Bobbi Buchanan is founding editor of New Southerner Magazine, an online journal focusing on self-sufficiency, environmental stewardship and local economies. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Louisville Review, GreenPrints, New Madrid and other publications. She received the 2007 Emerging Writers Award in Nonfiction from the Southern Women Writers Conference at Berry College.
My mother did not die hungry. Her hunger died, and her body followed.
For a long time I was obsessed with this idea because my mother had lain unconscious for several days without eating. She had been forced to fast before tests required for surgery. When her heart failed, all I could think about was food, the way she had devoured that banana pudding, the lemon-sized tumor taking over her brain. I thought of her last home-cooked meal, the chicken pot pie I had prepared the week before, teary-eyed, plucking green beans and red onions from my garden. We had all known something was wrong.
So they resuscitated Mom and put her on life support, and as she lay there comatose, I worried about her being hungry. I wanted to know when they would start her on a feeding tube. I wanted desperately for them to feed her. Something. Anything.
But Mom was already adrift by then, making peace with her old body, giving it up.
Three years earlier, doctors had discovered the spot on her lungs from a routine CAT scan after removing her gall bladder. She was seventy years old and had twice undergone cardiac bypass surgery. It didn’t look good.
All her life, my mother worried about us kids eating, unable to shake that Depression-era zeitgeist. Her generation learned early, through soup lines and ration stamps, to treat food as a luxury. Success among American immigrants was not measured so much by your house or the car you drove, but by the spread you put out on your family’s dinner table.
For holidays and guests, our table brimmed with simple side dishes and platters of Polish and Ukrainian fare. But for everyday meals, my mother’s minimalist instincts took over. Her meals were concocted largely from staples such as flour, eggs and milk. Foods like golumpki, made with rice and ground beef, rolled together in boiled cabbage leaves and simmered in tomato sauce. Pierogie, a crescent-shaped dumpling filled with cheesy mashed potatoes, fried until lightly crisp and served with sour cream.
Mom stretched a pound of ground beef into two with onion and breadcrumbs. The first time I tasted a pure beef patty, I was frightened by its intensity. It was a fast-food burger. We rarely ate fast food. Hardly anyone did in the ’70s. By the time McDonald’s opened in Shepherdsville, the county seat where we lived, my taste buds had acclimated to the peasant’s diet.
Mom cooked precisely enough for the seven of us children and Dad, doling out each portion, plate by plate, at the kitchen stove. We were lucky to scrape an extra spoonful of mashed potatoes from the pot. Not that it mattered. What Mom fixed was always satisfying. No one got up from the table hungry, except to go to bed as punishment for not cleaning their plate.
That didn’t happen often. We were spoiled by Mom’s good food, even as adults. When my siblings and I were grown with children of our own, our mother’s cooking lured us back.
Despite her culinary skills, or maybe because of them, Mom was the slimmest member of our family next to my two sisters, Rebecca and Cecilia, who worked hard to hang onto their figures.
Mom never cared for organized exercise, but believed everyday household chores provided the opportunity for the most rigorous workout. She demonstrated this theory whenever she prepared a meal. As a child, I would watch her, mesmerized by the dance that took place in the corridor-style kitchen my father had built to her specifications. Mom would pace the linoleum barefoot, pivoting from cabinet to sink to refrigerator. She would stretch to reach ingredients on high shelves, squat to retrieve pots and pans. Her hands worked quickly, scooping, slicing and stirring. The key to toned arms, I learned, was mashing potatoes or whipping cake batter.
Perhaps due in part to her kitchen routine, my mother’s skin was as dry as toast. She retreated to her dresser mirror several times a day to slather her face and hands with Pond’s Cold Cream, used as a moisturizer rather than a cleanser. Her hair was dry too, but she kept it neatly styled and sprayed in place. When she didn’t pull the coarse chestnut strands back in a bun, her hair, at its longest, fell to her shoulders. By the time I was a teenager, she’d had it cropped in the short, sensible style of a church-going woman and favored the frosted look, in which blonde bands set off her natural brunette and masked a scattering of silvery hairs.
While Mom was in the kitchen, it was off limits to everyone else. If we tried to sneak in for a cookie or a cup of Kool-Aid, she shooed us out. She snapped at us even as adults for invading that small space, which she ruled like a patrol officer at a school crossing. “There’s only room for one person in here,” she would grumble.
