Kummerspeck

bacon fryingMy phone was being x-rayed by airport security when I got the call. There was a voicemail from my sister Lori. I didn’t need to listen to the message– I knew what she had to say. I imagined the best thing to do under the circumstances was to get to my gate and find a quiet spot to sit down before I played the recording back. But I didn’t need to. My sister phoned again.

She was calling from the hospice. Our mother was dead. The mortuary people were already there. Death may sometimes be a slow affair, but the business of death is always alarmingly swift. My father and stepmother would pick me up at the airport and take the two of us to the funeral home to make the arrangements for mom.

I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, but I knew it was going to be a long day. I wandered over to the Peet’s coffee kiosk for a medium regular and the first muffin I saw.

When I returned to the gate, I sat down and picked at my pastry for a minute before I noticed on the receipt that it was called a “Morning Muffin.” I said to myself, “They forgot the ‘u’ in mourning.” I thought about my mother again. She couldn’t have eaten that muffin– it had sunflower seeds on it. She couldn’t eat seeds. In fact, there were a lot of things she couldn’t eat. But she didn’t have to worry about that anymore. I threw the muffin away, sat back down, and played a little game with myself where I pretend that everything is just fine.

I debated exchanging my free drink coupon for a tiny bottle of whiskey on the short plane trip home, but thought better of it. I worried I’d get emotional and become “that guy who cries on planes”. It wasn’t the right moment for self-medication– there were caskets and flower arrangements to select and such things are best done with as clear a head as possible under the circumstances. Besides, whiskey was one more thing my mother couldn’t have. It would have been her 40th sober birthday in February. I asked for water. No ice.

At the mortuary, we discovered that the only time we could book the church for our mother’s funeral services was the day before Thanksgiving. We knew a lot of people would not be able to attend. There was no other choice– waiting almost two weeks was not a possibility we were willing to face. And at the end of the meeting with the funeral director, my father looked directly at me and said, “You’re doing the eulogy,” which sent a ripple of horror through my body. He was right, of course. There was no one else to do it. I’m “the writer” in the family. I’m the one who’s supposed to have a way with words.

But how does one go about writing a eulogy for one’s own mother? How do you compress 82 years of a person’s life into a few minutes? How do you distill an ocean’s worth of information into a cube of essence the size of the cardboard box we’d soon be storing her keepsakes in? I stared at my computer screen for days trying to come up with something worthy. My sister had been there for her every single day for the past two years during her decline. I worried that I would fail in the one important thing I was asked to do.

I also worried that I was no longer a writer.

drying baconOver the past several months as my mother withdrew deeper and deeper into her dementia, I found myself withdrawing more and more from writing. My desire for composition directly correlated with my mother’s declining desire to eat. Perhaps we no longer saw the point in doing that which sustained us.

She had always been so proud of my writing. “You know where you got that gene from,” she’d say. She was the editor-in-chief of her high school paper and was studying journalism in college when she met my father. She was always asking when my first book was coming out. Later, when she started getting confused, she thought it had already been published. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that no publisher wanted it. I felt like even more of a failure that I never got to show her one. Not that it would have bothered her. Not too much.

But as I sat in bed in my brother’s old room on the day before the funeral, I realized there was something that really would have bothered her– that I was sitting in the dark feeling sorry for myself. Or worse, that I wanted to stop writing. She’d frequently told me how proud of me she was for never giving up. It must have been true, because she kept on saying it even after her mind began to go. The idea that I would use her death as an excuse to give up on writing would have really made her angry.

And she was a woman you really didn’t want to piss off.

So I moved out to the family room, which is the one bright spot in the incredibly dark house of my childhood, and took to heart the most writerly of clichés– write what you know.

