Discharge Instructions by Maria Wolfe

For the past hour, the kitchen had been expelling hot and spicy smells. Alex sneaked inside to investigate, but Eleanor noticed and pushed him out. “It’s a surprise,” she said. 

It was something healthy, he’d wager. His wife had been forcing “good” food on him since his discharge from the hospital yesterday morning, and he was already sick of it. A return to his normal diet was what he craved. 

Alex preferred food from America’s best burger joints and diners. During his frequent business trips, his colleagues tried to drag him to various ethnic eateries, but Alex remained firm in his refusals; for him, Italian food was too exotic, even. The blander the food, the better. Give him a plain hamburger and a pile of fries, dipped in mayo, any day.  

Early in their marriage, his wife had tried to expand his limited palate with herbs and spices and vegetables, but Alex and his taste buds clung to their routines. “Fine, I give up,” Eleanor finally had announced after those first unhappy months of meals. “I don’t want to argue anymore.” She dealt with enough conflict in the courtroom. 

The weird cooking odors followed him throughout the house. Even in the upstairs bathroom, with the exhaust fan going, he couldn’t escape it. His wife saw his heart attack as her second chance to improve his diet. “This time,” she’d said, waving his discharge instructions at him, “I won’t surrender.”        

Alex was the first to arrive in the dining room after his wife’s bellow of “dinner’s ready.” Eleanor had ordered him to eat with the family instead of alone in his home office. He chose a seat and tried not to worry about the menu. His doctor had advised him to “avoid stress.”

The mahogany table was set with the blue-and-white china that Eleanor had inherited from her grandmother. “What’s the special occasion?” Alex had asked, when he found her in the kitchen that morning, releasing each delicate plate and bowl from its bubble-wrapped cocoon. The nice dinnerware had been packed away in the storage closet for more than a decade; Eleanor had never deemed their rare date nights or holiday parties significant enough to risk their breakage. 

“Breakfast. And lunch,” she’d replied. “Definitely dinner.” Another salad plate from the set of six joined the pile next to the sink, ready to wash by hand. Her eyes teared up, but she wiped the wetness away with the back of her hand. “Every day is a special occasion now.” 

Kevin strode into the dining room, stopping short when he saw Alex. He wasn’t fifteen yet, but he’d already grown so tall, almost as tall as Alex. “Dad?” Kevin said, his usually deep voice pitched high. 

No wonder his son was startled: before his heart attack, Alex rarely ate dinner with his family, even when he was in town. He’d spent his evenings in his home office, working on growing his fledgling management company. “Not now,” he’d shout when Kevin tapped on his shut door; “I’m busy.” His business had claimed the entirety of his focus. Once he and Kevin had enjoyed tossing a baseball in the backyard and playing board games. But now his son was a teenager, almost an adult; he hadn’t knocked on that office door in years. 

“Come and sit down.” Alex patted the side chair to his left. He only relaxed when his son settled into the seat.  

Alex scanned his son’s face, with its traces of razor burn and overlooked stubble. When the hell did Kevin start growing facial hair? He needed to buy his son a good razor and teach him to shave properly. Tomorrow, perhaps. 

Eleanor approached with a steaming soup tureen in her oven-mitted hands. “Oh, good. You’re both here already.” She placed the tureen on the trivet in the center of the table. With a flourish, she removed the lid. ‘Ta-da!”

Alex scooted forward to peer at the soup. For God’s sake, it was orange. That wasn’t right—food should be either beige or brown. He wrinkled his nose. And it was giving off some sort of foreign odor. “What is that?’ 

“Curried butternut squash soup.” She laid the lid down and joined them at the table. “It has cumin in it. And shallots.” 

Dammit! Eleanor knew that he detested flavor. And vegetables—he didn’t even like ketchup. Bile rose in his throat as his wife ladled the soup into the bowls. The thick liquid spattered against the porcelain like blood on a TV crime show.

Kevin shoveled spoonfuls of soup into his mouth. “Mom,” he said between swallows, “this soup is fantastic.” 

