Is That All There Is?

Person: My father
Location: A Chicago suburb
Recipe: None. Just buy Boost and Ensure..or a dark chocolate bar.

My Childhood Bedroom

My childhood bedroom.

I couchsurfed in my childhood bedroom recently. They say you can’t go home again but, in fact, you can, it’s just that the bed will be a hell of a lot smaller and more uncomfortable than when you were a kid, and lying on it may make you instantly regress to being a teenager, something which your couchsurfing host, in this case my mother, may not necessarily appreciate.

The reason I was couchsurfing in suburban Chicago was because I had to fly home on short notice to see my 78-year-old father, who’d caught pneumonia and been rushed to a nearby hospital. By the time I arrived, he was being kept alive by a ventilator dangling from his mouth.

When I entered the Intensive Care Unit, I wasn’t prepared for what hit me. My father, who’d always been thin, (and who for years I’d credited with bestowing upon me his genetic predisposition to eat whatever I wanted without gaining weight) had transformed from thin to frail and from frail to skeletally gaunt.

Mom and dad at the beach circa 1970.  Thanks for the skinny genes!

Mom and dad at the beach circa 1970. Thanks for the skinny genes, dad.

He lay in bed, his body propped up by pillows, unable to move his mouth, his nourishment, what little he could tolerate, delivered by long, thin needles dangling from his threadbare veins.

Yet rather than consuming, it was my father who appeared swallowed up by the phalanx of machines and wires that surrounded him, including a feeding bottle that dripped cream-colored liquid in dull, metronomic precision.

Feeding Solution

Feeding from the bottle.

The sight of the bottle reminded me of another time my father had been forced to adhere to a liquid diet. I was a teenager, and he’d just undergone extensive jaw surgery to correct a problem with his ill-formed teeth. Yet after the surgery, rather than return to full functioning, he spent months with his jaw wired shut waiting to heal, doomed to an entirely pureed diet that he sucked through a straw with his then-metallic teeth. To this day, I’ve never seen a more angry or irritable person than my father during that period, nor a more relived one when the wires were removed and he was permitted, slowly, to eat whole food again.

Back in my father’s hospital room, I stared at the bottle of liquid nutrients keeping him alive and wondered to what lengths I’d go when or if my time came. It’s not that I live to eat, but would I want to keep going if that most basic of pleasures was taken from me?

Then I thought of older people who find food too salty or can no longer tolerate spicy dishes. I imagined the 5 p.m. dinner rush in the restaurants of Miami Beach and the bland mush of nursing home food. Were these the culinary insults God hurled at the elderly? The slow, interminable deterioration of all forms of pleasure such that, once we reach our final resting place, the dirt that awaits us tastes like manna from heaven?

And then I remembered my paternal grandfather, a man who lived to be 97 and ate nothing but dark chocolate in his waning days, and who for years began each morning with orange juice spiked with whiskey.

My grandfather, Max.  The man who outlived four wives.

My grandfather, Max. The man always had the last laugh.

Maybe there was hope that growing old didn’t have to be a slow plod toward infantilization. And maybe the secret to living to a ripe, old age was to doggedly eat what one wanted, medical studies and God be damned!

The good news is that my dad has beaten the pneumonia, for now, although he needed a tracheotomy to replace the ventilator, and still can’t breathe entirely on his own. This means, eventually, he’ll need to enter rehab to learn to eat again.

For his sake, I hope it’s not as bad as when he had his jaw wired shut.

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