Bread and Pickles: Death and Dying

I’ve had very few experiences more awful than telling my father, now in late-stage dementia, that my mother died suddenly. He listened to me without comment, staring as he sat in a wheelchair in the hospital room, his padded hospital socks sliding down his ankles and his arms and legs bandaged from cuts and bruises due to multiple falls. The edges of his diaper peeked out of his tennis shorts, a throwback to a time not long ago when my parents played tennis for several hours every morning. Every now and again he’d take a deep breath. I wasn’t sure he understood.

“Dad, are you okay?” I asked. My sister stood by my side, silent, sorrowful. The whites and grays of the hospital room looked stark against the lush greens and blues outside the hospital window where a low hill reached unsuccessfully to touch the Hawaiian sky. He looked at me without speaking, his eyes faraway. “Do you understand about Mom?”

“Your Mama?” He hadn’t referred to my Mom as “Mama” before. It was always “Mother” or “Mom.”

“Yes, Mama died.”

“What did she die of?”

“Cancer.”

He sat for a moment and took a deep breath. “It’s a lot to take in.”

“Yes.”

“I’m getting used to the information,” he said. At this stage of his illness, his mind had good days and bad days. Luckily, this news was given in a fairly lucid moment.

“Yes, it all happened very quickly.”

We all were silent for a long moment. He stared off as we watched him. After a deep breath, he said, “You girls are in a pickle.”

“A pickle?”

“You’re cut loose now.”

“Yes,” I said. “We’re trying to figure out what to do.”

“What to do?”

“Yes. About the pickle.”

He sat still, receding into himself for a second, then said, “You’re thinking about the pickle.”

“Yes. We need to figure out what to do about the pickle.”

He paused again, then said, “The pickle is conditional.”

Conditional? Did the dad of my youth just peek out to say our current problems were based upon multiple interdependent factors? This was reminiscent of my cerebral upbringing as the daughter of a university professor whose life’s work was quantitative analysis of politics, international relations, and the causes of war. When we were kids, he would’ve used the complex terminology, “… multiple interdependent factors…,” in speaking to us, as opposed to, “… a lot of related things….” My dad didn’t believe in dumbing down the language for children and was proud of being an intellectual, now obscured behind the thick curtain of dementia. Not long after hearing our sad news he also talked about what he had for lunch that day, mentioning with the same lofty assurance, “The salad is conditional.”

My dad was essentially correct: my sister and I were faced with multiple interdependent pickles. He needed skilled 24-hour care. Up until that week, my mom had been caregiving by herself. She refused to move him out of his home, saying it belonged to him. Her desire was to die in her own bed, and she wanted no less for her husband. But her heart had been worn from the nursing she wasn’t trained or temperamentally suited for and broken from witnessing the gradual loss over five years of the only man she ever kissed. For two years, she let a secret cancer grow in the same place where worry and anxiety fester: her bowels. I think she hoped the malignancy would eat her pain. By the time my mom could no longer conceal the symptoms from my sister, it was too late. She died a couple weeks later.

There was no time for grief. We suddenly faced the need to take over my parents’ concerns. We had to scour our family home to piece together their finances, arranging for my dad’s care and my mom’s affairs. We were completely unprepared.

After hearing the news, I flew to Hawaii the next day to help my sister with these pickles. I stayed for two weeks in our family home, now empty, save for shadows and echoes of our family story. Digging into the dusty corners of their home of 42 years also gave glimpses into their inner life which our shyly limited conversations could never bear.

My sister and I were exploring the refrigerator, sussing out what had gone bad. My mom’s body had given out on her a week before and the fridge had barely been touched since. I pulled out a half loaf of bread stored in a used and cleaned bag, printed with “Bean Sprouts” and some indecipherable Chinese characters. “Is this from one of your favorite bakeries?” I asked.

“No. Mom made that.”

“Oh!” I breathed, suddenly feeling reverential. “Mom’s homemade bread.” This I intoned while carefully refolding the bean sprout bag around the bread and placing it back on the shelf, certain I would be eating it later. Memories flooded and tears flowed. I hadn’t had her homemade bread in over 30 years, not since leaving home for college. In fact, over all those years, I’d had precious little of my mom’s cooking, which so defined my childhood and our relationship.

