On this day, looking back, looking forward
I wrote this piece back on May 9th, then set it aside for other concerns, and because I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to say. Today, Memorial Day, it seems fitting that I pull it out again and post it, though I’ve always felt it a bit strange that we should set aside just a single day a year to remember the loved ones we’ve lost.
One year ago today, early on a Monday of a Paper Chef weekend, Dad, the gentlest soul and the best patient a caregiving daughter could ever hope for, breathed his last breath. I was there, by his side, morning medicine in one hand, my other hand on his forehead.
Chopper had to go to work that day and I had to make phone calls, arrange for the funeral home to come from the mainland, and ready Dad for his final journey.
That weekend, in stolen moments between my caregiving duties, we cooked, creating yet another mad collection of dishes for our month-old blog — a blog we’d created as an oasis, a necessary outlet while life around us marched toward its inevitable conclusion.
Dad had pancreatic cancer. He was diagnosed in June of 2004, three weeks before our wedding, and for a short while, it seemed we’d have to either put our wedding plans on hold or carry on without my parents in attendance. I couldn’t bear the latter but my parents insisted on it; their concern for our planning efforts taking precedence over their hopes to attend.
Thankfully, Dad’s doctor knew of the situation and did everything he could to declare Dad fit for travel by wedding time. It worked, and because all my siblings knew Dad would be there, even the ones I didn’t expect to see attended. Our wedding became our final complete family reunion.
Six months later, Chopper was nearly through with the on-campus portion of culinary school. All that was left was a six week externship followed by final evaluation and graduation. Dad wasn’t doing all that well — people with pancreatic cancer rarely do well — and we knew Mom couldn’t keep caring for him alone. We also knew I was the only one of my siblings who could leap into the breach. My older brothers and sisters had demanding careers, children to care for, and here I was, working freelance from home with a husband fresh from school. It was up to us.
So, we tossed just about everything we owned in storage, packed what we could, and headed up to San Juan Island, where, on the day following our arrival, Chopper began his externship at a local restaurant and I began my duties as caregiver to my dying father.
The transition was awkward. For the first two and a half months, we lived in a trailer in the turn-around and battled cold nights and an influx of early spring wasps. (Waking up at three a.m. to a wasp on my pillow is not an experience I want to repeat any time soon.)
Dad was amazing: never complaining unless something truly bothered him, making every effort to eat when I gave him food. And working, even. Working on his final book, meeting with colleagues, reading scholarly papers. I was in awe of his perseverance, even on days when he achieved no more than a scant half hour at his desk.
We couldn’t cook much in the house because of Dad’s nausea, and the trailer didn’t provide us with a reasonable cooking sanctuary. One day Chopper attempted Thai curry on the tiny trailer stove, and the fish sauce stunk the place up like sweaty gym socks for weeks on end.
A month before Dad died, his nausea subsided for the most part and it became all about pain management. If we could keep our cooking smells to a minimum, we could cook again. And so, with Dad’s approval, and because I knew Chopper needed an outlet (and because I couldnâ€™t — still can’t — shake the dismay that Chopper never signed on for this sort of duty when he joined my family), I proposed Belly Timber.
It’s a creative outlet, I told him. Something we can do together — and crucial because we really couldn’t do much of anything together, save for those occasional days when I could call a respite worker for an hour or two. (Someday, not today, I’ll write about caregiving, and the wonderful and sanity-keeping thing that is the respite worker.)
It’s vital, I told him. I need to do this — or at least something very much like this — just as I need to care for Dad.
And so Belly Timber was born.
Chopper’s rosemary beer-steamed mussels: the final home-cooked meal Dad loved and could eat. Even when everything else repulsed him, he’d still happily dig in to a plate of Chopper’s rosemary beer-steamed mussels. Some nights, he’d eat five, maybe even six mussels, and we’d count the shells and celebrate. It was the most he’d ever eat in one sitting, and for one tiny moment we could imagine we were in the midst of just another happy family gathering around the dinner table.
It was hard to escape the irony: launching a food blog when Dad’s diet had been reduced to oatmeal and Ensure, but within just a few posts we knew we’d done the right thing, even if it meant, in the midst of grieving and duty, I’d force myself to the computer to type up our entry for that weekend’s Paper Chef.
We’re still here; still caregiving in a way. Our belongings, save for what we hauled up here last year, are still in storage and we’re still cooking in a messy kitchen that we can only claim as our own through the disasters we create there.
In many ways, Belly Timber is still a vital, necessary release, and still an escape from a life that bears more than a passing resemblance to limbo. My freelance career went to hell in a hand basket during Dad’s final months, and I’m just now (at long last) fighting to get it back. Chopper is eager to try more than just island restaurants in his post-culinary school career. He dreams of stages with great chefs, and of travel, lots of travel.
And now, on this year anniversary, and year-plus-a-month (or so) for this crazy blog, we cast a furtive glance or two toward the future and toward leaving this place that’s never quite been our home. We’ll still be here a while — through the chaotic tourist summer at least — but the city beckons, and a life of our own beckons, and Chopper hears the siren call of a kitchen of his own every day.
And oh lordy do I want to unpack our belongings. I roll my eyes and laugh at the triviality of it all, but I miss our silverware. I miss our sake set. I miss my crazy prop collection that would have lent so much more insanity to so many of our culinary adventures.
Trivial, yes, but you know, I think Dad, packrat that he was, would approve. After all, the trolls in the canoe from my Mighty Cheese Warriors post — those were his.
I promised, a long, long while ago, to share a remarkable story about a gift from the Samish tribe in honor of Dad’s legacy. It’s still hard to write about it without getting a little teary, even now, looking back so many months. But, because this day it feels right, here it is:
We live, as many of you know, in orca country. The whales, great pods of them, swim the strait just west of here, and every year when new calves are born, the Whale Museum and their marine naturalists give them names. Not just Pod names like J-14 or K-20, but name names, like Granny and Skana and Spock. Sometimes the names are determined by a vote of museum patrons, sometimes by museum staff, and on special occasions, local tribes are granted the privilege to bestow a name upon a whale in a traditional tribal naming ceremony.
(You can see where this is going, right?)
About a month after Dad died, two women from the Samish tribal council called Mom and asked if they could come for a visit. They had a question for her, they said. Mom extended the invitation, but she was concerned. She hoped they weren’t going to ask her something only Dad could have answered. She braced herself for something obscure, some scrap of knowledge buried in decades of anthropological archives.
The women arrived. They brought Mom gifts. They talked about Dad and about how much he meant to the Samish people.
And then they asked Mom’s permission, if she thought Dad wouldn’t mind, to name a whale calf after him.
Needless to say, Mom said yes. Yes, yes, oh absolutely yes!
This summer, before we leave this place which isn’t quite our home but is very much Dad’s home, we’ll take trips out to the western shore of the island and to the Whale watching park where, if our luck is just right, we’ll see J-pod, and Samish, J-14, and her children, Riptide, J-30, Hy’Shqa, J-37, and Suttles, J-40, or as I like to imagine, Dad, come back as a whale, playing with his family in the waves of the Salish Sea.