By Angelique Tung
PROMPT — During COVID-19 ...
Tuesday: “Mom’s in the ER. Dr. recommended hospice,” read a text from my sister.
That night over dinner, calamari pasta in red sauce, with my husband and two boys, I discuss the possibility of going to visit my mother in California. “The reality is,” I told them, “if I went, I’d have to self-isolate for two weeks when I get back to Boston.” “We’ll starve to death,” my sixteen-year-old cries as he twirled linguine around his fork. The irony of my son’s comment struck hard as my mother lay in a hospital bed 3,000 miles away. Literally, starving to death.
On the one hand, could I live with myself if I didn’t visit my mother? On the other, I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave my family for more than two weeks. A loop plays in my head asking, what if they don’t miss me? I call my sister who is sitting vigil at my mother’s bedside. “This situation seems impossible right now. How do I choose?”
Despite my ambivalence, I search flights to California and evaluate my options given restrictions due to COVID-19. As each day passes I have to choose between seeing my mother or continuing the humble task of feeding my family during this challenging time of quarantine.
Wednesday: “Nursing director said couple of weeks but if you look it up, if mom not able to drink fluids, then 4-5 days.”
During the past several weeks, as my mother’s health deteriorates, I occupy my time thinking about cooking food, planning meals and compiling shopping lists. Feeding my family has been a comfort now more than ever. I have kept my fears at bay by serving meals of flank steak with chimichurri sauce, salmon with tomato coulis, fresh blueberry muffins and homemade chocolate cake. If I feed them well, they won’t notice that we’ve been unable to leave the house for what feels like a million consecutive days. My focus on daily cooking confers normalcy in our otherwise mundane routine.
Though there weren’t many, one of my favorite memories as a child involved my mother and me in our tiny kitchen on West Street. I am sitting at the oval Formica table hollowing out the doughy insides of an éclair so my mother could fill them with creamy vanilla custard. Once filled, she’d dribble streams, with precise delicacy, of dark melted chocolate over each one. My mouth watered as I admired the glossy desserts resting side by side on the wire rack like dead soldiers waiting to be buried.
Thursday: “No IV in hospice, offer of fluids but late dementia patients not able to swallow.”
During the cold months of winter, my mother filled our pot-bellied stove with kindling to warm the kitchen in preparation of weekend bread baking. She’d spend the morning making the dough starter by meticulously mixing packages of yeast with warm milk and sugar. After the yeast was proofed, she’d carefully measure the flour to create mounds of dough that she’d set into individual glass bowls, cover with dishtowels, and place near the stove where they’d rise overnight. By the time I woke up the next morning, she’d already started kneading the dough balls that had grown twice in size. I’d watch the muscles on her back tighten as she punched the dough, roll and knead into submission. Before the dough went into the baking pans she’d fold in tomato sauce for a savory loaf, or peanut butter or cinnamon for breakfast bread. I peeked through the oven window intoxicated by the yeast and waited patiently for the baked loaves so I could have a slab smothered in melted butter.
Friday: “Mom’s talking a bit. I just fed her yogurt since caregiver was serving dinner to others. She’s drinking juice.”
On Monday, she’d make sandwiches for my school lunch. My lunches looked different from the other kids. The pale, peach-colored tomato bread sandwiches, often filled with fresh-caught albacore tuna, stood out like beacons calling and directing my classmates to make fun of me. “What are you eating?” one student said. “It smells like tuna fish.” Ewwww, the others would chime in. What I’d do for fresh albacore on toasted tomato bread. I didn’t realize at the time, but my family was poor and store-bought bread was more expensive than a packet of yeast. Still, I wanted to fit in and believed a Jif peanut butter sandwich with store-bought jam slathered between two pasty white tasteless slices of Wonder Bread would help.
Bread baking was an arduous process, so I tried to convince my mother to buy white Wonder Bread from Safeway. I’d follow her down the bread aisle to search for the red, blue and yellow packaging. I’d squeeze the soft loaves and was amazed how the bread never sprang back afterward. It sat on the shelf with my hand imprinted on the loaf for the next unsuspecting customer.
Saturday: “Sleeps a lot but then wakes up for short periods of time, eye open, we offer juice or water.”
Sitting at my computer planning our weekly menu, chicken tikka masala, scallops on fennel, and beef Bolognese, I gaze at Instagram photos of steaming loaves of bread. I’m ashamed to say that despite my love of cooking, I haven’t found the courage to try my hand at this new quarantine-inspired trend. I tried baking bread once, years ago, and failed not realizing the yeast had gone bad and my proof didn’t materialize. Perhaps I’m lazy or maybe I know I’ll never be able to recreate that memory of my mother, strong and alive as she kneaded life-sustaining bread. Then I realize my family needs me now more than ever.
Sunday: “Mom still able to take in water by sucking sponge. Hard for her to swallow.”
The truth is, I don’t want to fly to California to watch my mother choking on her own saliva. I don’t want to see my mother’s once vibrant blue eyes dimmed. I can’t bear to witness her mouth frozen. Would she recognize me? Would I be sad if she didn’t? I decide to stay home and continue wearing the same pajama pants I’ve had on for the past seventeen days.
It’s been years since my mother has cooked a meal for me. We may never share another meal together. I dream that when the quarantine is over, I can visit her. Maybe I can find her tomato bread recipe in an old cookbook and feed her a slice smothered with butter. Until then, I bake pumpkin muffins and make white bean soup with kale to sustain us until we no longer mourn.
Angelique Tung is a California transplant who resides in Wellesley, MA with her husband and two teenage sons. When she's not feeding her family or writing, she volunteers for OUT MetroWest, an LGBTQ non-profit that provides programming for youth. She is also on the Board of Friends of Wellesley METCO. Eventually, she hopes to have gainful employment in development. She is currently working on a memoir about epigenetics.