our Minnesota visit in memory of Bekkah, and for that I am especially grateful.