Despite her growing tumor, my mom must’ve surprised herself by dying. Her refrigerators–there was one in the kitchen and one in the laundry room–were bursting with homemade dishes she clearly planned to eat and a myriad of fixings for new meals. Next to her death bed were a stack of recipe clippings ready to be organized into a basket of file folders resting on stack of cookbooks, also next to her bed. When we were growing up, her mothering was not prone to displays of affection, physical or verbal, but she made every mouthful of food we ate at home from scratch. Even my school lunches, diligently packed, were the envy of my lunchmates. Her nurturing came through nourishment–it was how she loved, how she connected to others. Within the aloof barriers of my mom’s behavior lay the deeply tender heart of one who saved a set baby teeth from a long ago pet in a jewelry box, and a set of baby clothes belonging to my sister and me, neatly folded in her bedroom closet.

Once upon a time, I wore these.

Once upon a time, I wore these.

She especially loved baking. Cakes, cookies, muffins, pies, in all varieties, and bread. All kinds of bread–white, brown or black, sweet bread, sourdough bread, oatmeal bread, molasses bread, yeasted bread made from potatoes or banana, braided breads and long french loaves. The house was constantly filled with the scent of fresh yeast and browning flour. The aroma of bread baking reminds me of home. We never ate “balloon bread,” as she referred to commercially prepared loaves, her nose high in the air. The image of dough sitting in a Pyrex bowl underneath a dish towel, rising “until it’s double,” is baked into in my brain, like razor cuts baked into a crusty loaf. Through her I found a love of cooking and food. It’s one reason my day job waiting tables is (kinda sorta) palatable.

A profoundly independent woman, my mom refused proffered help from my sister and me in the caregiving of my dad as his dementia moved from mild to severe in the last couple years. She would accept no assistance even as she knew she was dying. It didn’t matter that she was letting herself go, she couldn’t let him go. Through it all, she cooked for him, making him gourmet meals even after he ceased to be able to identify what he was eating. In cleaning out the refrigerator/freezer, we found two pans of mushroom gravy, two varieties of leftover cooked rice, strawberry jam bars, orange jello surrounding a fruit medley, peanut butter and chocolate chip bars, drop biscuits, fresh cut fruit, meatloaf, meat drippings for more gravy, fresh veggies and fruits, spaghetti sauce with mushrooms, banana bread, and more, so much more. I was fed with lovingly prepared meals for my entire two-week trip and barely made a dent in her Sub-Zero.

My Mom's Bread

My Mom’s Bread

The half loaf of homemade bread was the highlight–her most basic, white loaf. It had been in the fridge for a couple weeks and was stale, but divine as toast, with a sweet caramel crunch and pillowy texture. I ate it with melted butter and the last of her homemade strawberry jam. I topped it with eggs fried sunny-side up. I grilled it in her cast iron skillet with cheddar cheese ’til it was crunchy and gooey. Her bread was the first thing I could eat after an unfortunate bout with food poisoning–plain, dry, and healing. Every morsel was savored and I felt the hand of my Mom in each bite.

The pickles still continue while my dad marks time in a nursing home, slowly dying. By contrast, my mom died on her own terms, a chosen path where she wanted to leave this world with her mind intact–something she was painfully aware was being denied to my father. We saved her ashes to be spread with her husband of 52 years in the bay they viewed from our family home. Her legacy is one of love, though she would’ve had difficulty expressing it in words. She brought two girls into the world and gave them a profound love of cooking and soft, sentimental souls. My mom still nourishes, though her spirit has moved on.

My dog, Jack, says, "Let them eat steak!"

Dogfucius say, “Half a loaf is better than no bread.”

Postscript: My Live-In Gentleman Caller gave me a half loaf of homemade bread on our first date. It was crusty, chewy, with a lovely sourdough tang. My friends joked his earlier date got the other half. I later found out his perfectionism forced him to withhold the half that got burned. Though we dated several months before we kissed, I believe he had me at half a loaf of homemade bread.

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Too Old to Live?

