Saturday, December 5, 2009

Eat, Love, Die

Eat, Love, Die
I bring my mother a bag of miniature dark chocolate bars and she lights up and I give her one and help her remove the wrapper and she eats it with relish. I put the bag and the crumpled wrapper down on the coffee table in front of her. She picks up the bag and asks if she can have one. I help her choose another and open it for her and she eats with pleasure. I put the bag and the crumpled wrapper down on the coffee table. She picks up the bag and asks if she can have one. We perform this routine a dozen times. Finally, she chooses a candy from the bag and then puts it back. “Maybe later.” She points to the pile of candy wrappers on the table and hisses “Look how many you ate, Layne.” I wonder sometimes if Mom had known the extent to which dementia would rob her of memory and dignity she would have preempted this decline by taking her own life. However, if she known she’d eat twelve candy bars in a single setting, that would have been a clearly compelling cause for suicide.

I have a literally captive audience with my inmate penpals with regard to my personal problems. I write to one that my mother introduces me to her caretaker as her little sister. This to me is a sad indicator of her decline but my penpal’s take on it is that at least she recognizes me as someone very important to her and I chew that around and indeed find comfort there.

Himself and I deliberate about refilling an expensive prescription for Fido which we can tell makes her more comfortable. The choices are a thirty or a ninety day supply. We opt for the latter although it is a few weeks longer than the vet’s prognosed life expectancy for her. We watch a documentary about the Baroness Rothschild’s relationship with Thelonious Monk and footage of her family manse reveals an enormous taxidermy collection, including dogs. I imagine my husband trying to jam the last of the expensive pills down the stuffed poodle’s throat. In a way I wish that Himself had decided to put her down right away when the terminally ill diagnosis was announced because every time I look at her I know she is going to die soon and that we most likely have to make the decision as to when.

I sing to her “Fidy Idy Oh” like I always have and she wags her tail which is nice because any human being I ever sing to tells me to shut up. I sneak her a larger portion when treats are dispensed. I am trying to enjoy her final days but it is hard to get around the sorrow of what is to come. It is not that much different than going to visit my mother but at least in the case of the dog, it is within our realm of possibility to act humanely. My mother’s fate is out of the realm of human kindness and while we can put a swift end to a dog’s suffering I can only pray that my mother is spared.

Several months ago I pasted all of my blog entries since I started to write in 2006 into a single document, numbered the pages and printed out over 350. I began to read it, towards editing it into a cohesive publishable manuscript and then set it aside. I return to it this week. This enormous printout chronicles the decline of my mother, the death of my father and Himself’s dad too, and our first meeting after decades of search, and subsequent relationship with Himself’s complicated birth mother. Chances are that I will outlive my mother and my little family will be all that’s left to mourn her and her only legacy. I wonder if I can cobble some sort of memoir about her last journey and write the final chapter after her death as a tribute to her having lived and given birth to me and because my diapered mother puts lipstick on her eyelids and doesn’t remember how many chocolates she’s eaten but still knows that I am someone very important.

I get through about 150 pages and circle paragraphs pertinent to my mother and realize why this ream of paper has collected dust on my desk for so long. My early blogging is hard for me to read, disjointed, coarse, sort of boring and often angry. When I get to the more recent writings I hope, actually am desperate, to find it less embarrassing to slog through. I am pretty sure though that the process of having written so much and for this long has been instrumental in how these four years have played out. I feel more chill than when I started writing here. I don’t know if the living is better because of the writing or the writing is better because of the living but I suspect it’s a bit of both.

I receive an article, from one of my penpals, clipped from U.S. A. Today, about the Correctional Facility at Plainfield Indiana. For budgetary reasons the facility no longer serves lunch to the inmates on the weekends. Breakfast is served at 6:00 a.m. and dinner 10 hours later at 4 p.m. Indiana Department of Corrections spokesman Kevin Mulrooney responds to questions about the propriety of this, “Inmates can always get chips, cookies and Ramen noodles in the commissary to tide them over between meals. You’d be amazed what prisoners can do with a bag of Ramen, it’s as good as anything served in a restaurant.” Of course commissary items are only available to inmates with private funds and because huge restitution fines are often levied against inmate trust accounts, many are completely indigent and have no access to commissary and the purchase of fine, restaurant quality ingredients.

One of my penpals actually sent me a recipe using ramen noodles of which he is very proud but it saddens me that this aging population is so reliant on a product that contains more than 35% of the recommended daily consumption of sodium in a single serving. I understand that since the budget cuts, the daily food allotment per inmate here in California has been cut from over $3. to $1.75 and my penpal reports a recent weight gain as additional starch and fat have been added to the menu to meet caloric requirements using cheaper ingredients.

Because of reduced manpower to inspect incoming mail and the cramped quarters, most prisons no longer allow inmates to purchase, with their own monies, hobby kits. This is a shame because this kind of soothing focused work can prevent a lot discord and friction. Visiting centers at California prisons used to have gift shops selling crafts made by prisoners. The monies raised went into special programs, helping indigent inmates and to local charities. Hobbywork was a great source of satisfaction and pride for inmates at no cost to the institution. I am sure the little bit of time used to inspect hobby packages isn’t worth the huge loss to morale that results in the prohibition.

