Food for the Dying

Recently, the graver circumstances of life have interrupted my normally lusty food thoughts:  My mother is dying.  I want to get past the fact that she’s too young (71), has lived with a plague of medical issues for almost a decade (giant uncooperative brain aneurysm, stroke, diabetes, emphysema) and get to the food not because I’m in denial, but because, it turns out, even in death food can  be a robust, transformative force. 

A smoker of some 40 years, my mother has replaced cigarettes in the last decade of her life with a joy of eating.  After a stroke that flung her headlong and happily into early retirement from a dead end low-paying job at a local retailer, she began to cook for the first time in her life.  Newly diagnosed with type II diabetes, she meticulously amassed recipes in a binder and even bought a bread machine.  She loved finding new low-carb deserts and bought specialty flours.  I watched her cook, wondering who this woman was.  In my childhood, she made three things:  Mushroom chicken (with a can of Campbell’s soup), lasagna and fratuda dusa (yummy blocks of sweetened semolina, rolled in graham crackers and vanilla wafers and fried in butter).  Now she was making sweet and sour chicken and shrimp Newberg.

This joy lasted until my mother had to be moved to an assisted living facility 18 months ago, following a second series of strokes that affected her short term memory.  My aunt and I chose the facility because it was small and private and my mother would have her own room.  But the kicker for us was seeing the chef cut fresh strawberries to serve with spinach and bacon quiche, two things my mother loved.  We were sure she’d be as happy as she could be there because she would love the food.

Turns out, my mother’s tastes are fickle.  She complained non-stop about the menus.  They served lighter fare like sandwiches for dinner, and my mother, a Midwesterner through and through and indignant that anyone would eat such mundane food for the main meal of the day, refused to eat. She didn’t like the choices and there were too many vegetables.  In the end, it seemed the food was too healthy for mom.  In fact, like her preferred wardrobe, my mother primarily ate foods that were beige:  mashed potatoes, white bread, gravy, hot dogs.

In the last year, I’ve tried everything to get my mother to eat, including installing a refrigerator in her room and stocking it with strawberries and dip for potato chips and diet Pepsi  and then calling her to remind her she had snacks in the fridge.  Still, she lost 25 pounds.

In February, after a series of hospitalizations, which included pneumonia and continuing extreme weakness, my mother chose to go on comfort care and went into hospice.  The second day there, she had begun the dying process and everyone gathered to say goodbye.  We bought her tiny chocolate cupcakes and potato chips since she was no longer on a diabetic diet.  We were told she had days to a week to live.

The next day, when I arrived at her room, my mother was sitting up in bed, cracking jokes, and eating cupcakes.  Tiny crumbs littered her lap and her fingers were smeared black.  She waved at me joyfully, “Hi sweetie.” A week passed. My mother did not die. Off all her meds including blood pressure pills, beta blockers to prevent heart fibrillation, and oxygen, my mother looked pink and healthy.  She continued to request cupcakes and chips.

Eventually mom stabilized enough to be released from hospice into a long term care facility with hospice on board.  This morning on the phone, she sounds happier than I’ve heard her sound in years, reporting she had “cheerios, scrambled eggs and toast” for breakfast, but is “still hungry.”  I have started to call her “the mouth” because of her voracious appetite.  I suggest she eat some snacks, which included 3 large bags of chips and a tin of mini-cupcakes I brought her only four days ago, but she says she is all out. 

I don’t know what to say about this turn of events.  No one wants to place a parent in a nursing home or watch them slip away at such a young age, but my mother is exuberant in what are expected to be her last days and there’s the rub. When I was young, I wanted a mother who engaged passionately in life, but mom has always been more shadow than presence.  Now, though, she sits in bed all day, listening to the radio, and waiting for the next meal, which she relishes with the gusto of the greatest foodie, even though it’s mystery meat and mashed potatoes. I have my suspicions that her renewed vigor has to do with  the fact that she’s taken  to her bed and no longer needs to feel the burden of her failing body and that there are many people feeding and attending to her, but I also suspect the answer lies in the food.  

For so many years my mother used to say her one vice and, it was implied, her one great pleasure was cigarette smoking. For a while, she replaced smoking with cooking, but diabetes prevented her from enjoying even that fully. Now, we let her eat what she wants:  desert at every meal, chips and cupcakes in between. My mother is embracing life as I’ve never seen her do before. She is clear that she is ready to die, but she is also clear that as the ship sinks, she will be standing on the deck with fistfuls of chocolate cupcakes, grinning up at the sky.

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