Sunday, August 09, 2009

Where I am

August 9

My father is dying.

I was going to start this blog entry with some witty quips about why I wouldn’t be seen at the New York food world’s parties this month, but it’s better to cut to the chase with these things.

He has pancreatic cancer, and that kills you.

So I’m with him in Denver, helping my mother look after him, changing his chux — sort of a bed diaper, a plastic sheet covered with an absorbent, cotton-like material — moving him to try to alleviate bed sores, giving him what love and support I can to help ease him to rest.

It’s not satisfying or fulfilling, but I’m glad that I’m here. Well, maybe not glad, but I think I’m doing what’s right, or as right as possible. He’s spent the past 42 years looking after me, so this is the least I can do.
And in this digital age I can work from here, too, so I’ve been interviewing people about food-safety regulations and interesting potato dishes and White Castle’s new charity award program, pausing periodically to give my dad his pain medication.

If you like my sweet, good-natured friendliness, I got that from my dad. And my work ethic, and my sense of loyalty. You should have seen him flirting with the health-care workers back when he could do that – not in a gross old man way, but in the sort of nice, non-threatening manner that makes people feel appreciated. He wanted to be so accommodating that when they asked him if he was in pain, he’d say that he wasn’t, I think instinctively, because he didn’t want to trouble them. We had to remind him that, in fact, he’d told us that the blood clots in his legs hurt quite a bit.

He stopped swallowing today, so we’re swabbing his mouth with a moist lemony cloth made just for that purpose.

We’ve been playing videos and music we think he’d like. He’s a big Bill Cosby fan, and so I was raised listening to the comedian on a four-hour-long reel-to-reel tape that Dad has of him. Watching “Bill Cosby: 49,” the other day, I realized how much my sense of humor had been influenced by his.

And we watched Fantasia, a favorite movie of his, and movies with music from the Big Band era. Dad, who played the drums, had a big band when he was a teenager in Baltimore, called Bill Thorn and The Socialaires. They even had a television show that was eventually beaten in a ratings battle with American Bandstand, so I’m told.

He lived in New York for a couple of years in the 1950s, after ending his tour of duty in the Navy and getting a degree in communications. He worked as an editor for NBC, among other things, but eventually he moved to Denver to find a wife, get married and start a family, and his family has been his only priority ever since.

He retired 14 years ago as the head of public information at KRMA-TV, Denver’s first public television station (Channel 6), so when I complain about idiotic publicists, it’s not the profession I dislike, it’s the idiocy.

I got my fascination with food from my dad, too, and one of my earliest memories is watching him fry bacon.

He’d done all of the cooking for himself and my mom since he retired, so I’ve taken over those duties. Mom’s an easy diner, and would likely be content with nothing but turkey sandwiches, but I like cooking.

Lately I’ve done mostly simple stuff involving dressing up leftovers and using up things that had overstayed their welcome in the fridge. I did my own interpretation of Cubano sandwiches from some pork tenderloin and French bread that my brother dropped off, and pickles and cheese from the fridge. I did buy a whole chicken, which I cut up, made stock and a garlic-and-pepper-chicken stir-fry. I saved the wings, though, which I also marinated in garlic and pepper, dusted in flour and deep-fried, because Mom and I like wings.

I rendered the chicken fat and used it to make bread.

I bake like a cook, not a baker, without precise measurements, and so my bread is different every time, but it’s always good, because unless you burn it, homemade bread is good. Even if you kill the yeast, you can still make some tasty crackers.

Many people are intimidated by bread, but honestly, it’s a snap if you don’t take it too seriously (don’t tell Rose Levy-Beranbaum I said that).

Take a tablespoon or so of dry yeast (that’s one packet), toss in about the same amount of sugar (maybe a little more, depending on your mood), a little less salt than that, a quarter cup or so of whatever fat you like (melted if it’s butter or shortening or lard) and about half a cup of water that’s hot enough to activate the yeast. Add flour, any flour, whatever flour you like, although a fair amount of it should be wheat flour because you need wheat’s elasticky gluten if you want the bread to rise. Whisk in the flour until it becomes too thick to do that easily. Then switch to a wooden spoon or other mixing implement of your choice. Work in the flour as you kneed the dough (you can even do it in the bowl you mixed it in if you don’t want to get flour all over a work surface), until the dough is springy and smooth. I don’t know how much flour to add. It depends. Aim for around three cups.

