“Dinner’s ready!” My mom yelled up the stairs at around 6:30 every weeknight. As my little sister Laura and I got older and more independent and as my mom got lazier, it turned into family group texts.
“Laura: what is it
“Me: k be there in a second”
I appeared in the kitchen to discover I had been lied to and that dinner was not, in fact, ready at all, and that the table wasn’t even set.
“Can you help set the table?” My deceitful mother offhandedly asked as she finished up cooking dinner. My dad had also been tricked into preparing the table for dinner. My mom slyly grinned as the three of us bustled around the kitchen.
“Where’s Laura?” I asked as we placed the stainless steel silverware my parents had been gifted for their wedding. It was not unusual for Laura to arrive late at dinner for no other reason than a lack of motivation to move. I have to admit that I did the same quite often.
Once dinner was actually ready, my dad schlepped up the stairs and knocked on Laura’s bedroom door. She emerged reluctantly after a moment to join us. Dinner would not start until the whole family was there.
My mom always placed import on family dinners. It was the one time of day during the week when the whole family was together and talking and laughing and eating. She made sure they were worth attending, too– fragrant, homemade foods crowded the table every evening. My mom made dinners and made us sit at the table to eat together because she loved us. She loved to feed us and she loved to be with us. My mom made us such amazing dinners because it was the best way she knew to take care of us. Family dinners were an everyday ritual that gave us joy and comfort.
My dad would come home from work to the scent of a delicious dinner in progress. Over the table he told terrible jokes and strange stories. He had an amazing sense of humor, whimsical, rather dark but never offensive, and at times a bit immature. We laughed so loudly our dog, Draco, would start barking because he wanted to be included in our fun.
As usual, my mom gave my dad huge portions. She joked that she was trying to “fatten him up,” because he was too skinny. He really was–I inherited that from him. In between the terrible jokes and fascinating discussions, my dad diligently cleaned his plate and loved every mouthful. If he really couldn’t finish, which didn’t happen much, he slipped a morsel or two to Draco when my mom wasn’t looking. Draco loved him for that.
In August of 2015, after a lovely dinner, my parents exchanged looks. My dad let out a deep sigh.
“The cancer’s back.”
My dad had been diagnosed with stage II pancreatic cancer two years earlier. The cancer had stopped growing after surgery and chemo and radiation therapy and he had gone back to living a semi-normal life.
“It’s stage IV now.”
“He had a screening a week ago.”
“The cancer’s spread to my lungs.”
It felt like television static in my head.
It felt like my heart was trying to pump blood while being squeezed with a vise.
I bolted to my room and choked out a sob.
I was scared. I was just scared. I wasn’t sad or angry or surprised I was just so, so, so scared.
It was back to the chemo. Who doesn’t love getting stuck with needles for multiple hours one day every week? It had the strangest side effects on my dad–for a length of time he would get violent hiccups. There was a drug that made him slur his words for a couple hours afterwards, though his mind was completely coherent. He had another drug that would be dispensed in small amounts for a full 24 hours. He had to carry it around in a backpack and it sounded like an automatic soap dispenser. A few years back he had had a port installed into him, which is a small container inserted under the skin in the upper chest that can be used instead of needles if a person needs intravenous solutions frequently. The port made it possible to take what we called the “soap dispenser chemo” home for a day. Even if it was clumsy having a tube emerging from beneath his shirt and going into a backpack my dad had to carry around all day, it was much more portable than rolling around an IV stand next to him for an entire day.
If you’ve ever seen someone experience chemo up close, you know that it’s draining more than anything else. My dad began working part-time, only when he had the strength and energy. He spent a lot of time in bed. He began losing weight. He became malnourished.
My dad was so exhausted that he didn’t even have energy for family dinners. He would be quieter. He left the table early. Sometimes, he wouldn’t even have the energy to join us at all. On his good days, it was like the cancer wasn’t even there, aside from the occasional soap dispenser noise. We would laugh and talk and eat dinner like always. My dad would tell bad jokes and funny stories. On his bad days, he would spend all day in his room.
