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.
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.
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.