When the food was ready, Mom stood over the table with a carving knife or a dish towel in hand and implored us with her infamous dinner prelude: “Don’t be afraid to eat.” When we were older, my brothers and sisters and I laughed at this mantra while heaping our plates high with kielbasa and ham and potato salad. We were never afraid.
I realize now that this was something Mom must have heard regularly as a child. My grandmother probably stood at the head of the table the same way, smoothing her apron, assuring her eleven children that it was okay, there was enough.
Mom grew thinner after the chemotherapy and radiation. Her hair, which had gone gray and frizzy, fell out. The cancer remitted.
She kept cooking for us.
My maternal grandparents were Polish immigrants. Mom’s father, Felix, was a crane operator in the steel mill who moonlighted as a classical musician. Her mother Cecilia seemed eternally plump, as often as she was pregnant. The family lived in a three-story house on the South Side of Pittsburgh. Felix would come home from work surprised to find a new baby in his wife’s arms.
Mom was a middle child. She learned to cook by watching her mother, by offering to help in the kitchen. She peeled potatoes, the core ingredient for many of their meals. Before long, Mom could fry up plutzke on her own. When she was ten years old, she would wake up her younger sister, Eleanor, in the middle of the night. “Come on, I’ll make potato pancakes.”
We were never close, my mother and me. She took it personally that my husband and I had decided not to spank our children, concluding, I suppose, that I condemned her and my father for punishing me that way. “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” she would say. “You won’t spank your child, but you’ll pay someone else to knock him around,” she scoffed after watching my ten-year-old son spar in a tae kwon do tournament.
I learned to pick my battles, injecting my opinion only when I believed it might sway her. “Homosexuality is an abomination to God,” she insisted during a TV news report after the murder of Matthew Shepard. “Hatred is an abomination,” I retorted, referring to the church group that picketed Shepard’s funeral with signs that read, “God hates fags” and “Matt Shepard rots in hell.” Mom closed her eyes and shook her head.
But my mother loved music, and we found our sole mutual interest in the performing arts. I visited her briefly one evening before meeting friends at the opera. Her face lit up when I told her we were going to see Carmen.
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” she exclaimed, clasping her hands to her heart and recounting the tragic love story of the gypsy girl and the Spanish soldier. She hummed some of the musical numbers, which, she said, had been popularized in commercials and cartoons. “You’ll recognize them,” she assured me.
I laughed a little. “I didn’t know you were an opera fan. I would’ve got you a ticket, too.”
Mom leaned back on the couch, her eyes scanning the living room walls as though reading the pages of an old worn book. “I remember going to the light opera in Pittsburgh. There was an amphitheatre. We used to go to watch my dad conduct the orchestra.”
After learning that, I didn’t bother with Mother’s Day bouquets or birthday perfumes. Instead I started using every special occasion as an excuse to take Mom to concerts and musicals. Our first opera together was before her cancer diagnosis. It was Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. We saw Mamma Mia, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Singing in the Rain.
Our last opera was Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While Cio-Cio-San, the opera’s heroine, extolled the virtues of dying with dignity, I glanced at my mother. She seemed small and frail in the darkened theater.
There’s a power in fasting, in giving up the physical, surrendering to the spiritual.
I learned this from a bout of clinical depression. It started in March, the day before my mother’s seventy-third birthday. Mom was far from my mind. She hardly called me at work any more, knowing my new public relations position was more formal than the previous jobs I’d held in the company. I’d been with UPS for thirteen years at that point, working for the fast-growing air hub and airline operations. I could get in trouble for too many personal calls.
I was huddled in my cubicle, trying to finish writing a speech. It was impossibly cold and noisy, as usual. I couldn’t concentrate with the steady procession of foot traffic thumping past my desk. My fingers were numb. The temperature outside hovered at around sixty degrees, and the building’s air conditioning was on.
My boss stopped by. “How ya doing?” he asked.
I pulled my sweater tighter around me. “Freezing.” My voice was gruff.
He frowned and shook his head. “I’ll talk to plant engineering. But there’s probably nothing they can do about it. It’s set to maintain a certain temperature on the entire floor. They can’t adjust for this area.”
