Weigl: A spoonful at a time comforts the dying

aweigl@newsobserver.comApril 11, 2012 

George Weigl with his granddaughter, Josephine Pearl.

JULI LEONARD — jleonard@newsobserver.com

I wanted to cook for my father.

He had suffered a heart attack and was in intensive care. His 80-year-old body was struggling to recover. The doctor was recommending hospice.

I thought it would be nice to make him something to eat other than bland hospital food. The night before, he ate more than he had all week in the hospital: a few bites of fish and green beans, a scoop of something called vanilla fluff and half a cup of chocolate pudding. While saying very little, he was alert and fully in the present – not clouded by the dementia diagnosed only five months ago.

I wrote a column not long ago about coming to terms with his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Now I was back in Pittsburgh, and he was gravely ill.

I chose my Grandma Weigl’s oxtail soup, a recipe she had taught my mother. Now my mother would teach me. To satisfy my father’s sweet tooth, I found a recipe from Ina Garten for double chocolate pudding.

As I stood in my mother’s kitchen browning the oxtails, chopping carrots and celery and stirring the pudding, I imagined feeding my father this meal. I longed for a sign that he recognized the taste of his mother’s soup, a sign that he was comforted.

When I tried to feed him the soup and the pudding, he only took a spoonful of each.

When my mother told him, “Andrea made oxtail soup for you,” his incoherent response was this: “Not necessarily.”

The next day, we tried again. Mom fed him a little of the pudding. Twenty minutes later, he threw up.

While this meal didn’t comfort the dying, it did nourish the living. Over the next several days, my mom and I ate the soup and finished the pudding as we shuttled from home to hospital and then hospice.

All the while, I was torn between a desire to keep company with my dying father and a need to care for my mother. I didn’t want my father to wake up in a rare lucid moment and not know where he was or see a familiar face. I wanted him to recognize me again and ask about my baby daughter. I wanted to hear his stories about grandma and grandpa.

I also needed to take care of my mother, who is diabetic, making sure she ate and slept. I needed to let her dictate how much she wanted to keep vigil at his bedside and then take her home when she was emotionally exhausted.

I spent 12 days in Pittsburgh and only left when it was clear he would remain in hospice until his death. Before I left, I did learn that I had brought him comfort. The night before I drove home to North Carolina, I went to say goodbye.

I told him I loved him. I told him he had been a good father. I told him we were going to take care of mom.

In a whisper, he repeated what he has said at the end of each of our visits in recent years.

He said: “Thank you very much.”

My dad died on Sunday morning.

Weigl: 919-829-4848

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