Our dining table has become a bit of a battlefield. Himself’s new schedule has him home for dinner a few more nights a week so my meal preparation is a bit more ambitious. I wish I could cook a good meal for the simple pleasure of doing it. I love my kitchen and cook with joy there but I get snarky when the meals I proffer are not received with the reverence befitting such love offerings. Himself can’t be bothered with conventional table manners and what’s worse, upon finishing a meal, even with guests at the table, tears up scraps with his fingers and divides them unto three dinner plates which he puts on the floor for the dogs. We are spared this on Thanksgiving but I’ve given up on the other 364 days a year.

Jonathan Safran Foer visits the kids’ school and talks about his book Eating Animals and both of the kids have now gone vegetarian. Similarly, I read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle when I was twelve and stopped eating meat for years. I have tried to interest the kids in fish and they doggedly refuse it. Both dislike vegetables almost as vehemently as Himself so with all forms of animal protein removed from our diet, all that they’ll really eat is pasta. I was a vegetarian when I met Himself but reintroduced beef and poultry to my diet upon recognizing that he was conditioned to eat little else. He stopped eating pork and shellfish upon conversion to Judaism 17 years ago and I took his lead. Three years ago in Ireland he had some sort of vision or epiphany and stopped eating beef and lamb and I pretty much have too.

I cook a lot of chicken. It’s cheap and the dense protein agrees with me and up until the Eating Animals lecture at their school it was a good alternative for kids who refuse fish. The boys announce that they will no longer eat chicken. They become very angry at me when I make them taste some fish which I suspect they really like but lie and say they don’t. Apparently Safran Foer not only equates eating cows with eating dogs but makes a case for fish as well although a fish is a helluva lot less like a dog than cow. I do not point out to them that the production of eggs and dairy products results in animal cruelty similar to the farming of animals for slaughter. The sprats would perish as vegans and anyway, commercial soy and rice farming is just as deleterious for the planet as beef ranching.

What it boils down to is that there are too many people on earth to feed without causing environmental damage. I vacillate about the ethics of eating animals. We cannot afford free range organic chicken and I often buy the cheapest available at the market. Now that the kids have forced my attention to the inhumane conditions in which these chickens are bred and killed, I most likely won’t buy poultry again, although chicken is the protein best tolerated by my quirky surgically altered digestive tract.

The shenanigans the Kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa has made the whole issue of Kashrut seem specious. Furthermore, animal rights activists claim that while the ancient ritual was believed to spare animals undue suffering, modern science disproves this. Nevertheless, Kashrut at least requires a mindfulness about taking the life of another creature for our own sustenance. I struggle with whether I can continue eating a cheap food that I can dependably digest while knowing that doing so condemns another creature to suffer.

After decades of deprivation my mother can eat chocolate until she’s full of it. Fido too is on a completely unrestricted diet. While I’ve been dogged my whole life by too strong an equation with food and love, I know no better way to comfort my mother and Fido in their final hours. I am part of a society that locks away thousands, many for petty drug offenses, in a cruel environment that exacerbates mental illness and provides a diet that will undoubtedly cause physical illness for many. Himself’s table manners apparently are informed by his medieval scholarship. My kids’ journey to independence seems to have something to do with rejecting my cooking. I am struggling with this chicken thing but it doesn’t seem like that big a deal in a world where human inmates are fed on $1.75 a day and wait 10 hours between meals.

This is the second week in a row that I’ve failed to post here in time for Shabbat and I will feel incomplete and profligate until I push the publish button. This weeks’ excuse is my concessions duties for the childrens’ play where I don my apron and peddle brownies but I talk with Himself about how difficult this writing has become and think sometimes maybe I’ve exhausted the possibilities of this venue. My father came to Los Angeles to be a screenwriter and my mother took a number of creative writing classes over the years but neither’s ambition amounted to anything.

I never remember my dreams, which to me are meaningless white noise, like when a computer hibernates. I find the subject of dreams very boring and dread listening to the recounting of anyone else’s or even reading about them in the finest of literature. I wake though at three a.m. from a dream of hosting a party at my mother’s beautiful cherished home on Fulton Avenue, where she lived alone for 35 years. I dismantled the home, peddled her precious belongings for pennies at a garage sale and sold it, only to find that the new owners paved over the front yard with concrete and covered the charming used brick exterior with thick stucco. In my dream I am pouring drinks from behind the bar and mother enters through the front door, barefoot, in a thin ragged nightgown. Himself stirs in the bed and I am thankful he is awake although I am so unsettled I probably would wake him anyway. He holds me and I think about my mother lonely for years in that big house. I see her now at the board and care, dressed in her fine clothes, sitting primly erect, purse in her lap, ready to go. I drift off to sleep and when I wake up we are still sprawled together and my first thought of this new day is that I am the luckiest person alive.
Shabbat Shalom


harry said...

Nice threads weaving in and through this... like colors, flavors, or musical themes in contrast and counterpoint. Incremental, each pass through a bit deeper. Your main themes consistently developed... Mom and food, family and identity, prison and justice, Himself and love/rescue/resolution. Eat, Love, Die should be your title when you submit all this, at least in my opinion.

FionnchĂș said...

Thanks for this: I've overlapped well with you this week at "Keeping kosher, being 'yosher'".

Sorry for being such a bumpkin at the table. Norbert Elias gave great stress to the slowness of the "civilizing process" in Western Europe in the middle ages and how cutlery was apparently a significant advance. xxx me