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Lessons learned while barbecuing with my father-in-law

One night last summer, my father-in-law tried to teach me how to barbecue on his new charcoal grill. But two major obstacles stood in our way: I am incompetent, and he was dying.

I am no handy man. When I was 16, it took me almost three weeks to repaint my bedroom. My father, the Italian son of a labourer, grew so impatient with the pace at which I was stripping wallpaper and patching holes that he finished the job one Saturday while I was at work. The only time I ever barbecued, I cranked the heat up too high and nearly burned my face off.

"You could probably put in a few more of those," my father-in-law said, motioning to the charcoal bag with his cane.

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I was on grill duty because Bob had just returned from a rotating door of hospital visits to attend to his colostomy bag, the result of skin cancer surgery 15 years ago. The bag had been filling up with blood every few hours. He wasn't supposed to be up and moving around, let alone standing on a porch step showing me how to operate his red Weber.

Although Bob was only 60, most of his life read like a God-less Book of Job, minus the happy ending. His mother died when he was a teenager, his brother and brother-in-law died before middle age, and he lived through skin cancer, job loss, a heart attack, diabetes, a stroke and now pulmonary hypertension and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

None of this ever stopped him from enjoying a good meal though.

Most weekends my partner and I would visit in the summer, he would shuffle into the kitchen in shorts and a ball cap, breathing heavily, and prepare a platter of sirloin steaks or burgers, his chafed and swollen hands sprinkling salt and cracking pepper over the meat. My spunky mother-in-law would stand beside him and prepare potato salad and devilled eggs – or, as she once put it, "a meal that's basically a delivery system for mayonnaise."

Food and family meals sometimes celebrate, but often mask or deny, the fragile and fraught experiences of human relationships. Despite our reproaches that night, Bob was determined to help me barbecue. I was uneasy with the tension it caused, but the truth was, I was almost 25 and still had no idea how to grill meat properly.

He carted his hissing oxygen tank across the ground floor and laboured outside, directing me with his cane. "You'll want to crumple some newspaper and stick it in there when you're finished," he said.

I was using what I later found out was a chimney starter to heat the coals. The rusted and charred cylinder looks like part of an abandoned NASA project but functions as an indispensable device for the charcoal barbecue enthusiast.

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I piled the briquettes into the chimney starter, stuffed it with newspaper and flicked the barbecue lighter. That Bob's oxygen tank didn't catch fire and blow us both to hell is a miracle.

"So, uh, now what?" I asked.

"We'll have to wait a bit till they get hot," he said.

Neither of us spoke as the coals and kindling smoked and crackled. In the six years I knew Bob, I came to understand and respect the silence that would come between us at times like this, even if I wanted to conquer it. So much to say, so much pain, yet so much silence.

"Okay," he said. "You'll have to turn the can over and empty the coals into the grill. Be careful because it's really hot."

I put on oven mitts. I fumbled with the chimney starter but managed to pour the coals relatively safely into the grill. The heat was scorching.

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Soon, the smell of burgers and hickory smoke filled the air. We looked nothing like the Food Network's cast of beautiful people preparing succulent dishes, but we made the most of it. At one point, despite his limited movement, Bob took the barbecue tongs out of my hands and moved a few burgers off the hottest part of the grill, where I had mistakenly placed them, charring the meat beyond recognition.

I brought the burgers in while Bob excused himself and went to the washroom. From the table, we heard him swear. My partner's mother went to check on him and saw that his colostomy bleeding had returned, much faster this time. We called an ambulance and spent most of the weekend in the hospital.

The barbecue meal that never was marked a precipitous decline in his health. He was taken to the hospital several more times throughout the summer and fall, and died last November of complications from heart disease – but not before manoeuvring himself in a wheelchair, a week before he died, to the hospital gift shop to buy a chocolate bar.

After his death, my partner and I began to clean out Bob's one-floor apartment, where he lived briefly because of his limited mobility before being admitted to palliative care. He was a fastidious man, organizing every bank record, blood test and cable bill.

In the kitchen, we found a spice rack he'd bought that contained every gourmet seasoning a chef could ask for. Out of the freezer we pulled a lamb rack, pork tenderloin, chicken breasts, ground beef and top sirloin – a butcher's delight, a denial and defiance of death, but meals he could enjoy no more.

My partner and I are moving next month, and our new place has a barbecue. Although we will miss the empty seat at our table, I can't wait to grill our first meal. I'll try not to burn it this time.

Matthew Trevisan lives in Toronto.

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