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Last Suppers

Lamb stew and Roquefort ... they gave her the strength to die

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Editor's note: This column/confession, submitted some months ago, was supposed to run in our Mother's Day edition, but unfortunately was mislaid. We think it's fine for a week later, and hope you agree.

In the early summer of 1998, my brother called from Tucson. Our mother, who was in her mid-90s, had gotten worse. For a year she'd been confined to bed, and she hoped to die at home. But with penurious Arizona schoolteachers pension and health insurance, she couldn't afford a caregiver. The few family members left were cousins and nieces who had never been very close. Some friends and church members helped, but were not enough. So my brother, a family-care physician, had taken to staying every night at her house, rising every couple of hours to bring a bedpan and give her medicine. This had been going on for several weeks, as I knew, and he was concerned that his own lack of sleep was affecting his work. "She's stopped eating," he told me. "I don't think she'll last long."

I made reservations and packed a bag, planning to stay for a week -- to be with my mother, and to give my brother a break. As an afterthought, I brought my knives. As a second afterthought I smuggled in a few things I thought I might need; I would be doing the cooking for everyone involved in support, and I figured to have lots of free time.

I had been prepared to see her ill, but not for the dark gloomy room. It was like a medieval version of Hospice. Slowly I opened curtains and pulled up shades. Mama cringed from the light, but brightened, pleased that I was there.

We'd never been close. Nothing I did as a child was good enough. At some level, I knew she was proud of me (she'd saved all my record albums), but we'd never communicated; we always fought. I was the rebellious son who moved out at 17, a political radical who became an avant garde (read: starving) musician. My younger brother, blessed with a saintly disposition, a beloved doctor in private practice, was forced out of business by the vise of HMOs in the ?90s, and was at a clinic. He was the loving son Mama had wanted, one who was active in our church, who'd become a respectable professional. He and I have long been friends, based on mutual appreciation, though we are emotional opposites. But every time I came home, Mama and I found something to argue about. Would this encounter be different?

Emptying bedpans and cleaning up an incontinent parent is what Jews call a mitzvah -- it's a blessing, an opportunity to symbolically repay part of the huge debt we owe them. But I thought that a week would give me some time, the time we'd never had together, to talk. To talk without pushing each other's buttons, without arguing. I called a local music store, and arranged to rent an accordion for a week: That was the one thing Mama had liked, and whenever things were dicey for me professionally, she'd ask "Are you still practicing the accordion?" I could imagine her image of me on a street corner with a tin cup.

The first morning home I said, "Well, Mama, we have country ham, grits and fresh eggs for breakfast!" And she said, "No, I'm not hungry, I'll just have some coffee." I complied. I was already thinking.

The refrigerator was jammed with useless accumulations. I said, "Mom, we need food, and I'm going shopping -- would you like a lamb chop for dinner?" (Lamb chops used to be her favorite.) She was, weakly, horrified: "Oh no, we can't afford anything like that. And I'm not really hungry anyway." But I had a hunch (correct) that drop-ins would be more frequent once it was known I was doing the cooking. I said, "OK, but what about lamb stew? There's a special on lamb shoulder."

That night I made lamb jardinière for eight. During the cooking, I served Mama her afternoon cocktail of white rum with canned grapefruit juice. I said, "The lamb looks really tender -- there were leeks on special too. I was thinking of serving it over rice." She said, "I won't be hungry." My brothers, sister, a nephew and a couple more people showed up around dinnertime. I let them serve themselves in the kitchen, then took a plate with me back to the bedroom. Probably more out of loyalty than hunger, Mama had a bite of lamb, a bite of rice, pause, then a carrot (all enriched by caramelized onion and cream). It was the biggest meal she'd eaten for weeks.

The next morning I shaved off some thin slices of pancetta I'd brought with me, fried them crisp, and brought them on a plate with a soft scrambled egg. Mama ate half of it. At lunch she felt well enough to be scandalized that I'd bought a tiny packet of Roquefort cheese, but when I blended it with cream cheese and dabbed it on Wheat Thins, she ate two, and nibbled at a third. Dinner was again an improvised buffet, whatever I could come up with, but especially Southern cooking. I'd brought a bag of stone-ground grits and some salt-cured country ham, and we had those with slaw and biscuits the second night, again serving family and friends. But when I took her plate to the bedroom, I made sure it was small, not intimidating. She was eating again.

This went on for several days. In the morning, I'd go shopping, come home to start work on dinner; in the afternoon, I'd play accordion for her, then she'd take a nap, and wake up for her cocktail. She felt better enough that we had longer conversations, about her girlhood on a Kentucky tobacco farm, the Green River steamboat she took to go away to teachers college, her "flapper era," her romance with my father in Louisville (he gave her a new red Duesenberg Roadster), the flood that wiped out Byrd Distillery, the move west during the War, the long years of poverty while I was growing up and a lot of family history I'd never heard.

Mama was getting stronger, and it was decided she could, with my help, actually travel to the doctor's office. He was amazed; her disease seemed to be in stasis, and he recommended that she do some light exercise in bed. And she decided she wanted to use a portable toilet instead of the bedpan.

In fact, things had improved so much, I called home to tell Beni I was going to stay at least another week, while Mama improved. It was the next day that Mama was about to sit up on the edge of the bed, and suddenly she collapsed with a huge and ultimately fatal aneurism. She never regained consciousness.

I'd evidently provided just enough strength and interest in living for her to exert herself to the point of stroke. On the other hand, she'd had a rare good week: a week she didn't merely endure, but enjoyed. She had eaten well, reminisced about her life, and -- really, for the first time -- talked openly with her eldest son. Our always difficult relationship had finally fruited at the close of her life, and I am grateful that I could be there for her, and she for me.

E-mail Joseph at eat.your.spinach@gmail.com

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