Death Row Dinners

My Dad is dying. Over 50 years of smoking will indeed catch up with you.

He's now as comfortable as one can be in his condition in a Palliative unit. We've all but moved in with my mom to support her and the rest of the family as we deal with hospital visits, nighttime vigils, loss of appetite and the inevitable stress and pain that comes with all of this. While I've been surviving on Mini Eggs and beer, my Dad has a renewed appetite. Thank goodness for steroids!

On the days when he isn't wolfing down a bag of jellybeans for breakfast or eating chocolate bars when he can't sleep at 4 am, he is planning his next home cooked meal. After months and months of no appetite and a weight loss that will see him buried in his wedding suit from 45 years ago he is nothing short of starving at all times. Unfortunately, all he's doing is feeding the cancer at this point. The doctors have pointed out that he is only eating for pleasure, and not nourishment at this point.

So pleasure it will be.

We get the opportunity to gather for family meals when Dad is released on a day pass. The first time he submitted his meal request days in advance. Chicken, ribs, shrimp, and onion pie. He didn't much care what we served for vegetables. This past weekend he asked for roast beef, real chicken noodle soup, ham, kasha, and raisin pie. Again, he wasn't picky about the vegetables. I guess when you are eating for pleasure things like salad don't matter much.

The meal requests almost feel like he's a death row inmate asking for his last supper. Many of us have been asked what we would want for our last meal, but when faced with the real prospect of such a meal it is the visceral pleasures that win, as do the memories of taste.

There we sit, 8 adults and 6 kids, wolfing down the meal as if it is the last, or the first, for all of us. In a strange twist the kids end up at the dining room table while we adults crowd, with the food, in the kitchen. The meals come together with the efforts of everyone. Someone makes the pie, another makes the kasha, a few of us throw the soup together. My sister makes a roast beef, complete with carrots and potatoes. The salt and pepper shakers that have accompanied us for over 30 years are still there, as is my parent's wedding flatware. The comfort of the familiar in looks and tastes is there for all of us.

We fill our plates, then eat seconds, picking with our fingers from the serving dishes. Carrots, heavy with the pan juices from the roast. Beef dipped in Dad's homemade horseradish cream. Family dinner.

My Dad, with his appetite, wolfs it all down. His inherent grumpiness is not gone, complaining about the noise the kids are making or the roast that the rest of us love. Then, while we sit in the living room, chatting and looking through Dad's high school yearbooks, he periodically wanders back into the kitchen to pick at the meat. Taking in every last ounce of his family and his favourite foods.

Beyond a reflection on these death row dinners, this post is also an entry for the Canadian Beef contest to win a scholarship to Eat, Write, Retreat.