Cooking for My Father: A Cancer Diary
It's always been one of my signature traits that I don't know how to cook. "Melanie's hopeless in the kitchen," my sisters would shrug, as if it were something inborn, like being tall or clumsy. "I get flustered when the recipe tells you to do more than one thing at once," I'd say helplessly, remembering my few disastrous attempts at throwing dinner parties. It's not that I can't read a recipe. For me, it's simple -- there's just always been something else I'd rather do with my time than be in the kitchen surrounded by knives and pots. Until now.
My dad has cancer. Not just run-of-the-mill cancer (if there is such a thing) with its rounds of chemo and platelet counts. He has a rare cancer of the esophagus that, by the time it was caught, had already metastasized to his liver, kidneys, and spine. The diagnosis, when we finally got it after weeks of tests, was terminal right from the beginning. "Most people with this type of cancer can expect to live between three and six months," the doctor said matter-of-factly, as if he weren't telling us my father would never see another spring.
When your father is dying of a disease that's wasting his body day by day and week by week, a disease that makes his legs swell so he can't walk and saps his appetite so that everything tastes like chalk, food takes on a whole new meaning. Every pound he loses I imagine can be regained if I can come up with a dessert that's tempting enough. When the anemia makes him so tired that he doesn't leave his recliner all day, I rush to the kitchen and concoct savory soups, hoping -- praying -- that a dose of protein will restore his powerful spirit.
They say food is life, and of course it's true. The opposite holds true as well: Not eating is death. And I'm going to stave off my father's death as long as I possibly can.
October 7 I cook. I fry, simmer, saute. The kitchen has become my haven. Because my father is supposed to cut back on salt, I scan the Internet for low-sodium recipes that might appeal to someone who loves brine so much he drinks pickle juice out of the jar. He has constant diarrhea, so I try to come up with interesting dishes made with apples, bananas, and white rice. I call my mother, who divorced my father almost 30 years ago but is still sad that he's sick; I ask for her recipe for apple crisp, which I remember he loved. He says he craves cranberry bread, a New England tradition also from my mother's side of the family, and I drive from market to market searching for the first cranberries of the season.
November 18 I bring my concoctions to my father as casually as I can, since he fiercely resists being treated like an invalid and constantly admonishes us not to "hover." Sometimes he's delighted and sits right down to eat what I've brought, making me feel as proud as I did three decades ago when I walked in the door with a report card full of A's. Other times, before I get to the house, he's already lost the taste for whatever I've made, and he looks pained that I've gone to the trouble.
"Just put it in the fridge," he says wearily, while my stepmom smiles apologetically. And I find it there a week later, still tightly wrapped in plastic with my hopeful note taped to the top. Or he eats a few bites and pushes it away, saying that the metallic taste from the chemo makes everything taste like a tin can.
But still I don't get discouraged. His thinness spurs me on. Each morning when I arrive I hug him, trying to gauge whether his chest, always so broad that we teased him about being shaped like a wine barrel, has diminished in size. The first time I feel his ribs poking through his T-shirt, tears spring to my eyes and I have to excuse myself and hide in the bathroom. "No tears," he has said sternly to us from the day he first heard the word "malignancy." "No tears."
December 5. This morning my father and I spend all morning reading Winston Churchill quotes to each other from a book he's just received in the mail from a friend. We laugh hysterically, taking turns picking out the funniest, most irreverent comments on politics and human nature. Dad gets so excited he goes and pulls out his "Churchill files" -- a huge folder stuffed with articles and notes, even the framed certificate of his honorary membership in the Winston Churchill Society. It was news to me that he was such a fan, but it didn't surprise me -- my Dad was famous for taking his passions to the furthest limits, a trait, he was fond of pointing out, that I clearly inherited from him.
Later, one of the quotes I'd read to Dad stuck in my mind. It went something like this: "The earth is largely divided into two classes of people -- people who say 'I wonder why such and such is not done?' and people who say 'Now who is going to prevent me from doing that thing?'" I began to cry, thinking about how my Dad fit so squarely in that second group, always doing whatever he could to right wrongs and fight unfairness. Whether it was the huge environmental battles he became involved in, saving open space from development, or the small pro bono legal cases he took against heartless landlords and deadbeat dads, he'd only become more stubborn and pugnacious the more opposition he faced. Now, with his remaining strength, he's fighting for his life.
December 26. Finally the day has come: My father can't eat anymore. A few spoonfuls of broth are a triumph. The hospice workers tell us it's time -- time to let him go. In his last days we take turns, my sisters and I, sitting by his bed and swabbing the inside of his mouth with a tiny sponge. Sustenance has been reduced to a thin trickle of water. We may not be able to fight death any longer, but we won't let him die of thirst.
January 4. My father is gone. Despite our 24-hour vigil, my father died alone. The nurses had warned us it might happen this way. Often, they said, the dying choose the rare moment of solitude in which to slip away. It's as if we, the living, unknowingly project our will to keep them here, and they can't bear to disappoint us. So it was with Dad. In the last hour before dawn, my sister Claire stepped away to splash cold water on her face, and in those few moments he was gone. After months of reluctantly submitting to our ministrations, he waited for our absence to escape the body we had so desperately tried to nourish.
My father's last words, muttered over and over like a litany, had been "enough." Of course, to me -- to us -- it hadn't been. Not enough time together, not enough chances to show our love. But looking back on those months of cooking and eating and companionship, I'm profoundly thankful that my Dad felt he'd been given, yes, enough.
February 25. The night before my dad's memorial service, his childhood gang of Brooklyn buddies -- known as The Saxons Social and Athletic Club -- joined us at my sister Beth's house for a rousing dinner. Now in their late 60s and early 70s and scattered all over the United States, these former "punks," as they describe themselves, came together to feast, drink, and tell tales of their youthful antics. As they laughed their way through stories of stolen cars and ribald anecdotes about trysts with "gals," my father's ebullient spirit filled the room. It helped erase the long sad months of watching him waste away.
The next day at the memorial service, the room was packed with family and friends. We chose to finish the service with the traditional Jewish blessing of the wine -- not typically part of a funeral service -- because we knew that's exactly how my Dad would have wanted it. And as we toasted Dad with his own homemade wine -- nicknamed "Clos du Garage" because that's where he and his friends made it -- it was as if he were still there, this time in turn nourishing us.