“Would you like something to eat?”
Mrs. Ruby walked to her dresser, opened a drawer and lifted the delicates, to reveal a selection of halloween candy, two cookies and a yeast roll, wrapped up in a paper napkin. This was her table for me, the only one she had. Not good enough, but good enough all the same. I took a Reese’s and a cookie and sat on her bed. The chocolate had turned white and the shortbread was stale. “Thank you!” I said, eating them up and she smiled. She didn’t have her hearing aids in, but she was watching me.
“I’ve been saving them,” she said.
Two years later, I was called into her hospital room one morning. “Please, would you try to get her to eat? She hasn’t taken a bite in two days,” her children said.
I sat beside her and we talked awhile, just taking turns and nodding, because her hearing aids had been lost during surgery.
“Not hungry?” I yelled, pointing to the covered dish on the rolling tray.
“No, I’m not,” she said firmly. “They are putting medicine in my food and I don’t want it. A patient has rights,” she said, with that lovely thin finger in the air.
I nodded my support and opened the cover off the plate. Her breakfast had grown cold. The grits were solidified and the scrambled eggs were too pale. Hospital food doesn’t exactly foster the will to live. I opened a little syrup container and poured it over the sausage and jellied the biscuit and started eating. Mhmm, I said.
Her eyebrows raised. She was watching me. “Is that real maple syrup?”
I looked down at the label. “No—” I said but with a smile and a nod, for the Greater Good.
“Want some?” I offered her a bite from my fork, and she took it.
Back and forth, we ate the biscuit. It was her last meal, and my last in her sweet company. It wasn’t great, but it was good. It was good to be together.
Twenty years ago, I was lifted up onto a washer machine by my grandfather. He popped open a can of Vienna Sausage, and using his Old Timer pocket knife, offered me a bite. Even then, I had a general understanding of what real animals look like prepared for eating, and this clearly wasn’t one of them, but I opened up all the same.
There isn’t much I can talk about with expertise or standing. In order to be professional at something at the age of twenty-six, you have to have been born into it. People sometimes ask me for advise on ministering to the elderly, often their own family members who won’t quite trust them for whatever reason. The best (and sometimes hardest) counsel I can give you is to eat with them. Eat their own food with them, whatever it is. It’s like any other kind of kinship. With all love there is an element of shame. Presenting our food is like nakedness, sharing it, an intimacy. Will they despise me, laugh at me? If you don’t understand this, you’ve never been a kid at a school lunch table, with a red cabbage burrito inside your lunchbox, surrounded by PB&Js on square white bread and lunchables. I couldn’t muster the courage to bring it out. I chose to starve. Food and shame, shame and food. With children and the elderly these things are just more upfront. They are fragile, closer to God. Yet loving them is simple. Just sit down and offer that toothless man who is so uncertain of what you think of him and so fearful of life and death, a sip of your milkshake.
I opened the door to the big brick house the other day. “Come on in Honey, it’s good to see you. Before you do anything, I want you to go to the back fridge and get that slice of jello mold. They had it at the church social last week and I want you to taste it.”
I do not like molds, dear reader. Or sugar-free jello, highly marketable for the elderly, or mini marshmallows or Red Dye 40 or food that comes home to linger for days after surviving a church social. Call me a people pleaser, but the only thing that sounds worse is hurting the feelings of a good woman. So I ate it, glad to find pineapple and pistachios there on the bright side, and felt the conviction that jello molds are, after all, not a thing intrinsically evil and thus capable of redemption in the fullness of time.
But Aspartame will surely be put under His feet before the last enemy is destroyed.