By MICHELE NIESEN
The azaleas won’t flower. I pruned them below the new growth. I think you said above. The forsythia bloomed way too early, but I haven’t killed them yet. I got exactly five tomatoes this season and they were pretty good, I guess. I can’t remember if you told me to mulch the rhododendrons with maple leaves or oak, and that Gingko tree I planted when you visited last year never grew. Never died, never did anything. The landscapers cut all the crape myrtles down to the nubs and I hate that. I know you’d explain to me that to get the most out of their lives, plants have to experience a little death each year. You’d tell me that flowers need to be dead headed, basil snipped before the buds bloom, and you’d even show me how to love my stout, snarky holly bushes for their ability to take a shape if properly tended with a variety of tools and tricks.
You’d know what to do with this awful drought and give me a list of succulents for zone 7, even though you’d be more partial to zone 9 where you live, and you’d preface everything with, “I mean, this isn’t my area of specialty, zone 7,” like Georgia was closer to a Venusian climate than Florida. You’d tend to your nursery and your reclinata Senegal palms, and your nurserymen would hate you for forcing them to shore up those wicked trees in the middle of that sandy gritty bleeding central Florida summer. You’d tell them to buck up and then you’d show them how it’s done and tell them all not to be such cry babies. You’d play drill sergeant by day but then put someone through rehab, like that one dude with those rotten teeth … Gary. I think you even replaced his teeth if he agreed to stay sober … and then I think he fell off the wagon with those new choppers and you fired him. Better to be an unemployed drunk with a nice smile, you told him.
You’d tell me to buck up a lot too and to not be such a lazy spoiled shit, and that I could do really great work in school, but I was throwing it all away being a skeezy ’80s new waver. You would tell me that I didn’t know how lucky I was to find writing easy, and that it took you a week to write a letter to a client even though you took a special class to learn that very thing. We didn’t use words like “dyslexia” in the ’70s so we kinda thought, as did you, that you were slow. Or good with numbers, Mom would say … spatially gifted. That’s why you went into landscape architecture. That’s why you became a grower. You’d say it was because plants are easier than people. Mom is good at telling herself what she wants to hear about all of us. Remember when I gained a bunch of weight? She started talking about how nice my teeth were. And you were always the handsome one. Sure you could barely read, but what a nice jaw! She said that when they closed your lids in the hospital, she asked the doctor if you were really gone—you looked too beautiful. He really was a good-looking guy, you know, like this trumped all other achievement.
So, this year I too will experience a little death, but it’s yours, and I don’t fully see how this is going to help me get more life at all. I’ve just opened my second restaurant and all I can think of are seizures and glioblastomas and stage 4 and powers of attorney and hospital administrators and how bad the food is and how weird Mom is being, like she wishes that it was one of us instead of you, the first son. Then I’m back to gamma knives and the staples in your head. This will be the year I open my cantina with a bang, and the year you get your head cut open. I’m finding my success to be inappropriately timed, you know? Not that it was your fault, but it seemed that just yesterday I had no cares. Chef, restaurateur, organic food purveyor, single gal, wine buyer. But hey, it’s not all shagging the busboy, gorgonzola and yellow tomatoes. Sometimes your marathon running vegan brother gets a spot on his head and drops dead in 90 days. I mean, it happens.
I vote for no chemo. Saying this is like refuting God or worse, worshipping the devil or maybe even admitting to Scientology. I mean, how could you not fight this? Nine out of 10 doctors might suggest that you’ll maybe even bounce back from this. Miracles happen, they say. You’re a winner just like Lance Armstrong, who I’ve come to think of as just another genetic freak of nature like Heidi Klum. No one is writing books about the zillion people who die every day from this, and most who do kick it aren’t going to win the Tour de France but that’s where you live in your head. A lot of people die from chemo or wish they could, I tell you…. I ask if you’d like to go to Mexico with me. Whenever I hear terminal anything, I think it’s high time to go to the airport. Nope. You don’t speak the language and you don’t like the food. We are so completely different.
This spot on your brain grows so much every day that you’ve gone from architectural rendering to not being able to hold a pen. I can’t keep up with the avocados that you’ve got growing and they are littering the yard. The grapefruits are pink and swollen, and as quickly as I can extract the juice dad is mixing it with vodka. I can barely keep up with the nervous production of guacamole and Salty Dogs. I’m telling jokes more loudly because you can’t recognize me by sight anymore. It was when you asked for gummy bears that I got hopeful. Your wife says you shouldn’t have carbs. Shut up. If you wanted opium right now, I’d let you have it. I’ve made a career out of extolling the virtues of local and organic and cooking, but I feel that I’m losing my religion.