I understood that there was a lot I didn’t know about the woman we were about to bury. She shared different parts of herself with different people– she was a friend, a coworker, a counselor, a wife, a neighbor and, in my case, a mother. So I started to write a list of all the things I could think of about her life and used that list as the basis for my eulogy:

mom working on the x-15Like how she turned down being a stewardess because the airline wouldn’t let her wear her engagement ring on the job. And how, instead, she wound up taking a top-secret position at North American Aviation working on the X-15– the first thing the US technically got into outer space– where she had to model Chuck Yeager’s fight suit (because they were the same size) and got to fly in a bomber plane with a briefcase handcuffed to her wrist like a Cold War spy.

Like how she was one of the first people to use a primitive form of the internet working for the Anaheim Convention Center, but still found it nearly impossible to send a damned email.

Or how everyone was so convinced she would die when I was six years old that a priest was called in to the hospital room to perform her last rites. And how she was somehow given a second chance at life and grabbed it with both hands.

That she managed to work two jobs, raise three children, and finally get her university degree at the same time.

That she fought like mad to keep my brother alive and healthy for years after he was diagnosed with AIDS. How she did so at the cost of her own health.

And how she still never lost her sense of humor.

That she was smart and loving, loyal, protective, beautiful and giving. That she could also be stubborn and hard and unforgiving at times. That she was as complicated as the next person. That she was wonderfully flawed and beautifully human.

And that, when I hear someone say that people are incapable of change, I always use her as an example to prove them wrong.

I was strangely relaxed when I delivered the eulogy. As much as anyone on the verge of burying one’s mother could be. I think my mom would have enjoyed my speech because it was as free of bullshit and white-washing as I could make it.  It was a small turn out, as predicted, but the people who were there were all important to her. My sister and I were pleased.

There were only eight of us who drove out to Pacific View Memorial Park. It was windy on the hill and the clouds had blown sufficiently apart to give us all an eyeful of the ocean promised in the name of the cemetery– so much so that we could see Catalina as we lowered her into the ground next to my brother. I took a flower off the casket before she was lowered. And then my father offered to take everyone present out to eat.

We lunched at another place with a view, appropriately named The Summit House. When our server commented on how dressed up we all looked and asked what we were celebrating, I responded, “My mother died,” rather bluntly. My father’s best friend Don suggested that the next time I might say something like, “We’re celebrating my mother’s life today.” I took his advice to heart. Our server was unfazed. Without missing a beat, she suggested that under the circumstances we might need a round of drinks as soon as possible. She was marvelous.

iceburg wedge

 

The restaurant was festive and even more dressed up than we were– they were ready for The Holidays. We placed our orders, most of us choosing the prime rib of beef for which the place was famous. For starters, seven of us ordered the iceberg wedge salad with bleu cheese dressing. It’s a dish I’d never ordered before in my life, but I remember how mom loved it– at least, in the days before my brother’s death when she could
actually eat salads without getting sick.

I thought about my menu choices and realized that my mother not only couldn’t have eaten the salad, but she could eat neither the prime rib nor the creamed spinach nor the creamed corn. She certainly couldn’t have had the martini I was drinking. Nor the second one I was planning on ordering. The only item she could have consumed in relative safety was the top of the Yorkshire pudding, which was the lone disappointing bit of food in front of me that afternoon. But she would have sat there with her iced tea and dried out suet pudding and not complained. She’d just have had a little sandwich and potato chips when she got home later– it’s what she liked.

And then it struck me that I would never share a meal with her again when the salad arrived.

The wedge of lettuce placed in front of me was dotted with crumbled bacon. “Kummer specks,” I thought to myself, playing with words to make such an awful moment seem less so. I knew the day I learned the word kummerspeck that I would always remember it, because my brain would never forgive me if I forgot such a marvelously specific German term for the weight gained from grief eating. “Grief bacon.” My wedge was literally flecked with specks of grief. I didn’t know whether to laugh at that or to cry.