One night, my dad came home from the doctor with a new diet. His cancer was stable, but his digestive system was reeling from all the abuse it endured during the treatment and even months afterwards he was having severely painful digestive trouble, so he was willing to try anything. This was not the first diet his doctors had put him on, but it was the most restrictive. It was called the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, or the SCD, which was mainly intended for those with Crohn’s disease and IBS. He couldn’t eat any carbs at all. It was dinnertime. He had already been malnourished for some time, so he needed to eat something. So my mother had to cook him something.
It had been hard for my mom to keep up with the reputation she’d made for herself in our household of creating amazing, beautiful food while also accommodating my dad’s diets. She searched through the fridge, scanning ingredient lists, growing more and more frustrated as she realized how limited she truly was. I read through the pages and pages of rules my dad’s diet now had to adhere to as my mom raided the kitchen.
No yogurt, rice, chocolate, eggs, coffee, or wheat. No sugars except honey. No milk, no potatoes, no corn. Nothing starchy at all. Even certain fruits were prohibited for some reason.
“What can he eat?” I asked incredulously.
My mom shook her head and sighed, carrying a package of frozen ground beef from the back of the freezer over to the counter. She dumped it into a pan on the stove, the block of meat making a loud thud. As it defrosted unevenly, she chopped up some onion and dumped that into the pan as well. Her eyes were watering.
I think she was trying to make a bolognese without the pasta. She added some tomato and oregano to the pan. When everything was cooked, she scraped it onto a plate and melted some cheddar cheese over it.
The dog thought it was for him.
My mom appeared in the doorway of the room she and my dad shared carrying a pile of ground meat, onions, and tomatoes that had all been cooked to a homogenous pale brown. The cheddar cheese on top was in the shape of a square, individually-wrapped slice. Her shoulders sagged as she handed the plate to my dad. “I know it looks gross, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I think it tastes okay though.”
My dad slowly took the plate and placed it on his lap. My mom handed him the fork she had brought with her upstairs. He scooped up some of the food and brought it to his mouth, blinking slowly, struggling to stay awake. He swallowed, nodded, and said, “It’s good.”
My mom and I sat with him and his ugly food, watching him slowly, weakly, tiredly eat, not for pleasure, but for sustenance. He was too tired to enjoy food. He wasn’t speaking at all. He ate, finished, and went to bed. My mom carried his plate down to the kitchen and placed it into the sink. She had failed her husband, but more importantly, herself, in her commitment to give us beautiful food. As she cleaned off the counter, she murmured to me, helplessly, dejectedly, “I don’t know what to do with this.”
As we got used to the SCD, it got easier to find food that worked with it. Even so, when my dad had the energy to eat dinner with us, he had to eat something different. While Laura and I praised our mother to the high heavens for her amazing potato latkes, my dad was eating leftover chicken my mom made two nights ago. With that, he became further removed from our dinner table.
When it came time to start school at VCU, I didn’t feel guilty about not being at home. I figured I would be one less person to worry about on a daily basis. My mom could spend more time on my sister and my dad. It was so nice not having to think about my dad’s illness every day. I felt guilty about it but it was true.
I came home for the first time for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which fell at the beginning of October. I couldn’t be there for the services, but we had a Rosh Hashanah meal with the whole family and my grandma. My dad, as usual, was pretty tired and quiet, and as usual, couldn’t eat some of the food. As usual, he had to leave the table early. Even though I was disappointed he couldn’t stay for the whole meal, I was happy to sit with my whole family and eat.
Exactly a week later, I was called home again. My dad was unconscious and in the hospital.
He had an infection in his bloodstream. He was suffering from sepsis because of the port. The very port that had helped sustain him in so many ways was the cause of a serious infection. His immune system was already compromised due to the chemo. He was weak. He needed to be sedated and use a breathing tube. They thought he was going to die.
