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Sense Memory: Thankful for Meatballs…and Hope

Thanksgiving is the perfect time to reflect on everything we’re thankful for, like the assistance of family, time with loving pets and the power of a really good meatball.
By Denise Sakaki

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I’ve seen friends doing daily postings on social media, listing things they are grateful for during the month of November. And why shouldn’t they? It is, after all, the traditional American holiday to give thanks. Our month of thanks started a little earlier, in the waning days of October, when I learned to be very thankful for, of all things, meatballs.

Meatballs..? That famous cohort of spaghetti? You betcha.  I’m thankful for meatballs because, in a way, they saved my dog’s life, and in turn, my own.  The Mister and I are Super Crazy Dog People; we lavish all our love, attention and even a food scrap or two, upon our mysterious-breed mutt, Indy. A furry bundle of energy that adopted us ten years ago (she was found running around loose in a parking lot; no one ever claimed her), she’s a sweet, often fussy and insistent dog, who never lets us forget she is the center of the universe. When I made the scary decision to go completely freelance in my creative and culinary writing endeavors a few years ago, Indy was at my side – or rather, the space beneath my desk, at my feet – never letting me feel alone, as I faced an uncharted future before me.  She could always sense my fear and sadness, and I’d immediately have a fuzzy face resting on my knee, demanding a muzzle-nuzzle (we call them snuzzles) or a head pat. That’s what pets do – they make us stop and discover a rare stillness amid so much noise. Indy is mentioned in my blog quite often, and a frequent subject of photography, because I will never tire of her inquisitive head-tilt.  But for all our ridiculous love and affection for this strange, furry creature, we tried to be good owners and not overindulge her with food from our plates.  Even when I was cooking in the kitchen, making messes, dropping food, Indy knew to stay out, as it was not her domain. I would leave food in easily-reachable spots during photo shoots, unattended as I stepped away to change a lens or find a prop – she never touched it. The rules came tumbling down when we discovered Indy has cancer.

I need to emphasize the word “has,” because, for the very grateful moment, Indy is still with us, but it wasn’t without a lot of heart wrenching days of tears and despair, watching our dog in horrible pain, as the cancer suddenly and rapidly took her over while we awaited test results. We were within hours of calling a service that lets you euthanize your pet at home, so that they can depart in a familiar place with their loved ones. Thankfully, with the help of several vets and specialists, we were able to stabilize her through medication and attempt to fight it, which we continue to do, this very moment. We know it’s not forever – nothing is — but we’ve quickly learned to appreciate the present, and not to take any moment for granted.

Which leads me to the meatballs. I know I’ll get stern looks and head shakes from vets and anyone else like us, who, for the most part, tried to be diligent about not feeding pets “people food.” When the cancer struck, Indy had nearly stopped eating for several days; it was nerve-wracking at meal times, trying every different style of organic/grain-free/artisanal dog food to stir her appetite, but she would barely take a nibble. She was losing weight rapidly and in desperation, we fed her some leftover Swedish meatballs. She loved them. We were able to successfully hide her medication in them, and she always wolfed them down. We were stressing over an upcoming trip, which had the worst timing in the world, but thankfully my in-laws, who adore Indy, insisted on caring for her – another thing to be eternally grateful for. Prior to her trip to “grandma and grandpa’s” house, we decided to supply Indy with an all-meatball extravaganza for her visit. By then, she had learned the word. Even in her most anemic state, her ears would perk up at the sound of “meatball.”

I spent a day mixing ground pork and beef, seasoning it the way I would for a person, before measuring and rolling equal portions for over ten pounds of meatballs. For a dog, of all things. We didn’t care how crazy it was – anything to get Indy eating, gaining the weight and strength to start fighting this disease. It was a long day of repetitive actions, but it was the first day I’d spent in the kitchen for over a week. It felt good to do something, to have a purpose. We spent days in and out of the vet’s office, chasing lab reports over the phone, or curled up on the bed in tears, watching Indy distancing herself from us because of her pain. Entering the kitchen with a day-long task felt invigorating. I felt like I was fighting back, no longer harnessed by helplessness compounded with sadness. I was reminded how therapeutic cooking is, the way it focuses you, and that feeling you get from creating something.  Even if it’s meatballs for a dog. But Indy ate every bite, and gained a little more of herself back every day.

And so another Thanksgiving holiday is upon us. I sincerely thought we would be spending it with heavy hearts, but nothing short of a miracle has allowed us more time with Indy, and we have never felt more grateful. It’s a luxury to think too far into the future, we know the treatment buys us unspecified, uncertain time, but we remain thankful for every day we receive. I cherish every morning, when I awake to Indy’s fuzzy face and wagging tail, the way she lights up for walks, even the quiet times when she sleeps, and I can just listen to her tired sighs. We’ve transitioned her back onto regular dog food, blessedly with no meatball withdrawal, but I often think back to that day in the kitchen. It was a place that gave me purpose, and that first precious inkling that hope was possible.

Denise Sakaki

Denise Sakaki

Denise Sakaki is a freelance food writer and photographer who is always searching for the connections between food and personal experience. She is the creator of the food blog Wasabi Prime and contributor to Serious Eats, 425 Magazine and Drink Me Magazine.

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Originally Published: November 28, 2013

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