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A short piece on food and loss
My family and I went back to the UK last week. We did so for my grandmother to see her great-grandchildren again. Living 1000 miles away from each other, I’m sad to say this doesn’t happen often. Sad, and quite often guilty, too. The first time my grandmother met her great-grandson was only months after her husband, my grandfather, died. He lived over 90 years and missed his first great-grandchild by months. So it goes. The play between joy and sadness that defined that day was like... well, it was not like anything really. It was an experience entirely new to me.
I’d like to do something different with the newsletter this week and share with you a piece I wrote a few years ago about that day. It is called “Appetite” and was first published last year in a magazine called Porridge. I’m very fond of it and feel it is the right time to share it here as well.
My son is sitting in her lap. He is a few days short of eight months and his eyes are the blue of an endless childhood. They move from her, to me, to his own thumbs, and back to her again. Frequently back to her. Back to her own blue eyes. 90 years between them. The same endlessly blue eyes. She speaks to him in the words of my childhood: words I cannot place. Tootsies. Tussies. She repeats them often. Repeating them in gentle tones. Gentle for my little man and, I suppose, herself. From the kitchen, my father, her son, returns with cups of tea. Bring the biscuits, she says. They are from Marks and Sparks. She prefers the white chocolate ones. Yes, I like white chocolate as well. Actually, I recently had a huge bag of the stuff. I used it to make some chocolates but ended up eating most of it straight from the bag. I don't think she keeps up with this anecdote. In her hand is a white cotton handkerchief that I don't see her use.
I put my cup of tea down on the counter next to me, moving a refrigerator manual out of the way to do so. The leaflet slowly flips open, the pages now covering a framed picture positioned beside it. It is a picture of her and my grandfather. I ask myself how one talks to a person who has recently lost someone of such necessity. I have never done it before. I feel inadequate and bare. I try to find a new place for the manual and almost spill the tea and the box of biscuits in doing so. There is one white chocolate biscuit remaining.
Having held her great-grandson for some time, I worry it may be tiring her and I offer to take him. I do so, and she lets her right arm go limp and rubs it with the hand that is now free. She details a fall she had recently. An all-night stay at hospital followed, for no other reason than that was how long she waited to get taken home. She needed no treatment. Nothing to be done. It still hurts, she says. Enough to make holding her great-grandchild for the first time uncomfortable. She gnaws away patiently at her thick white chocolate biscuit and I love her.
She turns and hands me a piece of paper. A picture of my grandfather with his arm around her. His smile is complete and worn in. Hers is less certain. It is the last picture they ever took together. She tells me this. They are plump and youthful and beautiful. I know the picture. It is from the funeral service programme. I thought you'd like this, she says. He was a very good man. I thought you'd put this in your wallet. Of course I would. I'd buy a damned wallet for it, if I didn't already use one. On the back is a poem by Robert Burns: ‘If there's another world, he lives in bliss; If there is none, he made the best of this.’ He was a very good man, she says. Never smoked. Never drank. Worked hard. Apart from the last months. At 4pm. Always only at 4pm. He'd take a Drambuie and lemonade. Always 4pm. Drambuie and lemonade.
She gestures over to the manual I'd seen earlier and asks if I know anything about fridges. Assuming a barrage of electronics questions is forthcoming, I tell her I don't. She picks it up and goes into the kitchen. I follow and she opens the fridge door. I noticed everything was so cold, she says. The milk had even begun freezing the other day. I turned it down from 5 to 2. But then I worried that was too low. I couldn't sleep. I was worried it would all be ruined. She goes silent and I look into the fridge. A half-eaten cabbage is burnt with frost, wrapped in kitchen paper. Will it be okay, she says. I promise her it will be okay.
We return to the others and she explains that she just doesn't have an appetite anymore. I cook up the cabbage, she says, and by the time it's on the plate I don't even want it. Ready meals are just as bad. A single portion lasts two meals. It goes to waste. She is so thin. I think about my grandfather's 4pm drink. I think about whether she joined him in one or just kept him company. I think about the joy such routine brings. The friendly habit of food and drink. Eating is both the most decadent and necessary thing a person can do. Her routines are lit by disappointments.
I wonder whether there is a half-empty bottle of Drambuie in one of the cupboards. I hope there isn't. I hope she never has to look at such a thing. I'll come back tomorrow, next week, and cook her favourite meal, her wildest culinary dream. I picture her surrounded by family, her cheeks plump once again, devouring things for which she has longed for months. I ask her what her favourite meal is. A roast, she says. But it's a waste. I just wouldn't eat any of it. I haven't the appetite.
Before we leave, I pass my son to her a final time. Not knowing how to say it, I just say I'm sorry Grandpa didn't get to meet him and she starts to cry. She brings the white cotton handkerchief to her eyes. One by one. He was a very good man. He worked very hard. Just 4pm. I kneel down to her. I kiss her cheek and then hug her but she gives no response. She doesn't see me anymore. Her focus rests beyond me. Somewhere toward bliss or nothingness.
On my way out I turn to her and promise to be back to cook that roast, even if I have to eat it all myself. She smiles.
Her great-grandson sleeps upstairs. Life so vivid in him. His name is her name. I think of the Robert Burns poem. The other world does exist. But it is the world without her husband in it, where there can be no bliss. Food is only a small diversion. Very little, in fact, almost nothing. But what is any life well-led than a thing of many joyous little diversions?