We are seventeen when Mollie’s mom is diagnosed with cancer. She tells me after youth group one night. It’s going to be fine, she says. She doesn’t want to talk about it. She just wants us to treat her normally. I nod. We never talk about it again.
That spring, I give up almost all foods for Lent. Monday through Saturday, I eat only fruits and vegetables (a banana for breakfast, an apple and a pear for lunch, French fries after school, roasted broccoli for dinner). As the weeks wear on, I start counting things like tortilla chips (they’re just corn, oil, and salt! and corn is a vegetable!) and onion rings (there’s really no good justification for that one) as vegetables, too. Mollie and Anna give up desserts, and Saturdays at midnight, we break our fasts together. On chemo weeks, we always end up at Mollie’s house, rolling in just before curfew with the top down on the 1979 Volkswagen bug, and sneaking into the kitchen to survey the spread.
Food overflows from the refrigerator and covers the countertops. Gooey casseroles, hearty soups, whole Honeybaked hams. A batch of the famous Caldwell cookies. A poppyseed cake. Everyone in the church brings food on chemo weeks. Miss Camille has spent the day in bed with the curtains drawn, too sick to eat. We are happy to do our part to help make sure the food doesn’t go to waste.
We make our curfew, break our fasts, and don’t talk about death. We fix sandwiches and scoop ice cream into bowls and crowd into one bed to sleep for a few hours. In the morning, unshowered, we’ll stop for gas station cappuccinos on the way to the early service at church, and we will sing.
My grandmother is in her nineties, not that you could tell by talking with her. She's sharp as a tack, to use one of her own expressions. One month when I am home, I record her telling our family history. She hardly falters, even after an hour, and it isn’t until her cracked voice starts to fail her that she loses her train of thought.
Though her mind remains alert, her body is growing weaker. Today, a bout of pneumonia has landed her in the hospital. Her esophagus is so weak that food and water are entering her lungs, not her stomach. Tomorrow she will get a permanent food tube, and then she will never eat or drink again.
The doctors refer to this an "end-of-life" ailment. That frightening phrase keeps bouncing around my brain as I think of Grandma, so tired. She's ready to be done — she told me that, last month, and said it again today: “I just want to sleep and never wake up.” To her son, my dad, she says, “What’s the point of living if you can’t eat?”
But I'm not ready for her to be done, and I can’t stop thinking about her, in the hospital, eating her last supper.
On the morning after my mother’s brain surgery, my sister Katie takes me and Dad to The Mill, where her friend Wendy is a baker. Wendy wipes the flour off her hands and hugs us. “What do you want? Do you want toast?”
“I don’t know, do we?” Katie teases.
“Yeah, you want the toast.” Wendy goes back behind the counter, and a few minutes later we are eating. Dark mountain rye bread smeared with cream cheese and sprinkled with salt and fresh ground pepper. A thick slice of rustic white bread spread with butter and local honey. Whole wheat sesame poppy topped with strawberry preserves. Katie pours cream into her steaming Rwandan coffee, and I add raw sugar to mine. It tastes like fig and star anise, jammy.
Mom had woken one morning with a small seizure in her mouth, her tongue twitching and swelling. She grabbed her phone and took a video of what was happening, and later made an appointment with a doctor. That’s how they found the brain tumor.
Over the last few months, Dad’s e-mails to my four siblings and me have been relentlessly optimistic. “It is going to be inconvenient for a time,” he says at first. “Mom and I have peace and confidence,” he says later, “that God is directing our steps.” He tells Katie and me that we don’t need to come to San Francisco for the surgery. It’s all going to be fine, he says.
But he can’t stop us from being there. I send my brothers the facts omitted from dad’s e-mails: things like the mortality rate for brain surgery, a chart of 5-year survival rates for patients with brain tumors, and the possible complications that can occur as a result of surgery. Given the part of the brain where the tumor is, the surgery to remove it might cost mom her ability to speak. If that’s going to happen, I want to be there for every word until it does.
At the hospital, mom looks gray. Part of her head has been shaved, and we can see a line of staples going up from just above her ear. The surgery yesterday went well, after all. No complications. No answers, either: we’re still waiting on a diagnosis. When we enter her room, she jokes. “Well, if I had known you all were coming, I would have baked a cake.”
Mom tells us she’s unhappy with the tea they’ve served her. She wants better tea, strong black tea with cream and raw sugar. I’m glad to see her wanting things. I’m glad for any desire. To want is to be alive.
We tell her about the Chinese dumplings Micha brought to the hospital yesterday, steamy and savory with minced pork, garlic and ginger. Later that night we’ll eat carne asada tacos and ears of corn rolled in cotija cheese and cayenne pepper, drink fresh, tangy margaritas.
Katie and I will fly out, and a few days later dad will text us pictures from the Cheesecake Factory, where he and mom are eating and smiling and still alive.
I am with Katie and Elliott, her husband, and we are watching The Wolfpack, a documentary about six brothers who grew up in New York City. Their father rarely allowed them to leave the apartment, so they’ve spent more than a decade in a few rooms in the projects, watching movies and looking out the window.
Their mother and father met in Peru, and she’s explaining for the camera what drew her to him. He didn’t care, she says, about what shirt he was going to wear, what the next trend was, what he was going to eat for dinner. She’s trying to explain that they weren’t materialistic, that they were higher-minded than average folks.
But that’s exactly the problem, I think right away. Never trust someone who doesn’t care what he’s going to eat for dinner.
We have planned our meals this week with precision. Fresh Japanese ramen noodles on the coldest, drizzliest day. Sweet and spicy Chinese takeout on movie night. Mexican food to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Nothing too high in potassium, because Elliott’s bloodwork before the most recent chemo infusion showed that his levels were a little high, and the heart arrhythmia might be related to that.
There are mornings, after chemo, when just mentioning food is too much, and evenings when we make mug after mug of warm water with lemon juice and ginger, trying to keep him hydrated.
But we have reason to hope for other mornings when homemade cinnamon-sugar donuts with blueberry jam and crème fraîche will do more than tempt, and for other evenings when we’ll make it to Momofuku for noodles with pork belly and poached eggs. To be human is to be hungry, to crave milk and honey, to be brought to a banqueting table bannered with love. I’m pulling my chair up to that table, that midnight feast, that last supper, that hospital dumpling delivery, that promise of milk and honey and the ability to enjoy it.
Amy Peterson lives with her husband and children on two acres of Indiana farmland and works with the Honors program at Taylor University. Amy has written for Books & Culture, Christianity Today, The Other Journal, and The Living Church, among other places. Her first book, Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World, is forthcoming from Discovery House (Feb. 2017). Find her on Twitter @amylpeterson or at www.amypeterson.net.