I used to endlessly make fun of my sister for only bringing flan to our family gatherings. For two years, she perfected its sweet and gooey art as it made an appearance at least four times a year and only looked better and better as time went on. She was proud of it, and she should have been. It was delicious. I was only slightly annoyed that my relatives would go for it over a dessert I had slaved over too. I don't blame them. Its caramel sheen wrapped a gloriously smooth custard that was never too sweet and held its shape well. My sister and I are always trying to best each other. In the art of flan, she won.
I used to wonder if this sudden flan devotion had something to do with the Puerto Rican man she was dating, or the Puerto Rican man she came to call her husband, Ed. I thought about how it was nice to see my sister adopting a piece of this culture she knew nothing about. I thought about how great it was for our family to stray from traditional Italian fare, until I saw it the fifth, sixth, or seventh time. I teased her and her presumed lack of creativity (she, an opera singer). I didn't really get it. I didn't get it until weeks after his suicide, seeing a mini flan in an unassuming bakery case, and thinking, forgetting, if my sister would ever make it again, how wrong it feels to think about eating it now.
I see now, now that Ed is gone, that my sister's numerous attempts at perfecting flan were numerous attempts to make Ed happy. She wanted to honor what he loved - his culture, his birthplace, Puerto Rico. She wanted to value that tradition and show Ed she cared about it too. For Ed, this flan on our table full of Italian sweets was a piece of himself. It was a piece of who he was, being valued and honored and respected. It was small, but it was always there. Our constant praise and enjoyment of this flan was our attempt at showing Ed we embraced him, loved him, loved where he came from. We wanted him to know what it was like to have a family that was proud of him and who he was.
Seeing flan in unassuming bakery cases makes me nauseous. It makes me see things that hurt to remember. I see my whole family at our dining room table in my parents' house, talking about how delicious my sister's flan is, I see Ed smiling. He has some custard caught in his goatee. He's trying to explain some complicated musical theory to all of us, my dad is trying to understand it, my sister is piping in. I don't think my family could ever bring themselves to eat it again, whether or not my sister made it. It was something that existed entirely and only with Ed. We were introduced to him, we were introduced to the flan. It never came before. It can't come after.
I see now, now that Ed is gone, nothing would have been enough. There was no love strong enough to break his darkness, no flan delicious enough to make him rethink things. And maybe that sounds small and petty when I look at this big picture of my family's lives over the past two months, but it was something, I like to think, that kept him alive when he and my sister were still happily married. His darkness was largely internal though we saw sputters of it leak out every now and then, but it was a reminder of who he was, it was a sign of the acceptance of his identity. In his final few days spent alone and confused, I know he felt he lost that. I know he didn't have the strength to remember who he was.
In the few days following his death when I talked to my sister, listening to her process what just happened, she stared at me with her big eyes not dissimilar to mine and said, "He's never going to eat food again," trailing off. I had to smile a bit. It's funny, the places our minds go in crises. Food was so important to who we are and who we are as a family. It was central to building the strength of our love and compassion for each other. Food kept us alive, in an emotional sense. It still does. I reminded her of this. For a few beats, we were silent, wondering what it must feel like to be so impenetrably sad and angry that not even food, not even flan, can help remind you what love feels like.