I chose to do neither. I kept that little joke to myself. Instead, I decided to eat and drink all the things my mother couldn’t when she was alive. I lifted the martini glass to my lips, finished off its contents, and gave a subtle nod in the direction I’d like to think she headed when she left her body. I hoped that she was now in a place like heaven where she could order whatever the hell she wanted to, knowing that in doing so she would be finally free from all pain.

Then I ordered a second martini to help dull my own.

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About Michael Procopio

I write about food and am very fond of Edward Gorey. And gin.
This entry was posted in Rants and Stories, Savories and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

76 Responses to Kummerspeck

  1. Oh, Michael. This was beautiful and honest, and I was reminded of the days after my father’s death when I was planning his funeral while also struggling with how I was to go on with my life without him in it.

    I imagine that your mother would have loved this piece of writing.

    I just want you to know that I know how you felt — how you feel — and you are not alone. Sending you much love. xo

  2. Tina says:

    Dear Michael, you have shared such a moving part of your grief, I hope that your Mother’s memories will fill you with love, and carry you through this sad time in your life. Your mother was an amazing woman, and she has taught you well. Live well and laugh often with people who see the real you, and fill you with love.

  3. Elisa says:

    You certainly *are* a writer. Damn. Sorry for your loss, Michael. This is a beautiful tribute to your mom.

  4. Carrie says:

    I have dust in my eye and a strong need to raise a glass to a woman I’ll never meet. May her memory be only a blessing to you.

    • Thank you, Carrie. Also, I just got a Dyson stick vacuum today to help console myself (seriously). It has a dust attachment. I’d be happy to let you borrow it as soon as the damned battery charges.

      And the I shall raise a glass with you.

  5. Lynn in Tucson says:

    Michael, this is a beautiful tribute. May her memory be a blessing.

  6. Oh Michael. I lost my dad two weeks ago, two days before Thanksgiving. Like you, I gave the eulogy for my dad. While I was writing it, I didn’t get through it once without breaking down, but on the day I gave it I felt a strength go through me that allowed me to speak clearly and slowly, looking into the eyes of the people I was talking about, most notably my mother and my brothers and sisters. Over these past two weeks, I have never felt so tired, so moved, so blessed, so stricken, or so struck by the sheer kindness of all the people who have reached out with their comfort. My prayers and comfort now go out to you, because I know so keenly how you feel right now, as I am feeling much the same. Your mother was clearly an amazing person – I bet my dad would have loved to have known her.

    • Kate– I am rather terrible in the prayer department, but my thoughts of comfort go straight to you and your family. Losing a parent right before Thanksgiving is an awful way to make one stop and think what one is truly grateful for. We both know that now.

      If your father liked playing cards, my mother may very well have already sought him out as a bridge partner in the next world.

  7. Donna says:

    So vivid and so beautiful, just like your mother in my mind. Love to you.

  8. Lucy says:

    Thank you for this Michael – because we never got married after our brief tropical engagement – or were we on our honeymoon and I’m botching the story? – either way I never met my mother-in-law and for that I’m sorry. Your writing is sharp to the point of verging on aserbic and I wonder if your mother would have liked that. I’m sorry for your loss and hope you take it as fuel to write and write and write – publish that book!

    • My mother would have loved an in-law from at least one of her children, to be sure.

      It wasn’t my intention to be or sound acerbic when writing about my mother. It’s merely the desire to remain as clear-headed as I can when reflecting upon my reaction to my mother’s death.

      But I think she certainly liked my sarcasm– three guesses where I got that from.

      xom

  9. Your eloquence is so touching Michael. This is the perfect tribute to your mom and she would have loved every word. Losing our parents is a wrenching turning point, no longer having them to guide and counsel us. I kept reaching for the phone to call and share something only to stop and take a deep, shuttering breath. I am so glad you are writing again and feeding your soul. Peace to you and your family.

    • Jane,

      In my own case, I’ve been mourning the loss of my mother in bits and pieces for months. I lost the luxury of being able to call her ages ago, which was very hard to cope with. But I imagine I’ll be talking with her (one-sidedly, of course) soon, just like I talk to my brother.