At first, they annoyed me. Her husband shuffled behind his walker as she led him into my section without waiting for a hostess. It was like they owned The Pie Shoppe or something. He was pallid and potbellied, and his face looked baffled. Rumpled clothes hung loosely and thinning hair stuck out confusedly. She was alert but equally disheveled in a faded, floral tent dress. Her hair looked to be tied in a bun a couple days before and hadn’t seen a comb since.

She guided him carefully into the booth, folded his walker, and neatly set it out of the way. I told them I’d be back with menus. When I heard her tell her husband with a musical voice that “her friend” was getting them menus, I became charmed. I’d never seen them before.

I brought them menus and exchanged politenesses with her as he sat silently. “We’re ready to order,” she stated with firm intent.

He started the order. “I want a French dip and fries,” he said in a loud, expressionless voice. As he spoke to me, he watched her and she nodded her approval. He went on, his words garbled as if his tongue was too thick. I had to pay close attention to understand. “What’s the soup?”

“Our soup of the day is beef barley,” I said.

“I want some soup.”

She shook her head. “You can’t have any soup. It’s too much salt.”

He repeated, “I want some soup.”

I looked to her uncertain of how to proceed. Her head did not stop shaking. “So, no soup?” I asked.

“No soup,” she confirmed. He continued to stare at her. She ordered a cheeseburger, medium-well, with fries.

They had no conversation as they waited for their food. When it came, she was in the bathroom. He didn’t acknowledge me, but gaped at his plate of food, grinning. A loud guttural noise escaped his throat. As I walked away, he sang a toneless, wordless song to himself in an outside voice while sprinkling salt on his food. This humming continued sporadically after his wife joined him to eat.

“I want a peanut butter cookie,” he said as I cleared their plates.

“You can’t have a peanut butter cookie.” She sounded like a mom admonishing her 8-year-old for the umpteenth time. “You’ve had enough sugar today.”

He stared at her.

As I ran their credit card, she sought my company at the computer. “It’s his first night out after his stroke,” she announced without provocation.

“Oh.” I was at a loss. “He seems strong.”

“His body is strong, but he’s got vascular dementia. He’s lost most of himself. It’ll progress until his mind is utterly gone. Still, the doctors know how to keep him alive. They know how to keep his body ticking.”

“Yeah. Modern technology can do a lot.”

“It’s the Tree of Knowledge. We think we’re doing good, but we don’t know what we’re doing. We keep our bodies living long after our essence has died. We keep the heart beating and the blood pumping. For what? The empty shells we become? That’s not a life. People weren’t meant to live so long. My father died at 68. His mind was still sharp and that was long enough. Now I’m 74.” Her slate eyes shined like water running over river rocks. “He’ll be 81 next month.”

“You’re very spry.”

“My mind is healthy. I’m lucky. Not everyone is like me.” Shiny eyes stared at her husband. “I already lost him.”

“Yeah, I understand.” I said. My chest knotted.

She signed her credit card receipt, then grabbed my hand and squeezed, her eyes still watery. “Thank you. Please enjoy the rest of your day.” She walked back to her table to gather her husband. They shuffled out the way they came.

Sometimes we say farewell before we are gone.

 

Charm Above Circumstance

Another boring day at the office?

The Pie Shoppe had another couple hours left before closing and I was feeling crabby. There were very few customers to wait on. Ahead on the to-do list was cleaning the server aisle, where sticky pie fillings and greasy pie crust crumbs managed to get onto everything. The unstimulating, corporately designed decor, with its drab brown tones and dreary furnishings, was weighing me down. I was bored and wanted to go home. Feeling sorry for myself, I greeted my new table.

“If your name is ‘Dawn’, how come you’re working at night?” His face was merry and the wrinkles around his eyes crinkled flirtatiously. He sat with two white-haired ladies.

“Working at night keeps me off the streets,” I quipped back, hoping my current crankiness didn’t put too much edge in my voice.

“Do you work late?” he asked.

“I’ll be closing the place.” Sadly, I wanted to add.

The older of the ladies asked, “What time do you close?”

“We close at 11 p.m. on Saturdays,” I replied.

“What if I came in at 11 p.m.?” she asked.

“I suppose if you walked in the door at 10:59, you’d get served,” I replied, still hoping my annoyance didn’t show.

“Yeah. With a bunch of spit in my food.”

“Ha!” I laughed in spite of myself. “There might be some surly spread on your burger and fries.”