Find a bowl that can contain about twice the volume of your dough. Coat it in oil — any edible oil. Drop the ball of dough in it, flip it over to coat it in oil, cover it with plastic wrap or a moist cloth and leave it in a warm place until the dough doubles in volume, which will take an hour or two or six depending on the flour you used and the quality of your yeast. Punch it down and let it rise again if you want. If you don’t, skip that step.

Shape your dough into whatever size loaf you want. If you want to put it in a greased loaf pan, do that. Yesterday I rolled the dough into little balls to make them into rolls and put them on a baking sheet that I’d sprinkled with cornmeal to keep the dough from sticking to it (although I could have greased it).

I let the rolls double in volume, more or less, brushed them with an egg mixed with a splash of milk, and baked them at 425° until they were brown (to see if bread is done, tap it on the bottom; it should sound hollow).

I’ve learned a lot going through all of this — ranging from how grief works to techniques for moving people who can’t move themselves to the amazing efficacy of a beer or two at Wyman’s, the sports bar a block away, to help me decompress — and I’m still processing much of it.

Stay tuned.

August 11 update:

Thank you for your kind comments, and your e-mail messages and Facebook notes and tweets. I appreciate it all very much.

My dad died yesterday.

I had made breakfast for my mom and me (egg sandwiches on homemade rolls with cheddar cheese) and was heating water in the kitchen for another bread venture.

My parents were in the dining room, next to the kitchen, where Dad’s hospital bed had been set up. Mom called me and asked if I thought maybe Dad was dead.

His breathing had become shallow and raspy the night before, so we did what Polly, the hospice nurse, had told us to do to help make him comfortable. We gave him a bit more of the synthetic morphine he was being treated with and turned up his oxygen. Morphine expands blood vessels, you see, and more oxygen might make it easier for him to breathe, and it wouldn’t hurt.

We turned on Fantasia.

He slept through the night and was sleeping in the morning, too, and then Mom noticed his breathing seemed to have stopped. I felt his neck for a pulse, but since I don’t know how to feel for a pulse I didn’t know whether my inability to feel it was my own fault or not. I shrugged my shoulders.

His jaw was slack, and when Mom closed it it just dropped open again. She decided to wait ten minutes and then call the hospice, and I went back to making bread. The last rolls were kind of tough, but fresh out of the oven they still made good sandwiches. Perhaps, I thought, I should use more of the user-friendly all-purpose flour, and maybe make looser dough, with a higher water-to-flour ratio.

Polly came over and confirmed Dad’s death and we started making phone calls. Mom handed me a pretty flowerpot adorned with dragons and asked me to wash it out. She’d called the crematorium that morning and found out that the urn she’d chosen for Dad had too narrow an opening. It needed to have a mouth at least four inches wide.

My immediate family and some cousins and family friends came over, and I realized that I, and I think Mom, weren’t on the same part of the grief continuum that they’d expected us to be on.

I had done the initial freaking out a couple of weeks before, when Dad was diagnosed. At that time I wondered how anyone coped with such grief. I took the day off and went to the Five Guys in my neighborhood in Brooklyn and ate a hamburger and too many French fries. The next day I woke up and realized how people cope with such grief — they just do, one day at a time.

By the time Dad died I’d already processed the new reality. I’m sure I’ll have other waves of grief washing over me soon, but the first wave had passed before I arrived in Denver. Mom was over it, too.

So we took care of the business that it was necessary to take care of, hosted the family and friends who stopped by, and opened a bottle of wine.

I finished making the bread dough, but had to fudge it as I realized I’d forgotten to add the fat.

