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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An Encounter With Death, an excerpt

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“Hello?” she said.

The voice was silken honey. It resonated with soft vibrations, like a wind stirring within or a sweet song. “I felt your call for me.”

A hooded man–no, something more than a man–slowly materialized in her favorite reading chair at the foot of her bed. The La-Z-Boy, which had over many years molded to the shape of her own body, seemed to suit him comfortably. Was this Death?

The costume was unexpected–no complete shroud covering his entire body and head, and he wasn’t carrying a tall scythe. He looked far from grim. A hood barely covered his face, pale and oddly handsome, with plump, moist lips, like ripe pomegranate seeds. Tendrils of unruly pitch-black hair poked out. Albino eyes, mirroring smoldering embers, held her. A black leather cloak showed starkly against luminous white skin and covered his torso, but not his legs. She could see a hint of his bare, hairless chest and strong legs revealed below. Why Death was… dashing. Her bedtime nakedness felt suddenly vulnerable, even more vulnerable than her bound hands and feet.

Yes, she called for Death, wished for him the way fire would wish for wind. For too long, despair and bitterness swirled together like clouds in a gathering storm. She would’ve embraced death as the monstrous skeleton of lore, with his abominable, toothful grin and hollow eyes speaking with dark foreboding. There was art to this image; like any good movie, life sets the mood and tenor of the story as it drifts to its inevitable conclusion.

But here was something entirely unexpectedly seductive. She could yield to this sort of death and easily be spirited away to who-cared-where.

“Call for you? I begged you to come.”

Hot off the online presses: An Encounter With Death. After a series of emotional setbacks, Vanessa, is filled with despair. She decides to take control of her destiny, but like her life, nothing turns out as planned. Wanting to meet her maker, she instead has an encounter with Death. A sexy and magical tale of the power of love to heal. Intended for mature audiences. Available for $.99 at Smashwords and Amazon.

My first ebook, a short story called, An Encounter With Death: After a series of emotional setbacks, Vanessa, is filled with despair. She decides to take control of her destiny, but like her life, nothing turns out as planned. Wanting to meet her maker, she instead has an encounter with Death. A sexy and magical tale of the power of love to heal. Intended for mature audiences. Available for $.99 at Smashwords and Amazon.

This writer will soon be writing in this blog.

I hope you enjoy An Encounter With Death. 🙂

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

Dogfucius say,  “It’s a sexy, uplifting tail.”

An Encounter With Death

“I published my first ebook!” I said to the world. And the world listened.

Hot off the online presses: An Encounter With Death. After a series of emotional setbacks, Vanessa, is filled with despair. She decides to take control of her destiny, but like her life, nothing turns out as planned. Wanting to meet her maker, she instead has an encounter with Death. A magical tale of the power of love to heal. Available for $.99 at Smashwords and Amazon.

Hot off the online presses: An Encounter With Death.

After a series of emotional setbacks, Vanessa, is filled with despair. She decides to take control of her destiny, but like her life, nothing turns out as planned. Wanting to meet her maker, she instead has an encounter with Death. A sexy and magical tale of the power of love to heal.

Intended for mature audiences.

Available for $.99 at Smashwords and Amazon.

Please enjoy this excerpt.

This writer will soon be writing in this blog.

This writer thanks you for reading her blog and ebook! 🙂

Vegas or Kitties?

“What’s on your mind, Dawn?” asked Nosy Server, who whenever there was a silence during lulls in the server aisle would start asking personal questions of whoever was standing around. “You look upset today.” I groaned inwardly at how my face wears what’s on my mind like outlandishly trendy clothes that should never be worn at all. The Bald Man stood nearby listening. It was a slow hour at The Pie Shoppe.

“My cat died and I’ll be picking up her ashes today,” I said with my customary directness for which I sometimes wish had a filter. I’m not very good at waffling around whatever I ought not talk about.

“Oh,” said Nosy Server, looking bored.

“Do you have a pet?” I asked.

“I dated a guy with a dog once. Never had one of my own. They’re too much trouble.”

I turned to the Bald Man. “What about you? Do you have a pet?”

“No,” he said. “I’m not a pet guy. Don’t like ’em, don’t need ’em.” Perhaps he realized that he sounded harsh, or perhaps my transparent face betrayed my dismay, because he laughed like he was supposed to be charming and continued. “Think about it.” He poked his finger in the air. “I couldn’t spontaneously spend a weekend in Vegas if I was burdened with a pet.”

