In honor of my mom, Dorothy Johnson Moore, who died on January 17, 2002.
(This piece, which I wrote in 2011, is from the collection Recipes for My Sons: Instructions on Cooking & Life by Nan McCarthy—a work-in-progress of letters to my sons about family, life, and food.)
I saw a movie today where the mom was in a coma and the kids and husband had to say goodbye to her before taking her off life support. I got really choked up seeing the grief on the kids’ faces, especially the ten-year old’s. Since I lost my own dad so young stuff like that always rips my heart out. But then I started thinking about the mom and how sad it was that she couldn’t say what she might have wanted to say because she was in a coma. And I started feeling really bad for her even though she was married to George Clooney. Well, she wasn’t married to George Clooney in real life but in the movie she was married to George Clooney. And although I wouldn’t mind being married to George Clooney (that is, if I wasn’t already married to your dad), I would mind being in a coma and I would especially mind not being able to talk to you guys if I was about to die. Even being married to George Clooney wouldn’t make up for having to lie in a hospital bed listening to your family say goodbye to you with your lips all dry and cracked and chalky-looking and not being able to say anything. And I asked myself, what would the mom say if she could talk? What would I want to say to my children if I knew I was about to die?
I guess it would depend on how much time I had. Five minutes, five hours, five days, five weeks, or five months? If it was just five minutes I would cut to the really important stuff, like how much I love you guys and could you please make sure the funeral home fixes my hair the right way. If it was five weeks or five months I’d probably have a really long list of items to go over, like where all the computer passwords are and not to let your father keep wearing all his clothes from the ’80s—they make him look like a dork and he’ll never get a new wife wearing the Magnum P.I. Hawaiian shirt tucked into the high-waisted Lee jeans with the skinny belt, no socks and those huarache sandals we bought in Puerto Vallarta when Coleman was still in a stroller.
Speaking of last words, not long before Nana died, she wanted us to call her neighbors in Florida and tell them not to throw out the bacon grease she’d been saving in the refrigerator. I suppose if you were the daughter of a Polish immigrant who cooked pretty much everything in bacon grease, you’d be concerned about what would become of your stash of bacon grease after you died too. Speaking of bacon grease the last meal Nana requested before she died was bacon and eggs.
Nana’s Bacon & Eggs
Fry up an entire package of bacon in a skillet over medium heat. Remove the bacon from the skillet to drain on paper towels. Pour half the bacon grease in a glass container with an airtight lid. (If you already have a hoard of bacon grease stored in your refrigerator just add the new bacon grease to the old.) With the remaining bacon grease in the pan, break two eggs into the skillet and cook over medium-low heat. While the eggs are cooking baste them with the bacon grease and add a lot of salt and pepper since you’re probably going to have a heart attack anyway. Meanwhile cook two pieces of toast and slather the toast with real butter (not the fake stuff; see previous comment regarding heart attacks.) When eggs are cooked through but still a little runny put them on a plate with the toast and bacon and sprinkle with more salt and pepper. Dip the toast in the egg yolk until the toast and the yellow stuff are gone, leaving the egg whites for the dog. Finish eating the bacon while watching the dog eat the egg whites. (At least the dog won’t have a heart attack.)
Getting back to the movie, one of the reasons I liked it so well was that it wasn’t sappy—none of the characters was a saint, not even the mom who was dying, and there was a lot going on besides the family crowded around the hospital bed alternately crying and throwing objects against the wall. There was a whole subplot involving a Kauai land deal the dad was trying to figure out, in addition to his discovery that his wife was cheating on him before she fell off the jet ski or whatever it was she was riding when she hit her head, nearly drowned and went into a coma. (Not to be mean or anything but it kind of serves her right seeing as she cheated on George Clooney.) My point is that the movie was a lot like real life in that we are all a mixture of annoying and endearing, selfish and generous, troubled and together, and that even when someone close to you is about to die, life continues to happen all around you and you still have to make decisions on whether or not to sell the land to the haoles or hunt down and confront the creep who was screwing your wife or if you should have chocolate or vanilla ice cream for dessert.
And I got to thinking if that were to happen to me—if I suddenly fell into a coma and couldn’t talk to my children, wouldn’t it be nice if I had already written my last words to you, so that after I died you could read everything I ever wanted you to know? Not that I plan on dying anytime soon (although it’s true I recently turned 50). But I do think it’s one of the reasons I became a writer—after my body is dead and gone, my clothes given to Goodwill (or to dad’s new wife—assuming she’s not a size smaller than me), the only things left of a person are the memories and the words. If you’re a writer, you generally leave behind more words than the average person (unless you’re Grandma Caryl, who tended to talk a lot). With any luck, after I’m gone there’ll be more good memories than bad, and my words will still have the power to make you smile.