Last Supper

by Susan Palwick

My father loved to eat. He preferred simple, healthy food to anything fancy, and was a big fan of salad and fish. During the years he lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, only minutes from the docks where the fishing boats pulled in, my sister and I gorged on shrimp during our visits. We’d go down to the docks, buy a few pounds of shrimp, clean and cook them, and toss them with garlic and olive oil over pasta. Perfect!

Unfortunately, Dad’s health interfered with his diet. After quadruple bypass surgery, he was put on a blood thinner and could no longer eat dark leafy greens, a loss he mourned intensely. When a stroke left him with swallowing difficulties, he was briefly on a feeding tube implanted in his stomach, because his doctors feared that if he ate the normal way, he’d either choke or aspirate food into his lungs and develop pneumonia. Dad hated pouring cans of Ensure down the tube. He wanted to chew his food, to feel and taste it. Finally, he announced that he was no longer going to use the wretched tube: he’d eat normally if it killed him.

Sometimes I was afraid it would. Despite coaching by speech therapists who advised him on the best way to eat and swallow, nearly every mouthful he ate was followed by several minutes of racking coughs, a process that left tears leaking from his eyes and made his hands shake. It was difficult not to interfere, not to jump up and pound him on the back or insist that he go back on the feeding tube. But food was one of his few remaining pleasures, and he clung to it.

As his congestive heart failure worsened, I found myself advocating for his wishes even when I didn’t entirely agree with them myself. At one nursing home, the alarmed staff – who’d had no luck convincing him to go back on the tube – insisted on pureeing his food. Although Dad drank cans of Ensure happily enough, seeing potatoes and chicken and beans sitting as piles of mush on his plate nauseated him. I couldn’t blame him. “He wants to eat normal food,” I told the nursing-home staff. “Yes, we know the risks. We understand the danger of choking and aspiration. This is a quality of life issue for him. Please give him normal food.”

The staff grumbled, but complied. On the few occasions when Dad was well enough to come to my house for dinner, my husband and I cut his food into tiny pieces and tried to maintain normal conversations during his choking fits. He loved socializing, but the friends we invited over were profoundly uncomfortable during these meals. I couldn’t blame them. So was I.

At last, when Dad’s heart failure was no longer treatable, his doctor told him he had only a month left, and Dad went on hospice care. “I’m tired,” he said briskly. “Let me die.” As determined to leave as he had been to stay, he lived only two more days.

But he lived them as richly as he could. The first evening, a Thursday, he gleefully demanded a glass of wine, previously denied him because of his heart condition. He didn’t eat much on Friday, but when I arrived late Saturday morning, the nurses told me he’d gotten out of bed for the first time in days and had gone to the dining hall for a “huge breakfast.” An aide, beaming, said, “He ate two pieces of ham! And a whole stack of pancakes! He loved it!”

I’ll forever regret that I wasn’t there for that final breakfast. By late afternoon, Dad was clearly fading fast. I decided to go home for dinner and return with a camping cot, so I could stay in the private room I’d had him moved into. Before I left, I noticed him lifting his hand and gnawing on his thumb. “Are you hungry, Dad?” He couldn’t talk much by then, but he nodded.

I asked for some applesauce and fed it to him, spoonful by spoonful, the same way he must have fed me when I was a baby. He smacked his lips. “I’ll see you later,” I told him.

But when I came back two hours later, with my cot and overnight bag, he was gone. He’d died peacefully while I was driving back to the nursing home, as the nurses turned him in bed.

As my husband and I waited with one of my parish priests for the undertaker to take Dad’s body, I babbled. I was in the state of shock where you don’t remember what you’ve said, and keep repeating yourself. I must have told my priest about the applesauce ten times. “The last thing I did was to feed him applesauce,” I told her. “That’s like Eucharist, isn’t it?”

“It is,” she said gently, “and I thought so all the other times you told me about it, too.”

My non-religious father wouldn’t have considered the tiny meal Eucharist. That communion was for me, not him. But for both of us, it was food for the journey ahead.

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