This is a story about a girl and a cake. And a question: If you could never eat cake again, what would your last cake be?
Rewind: Last week I was asked to bake a last cake for E, a friend of mine who is going in for gastric sleeve surgery. Gastric sleeve surgery is similar to the better known gastric band, which restricts your stomach’s ability to hold much food – only this operation is irreversible and takes out 80% of your stomach. (For a comparison of different types of gastric surgery, there’s more info here.)
A gastric sleeve operation is pretty drastic. What it means for eating is that for two weeks before the op, you have to go on a liquid diet. Following the op, you stay in hospital for two days and when you go home, again you can’t have anything other than liquids for 8 weeks. For a whole year you can’t drink alcohol! And when you start reintroducing solids, you’re never going to be able to eat what we think of a full meal ever again. You’ll be able to eat a starter. You won’t be able to eat a whole cake, or even manage a whole piece.
So you see, making this cake was a pretty big deal.
My friend E is indomitable. When I first met her she was a friend of a friend and we just sort of went from there. She’s a big fan of Dog, and baking, so obviously we’re going to get on. T and I like meeting new people and it turned out we had more mutual friends. E is pretty out there. She’s not shy and she never gave the impression that she cared what people thought. Yes she’s a larger lady but she always seemed at peace with herself in a world of skinnies. This is someone who’s never knowingly underdressed, who introduced me to Hell Bunny (quirky 50s style dresses with a modern twist) and rocks a floral headband at any given occasion. Flamboyant and vocal and not about to be cowed by anyone’s ideas.
So her decision to go in for irreversible surgery was a big one. A drastic gastric! And I figured a lot of thought must have gone into it to make a decision like that. It soon became apparent that there had, when she blogged about it. As a friend I wanted to support that so it makes sense that I would express solidarity the main way I ever do: through baking. I feel like I know a bit about silent hurt – all of us in this community are all too familiar with private pain. And making life changes. A few years ago I uprooted my entire life and stepped into the unknown. I knew I would want to do something to help mark the occasion of E’s big change.
I was honoured to be asked to make someone’s last ever cake. But also a bit scared: What would happen if it wasn’t as great as a last cake should be? What if her memories were always of a mediocre final indulgence? I knew I’d have to make a serious effort!
E said to me that she wanted something white, because they were going to a huge event for a final blowout: Diner en Blanc. That’s dinner in white to you and me. Everything is white themed so the cake had to fit in with that theme. She also said that she wanted something sparkly and fabulous. And I knew she liked raspberry jam. I had an idea…
I started with a sponge base. I used my trusty Madeira recipe – it scales up or down pretty well and is a bit denser than normal sponge to take icing well. The night before, I baked the cake and let it cool. Cuddled Dog. I think it’s important to bake with love!
Then came the icing. (Frosting to my American friends!) I layered three slabs of cake with vanilla buttercream and raspberry jam. I got the posh raspberry jam rather than the cheap one – it had to be the best for a last cake! And then I iced it all over with ruffley petals, apart from a central sprinkling of bronze sugared honeycomb pieces. When it was complete, I added a sprinkling of fairy dust so the cake would shimmer in the light.
When I was done, this is how it looked… All ready for a last supper, a dinner in white.
E said she loved the cake. (Hopefully if it was a bit shabby they’d already have had an excellent meal and some wine to help them along!) More importantly, she’s getting ready for one of the biggest changes in her life. A whole year of not drinking, 10 weeks of only taking in liquids and a lifetime of changing the way she eats, permanently.
It’s a huge decision and it’s nobody else’s but hers. I have the utmost respect for anyone who makes these difficult decisions to change their lives, as I know how hard it can be. When I moved to London a few years ago, I left behind a really comfortable life. I wasn’t mistreated and I had security, a house, a husband, and a life I’d built up over a decade – pretty much my entire adult life.
I left behind a lot of happinesses and some pretty big sadnesses. And I went into a year of screwing up and trying to rebuild myself with no guarantee of happiness. It was pretty scary. A lot of people judged me. I lost friends and I lost my partner and the worst thing is, it was my decision. And what I learned is that everyone has their reasons for doing things and judging them doesn’t help. For E, it’s not about the rights or wrongs of being larger or smaller – it’s about taking control of her health and wanting to live a long and happy life. I mean, who doesn’t want that?
And you know what? I’ve been fatter and thinner. At one point in the bad year I was 20 kg lighter than I am now. So either I’m pretty huge now or I was a stick insect then. I would love to lose weight but I also know that my weight has very little correlation with happiness. I’ve been sad and skinny and I’ve been happy and chubby, and vice versa. For me, the key to contentedness (an ability to accept the happy and sad and net out on the happy side) really does come down to that old cliché: acceptance. But not just acceptance: also putting yourself in the right place to accept stuff. Grabbing opportunities when they arise and actively seeking out the positives.
For E, this means getting herself to a place where her health is better and she’s less likely to have serious health problems in the future. Because she has a lot to live for and a lot to contribute to others.
For me, it’s about being okay with who I am: trying my best to be a good person; accepting that I may never have children – but I’ll do my best to take any opportunity I can – and I’ll try to maximise happiness in my daily life.
As my friend Stealing Nectar puts it: squeezing sweetness out of whatever the day brings.
And me? My last cake will be a big chocolate one.