Dying Is More like Using Leftovers, Preferably Well
Blame it on Sylvia Plath, who in her poem Lady Lazarus, wrote:
Is an art, like everything else.
When I was sixteen, I was enthralled with those lines and, indeed, that poem. At 64, having outlived Plath by more than three decades, I still admire the poem but am far more skeptical of her pronouncement.
Dying an art? Sylvia’s assertion aside, my take on death, as I move closer to it, is I’m dealing with leftovers.
I was raised in a working class family and leftovers were a staple on our table. My mother would cook weeknights, but for Saturday supper, more often then not, we ate the small bits and pieces of the week’s meals.
From my young adult years through to this day, leftovers have played a prominent role in my kitchens. This is even more so in these pandemic times, when I am restricted by my oncologist from being in a grocery and my husband is greatly limiting his outside exposure to protect me. We look at using every food item from a variety of angles.
Leftovers: using basic materials down to the very last scraps.
Leftovers maximize and extend meals while minimizing food waste. The roasted chicken becomes multiple meals — a main course, a smattering cut up for tortillas, small sandwiches, bits sautéed and scattered on a salad — with the picked-over carcass going into the pot of water with ends of celery stalks and onion skins to be boiled into stock. The stock makes its own numerous appearances: the base liquid to flavor a pot of rice, the broth for noodle soup with other bits of chicken and vegetables, the bath to steam a pot of dumplings.
On the good days, leftovers make for a tasty meal. On the very best days, the meal of leftovers exceeds the original source meals.
And dying is like that. I am moving towards that final endpoint with as much love and grace and joy as I can muster.
On my best days, I take the bits and pieces of my day, my work, my memories, and yes, even my meals — all the chunks and remnants — and see what I can make with them. There are so many little scraps and morsels to life that I sift to seize the best of the daily crumbs. On those days, I gratefully blend those bits of joy, fragments of color, snatches of music together. It is amazing.
Those are the great leftover days.
Even on the “just good enough” days, those smidgens of this and that I am stirring around in my heart make for a satisfying repast. My thirst is slaked; my soul is satisfied. Life is a gift, even as it winds down in me.
But let’s be honest. Sometimes meals made from leftovers leave a lot to be desired. The source food wasn’t that good to begin with. The hoped-for serendipitous combination never quite came together. You had fewer tidbits than you thought when you started out. So you work at it and serve it up with a dash of resignation. Yeah, everyone gets fed, but…the meal fell on its face.
Or worse. On the very worst days, you look at your partner across the table, you both look down at the meal, and one of you gets up to make grilled cheese sandwiches while the other runs the failed meal down the garbage disposal.
And dying is like that, too. Sometimes the hour or the day just sucks and I look all the bits and pieces of my life and think “Crap, I have to make something with this?” On those days, I dutifully throw it all in my heart and stir, muttering “I love this day. I love this day.” Yeah, I get fed, but…
And on the really bad days, I dump it all — the memories, the moments, the whatever it is I am dredging up — into the trash and slam the lid down. Sometimes I use a four-letter word, or several. Sometimes all I can muster is bowing my head and taking deep breaths while the tears flow.
On those worst days, all I can do on those days is remind myself to try again later. All I can do on those worst days is eat chocolate, or read a book, or both, all the while remembering to breathe.
No one said dying would be easy.
And trust me, it’s not.
Dying is not a noble act and it is certainly not an art, Sylvia Plath to the contrary. It’s messy and stressful and amazing and heartbreaking and stunning all at the same time.
Leftovers, I tell you, leftovers.