“You know,” Eleanor said to Kevin, “you didn’t like butternut squash when you were a baby.” She turned to Alex. “Remember, honey? What a mess.”  

Alex pictured his son as a five-month-old, strapped into his highchair. That first time, his son had more puréed squash on his face and bib than in his stomach. “I got you to eat it by doing train noises. You loved the choo-choo.” 

 He leaned toward Kevin. “Hey, since I’m stuck on medical leave, how about we set up your model trains in the basement.” As a little boy, his son had sat on Alex’s lap, watching the trains endlessly circle the tracks. “We used to have so much fun together.” Maybe Eleanor had kept a picture of them in their matching striped engineer hats.   

“Dad,” Kevin mumbled toward his half-empty soup bowl, “I stopped liking trains when I was seven.”

Eleanor nodded. “I donated them to charity.” She swirled her spoon through her soup. “They took up too much space in storage.”

“No trains.” Alex rubbed his forehead. So much for that idea. “Oh, sure, I knew that.” Or he should’ve known that. 

Now that Alex had the opportunity to scale up his relationship with his son, he needed an opening. He’d already missed out on so many moments: baseball games, birthday parties, school plays. Eleanor handled all that, even with her busy trial schedule. His son used to ask him to come. “I’ll try,” Alex would respond, and he meant it, even as he rehearsed his eventual excuse for not keeping his promise. A business trip, an important meeting, a necessary report. 

The company had claimed 110% of his time, and he punted on everything else. At first, his wife had been furious with him. “You’re disappointing your son,” she’d shout. He must’ve been disappointing her, too. When did Eleanor stop nagging him? Was it when Kevin no longer cared about his father showing up? A boy couldn’t miss a father who wasn’t there.   

At his age, Kevin probably wouldn’t even want him around. His son had a loaded schedule: school, band practice, extracurricular activities. Kevin was smart and talented, thriving despite his father’s absence. Maybe because of it.  

The table was quiet. Just the scraping of silverware against porcelain. Alex was so accustomed to talking about business that he didn’t know what to say.  

Finally, he asked his wife, “Do you have any mayonnaise?” Mayonnaise made everything better. With mayonnaise, the soup may be salvageable. Its cool white blandness could overwhelm this koo-min. 

Her spoon halted in its path to her mouth. “No.” The one syllable was as sharp as a steak knife. 

“Can you make some?” She’d done it before. Before he almost died, and she started to feed him kale and kombucha. He was sure of it.

“Absolutely not.” Eleanor scowled at Alex. “Eat your damned soup. It’s good for you.”

Kevin added more soup to his empty bowl. “Dad, it tastes good. Really.” He attacked his second helping as if to demonstrate his sincerity.

His son was just like Eleanor: adventurous eaters. But really, koo-min?    

Alex dipped his spoon into his bowl and stirred the soup. Before the heart attack, Eleanor had prepared his meals from his mother’s recipes. Standard stuff without any zest or zing, just how he liked it. Those were good times, back when he didn’t have to endure all this healthful flavor. Although the koo-min smell had faded, the soup still looked disgusting. So… orange.

He frowned at the neon slop in his bowl and laid down his spoon. Alex could survive without soup. Who ate soup these days, anyway? People with too much time to waste, that’s who. Losers. Winners jumped straight to the main course. And, no matter his cardiologist’s instructions to “cut back on work” and “eat healthy,” he was still a winner, confident and strong. A winner who wanted a good pot roast or meatloaf, like his mother used to make. Mom wouldn’t have obsessed about his bad cholesterol levels or his high body mass index, not like Eleanor did since his heart attack. If his mother were still alive, she would’ve whipped up a side of mashed potatoes. With gravy! Or scalloped potatoes—now that would be a real treat. A wistful smile formed on his face. 

His wife sighed. “You’re not even going to try it?” A few tendrils of her curly brown hair had escaped from her ponytail. Purple smudges underlined her green eyes.   

Eleanor looked tired. Alex hadn’t noticed before, but he should’ve. Though she was on family leave from her law firm, she’d been working hard at home, taking care of him. He’d been moping around the house since his hospital discharge, demanding this and that from her, fighting her on her food choices, acting more like a petulant child than a husband. It was his fault: he was the final “why?” in his own root cause analysis. He didn’t deserve her.  