The dry humor didn’t stop, especially with the gentleman. “I suppose I need to tap a spring to get more water around here.”

“It’ll be fresher and better tasting, then,” I said.

At the end of their meal, I accidentally gave them the wrong bill.

He waved me over. “There’s a problem here. I want to pay this but I don’t remember drinking a root beer.”

I apologized and gave them the correct bill. “You’ll probably like this less since it’s more.”

“I’m still waiting for my rootbeer,” he said.

“I’ll bring your rootbeer.” I smiled and winked. “And pour it over your head.” Their mirth was contagious.

“Dawn, go away, you’re no good for me!” He sang the oft-sung-to-me song charmingly off-key.

“Stop it,” said the younger lady, smiling. “You’re making her nervous!”

“It’s true,” I said. “I’ll go home and cry myself to sleep tonight.”

She said, “Well, tomorrow will be the dawn of a new day!”

They paid their bill leaving a generous gratuity. I didn’t see them come in so as they stood up to leave I was startled to see the gentleman struggle to set himself upright on two canes. His face twisted with pain as he balanced himself. Then he looked up, saw me, and instantly brightened, “You have a nice rest of your night, now.”

“Thank you. I hope you do as well.” I said.

He slowly lurched out of the restaurant with his two ladies tottering behind.

Who was I to feel sorry for myself?

The Gold Crown Incident

With three new tables sat in quick succession, on top of four other tables already started, I was barely caught up. The Pie Shoppe was thick into its lunch rush. A couple at table 70 sat with faces of stone as I greeted them with a harried smile. A Very Old Mom with her Bland Son, who looked to be 50-ish, sat with glazed, almost expressionless eyes and pale skin. My Favorite Busboy had brought coffee for her and iced tea for him. They were ready to order, as were my other two tables

“Is this how it comes?” he asked, with all the personality of a rice cake. He pointed at a picture on the menu of The Pie Shoppe turkey dinner. “We’d like to split it.”

“It sure does. Would you like the lunch portion or the dinner portion?”

“What’s the difference?”

This was all explained on the menu. “The lunch portion is slightly smaller and doesn’t come with soup or salad.”

“What’s the difference in price?”

“The dinner is $15.99 and the lunch is $12.99,” I said, pointing at the clearly marked menu. “The dinner portion comes with soup, salad, and bread, or you can add it to the lunch portion for $2.59. Since you’re splitting your meal, you might want the dinner portion with a salad for 40 cents more.”

Pause.

I could literally hear both the wheels of calculation rotating in his head, and the table behind me tapping their feet impatiently waiting to place their order. Very Old Mom asked, her voice a rasping whisper, “What do I get?” Bland Son explained what I’d just explained.

“Do you want soup, Mom?”

“Our soups today are chicken noodle, potato cheese, and hearty vegetable,” I said.

“I want soup,” Very Old Mom said.

“Okay, we’ll take the dinner portion,” Bland Son said.

“What kind of soup would you like?” I asked.

Pause.

“What’s the soup?” she asked.

“Our soups today are chicken noodle, potato cheese, and hearty vegetable.”

Pause.

“Potato.”

“We’ll take the potato cheese,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. “Would you like cornbread or garlic bread with your potato cheese soup?”  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see another table of mine being sat. I groaned inwardly.

“Would you like the cornbread, Mom?”

“Huh?”

“Would you like the cornbread, Mom?”

“Yes.”

“We’ll take the cornbread.”

“Great. Thank you,” I said.

I gathered their menus and did my best to look like I wasn’t running away from that table. I got the drink order from my new table and took lunch orders from two other tables, then rushed to the kitchen to fulfill everything and catch up.

Later, two young girls at the table across the aisle from Very Old Mom and Bland Son flagged me down.

“The table over there needs your attention.” They both looked smugly joyful, like they couldn’t wait to see what happened next.

Indeed, table 70 was also staring at me, eyes still glazed, and there was a metallic object sitting on top of a napkin.

“Mother found this in her soup,” said Bland Son.

It was a gold crown, sucked clean of the potato cheese soup. It looked for all the world like a real tooth, browned with age, a bit spotty, only shiny, like jewelry. Its sparkle mocked me.

