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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