It’s June of 2008. I’m standing at my mother’s kitchen counter, chopping onions to put in hamburgers. My husband has just left me, and I don’t yet know what a blessing that is. But on that day, every move I make is still marred by heart pain.
I’ve been staying in my mom’s guest room with my 5-year-old for weeks now, as I try to figure out whether to go back to Idaho or rent a house here, or even if I can just stay upright for more than five minutes at a time.
I’m cooking for the first time since the split. I don’t want to eat much lately – I’ve already lost 25 pounds in five weeks – but I’m feeling hungry this evening. I take stock of ingredients: a pound of grass-fed beef, onions, garlic, and bread. I figure I’ll sauté the onions and garlic in olive oil since the meat is grass-fed, and a bit leaner. I get to work. My mother has good knives.
She’s also into Andre Rieu right now, which is fine. It’s music without words, which is the only kind I can listen to. Her favorite comes on: Rieu’s version of the song from the film Zorba the Greek, which as we all know, starts out slowly and builds into a feverish, captivating whirlwind. And as the tempo escalates, I’m still chopping, and I look out over the living room to the painting my mother has placed on the far wall. It’s sort of a Mediterranean scene, full of reds and yellows and a bit of green and blue here and there. And then I’m gone, out of the room, and I have no idea where I am, unless it’s possible to be inside a piece of music. There’s no pain, no sadness, just music, which is somehow now where I am. I’ve never done hallucinogens, so this experience is surprising, but not enough to shock me out of it.
Zorba isn’t a long piece – maybe three minutes, tops – and the room is silent again, and I’m back at the counter. The entire onion has been chopped, but miraculously, my fingers are still intact. I stretch each one out, marveling at their wholeness, thankful that some part of me stayed behind to work the knife.
The burgers are the best I’ve ever made. The olive oil worked. I write the recipe down under the name “Heartbreak Hamburgers.”
A little more than ten years later, mom and I are in a room together. She’s bed-bound now, thanks to spinal arthritis and a surgical injury in June from which she can’t seem to recover, and she’s been admitted into hospice. She’s eating even less than I was ten years ago, when she was constantly eyeing my wasting form and trying to get me to eat. The roles have been reversed now.
Out of the blue, she says, “I just want to chop vegetables.” I don’t really know what she means, but then again, she says a lot of things these days that don’t seem to cohere.
“You what?” I ask.
“I just want to be able to stand at my counter, and chop vegetables for a salad,” she says. “It’s such an essential part of being a woman.”
I open my feminist mouth to say it’s not about being a woman, it’s about being a human, a human who loves food and the preparation of it, but the words come out in a jumble. I’m grateful for that, because I don’t need to be arguing with her about this. Every guide I’ve read about interacting with people with dementia or cognitive impairment says to respond to the emotions underlying what they say, not necessarily their precise words.
“It’s an essential part of being a woman,” she repeats.
I realize what she means is that it’s been an essential part of being her.
I remember my own trip chopping vegetables at her counter, and and how my experience was transcendent, and hers were deeply ordinary. My chopping took me out of myself, while hers grounded her in herself, and both were indispensible to us. I think then about loss, and the things that quietly lend meaning to our lives but remain just below our awareness until they’re gone.
Even if I got up from the table where I’m typing this, walked into my kitchen and began chopping vegetables — if I breathed in, and breathed out, and thought intentionally about how fortunate I am to do it, I don’t think I would be able to summon the degree of appreciation that’s truly justified. It would be a quiet appreciation, a fleeting one that felt a little forced. It took a transcendent experience to make me remember a specific instance of chopping an onion. That’s okay; that’s the human condition. I don’t believe that anyone could, or should, deeply appreciate the ordinary all the time, because to do so would make it no longer ordinary. The genuinely ordinary is only fully appreciated against the stark relief of loss.
The ordinary is part of us. So to lose it is to lose some part of ourselves.
That’s what she was telling me. That she is losing herself, and she knows it. There is nothing I can do to bring herself back her, to return her to the ordinary. That is beyond her now.
Depression in the face of this truth isn’t just her right, it’s inevitable. It is a difficult and sad thing to lose oneself and one’s life. It will happen to all of us, in varying ways and under a range of circumstances. Her circumstances, however those arose and whether or not they were inevitable, involve living with the slow drain of loss for an extended period of time. All I can do is be with her as it happens. That has to be enough for us all, even though we know it never can be.
It’s not enough, but to be without it would be far worse. Like the ordinary things.