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“Death by Corn Candy,”

in Flash Nonfiction: Food, Woodhall Press, 2020

All her life, Colleen had a fondness for a conflation of food and ritual: a family fondue on New Year’s Eve, cinnamon rolls every Sunday morning, chocolate for all celebrations, a cup of dark roast coffee shared with friends just because. Normally frugal to a fault, she spared no cost for the food and drink that she shared with others.

At our last Thanksgiving meal together, when it was difficult for her to stand up for more than five minutes at a time, she stood up long enough to prepare the turkey with her husband’s assistance. She placed herbs and garlic under the skin, then filled it with a special sausage and mushroom stuffing. The rest of us assembled the remainder of the feast: the vegetarian offerings, several sides, and the pumpkin and pecan pies. We did not do it alone, however. Colleen directed our efforts with the precision of a choreographer. She sent her brother out for the best wine. We roasted the Brussels sprouts to her exact specifications and assembled a grated carrot salad from her grandmother’s vintage family recipe that had never been written down. She supervised the bread baking with her own special recipe; we kneaded until she said “enough.”

Even though we knew we it was unlikely that we would ever share another Thanksgiving meal, we did not know that it would be our last supper, our final breaking of bread.

A few weeks later, just before emergency tracheotomy surgery that would prevent the cancer cells from closing off her throat and suffocating her, we talked on the phone. Knowing that after the surgery she would be unable to speak or swallow, we savored the details of our Thanksgiving gathering while I absorbed the last time I would hear her voice, certainly for months, possibly forever. She recounted in full our Thanksgiving weekend together, how we drove into the mountains, how the sunshine of the late November day had been so welcome after the gray and rainy days of autumn. How the feast gave her such joy, coming in a brief interlude between her bout of chemo-induced thrush and her pre-Christmas tracheotomy.

At the end of our conversation, Colleen added wistfully, “And to think that our Thanksgiving fondue was the last fondue I’ll ever share with you.” A family tradition on New Year’s Eve, we opted for a pre-Thanksgiving fondue, as if we knew we wouldn’t be able to do it on the first day of the coming year. It was this thought, the assertion that we might never share another fondue that halted our conversation as we recognized what this meant.

Post-surgery she endured her tube feedings, each one preceded by a careful inspection by the hospice nurse of the contents of her stomach. Nutrients without flavor; calories without joy. Her brother, Doug, stood by her bed, sipping on a cup of espresso when she reached for him, pointing to the packages of sponges on her bedside table. She wrote “taste” on the whiteboard, now her only means of communication. He picked up the small sponge on a stick, the one we used to moisten her mouth. Like a priest offering communion, he dipped it solemnly into the coffee and held it out to her. Her tongue glided over the sponge, her expression revealing a momentary spark of joy.

She sent us off to lunch, facetiously giving us whiteboard instructions to “get the best the hospital cafeteria offers.” If she could not eat, she would partake vicariously, even if the food didn’t meet her usual standards. When we got back to the room Doug held a cup of corn candy, the only “dessert” he could find that sounded better than the cafeteria’s selections of gelatin, pudding, or sad-looking pieces of pie. She pointed at his cup and wrote “what is it?” He held out a piece, which she took and licked slowly.

She grinned and scribbled “death by corn candy,” on the whiteboard, then closed her eyes again, exhausted but satisfied.

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