Very Old Mom sat stirring her soup.

“I’m sorry. I’ll get the manager.” It was all I could say.

The Bald Man stood at the hostess stand taking the name of a customer waiting for a table. I rushed to him wondering how could I miss a solid chunk of metal while ladling a pureed, cream-colored soup into a bowl. Who in the kitchen could afford fancy dentistry? A thing like that didn’t just fly out of one’s mouth. If it did, it’d be hawked on Pawn Stars before being pureed.

I approached with a vain attempt at wry humor. “Are you ready for this?”

He looked grim. “Yes.”

“Table 70 found a gold crown in their potato cheese soup. They wanna see a manager.”

At first I thought he might laugh, his face contorting into a strange grin. Then, just as quickly, his face became a grim mask. I suggested the crown possibly belonged to Very Old Mom.

The Bald Man took that in and accompanied me back to table 70. Awkwardness hung in the air. I could see the girls across the aisle watching intently, as were several other tables. It was a free show.

The Bald Man quickly offered apologies, then said, “Are you sure this isn’t your crown? None of the kitchen staff has a crown.” My jaw dropped. I hadn’t intended my supposition be mentioned aloud to them. I expected him to follow his apology with a comped meal. The air grew more taut. Nobody said a word. Finally, he offered to comp their meal, or provide another one gratis.

“My stomach’s a little queasy now. I’m not sure I can even eat lunch,” said Bland Son.

“Well, I’ll happily comp your meal. Please let me know if there’s anything else I can do.” He apologized again and marched off, a couple hundred dollars’ worth of gold in hand.

I stayed to pick up the rest of the pieces. “Would you like a pie to take home?” I thought if there was a gold crown in the potato cheese soup, there might be a diamond ring in the pie.

“Sure. Okay. We’ll take a pie,” said the son. Of course. Free stuff. Now, pie decision-making prevailed. Bland Son seemed pleased. Very Old Mom sat vacantly. Holes were being bored into my back by the eyes of waiting customers.

“What kind of pie do you want, Mom?”

Pause.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want a peach pie?”

Pause.

“I don’t know.”

I tried to facilitate the decision. “I like the fresh peach better than the baked.”

Pause.

“What’s the difference?” asked Bland Son.

I sighed inside. “The fresh pie is made with fresh peaches and a peach glaze and is mounded on a crust. The baked pie is sweetened peaches baked between a double crust.”

Pause.

“Do you want the double crust, Mom?”

Pause.

“Yes.”

“We’ll take the double crust.”

“Okay. I’ll be right back with your baked peach pie.” I ran away saying, “Thank you!” this time without hiding it. I came back with their pie, apologizing as sincerely as I could– “… hope you’ll try us again…”– as I wished silently, with even more sincerity, I would never see them, ever.

I tried in vain to win back favor with my other tables. My slow service annoyed, though they witnessed the event. You’d think I put the gold crown in the soup. It set the tone for the rest of my shift.

My Favorite Busboy sought me out. “The guys in the kitchen– they no can afford gold for teeth. That guy wanted free stuff.”

I said, “Maybe. I think they were too out-of-it to know it came from her mouth.”

He shook his head.

I guess we’ll never know.

You Can Come Home Again

“Dawn!”

I had just returned from a long walk through my childhood neighborhood in Hawaii. I was standing at my parents’ mailbox, at the foot of a long uphill driveway, removing its contents for them.  A postal truck was parked nearby and the post office lady had had her head buried inside organizing her mail. I hadn’t paid much attention to her until she called my name. It was the last thing I expected to hear. I left Hawaii over 30 years ago and have had infrequent visits since, none of which included the post office.

I turned my head to see an enormous smile in a wrinkled face. She was as small and fragile looking as my aging parents. Her lined face was tanned and blotched from a lifetime in the bright Hawaiian sun. Gray hair, short and frizzy, stuck out about her head. I vaguely remembered the petite, dark-haired, dark-eyed woman who drove up our long driveway to hand deliver large packages. Her brown teeth gleamed with glee as I returned her hello. “What a memory you have! I’m so impressed.”

“I can still remember you and your sister playing in the streets with the other kids.”

