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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You Can Come Home Again, Redux

Aiea Loop Trail: I found myself obsessed with tree roots during my recent visit to Hawaii. Small wonder, I think as I look back now. Our roots are our family and our home. Hawaii, with its unique beauty and culture, is a force within me, subterranean and hidden. Though I’m faraway, my family still nourishes.

Banyan trees have always been my favorite, with their exposed roots growing down into the ground, like water flowing into the earth. Growing up, roots which hadn’t yet reached the ground became swings, which we’d cling to like monkeys.

“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.

The yard surrounding my family home is a wild forest of trees and shrubbery set into the hillside. After eating fresh pineapple, my mom throws pineapple tops into the yard and they flourish throughout. They now have more pineapple than they can eat.

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.

A visit to Hawaii always includes a luau. My lunch here included kalua pig, lau lau, lomi lomi salmon, squid luau, chicken long rice, poi, and haupia for desert. In Hawaii, chopsticks are as ubiquitous as forks.

Another favorite is ahi poke (pronounced like Gumby and Pokey). Ahi is a type of tuna. The salad consists of raw tuna and various other ingredients, typically seaweed, soy sauce, ginger, and green onions. Since my childhood, the concept has expanded exponentially to include such flavors as California poke, inspired by the California sushi roll, and made with avocado and cream cheese. Our local grocery stores serve them out of their deli counters.

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.”

This stream runs through my neighborhood. It was a playground for my sister and me. It still murmurs with the fairytale magic inspired by my childhood imagination.

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.”

Another tree with exposed roots, the hala tree is found all over Hawaii. The entire plant was used by ancient Hawaiians. The leaves were interlaced into hats and mats. Flowers smell sweet and were used as a preservative. The trunk yielded pipes and posts. Parts of the edible fruit were fashioned into paint brushes and leis. Punahou School, the alma mater of President Obama, uses an image of the hala in its school seal. More importantly, my sister teaches calculus there.

“Are you visiting your folks?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Where’s your sister?”

“She lives in Kailua.”

“Same as you?”

“No, I’m visiting from L.A. ”

My sister now lives by Ka’elepulu Pond. Its stretch of canal lends beauty to many backyards.

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 Ko’olau Mountains were the backdrop to bike riding, skateboarding, and kickball on my childhood street. The grey strip near the mountain base is the H3 freeway and didn’t mar the soaring emerald-green as a child. It’s an intrastate Interstate Highway, built with Federal funding to link the Pearl Harbor Naval Base with the Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps Base and fulfill national security needs. Though it’s an engineering marvel designed to preserve the beauty of its surroundings, and, at $1.3 billion, the priciest highway in our country, it’s also sore on my nostalgic eyes.

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.”

Kailua Beach was my favorite beach. Once a wide expanse of white sands, it’s become a victim of beach erosion. In fact, all of Oahu and Hawaii suffer from disappearing beaches. The beaches in front of the famed Outrigger and Royal Hawaiian hotels in Waikik have to import sand from California, Australia, and other Hawaiian beaches to keep them alive. Locals complain about the coarseness and color of the imported sand. This hasn’t happened in Kailua and during high tide, the beach is all but gone, and the waves lap tragically at tree roots.

Her eyes became soft with sadness, but 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.”

Geckos in the home are considered good luck. I like them because they eat bugs I don’t like. This visitor to my parent’s home, was roughly an inch long and has unusual markings. They’re usually a dull brown monotone.

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, smiling through tears. Airport departures are always poignant.

My Mom and Dad. Farewell, my beloved father. Though your brilliance fades like a setting sun, your spirit will forever shine in my heart.

Writer’s note: I am grateful to WordPress blogger, Adventures in Kevin’s World, and his blog, The Answer’s to Life, The Universe, and Everything. His lovely photo journal of his birthday trip to Alaska inspired me to enliven my story with images.

The Perils of Being Dawn

“The vegetable soup is really good. It’s a light broth loaded with veggies,” I suggested to a woman who didn’t know what she wanted to order and regarded me tensely and warily. Her wide, faded blue eyes set under a widow’s peak and a crown of wispy white hair didn’t look familiar. Yet, I wondered if I waited on her before and forgot to refill her coffee when requested. Or bring extra napkins. Customers often have long memories.

“I’ll have the vegetable soup,” said her friend whose tone and manner were gentler, more relaxed. She smiled her encouragement to the Wary Woman.

“I don’t know,” said the Wary Woman. She stared at the menu, then me, like we were trying to sell her land under the Golden Gate Bridge.

“It’s my favorite soup of the bunch,” I said.

“It is good,” reassured the Relaxed Woman.

“It’s good?” she asked, never losing her edge of suspicion.

“Yes, I love it,” I said.

She studied me for a second, then said, “Yeah, but your name is ‘Dawn’.”

“Yeah?” I wondered what I’d done to offend her.

“That’s the name of my daughter-in-law,” she snorted, waving her hands dismissively.

She ended up ordering the vegetable soup and seemed to enjoy it. After confessing her feelings, she was all smiles. Throughout the lunch, I paid them extra attention. “I’m gonna redeem the name ‘Dawn’,” I assured the Wary Woman.

“Why don’t you just take her place?”

“Well, I’d need to meet him first.” I giggled self-consciously, wanting to pass off the remark as a joke.

She didn’t laugh. “Oh, he’s great. You’d like him.”

“Yes, I’m sure I would. But he might not like me and–”

“We’ll work it out!” she insisted. I laughed again. She still didn’t.