Mama plays a little game of asking me what is on her plate, often before my butt is in my chair. I tell her, identifying the location of each menu item by points on the clock. She squeals, “Gooood!” before she tastes anything. Just to get the compliment out of the way, since it may not be applicable later. If she doesn’t ask, sometimes I wait and see what she thinks it is. She tastes the salmon (her favorite) and asks if it’s chicken.
Speaking of chicken, the list of foods off the acceptable list is growing. Pasta in tubular shape (my favorite pasta being, of course, penne), and cheese have long since been declared indigestible. Whole beans are off the list, except when they are not. She likes my chili; or rather she did. But that was last winter; it’s out of the repertoire now.
She recently added red meat to her menu revisions. Not even every six weeks, which was about all I offered it—though to hear her talk to the hospice nurse you would think we have it every night. She told me no more red meat last time we had pork tenderloin—one of the few things I cook these days that I would actually cook for myself—and she said she couldn’t eat it, though she ate every scrap. I don’t consider it red meat, but it turns out she wasn’t restricting the restriction to beef.
“I can’t eat red meat any more,” she said by way of greeting when I arrived in the kitchen the other morning.
“So you’ve said.”
“I was up every two hours all night.”
“But you had chicken last night,” I said. “That’s not red meat, it’s white poultry.”
“I mean any meat,” she said.
“So just soup and fish?” I said, amusement in my tone. In my head I was screaming, What the fuck? as I lightly tapped my thumb against my middle finger in the suni mudra—a timely yoga lesson last week, where fire (thumb) meets space (middle finger), a reminder for patience leading to compassion and understanding—and deepened my breath.
She laughed. Sort of.
I have never cooked black beans and rice for her, a previous staple of mine, because she’s said she can’t eat whole beans, only refried. But when I made it to take camping, she wanted a taste and said it was delicious. So what the heck, I cooked it last week; I had no other dinner ideas. Best I ever made. I even overcooked the beans so they were super soft. She ate it without a word. The next morning she told me she can’t eat whole beans. And she didn’t like the rice.
“But you liked it a couple months ago,” I protested.
“I forgot it had whole beans in it,” she said.
Tap, tap, breathe.
I am not a vegetarian. And except for salmon and shrimp, I don’t really like seafood all that much, and consequently I don’t know how to cook it well. And did I mention she has stopped eating shrimp? She will complain if I have eggs more than twice a week. Cholesterol you know, like that’s going to be what gets her at 99.42.
Here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s about digestion. Her digestive system is ancient, and it doesn’t really matter what she eats, she is going to have irregular bowel function; she is going to have gas. But she has to have something to hang her discomfort on, and old age doesn’t cut it.
Yesterday I heard her up at 6:10, but when I went upstairs an hour later, she was sitting in her bedroom rocker, not dressed yet. She had been eager to get her breakfast prepared and eaten before the guys came at 8 to replace the furnace, so I was surprised.
“I thought you were up a long time ago,” I said.
“I was,” she sighed, “I was trying to get rid of gas.”
“How were you doing that?” I asked, mystified; and not sure if she meant gas or poo.
“Any way I can,” she said; “I’ve been drinking Gatorade.”
“Gatorade can cause gas and stomach distress,” I said. We have been through this; it’s why I experimented with making her an electrolyte drink, which she didn’t like and I gave up. Drink it and suffer the consequences.
“It does?” she asked.
Tap, tap, breathe.
When she got to the kitchen, she asked me to make caffeinated coffee for her. After conferring with Siri, trying to be helpful, I said, “And caffeine is a gas producer, too.”
“It’s okay now,” she said. “I had ‘success.'” I stared at her, then made the coffee without another word.
Tap, tap, breathe.
I know her taste buds are shot; taste and its first cousin, smell, diminish with age and brain function decline. She refuses to hear that. It’s crazy the lengths she will go to to blame it on the cook, the baker, the restaurant, the grocery store, the raw product, the recipe. But I don’t think that’s the real issue with her food choices and preferences, either.
This is what I think it is, and it’s sad. My friend Elizabeth tells me the book she was given when her parents started on hospice says it’s about the body gradually shutting down. First the body doesn’t want meat, then vegetables (that will be the day, though I have to cook the vitamins flat out of them), then fruit, then nothing. I wonder if that’s what’s happening.
I’m pretty sure soup will be her last thing to go. But yesterday she told me I could just throw out the rest of the spinach soup Michelle made on Monday. It wasn’t good. (Because “Michelle can’t read a recipe.”)
“Do you remember I told you there is some spinach soup in the freezer? You had it Sunday,” I said.
“It wasn’t very good either,” she said. Spinach soup is her favorite. Was.
Last night, after the furnace guys left at 7:00, I heated homemade chicken noodle soup. After being twice cooked and frozen in between, the chicken was pretty much mush, but when she told me she didn’t think she wanted chicken (I hadn’t really believed her on the no chicken thing), I picked out what I could identify as chicken, not egg noodles. She picked out what I missed.
Truly, I don’t know what I’m going to do for meals for her. And I have to eat, too. We need to talk. But first I’m going on vacation for a week.