“Dad, come on. Just try it. We want you to be healthy like the doctor said.” Kevin raised his eyebrows and widened his eyes, just like when he’d been a little boy begging for a new toy or a sweet treat. “Please.” 

 Alex stared into eyes the same hazel shade as his own. His son was asking him for more than to taste the soup. Kevin was asking for his buy-in to change. 

He’d done a lot of thinking while in the hospital, and he could admit that his job had become an obsession. But working hard, building his own company, providing for his family—that was what a responsible husband and father did, right? His own father hadn’t bothered to make plans—no life insurance, no savings, no will—and, after Dad’s unexpected death from a heart attack, Alex and his mother were left to fend for themselves. Alex hadn’t wanted to make that same mistake. When he passed, his son wouldn’t be deprived of anything, not like he’d been. There would be no regrets.

And his early demise had been inevitable: like father, like son. “With your family history, you’re at high risk for cardiac death,” the doctor who did his insurance physical had told him. Alex had stumbled out of that exam room, thinking of Kevin, then eight years old. A son shouldn’t lose his father so young, as Alex had. But his destiny was encoded in his DNA, he figured, and nothing could alter that.     

Eleanor hadn’t even known, not until, overwhelmed by chest pain, he woke her in the middle of the night. “I’m having a heart attack,” he’d said as he struggled to breathe. Her hands shook while she dialed 911. “I love you,” he repeated as they waited for the ambulance. He hadn’t said it enough: not to her, not to Kevin.  

She’d run her fingers through his hair, put her lips against his clammy forehead. “Hush, Alex. It’s going to be fine. The doctors will take care of you.”   

Alex could’ve died. He’d ignored the symptoms for a week. It was just heartburn, he told himself, from something he ate. But the antacids had done nothing to quell the ache. 

“That’s a widow-maker,” his cardiologist had explained while pointing out the diseased coronary artery on the angiogram, plaque-narrowed like a bottleneck in a value stream. As Alex lay in the bed in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, a monitor beeped out his heartbeat like a countdown clock. He clung to his wife’s hand; she squeezed back, so strong yet so gentle. Through the anesthesia haze, he focused on his son, slumped, too-quiet, in a plastic chair, his eyes red-rimmed and round with fear. Fear like Alex had felt, on the night his own father had passed.  

At the dining table, his wife and son were watching him. Like they had at the hospital, when Alex opened his eyes to their anxious, yet hopeful, faces. His cardiologist had said that he was stupid for delaying treatment but, in the end, lucky: the stent had worked. Alex would live.

“Dad?” Kevin repeated. He pushed the soup bowl closer to his father. “You’ll try it, right?”   

Eleanor didn’t say anything: she didn’t have to—her heavy sigh signaled her frustration. She jumped up to clear the table, the stainless steel tapping against porcelain. Finally, she reached for Alex’s bowl.

“No.” Alex held up his hand. The stent had given him a second chance to be a good husband. A good father. “Wait.” This time, he wouldn’t fail his family.

Alex picked up his spoon and collected a single droplet of soup onto its polished surface. He cleared his throat once, twice, three times. His eyes squeezed shut; his mouth opened wide. The puréed butternut squash fell onto his outstretched tongue. He swallowed.

At Kevin’s cheer, Alex opened his eyes. 

“Now,” Eleanor said with a grin, “was that so bad?”  

“It’s okay, I guess.” Alex hid his grimace, stretching his lips into a smile that mirrored hers. The soup was awful: too much flavor, too many vegetables, too healthy. But Eleanor had prepared it for him. 

His cardiologist was right—he was lucky. He was alive, and his family was with him. 

That evening—and every evening after—spoonful by spoonful, Alex finished his soup.  

Maria Wolfe lives and writes in northeast Ohio, where she also practiced as a surgical specialist. Her fiction has appeared in The Examined Life Journal, Please See Me, andCoffin Bell. She is currently working on a novel. She can occasionally be found on Twitter @realMariaWolfe.