I looked down a street all at once lushly familiar and eerily different. My mind’s eye conjured a ghostly image of children skateboarding and her waving as she drove by. Like a skeleton with a new skin, the street looked the same, but many of the homes and landscaping were remodeled. I said, “All of my old friends have moved away. Almost no one is left here from the old days.”

“Are you visiting your folks?”

“Yes.”

“Where’s your sister?”

“She lives in Kailua.”

“Same as you?”

“No, I’m visiting from L.A. ”

Her eyes widened with the kind of surprise I often see when people discover I left Paradise to live on the Mainland. “Why would you leave Hawaii?” they ask in tones suggesting my wanderlust is a sign of mental deficiency. I always answer that I can visit. When I do, so much is different. The plants grow wild in my parents’ yard. New highways are built and roads are expanded. The beaches erode and wash away. Houses develop further and further up the hills. Pineapple and sugar businesses go away and tourism steps up its game to replace them. Hawaii becomes like a woman who changed her style so completely as to be almost unrecognizable. I added, “My Dad’s not doing so well.”

She smiled and said, “When people get old, they like to see their kids. I don’t see your parents so often these days. When I drive up the hill, I leave the boxes at the door. Don’t wanna disturb them.”

Yet, with every visit, something small will happen, like a rainbow dancing in the clouds, and all I ever loved about Hawaii shines with her jewel tone colors in the salty sweet air. Here, the brilliant memory of my old postal clerk lets me know I’m home again. I hugged her spontaneously. “Thank you,” I said, then walked up the hill.

Sisters!

Birthday Bitch

I picked up a bottle of Bitch Wine from the endcap at Trader Joe’s, hoping it would give me an expressive, expansive, and inexpensive Cabernet.

An earthy and elegant woman stood on the other side of the display studying the chalkboard description. Her fingers twirled a supple lock of hair as she read about the voluptuous succulence and creamy mouthfeel of this sassy, full-bodied red.

Her daughter approached, looking adorable in pink leggings which matched the collar of her dress, and clutching a box of Joe-Joes. She stared up at her mother with the cloying sweetness of pleading eyes.

“Put those back, please. We have plenty of junk food at home,” said the mother, not taking her eyes off the wine display.

“But, Mo-om…”

“I said, ‘No!’”

“Buut, Mo-o-o-om…”

The mother looked down at her daughter, exchanging an unspoken communication. Her body sagged and her face crushed into a yearning-to-flee expression. She grabbed two bottles of wine, holding them to her breasts. “Okay. You can have them. But today is the last day of your birthday month!”

Today is the last day of my birthday month and my 50th birthday.

Young Love in Old People

They were so easy to serve, I almost made the mistake of giving them very little attention and dismissing them as uninteresting in lieu of the more needy tables around them. They were lumpy in their comfortableness. Her shoulder-length gray hair sat limply on her head. She wore a simple dress with sensible shoes. His hair was thinning and neat and his sports coat looked worn and clean. Soft and smiling, they brought a quiet dignity to The Pie Shoppe, where many of the young customers sat crumpled into casually torn jeans or sweats. They blended into the bland decor of the restaurant, where the bright colors and brash brassiness of their younger counter parts screamed their being.

Their food was finished and he asked for the check. “We have to go home so she can have her way with me.”

Did I just hear this bland old man make an indirect sexual reference? That was the last thing I expected from a smiling great-grandparent. I felt uncharacteristic warmth on my cheeks and giggled self-consciously. “Well, don’t get too crazy now.”

The woman burst out laughing. “Oh! You have no idea!”

I laughed too. “Well, I guess not!”

He said, “She’s insatiable. I didn’t know I could keep up with her. At first I thought she’d break me. But this old soul’s got some dance in his step.”

“It’s good to know it doesn’t go away!” I said.

“Oh no. It just gets better,” said the woman.

After their check was paid, they gathered themselves slowly together as I said good-bye and thank you. She handed him his cane, then walked ahead as he paused to talk to me, touching my arm as he spoke. “You know, we met again after 60 years. We knew each other in school and didn’t even date. We went our separate ways for 60 years. Now, we’re like kids again! I didn’t know it could be like this.”

My spirit soared as I watched him walk away, stepping lightly despite his need for a cane. Young love in old people. I didn’t know it could be like that either.