You are telling me how food is fuel, not an event. If I’d just up my protein I could get on a workout schedule. The other brother and I look at each other and say more sausage mayonnaise sandwiches please with a glass of bourbon. Look where all this healthy shit got you. That used to tickle you. Suddenly nothing is funny. Your biting sense of humor and sarcastic nature are softened by saying things like “angel” and “blessed” and “survivors,” and it’s changing everything, and this isn’t how I want to remember you. You were the guy who would sooner rip someone’s collar off than negotiate. Where is that guy? I think you’re negotiating with God but you won’t admit it.
I’m starting to worry how it will be without your comic relief and reality slaps at Christmas to make it all not seem so tense and weird. I wish you could see how completely freakish everyone is acting right now. Polishing the coffin. All this standing around and waiting for you to die. It seems that they are unable to come to you but they can’t leave you alone either. They just stand around with the windows closed and the whole house feels like a tomb. All I want to do is let the breeze in, fill you with gummy bears and spend some more time together, but it turns out you don’t stay awake for very long. So I’m stuck with the rest of them. The awake who aren’t dying but who I don’t like anymore.
Your wife has been making sure she has all her financial ducks in a row and getting you to sign lots of papers before you even have your head shaved. This makes me look at her in a very practical and, frankly, creepy light. Dad has been perfecting the art of “Psychological Family Twister” wherein he’s the victim no matter what is spun on the mat. Why is this happening to me, he keeps saying? It’s a gift, he should have been a politician. It gives him the perfect opportunity to drink more, and if it wasn’t your open skull, it would have been because the cable was out or because someone stole the morning paper.
We have nothing in common except you at this moment. One brother turns into Mother Teresa in light of this, and another won’t even get a $99 flight on AirTran to see you while you’re alive but complains about the lack of imported beer at the funeral. The other sister can’t come from the West Coast when you’re alive or dead because she’s sprained her ankle. Or she has food poisoning. I call her Rosemary Kennedy behind her back. Finally, me. The baby to your bookend the elder, the one who wishes everyone would disappear and stop talking about the meds schedule and propping your pillows and watching their watches. I wish they’d all go so we could just sit, and I’d tell you a story about the restaurant, and you’d say how you could see me being the next Margaritaville franchise, except that I can’t ever do anything twice, I’d laugh, and we could listen to Julian Bream CDs, and I could talk about the healing light therapy I read about and the fact that holding a red napkin in front of your face makes pain go away, and I’d waft lavender under your nose to calm you but it makes you feel like barfing. You’d tell me that I’d be a hippie if I wasn’t such a capitalist, and you’d ask if I’ve stopped shaving my pits. You note my Southern dialect and remind me that 10 years ago I was living in Brooklyn. The mountain suits me, I say.
You ask if it’s okay that we don’t talk about IT because just three weeks ago you NEVER talked about IT. And now that you’ve gotten IT, you haven’t talked about anything else. You were installing a butterfly garden at Mrs. Rothschild’s and putting those cool rain chains on her copper gutters. You were telling me where to install rain barrels and talking about how I should put hyrdoponic growing stuff out in the carport and I could grow all my own cilantro for the cantina. You never smoked, you ran 10 miles a day and never did drugs. Isn’t this random? I mention Keith Richards, and we confirm that life, in fact, is a crapshoot.
I am unraveling. I can’t let you see this. When I get back home, I scan all my books on yoga, Ayurvedic medicine, Chinese herbs, the Tao of everything, Buddhism, Al-Anon brochures I find on the ground, Ram Das. I’m breathing and stretching and asking the universe for help, forgiveness, a miracle. I can’t locate my third eye, my chakras are blocked and I couldn’t do a lotus pose if you put a pistol to my head. Everything makes me want to scream, AT LEAST YOU DON’T HAVE TWO MONTHS LEFT TO LIVE! I find that I am not suitable for the hospitality industry at this time. The servers fighting over who will drop off the linens, the salmon that comes in sullen and stinky that is sent back to the warehouse, the dishwasher who wants the night off because he’s hung over, the voicemail full of the begging voices of those who ABSOLUTELY must have a table for Valentine’s Day. All of it makes me think of Stage 4 glioblastoma multiforme. I begin repeating it in my head like a dark mantra. Glioblastoma. Admittedly, it has a certain rhythm. I want to counsel everyone who walks through the door in a panic to get a table, check the menu to see if it is suitable for their vegan low-carb lactose intolerant dinner date, or see if the dining room is fabulous enough or I’m famous enough for them to eat there this weekend. I want to appeal to everyone’s sense of life and death and let them know that it doesn’t matter AT ALL whether I’m serving wild hormone-free Ossabaw Island pork or quail from Kentucky. Who cares if my Syrah is single vineyard row #39 Arroyo Valley or an unspecified appellation in France. It’s grape juice. And we’re all gonna die.