I’d heard this excuse before. My personal comfort be damned. I sighed and pretended to type on my keyboard. When he disappeared into his office, I rushed for the ladies’ room and wept quietly in the last stall, where my sounds were drowned by the flow of faucets and flushing toilets.
That day I called an employee hotline and asked for help reaching a mental health professional. After two months of therapy, I took a medical leave and while at home discovered how to fast. At first, I just skipped breakfast. Then, when I realized I’d made it to noon without feeling too hungry, I decided to hold out until dinner. I stayed busy gardening, reading, exploring our five acres of land. I noticed that going all day without food gave me a sort of high. My senses felt heightened. The fog of depression seemed to lift. My therapist had recommended music for relaxing and guided meditation. It felt easier when I attempted these exercises on an empty stomach. I didn’t understand the spiritual connection, but once or twice a week, I found that I could silence my mind by abstaining from food.
Mom was cancer-free for almost three years.
One night, two months after her seventy-third birthday, she called me. It was after 11 p.m. She never called that late. I knew something was wrong.
“I had to take a test at work, and I think I messed up,” she said. Her job with the U.S. Census Bureau was a temporary gig, but one that paid well and made her feel productive and useful. “I think they’re going to fire me.” She sighed.
“Why do you think that? Did your supervisor talk to you?”
“I-I-I don’t know. She gave me this piece of paper.”
“Well, what does it say?”
I could hear her rummaging for it—imagined her sitting at the kitchen table with her binders and forms and manila folders, searching for a pink slip. “Here it is,” she said finally, and she read several sentences aloud. I don’t remember how it read, but the language was simple enough. I wondered why she didn’t understand.
“Mom, you did fine,” I told her.
Her confusion alarmed me. Here was a woman who could rattle off the answers to the TV game show “Jeopardy” as easily as she could slice apples or grate potatoes. After our conversation, I emailed my brothers and sisters. “I think she might have had a stroke,” I wrote. Over the next week we tried to get her to see a doctor. She refused. We tried tricking her, scheduling a visit and having the doctor’s office call to remind her. “No,” she told the receptionist. “I didn’t make that appointment. I’m not coming in.”
We took turns checking in on her. My sister Rebecca drove in from Lexington to stay with her for the weekend. While Mom prepared Sunday dinner, Rebecca and I sat on the porch talking in lowered voices about her unusual behavior. Our brother, Chuck, arrived with his children. The three of us took turns sneaking past the kitchen to survey the situation.
We were all in separate parts of the house and yard when something crashed in the kitchen. I was first on the scene and found Mom standing at the stove, clinging half of a large glass dish with a towel. The rest of the dish and most of the potatoes were scattered across the floor like puzzle pieces, each holding a secret key to the mystery of Mom’s illness.
“What happened? Did you get burned?”
Mom shrugged and clucked her tongue.
I looked at her hands and forearms, the pale skin more splotched and wrinkled than I remembered. She stood there squinting at the shards of glass at her feet as though nothing could be done, as though this was a curse, and we were all doomed to starve.
It was a strange meal, ruined even before the pan broke. The potatoes were dried up wedges; Mom had baked two pans of them in the oven instead of frying them, as she usually did, in the electric skillet. The gravy was as thin as water. Mom threw it away for fear that a few chips may have fallen into the pot on the stove. Chuck returned from his house up the street with a jar of ready-made gravy. I hadn’t planned to stay for dinner, but by the time Rebecca and I had cleaned up the mess, the food was on the table.
We ate in silence. Sorrow swelled in the back of my throat. I stared at my plate, chewing a leathery potato, my mouth quivering.
I swallowed. Every bite felt like a sliver of glass going down.
My mother recalled ghosts at the old house on the South Side, her childhood home. She told me the stories a few times with a glint in her eyes, but several years before she died she dismissed those encounters as her imagination playing tricks on her.
One of the stories involved her Busha—her father’s mother—who lived her last years bedridden in a room on the house’s second floor. When Mom and her siblings got a spanking, they would rush upstairs to seek comfort from their old grandmother. “She was sick with something, probably cancer,” Mom recalled. “We were just kids. We didn’t know what was wrong. We thought she was just old.” Busha would hug the children and pity them their merciless father.
