What to eat when food seems like the least important thing of all.
The moment I made the spontaneous decision to drive five hours to South Jersey to help my mom during my grandmother’s final days, my mind turned to food.
I’d bring those eggs from my Friends & Farmers Online Market order. I’d stop at Harrison’s for 4 or 5 quarts of soup. (After my neighbors’ dad died, I delivered Harrison’s soup, a gesture that brightened a week of TV dinners.) I’d pass Tait Farm on my way out of town, so may as well pick up that blackberry jam my sister-in-law loves and grab a loaf of bread from Gemelli. Oh, and I needed chocolate. Dark chocolate to fuel the ride.
But as my phone lit up with increasingly grim updates, I knew I didn’t have time for shopping. So I grabbed what was already in my house: the aforementioned eggs, half a bar of dark chocolate, a box of granola bars, one apple, and some leftover oatmeal from the morning. The quality of my day is inexorably tied to my consumption of morning oatmeal, a fact that made me feel as old as my 96-year-old grandmother, who, up until a week ago, was somehow still surviving on rye bread and rolls for breakfast.
A bag of champagne gummy bears, a gift from a friend who recently visited from New York, completed my hodgepodge of provisions. Those bears got me through the dead zone that ensued when Terry Gross lost her battle to static. Get through the next hour, I told myself, and you can open the bag. I made it 45 minutes, but made sure it took 15 minutes to eat them.
Four hours later, when I pulled into my parents’ driveway, I was greeted outside by one of my grandmother’s aides: “Quick, she just opened her eyes.” My grandmother opened them wide, and even sat up so I could kiss her cheek.
For the next week I shared a living room with my sister-in-law (with my mouth guard and her sleep machine we made quite the pair) in what sometimes felt like the end-of-life version of Groundhog Day. We’d wake, pour coffee, greet the aide on duty and try to remember how long she’d been there and which stories we already told her, then sit by my grandmother’s side, check our work e-mail and wait for the hospice nurse, who visited my grandmother daily.
Mealtimes grounded us, providing a respite from the sameness and a reminder that while my grandmother was systematically shutting down the complex vehicle that kept her humming along for more than 90 years, we were asking our own bodies to bear witness. Food was what would get us through.
We spent breakfast talking about what we’d eat for lunch. We placed orders for takeout. Visitors brought food. Others didn’t—what the hell were they thinking?
I had my first Entenmann’s donut in more than a decade. The lacquered chocolate did not meet memory’s exalted estimation, but the classic crumb-cake donut delivered the perfect combination of sugary nostalgia and nourishment. To eat this donut properly, one must pluck and consume the crumbs one by one, extending your sugar high through the last swig of coffee. I drank that coffee in honor of my grandmother, who loved her morning caffeine ritual as much as I do.
We ate copious amounts of pasta and coffee cake—and were downright giddy when my former New York City roommate ordered pasta, eggplant and lasagna from the nearby Italian restaurant. Salad, too, and we were so excited for greens we yelled in delight. The following day, we ordered another salad, extra large and loaded with broccoli, which ended up costing us $45. Grandma, we’re not in Pennsylvania anymore.
“I can hear your stomach growling,” a hospice nurse told me one morning during our vigil. “You should probably eat something.” At 10 am, long past my usual breakfast time, I reported to the kitchen to scramble those Friends & Famers eggs, then promptly returned to my grandmother’s room after my sister-in-law heard her gasp. It was one of many false alarms.
“Are you ever going to scramble those eggs?” my dad asked four hours later.
When we finally ate them, we got out the Hank Sauce, made by a company in Ocean City, NJ, which brought back lots of memories of family trips to the beach.
My grandmother was dying in the next room, and hadn’t eaten anything in a week, but those eggs made me happy. My grandmother would understand.
This was a woman who appreciated food. A terrible cook who made sad looking (and even sadder tasting) Gefiltefish on Passover, she looked forward to my mother’s spaghetti and meatballs and the spinach my mother sautéed after patiently removing the leaves from the chewy stalks.
Most of all she relished chocolate, calling me into her TV room as a kid to share in a conspiratorial amuse-bouche. I will forever think of her in her recliner, pulling down the edges of crinkly tinfoil to unearth her beloved candy. Before he passed away, my grandfather would give her a disapproving look before saying “give me one.”
In the last year of her life my grandmother developed a craving for marshmallows, keeping a gallon Ziploc of the mini marshmallows at her side and tossing them back like popcorn.
“Let’s go to the Stop & Shop,” she said one day to her aide, insisting that my mother needed something. When the aide said she couldn’t think of anything, my grandmother was not deterred. “She needs marshmallows.”
Four days before my grandmother died I walked into her room to find one of her aides delivering hydration through an ice-cube sized sponge. After my grandmother rejected water, the aide dipped that sponge into a cup of coffee and placed it to her lips. Her eyes firmly shut tight, my grandmother arched her eyebrows ever so slightly.
A doctor might call it a reflex sparked by a sudden return of the senses. But I couldn’t help thinking of a line I read in the literature left behind by a hospice nurse: that it takes a lot of energy and focus to die. Apparently it’s more complicated than deciding one is ready, or an assurance from a family member that “it’s ok to go.”
In the last days of her life, my grandmother still appreciated the power of food to get you to your next stop, and provide a little comfort along the way.
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