One Last Bite by L.C. Button

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A piece of pecan pie on a plate

It starts as a joke. An old man hobbles through the nursing home in the dead of night, stark naked. “Any women want to fuck?” he calls out.

My two brothers and I, his only daughter, snicker when the nursing home relays this about our father. Oh, Dad. At least, I say, he asked for volunteers. We laugh so hard, none of us can speak for several seconds. We don’t know what else to do.

We add it to the dozens of stories we tell about him. We imitate his booming voice, his certainty of getting his way. We recount the time he emptied the pool to search for a missing contact lens, the time he cooked us okra, boiled it to slime and forced us to polish our plates. Because nothing’s worse than being hungry, like when his mother died from blood poisoning and left him, his sister, and his brother to fend for themselves with an absent father. He pressed on, godless, with faith only in his intellect and strong, able body.

We compare stories of his fitness, from when we were children. How after work he ran around the neighborhood with no shirt, chest glistening. How we bumped up and down on his ankles, counting sit-ups. The way sweat slid off his nose into his spoon at dinner.

He takes care of his body well into his eighties. Then his brain betrays him, a stroke. He wakes as a man dying in slow motion. Doctors put him on a nectar diet, which sounds delicious, like milk and honey and heaven, but means the texture of wet concrete. We pour thickened orange juice and pureed soups and grainy coffee down his throat.

“What do you want, Dad?” we ask.

“Reuben,” he croaks with authority. We give him one. Why not, we agree. Death by corned beef, not a bad way to go. He wolfs it down. His body insists on living, keeps pumping, alive, while his mind shatters, battered by the explosions of strokes: one big one and then, over two and a half years, small, silent ones.

We find a nursing home with mismatched yard sale furniture, a gravel driveway, and a chicken coop out front, like the small farm from his childhood. Three golden hens puff their breasts. Dad’s mouth almost turns into a smile. The cheery staff teaches him to sit again, then use a walker, clumping down the corridor. They serve bacon and eggs.

He craves sugar, so we bring him honeybuns and glazed crullers, monkey bread, cinnamon rolls, and pies glistening with pecans, berries, apples, and lime. His clawed hand holds a custard croissant and, as if controlled by an offsite operator, his arm jerks up and down, timing of hand and mouth uncertain. His fingers maneuver the flaky mound toward the opening, teeth gray from coffee, the croissant too big, but his hand shoves it in, rimming his lips with lemon curd. The filling stains his sweatshirt. Crumbs hide among the blankets accordioned around his lap. I think of how he used to spoon honey from the jar, his lips pressed around the spoon, perfectly orchestrated, a miracle. One day, he stops eating solid foods. The next, he is back on nectar.

Maybe I can show you my father, who blinks “yes” as he curls on the mattress like a frightened toddler. The sun slices between brown drapes and lays a yellow rectangle at my feet. He wants to die but his body defies him. I want to hug him, but I can’t, so I place my hands behind his stiff shoulders and lean in. He no longer smells like my father, so much like my own scent that it was invisible. Now he exudes harsh detergent, his breath foul with dying.

I press my lips against his forehead, the kiss I might give a baby. Tears wander down his face. His nose drips onto his blanket. Mine, too. He says nothing.

We want him to die, and we want him to become our father again. We want him happy. “What would make you happy, Dad?” I whisper in his bad ear. Not this bloated self, skin with its plastic sheen, legs planted on the small rests of the wheelchair, newly soft flesh and mouth agape.

Somehow, in the eternal dim light of the hospital, he snakes out of bed, undresses, and manages to stand. He thrusts his walker forward into the linoleum hallway, calling out. His body craving a last taste of sweetness. Hungry.

***

The year before, my brother had called me with the news. I have since imagined the scene into memory. One moment, our father was crossing the kitchen, car keys jangling in his hand, on his way to the gym. In the next, he lurched forward, spewed vomit against the door. His legs buckled, his strength unplugged, and his body thumped to the floor. His arms landed askew. His knotted fingers, calloused from years of grasping hot skillets, released the keys with a final clink. The natural slow pump of his heart slowed further. His wife, a step behind him, froze.

A blood clot had wormed into an artery in his brain. Maybe the clot was caused by medication he had been taking for an upcoming surgery. He had insisted on back surgery—at 86!—a man used to getting his way. His wife called, “Dan!” and crouched next to his crumpled body, her own mind bending around what had happened. Did he faint? But the vomit pooled under his slack mouth. She dialed 911 on their landline.

At the moment of a stroke, as blood no longer feeds each section, the brain performs triage, shutting down non-vital functions. The lights dim, firewalls bang closed, capacities shutter. First the cerebrum, with its learned skills, then deeper, into the amygdala, keeper of memories, and the animal hypothalamus.

Did his wife press her hand against his cheek, to soothe him? No doubt she cleaned up first, sponged away the vomit, wiped the splatters off the door. Her life had turned into something she would not recognize and exactly what she and Dad had feared, his mind collapsing.

The change happened in seconds. His bridge playing went first, the card counting, the overconfident bids. Then his ability to read, words and letters crumbling into distorted bits of black and white. His tongue, that mispronounced nostalgia, lost other words. His throat, gag reflex, and swallowing, those faculties trembled on the edge.  His hearing had long ago dulled.