“Sometimes we went up to the second floor to play in the hallway, and sometimes I’d be up there and I’d hear Busha crying in the bedroom. I didn’t understand why. No one told us anything. Maybe she was in pain. She probably knew she was dying.”
When Busha died, the second floor was left vacant. One day, after taking a few swats for some mischief, my mother instinctively bolted for the second floor, remembering just as she got there that Busha was no longer there. She sulked and continued down the hallway, stopping in her tracks when she heard something coming from her grandmother’s room. She held her breath and listened. It was the sound of someone sobbing—the sobbing of an old woman.
There was also the time Mom saw her mother’s ghost, although that happened at a different house, when she was grown and married. The story, as I remember it, is that Mom awoke in the middle of the night and looked out the window. There, under the streetlight, was the unmistakable figure of her mother, all dressed up, in a coat, looking as though she was taking a trip. Mom shook it off and went back to bed. The next morning, she learned that her mother had died in the night.
The day before Mom’s CAT scan, I grubbed a few potatoes from the garden, picked some green beans, pulled a red onion and made a chicken pot pie. I took it to Mom’s. She sat in the recliner in the living room, still in her pajamas.
My sister Mary motioned me into the kitchen. “She’s been in that chair all day,” she whispered while I uncovered the pot pie. “She’s not talking much either. Hardly said anything. Just shakes her head.”
Mom had gone willingly for a routine checkup with the radiologist the week before. The doctor had scheduled her to return for a CAT scan.
The pot pie was still warm. I put a big slice on a plate and carried it out to her. Mom took the plate and thanked me. I sliced a piece for Mary and me. We ate in the living room with the TV turned off. A wave of anxiety flooded over me. I suddenly felt separate from my body, as though I could walk away at any moment and leave my skin there on the couch like a deflated balloon.
I stood up to get my bearings. I was dizzy. It would pass, I told myself. Let it go.
Mom was holding her empty plate in her lap. I walked over and took it from her, cut her another piece, refilled her drink.
I watched my mother’s fork digging. I felt comforted seeing her eat. A scripture ran through my mind, a verse from the gospels, where Jesus blesses the bread and breaks it and gives it to the disciples. Take, eat; this is my body.
Dr. Guarnaschelli was a tall man, dignified, with gray-black hair and charcoal eyes. He said the tumor was the size of a lemon, lodged in right frontal lobe of Mom’s brain, and that surgery could remove most all of it. Whatever was left could be treated with a round of chemotherapy and radiation.
“I think there’s a very good chance you could resume a normal life,” he announced at her hospital bedside.
Mom brushed aside her hair, which had grown back straight after the chemo. She turned away from us, gazing out the window at the morning light, the maze of rooftops and sharp angles of one-way streets against the ribbon of Interstate 65. It was summer, late July. My mother was remembering the summers of her youth, the babies she carried on her hip at the beach, picnics at White Swan Park.
A tear spilled down her cheek. She was longing, I suppose, for one more breath of the world.
The doctor put her on prednisone to reduce the swelling in her brain. Mom had never been a big eater, but the steroids made her ravenous. She ate every crumb of the horrible hospital food she had always deplored.
The night before her stress test, the final hurdle before surgery, I bought her a cup of banana pudding, topped with vanilla wafers and whipped cream, from the hospital cafeteria. I bought it on impulse, glanced at the cup on the refrigerated shelf and plucked it up without thinking twice. When I took it back to her room with a plastic spoon, Mom opened it herself and dug in. She scraped the plastic cup clean.
My mother didn’t pass the stress test. After a workout on the treadmill, she suffered cardiac arrest. Her heart stopped pumping. They shocked her back to a normal rhythm. She was put on life support while the lemon in her brain grew.
I was counting the days. Mom hadn’t eaten since Thursday. She was unconscious. It was Tuesday. How long could someone go without sustenance? A week or two? It seemed cruel to me. I didn’t know they’d probably written off Mom as they were resuscitating her. Bad heart, metastasized cancer. Get the family together, they must have said during compressions. Let them come in and say goodbye. She was not salvageable material.
