I’m not sure who first said we should starve a cold and feed a fever, but that adage has never spoken true to me. I’m Southern. I feed everything. I feed an upset stomach with Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, saltines, and 7-Up, a cold with tomato soup and toast, and a broken heart with ice cream (or chilled white wine).
I have discovered in recent months that I believe in feeding not only the sick, but also the dying and the grieving. Or maybe I’ve found that a constructive way to cope with the grief of tending to the dying is to cook. A way to do something when there is really nothing you can do.
My mother is dying.
In March, my mother was diagnosed with Stage 3 Small-Cell Lung Cancer and though radiation and chemotherapy reduced the size of the tumor, her body just can’t take it. Hospice began at the end of May.
I am coping by cooking dishes from my (and her) childhood.
These aren’t the heart-healthy dishes that have become my staple meals over the twenty-four years I have lived out of my parents’ home. These are recreations of recipes handed down from my grandmother – and her mother: salmon croquettes coated in bran flakes, chicken and dumplings made with biscuit dough, brisket marinated in vinegar, and banana pudding made with whole milk, butter, egg yolks, and sugar.
The banana pudding has been best received. It was eaten for lunch and dinner the day after I prepared it. I guess like ice cream for a broken heart, the sweet creaminess of custard combined with bananas and pudding-softened vanilla wafers provided moments of pure pleasure in a day filled with pain alternated with a morphine haze of reality.
It’s difficult to witness. My mother, who has read a book a day for as long as I can remember, is now unable to read. Her days of having an opinion on everyone and everything have become brief comments as she doesn’t have the strength to talk. A diet fueled by coffee, cigarettes and ice tea has become an existence comforted by ice chips, water, and the occasional cranberry-orange scone.
On the positive side, as I’ve watched my daddy care for her, my strengthening faith in people has increased. Theirs was not always the happiest of marriages, but after almost 56 years of being together, I can see that he adores her. My mother has always held grudges. But I am hopeful that as she sees how much he loves her, how tender he is with her ever-growing frailness, that she can put behind her the anger she had in the ’70s when she suspected him of having an affair and the bitterness she had over his preference for playing golf on Saturday mornings instead of sitting at home.
I also know that he has forgiven her for the hateful words and the volatile outbursts. I can see it in the way he patiently helps her to the bathroom, and the gentle brush of his hand across hers as he gives her a dose of morphine or a glass of water.
Of the things I have learned from my parents, I would say that my dad certainly aided in my lessons of forgiveness, hope, love, and faith, while my mother taught me that life is too short and that you should nurture your friends.
Just as I continue to learn these lessons, through observation and osmosis, I continue to feed the dying and know that the feeding of the grieving will continue long after my mother has passed.
I’m Southern. It’s in my DNA to feed the people I love. In my grasping at surviving these rough days, I cling to my courage and my kitchen. Finally, at forty-two, I find I can learn the lessons I was unable to accept as a twelve-year-old at my father’s knee: faith in the goodness of people to do what is right, especially when it’s not easy.
Faith. Hope. Love. Courage. And Butter.
These things will get you through.