I looked at my phone. Then at the clock. Then at the dogs. I went into the bathroom, saturated a cotton ball with lemon scented nail polish remover, and rubbed my thumbnail as a tiny puddle of pink acetone collected on the corner of my sink. The long expired remover had only paled my “vintage vamp” polish. I rubbed harder to no avail and then tossed the bottle and cotton into the trash. I walked into my kitchen, opened the fridge and stuck my index finger in a large bowl of leftover raspberry buttercream frosting, which I sucked on as I walked back to the living room. My schedule had suddenly emptied, catered parties canceling left and right for no reason and private clients leaving for their holiday vacation. I stared at a bottle of dry sherry I often use in Chinese cooking and considered taking a swig. It had been four years. No one would know. I was nauseous from ingesting nothing but coffee and frosting for what seemed like days and decided against a relapse. I looked at my phone and my dogs and the clock and my fingernails. I was waiting for nothing. It was done. The call had come. She was gone.
I had seen my grandmother, Lora, a week before in hospice. It was frontotemporal dementia and a bunch of things that aren’t cancer or heart disease or even Alzheimer’s like my Nana had. She didn’t have tubes in her nose or a beeping monitor at her side like I had always imagined. It’s hard to watch someone die slowly from a cognitive degenerating disease. I mean, it’s sort of hard– maybe it’s incredible. She hadn’t changed much in the 6 years since she had been moved to New York, but she was fading away. She had 24 hour care in a little apartment across the hall from my parent’s apartment until she grew too weak for home care. She had been placed into a nursing home and her deterioration sped up. A few weeks before my final visit, she had stopped eating. The nurses tried to trick her and play with her and force her to eat but she had decided she wasn’t doing it anymore.
As the person who cooked 95% of her meals for the past six years, I couldn’t believe that was the choice she’d made. I mean, I knew something was coming, but starvation hadn’t even occurred to me. I had pureed enough of her favorite butternut squash soup to fill the fucking Hudson River and I knew it wasn’t about me, but my whole life as a private chef and caterer is about nurturing and nourishing. All we chefs do, day in and day out, is figure out ways to support and fulfill strangers with our food. When that care is refused by our loved ones, it almost negates our existence.
They had taken my Gramma to the hospital and fed her intravenously, but it was clear that she wasn’t going to fight for life any longer. Rather than insert a feeding tube which can be torturous, they moved her to hospice care.
I stood at the foot of her bed and tried to focus on the empowerment of her choice. As I watched her it became strangely inspiring. I thought, “Yeah, she’s tired of living like this. I would be tired of it too. Hells bells, this is a great idea Gramma! Do it! Off you go!”
But she just lay there. Staring.
“She’s staring at Alison like she always does” my fragile mother told my father. He stood behind her, strong but bewildered, his arms crossed tightly against his chest. I wondered for a moment if my mother was jealous because it’s true what she said, my Gramma always stared at me. She stared at me every time I saw her for the five and a half years she lived in the apartment next door to my folks and the five months that she lived in the nursing home. And I thought it was flattering, like I was so great or funny or interesting to watch when the only thing you stare at all day is cream colored stucco walls. But that day, the last day I saw her, I felt unnerved, anxious, and angry about it. She wasn’t supposed to be able to focus. She was supposed to be 80 pounds of sleeping and weakness. That’s what I was prepared for– not this intense, knowledgeable gaze centered directly on me.
My grandmother had suffered from frontal lobe aphasia for years, leaving her unable to communicate in any way but through her eyes. The stage before her silence had been full of rage, paranoia and imaginary stories about how she had been violated, so I think the quiet came as a welcome change. But a silent, very slowly deteriorating Gramma becomes almost like a pet; whose feelings we dictate and impose in accordance with how our day is going. Some days I look at my dogs and I feel sad that they can’t experience more, some days I’m jealous of their simplistic reality. It was the same for my Gramma. You could tell if she was happy or sad but you never knew how much she understood or remembered. Did she self-reflect in her tiny silent world? Could she hear everything we said (she never could when she was up and around) and have opinions and stake claims inside the universe of her disappearing body? I could tell when she looked at me she knew things, but what?
That day, those eyes locked with mine and would not let go. I looked into them and silently thought-spoke to her. “It’s ok Gramma. You can let go.”
