Cooking Through Grief

My mother died two weeks ago, on my fiftieth birthday.

It was unexpected in a way, even though she had been ill for a while. She had been in and out of the hospital for the past few years, but she had always gotten better.

My sister texted me that mom had fallen out of bed and that paramedics were there. The text was a bit incoherent, but this is what I made of it. My mother lived in Maryland for the past few years, near my sister. I lived in Texas, nearly 1700 miles away. Last year, Mom had a particularly bad episode, and was on a ventilator. My girls and I flew up in the height of Covid to see her. By the time we arrived, she’d been moved to rehab. We were not allowed in, and we had to talk to her standing outside her window. It wasn’t ideal, but that was the last time I saw her. We joked around a bit, and she reminded my oldest daughter that she didn’t have any great-grandkids yet.

Two weeks ago, Mom did not get better. The door was locked, and had to be broken into. They could hear the beeping of her oxygen machine. She’d been gone several hours. I’m told she looked happy and at peace.

I am not at peace.

My relationship with my mom was very complicated. If we are honest as a family, we will agree that everyone’s relationship with her was complicated.

The funeral was last Saturday, and of course was very difficult. A few bright spots I will always remember: my best friend since high school, Joy, silently by my side the whole time. My kids and husband supporting me always. One of my best college buddies, Katie, surprised me at the funeral home. I haven’t seen her in at least 10 years, but she drove from Oklahoma City to be with me. Two of my best cousins were there without being asked, and two of the remaining aunts were also there. Of course they were mourning their sister. These are the people who hold me dear and in return, have my deepest loyalty.

I thought I’d be ready to go to work last Wednesday, but Tuesday night I knew I could not. I stayed home.

My mind is fuzzy. I’m not at my best. I’m forgetful. I’m in a fog. I’m exhausted all the time. I tried to lesson plan, and could not. I tried to read: it’s too hard to focus. I watched all of Season 7 of Alone, where contestants battle the cold Arctic winter for 100 days, in the hopes of winning a million dollars. They carve out shelters with their own hands and no technology or help. They battle the elements in a way Thoreau never had to. They suffer frostbite and starvation and wolves tracking them. Alone.

I sleep a lot. Or not at all.

I watched the rest of Handmaid’s Tale, my favorite quarantine show. I didn’t really enjoy it, but I finished it.

I went back to Alone. The Season 7 winner, a weird mountain man type, talked a lot about his relationship with his mother and how he didn’t do right by her. He talked about how he dedicated his win to her. Then he ate a bunch of really questionable food.

I don’t feel the same. I did the best I could with my mom. I called her as often as I could. She was manipulative, so I had to be in a good mental place to phone her. If I talked to her when I was feeling down, her comments would sting for months.

I asked her, when her health was failing, to move to Texas. I said I would pick her up, and move her near me. She declined.

My mom was a puzzle.

In my fog-brain, this poem by Longfellow keeps floating to the surface, like fish in a frozen pond:

When She Was Good by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (American poet, 1807-1882)

There was a little girl, who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead,
And when she was good, she was very, very good,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

She stood on her head, on her little trundle bed,
With nobody by for to hinder;
She screamed and she squalled, she yelled and she bawled,
And drummed her little heels against the winder.

Her mother heard the noise, and thought it was the boys
Playing in the empty attic,
She rushed upstairs, and caught her unawares,
And spanked her, most emphatic.

My mom was like that little girl.

She could be kind, sweet, and generous. She once brought a ton of groceries to my house when the kids were little and we were struggling. She sent me and her granddaughters home made quilts, just a few months ago, “To remember me by…”

She hugged me and wiped my tears sometimes.

Other times, she was harsh. Demanding. Mean. Suspicious.

She would get carried away in anger, and turn abusive.

She would get jealous if a family member became close to another, and she would make up stories to hurt them. To drive wedges, to harm most foul.

These were the yin and yang of my mother.

She was still my mother, and I will miss her.

These thoughts, they can harm me. I have to find a way to deal with them. To stay mentally as healthy as I can.

So I came downstairs to the kitchen, and I began cooking.

I baked soft white bread and served it with warm Irish butter. I baked peach cobbler with vanilla bean ice cream. I made comforting beefy Shepherd’s Pie topped with mashed potatoes and a pound of sharp cheddar cheese. I roasted a pork loin and served it with roasted broccoli, baby carrots, and cauliflower. I made cheesy sausage and egg breakfast tacos with home fries and served them with ripe, sliced avocado. I made Chicken Tortilla Soup with homemade tortilla chips I oven baked. I made a beef pot roast with gravy and pasta salad. I made cold garden salad with cheese and boiled eggs and bacon bits, sliced avocados and fresh tomato. Red onion and homemade ranch dressing. I made French toast and scrambled eggs and fresh brewed coffee.

Yesterday, I meal prepped lunches. I made grownup lunchables: pepper turkey and sharp cheddar cubes, black olives and a cold dill pickle. Boiled eggs. Sliced red peppers. Chilled broccoli salad with cranberries and almonds. Fruit salad with peaches in their juice, pineapples, oranges, ripe strawberries and blueberries.

I have to go back to work tomorrow. I can’t take any more days off.

Although I’m going back to work – for better or for worse – and won’t have time to cook through the grief, but I know this: I’m not Alone. I’m not in this Arctic circle of grief by myself. I have my husband, my three kids, my friends and relatives. Though the snow may swirl and my marrow become leaden, I am not Alone. And I will be okay. We all will.