The last time I was at the old deli, it was Christmas time. My brother had wanted to go out to the bank to get some cash to put in cards for gifts. Pre ATM days.
He’d not been able to do any shopping and he wanted to have something to give to the kids. As Nana got older, she always gave cash for Christmas. It seems to be some kind of omen in our family – giving cash for Christmas – an omen signifying impeding doom.
Shopping for Christmas gifts apparently is one of the last faculties to go. With Nana, it started as sending checks to the geographically distant grandchildren. By the time she was in her 90’s, buying, wrapping and mailing in advance became something of a chore. But, once the local grandchildren started receiving cash in a card instead of the usual mittens and scarves, we knew something was seriously wrong.
That day, the day of the outing, was a cold, gray, sunless one. It was just before the Winter Solstice. It was the kind of day the Druids must have dreaded. Dreary. The days were getting shorter and shorter; grayer and grayer. Fortunately, those Druids had the foresight to establish a festival of light to bring the daylight back from the abyss of the dying. Whether we call it Christmas, Chanukah or Kwanza, we all need that festival of light, that reprieve from the darkness. Sometimes, it even works.
Alan had wanted to go to the bank. So, we bundled his frail body against the cold and set out into the chill gray of the year’s shortest day.
Those blood transfusions of the previous week didn’t give him much except a fever. The day after the transfusion, he was in the same weak state he’d been in the day before. He’d been down a quart or so, but I guess he must have had an undetected leak somewhere or else his body just ate up the new blood -eating it up and spitting it out, transformed into the same tainted, T-cell deprived stuff he’d started with.
We’d expected so much from those transfusions. They were going to be the magic potion, our Christmas miracle. Your blood stinks? No problem, sir. Step right up. We’ll give you some more. Drive right in. We’ll check and top off all your fluids. Fifteen minutes or less or the next one’s free. He was probably entitled to a few free transfusions because for sure, the ones he got were duds. Or, maybe it was just his body that was a dud.
Wrapped and swaddled against the cold, looking like a six-foot toddler dressed by his overprotective mother for a day of sledding, he walked the few steps from the parking lot to the bank. The ordeal, and it was an ordeal, was too much for him. I took care of the transaction while he caught his breath. He was exhausted, but he had his cash for the kids’ cards.
Could he eat? How about something hot to drink? How about just getting out of the cod for a few minutes? The deli was right next door; the deli he’d always loved. I’d always avoided it, but he loved it. As children, we’d been raised on white bread, never whitefish, but his decades of living in New York had somehow transformed him into a deli-connoisseur. For some reason, he loved it.
I have no ethnicity. I have no warm happy memories of food – food for cheer or comfort. While others relish sliced tongue on sisal, I’ll have raisin bread with grape jelly. The cacophony of smells – pickles, brisket, fish and knockwurst – assault rather than soothe my olfactory sense. A deli is not a place where I’ll seek solace.
“Let’s have the latkes” I said with perhaps a little too much bubbly enthusiasm. He was sick, but he wasn’t stupid. He saw right through me. The combination of the choking thrush in his throat and the potentially toxic cocktail of untested drugs he was taking had successfully eradicated any vestige of appetite he might have had. He had basically been starving for weeks and I took it as my personal mission to see to it that some food passed those lips. I’d do whatever it took, even if it meant sitting at a Formica table inhaling the essence of bagels and sable fish.
The potato latkes were always a favorite of his – too oniony for my taste, hot and greasy. We ordered them with applesauce. I was convinced that the applesauce was essential to lubricate your innards as the latkes burned their way through your gullet. He moved his food around on his plate, feigning eating. After a few minutes, he stopped even that charade. His eyes, although he’d only seen 42 winters, looked at me from sockets sunk deep into his skull – an ancient wizened sage.
Quietly, almost in a whisper, he said “I think I’d like to go.”
Having recently lost a friend who couldn’t eat at the end, I could almost smell the oniony, greasy latkes as you described them and I cringed knowing that something that once brought your brother joy was now so unpleasant. I’m sorry for your loss.
Thank you for sharing this lovely, poignant tribute to your brother. Your story resonates for all of us who have accompanied loved ones on that journey, but especially captures the sorrow of the ’80s and ’90s when so many vibrant young people fell to AIDS. My heart goes out to you.
Peggy, this is so moving and beautifully written. I’ve heard you talk about your brother so often. Thank you for sharing this story of him, so close to the end. I hope it helped you to write it. I send an embrace and hope to see you soon.