      Thank you for the lovely message.

  10. Adri says:

    Oh Michael, I am so sorry to hear that your mother passed away, but it sure seems that she had the gift of years and of a loving son. I think she is in a better place now, free from pain and free of worry. She is fortunate to have a son who writes so beautifully. I bet she’d be damn proud of this and of everything you write, and I am certain this piece would touch her deeply. It certainly has touched me. So take care of yourself, and remember the good times. By the way, it’s one helluva small world out there. Your mention of North American Aviation brought a smile to my face. My dad, who passed away long ago (1968, to be exact, at the tender age of 52 years) worked for the Rocketdyne division of North American Aviation here in Southern California. Imagine that.

  11. Cameron says:

    This was a beautiful and moving piece. Godspeed to your mother and peace to you both.

  12. Diana says:

    Wow. That must have been both incredibly difficult and cathartic to write. Thank you for the little glimpse into who your mother was. Though I never met her, I’m sure I would have loved her because you are a talented, thoughtful, generous man, and mothers almost always play a role in that. I know I’ve said this already, but I’m so deeply sorry for your loss, and know how hard and draining the gradual loss of Alzheimer’s can be. You are loved, you are special, and your mother must be so deeply proud of you.

  13. Such beautiful, honest words. Please don’t stop writing! And I’m sorry for your loss.

  14. Sean says:

    Oh, Michael, this is so brave and beautiful and raw and lovely. So full of grace. My heart is with you.

  15. Peggy says:

    Beautiful Michael, just beautiful, like you. Thank you.

  16. Irvin says:

    This is such a beautiful moving tribute to your mom. I’m so sorry for your loss Michael.

  17. Scott_D says:

    Stunningly beautiful tribute. Proof positive that you will always be a writer.

  18. Rita Arens says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss. I lost my grandmother to Alzheimer’s and my aunt to Pick’s, and I think neurological diseases are some of the hardest to bear for those remaining.

    As I’ve grown to know more authors in the past ten years, I’ve seen many, many posts about the fear of the block. Months spent paralyzed, projects abandoned. I always assumed those who had so much success they pumped out a novel a year were incapable of succumbing to my problems with letting life knock the words out of me, but we’re all in this together.

    What writers do is synthesize the world in a way that makes ultimate sense for those who didn’t know they were looking for it, paint pictures with words that reflect the human condition. That’s how writers are different from people who write sentences to communicate information or declare wishes. Writers say what other people are thinking but don’t have words to express, and we say these things without apology, because it’s not about us.

    You’ve done that beautifully here: “My desire for composition directly correlated with my mother’s declining desire to eat. Perhaps we no longer saw the point in doing that which sustained us.”

    There are many people out there reading your words and realizing they’d done the exact same thing in some area of their life — stopped doing what made them feel whole as something else in their world was crashing down — and now they know why.

    It takes a particular kind of person to be able to see his behavior for what it is even as he’s doing it and find the right turn of phrase to describe it. You’re that particular kind of person.

    I know your Kummer specks will remain in my head every time I see bacon crumbles. May I leave you with another great German word?

    Weltanschauung \VELT-ahn-shou-oong\ noun 1. German. a comprehensive conception or image of the universe and of humanity’s relation to it.

    • Rita,

      And now you have turned me into a particular kind of person who is currently at a loss for words, thanks to your marvelously thoughtful comment. You’ve given me a lot to chew on, you know.

      I can tell you that having a bright weltanschauung is certainly preferable to a deep feeling of weltschmertz. Also, I could tell you that in gorgeously pronounced German.

      A welt of dankes to you, Rita. (I can’t promise to speak the language well, merely mouth it beautifully.)

