Much to our consternation the last weeks of her life my sister ate only insipid watermelon doled out piece by hopeful piece from a leaky plastic container. The last week she ate nothing save ice chips. I marveled that her body kept going though she wasn’t really living was she, she was dying. Having reached detente with her cancer she’d turned her sight towards death. Losing interest in and giving up food was part of it.
I thought about my sister the other day watching my mother’s aid shovel mayonnaise drenched Kosher “seafood” salad into my mother’s mouth. Catching moments of distraction, she’d deftly cleared my mother’s plate.
Joe, my stepfather, pushes food with exasperated admonishments. “Regina, open your mouth, eat it, eat it” he commands, proffering tidbits from the over abundant glop the assisted living facility serves. His action is loving in a way, and also horrible. Why can’t he leave her be and let her not eat and die if that is what she wants?
Between meals there are 4, 5, 6 pills at a time buried in brimming monkey dishes of cottage cheese or pudding. She has advanced Parkinson’s, dementia, and psychosis (how else could she react to the condition of her life?) Trapped in a body she can barely move and a mind without coherence, the pills regulate, minimize, counterbalance, and make her hallucinate. Once I asked her neurologist what would happen if we took her off the pills and he screamed “What do you think, I’m a murderer?” and slammed down the phone.
I waltz in once a week with gourmet goodies and sit up close on the walker seat touching knees with my mother who is parked at a table covered with calendar boxes of pills labeled morning, noon, afternoon, evening, night. The table’s festooned with flyers for sing-a-longs, brain teasers, chair aerobics; some of these activities my mother gets wheeled to and better that then nothing though I’ve watched her sit through them, unmoved.
I am feeding her bites of seared duck, hand-pitted Nyon olives, grape tomatoes, feta cheese. The seasons first asparagus cut on a bias and grilled. Today she eats readily, other days not. No one flavor guarantees interest except maybe sweets and even then, not always. I wonder how food tastes to her, if flavors sing in her mouth. I remember a favorite story, the one about an olive (a pimento stuffed manzanilla) on her plate at the first restaurant she’d ever gone to, a Yiddishe pisher fresh off the boat. She didn’t know what the olive was and saved it for her very last bite but the waiter snatched her plate before she ate it and she was too afraid to object. That olive haunted her. Henceforth she ate olives first.
Through lunch I babble about work, my sons, what the dentist said, mostly talking to Joe though I think my mother listens. Now and again she starts to say something but then her voice drops to nothing in the middle of a word in the middle of the sentence, or starts a different sentence or says a string of sounds that are not words at all. I peer at her intently waiting for more, sometimes feeling angry, as if she is asking too much; Speak up I think, say it again, but mostly feel I’ve let her down not piecing her fragments together. “Sorry” I say, “sorry, I don’t know what you are saying—that must feel so bad.”
I am feeding her a thin mint. Joe has left the table and the aid has gone to lunch. It is a rare instance we sit alone and my mother looks at me and says clear as day “Suicide.” Taken aback I wait but she says nothing more. “Its too late Mama. You would have had to do that long ago. Sorry, sorry” I say, “I can’t help you—you must feel so alone.” I wish I'd had the courage to encourage her, wish I'd given her my blessings, but Joe had come back so we said no more.
Gastronomists, neuroscientists and Proust tell us, no matter how buried, when we put something in our mouth, as if saliva translates flavor compounds to poetry, we are flooded with images and thoughts. If we learn to listen to food, our brain hears stories, and it is this that distinguishes us among beasts of prey. But maybe not my mother. Not any more. If her brain can’t listen does the food still talk? Maybe its voice is only a whisper, maybe she can’t answer back. Maybe she forgets mid-bite.
Everything is decided. What she will eat. When she will eat. The order of the bites. Her only choices are what she turns down, and even then forks thrust towards her. For all the care, we are complicit in her suffering. I grasp at the hope the bites at least sing.
Cooking offers refuge and solace. Lately, I’ve been shelling peas and briefly blanched fresh fava beans, braising them with butter lettuce or tender spinach leaves. Shelling is meditative and the flavors holler Spring.
1 pound English peas yields 1 cup shelled peas
1 pound fresh fava beans yields 1/2 c.
1 pound spinach or lettuce yields approx. 1 cup braised greens
a handful of ramps if they are available
1 T. each: butter and broth
salt and pepper
salt and pepper
Blanche whole fava beans in salted water for 5 minutes. Split pods and remove the beans. Pierce the bean’s second skin with your thumbnail and squeeze out the barely blanched bean.
Sauté peas and trimmed ramps (if using) in 1 T butter with a pinch of salt and a grinding of pepper for 3-5 minutes. Add fava beans and cook 2-3 minutes more. While peas are cooking, tear lettuce, or stem well washed spinach. Add to pan with a tablespoon of water or broth and stir till wilted. If you’d like, add a handful of fresh mint, flat-leaf parsley or snipped chives.