Mourning in the Time of COVID-19

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Tuesday, April 21st: “Mom’s in the ER. Dr. recommends hospice,” reads a text from my sister.

My mother’s dementia is not new but this message from my sister brings an urgency to the situation. That night over dinner of calamari and pasta in red sauce, I discuss with my husband and two boys the possibility of visiting my mother in California. “If I go,” I tell them, “I’ll have to isolate for two weeks when I get back to Boston.”

“We’ll starve to death,” my sixteen year old cries as he twirls linguine around his fork. The irony of my son’s comment strikes me hard as my mother lies in a hospital bed 3,000 miles away unable to eat. Starving.

Can I live with myself if I don’t visit my mother? Can I leave my family for more than two weeks during a pandemic? These questions loop in my head. I’m stuck like a blender without enough liquid. I call my sister who is sitting vigil at my mother’s bedside. “This situation seems impossible right now. How do I choose?”

Despite my ambivalence, I search flights to California and evaluate my options given the new COVID-19 restrictions. I contemplate flying alone, across the country on an empty plane. Is my risk of getting COVID-19 greater at 30,000 feet or in the aisle of my local grocery store? My thoughts toggle between saying goodbye to my mother or continuing the humble task of feeding my family.

Wednesday, April 22nd: “Nursing director says a couple of weeks but if you look it up and if mom not able to drink fluids, then 4-5 days.”

During the past several weeks of our isolation as my mother’s health has deteriorated and she has lost her ability to walk, speak or eat, I’ve occupied myself with cooking food, compiling shopping lists, and planning meals. Feeding my family has been a comfort now more than ever. I assuage my fears by serving meals of flank steak with chimichurri sauce, salmon with tomato coulis, fresh blueberry muffins, and homemade chocolate cake topped with ganache frosting. If I feed them well, they won’t notice we’ve been unable to leave the house for what feels like a million consecutive days. My focus on daily cooking confers normalcy in our otherwise mundane routine.

Though there aren’t many, one of my favorite memories of my mother and me is in our tiny kitchen in my childhood home in Northern California. I sat on a yellow phone book at our oval Formica table hollowing out the doughy insides of an éclair so my mother could inject them with creamy vanilla custard. Once filled, she dribbled streams of dark melted chocolate delicately over each one. My mouth watered as I admired the glossy desserts sitting side by side on the wire rack.

Thursday, April 23rd: “No IV in hospice, offer of fluids but late dementia patients not able to swallow.”

During the cold winter months, my mother used to fill our pot-bellied stove with kindling to warm the kitchen in preparation for bread baking. She’d spend the morning making the dough starter by meticulously mixing packages of yeast with warm milk and sugar. Hours later after the yeast had proofed, she’d carefully measure out flour and massage the mixture to create mounds of dough that she’d divide and set into individual glass bowls, cover with dishtowels and place near the stove where they’d rise overnight. By the time I woke up the next morning, she’d already started kneading the dough balls that had grown twice in size. I’d watch the muscles on her arms tighten as she punched, rolled and kneaded the dough into submission. Before the dough balls went into the baking pans, she’d fold in tomato sauce for a savory loaf or peanut butter or cinnamon for breakfast bread. She’d carefully place the buttered pans into the pre-heated oven. I’d sit on the floor and peer through the small window, the smell of baking bread intoxicating as I waited for the finished loaves so I could have a warm slice smothered in butter.

Friday, April 24th: “Mom’s talking a bit. I just fed her yogurt since caregiver was serving dinner to others. She’s drinking juice.”

During the week, my mother made sandwiches for my school lunch. Pale, peach colored tomato bread sandwiches filled with fresh-caught albacore tuna, stood out like beacons beckoning my classmates to mock me. “What are you eating?” one student said. “It smells like tuna fish.” “Ewwww,” others would chime in. What I’d do for fresh albacore on toasted slabs of my mother’s tomato bread now.

