My brother-in-law (my sister’s husband) is currently in hospice nearing the end of his life. I write that not to be a bummer, but because during my life I have been increasingly and sometimes involuntarily educated about what happens when we near the end. The hospice nurse gave a good analogy: dying is a transition, just like birth. It can be messy. It can be noisy. And it comes with certain signs, just like labor. One of the signs, as with labor, is you stop eating. Your whole being is so focused on what’s next, basic sustenance isn’t important any more. Breathing becomes your vicarious nutrition; you don’t need the clumsy vitamins and minerals. And the casseroles, those inevitable casseroles that come, aren’t really for you. They are for the spectators. The ones who must cope with your transition. The people who need the calories. Your job is just to breathe.
Since, honestly, I spend my day looking forward to when food will go into my mouth next, this end of consumption got me thinking about that fact that most of us will be having an accidental last meal. Indulge my morbidity, but even if we know we are going to die, we don’t really know if it’s going to be at tea time, after elevensies, or as we scarf a freaking breakfast bar in the front seat between sips of coffee. We have grand plans for what we would like to have for a last meal, to the point of discussing it late at night in bars, but who among us – save those on death row – actually get to order it from the menu?
My brother-in-law has been hospitalized for more than a month. He probably had lukewarm chicken broth and melty orange Jell-O as his last meal. My mom, who died in an ICU, could technically have claimed ice chips. But both of them were known for lively appetites during their heyday. My mom was a Julia Child gourmand: a bon vivant and 1960’s/70’s era housewife who schlepped through cooking dinner for four children most nights of the week so she could occasionally have people over who would appreciate her killer asparagus en croute or tempura or crepes from the electric crepe maker. My brother-in-law was of simpler tastes, but I have heard him pontificate broadly about the traits of a good covered-dish mostaccioli. They both, at some point, ate the last of their favorite thing. My mom always loved crabmeat-stuffed shrimp. My brother-in-law dug cheesecake. They ate the last without realizing it was the last. And, as with all things related to death, that is both frustrating and comforting.
Ye who would Rage Against the Dying of the Light might feel cheated by that notion; that you might miss your chance to savor the thing you truly love once more. The more Eastern-minded might reflect serenely and joyfully on the fact that you got to enjoy it at all. The reality is that most of us might contemplate this subject, then make a vow to eat more consciously – to go out of our way to eat dessert or order the steak or visit that one diner we always used to go to. Some of us will make good on those vows. Some may have to reflect fondly to get their taste. The lesson I take is that it is worth filling our lives and our mouths with our favorite flavors as often as we can. Elvis made a habit of flying his plane to Colorado just to get one particular sandwich. In my mind, that's not a bad way to spend your money.
As for this round of transition, when my brother-in-law will be in charge of only his breath, I am merely a spectator. I am here to help and to hand out the casseroles – to my sister, to his children, and to the plentiful other family members he will leave behind. We will eat. We will need the calories. We will digest the clumsy nutrients. And for dessert, you better believe there will be cheesecake.
Hi. I'm Amanda Dobbs.