Nosy Server gave a polite laugh.

I didn’t particularly like the Bald Man, but right then he had my sympathy. Both of them did. Puppies and kitties give far more than they receive. Their presence is nourishing to the spirit.

On the day I lost Sonoma, I woke up to her laying on her side, stiff and cold, her mouth drooping open and her little pink tongue hanging over her lip. Open eyes, which had stared unseeing from sudden blindness during her last month, now lacked the luster of life. She looked like she may have suffered in her last moments, breathing her last breath while hanging onto life with ferocity I hadn’t known she possessed. I felt guilty for not calling the man with the merciful syringes to come to my home the day before. My mournful vigil over her final days was fraught with uncertainty over what was best. She wound down slowly, like a watched clock. Yet, the home pet doctor and a life and death decision carry their own guilt. The euthanasia of Napa, her sister, taught me this. Death weighs heavy on consciousness, no matter the circumstance.

The beginning of an 18 year journey.

Outside, a morning mist grayed the trees and sky. I turned off the heater, which had been set up to keep her warm in the autumn chill hovering about the house. As prepared as I was to find her laying there, the sharp ache of her passing hollowed out my being, like a gutted and carved pumpkin. She and her sister purred on my lap for over 18 years. They came into my life before I bought my first cell phone or sent my first email. They witnessed two career changes. They moved with me from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. They watched my heart break, and love again, then break again, love, break, love, break, and love once more. They were my intimates, constant companions in a life filled with change. The loss of Napa earlier in the year was soothed by Sonoma, now laying on a cream-colored blanket. I could barely accept they were both gone.

It took almost a week for me to throw away their litter box. I hadn’t been rushing to get rid of all-things-kitty, and their toys and favorite blankets sat around where they were left. The kitty food container, and what was left of their food, rested on top of the fridge. But the eyesore sitting next to my toilet, all dusty and poo-stained, seemed clearly doomed for the trash. What surprised me was how the unpleasant nightly ritual of sifting through litter, carried out approximately 6,753 times over the lives of my kitties, had embedded itself in the normalcy and beauty of my life. They were consummately clean, never once doing their business outside of the box. The task was unlovely, but it was performed lovingly and was a privilege of their presence. I miss the litter box terribly.

Precious memories.

Every so often I see Sonoma out of the corner of my eye, a ghostly glimpse of her sitting patiently at my feet while I tap away at the computer. In the past, if I took too long to notice her, a little paw would rub my leg to let me know she was there. And if that wasn’t good enough, she’d meow incessantly until I picked her up and put her on my lap. If I briefly left the computer without picking her up, I’d come back to find her laying across my keyboard, something she knew I didn’t like. Negative attention was better than no attention. Of course in her final months, all I needed was the paw-rub. She eased the loss of Napa, which in turn made me realize her time was short. Every bit of attention I could give her was given.

When I wake up in the morning, I sometimes imagine Napa is still sleeping between my legs, her favorite place. She had a way of settling into my lap where her eyes, a passionate blue, almost violet, would soften and deepen as expansively as an endless twilight sky. They were loving and dreamy, and made me feel like I was her whole universe. She knew how to relax into bonelessness, her purr rumbling like an outboard motor and her breathing billowing her whole torso. It was quite unlike the shallow chest breathing I see afflicting many of us with worries tightening our stomachs. My kitties embodied how to live in the moment and just breathe.

Napa and Sonoma put love above food in their hierarchy of needs and would stop eating to luxuriate in my pets. When I held them, they would cling; when I needed to set them down, they masterminded passive resistance, becoming dead weight, far heavier than their dozen pounds. Both expanded my heart into an understanding of love which made our often cruel world feel like a soft place to land. They were as separated from me as a fish from a tree, yet they taught me how to feel connected. In a universe where two little creatures could fill my heart to overflowing, how could it be rooted in bad? How could there be a heaven better than the moments I spent cuddling in the furry warmth of their affection?

My Baby Girls’ gifts were everlasting.

Yin Yang Kitties: they taught me about life and death.

I looked at the Bald Man squarely and said, “If you had a pet, you might think they offer more than a weekend in Vegas.” He frowned and I walked away. It was probably better to have kept my mouth shut, but I often can’t help myself.

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.