Essay Non-Fiction posted December 29, 2018

This work has reached the exceptional level
Unlike birds, people use food for more than survival.

Have Some More

by Rhonda Skinner

The phone rings and my sister says, "Dad collapsed. The ambulance took him to University Hospital. Can you come?"
I lace up my winter boots and leave right away. Possible diagnoses swirl in my head as I merge onto the freeway. Low blood pressure? Stroke? By the time I get close to the hospital I've diagnosed a heart attack. I finally find a parking spot and jog to the emergency entrance. Mom and my sister Carole are sitting in the waiting room.
"They took Dad for some tests," Carole says.
Mom sits ramrod straight with her hands folded over her purse on her lap. She's bracing for the worst. Twenty minutes later an orderly wheels Dad's gurney into the emergency ward. The doctor says, "Walter's heart rate dropped significantly. That's why he passed out. We're going to admit him, monitor his heart, and implant a pacemaker if necessary." Sensing Mom's anxiety, he adds, "Don't worry. We'll take good care of him.

Snow squeals with each footstep, announcing my presence in the woods. This remnant of a forest sneaks through the city along Whitemud Creek. I come here every Friday afternoon. The pine scent invites me in, and I do not come empty handed. I carry a bag of seeds and nuts to feed my forest hosts. They need good, fattening food to survive this cold winter. The path weaves among evergreens, aspens, and birch as it leads me to the feeding station, a rectangle of wood railings. Instead of placing food on the railing, I pour it into my hand and hold it out. I want the birds to come closer. I need to feel their presence, their tiny feet on my hand. I hear wingbeats to my right and a black-capped chickadee lands on my thumb. I marvel at how seeds and nuts can persuade these tiny, wild creatures to come to me. He lingers a few seconds, selects a peanut, and flies away. Relishing the satisfaction I feel when I'm hand feeding chickadees, I think of my mom. Thirty years ago she came down with empty nest syndrome when I moved out on my own. Mom used to call and say, "I never see you. Come for Sunday supper." She made all my favourites: scalloped potatoes, ham, yellow beans, and lemon meringue pie. "Have some more," she'd urge me. Love served on the everyday dishes. And a little more sealed in Tupperware to take home.
"Have some more," I tell the birds, while I spread seeds and nuts along the railing. It's time to see more of the woods. Today I am especially grateful for the forest's hospitality. Its peacefulness is a welcome contrast to Monday's scare with Dad.

A week later, Dad remains in the hospital and Christmas preparations are squeezed in between hospital visits. The hot oil hisses as I lower the batter-covered rosette iron into the deep fryer. Shortbread cookies cool on the kitchen table. Holidays offer even more chances to use food to express love.

When the ECG tickertape readings elicit nods and new orders from the doctor, Dad is freed from the heart monitoring leads. The pacemaker is doing its job. Green hospital pyjamas replace the clumsy gown. I put a cookie tin on his bedside table, and Mom and I catch up on how his night went and how he is feeling today. Then I go for the drinks -- two coffees and one hot chocolate with whipped cream. Dad loves his hot chocolate. When I get back to his room, he is sitting in a chair and eating a rosette. Mom says, "He just couldn't wait to get into them." I feel a surge of contentment as I watch him finish that cookie and reach for another. Mom knows exactly how I'm feeling.
"Have some more," I tell him. Tomorrow I'll bring some shortbread.

Three ravenous chickadees stalk me. They keep pace with me, flying from branch to branch and calling "dee dee dee" as I walk down the path. They are clever enough to coax a meal out of me before I reach the feeding station. Here, they won't be elbowed out by cheeky nuthatches. I stop, like a roadside vendor, to cater to these early birds. When my outstretched arm starts aching, I withdraw my hand and continue down the path.

December 24th finds Mom downhearted. Dad is still in the hospital, but the incision site looks good. Dad's cardiologist, wearing a white lab coat and a red velvet Santa hat, bounds into the room.
"You'll be much more comfortable at home," he says. "Go have a merry Christmas. We'll see you at the pacemaker clinic in six weeks."
We take Dad home where he celebrates the holiday under Mom's strict supervision. My sister brings Christmas dinner from her house to their apartment. After enduring two weeks of hospital food, Dad eagerly digs into the turkey, stuffing, cranberries, potatoes, and gravy. Between mouthfuls he sips his tea. Then Mom clears the table to make room for plates of shortbread cookies, butter tarts, and Nanaimo bars.

