Hanging on the wall in front of my hospital bed the past two weeks was a colorful triangular drawing — yellow, orange, red, brown and a specks of green. Printed across the top in red, “After you get out of the hospital we can go out on a pizza outing!! At the bottom of the page in blue, “Love, Eli.” A similar drawing hung on the wall in February-March when I was hospitalized for heart surgery.
For me, my grandson’s pizza drawings function as a talisman. Pizza has a special meaning for us. The drawings have also served as a gatekeeper. When nurses, doctors, and other hospital staff first enter my room, do they notice the drawing, do they make a comment? “Who is Eli?” “Beautiful.” “Makes me hungry.” ” Are you ready for some pizza.” I smile. “Eli is my grandson, pizza has a special meaning for us.” Many will continue, “How old is Eli?” “Nine, great kid,” I respond.
I lay back feeling good. The staff that notice and comment on the drawing will treat me as an individual. I will be “Vince” or “Mr. Profy.” They know I have a grandson Eli and we both like pizza. I will be much more than just another patient on a hospital assembly line, “Here to check you vitals” or “I need to draw blood.” On my first hospital stay in September, I wrote that staff need to be Competent, Confident and Caring. The pizza drawing helps to separate the caring from the strictly functional (I won’t say non-caring).
For those that return, glancing at the drawing or continuing our conversation. I share, “Eli has a sister, Viv.” She drew the picture of connected hearts, stars, and abstract spirals higher up on the wall. If they seem to have the time, I explain why pizza is so special for Eli and me. “Eli had neuroblastoma when he was 4 years old. After every treatment, chemo, surgery, radiation, when he came home, we went out for pizza. I gave him a copy of Philadelphia magazines, 50 best pizza. Taught him to use the GPS and off we’d go. Usually after pizza, Eli liked an ice cream treat. And maybe about 3 he’d ask, ‘Grandpop, can we get a hamburger?'” I told them in 18 months of treatment, Eli never needed a feeding tube. Pretty amazing for a 4-5 year old. “Pizza has a special meaning for us.
Our pizza outings included Pizza Palace (Bryn Mawr), Conestoga Pizza (Bryn Mawr), George’s (Wayne), Franzone’s (Manayunk), Sal’s Pizza Box (Phoenixville), Jules Thin Crust (Newtown), Brother’s (Langhorne). Vic & Dean’s (Wayne) was an Eli favorite. The next day, after our trip, he took his father. At Stella (2nd street) Eli sat at the counter and interviewed the guy at the wood oven. “Did you go to school for pizza . . . How long does it cook . . . How did you get this job.” We concluded visits with a one or two thumbs up or down photograph. Eli usually grinning from ear to ear. Ice cream stops were various daries on the Main Line or Bucks; burgers were almost always Elevation.
Our pizza enthusiasm jumped to another level when I bought Eli traditional chef whites — double breasted jacket and toque. We began to make pizza at home. Eli learned to make dough and choose toppings, usually tomatoes, mozzarella, and canned black olives. Maybe mushrooms or pepperoni. My favorite video shot during this period was Eli dressed in whites, traditional Italian dance muisic, with Viv, making pizza in their family kitchen. Eli is intense, cooking is a serious activity. As they near the end, Viv turns to the camera, dancing and eating mushroom pieces. The 2 minute clips captured their emerging personalities. Eli the studius, methodical, comfortable, at ease in adult roles, straight man. Viv the actress, singer and dancer, joker, seeking her share of attention. I named them George and Gracie.
Eli has been cancer free for 4 years. But our pizza outings continue. We’ve been to DiLorenzo’s of Trenton tomato pies, Vetri’s of Callow Hill, and Caesar’s in Bristol. Earlier this week I went to Santucci’s and have begun to make a destination list — Tacconelli’s (order your dough in advance), Pizzeria Beddia, Pizza Brain (we’ve stopped in but didn’t eat there). A month ago Eli and Viv took a pizza making class at the Farm Cooking School in Stockton, NJ. To guide our explores, I recently bought “Pizza: a slice of American History,” by Liz Barrett. It describes different styles — like Neapolitan, New York, Tomato Pie, Sicilian, Deep-Dish. Cheese on top; cheese on bottom, thin or thick crust, marinara sauce or margarita. And today traditions give way to all kinds of gourmet toppings.
Pizza is special. For Eli and his grandfather, pizza works miracles.