Some things can never be erased from my memory. Some of them are silly, small, stupid things, like a boy telling me my ham sandwich eating was ew.
Some of them are much more difficult to describe.
Growing up in my family, food meant love. We ate dinner together routinely; it was never even a thought to take supper to my room or eat it later because I was in the middle of something. Being called to dinner wasn’t a suggestion; it was mandatory, but no one ever seemed to argue with it.
But for birthdays, you could request anything you wanted. Sometimes that meant eating out. Sometimes that meant eating your favorite meal cooked by Mom. Whatever it was that you wanted, you got it.
Twelve years ago, as it does every October, my birthday was fast approaching. I’d recently returned to school, was in a “new” relationship (taking my turn with emotional abuse, as nearly every woman does), was struggling with my impending departure from my teens, with my return to school, with my job, with my family, with accepting that my father was terminally ill and recovery? That was a long ago faded dream.
And then the Mets lost the World Series to the Yankees the night I was out celebrating my birthday with friends.
To say that October 2000 was a hard month for me is a huge understatement.
My family asked me early in the month where I would like to go for my birthday. I tended to pick dining out over a special meal at home, so I thought about this for a while. My father wouldn’t be able to join us if I chose a restaurant, as he was incapacitated. He lay on a rented hospital bed in our living room, hooked up to machines, barely coherent as he drifted from one morphine-induced-haze to another. He was in what I imagine was massive pain, and there was really no hope of recovery for him. We’d reached the phase where doctors say things like “we can make him as comfortable as possible,” trailing off with the implied ending of that sentence being: until he dies.
We were all waiting for him to die.
I’ll admit that him dying on my birthday crossed my mind. I wrote panicked, long missives to myself about how to handle such a thing. I wrote short stories about this very thing happening. Quite strangely, over 6 months before my birthday that year, I wrote a poem about him dying on my birthday – he was fairly healthy when I wrote it (by which I mean, he was up and about at that time, and still in good spirits).
With all of this in mind – given that either we couldn’t all leave my father in the living room and go out to dinner for my birthday, or simply… well, what if it happened while we were out “celebrating” my birthday? That sort of guilt would haunt me forever. To be alone in your last moments… it just didn’t sit well with me.
About a week before my birthday, the death rattle began. If you’ve never experienced it, I hope you never do. If you have, well, you know: doctors tell you that this generally signals a person will die soon. They give you a timeline of about two weeks.
To understand on some level what this was like, just imagine someone you looked up to all your life. Someone who was your Superman, your hero, your everything… lying, helpless, weak, dying in a hospital bed in your living room. Wasting away to nothing. A man who was once the life of every party, his laughter making everyone else around him laugh, a man who’d once been rotund just shrinking away to absolutely nothing right before your very eyes.
Now add to that this horrific noise, a rattling produced somewhere deep in his throat, that doctors just told you means he’s going to die very shortly.
One last thing: pretend you’re a girl who’s about to turn 20, who doesn’t know anything about life, who doesn’t understand how the world works but is quickly learning that yeah, life’s not fair. A girl who has all but alienated her friends in this regard because she’s scared and doesn’t know how to talk about this, who doesn’t know how to handle anything she’s feeling, a girl who feels completely and utterly alone.
If you can just start to imagine how that feels, then maybe you’ve got the tiniest inkling of how I was feeling.
For my last birthday dinner with my father, I chose Red Lobster. There was a location a very short drive from our house, and I decided that we could order out and eat at home, so he could celebrate with me. I explained this to my entire family, and finished with, “I would appreciate if you didn’t invite your respective significant others. I want this to be family only.” My sister respected this wish and her now-husband was not invited. However, my brother chose to ignore this and invited his then-girlfriend, whose name I can’t even remember, who was out of the picture less than 6 months after this.
Red Lobster holds a lot of significance for me. Growing up, my parents would take all three of us kids to the movies at least once a month. Oftentimes, either before or after the movie, we would eat there. There was a particular location in Glen Cove whose sign was actually blue, so as a kid, I thought it was the funniest thing to call it Blue Lobster instead. I would excitedly chant “We’re going to Blue Lobster!” during the car ride.
I was an annoying kid.
One of my earliest memories is of being in the theater during Superman III and telling my mother I was hungry. I obviously hadn’t done much eating at lunch, because I was a kid, but she pulled open her purse and removed a paper napkin, within which she’d tucked two cheddar bay biscuits because she knew I would be hungry during the movie. (While the internet tells me that I was under 3 years old when this movie came out, I know for sure that it was Superman III because I remember Richard Pryor being in the movie. Maybe it was a replay a few years later. I don’t know.)
Another very fond memory I have is of my father teaching me how to make restaurant tartar sauce BETTER. I was discovering a love of flounder – fried or broiled, as Red Lobster serves it – and the huge platter was in front of me, I was ready to dig in. He asked me if I wanted him to show me something, and took my lemon wedge, squeezed its entirety into my ramekin of tartar sauce, picked out the seeds, and then stirred it all together. Oh my stars, that taste, the extra lemoniness of the mayo and pickle relish, just absolutely wonderful. I ate my entire flounder that day, and you’ll often see me squeezing copious amounts of lemon into packets of tartar sauce because most of the time… it isn’t lemony enough.
I didn’t choose Red Lobster lightly. It may have seemed like a silly choice at the time, but it held a lot of memories for me with my family and my father in particular. I remember sliding into the banquet seats next to him and peering at the menu excitedly. I remember bouncing up and down waiting for the food. I vaguely recall the crayons and activity place mats but I wasn’t a very quiet kid who would sit coloring (and I’m a horrible artist)… I remember happy times at various Red Lobsters.
I’m pretty sure that night, I had the Admiral’s Feast. I don’t remember if it was good. I don’t remember what anyone else ate – if I had to guess, my mother got some form of stuffed/topped fish that was baked. No idea what my sister or my brother ordered, or his girlfriend. I do remember eating quietly, and occasionally glancing over my shoulder at my father’s sleeping form in the living room. Maybe I imagined he understood the significance of what was happening, maybe he smiled at me. Maybe I made that up in my head because it makes me feel good about my choice that night.
Four nights later, I stayed home – a rare occurrence for me as I tried to be home as little as possible around that time, my immature way of handling what was going on – because that night would be my first turn at changing Dad’s morphine drip. I was terrified I would do it wrong; I’d only been shown how to do it once. I didn’t want to do it; I didn’t want to spend more time staring at this shell of who my father had been any longer than I’d already done. I wanted to be somewhere else. I wanted to not have to deal with all of this. I wanted… I wanted something, anything else.
I was told I needed to change it around 3 or 4 in the morning. I expected the knock on my bedroom door, and rose without complaint. I opened the door and was surprised to see my sister standing there. The idea had been for me to do it, to relieve her from her duties. During my absence – my retreat within myself to avoid dealing with any of my family crisis – she’d taken over all duties without a word. I can’t imagine what she thought about my choices.
Before I could say anything, she said flatly, with no emotion, “He’s gone,” and turned around to walk back down our hall. I remember staring after her, thinking, should I go out there? Do I want to see this? I started after her, and took two steps before I realized that no. No, I do not want to see this. I want to preserve in my head my image of Superman, my hero, my father… I don’t want my last image to be of him, lying in a hospital bed, frail, lifeless, dead.
I turned back around and closed my bedroom door.