A Fistful of Spaghetti

My mother died on the Winter Solstice, for whatever you make of that, and we buried her two days before Christmas on a stunningly beautiful afternoon. Both Andy and I spent the rest of this winter being sick with one ailment and then another, prolonged and enhanced by the bone-depth of fatigue that accompanies grief. I frankly haven’t felt much like writing.

I spent December back home in Tennessee with her as she completed her journey on this earth, every day resisting the urge to go out and buy her a Christmas gift. In those final days she looked so much like her own mother that I caught myself twice calling her “Grandmother.”

Her death was not a surprise. Fourteen years of dementia had taken their toll, and I’d mourned each milestone in her decline. First it robbed her of her short-term memory, with her lapses alternating between frustrating and funny—until the first time she forgot my birthday. I cried as if I’d just been orphaned. Then it took away her capacity for sound judgment, which brought its own particular season in hell. Then it took her physical health. And then it took her life.

So it was not a shock when she was gone. What I felt instead was a deep, cavernous sense of loss, that this amazing person just wasn’t around any more. Even though it has been years since our last coherent conversation, I still expect her to call on Sunday afternoon. When we recently got rid of our landline, part of me couldn’t shake the feeling that she wouldn’t know to call my cell phone.

During a visit last spring I arrived at her assisted living facility at lunch. She was sitting at a table by herself, a mass of spaghetti clutched in her fist. She didn’t know what to do with it. The attendants were helping other residents, so I got a napkin, cleaned her hand, and then took up the fork and began to help her eat—the first time I’d ever fed my mother.

Feeding ourselves is so elemental that once we get the hang of operating a fork, a spoon, a pair of chopsticks or even just our fingers, we’re good to go for decades to come. But when this ability fails us, it’s clear that things are going downhill fast.

What was stranger than feeding her was the contents of her plate. The food choices were clearly not her own. She seldom made spaghetti and never ordered it in restaurants, for it wasn’t something she’d grown up with. On those rare occasions when she did make it, she always broke the noodles into small pieces that could be eaten in tidy bites. No fork rolling or slurping in our house. What I found in her hand that day looked like a strange knitting project gone awry.

Also on her plate were cooked carrots, another food that was as foreign to my childhood as it was to hers. (Instead, I ate enough raw carrot sticks in my youth to build a city of towering orange skyscrapers.) But I fed her cooked carrots that day, and ever so slowly she ate every bite.

My final trip back home to see her was precipitated by a phone call from my brother, who said, “She failed the swallow test.”

I almost laughed when he said it, for my mother was at the top of every class she ever took. She’d never failed a test in her life, not that this was one she could have studied for. But it signaled that the end was near.

* * *

In about nine months’ time there have been eight deaths among my friends and family. In deference to the privacy and feelings of their kin and ours, I won’t go into any particulars except to say that most were way too young, and they died in some terrible ways.

It seems like the sheer volume of tragedy around me recently has made it even more difficult to sort out my feelings, for how do you compartmentalize grief? How do you decide to cry for one person now and another one this afternoon or maybe tomorrow after breakfast?

I couldn’t figure this out the last time it happened either.

Almost 30 years ago, my father died in my arms of a heart attack. His passing was one of four close family members who died within just a few months’ time. What did I learn then? If anything, it’s that mourning has no finite rules or time length.

What has sustained me lately is this quote I found in an Iraqi cookbook:

“Sit at dinner tables as long as you can, and converse to your hearts’ desire, for these are the bonus times of your lives.”

I have fond memories of sitting around the table with all these people who have recently departed. Those are some of the best memories of all, for they recall times when we were at ease, and breaking bread together, sharing stories and relishing each other’s fine company.

Suspended in those golden moments, we were all immortal.

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14 Responses to A Fistful of Spaghetti

  1. John Remy says:

    Beautiful and heartbreaking. I think you and I have talked a few times about how food is bound up in so many things, and is about so much more than sustenance. I can’t think of a more powerful way to convey this.

    Thank you for sharing. Sending virtual hugs. Will follow up with real ones soon.

  2. Robin Colvard says:

    I almost have no words Carol, but the feelings are there with all of us who’ve lost our parents. Thanks so sharing such personal thoughts.

  3. Fred Romine says:

    Very touching…

  4. Neile says:

    Carol, this is lovely and true. Your mother sounds like an amazing woman, and I’m sorry for your losses. Thank you for writing this.

  5. Incredible piece of writing; my heart goes out to you and your family, and to Andy.
    We lost my mother-in-law last August, but she was with us until the bitter end; we lost my dad as the result of a car accident 12 years ago. We lost my beloved, brilliant cousin Harris at his own hand, in his 30s, a few years ago, and all of Susan’s aunts who I knew when I joined her family 15 years ago are gone. There are no words, really, beyond what you wrote above: “Sit at dinner tables as long as you can, and converse to your hearts’ desire, for these are the bonus times of your lives.” And bear in mind that grief has no time limitations or constructs; it changes and morphs with every passing day, but it never totally leaves. And I’m not sure it’s supposed to, frankly.

    • Elissa,

      Perhaps we’re not supposed to completely lose the grief because like the physical scars we bear, it becomes a part of our character, giving us more insight than we might otherwise have and making us more compassionate and understanding toward others who face similar struggles and tragedies.

      Love & light to you & Susan.

  6. Julia Warren says:

    Your writing shakes me to the core, Carol. So heartfelt and touching. I lost both my parents while much younger and never saw them grow old, but watching Alzheimer’s Rob my mother in law of her life and memory is horrendous. I cannot know your pain or the loss of multiple friends, but God be with you.

  7. Stacy Thomas says:

    Carol, I am overwhelmed by your writing. Your grief is simply yet eloquently shared, reaching into the depths of my heart. I found myself relating to much of what you’ve expressed, like waiting for Mom to call. I love how you describe the spaghetti lunch – so loving and tender. And I love the quote from the Iraqi cookbook. My Mom would have loved and appreciated it as well. She enjoyed cooking and baking, and had quite the collection of cookbooks herself. Reading your blog post brought those “food” memories back to me. Thank you so much for using your amazing gift to express yourself, your feelings, your experiences, and your grief. I wholeheartedly agree with what John and Robin commented above, as well as Neile. Absolutely. Peace and comfort from God be to you.

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