A month goes by without incident and we're all back in our regular routines. But then the phone rings at 5:30 in the morning. My husband and I rush over to my parents' apartment. We call for an ambulance. The emergency room doctor seems mildly amused. He hasn't found a cause for Dad's lethargy and weakness. I'm angry at Dr. Hoity-toity; his demeanour suggests that he sees a tired old man whose family is overreacting to a simple case of fatigue. Two hours later, humbled by the results of Dad's blood tests, the doctor returns. And he isn't smiling. Dad won't be sent home after all.

Two weeks later, Mom asks me, "Why do they keep bringing him sandwiches? He never eats them. How is he ever going to get stronger if he doesn't eat?"
Our family sets a schedule to ensure one of us is with Dad for his noon and evening meals. On the days we know he'll be served something he doesn't like, we bring food that he enjoys. Pancakes and syrup are a big hit. Dad's appetite is good, but his condition is not improving. The doctors keep ordering IV antibiotics and testing for signs that they're clearing the blood infection.

My sisters take Mom to the hospital on Fridays, and I go for chickadee therapy in the ravine. The birds keep our appointment, and the session goes well. They help me distance my thoughts from the hospital and my shoulders from my ears. But when I get to the bench at the feeding station I notice an injured chickadee. Dried blood coats the seam between its body and its right wing. I wince as I watch it struggling, trying to manoeuvre its way to some peanuts on the railing. I lean forward, poised to act, but there is nothing I can do to help. All I can do is watch and hope that it will be able to eat. To heal. To survive.

The following Tuesday another doctor tells us the infection has settled on Dad's pacemaker leads. The device meant to save his life is killing him. A team of doctors, whose names and specialties we can barely pronounce, decides that the pacemaker has to come out. Dad is so tired and weak after the surgery that he can't feed himself. I dip pieces of pancake into syrup and, like a baby bird, Dad opens his mouth and waits for the next bit of food to come. He doesn't eat much at a time, but he still looks forward to his hot chocolate or tea, until even that simple pleasure is denied him. Dad's body is retaining liquids that are putting pressure on his heart and lungs. Fluid restriction is written in felt pen under Dad's nameplate outside his room. Mom's expression is as pained as Dad's.

The birds are focused on courting and building nests. I miss having them come one after another to fetch a peanut. A chickadee pecking out a nesting cavity in a birch tree keeps me enthralled while I hold out my hand, hoping to feel tiny feet land on it.

Even though the cardiologist removed the pacemaker, Dad is still septic. He is bloated and winces in pain. The hospital social worker takes Mom and me aside to the family room. The doctors have determined Dad can't go home, even if the blood infection is eradicated. She wants Mom to fill in an application form. She wants Mom to start looking for an extended care facility for Dad. She wants Mom to read this and sign that and initial here. Mom has lived under the same roof, raised eight children, and slept next to this man for almost seventy years. And now some stranger wants Mom to tell him he's never going home.

As Dad becomes weaker, Mom desperately tries to help him gain strength. She brings scalloped potatoes. Creamed onions. Pea soup. But even his favourite homemade foods hold little appeal.
"Come on, Dear. Have some more."
"Maybe later. I'm tired," he says. "So tired."

Three days later, the phone rings. As the receiver rests back in its cradle, our glazed-over eyes spill out a mixture of sadness and relief. Dad is gone, but he is at rest now. In between tears and hugs, family members mechanically carry out the requisite tasks. Pick up Dad's personal effects. Call out-of-town family members. Support Mom at the funeral home. Pre-arrangements have lightened the burden, but decisions regarding flowers, the leaflet, and the reception menu must be made today.

In the days that follow, people offer all the standard expressions of sympathy -- I'm so sorry, please accept my condolences, you are in my thoughts and prayers. White noise to a mind numbed by grief. Many visitors use food to minimize their sense of helplessness. We all know that when we can't possibly ease someone's pain, at least we can bring a casserole. The survivors have got to eat.

Mom sets her fork down and nudges her plate forward. I have made all her favourites: roast beef, carrots, and potatoes with gravy. I pour her some tea and gently say, "Mom, you've hardly touched your supper again tonight. Please, just try -- have some more."

The chickadees are busy feeding their babies. If I stand quietly I can hear them peeping as mom approaches. I imagine her telling them, "have some more" as they eagerly oblige her. Next winter I will feed them too.

Non-Fiction Writing Contest contest entry
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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