  19. carolefun904 says:

    Thanks Michael- Watching my 92 yr old Mom as she is declining rapidly, it’s an ‘any day now’ time for my family. Although she’s ready to go, we are not so ready to let her. When it happens, I know kummerspeck will bring a smile. I come from a family that eats when we’re sad. And when we’re happy. And when… you get it.

    • Carole,

      I wonder if it’s always harder to let go for those who get left behind or to those who do the leaving?

      I actually forget to eat when I’m sad. As does my sister.

      And I do get it. Totally.

  20. Steve says:

    Michael, that was beautiful and honest and as well-written as anything I’ve read this year. You have such talent – not just with words, but with making yourself emotionally vulnerable on paper. Thanks for enriching my day.

    • Steve– I am glad to know you find this piece beautiful, it was as honest as I could make it, and I am grateful to find you think it well-written.

      Thank you very much for saying those extremely kind things.

  21. Diane Leach says:

    Michael–My father-in-law died in October. We’re still reeling. Neither my spouse nor I were able, then or now, to express ourselves so beautifully about the loss. Sorry doesn’t really help, but we feel for you.
    Diane

    • Diane,

      I think everyone experiences grief differently. Sometimes, it is difficult enough to speak, let alone express oneself beautifully. I had to leave work last Friday because I found that if I spoke more than two or three sentences, I started tearing up. I just had to leave.

      For me, writing is extremely helpful because the words are able to come from my fingertips rather than my mouth.

      Knowing I am not alone does help, actually. I hope it does the same for you, Diane. Thank you.

  22. Susan says:

    Hi Michael,
    I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. Death has a way of putting things into perspective. It sounds like your mother was as grand as they come living her life as best as she knew how and then quietly becoming invisible until now.

    • Susan,

      Death certainly does do that and not always in a comfortable way. Sadly, she was quietly becoming invisible over the last few months of her life. But up until that time, she did forge her own path, but did it quietly in her own way.

  23. Blessings, dear heart.

  24. Thea says:

    Great. Now I have to give up eating bacon. If it appears on my plate, I’ll sit there sniffing, blinking back tears, heart trembling with grief both remembered and current.

    In addition to rendering me bacon-free, you’ve written a beautiful portrait of your mother, a woman who sounds very much of her time, very much her own person. She sounds special. Your writing gift is special. Your essays to me sound written by a man very much of his time, very much his own person. You have voice. Not all writers do. Please don’t stop writing. I won’t forget the detail of your mother watching others eat at a restaurant table, then going happily home to eat a sandwich with chips.

    All my condolences go out to you.

    • Thank you, Thea. I happen to think my mother was rather special.

      I am very glad to hear that you feel that I have a voice. I am grateful for it. But I can’t help but giggle when I read that I am a man very much of my time, when most of my friends seem convinced that I was born about 60 years too late.

      xom

  25. Windischgirl says:

    Michael, may you find comfort in these memories of your amazing mother.

    I have not experienced loss in the same way (the Windischfolk seem to depart this earth with a bang), but I can imagine you have been grieving for a while as your mother has changed…yet that doesn’t make the pain of her death any easier. Shedding some tears for you.

    Holding you–and your mom’s spirit–in the light, as the Quakers say.

    • Thanks, Windishgirl. Very much.

      Apologies for the tardy response– I needed to walk away from this post for a few days.

      And you’re right– it didn’t make the pain of death any easier. But at least we were better prepared.

  26. Anne says:

    Dear Michael,

    Magnificent, stirring, profoundly humane. As Matthew Arnold wrote, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Keep on.

    A devoted reader,
    Anne

  27. Fatemeh says:

    Oh, my friend. I am so sorry for your loss. She sounds like a fierce and brilliant woman. Your writing brings that much to life.

    I regret not giving my dad’s eulogy. I didn’t think I’d be able to write it, and then I didn’t think I’d be able to deliver it, so I gave up trying. I think you did her proud, indeed.

    With love,
    F

    • Fatemeh– She was indeed both.

