Even when the death of a beloved parent is expected, it comes hard. Or so it has come to us, in any case.
My father was diagnosed with a terminal prognosis more than seven months ago; at the time, he was given three months to live.
Somehow or other, the fact that he outlived his diagnosis for so long lulled us into thinking that he wasn't really going anywhere -- especially since, thanks to the excellent care he got, he was lucid and out of pain enough to be his cantankerous but much beloved self up until his last day or so.
Last week we were up at his home for one of our three or four weekly visits, and I said to G, "Something's different. Something's changed, and I can't quite put my finger on it. He's less responsive." He seemed to me to be going inside himself, retreating from all of us. By Thanksgiving day, he had stopped responding, although he was not unconscious. He simply would not open his eyes, and batted away any form of help or inquiry, refusing even to take water. During the phone call I made to ask for counsel, one of my wise and beloved cousins (who is also a gerontologist) said, upon hearing my description of his behavior, "He's trying to leave, sweetie," confirming what I had both suspected and feared.
"What do I do?" I said, beside myself. Then came the words that might be the hardest to hear: "Nothing. There's nothing left to do, except to make him comfortable."
We dragged the half-cooked Thanksgiving dinner I had planned for us, for him and for his wonderful caregiver up to his house, and ended up dragging it home again when we finally left to get some sleep, since it seemed we might come back in the morning to continue our vigil with him. During our time with him, we both succumbed to tears at various moments. I wondered a bit at my usually stoic, somewhat misanthropic husband's deep sadness. "You love Red so much," I said wonderingly. "You've only known him in these past few years, and he isn't exactly the easiest person to have a relationship with, and yet he loves you, and you love him too." "How could I not love him? He gave me you," he said without even thinking as he sobbed and grabbed me and held me close.
As is so often the case with the dying, Red apparently wanted his privacy, and not an hour after we got home, we got the call from his caregiver Noralene. "He's not breathing so good," she told my husband. "What exactly does that mean?" my husband asked her gently. "Is he breathing at all?" "Umm, not really," she said, with the intention of breaking it to us gently, I suppose. Even in that most extreme moment, it was good to have a reason for a big belly laugh -- just the kind of joke that Red would have most enjoyed.
We went back up to his house, and took care of things. Then we went home, to a few days of little sleep, less food and intermittent storm-tossed bouts of grief. I've finally gotten some sleep, and I've managed some bites of meals now and again, like the other night when the above-mentioned beloved cousin put a plate of Thai food in front of me and I didn't have to choose or prepare or think about it -- or like today, when more beloved cousins took us to the Members' Dining Room at the Met, and we ate and drank in company. Even then I could only eat half of the lovely brunch set in front of me.
But although I don't feel at all like cooking, and it will probably be a long time before I can look at a Thanksgiving meal with any real enthusiasm, I couldn't waste an entire turkey. We gave quite a lot of the meal away, and tried to eat some last night. I ate a few bites, but the only thing I could handle was the plain baked sweet potato. The turkey frame called to me, however. To throw it out would be sacrilege in our family. There was simply no way I could not make a turkey soup, no matter how melancholy I felt.
It's about the best turkey rice soup ever made, with a broth that, while it doesn't exactly cure, provides a lot of comfort for what ails us at the moment. And when I don't want to eat anything, a bowl of this soup goes down pretty easy. Nothing comes without tears these days, though. While making the soup, the thought came unbidden as it always does these past several months -- and years, too, really: "Perhaps Red will eat some of this soup if I don't make it too spicy."
But although there is no more soup for him, there is soup for us; soup that sustains us in bitter moments and in funny laughing memory moments, and somehow or other just helps us get through. We already have lots of invitations for next years' Thanksgiving, and maybe I'll be able to face the traditional meal by then. Wherever we go, though, I might have to roast a turkey if only for the frame, so that I can make a batch of Turkey Rice Soup in tribute to my dad -- and even more because it's just that good.
Turkey Rice Soup
Of course, the modus operandi here is to use what you've got leftover -- this was simply my general recipe.
1 roast turkey frame, picked over
Leftover bits of skin and turkey stock
Other leftover broths,
and/or a few spoons of organic chicken "Better Than Bouillon" concentrate
A big splash of manzanilla or other dry sherry
1 onion, chunked
2 carrots, chunked
2 stalks of celery plus some leaves
Bouquet garni, whatever fresh herbs you have
(I used sage, thyme, rosemary, fresh bay leaf and parsley)
5 cloves of garlic
salt, pepper, other condiments to taste
Cover the frame and the other ingredients with broth and/or filtered water -- at least three quarts, and add more as it boils away. Bring to a boil, and cook covered at a gentle simmer until the remaining meat falls off the bone and the vegetables are mushy -- several hours at least. Pick out the frame, and let it cool. Strain the broth, and push the vegetables against the strainer to extract as much liquid back into the broth as possible. Pick bits of meat from the frame, and reserve. Discard the frame and the vegetables.
Finishing the soup:
Turkey broth as above
2 fat leeks, cleaned and sliced, white and pale green parts
5 carrots, sliced into half moons
3 celery stalks, chopped
1/2 cup of jasmine rice
2 Tbsp. of flour (optional)
Any leftover gravy and turkey pan drippings/juices
condiments: more garlic, chili-garlic sauce, tamari soy sauce, strong brewed coffee
bits of meat from the frame, plus about 3 cups of turkey meat in small chunks, or whatever you've got
More salt and pepper to taste
If your oven is going for another reason, you can roast the vegetables in a bit of olive oil or butter or leftover turkey fat, for that matter. If not, saute them a little, and add them to the broth. Let them cook for about 20 minutes. Add the jasmine rice, and let it cook till done. If you want your broth with a little more body, make a slurry with the flour and two or three tablespoons of water. Introduce broth into it until you have a lump-free liquid, and then pour it all into the broth. It should add just enough body so that the soup isn't too thin, but it's still a broth.
Season your soup. I added all the above things, experimenting with the coffee, which I always like since it seems to add quite a lot of umami to soups and chili and stews, strengthening their stocks and making them always seem more "meaty." Use it spoon by spoon, though, since you don't want to overdo. If you season carefully, the resulting soup tastes more and more of good roast turkey, which is a very good thing.
At the very end, add your turkey meat -- you don't want to cook it any longer. Season once more, and eat right away, and serve to loved ones, and save some for another day, when you're feeling blue and you don't know what to eat. It will taste even better then.
with much love to all our family and friends, and especial love and thanks on our behalf and on Red's to Wally and Celia Gilbert, Dr. Diane Meier, Noralene and Carolyn Beckford, and Rosetta McKenis.