My mother died two weeks ago. She had been deeply ill — dying for so long, so slowly. What we knew would one day happen did: she lost the ability to eat. She had a stroke that made it difficult for her to swallow, to make all those muscles in the mouth and throat cooperate; eating made her so tired — it took so much work — that she would fall asleep after half a cup of yogurt or ice cream. Her body would then work so hard to digest that tiny amount of food that she’d run a fever, every resource she had working at doing what we all try to do every day: eat enough to live. She had food available; she had trained medical help; it was just that her body faced that rule, eat or die, and made a different choice than it had before.
What food she could eat, for those few moments of wakefulness, clearly gave her pleasure. Her diet in her last weeks was ice cream, yogurt, pie filling, milkshakes — anything smooth enough to swallow easily and sugary enough to make it fun. She liked the sweet tastes on her tongue. The food she ate wasn’t to stay alive but rather to provide bodily pleasure as she slipped away. Food, like the liquid morphine she took several times a day, gave her relief from the work of dying. Eat, or die.
My mom was one of the few people in my life who never made me feel ashamed to like food. She taught me and my brothers how to bake cookies and always let us lick the bowl and wooden spoon afterwards. When I was 12 and had my tonsils out, she put me on the aforementioned ice-cream-and-milkshake regimen and read Nancy Drew books to me when I was too tired to read them myself. She knew that food was something that made us live and gave us joy: we eat, and we die, so eat well.
She was a good mother; she loved me — she loved the actual, living world — unconditionally. There are no other rules.