      I understand that you might regret not delivering your father’s eulogy, but I hope to g-d you haven’t beaten yourself up over it. It’s incredibly difficult to do when you are so close to the deceased. It’s hard to see through the pain of death to speak clearly and coherently about a loved one’s life.

      Really hard.

  28. Becky Castle Miller says:

    German is such a great language for specific words like that, isn’t it?

    Thanks for sharing your grief with us.

  29. Jenny says:

    I’m so sorry Michael.
    I wish your Mom was still here so I could thank her for always encouraging you to write. I know that’s selfish of me in some ways, but your writung gives me so much joy. I think you’ve honored her tremendously. You give all of us who come here a genuine gift of yourself.
    Be good to yourself, as best you can.
    Love,
    Jenny

  30. This is beautiful. A writer you are and please keep writing.

  31. I was caught so off guard by this piece I can barely breathe. It is so much and so true and so full of everything at once. I think being a writer is an unexpected gift in times like these, as you can use words to shape your grief into something a tiny bit more bearable. Being a great writer is a miracle, as you can use words to share your grief in a way that speaks volumes to people like me who have gone through this bewildering strangeness ourselves. You are a great writer. My deepest condolences to you for the loss of your mom. Whatever she was to the world, and it seems she was a force to be reckoned with, she was uniquely that for you.

    • Sorry for the delay in responding, Sharon. I put the blog aside until the New Year. But now I’m back.

      Death is a bewildering strangeness, isn’t it? Well said. And thank you for the lovely words. They are always deeply appreciated.

  32. Millie says:

    I have been through my share of loss and it never gets easier. But that’s ok. Loving people is worth missing them when they are gone. Holding you and yours in the Light.

    • I agree with you that loving people is worth missing them when they’re gone. Personally, I have found that the loss does get easier with time. It never, ever goes away, but it does get easier (at least to me) because I learn to live with and accommodate the loss.

      Thanks for the lovely note.

  33. Alison S says:

    Beautiful. Articles like this help us prepare for loosing our own parents.

  34. Kim says:

    When I was a little girl, my dad would come home everyday, dropped on his back in the sofa, and asked: “How will you feel if I just die one day?”
    It’s a rather strange question for a 4 year-old kid, who answered naively that he shouldn’t be silly and he wouldn’t die. Late at night I would cry alone in bed when I imagine my life without my parents. As a grow up, he gradually stopped asking the question. On one side cause I honestly don’t know how to answer that now, knowing fully that it is the truth, and the other side is that he now works three times as hard and simply fall asleep the moment he comes home. I suppose that question will always be present in my mind as a memento mori of the reality of lost. I fear it, more than anything else.

    My heart goes out to you, Micheal. I’m sorry for your loss, and I’m also sorry for bringing up this memory again. But reading your story urged me to write this down and to share my sympathy. Your mother sounds like an amazing woman, and I believe she must be really proud of who you’ve grown as a writer and as a person.

  35. mukta matta says:

    I don’t know what to say… Landed here from Dianne Jacob’s post on best food writing. Have been hooked to your blog ever since. This was a beautiful piece of writing. Am Deeply moved. I do hope your mother has found peace. Also wish you the very best in 2016 and beyond.

  36. Victoria Howard says:

    Re: Kummerspeckt. You get it. I lost my own wonderful Mom in 2012 after her Dementia won. My husband and I moved in and took care of her 24/7 for 2 years with no break. I had time with her I will always cherish. Even when she couldn’t eat without choking. It is the hardest, saddest, most joyful, most stressful time I ever had, and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat to have her back for just one more day.

    I loved your article. My Mom was 92. Condolences to you and your loved ones on the loss of your beautiful Mom.

    • Thank you for this lovely comment, Victoria. I’m sorry I didn’t see it earlier– I basically took August off from writing to concentrate on other things like sleeping and hiding from the world.

      My sister did the same for my mother. I honestly don’t know how she managed.

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