Still, I thought I was perfectly fine, so it’s a good thing that I did some work that evening, because I realized that I wasn’t perfectly fine. My e-reactions to publicists were unnecessarily testy, because their e-mails seemed unnecessarily frivolous. I did have the good sense not to respond to the ridiculous and pointless comment that accompanied every pitch: “Hope all’s well.”

What a silly, silly thing to put in an e-mail. What if all was not well? Should I tell you so? What would be the point of that?
A telemarketer called Mom and asked for Dad. She told him he’d just died that morning and we had a good laugh when the telemarketer hung up, wondering how long we should work that angle.

After Mom went to sleep and I’d cleaned out my e-mail box and written up Steak n Shake’s third quarter earnings (you’ll be glad to know that they’re up, and so is restaurant traffic, although check averages are down) I went to Wyman’s for a quiet beer.

“How was your weekend?” The bartender asked.

I didn’t know how to answer that.


Scott Hutcheson, Indiana said...

Bret, thanks for sharing these thoughts about your dad. Even though I don't know you, you and your family are in my thoughts.

Scott Hutcheson

Ron said...

Bret ~ This is a lovely testament to your father, to your family and to you. My thoughts are with you for strength in these trying times. Best, Ron

nithya at hungrydesi said...

You are definitely doing what's right in being there to help your dad and spend time being near him. I echo Scott's comment in that you and your family are in my thoughts.

shari said...

Hi Bret. Thanks for sharing. I am sorry to hear about your Dad. My thoughts are with you and your family.


Bonnie Friedman said...

Hi Bret, it's Bonnie Friedman on Maui. I'm sorry to hear about your dad yet so glad you are there with him and your mother. You are making more good memories to last a lifetime. The best way to spend these days. Thanks for sharing - beautiful! Sending aloha across the waves to you and yours.

Craig said...

Bret, I'm so sorry to hear about your Dad, this is a wonderful post to read. I've enjoyed cooking so much for my family since I started about 10 years ago, an endeavor influenced by lots of things, but one of which was listening to you talk about food when we worked in that rabbit warren magazine office along the river, and seeing how comfortably you cooked for our gang for those weekly dinners back in the salad days of Dusit. I'm happy to now know a little more of the history to that. Take care, these aren't easy moments.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear about your father. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

Jim Doak

Matteo Hughes said...

On one hand, reading your post makes me sad. On the other, it is so enlightening to learn that your strongest characteristics come from the man you are now caring for. Hang in there, nothing is more important than being right there by his side. God bless you all.

ylee said...

I can't think of a better testament to your dad and his influence on you and your interest in food than to share these memories and your recipes, especially the one for bread using chicken fat. Hugs!

Keatang said...

What a touching post, one in which your gifts as a writer and a cook provide testimony to your filial love.

We're thinking about you back here in New York.
Chris Keating

pam parseghian said...

What a beautiful posting! And your bread is lovely too.

Dina Berta said...

Oh, Bret. I am so sorry to hear about your father. What a beautiul tribute. I'm sure he was very proud of you.

Beverly Stephen said...

Bret, So sorry to hear about your father's death. It was great you could be there and thank you for writing about it. Bevelry Stephen

ephemeralist said...

I remember when my parents died, how slowly the full impact hit. And how really impossible it was to guess just who would say something really touching -- sometimes a stranger or not who you'd expect at all.

nancykruse said...

My heart goes out to you, Bret, along with all my good thoughts and wishes. Truly, truly sorry to read about your loss. Nancy Kruse

Stephanie said...

We're thinking of you.
Matt and Stephanie

Gastropoda said...

Anything I type will sound trite after what you have produced, but you definitely have helped restore my faith in the combination of cooking and writing as restorative activities. Very sorry about your dad (my mom went the same way, but not as well cared-for). This is a great homage to what sounds like a great man. Good luck keeping on keeping on. My bread would be better than my words right now, I know. I'm very sorry.

Sharon said...

I've never posted on your blog before, but I'm a big fan.

I'm just now catching up, and read the news. I'm so very sorry for your loss, and will keep you in my thoughts and prayers.