A guest post from my wife, Ana Gabriel Mann, on milk, soup, and love as deep as an ocean.
This morning I awoke to realize that the milk was spoiled.
We had bought the milk to make my mom’s favorite homemade tomato soup, from a recipe that her mother, my grandmother, taught me forty years ago.
For the better part of the past five years I’ve been making my mom’s favorite lunches, dinners, Western omelette sandwiches, clam chowders, and anything else she wanted so we could both feel better about the fact that my husband and I could no longer take care of her at home. (And to give her a much needed break from the truly awful food at the nursing home where she had now taken up residence.)
Every morning when I awoke I would plan my day around making and bringing her lunch and her adored hot fresh coffee. I took no phone calls, made no appointments. By noon I would be sitting with her and visiting while she ate, watching her enjoy every bite.
During those visits over lunch, she and I would review every last memory we could dig up. Some days we had truly remarkable conversations about virtually everything of any importance between us, going all the way back to her childhood and, sometimes, all the way forward to her death. She told me things about her life that I had never known. We discussed at length our views of God and the afterlife. She witnessed my tears in those moments when I told her that after she was gone, I would miss her every day for the rest of my life. We talked about anything and everything we could think of — and yet the entire time we were talking I knew that the moment she was gone, I would start to think of the many questions I had never asked, the myriad of things that still went unsaid.
That’s just how it is, I eventually realized. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t say everything.
In the last several weeks of her life her appetite waned and she ate far less. The last two weeks, it was soup that she wanted most, and especially her favorite, her mother’s homemade tomato, made with fresh whole milk.
During this time her pain increased, and the medications given to ease her pain also sedated her and made her sleep many more hours than she was awake. Still, she sat up whenever I came, to have some soup and visit about whatever was new in my life.
One Tuesday near the end of March, John wrote the most beautiful blog about Sylvia. He referred to the place we had arrived, where we were still holding onto her but knew we were near the end of this time, as “where the string meets the knot.”
I held her hand that night, fed her soup by the teaspoonful, and told her about John’s blog post and his metaphor about the string and the knot.
She smiled deeply and said, “That is exactly where we are, Honey.”
She knew, and I knew, that the days of sitting together were numbered. As much as I was fully adult in my understanding, I felt a deep and childlike urgency, a desire to freeze the moment so I wouldn’t ever have to face the inevitable. I had reassured her that I would be sad but that I would be okay, too, to which she replied, “You’ll be fine. You’re strong, like me.”
On Thursday night, it happened: she could no longer swallow the soup. Even the smallest sips made her cough and choke. I brought the thermos of hot soup back home that night; pouring it down the sink, I knew I had made the last meal. The gravity of the moment made me numb. It was as if the house had collapsed.
On Friday I went without soup, we just sat together.
On Saturday morning my most loyal friend, my dear Sylvia, my mother, passed quietly. That morning the sky broke open and delivered a torrential rain.
Simple routines are the guard rails of our lives. They inform us of the fragile, ever-present boundaries between the safe and secure and the chasms of the unknown. We seldom realize their strength until they’re gone. Making home-cooked meals for my mom made me feel that even though I couldn’t control her illness, I could at least bring her company and comfort.
It allowed me to feel that I could somehow control the situation … until I couldn’t.
For the first few days that I didn’t make soup, I felt lost. It wasn’t the soup, really. It was me. I was adrift upon an open sea. Grief coming in waves I couldn’t control, waves I simply had to ride.
Finding the spoiled milk on our refrigerator shelf this morning was a punctuation mark, a period at the end of one sentence and the start of a new one. Much as you may want to hold onto a moment and make it last forever, you can’t. The only moment you can truly possess is the one before you right now.
The spoiled milk made it clear that I’d already set foot on a new path. A path, perhaps, where making homemade soup will serve as a sweet reminder of the power of simple routines, and of love as deep as an ocean.