Life Is Uncertain, Eat Dessert First

A black and white portrait of a fair skinned young man with a slender face and very short black hair, very slightly upstyled in a slight pompadour popular of the time. His black eyes twinkle and he has a slight smile, wearing a light colored, checkered, button down shirt.
My father’s junior year school portrait.

10 years ago today, the unimaginable happened. I knew it was coming, I was just in denial that it ever really would. 10 years ago today, I lost my daddy. Watching someone you love and adore slowly disappear into the clutches of Parkinson’s over a period of many years is a truly cruel human experience.

I have long credited my daddy with a myriad of little nuggets of wisdom that have guided me through adulthood:

  • Gettin’ old ain’t for sissies,
  • Little girls whose daddies called them princess tend to grow up believing it,
  • Be careful what you wish for, Little girl, you just might get it,
  • Only left-handed people are in their right mind,
  • And my favorite, most often cited: life is uncertain, eat dessert first.

I spent that day in the comfort of family, and the evening in the company of good friends, who invited me out to dinner. I celebrated him by starting my meal with fried ice cream and a Dos Equis, his favorite beer, which he claimed was the best thing for putting out the fire of spicy food. My heart aches for all the milestones I’ve passed in the last decade that I’ve not been able to share with him.

  • I finally achieved full employment, with salary and benefits,
  • I served in the United States Peace Corps,
  • I married a kind and thoughtful partner who treats me with dignity, respect, and affection, and stands with me shoulder to shoulder in building a life together, and
  • I became a first time homebuyer.

We had a tough day yesterday, for totally unrelated reasons not relevant here, and decided to take a mental health day today. We lounged in bed for a bit, as one does when taking things easy, and my SO, ever eclectic and unpredictable in his music choices, asked our smart home device to play classic country. I chuckled, not entirely a fan of the genre generally, and returned to my Facebooking. I realized very quickly that each and every song that played was exactly what came quietly out of the house stereo while my dad sat at the kitchen table on the weekends doing his paperwork—Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Hank Williams, Ferlin Husky, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Horton, Charlie Rich, Floyd Cramer. And I was there again, in a very visceral way, as I Facebook scrolled, I kept getting clear flashes of walking through the dining room where the stereo was, feeling the carpet under my feet, the slightly oily smell of the dust rag I used to do my dusting chore each weekend that was kept in the drawer just to the left of the sink, the squeak of the cabinet door where the trash can slid in and out thanks to a hinge attached to the door. I can feel the stucco on the walls in the hallway, and maybe if I sink into it just a little deeper, I could reach out and lift open one of the boxes of See’s Candies stacked on top of the console where the stereo was, doing my best to be quiet about it and not rustle the little papers inside to alert my step-mom that I might be spoiling my supper. My dad sitting quietly at the table all the time, with his orderly stacks of papers and office supplies, mostly paying bills, also tracking his selection of weekly Lotto numbers, testing his theories about what numbers came up with what frequency and when, logged in neat rows in his crisp, left-handed print on graph paper in a ledger. If I concentrate just a little more, maybe I could reach out and kiss his scruffy, unshaven weekend cheek.

And then I see the Facebook memory. Today is the anniversary of that day that I received one of the worst phone calls ever. I’m terrible with dates, and I know it’s around the end of March, and over the years, I’ve tried not to think about it too much, but there was the memory I posted that day, promising to eat dessert first, because that’s what my dad would have done.

I looked over at my SO, “I think I’ll be eating dessert first today,” I said. He laughed agreeably and asked, “What kind of food did your dad like?” “My dad? I questioned back, “Oh, he was kind of known for eating anything and everything,” I laughed. And then a flood of dad-food memories washed over me and I found myself ugly crying recounting them out loud, simultaneously realizing I’d never given concentrated thought to my father’s food influences on me, though I’ve blogged about a number of other family members and their influence on my food life. He wasn’t a particularly picky eater and ate abundantly, happily taking seconds and finishing things off so there were no leftovers to put away. He would belch unashamedly and simply proclaim that he was making room for more. He always had or would grab on the way out of a restaurant, a toothpick to meticulously clean his teeth after each meal, and later in life, treated himself to a personal silver Oneida toothpick of his very own.

