One of my dad’s last bites of real food was a slice of Texas orange.
It was mid-January, and he was days from death. For 18 months, he’d had a shorter-and-more-difficult-than-expected bout with prostate cancer that was coming to an end.
His energy levels varied so much during those last few months. Sometimes, he’d feel like sitting up and going through a semblance of a daily routine, but other days, he couldn’t leave the bed.
He hadn’t had an appetite while he was undergoing cancer treatments, but when he went into hospice care and stopped the chemotherapy, his appetite occasionally returned, sometimes voraciously. He’d eat two meals’ worth, even if he couldn’t keep it down later.
Cancer might have been what was killing his body, but nausea was killing his spirit.
As the number of good days dwindled, he was lucky to keep down a meal replacement shake, tomato soup or ice cream. Maybe a bite of cobbler if someone brought it over.
Just a few weeks after Christmas, it became clear that after all the goodbyes we’d made that fall, it was time for the real goodbye, so my sister and I joined my mom in Missouri.
Before I left Austin, I’d just received a produce delivery box that included a handful of Texas oranges from the Rio Grande Valley. January in Missouri is dark even without a looming death, so I packed the citrus from my sunny adopted home state, thinking the fruit might offer a small dose of cheer in the place that will forever be my hometown.
My dad wasn’t doing very well when we arrived, but he’d still have these short spurts of perceived normalcy, when he’d try to go to the bathroom on his own or walk into the living room asking if it was time to watch “Jeopardy.”
One afternoon just days before he died, I was slicing up one of these juicy balls of sunshine. My sister and I had been doing our best to help our mom, but we couldn’t build a levee fast enough to contain the worries and emotions that had started to overflow. We were trying to take care of ourselves and each other so we could take care of him, and in the kitchen that afternoon, we found a small respite in these wedges of fresh fruit.
And then walks in our dad, a former mayor and city councilman, the shortest tallest man in the world who once welcomed a sitting president to our small town, but that day, he was a shadow of the dad we grew up with. Using a walker and with a robe draped from his shoulders, he was thin and slow but lithe, his softening skin hugging his brittle bones.
But there he was, sniffing around for something good to eat like it was any ol’ Monday afternoon.
We contained our shock and went into helper mode. What did he need? What could we provide for him? How could we ease his pain?
Without thinking about it, I offered him a slice of orange. “Sure,” he was able to say, weakly. I peeled the skin and handed him a segment. He grabbed it with his bony fingers and put the whole piece in his mouth. I was suddenly absolutely positive that he was going to choke on it and I was going to have to fish it out of his mouth like he was a toddler who’d taken a bite he couldn’t swallow.
Chelsea and I both started fussing, but he chewed slowly, the juice surely flowing over every beleaguered taste bud in his mouth. He’d had some tooth problems and was perpetually prone to pushing himself too hard, which added to our catastrophyzing about the choking.
He knew we were worried, but he wasn’t. He continued to chew.
“Too late,” he said.
He knew his deadpan response would make us laugh, and he finally settled our nerves by swallowing, something he hadn’t always been able to do in recent weeks. Then he declared he was tired and wanted to go lie back down.
Within days, he passed away in the bedroom to which he returned that afternoon, with the taste of Texas oranges lingering in his memory, nature’s joyous sweetness at the end of a bittersweet journey.
In that three stoplight town, with his teenage sweetheart whom he’d had the privilege of sharing a lifetime of love, my dad had found a final home, one where he knew he belonged, unconditionally. They created a home where his kids knew we belonged, unconditionally.
And on a sunny day in February, a morning so cold that tears froze on my glasses, he found his final resting place. We buried him with his beloved family gathered around the grave, nobody thinking about oranges or tomato soup or all those restless nights of worry. All we could think about was loving him, missing him and figuring out how to carry on, unconditionally.