Had He Lived, Cullen Would Have Been 37 This Past Tuesday

Had he lived…but he didn’t. This past Tuesday marked four years, six months and sixteen days since his death.

Mothers aren’t supposed to go to cemeteries on the birthdays of their child. That was supposed to be Cullen’s responsibility after my death…on my birthday. On their child’s birthday, mothers are supposed to remember all his “firsts”…his first tooth, his first word, his first day of school, but not all his “lasts”…the last time I hugged him and told him I loved him, our last phone conversation, the last meal we shared, his last Christmas, our last restaurant “date” night, even his last birthday party at my home. Just as I did not know when the “firsts” would occur, I had no warning about the “lasts”, at least not at this stage in his life. There had been a time when I expected “the call” everyday, but not when it came; he was doing so well. Had I known about the “lasts”, what would I have done differently? Would I have hugged him longer and closer, so as to memorize the heft and feel of his body? Would I have spent more time trying to understand his very real struggle with the disease of addiction rather than hoping it was a passing “phase”he would eventually “get over”?

Ironically enough, that is what many people think I should do in regard to his death…somehow, I am supposed to “get over” it. I can’t “get over” Cullen’s death any more than he could “get over” his addiction. It is a part of who I am and of who he was.

So what was I supposed to do on the day he would have been 37… had he lived? Cullen had a passion for his work; he was a trained chef by profession and we shared a love of cooking. After going to the cemetery, I decided to make a new dish..something that would be a little more complicated than my usual fare. I had seen a new recipe, “Sweet Potato and Collard Green Gratin” in the most recent edition of Southern Living. Having gleaned the secrets of cooking collard greens from African American cooks with whom he worked in Charleston, Cullen’s collards were extraordinarily tasty.

When Cullen cooked at our home, he rarely started his preparation and cooking prior to about 7:30 PM. I did get a little earlier start, but I am also much slower than he was. After peeling and slicing raw sweet potatoes, making a white sauce, grating fresh nutmeg and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, picking through the previously washed, stemmed, chopped collard greens, and putting the dish together, we managed to eat at 9:50PM. Cullen had served numerous dishes at this hour of the evening, and even later. Once I told him, “I hate to eat and run, but it is either that, or it will be time for breakfast!”

Sweet Potato and Collard Green Gratin

The dish was delicious; it was Cullen-worthy. He would have been so proud of his mom….had he lived to see his 37th birthday…but he did not. How I wish with all my heart, he had.