slow-cooked quinoa with cinnamon apple & acorn squash

i can count the number of times i’ve been shattered on one hand. i know this makes me one of the lucky ones. of course, i’ve ached second-handedly for those who have survived losses much larger than any i could ever imagine. but most of my heartbreaks have been of the common & inevitable variety with which most people are familiar: the sharp, isolated pangs of regret associated with sudden, but expected deaths, or the dull but persistent sadness we carry in the bottoms of our bellies as we helplessly watch the ones we love succumb to their demons.

however, nothing had ever cut to my core like the phone call i got a few octobers ago. i was standing in the kitchen of my first madison apartment, a studio, around dinnertime on a cold, gray afternoon. my sister called me sobbing & i was unable to understand much more than the words “car” & “died.” i began to feel sick as the possibilities flashed in my mind: was it my father? my brother? i began to get angry: “i can’t understand you!” i yelled repeatedly into the phone. my mom eventually got on the line, also sobbing hysterically. i eventually learned it was hamlet, my six-month-old puppy. he had been struck by a car in our driveway & had died almost immediately. as my mother tried to tell me things she thought would make me feel better (“his tongue was blue, he must have died right away,” “don’t worry, i held him in my arms for you”), i spat out stupid questions in disbelief: was this a joke? did they take him to the vet to make sure he was in fact dead? as the news sunk in, i hung up on my mother, not wanting to hear any more gut-wrenching details & crumpled to the floor, curling up in the fetal position & dry-heaving repeatedly.

i’d lost pets before, but this one was different. this was my baby, my own puppy. i had saved money from my nannying job all spring to buy a dog, scouring craigslist, newspapers & local rescues for the perfect canine soulmate. i came across a picture of his accidental litter one evening & the first thing i was doing the next morning was driving from ann arbor to flint to see them. when i walked into the house where he was born, the family explained to me that there were only two puppies left & they were keeping one of the puppies for themselves (they had already chosen which). as i watched hamlet traipse around the room with all the clumsiness of an eight-week-old puppy, wondering how they could possibly have chosen the other over him, i knew i had no choice but to bring him home.

he cried the whole way home in my lap, probably because he realized my right boob, which he kept biting, had no milk in it. i gave up trying to swat him away somewhere between I-75 & I-96. i was so excited to have him. i literally couldn’t stop smiling at how cute he was & just kept saying “we’re going to be the best of friends” over & over to him. i pictured us suffering many a law school breakdown together. we’d share roadtrips between madison & west michigan, i was sure. i even pondered the possibility of him being at first jealous of but later vigilant over any children i might have by the time I was 36 — i thought it was fair to expect at least 15 years out of him. after all, i treated him with extraordinary care. i taught him to sit, stay, shake, lay; to stop at crosswalks, to descend stairs & later to climb them. he spent every night from mid-may to late-august with his face nestled in the space between my left collarbone & neck, moving only his legs from time to time to chase squirrels in his sleep. on our first walk with a leash, nathan & i laughed as he laid down in the grass & rolled around, not quite grasping the concept. i shook silently with laughter as i noticed the shit he took behind an expensive vase at my parents, wondering which knife they’d have stabbed me with if they’d have found it first.

when i couldn’t find an apartment in madison that allowed a dog, i reluctantly submitted to my mother’s idea to keep him while i adjusted to the first year of law school & kept on the lookout for a dog-friendly place to relocate to for my second year. after all, she already had two dogs, what was one more? i was thankful for her offer. she’s always been gracious in that way. barely a month had passed when i quite frankly could not handle another day away from him. i booked a trip home on the ferry. my mom picked me up from the port in her new car, which, she explained, was the only reason she didn’t have him with her. when we pulled in the driveway, he was waiting on the steps of our house. as i bursted out of the car & rushed toward him, his excitement reached a magnitude that only a dog’s could. us humans could learn a thing or two about the joy they derive from the simplest of things. he must have followed me around on his hind legs for at least the next five minutes. for two blissful nights, we slept as we had the majority of his short life — with his chin buried in the crook of my neck & his heart beating steadily into my ear.

i was thankful then for that wonderful few days with him, but of course i’m even more thankful now. in a strange way, i’m thankful that my puppy’s death was one of the worst things that ever happened to me. as one person so sensitively pointed out to me (more than once), it could have been a person. yes, it could have & i’m glad it wasn’t — i would go through that pain again a thousand more times if it would spare one person the grief of a more significant loss — but that didn’t make the way i felt any less real. it didn’t cancel out the nights i spent tossing & turning, picturing the way he lost his life every time i tried to close my eyes — the squealing of tires, the crunching of bones, the fear he must have felt in his last moments of life. it didn’t soothe the burning regret of not bringing him to madison with me, of not holding him as he left this world — my ultimate betrayal.

but losing my puppy did one irreplaceable thing for me — in the middle of my first year of law school, it kept me from losing sight of the forest for the trees. in what could have been a chance to drown in self-absorption, it reminded me that law school was not who i was, but just something i was doing. there are things more important to me than school (or work), like love & life. it was an exercise in perspective, a test of resilience & in the end i bounced back.

that doesn’t mean i don’t get sad still as i remember him fondly every now & then. the other afternoon, i got incredibly upset for no particular reason, or so i thought, until i realized the date. it was exactly two years later, on the same kind of day & i was listening to an album that had come out around the same time hamlet died. in honor of his short life, i put this comforting meal in the slow-cooker. as the smell of cinnamon slowly filled the air, i watched videos of him & cried a little, but smiled too. it was therapeutic, just as it has been therapeutic to write down the memories i have of his short but sweet life. i may never be able to say them out loud without getting upset, so thank goodness for this mode of expression & for simple, hearty fall meals that soothe the soul.

-1 cup uncooked quinoa
-2 cups water
-5 cups acorn squash, cubed (i didn’t peel mine, but you can peel it if you’re the patient kind or if you don’t like the tougher texture the skin adds)
-5 cups apples, any kind, cubed (i used golden delicious, again you can peel this if you like, but i didn’t)
-1 tbsp cinnamon
-1/2 tsp nutmeg
-1/2 tsp clove
-1/4 tsp salt
-4 field roast brand smoked apple & sage grain sausages, sliced & sauteed (optional) — these are vegan but SO AMAZING. a must-try.

1. place ingredients into the slow cooker in the order listed, stirring to evenly distribute the cinnamon & sugar.
2. cook on low for 1.5 hours. lift lid & stir. cook for another 30-40 minutes on high.

*makes 8 1-cup servings — 160 calories each without sausage (280 with).

About Christina

Milwaukee-based bon vivant. Lover of food, yoga, design, good words & loving kindness.
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