He claimed to have eaten only one Lay’s potato chip in his life, out of sheer spite for their ridiculous ad campaign challenging people that they couldn’t—he said he couldn’t resist it when his childhood friend, munching Lay’s, pulled one last, large and perfect chip from the bag before putting them away, and he couldn’t resist swiping it out from under him, and swore he’d never eaten another one after that. He’d have eaten anchovies on his pizza if anyone else would have let him order it that way. He absolutely refused to eat cherry pie. Ever. Because, he claimed, on the few occasions so many years ago when he did, he always seemed to get the slice with the pit. He took pride in his ability to very thoroughly clean chicken bones of all their edible parts. He always methodically ate his sunny side up eggs by carefully eating all the white, moving in a circle closer and closer to the yolk, when isolated, he’d carefully slide his fork under and lift to eat all in one satisfying bite. He nibbled baby corn like actual tiny cobs. Friday nights were always spaghetti night, and his plate would be neatly filled to capacity with noodles, neatly topped with the maximum amount of sauce resting on top, which he’d dust evenly with Kraft Parmesan Cheese, then neatly work his way from the front of his plate to the back, neatly pushing renegade sauce back into place with the sourdough bread roll, buttered and crusty with garlic bread sprinkle and toasted in the broiler. Betty, my step-mom, made her famous chocolate chip cookies onmany a weekend, and not without my father’s muscle. Mixing the dough, she claimed, took too much arm strength, so once ingredients were in the bowl, she slid it over to him to mix. He grilled the weekend tri-tips, and sliced them. I loved hearing the story from my aunt, who married into a Mexican family when I was very small, tell the story of when my dad happily accepted the challenge of eating their hottest pepper. She turned red in the face with laughter recounting how tears and snot ran from his red face, but he ate it. He had an affection for gnocchi, a rare treat he enjoyed when they happened to be dining at a nice Italian restaurant.

A large, red flower stands tall in the left half of this photo, Serena’s dad, much older and the deep lines characteristic of Parkinsons etched into his stubbly, salt and pepper face, stares at the flowerfrom the right side of the photo, stooped over slightly, His thin, salt and pepper hair flies a little loosely in the wind; he wears a white windbreaker and rests his hands on the handrests of a walker. The sky above is clear and blue.
Some of the last quality time I got with my dad were the walks we took around the neighborhood to keep him moving. He was always weirdly knowledgeable about botany and could still tell me about neighborhood flowers.

It’s great that he enjoyed food as much as he did, he apparently didn’t have a great sense of smell from young adulthood, which turns out to be a possible early symptom of Parkinsons, and much of the pleasure of food is olfactory. I think his enjoyment of food went well beyond the sense of smell, he appreciated novelty and obscurity, and enjoyed the finer things in life whenever he could. As his Parkinsons progressed, reason was not a guiding principle and basic tastes, not requiring a sense of smell, drove his desires about what to eat—salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami, and with progressively less impulse control or “logical” decision making capacity, near the end, he pretty much just ate dessert all day long and pushed anything else away with disinterest. And how could we really fault him for it? Dessert was just about the only pleasure he had. When I could, I tried to entice him with sugar laden proteins, like Chinese food, and tried not to cringe when he was retrieving yet another ice cup from the freezer, and you know? All that ice cream was bringing him joy to a mind and body that he was otherwise losing control of, so I wouldn’t have it any other way. If you could have seen how he grinned and the twinkle in his eye when he was particularly pleased about something, like his original dessert creation, his Red, White, and Blueberry dessert—vanilla ice cream topped with lots of whipped cream and lots of fresh strawberries and blueberries—you’d agree.

Two small, square bowls with avocado ice creamand spoons dominate the foreground of this picture, the open container of ice cream just behind them, and an open Dos Equis beer to the right of that. Behind the ice cream sits an unopen pizza box.
Ice cream first, then pizza and beer.

So today, I ate dessert first. We ran out to get produce from our favorite little Asian market, where I’d hoped I’d find Dos Equis, no luck. Fortunately, there are also two great Mexican markets on the same block. We found avocado ice cream, which I’m pretty sure my dad probably never had the opportunity to try, though I’m sure he’d have been delighted to, especially if there was anyone there to judge him for it. And although I’m developing a bit of a reputation for consuming more pizza and beer than is probably healthy for me, pizza was not only easy to pick up in our neighborhood while out getting groceries, neither one of us feeling up to meal prep, my dad and I shared many a supreme combo on weekends when Betty didn’t feel much like cooking, either, me with a frosty glass of milk chilled in the freezer until the pizza came, and my dad with a beer. I haven’t had milk as a beverage since those days and I’m old enough to have a beer, so some things do change. A supreme combo pizza, however, is a pretty predictable and reliable experience, across all these years and in a totally different city—black olives, onions, peppers, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms—and today, it’s no ordinary pizza, it’s a nostalgic reconnection with my dad, almost like the three of us are at the kitchen table again. Betty wasn’t much of a pizza eater until she married my dad and only ever worked up to a Canadian bacon and double cheese, which she got for herself, and left the “everything but the kitchen sink” pizza to everyone else. I’m already feeling bloaty and I don’t care. I miss my daddy and I’m eating my feelings.

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