The television on the other side of the room, being unwatched by the angry deaf woman who shared my Gramma’s quarters, blasted one of those judge shows. The term “sex swing” was repeated loudly about seven times and we all rolled our eyes. My brother made a joke about how we would always associate that term with the last time we saw Gramma. We laughed too loudly, almost as if our boisterous laughter in unison would magically turn the tv off. It did not.
My Gramma looked at my mother, who stroked her bluing fingers and spoke in a soft baby voice, “It’s ok. Everything is fine.” She looked at my father, then my brother, then at me. I looked to the ceiling and begged that she would not die right then and there. I looked back at her and we locked eyes again.
“Are you in pain Gramma?” I thought-spoke to her again. “Does it hurt?”
She stared. She did not look like she was in pain at all.
“I think you’re doing the right thing. I think it’s going to be ok. You don’t have to hold on for us. We’ll be fine.”
She blinked but did not look away.
I said without sound, “Why do you always stare at me? I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry if I wasn’t a good grandchild. I know I was challenging. My edges have always been more angular than any of my relatives wanted. I should have tried harder but I never really knew you. You didn’t reveal yourself until you got quiet- and I’m not sure if that person was really you or the person I invented in your silence.”
She stared hard.
“Is there a reason you stare at me? Am I special? Maybe I’m dying of cancer and no one can tell but you. Maybe I’m the only one who will be able to understand the next chapter. I’ve always felt closer to death than anyone I know. Will you show me what it’s like there? How does it feel? Is there a tunnel or that light that people always talk about? Do you have any idea if there’s another thing after this or is there just blackness? Have they told you anything? Who are they? Is there a they? Or a He? Or a SHE?? Are you scared? Are you excited? Is it fantastic? It’s supposed to be like an orgasm. Is it selfish to ask? Is there anything you can tell me?”
Just like always.
My head was spinning. She closed her eyes for a second and I felt my breath catch in my throat. Then she opened them again and looked at my mother.
“It’s time to go.” My mother said, and we each said goodbye for the last time.
6 years ago, I moved my sprouting catering business from Los Angeles to New York after deciding I wanted to be closer to family. My Gramma’s husband had passed away the year before, igniting her dementia, and rendering her unsafe to leave alone. She was moved to New York into an apartment across the hall from my parent’s apartment. We coincidentally wound up in the same place at the same time at two very monumental points in our lives- hers at the beginning of the end, mine at the beginning of a new start. I floundered with my alcoholism and my loneliness and my inability to find control in my career, but I cooked for her twice a week without fail. In many ways, we kept each other alive. She was nourished by my food, and I was given a job where I could prove to myself and my family that I could be counted on. I got sober, fell in love, and established myself as competent chef and caterer but still showed up twice a week for her. I’ll never know if she knew any of that. She was silent to the end.
This was my Gramma’s favorite thing in the world. It was the only thing that we knew, no matter how she was doing, she would eat. It takes a bit of time because the squash is roasted rather than boiled, but the caramelization that takes place in the hot oven makes all the difference. This soup can very easily be a vegetarian option with the use of vegetable broth, as well as a vegan option because it is dairy free.
Butternut Squash and Sage Soup
- 1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 2 inch cubes
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed
- 2 tablespoons za’atar spice blend
- 1 pear
- 1 large yellow onion
- 3 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth
- 1 cup water
- 2 teaspoons white pepper
- 20 fresh sage leaves
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
- Heat the oven to 425°F and arrange a rack in the middle.
- Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place the squash cubes on the baking sheet. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of oil over squash and season generously with salt and pepper and the za’atar blend. Roast until knife tender, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, peel, core, and cut the pear into medium dice. Cut the onion into medium dice. Melt the remaining tablespoon of oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion, season with salt and white pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the pear and saute another 5 minutes or so. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
- When the squash is ready, set the baking sheet on a wire rack until the squash is cool enough to handle.
- Chop the sage leaves into a chiffonade by rolling the leaves together like a cigar and slice the roll.
- In batches, purée the squash with the vegetable or chicken broth, the water, the onion/ pear mixture and the chopped sage leaves in a blender or food processor. Taste and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper as needed.