Published on November 28th, 2023 | by Judith Sharlin


Tomato Soup

As I stared out from my wall of windows onto the ocean bathed in a July sun, I was jolted by my phone ringing. There was no message, so I called back. I heard a voice: “Judith?”

“Is that you, Tom? Wow, I haven’t heard from you in a long time—how are you?”

“Honestly,”he said,“I didn’t mean to call you—it was an accident.”

He paused for a moment, thencontinued, “But then again, there really are no accidents, arethere?”

 It felt as if no time had passed, although the last we spoke was a year after my son Hillel died. Now, eight years later I am speaking again to Tom, Hillel’s therapist at his first residential drug rehab center. Before I knew anything about the disease of addiction. Before the downward spiral took shape. Before Hillel’s soul sickened into an unrecognizable shadow. Before sadness and grief became my lifetime companions.

I had always felt comfortable speaking with Tom. Originally from the Midwest, he was an easy-going man in his forties, with a gentle demeanor, and he spoke kindly. I remember when Hillel was rude, Tom held his boundaries with him. In Hillel’s early sobriety, Tom would remind him to speak respectfully to me.

 “Are you still a professor at the college in Florida?” Tom continued.

“Yes, I’m still teaching here—it’s been twelve years since I moved from Boston,”

I paused and recalled my eager 20-year-old students’ faces staring back at me like blank whiteboards after Hillel died. I remember the absolute panic I felt, and then the relief when class ended, and I could run into my office and close the door to weep.

“I went back to work a bit too soon, I think, after Hillel died,” I told him. “You know Tom, I still feel like part of me is in Boston and not here in Florida.”

“You, David and Hillel were a family there—it makes sense,” he responded. “He looked out for his friends and really cared. I remember how he wanted to bring a bowl of soup to a resident who wasn’t well enough to go to the dining room. And he made all of us laugh with his funny stories…I can’t believe it’s been seven years.”


Grief has a way of warping time. I find the question: “How long has it been?” to be terribly hurtful. Iris Murdoch’s words resound within me: “The bereaved cannot communicate with the unbereaved.”

After I spoke to Tom, I held memories of Hillel together in a fragile web. It felt like Hillel had just died. Other days, it feels like ages since my sweet son breathed life, and then grief resembles a dark hole that might swallow me up if I come too close to its edges. I hear myself: Oh, please do not speak to me of time, unless you are willing. Willing to stand with me, even for a moment, with the pain, the emptiness—and be the person without a son, without a husband, without a family.

The phone call with Tom brings it all back—Hillel at the rehab center in the mountains of Utah and how he got there. He started college in 2010, the same year I moved from Massachusetts to Florida. And though I was unaware, things unraveled immediately for him. Only a few months later, he suffered from full-blown substance use disorder and became unrecognizable to me. With the help of an interventionist, he was admitted into the Utah rehab center in March 2011. As part of his recovery program, we had a family weekend a month later at C. Lodge, the rehab center.

That bright day in April, booking the plane and hotel reservations, I looked at myself in the mirror. “Family weekend? What happened to my family? Why isn’t my husband David here to support me? What has become of me? Is this really me?” My curly brown hair, now streaked with grey, needed to be colored. I neglected it as soon as I found out about Hillel’s substance use disorder. The lines and furrows in my face didn’t resemble the once happy, relaxed woman in her late fifties. I imagine if I were in Newton now, I’d call my friends for support. But I had just moved to Florida a year ago—I felt alone.


When I entered the dining room at the Lodge for the first time, I immediately saw Hillel. There he was—standing on a chair in front of large windows looking out onto the majestic  Wasatch Mountain range. All the other residents had gathered with their families around tables, except us. He was the only one standing, ardently waving a sheet of paper. I called it his get out of jail free card, like the game Monopoly. He loved to play Monopoly as a child. The paper he waved was a contract we were both to sign—an agreement to an additional thirty-day stay.

