There is something about the phrase, “passed away” that is pissing me off these days so forgive me my blunt use of the word “died” please. My heart is not feeling like a place for euphemisms right now.
Every semester, I tell my writing students not to attempt to write when they are in the throes of a particular emotion. For example, when you have just fallen madly in love and are distracted every moment with thoughts of your beloved, that’s actually a bad time to write about your beloved because often what you’ll come up with are trite clichés. So, I’m certain I should not be writing what I’m about to write. This is a disclaimer, I guess.
I am in the throes of grief and lasagna.
I was in the room, just two weeks ago, when my brother, Mitchell, made the conscious choice to leave the hospital and go home to die. I placed my arms around each of his children time and time again (as if it did any good) that day. I kissed him often and told him I loved him often just like my sister and my two remaining brothers did. When he asked if he made the right choice – if it was okay to go home – I told him that I thought he was the biggest badass that I had ever known because that choice took more courage than anything I could possibly imagine. We all gave him permission to let go. He didn’t want us to feel like he was giving up. He wasn’t. The choice the doctor gave him was to go home and die a little sooner but in comfort, in his own home, surrounded by people he loved OR to stay in the hospital until he died, surrounded by constantly changing doctors and nurses with tubes and needles sticking out of him and twisting their way through his body. He didn’t give up. The decision to go home was a decision to keep fighting – fighting for his dignity, for his real life, for the freedom he cultivated for himself and treasured.
For a week, I took turns with nine or ten other family members caring for and being with my brother until his death. He never wanted to be alone. He continued to make that clear to us until the end. So, he was never alone. There was always someone with him and almost always there were two of us. We made schedules and took “shifts.” My sleeping pattern fell back into the same routine as when I had a newborn baby. Catching two or three hours when I could. Never sleeping more than two or three hours at a time. At the beginning of the week, I happily took any time of day and I didn’t want to leave when my shift was over. I wanted the shifts to be four or five hours because I was honored to sit with him and grateful to be of some use to him. He was still cracking jokes and smiling and asking for us to itch his head and enjoying massages and tapping his foot to his classic rock station. But my feelings changed when his pain became most intense and he began taking more morphine and truly slipping away from us. The last time I was scheduled to sit with Mitchell was 4-6am on the day he died. I sat with my brother-in-law, Dave. I was so anxious the whole time, so fidgety. I didn’t want to be there. It scared me. It made me so sad… that’s not even the right word… it was a sadness there’s no name for, I don’t think. I’m not trying to be dramatic when I say I think it’s the kind of sadness that Oedipus felt at the end of the play when he realized what he had done because the only way I can describe it is that I wanted to tear & claw at my own skin (Maybe Oedipus was actually driven that one motion further because he was actually to blame for the pain he inflicted --though his fault was only out of tragic circumstances, to be fair). I guess it’s called Grief. Even the word itself looks and sounds ugly. About an hour and a half before Mitchell stopped breathing in his sleep, I admitted to feeling this way at a family/ caregiver meeting. I felt guilty. I still feel guilty for having felt that way. I admitted that I didn’t want to take any more shifts. It turns out, I didn’t have to.
My sister is so wise. That morning, I told her how I was feeling. She responded by asking me to make lasagna. I hope, dear reader, that you have been paying enough attention to understand that if my sister asks me to make lasagna, I have no choice but to consider the making of that lasagna a spiritual directive. Any one of my family members asking me to cook anything for them is like God asking Abraham to take his son to the mountain, okay? But, my sister asking me to make lasagna? Well, as Bob Dylan said, “Abe said, ‘where you want this killing done?’” I made the lasagna. And that is why my sister is wise. It wasn’t like she was jonesin’ for lasagna that bad – though, maybe she was. Maybe she feels like she's being wrapped up in the arms of our mother when she eats lasagna too. But, for sure she knew I needed the distraction, the something-to-do-with-my-hands-to-make-me-feel-useful. I believe she’s that wise.
Before I made the lasagna, I was reminded of the worst meal I’ve ever made in my life (perhaps the subject of a future post). It was in that same kitchen, right after my dad died. We took a bunch of vegetables from his garden and brought them to Mitchell’s house and I cooked them up into a variety of completely bizarre mélanges that my family members present politely choked down and that thankfully I have never repeated to this day. I reminded myself that the worst meal I’ve ever made in my life ended up that way because I did not cook with love that night. That night, after my father died, I cooked with a variety of complicated emotions that might have included a little love but mostly consisted of self-pity, self-hatred and anger (these, by the way, are the worst emotions to cook with – you might as well be mixing up poison). So, when I commenced to making this lasagna, I took deep breaths and I told myself over and over to cook with love. And, I filled my mind with thoughts of what I had witnessed that week. Friends and family driving and flying in from all over the country to say goodbye to Mitch. The house filled for the first three days and nights he was home with family and friends that just wanted to be close to him, as they always did. The endless stream of food from friends, neighbors, community members. The words I heard my brother whisper to his children. The strength and bravery they all displayed. The hugs and touches we all gave each other all week long to bring us back, to let us know we weren’t alone. The soft way everyone was speaking by the third or fourth day. The smiles and jokes we passed around like salves. Mitch’s enduring smile. And I felt filled with love. And I cooked a fantastic lasagna.