We ate pizza for dinner in the waiting room most nights. My dad would be alone in his room in the ICU, unconscious, face swollen nearly beyond recognition, while we ate as quickly as we could, desperate to get back to him.
After months in the hospital, my dad was allowed to go home. His muscles had atrophied and he was now completely bedridden. A hospital bed was placed in the family room, instead of in my parents’ bedroom, so that he wasn’t locked away in his room all day. We hired a home nursing service so that his care wasn’t entirely my mom’s responsibility. The nurses stayed from 9AM to 7PM every day. The first couple of days with a nurse we tried to have dinner in the kitchen as a family.
The family room and kitchen are not so much rooms in our house as areas within an open floor plan. We could see my dad while we ate, ten feet away from us, with the nurse in an armchair nearby. We talked quietly. We glanced at the nurse. My dad tried to join the conversation every once in a while, weakly calling something from across the ten-foot gap separating him from us.
“What was that, dear?” My mom called over, as Laura and I stopped chewing in order to hear him.
My dad repeated one of his token dumb jokes with a small smile.
My sister and I chuckled quietly. My mom smiled. We uncomfortably glanced over at the nurse again, who was on her phone, waiting for my dad to need her help. Do we pretend she’s not there? Do we include her in our conversation? Do we invite her to eat with us?
In between the obvious isolation of my dad and the awkwardness of eating in front of and without the nurse, we stopped having family dinner.
Instead, we each ate when we got hungry. In the evenings, whenever one of us got hungry, that person fixed their plate and sat with my dad in the family room to eat. We all ate at separate times. My dad ate tiny amounts of food many times over the course of the day. The dinner table became cluttered with papers, get-well cards, and vases of flowers that got in the way more than they brought us joy.
Fluid began building up in my dad’s lungs. It caused him enough pain that he needed substantial amounts of morphine. He began sleeping more and more and eating less and less. After he was finally taken to the hospital to get the fluids drained on a Friday, he was even more exhausted. He was somehow in even more pain. He needed even more morphine. He was sleeping most of the day and night. He barely ate. He wasn’t awake at all anymore. He was barely responsive. He needed more morphine.
At 4:30AM on Monday, two days after the hospital visit, my mother woke me. “Dad’s gone,” she whispered.
I had to remind my mom to eat that week.
Jewish families “sit shiva” for four to seven days after a funeral. It’s similar to a wake. The house is open and people within your community bring food and keep the mourners company. The idea is that the mourners should not host. The community comes to the mourners’ home not as guests, but as caretakers and support. During the shiva there were dozens, maybe even a hundred people total throughout the week, coming in and out and in and out. They all brought food, sheepishly mumbling, “I know it’s not as good as your food, but…” as they handed a dish to my mother.
I hid in my room when I didn’t want to socialize. If I wanted something to eat, it would take ten minutes to get through all the people who wanted to hug me and ask me how I was doing. They always said it like that: “How are you doing?” I hated it. I didn’t want to talk to people I barely knew about something so personal. I felt like snapping at them, “My dad’s fucking dead, how do you think I’m doing?? I just want to something to eat!! Leave me the fuck alone!!”
We didn’t cook at all that week. We didn’t need to. We had food ready made for us that we ate while going around to talk to everyone. After all that socializing, all three of us were exhausted. Each day, after everyone left, we would clean up and go to our rooms to rest for the remainder of the evening. We were too tired to even talk to each other anymore.
The evening after the final day of shiva, I turned toward my mother. “Mom?”
She was watching Netflix in an attempt to distract herself. She paused her show. “Yeah, sweetie?”
“Can we have real family dinners again?”
She sighed. “Oh, I would love that.”
That night, we all sat at the table, my little sister and my mom and me. I don’t even remember what we ate but it didn’t matter. It was beautiful and it was delicious. We were sitting around the table the way my mom loves, like a family, eating and talking and laughing and trying our damnedest to ignore the empty chair across from my mom at the table.