Ensuring that my grandpa receives adequate nutrition slash doesn’t die from food poisoning is almost exactly like trying to tempt the palette of a dog. He will eat just about anything that he finds lying around, but he most certainly does not have any interest in what you have planned for him to consume. He is a huge fan of meat, as any true man is, though he has a habit of buying 4 lamb chops, 2 ribeyes, and some veal all at the same time, and all (of course) within 2 days of expiration. Now, I’m not positive if ya’ll are good at math but I’m sure you can imagine the meat to meal number ratio that is created when you leave Grandpa to his own devices while at the grocery. You’d think he was actually shopping for a pack of rabid dogs, not a single old man with the appetite of a sparrow.
Now, critics may say that I should just freeze the excess.
And I have.
However, I have learned my lesson. Because while rummaging through the freezer looking for either ice cream, or his keys, my grandpa has come across my secretly stashed frozen meat, each and every time. And though just barely, he does in fact know that this was not where he had originally put his prized purchase. In an attempt to right the wrong that I have created, the chops, steaks etc end up reassigned to the counter, the silverware drawer or the ever-surprising dumping ground that is the bread box.
Carbs are a whole ‘nother can of worms (though canned goods themselves, on the other hand, are like Pandora’s box). Somewhere deep in the recesses of grandpa’s mind, underneath the cobwebs, and his wife’s name, wedged carefully next to his anger at my mother for taking his keys, is the lecture given to every newly diagnosed diabetic. “Limit carbohydrates, sugars, everything delicious. If you want it, it probably isn’t good for you. If you eat it, you will die.” Of course, when confronted with the oh-so-tempting, Gramps always reaches for the serving spoon, but something more often than not nags him into obedience. Maybe it’s my grandma’s voice, still echoing in annoyance, “Baaaaaaaaab” as he scuffs his dirty shoes over the clean white floor to reach his hidden stash of cookies. Or maybe it’s his own realization that eating too much of the stuff doesn’t make him feel so hot, but time after time, those carefully portioned carbs end up a wasted course.
“I don’t like that stuff.” He’ll say, eyeing a bowl of spaghetti.
He pokes at rice, pushes around his baked potato and scrapes his cheesey noodles into the trash when you’re not looking. But, without fail, he will buy carton after carton of pre-mashed potatoes, and sneak off to the kitchen to make a giant bowl of ice cream when you are otherwise occupied. It’s a mystery of his mind that may never be solved but will forever taunt us from his chocolate stained lips and his glucose meter readings.
And then there is the meal location. Location, location, location. As of late, lunch has been on his own; Ziploc container filled with leftovers, a sandwich wrapped in clear plastic wrap, a salad with too much dressing and soggy leaves, all with a note plastered to the front reading “LUNCH” with subsequent heating/eating directions.
But the real challenge comes at suppa-time. As it goes, approximately every Monday, and third Tuesday he is too mad at my mom for taking his keys to walk the block and a half to her house for dinner. The rest of the time, he’ll walk the walk, but he most certainly will not talk the talk. Or talk any sort of talk for that matter, unless it has to do with returning his keys/freedom/fatherly dominance over the oldest, but softest daughter in the bunch. As you can imagine, this silent treatment makes for a solemn, short affair as far as dinners goes.
The other days of the week, dinner duty falls on me. When I can, I try to cook the usual, and coax him away from the 6/6:30/7 o’clock news long enough to eat dinner at the kitchen table. If that is impossible, as it almost always is, I at least lead him with a glass of sugar free chocolate milk to a TV tray.
Now, lets go back to that Pandora’s box of cans. There is this cabinet in the corner of the kitchen that, quite frankly, I believe my Grandpa has dubbed his endless pit of things he might need one day. Inside are trash bags, Swifers, wood polish, carpet cleaner, old grocery sacks, water jugs, and canned goods.
And there in that last item, lies the problem.
The canned goods with their expirations dating all the way back to 2003. It’s a regular schmorgasboard inside those wooden doors. Templton the rat would have a field day. I’m talking spaghetti sauce, tuna, stuffing mix, cranberries, peeled potatoes, green beans, Hungry Man, and anchovies. You name it, he’s storing it. Until the apocalypse? Armagedon? Saturday? There’s no telling. I have slowly, but surely, started throwing things away. One by one, sometimes taking a few home with me to toss in my own bin. But whether my Grandpa notices that the trash is feeling awfully heavy or he really does keep tabs on his expired non-perishables, 9 times out of 10 those sticky, previously trashed cans end up in the cupboard again. If he was a sucker for starving children I would pretend like we were donating them to a youth center or homeless shelter, but my Grandpa’s charitable contributions normally go to park preservation and schools, so we’re out of luck. Suggestions welcome.