Dr. Guarnaschelli had told us that without the surgery she would go into a coma and die within a few weeks. But now he wouldn’t operate. “Her heart couldn’t survive the anesthesia,” he said. “I wouldn’t want your mother to die on my operating table.” I wanted to grab him by the lapels of his white lab coat and scream in his face, What difference does it make—she’s going to die anyway! They would kill her with tests but not with anesthesia? It didn’t make sense.
The pulmonary doctor explained how removing the ventilator would allow Mom to die peacefully. There would be no gasping for air. They would put her on a morphine drip. It could be a matter of minutes or possibly a couple days. But the doctor believed she would die within the first few hours.
Removing the ventilator was the only thing the seven of us sisters and brothers had ever agreed on.
Mom’s first open-heart surgery took all day. We left the hospital and met at our parents’ house for dinner. My sisters and I pitched in to make the meal. We laughed and joked and, after eating, returned to the hospital.
Only two visitors were admitted at a time in the recovery room. Dad let my sister Suzy and me go first. I winced when I saw the bandage over Mom’s chest, the tubes and bulky equipment and other evidence of discomfort. She was groggy but talkative in her usual way.
“Did you all eat?” she asked, struggling to raise her head.
I patted her arm. “Yeah, Mom, we ate. Don’t worry."
She closed her eyes then. “That’s right,” she said. “You made steak, and Mary baked potatoes, and Celia fixed a salad.”
Suzy and I looked at each other. I squinted. Suzy shrugged and shook her head. How could Mom have known? Had someone told her? We were the first visitors.
Later Mom claimed she didn’t remember an out-of-body experience or our conversation in the recovery room. But she did recall a brush with death during the surgery. “I felt like I was gone at one point,” she said. “I thought I would see Jesus, but I didn’t.” She shook her head and looked away. “I didn’t see him.”
I was holding my mother’s hand when she drew her last breath. I had no hope that her soul or spirit had transcended. In fact, her death affirmed my depression over the hopelessness and pointlessness to life.
I talked to my daughter Rachel about how disappointed I was that I hadn’t gotten any signs from Mom or felt her presence in anything.
“Yeah,” Rachel said. “I feel the same way. Just an emptiness.”
Like hunger, I thought.
Seven weeks later, I dreamed about Mom. She was standing in a room with us—with Rachel and Rachel’s daughter, Chloe, and me. She looked young. Her skin was smooth and radiant, her hair dark and full, the way it looked before the chemo. She didn’t speak. Rachel kept remarking that she’d lost so much weight, but I knew something else was different, something I couldn’t put my finger on. Then she lifted her head and looked at me as though she had something to say. She started to approach me, and that’s when I remembered she was dead. She wanted to tell me about her journey. I could see it in her widening eyes, which locked on mine as she drew closer. As we stared at each other, I had the feeling I was falling into my mother’s eyes, falling into a space I might never come back from. And just as my mother’s fiery eyes were about to reveal her secret, I awoke.
I woke up with a low moan that came from somewhere deep inside me. I recognized it as the sound I sometimes made drifting off to sleep, struggling between worlds. I wasn’t scared, but I was shocked. It was as though someone had slapped me, and I sat up in bed, breathing hard, laughing a little, knowing that I hadn’t just woke up, but had come back from somewhere.
That’s how my dreams have been, since my mother died. When I wake up, I feel that I’ve returned from someplace where she lingers, where I might not see her, or talk to her, but I know she’s there, on the periphery. On waking, I feel a sort of satisfaction, as though I’ve been for a visit and know that everything’s okay there, everything’s fine back home.
I didn’t tell anyone about that dream, that vision of my mother, for several months. I had to figure it out. I had to fast. I had to learn to pray. A veil was lifted then. I awoke, and awoke again.
I awoke to save myself because, I believe, my tiny human brain would have crumpled under the weight of my mother’s revelation. Our conscious minds are not capable of comprehending the magnitude of our connectedness, our purpose, our existence. Living in doubt would have been easier. Not believing is the easy way out.
This is what I learned: Feeding us made Mom happy. That’s what she left us with—the imperative to fill up. Take, eat; this is my body. And, Don’t be afraid. It wasn’t hunger she feared, but emptiness—a life without love, a soul without memory.
I fast and pray. I forget about food, the weakness of the flesh. I remember the dream, my mother’s hair dark and full.