About an hour after our family/ caregiver meeting was over, the lasagna was done and we ate. And while most of us ate lasagna and my sister-in-law, Shelly, and my brother-in-law, Dave, sat with Mitchell, he took his last breath.
Making the lasagna was easy. Suddenly, eating it was impossible. I cooked that lasagna with as much love as I’ve ever felt while cooking anything but it was the saddest lasagna I’ve ever made.
My brother Robert died suddenly in July this summer – just about one month before Mitch. The night before his funeral, my family met at one of Robert’s favorite Mexican restaurants – a place our entire family spent many celebrations. The next day, after his funeral, we went to one of his favorite Chinese buffets – a place his immediate family spent many celebrations. I already mentioned the endless stream of food from friends and neighbors and community members to Mitch’s house in his final days. When one or two of us needed a break from that week, it was almost always inevitably out to one of the local bars where greasy bar food called to soothe our grieving souls. And, of course, wine and beer and a little liquor is always good to calm the anxious, upset spirit. This is to say that MoJo’s Kitchen has been filled with a lot of sad eating for about the past six weeks. And since, at this moment, the sadness doesn’t seem to have an end, I am legitimately worried that the sad eating will turn back into a lot of old, bad habits – habits I’ve worked my ass off breaking.
Eating was physically problematic for Mitchell, as it is eventually for many people diagnosed with ALS. For the past several years, he had to work out a way to use his knees to get his hands and arms up to his mouth and he choked on and spit his food up often. He never had a tube. He continued to feed himself until he could no longer eat. Even in his final days, when he couldn’t eat or drink, he sat up and took ice chips or swished grape juice and soda in his mouth. My sister told me that she asked him at one point in those last two weeks whether it bothered him to not be able to participate in our family’s traditional feasting when we are all together. He told her, not surprisingly, that it did bother him. Food is a way that our family bonds. It’s a way that many families bond. It’s a way that we love each other. A way that we feel good when we are together. This is a gift, a privilege; one my brother was forced to let go of completely in his final days.
And this post – this final entry into the trilogy of sad lasagna posts – has no good ending – just a lot of loose thoughts – which is why I shouldn’t be writing about any of this yet. It’s all too soon and too raw and, frankly, I’m still a wreck.
It’s 4am. I woke from a nightmare at 11. I’ve cried a lot. I’ve written a lot. I’ve checked facebook and email and sent some texts that needed sending. My daughter has been asking me to come in and sleep with her for the past ten minutes and I keep telling her “one more minute, honey.” I’m not exhausted. As I try to end this, I just keep thinking, I’m scared of food. I’m scared of eating. I don’t want eating to be sad or hard or make me feel guilty. I want to cook and eat with love. I do.
But I’m not sure if I know how to cook and eat with love when I’m this sad and this scared. I keep thinking about the day after August 22nd...when there was still half a lasagna left. I didn't even bother heating it up. I didn't even bother sitting down. I didn't even bother putting it on a plate. I ate right from the pan until I was so uncomfortable it was difficult to breathe. And for a few strange moments, I didn't think about Mitchell dying -- all I thought about was how sick I felt, how full I felt, how gross my body felt and that familiar self-hatred was comforting. So comforting.
And now my daughter is lying next to me, in my bed and the soft skin of her hands keeps reaching out to my hand, to stop me from typing, to get me to lie down next to her. And I can’t stand the thought of ever losing her or anyone that I love this much ever again. It’s too much to bear. And that grief – that unnamable sadness – pinches my whole body up in it and I want to run, to escape quickly and I am, at this moment, keenly aware that this is how addicts feel right before they give in to their craving. This need to escape when physical escape is impossible is what has always led me to compulsively overeat. It is my addiction. However it became my addiction and however I have tried to replace it with other addictions throughout the years – none of that matters – it still IS. It doesn’t make me feel any better to know it or say it. But maybe it’s just the first thing I need to do before I get back into MoJo’s kitchen and let go of it…again. So, I can get back to cooking and eating with love and vayaing con dios. I’m trying.
Be well. Love more. Namaste.