I saw that bread baking was an arduous process and used that logic to convince my mother to buy Wonder Bread from Safeway. “Think of all the time you’ll save.” I’d follow her down the bread aisle and search for the red, blue and yellow packaging. I’d squeeze the soft loaves and was amazed how the bread retained my tiny handprint and wondered if an unsuspecting customer might notice? I didn’t realize at the time that we were poor and that store-bought bread was more expensive than a packet of yeast. Still, I wanted to fit in and believed a Jif peanut butter sandwich and store-bought jam slathered between two pasty white, tasteless slices of Wonder Bread would help make me popular or, at the very least, allow me to blend in.

Saturday, April 25th: “Sleeps a lot but then wakes up for short periods of time, eyes open, we offer juice or water.”

On Sunday I plan our weekly menu: chicken tikka masala, scallops on fennel, and beef Bolognese. Sitting at my desktop computer I scroll through my favorite cooking blogs for new recipe ideas. I gaze at Instagram photos of steaming loaves of bread. I’m ashamed that despite my love of cooking and baking, I haven’t found the courage to try this quarantine-inspired trend. I tried baking bread, pre-pandemic, and failed. My yeast had gone bad and my proof didn’t materialize. Perhaps I’m lazy or maybe I know I’ll never be able to recreate that memory of my mother, strong and active as she kneaded life-sustaining bread. I realize my family needs me to feed them now more than ever. That’s what I choose to believe.

Sunday, April 26th: “Mom still able to take in water by sucking sponge. Hard for her to swallow.”

The truth is, I don’t want to fly to California to watch my mother choking on her own saliva. I can’t bear to see her mouth frozen. I won’t see my mother’s once vibrant blue eyes dimmed. Would she recognize me? Would I be sad if she didn’t? I decide to stay home and continue wearing the same pajama pants I’ve had on for the past seventeen days.

In the midst of my cooking and baking, I feel guilty knowing that my mother can no longer eat, chew or swallow. I recall our last meal together when I visited her in 2017. She asked me to meet her at Denny’s, the restaurant equivalent of Wonder Bread. We didn’t discuss her dementia as she devoured a stack of pancakes drowning in fake maple syrup. I dream that when the quarantine is over, I can visit my mother again. I will bake tomato bread and feed her a slice smothered with butter. Until then, I bake pumpkin muffins and make white bean soup with organic kale to sustain us.

On Thursday, April 30th at approximately 12:30 p.m. my mother passed. My sister calls me. “Hi baby,” she says.

“Mom’s gone?” I ask. I sit down on the gray sectional. My boys appear in the kitchen and come sit next to me. After I hang up, they hug me and tell me they love me. We hold each other. Their words are a counterbalance to the sadness I feel, a type of cardiac superglue mending my broken heart. Then, my sixteen year old asks, “Can you cut my hair now?” Life goes on. We order takeout. Maybe Indian from Singh’s Café? I don’t remember eating that night or the next.

In the days since she died, I’ve convinced myself I made the right choice. But today, as I stand at the kitchen sink washing Spanish rice and shrimp encrusted bowls, I question my decision. My decision came down to this: would I have gone if not for a deadly virus?

My husband comes downstairs and asks if I’m okay. He senses my mood and understands my uncertainty. “You know, we would have survived without you.”

He’s right but his words slice me. But, could I have survived without them? I know the answer.

Several months have passed, our lives a perpetual holding pattern. We can’t plan a memorial service for my mother until COVID-19 is eradicated.

In the meantime, I pickle cucumbers and red onions, bake zucchini bread, and grill hand spun pizza on the barbecue. We devour plates of seafood chorizo paella, coconut cauliflower curry and penne alla vodka (extra vodka) topped with fresh basil from my garden. I still have not found the courage or the yeast to bake bread. For now, I will take time to mourn my mother. I will honor her by feeding my family as if my life depended on it.

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