It’s not just dinner anymore, it’s love and war and famine and homelessness and scrambled DNA, and my hate for the Big Pharmacy, and insurance, and rotting avocados. It most definitely is not about scoring a table on a Thursday night in this bistro on this side street in this Southern suburb. I have, of course, gone over the edge of reason. The biting reality is that I must pay my salary and that of 14 others by, in fact, espousing the importance of scoring a table at this very bistro. You would not hear of any of this emotional blathering. Ram Das? Pull it together!
One morning you’re all interested in me and my job and my boyfriend and my recipes. It was a bag of red herrings. I play along. I would build a rocket if it distracted you from the crushing pain in your head and the mounting confusion. You ask why chilaquiles are different from nachos and I describe the layers of day-old tortillas and sauce and queso fresco and guajillo peppers. Tell me again why they aren’t nachos. You still got it. Except you can’t hold a cup, and we’ve gotten you this giant straw, and sometimes you can even make it into your mouth without help. The ridiculousness of this is not lost on either one of us. You look like a giant blue-eyed baseball with all the staples in your head, and I tell you so. You’ve gone blind today, but I’m still gonna make you laugh. You want to talk about the cantina. T-shirts. I need T-shirts. But you die before the first shipment arrives.
Everyone goes to pieces in their own way during a funeral, some can’t help at all, and some act like they’ve just landed a great catering gig and get started on the guest list. This is one time when I don’t want to have any hand in food prep. Not now. Pick up trays at the deli. I don’t care. There is a dueling bruschetta with nearly 14 tons of garlic from both brothers. Your wife worries about bad breath. She also puts the house on the market before the cremation is scheduled. There are some thawed shrimp in the corner. I hate this party.
Your son has decided that it was kind of a relief to not have to come out while you were alive, and he expresses this by making out with his Venezuelan boyfriend in the front yard. I feel like a fly in a glass jar. I can observe, but I can’t leave. Mom keeps crying and is concerned about the state of her bloodshot eyes. The military pilot brother is telling my boyfriend, the bartender, how essential pricey Swedish vodka is to sangria, and asks said boyfriend if he has a green card and how long he’s been in this country. I explain that he’s half Puerto Rican so he actually is a citizen. He looks suspiciously at both of us. You were the only one who could pronounce his name. A flat Midwestern ‘a’ on RAAdamus. Radames. Romulus. Ramades. The stoic brother decides to call him Paco the pool boy, and Mom just can’t believe I’m living with a foreigner. The other sister phones in a funeral shout-out from the car on her way to the gym in Santa Barbara. She wants to know if Dad is drunk yet. God, I hope so.
It’s all so funny but, without witness, humor often feels like pain. I’m only funny if someone gets my jokes. No one in this room of 200 gets me. I’m kind of surprised so many people showed up. Everyone is talking about how you inspired them at one time or another. All I can wonder is if I’ll get my own glioblastoma multiforme. I am well aware that this is self-indulgent paranoia. I grab my foreign boyfriend and the last few shrimp and take my leave of your wake. Outside they have decorated your red Trek Madone 6.9 Pro that you rode in the last race. I know your wife will have it on eBay before the end of the week, so I roll it down the driveway and into my truck. I replace it with a T-shirt from the cantina and vow to make merchandising a priority.
Back in Atlanta, I will dig into work because that is what I’m good at. I will not write, I will not eat, but I will perfect a red mole sauce and source hojas de aquajate for the conchinita pibil. I will rehydrate ancho peppers and blacken them on the grill with onions and garlic from my garden and puree them with pumpkin seeds and more tortillas for a black mole sauce. I am content to drown in a sea of Spanish speaking and Nortena music and am comforted that I can choose not to translate the banter between sous chef and prep counter if I don’t want to. No one bothers me in my kitchen, and they don’t hold me precious. I’m there but I’m not there. Nobody says how are you, thankfully. Como estas. They know that later tonight we’ll be too busy for me to do much, so I’ll get out of the way and let the young and dangerous resume their posts at the helm of the grill. I have no desire to make 386 tacos tonight, or ladle the Holy Moly it’s Black Mole into fake Fiesta Ware. It’s over. I just want to take home some chilaquiles and eat them on the sofa with the dog. And I’ll tell you again why they aren’t nachos.
This essay appears in Michele Niesen’s memoir Decade of Dish Volume 2. Niesen lives and writes in Mt. Airy, Georgia, where she tries to keep the deer from eating her gardens and blueberries. Follow her blog at amidlifeisis.blogspot.com.
*Editor’s Note: This essay was a finalist (under the title “Nachos are for Tourists”) in The 2008 New Southerner Literary Contest.