Upon landing in Palermo, my dad was so stressed he couldn’t swallow water.
My family had descended on Sicily as a 60th-birthday gift for my stepmother, Donna. We drove all over the triangular island, staying in Cefalù and Noto, visiting Palermo, Corleone (Donna’s ancestral town), Enna, and, most belovedly, Siracusa. The entire trip was splendid. We dined out and cooked in, amassing fresh ingredients from the stands, stores, and markets.
The one downside was Dad’s predicament. He suffers from necrosis (the obsolescence of cells) in his throat and jaw, a recently accelerated side effect from the radiation treatment he underwent for cancer 23 years ago. The condition gives him extreme difficulty using his throat muscles—a particularly unfortunate condition for a retired chef, let alone a retired chef on vacation in Italy—the severity of which ebbs and flows with his physical and mental stress levels.
A low hum of panic underlay the first leg of the trip, as we desperately tried to ensure that Dad could eat something—anything—while we traveled. He mostly projected a mild and appreciative manner, but deep down he was very hungry and endlessly frustrated that he couldn’t take part in this culinary treasure of an island the way he would have several years earlier.
Traveling releases us from our patterns, however, and after that first week of acclimation, he relaxed. He could get through some softer pastas and cheeses and even some mussels after a tireless trek to find a restaurant with soup.
I noticed a distinct change in his spirit after a glorious day in Siracusa, where we found our best market fare and savored a perfectly sliced octopus on a seafood tagliere—a dish he tells me he still dreams about. Back at our villa in Noto, my husband grilled up an abundance of fresh seafood, I made all the accompaniments in the kitchen, and we feasted, my dad happily snapping pictures of the spread. The next morning, he asked to tag along with my husband on his morning hike to collect fresh oranges. He even taught my eldest daughter how to candy the peels—her new favorite treat. This was the dad I grew up with: present, caring, and in the kitchen. He was spending less time alone watching Netflix in his bedroom and more time with the whole family. He was fully engaging with the journey—cheering up and chilling out. Those failing muscles of his even seemed to ease.
On our last full day in Noto, the sun was high and golden, the sky a perfect blue, and you could see the Mediterranean beyond miles of rolling green citrus orchards. My husband and I brought salumi, the homemade candied orange peel, blood orange segments, chocolate, and cheese to the stone patio to satiate our daughters as they played in the pool. The girls splashed, the music speaker wafted Bellini arias, and my father lounged away in sweet serenity. It was a god-kissed afternoon, when time stood still. Then, my dad sat up, asking if the water was cold. This was in April, so we explained it wasn’t the warmest. But the girls seemed happy enough, and so he decided, “I’m goin’ in.” He changed into his trunks and dove straight into the water. He emerged grinning, his handlebar mustache soaked, drooping walrus-like over his mouth.
“You’re swimming?!” Donna was astonished. “I’ve been trying to get him in the pool for years! He always says he doesn’t wanna get cold!” My dad was dripping wet and triumphant. He and my daughters spent the rest of the afternoon swimming together, smiling, their bellies full of the orange peel he had made into candy.
Anna Chlumsky stars in the Emmy-winning HBO political comedy Veep, which airs its series finale this month.