If the cabinet is Pandora’s box, the old icebox is more like Where’s Waldo after a hit of LSD. Now, aside from the Listerine, salt shakers, Idaho spuds, tooth brushes and 16 bags of carrots that you will find inside (see “Kitchen Finds” post), it’s a pretty normal fridge. The door handles get sticky like only the personal refrigerator of my grandpa or a tubby little 3 year old might, but otherwise, it’s doing alright. It’s what you don’t find inside that will screw with your mind. The butter is often half melted on the countertop, the milk (poured from the jug into a separate pitcher) found curdled on top of the fridge, ice trays in the cupboard (water still inside), petrified mixed greens in the bread box, wrinkled grapes in the oven and mustard under the sink, snuggled next to the Drain-o MAX and other toxic cleaners. It’s a fight to the finish to keep things where they belong. Unfortunately the mustard doesn’t have a habit of wearing red and white striped sweaters and ski caps. That would make finding it in time to make a sandwich so very much easier for my semi-professional Waldo seeking mind.
But in spite of, or rather, because of all of this, cooking in the Bob household can truly be a hilarious experience, if you let it be. Caring.com has a wide range of suggestions for anyone struggling to feed their Alzheimer’s loved ones. One I particularly took to heart is their suggestion for spillage: “Lower expectations and look the other way as much as you can. Spilled food can always be cleaned up.” Though crumbs have never been a personal vendetta for me, I was pleased at the two word introduction to that suggestion.
Everyone has a tendency to carry a torch for their grandmas, grandpas, moms, dads, older (and sometimes younger) sisters and brothers long after they have aged into versions less akin to their former selves. It may be frustrating to cook the same meal every night, to have the same fight every day, to see them put on the same clothes every morning, but that frustration comes from the expectation that it might be like it used to be. That it might somehow be different today. Different than yesterday. Different than the day they were diagnosed. But, however much you love them, however fun their semi-sedated selves are, they are forever changed, forever different. After all, you must have noticed that now it is you calling them to make sure they made it home alright, you checking their temperature when they feel warm, you carting them to doctor’s appointments and remembering to pay the cable bill. The shoe is on the other foot and you’re about to walk a mile or two in that shoe.
So, lower our expectations we must. Expect that it will be hard. Expect that you will cry. Expect that you will fight, yell, slam doors. Expect deep down they love you. Deep down they understand. And expect that you will make it through.
So these expectations in hand, I will continue to cook dinner even though the lamb is rather greasy and the veal makes me want to gag, the requested meals are unbalanced and the mint jelly has the potential to make my grandpa’s blood sugar sky rocket. I will cook it. Whatever he wants. Because who, at this point, is really going to deny an 85 year old man’s true pleasure in life by trying to count calories or worry about animal rights? (Sorry PETA).
And when the meal is done being seared or baked or grilled or toasted, I will sit with my arms folded on the stained tablecloth and expect the inevitable:
“You know, people don’t eat this stuff very much around here.” He will say.
“Lamb?” I’ll ask, gesturing at whatever meat is on his plate, for no matter what animal it originally was, it’s always lamb to Grandpa.
“Yea. I wonder why nobody around here likes it? It’s so good!” He’ll reply.
Fact: the only evidence my grandpa actually has to support the idea that Mid-Westerners aren’t fond of lamb chops is that my mom once told him it wasn’t her favorite, and a faint memory that I used to watch a show by the same name before grandma took me to ballet practice.
And then, “You know,” he’ll say spreading mint jelly over his feast, “This stuff comes from [insert: the Netherlands/India/Russia/some ‘Oriental country’], over there by Austria.”
“It comes from Australia?” I’ll say, correcting him.
And as always, he will agree then add, “They must make lots of money sending out all this meat to every one all over the world. I thought that they only had kangaroos and bears but apparently they have lots and lots of lambs.”
“Apparently.” I’ll say and laugh, knowing, expecting, what always comes next.
A smile that spreads slowly across his face, a chuckle from deep inside, and then, lamb still stuffed in the corner of his mouth, “I’m sorry, Mary, I hope this wasn’t YOUR little lamb.”