Tuesday, March 13, 2007

What It Will Double As

When the hospice case manager arrives, Dad is sitting in a wheelchair. I am still shocked. Yesterday, I turned a corner at a dead run when Daddy called and found him sitting up on the edge of his bed with feet on the floor. I didn't know he could sit up, let alone assume a position so close to standing, so when he said, "I'd like the wheelchair," my mind went blank. Yesterday, he told me confidentially that anything he did with his arms and legs tired him. Today, he stood up, leaned at a carefully calculated angle and sat down in the wheelchair. Dad's nothing if not precise. So when the hospice manager, who knows her stuff but not her local celebrities, arrived and Dad was sitting in a wheelchair at the kitchen table, I watched from a distance until he spoke to me, pointing.

Dad: Bring me that canteloupe.

Of all the characters in this drama, I have known him longest, now that Auntie InExcelsisDeo has gone back to New Jersey to see a physician. I can see he's up to something, but because he's utterly brilliant, I can't see what. I bring him the canteloupe picked by my baby sister on our shopping trip together. I can't pick a melon for Daddy. It's not that Dara can do no wrong, but it's not that I'm doing much right. For example: a few nights ago, Dad, his wife Darla and I were up late and inexplicably alone. For three unexpected hours, I sat at the foot of his bed, thinking and working out problems. I listened to what Dad had successfully eaten, perused the list of foods he'd tried and had some luck with, and out of nowhere said, "Daddy, do you want me to make you some yogurt?" He thought for a minute, knowing I meant from scratch and heavy cream, and nodded. That and cream soups were all he could eat - sometimes. It's been puzzling. Dara and I went shopping for Bookbinder's bisques in the local higher end food store and came up snake eyes until we hit the organics aisle, where we found chowders and cream soups of less than fantastic quality but better than we expected. It was really confusing to be despondent and overjoyed simultaneously, but what else was new?

So we went back to Dad's and Darla's, where I milk-boiled heavy cream, cooled it to 120 degrees and added plain yogurt. Then I set the culture up in a bowl in a dining room of uncertain temperature. Then I fretted for ten hours, when the culture had not become yogurt. Sure, it was tasty, but it was heavy cream. Mortified, I started over, and it didn't work a second time. I had to have a talk with me.

Tata: So, uh, whatcha doin'?
Tata: I've got to make yogurt and Dad's going to be really mad.
Tata: He's always really mad. That's his hobby.
Tata: You're right. I don't know why I didn't think of that.
Tata: Because he's going to be really mad, no matter how good the yogurt.

Dad's upset and frustrated because food's been the second half of his life and now cancer has left a sewage-y taste in his mouth. It's like a joke played on him by bored gods and has nothing to do with me. Even so, as Dad loses weight like crazy, his children are left to play Next Meal Charades. After my brother Todd arrived, he spent one evening watching his female relatives eat bread and olive oil for dinner and took charge. Last night for dinner, we had Todd's California version of chicken and polenta. Tonight, we had Todd's version of pork chops and apple sauce - isn't that swell? And Dad's frustrated by the smells of food he'd like to taste and enjoy, but cancer is a bitch. Yesterday, Todd and I microwaved a couple of cream soups for Dad, and he at some bread. We counted ourselves lucky that he swallowed anything at all, but then, the hospice case manager arrived this morning. Fortunately, I'd already spent a few minutes with him and Darla alone. I came clean.

Tata: So, remember when you asked me to make yogurt? I set the whole thing up, as I do for myself every week, and it didn't take, so I set it up again a second time and - nada. I decided to blame the whole thing on the yogurt until I remembered a funny thing.
Dad: [Waving a hand to hasten the story.]
Tata: About ten years ago, my friend's mother had a heart attack and I made rice pudding. At the time, I could make rice pudding up and down the block, no sweat. Anyway, it turned out so dense and dry I could've flattened Cuban sandwiches under it.
Dad: [Smiling very broadly now.]
Tata: So I learned I can't cook when I'm upset, no matter how often I redo a recipe. Last night, I wasn't upset, and the yogurt turned out beautifully. It's creamy and fantastic, and if you want some, it's ready. I had to do it a third time because I couldn't admit I was outwitted by yogurt.
Darla: "That Ta is a lovely woman but not as smart as yogurt."
Dad: [Deep laughter.]

So when he asks me for the canteloupe, I gather it and a draining cutting board. He points toward a knife rack and a particular knife. I hand him the brown, wooden handle knife with an unusual blade. He notes that we've cleaned his kitchen and placed a restaurant towel under a large cutting board at his right hand. He is pleased but mildly surprised. He talks to me in little words, breaths and gestures as he holds a conversation with the hospice case manager, who may not have noticed my presence. Then an amazing thing happens: in a beautiful gesture with the knife, he slices the canteloupe at a truly strange angle and no juice runs out. I'm baffled but not surprised. I know that he can do anything. She does not. He admonishes me: "Don't scrape out the seeds. Remove them gently."

HCM: Why? What does that mean?
Tata: I don't know but if we're quiet, he'll tell us.
HCM: Give him a piece from the center! That's what I do with a watermelon!
Dad and I: It's round.
HCM: That's the sweetest part!
Tata: Um...

I slice Dad a piece, which he half-way takes apart with a paring knife in clean, precise motions. It's not a mystery to me, but I know that not everyone will understand. I wait quietly in a corner of the room, then say, "I'm going to take a shower now, if that's okay with you."

Dad says without looking, "Don't worry, everything's under control here."


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