My young brain saw the resemblance – the mud-colored crawfish skirting the shallows of Chester Creek and the bright red lobster tails on our dinner table. “Forget it,” I said, though it was clear Mom and Dad enjoyed all steps of the ritual. First broil on the same cookie sheet that birthed hundreds of Christmas cookies in winter, then crack the shell, wriggle the too-white meat out, then dip into drawn butter and I’m left to watch their joyful faces as they chew. Their palpable pleasure finally broke down my refusal, and one night I gave it a shot. It was too much work for two bites, this being the era of cocktail sized lobster tail, but the flavor and butter won me over – I liked it! I could see the disappointment on my father’s face, now having to share this rare treat with his growing boy.
To compete with my father was new to me, but probably not to him. My Mom stayed at home and applied her scientific and creative mind to my rearing. And only one of Dad’s three shifts brought him home when I was not at school, and awake. After he taught me to play ping pong, his merciless pencil grip spin left me only a faint hope to lob it back over the net. There was no score keeper at that dinner table, but he knew his tail tally was going to fall from now on.
In the 1960’s, Smorgasbords were a special treat. For a fixed and reasonable price, you got to take what you wanted and eat as much as possible. Days before one visit, Dad declared his intention – to eat only lobster tails – no potatoes, no bread, and certainly no vegetables. I could not resist the siren call of variety, but Frank stayed focused. Before the wait removed the first plate of shells, he started counting. Later with a buttery grin, he finally cried “Uncle,” and pushed the last plate away – twenty six lobster tails vanquished.
Fast forward 50 years and 1000’s of meals, recently diminishing in variety and enjoyment due to failing eyesight, hearing, taste and chewing ability, with back teeth gone. And now swallowing – his chart reads purees and thin liquids only.
We’ve been in the ER for hours now and I have not told him of the blood clots in his huge swollen leg and throughout his lungs. Or the new bleeding on the surface of his brain. Or that no procedures offer hope, and no commitment to vigorous physical therapy can reverse his flagging strength, balance, or raise the fog clouding his thinking. I sit with all this, and know that hospice arrangements must be made. The alarm beeps when he bends his left arm, blocking the last IV antibiotic he’ll be allowed to have. At last I find the button to cancel it.
Out of that cinderblock silence he says, again, “I sure would like something to eat.” The doc withdrew the “nothing to eat or drink” order just after 6 PM. It’s 9:00 now, and despite repeated requests, they have not even brought a bottle of Boost. So I ask, “What would you like to eat, if you could have anything?” Those aged blue eyes clear instantly for his answer, “Lobster tail!”
Two days later, back in assisted living, I present him with a large lobster tail on a glass plate, with a small bowl of melted butter. His eyes beam like the sun. He insists on the first bite cold, without butter, as if to confirm this vision is real. Joy lights up his face, front teeth working it hard. Since he is unable to swallow anything beyond liquids, I tell him it is okay to spit it out when the flavor is gone, he does so, like old Doublemint. I throw two big chunks in the microwave, then puree in the blender with butter. I fill a spoon, pour more butter on it, and he opens his mouth and immediately says, “Ah!” His jaws tire after four or five spoonfuls and I figure I’ll get the last chunks not yet pureed. He keeps going though, complaining that he’s not really eating this delight. I counter that he is enjoying it in the only manner left to him. He persists, and accepts the last bite as eagerly as the first, chin shiny with buttery gold. He won this round – and I silently scheme to find more ways to offer him a few more triumphs.