by Ann Hillesland
Ann’s essay appears in episode 13 of the Dirty Spoon Radio Hour, which originally aired on August 2, 2019.
My father wouldn’t eat. My mother cooked hamburger, which he’d always loved. My sister Janet made deviled egg filling. I searched Greek yogurt brands for the highest protein. To appeal to the engineer in Dad, the hospital doctor explained scientifically why Dad had to eat. I only understood this: without protein, his veins couldn’t keep the liquid inside. His dialysis would continue to fail. The kidney specialist told him that he could get out of the hospital and live a good life, “But you have to eat.” Driving home from the hospital, Janet told me how Dad’s mother died. “When they told Grandma they’d have to amputate her foot, she stopped eating.” Dad had already lost the toes of one foot and the other foot up to the ankle.
Since Dad had always loved bowls of ice cream with Hershey’s Syrup, I felt triumphant when a helpful nurse got me a tiny cup of vanilla. That had to have some protein, right? I fed Dad spoonfuls. “Am I about done?” he asked when the container was still half full.
My mother, my five siblings, and I took shifts going down to the cafeteria for lunch. Since we never knew when the doctors would do rounds, we wanted someone in the room. Mom often packed a sandwich and ate it next to Dad’s bed.
At the cafeteria, I always got a window table, though the second floor cafeteria looked out over a flat rooftop between two eight-story towers. The first day I ate there, the rooftop had late snow on it. Someone had placed a family of yellow rubber ducks on the shingles, where they sat forlorn in the white.
My siblings universally panned the cafeteria food. “It’s like they’re cooking for the patients—everything is bland, bland, bland,” my brother Arne said. Janet and my brother Eric confined themselves to the salad bar. I brought my lunch. I’d eat my mushroom and kale soup while watching the typical Washington rain pool around the ducks on the roof. Then I’d dig into whatever dessert I’d bought at the cafeteria that day—apple pie, cheesecake, a giant snickerdoodle.
Dad consumed mostly protein drinks and Boost pudding. His mind was wandering. When I asked him if he wanted to eat some of his breakfast, he said that my brother, who wasn’t in the room, was making him some toast. I soaked tiny shreds of his cold toast in milk so he could get it down. He ate two bites.
When I asked him if he wanted to eat some of his breakfast, he said that my brother, who wasn’t in the room, was making him some toast.
My last night before I had to fly home, he was a little more alert. My husband and I were alone in the room with him. Dad asked if we had eaten dinner yet. “You should go to La Casita,” he said, naming a neighborhood restaurant far away in California.
“Maybe he’d eat some refried beans,” my husband said. I doubted it. I doubted he would eat anything.
The morning before my plane left, I paid Dad one last visit. We were tracking every spoonful he ate on a chart on the door: two bites of egg salad, half a protein shake, a teaspoon of peanut butter. The nurse came in with a concoction of ice cream, Boost pudding and protein drink. “I’ve never made one chocolate on chocolate on chocolate before,” she said. I remembered my dad running the blender, making peach milkshakes for the whole family.
I stood next to his bed and put the straw in his mouth. He looked at me with the bright, almost happy gaze he was using now that he was not fully in our world. He slurped the dark brown concoction without taking his eyes off me. “A little more,” I said. I could tell he didn’t want to drink any more, but he finished it, all the way to the sludgy bottom. When I went out to record it on the door chart, Eric asked, “How much of it did he eat?’
“The whole thing,” I said.
“The whole thing?” Then I realized how unusual that was. Dad knew I was leaving. I think he drank it all for me.
Later, at the glassed in airport food court, I ordered a pizza, gooey mozzarella slicked with olive oil on a chewy, charred crust. Around me people wolfed down Wendy’s fries, sushi, and pork burritos, while outside the last of the sunset faded into endless blue.
Artwork by Maryanne Poppano
About Ann Hillesland
Ann Hillesland, a California native, writes fiction and nonfiction. Her work has been published in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Sou’wester, Bayou, The Laurel Review, Corium, and SmokeLong Quarterly. It has been selected for the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions, been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and has been presented onstage by Stories On Stage. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Queen’s University of Charlotte. Her website, including links to other work and her blog on hats, is at https://www.annhillesland.com/.