The brain rushes to save what it can. Needs. Emotions. Memories. It kept a few commands. Help me. Now. Drink. Eat. Take. Home. Dad would locate these words later.

And his memories? I imagine us, his wife, my brothers, me, and our families, huddled near his hippocampus, tangled along with the emotions we each evoked: lust, jealousy, pride, laughter, protectiveness. No doubt we squeezed next to his beloved cars, the glide of their smooth bodies, their black metal guts, the throaty smell of oil and gasoline, his uncomplicated joy at tinkering and rebuilding, tools encircling him. As for his childhood, I suspect those memories remained buried in some ancient place, irretrievable. He had only told us a few facts. His mother died when he was five. The worst years of his life. An absence he had not been able to fill in eight decades.

The paramedics arrived. They ripped open the sides of his sweats and snaked tubes into his mouth. They called his name, but he remained deeply unconscious.

Who do we become, stripped of our intelligence, robbed of the guardrails we spend our lives erecting, then breaking and mending? My father preferred action over feelings, understood machines better than people. Would the stroke distort who my father had been, or reveal the core of who he was? Was he the trail of relationships he had left or was he changing, a new person at each moment. Had he become that small child again, driven by want?

His wife pulled on her outdoor coat, the good wool one. The men slid my father into the back of the ambulance, tucked him among the blinking, well-tended equipment. I hope the warm rumble of the engine felt like comfort to him, but I suspect he was rendered powerless, no longer in possession of his keys, captive in a vehicle he did not control, as the miles rolled away from the last home he would know.

***

Dad and I shared many things:

A love of pie, especially pecan. The radical and firmly held belief, when we were each five years old, that ribcages were shelves and food sorted like an automat onto appropriate racks: porkchops with meat, broccoli with veggies, boiled potatoes with white rice and Wonder Bread so, even when you felt full, the dessert shelf sat gloriously empty. The understanding that he wanted a daughter more than boys. Cribbage, which he taught me on the hospital tray when I was six, recovering from a near-death bout of encephalitis; I won a suspect number of games while Dad hid his clench-teethed competitiveness, his real gift to me. The moment he carried me, my legs weak after a month in the hospital, as I nestled in the blanket against his chest, feeling as loved and protected as a child can feel, although I may be the only one who remembers.

The Kitchen Table Wars, which stretched over three years; I gagged when I swallowed mom’s cooking, but Dad insisted I sit until my plate was cleaned and tactical combat ensued: timers were set, threats made, spankings delivered; food was hid, dogs drafted under tables, cheeks stuffed, toilets flushed; ounce for ounce, I think I won. Unfair disdain for my mom and her anxiety. All comics, Sundays especially, the colored ink staining my fingers sticky from donuts as I sat on his lap, his deep voice rumbling through my back. The way our minds looked at problems and tried to solve them logically, without considering feelings, not understanding it should be the opposite. The shiny square of icing peeled off the cake by me to save for last and forked off my plate by Dad who swallowed it in one bite, and I’m still pissed. The lesson to not let people know what you care about, or they will filch your icing. The punch to his stomach that I didn’t deliver, even when he asked me to. Stoicism. A need to prove ourselves. The way we sweat prodigiously. Our smell.

The knowledge that he played footsie with the sixteen-year-old daughter of family friends while we visited them on a trip to Florida when I was in sixth grade, which shamed me but not him. Awkward nights when Dad sat on the edge of my bed, hoping for someone to talk to. An unkind ability to assess a woman’s body and determine exactly where she needed to lose weight, which I learned from him, until I accepted that all shapes hold beauty, even mine. My year in the body cast after spinal surgery, at fifteen, when I once expressed impatience and Dad told me not to start bitching and I still haven’t figured out when I can bitch. The evening I was sixteen, with no social life and still in the cast, and my folks let me drink gin and tonics until I was plastered, and Dad followed me up the stairs, hand pressed behind my torso to steady me. An unhealthy concern about my weight. A passion for Citroens, the French car that can rise and lower with hydraulics, and the time I jumped into Dad’s 1967 remodel and drove away, engine gasping for water, while Dad chased me to the other side of town to rescue the car but laughed anyway. Our favorite song, Gloria Gaynor’s rendition of “I will survive.” A certainty that we were always right, despite the evidence.

The ride home from college after my freshman fall, along route 89, when Dad confessed to me, his 18-year-old virgin daughter, about lusting after women and his declaration of still being faithful to Mom, as I watched the pine trees blur outside the window, proud that he felt I was mature enough to share his adult situation, which I wasn’t. The revelation that I did not want to move home after college. The sadness that the more I accomplished, the less we had to talk about. His unquestioning support when I decided to leave my husband.

Our last time together, alone, at the nursing home, when I told him it was OK to go, that he had been a good dad, and he blinked in reply. A flickering moment in March when, miles apart, he slipped into death while I, at work, unknowing, slipped a triangle of pie onto a paper plate and ate slowly, scooping out the shimmering amber filling with my finger, saving the crusty shelf of pecans for last.

Meet the Contributor

L.C. ButtonL.C. Button heads up storytelling for a large nonprofit. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Longreads, HuffPost, Cognoscenti, the Brevity Blog, and Pangyrus. In December 2023, she appeared in Stories from the Stage on PBS. Prior to all this Button spent 20 years running an ad agency and romping across six continents speaking on creativity and writing. She loves her sprawling, complicated family and martial arts.

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