You drive through the night to get there, because what else is there to do? You clean your apartment with nervous energy and ask a friend to water your plants since you don’t know when you’ll be back. You’ve packed clothing options for a funeral service—which feels practical, but wrong, somehow.

You had sat through a lecture that afternoon, a good, important lecture with your phone out the whole time, between taking notes and texting the family group chat as the phrase ‘days to weeks’ rattled around in your brain.

You make a list of all the people you’ll have to contact about your absence.

It’s an ungodly hour when you and your partner arrive, but your parents are still up, helping you unload the car and offering you 4 a.m. pizza while they get you up to speed on the current medical and emotional state of affairs. They tell you how glad they are you’ve come.

You sleep, waking in the afternoon to text messages that your offer to make dinner for the family who have assembled would be much appreciated if you’re still willing. So, you and your partner make a grocery store run to empty the bin in the garage of bottles and cans and get supplies for enchiladas (your potluck go-to for indeterminately large gatherings). There’s a partially eaten rotisserie chicken in the fridge that you incorporate, continuing the time-old family trend of cleaning out the fridge using new recipes.

You’re nervous as you set everything up in your grandparents’ apartment. You can’t recall if anyone has dietary restrictions, and you haven’t asked—and you don’t know if people will even like what you’ve made (everyone likes enchiladas, right?)—but everyone is effusive in their appreciation. This family is Dutch Reformed farming stock, after all.

You don’t really know how to be useful while you’re here, but the least you can do—the thing you know you’re good at, that calms you, that you’re glad to provide—is to cook dinner. So you do.

You get very good at packing hot dishes into cardboard boxes and assembling a bag of silverware, napkins, plates, and other accouterments. You get better at estimating how many people might be in attendance, how much food to make, how to transport it so it’s still hot. You sit with aunties in your grandmother’s hospice room as they answer questions about who’s who in the family photo albums, and they tell you about food your grandparents ate when they were living in Egypt for a year, helping you track down a recipe that looks close enough. The fried onions are (of course) a big hit.

You walk your parents’ dogs every day, helping them work out the nervous energy they’re picking up from the household. You connect with a couple friends who are in the area, either in the morning before you spend time with the family, or in the late evening after dinner and post-dinner visiting is over. You stress about your partner getting approved for family medical leave until the care team tells you not to sweat it. They help you fill out the paperwork, and one layer of anxiety peels away.

After another family standby recipe—chicken and rice casserole—you take a break to do one of your other standbys. The veggie pizzas with focaccia bread crust turn out well, despite your parents’ lack of a food scale. Your five-year-old niece is visiting that day, and the three of you sit on the floor next to your grandmother’s bed and play UNO until her bedtime. She’s good at winning, and good at introducing new rules when she isn’t winning.

One of your cousins has been around, and you finally get to meet his partner. The four of you go out for drinks and catch up at the apartment your cousin is in the process of moving out of. You reflect on how little you’ve been able to visit the family since you started graduate school, how your home state feels less and less like ‘home’ as each year passes. How wonderful the people you’re related to truly are. How you wish it wasn’t just death bringing you together. How appropriate it is to come together, even so.

A week and a half after you arrive, you wake to a family recipe for taco casserole with venison sitting on the counter for you. Taking the hint, you hunt through the freezer for the venison and set it out to thaw. Then you do another daily grocery shop for avocados ripe enough for your partner’s famous guacamole. There’s more than enough for leftovers, even with your sister, niece, cousin, and his partner in attendance. You all hold hands, your grandfather and your aunt on either side of your grandmother’s bed, as you sing the doxology together in a moment of pre-meal grace. Your niece keeps popping up from her seat between you and your partner to kiss your grandmother on the cheek and tell her that she loves her.

The next day, the end comes. The family has anticipated this and has prepared a small collection of significant objects to place on a table in your grandmother’s room while your mother and aunties wash her body and anoint her with oils. You arrive at the hospice for the last time, to brush her hair and kiss her forehead and tell her goodbye before the funeral directors take her away.

At the committal service, the family is invited to put soil into the grave where her ashes have been placed. It feels right, as you heft the shovel and pour a couple scoops. Your family comes from farming stock, after all. And nearly everyone of the small graveside congregation has been present throughout this journey of preparation. Even your niece, the youngest person in attendance, carefully kneels by the grave to pour a small handful of soil in.

The small brunch reception afterwards is subdued but still lively. The spouse of one of your cousins brings her spin on your grandmother’s famed coffee cake recipe. You bring rolls that you and your partner made for this past Christmas Eve dinner with your grandparents. Everyone goes to their respective homes for a rest, and you and your partner play with your niece until it’s time for dinner and a walk by a lakeside park. You drive home the next day.

Not a small part of you feels like it’s home you’re actually leaving behind.

1 Comment

  1. Rachel Lenko

    This piece felt like a hug to someone who loves both hospice care and feeding her loved ones. I love the way you love your family with food. And I love the way that your food makes space for both grief and beautiful remembrance.


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