After a little while, we sat down with another family and ate lunch together. I was heartened to see how fresh and healthful the food was—lots of fresh vegetables and fruits, salads, whole grains, homemade soups, and breads. Hillel’s childhood scents of freshly baked breads and muffins, chocolate chip cookies, grilled cheese sandwiches, Caesar salads, and tomato soup filled the dining room, and the spaces where the broken souls tried to mend. I tried to make small talk with Hillel and remarked on the flavors and freshness of the food. He just wanted to make sure I knew he was ready to leave in thirty days.

Remembering that long ago lunch with Hillel, I am inspired to recreate the tomato soup I smelled that day at the rehab center—only this one will be a roasted tomato soup, because it was your favorite, my Hillel. First, I roast the tomatoes with olive oil in the oven, then chop a lot of garlic and onions and sauté them together in a pot. When the olive oil and garlic marry, the onions are soft, and their familiar smells fill my kitchen, I add a whole can of San Marzano Italian plum tomatoes, then, add the roasted tomatoes from the roasting tray, fresh basil, a twig or two of fresh thyme, broth, salt, and pepper. Roasted tomatoes and basil flood my heart.

As the soup cooks, I think of healing from grief and the subtle integration of time and memory that I must allow to take place—it too is a process of simmering.

While Hillel was in C. Lodge, Tom and I had weekly conversations about him and his progress towards recovery. He understood Hillel’s sensitive nature and his charm, and he appreciated his sociability. When I visited Hillel during family therapy week, I could see immediately that he was liked by his fellow residents and fit in easily with the rest of the group.  

His friends there wanted him to stay, remain sober, and succeed.

My son Hillel, I long to hear your laughter today. I am reminded of the line Chimamanda Adichie writes: “For the rest of my life, I will live with hands outstretched for things that are no longer there.”

The roasted tomato-garlic-basil scents infuse the air. I’m filled with an overpowering desire to share this wonderful soup with someone, so I call my friend Linda and invite her over. Delighted she can join me, I blend the soup together into a thick, luxurious mixture, then smile and pause for a moment.

I see you, Hillel, a young teenager, with all your friends from the golf team, sitting together in our dining room in Newton around you. You are telling a story about someone who had yelled on the golf course. Everyone soaked in your laughter and good-naturedness. Before I serve the soup, you take a piece of my freshly baked baguette and dip it into the warm red broth.

I hear your teenage voice: “Don’t forget the crème fraiche, Mama.” I remember I made the soup after your father was sick with cancer, and asked you to invite your golf friends over, but you resisted. You didn’t want them to see him as he lay ill on the couch in the family room. You never told me, but I sensed your unease; I saw the pain in your eyes watching your father grow weaker and weaker.

My conversation with Tom today led me to ask him something I’d always wondered. “Tom, did Hillel ever cry about his father’s death? Was he able to express his grief to you? He didn’t with me, which always worried me.”

“Yes, he did—I know it was hard for him, but he cried when he spoke about his father. He was hurt and tried to talk about it.”

When I think of that family therapy week at C. Lodge, I remember feeling overwhelmed—I could barely cope. I knew nothing about the disease of addiction. It seemed everyone had a “family support system” but me. I wish David were alive and with me, I recall thinking. I wish my outstretched hands could comfort and embrace you, Hillel.

Eight years later, cooking this soup and sharing it with a friend becomes an homage to my son. We laugh about how much garlic I used. In Hillel’s memory, I will put a dollop of crème fraiche on the roasted tomato soup, and I urge my friend Linda to add some too. Watching her when she tastes the soup floods me with warmth and I realize that I am no longer alone here in my adopted home state. I bend closer to the bowl of soup and breathe.

Cover photo by Charles “Duck” Unitas on Unsplash

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About the Author

I am a writer and full-time nutrition professor at Palm Beach State College in Boca Raton, Florida. I received my MFA in creative writing from the Newport MFA at Salve Regina University, earned a PhD in nutrition from Tufts University and am a registered dietitian. I’ve published personal essays in Meat for Tea and Halfway Down the Stairs. I have an essay forthcoming in the Boston Globe. I am also the author of a cookbook and nutrition guide, The Romantic Vegetarian, which won an American Health Book Award. I’m working on a memoir about a woman’s journey to overcome the challenges of grief surrounding the deaths of her husband and son through baking and cooking.

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