Five summers ago, I was getting a physical when the technician doing an ultrasound of my chest said: “Hmmm.”

You never want to be in a medical facility and have someone say, “Hmmm.” He went away and brought back my family doctor and a heart doctor. They agreed on what they saw. There was a benign tumor inside my heart — the technical term is an atrial myxoma. It wasn’t hurting anything at the moment. But it might later. It had to come out.

A few days later the surgeon cracked open my chest, cut a slit in my heart, plucked out the tumor, and closed everything up. Four days after that, I went home.

I might not have mentioned this part yet: My wife, Alix, and I were due to leave in a couple of weeks for a yearlong fellowship in Boston. We had barely started packing. Alix’s folks came to help her pack and take care of me. I took the role of Man Who Sits in the Corner and Moans.

Fair to say, it was a stressful time.

But then the food started coming.

Best medicine

We’re members of Holy Covenant United Church of Christ here in Charlotte. Our church is small enough that everybody knows everybody. We don’t always agree on the music or how the service should be laid out. But we’re all in accord when it’s time to eat. Snacks and sweets after every Sunday service. Potlucks several times a year. A big homecoming spread. And, always, food for any member who’s sick or in need.

Which, this time, was me.

Friends and neighbors and coworkers all helped, but our church family was first with the most. Jackie and D. brought a shepherd’s pie that could have fed Buckingham Palace. Kathi and Lisa brought a couple of chickens’ worth of chicken salad. Debbie brought lasagna. Every time I woke up from a nap — and I took lots of naps — a loaf of bread had appeared, or a pan of brownies, or a bowl of fresh salad. Somebody even brought a basket of paper plates and plastic silverware, so nobody had to wash dishes.

In the interest of fairness, I will grant you that I was coming off four days of hospital food, so the bar was not set high. But the food tasted fantastic. Our church can really cook. Especially when we’re cooking for one another.

It wasn’t just the food, of course. Everybody wanted to check in and ask how I was doing. (At that point I was a great conversationalist for about five minutes, after which I fell asleep again.) They wanted to make sure Alix was OK. They told a few stories and made us laugh, and we said prayers together.

But the food was the icebreaker. It checked off a box on our list at a stressful time. The bounty made our discomfort more comfortable.

It’s a little embarrassing to say so, but we know this to be true: Funeral food is the best. That’s when the stuff comes out that a lot of Southern families don’t make much anymore: deviled eggs, scratch biscuits, pound cakes as damp and rich as peat moss. We put on our best clothes to honor the dead, and we dress the table, too. It might seem odd to walk into the house and read a poem or sing a song. But a plate of fried chicken is just as much an expression of love. Sometimes, when we are shy or awkward about saying what we feel, we can come to the door with a tray, and everybody understands.

In those moments of death or illness, we lean on our families. Most of us are blessed with more than one — we have our kin, our friends, maybe a work family, maybe a book club or poker group. But the desire to feed the sick is baked into the language of the church. (See what I did there?)

We all grasp the symbolism of faith as food, something that can nourish our souls in troubled times. But it works the other way around, too. Food is faith. A meal brought to a sick friend says: This will make you feel a little less terrible. Enjoy it. You’ll get better. We’ve got your back.

Our church is pretty organized about all this now. We just started a program called Food 4 Friends, where we filled a freezer at church with meals that can be deployed to members in need. But it doesn’t require a lot of planning. It just requires a working stove. (And just between us: You can skip the stove. KFC, delivered with love, is just fine.)

In those painful days after my surgery, we sampled a little of the grand buffet brought by all our friends — church and otherwise. I healed. We got the house packed up for our big adventure. It’s been five years now, and a lot of those days are just a blur of memory. But when I think about it, I can still taste shepherd’s pie.

This story was published on

Tomlinson is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. He spent 23 years as a reporter and local columnist for the Charlotte Observer, where he was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in commentary. His stories were chosen for the books “Best American Sports Writing 2012″ and “America’s Best Newspaper Writing.”

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