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Published: Wed Apr 15 2020
Art by Jin Suk
Stop Breath

My mother thought I made the world’s best grilled cheese sandwich. I don’t. I make the grilled cheese sandwiches of my childhood, with Wonder Bread and American cheese. But in that confusing month between the heart attack that she survived and the surgery she didn’t, I made those sandwiches as if they could save her life. I know now, a year after she died, that it was my life I was trying to save. How could I live without my mother?

Don’t die, I whispered into her ear as she lay in various hospital beds, or reclined in her La-Z-Boy watching Wheel of Fortune, or slept in the same bed in which she’d slept for over half a century, me beside her, curled into her body. Don’t die.

~

The year my mother turned eighty-six, she got old. Looking at her then, I often thought of what Grace Paley wrote in her essay, “Upstaging Time”: a young boy throws a ball to another boy and tells him to watch out for that old lady—Paley. “What?” she writes. “What lady? Old?” For the last twenty years, she had been a woman getting older. Suddenly, she was old. That’s what it was like with my mother. One day she was taking Caribbean casino cruises, staying up later than I could and bursting into our small cabin with fistfuls of money she’d won. The next day she was no longer able to fly anywhere, to walk across the mall parking lot, to remember how much salt to put in her meatballs.

She smelled like cigarettes and Chloé perfume. She would never leave the house if her shoes and handbag didn’t match. She would never drink straight from a bottle or a can. She swore worse than anyone I knew. After my brother Skip was born in 1951—when my mother had just turned twenty years old—she lost most of her hair, and for the rest of her life, sixty-six more years, she wore a wiglet or a fall or a coiffed wig perched on top of her head.

Those hair prostheses caused her a lot of trouble. On a windy December day in 1982, six months after Skip died, my parents and I took an unlikely vacation to the Netherlands. Tourists don’t typically visit countries on the North Sea in winter, but for some reason—either poor planning or out of numbness from grief—that is where we went. Shivering, we stood in line at the Anne Frank House and climbed the narrow stairs to the attic, my mother weeping silently throughout the tour. We drank Heineken at the brewery, my father and I lifting large heavy mugs to our lips, drinking more than we should have as my mother wept, and we stared at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, not really comprehending why we were looking at it. “Beautiful,” I said, because I felt I had to keep talking, to keep us moving, to keep us together. My mother just cried and cried.

One cold, gray day—all the days were cold and gray that week, like a pathetic fallacy come to life—we somehow got ourselves to a town on the Zuider Zee. My father ate live herring; my mother ordered mock apple pie, the very recipe from the Ritz cracker boxes of my childhood, made with crackers and brown sugar and butter, no apples. When we stood outside to look at the ships or wait for a bus or, really, I don’t know why we were standing there, a big wind began to howl and lifted my mother’s auburn wig practically off her head. She screamed and clamped her hands to it, trying to keep it in place. Then the rain came: cold, fat, hard raindrops. I, in my Annie Hall phase, was wearing a hat. Oddly enough, so was my father. But my mother had only her hands to protect her, and the rain and wind were so relentless that she gave up and stood sobbing, her wig as flat and wet as a bath mat. “My hair,” she cried, “my hair.” But we all knew that was not why she was crying.

As a child, I harbored a romantic fantasy of what I had then thought of as Holland, born of the Wonderful World of Disney’s Sunday night movie of Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, in which Hans effortlessly skates across canals gleaming with ice, past windows and—a glitch of memory here, I know—fields of tulips. Despite that obvious error, and the sad trip to the Netherlands after my brother died, tulips remain my favorite flower. At my wedding two years ago, I held bouquets of them, and stood in front of an abundance, an embarrassment, of tulips growing in Abingdon Square Park at Twelfth Street and Eighth Avenue in Greenwich Village, growing there, it seemed, just for us.

My mother had not liked either of my husbands—the first one was just okay, the second one she hated. But this third husband, she adored. “Now I can die,” she said. “I know someone is taking care of my Ann.” I didn’t think she’d actually do it, go and die less than a year later. I just clutched the tulips and recited love poems and gazed at the man I loved. How foolish I was that day, in my navy blue dress. I did not think: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. Even though I knew better, even though the people I love just kept dying, I did not think it.

~

I suppose the first thing that happened was the heart attack. But when I look back, it seems things began to fall apart a few weeks earlier when my mother’s furnace ran out of oil during a cold snap and no one would deliver any to her. I was in New Orleans with my husband, and I sat calling oil company after oil company, saying, “My mother is eighty-six years old and she has no heat,” and every one of them said, “We only deliver to our customers.” The company where she was a customer had put her on a list. “We’ll get to her in forty-eight hours,” they told me. But I did not think an eighty-six-year-old woman could live for forty-eight hours without heat in below-zero temperatures. Her sister, my Aunt June, lived right next door. Actually, right in the same yard. Aunt June had heat, but my mother refused to go there. “I’m not budging,” she said, and she swore at me and hung up and something lodged in my gut. The centre cannot hold.

She got oil or the temperatures rose, I don’t remember, but she did not freeze to death. A week later, I spent the afternoon in her kitchen drinking coffee and eating Italian sausage until it was time to pick up my daughter Annabelle from school. That night, my mother called, moaning, saying, “Something’s wrong, something’s wrong, oh, the pain in my chest.” She managed, between moans, to tell me how she’d had this pain all day and how it kept getting worse and that her arm was numb. “Mom, you’re having a heart attack,” I said, already tugging on snow boots and my puffy coat. “I’m on my way,” I said as my husband dialed 911. “I thought it was the sausage,” she said.

~

I spent a lot of my adult life chasing more upscale versions of the food that nourished me throughout my childhood. I turned my back on tomato sauce, sought out guanciale, grilled polenta, and yes, grilled cheese sandwiches made with brie and apples (it was the eighties, after all), mayonnaise and grated onion, comté or gruyère or emmental. But eventually, when I needed comfort from a broken or shattered heart, it was the Campbell’s tomato soup made with milk and celery salt, the grilled cheese with Wonder Bread and Kraft Singles, that soothed me.

Those basic grilled cheese sandwiches were what my father made when I came home from college, sad or confused. Or when I didn’t know whether to break up with the man I loved because his drinking had grown out of control. I would come home, from Boston or St. Louis or New York City, flop on the plaid couch in the family room, and wait for my father to bring me a sandwich, the bread buttery and toasty, the cheese oozing. “Now tell me what’s wrong,” he’d say, and with my hands and lips greasy, I’d begin.

This is what I fed my mother after she had a stent put in, returned to the hospital for a complication, went to the ER for a reaction from medication, and at last seemed home to stay. “I finally feel normal again after this so-called heart attack,” she told me a week before she died. My cousins and I had stopped taking turns sleeping over, and I was now going home to her every afternoon to make lunch and set up dinner and gossip. “Make me a grilled cheese,” she’d say. “You make the best.”

I made countless grilled cheese sandwiches for my mother in the last month of her life, not knowing, of course, that it was her last month. I did what she had always done for me: I fed her the food that had built our family, that had glued it back together too many times: the eggplant parmesan she made when I was abandoned and pregnant and couldn’t stop crying; the roast chicken my father brought my children and me when my husband betrayed me; the Italian stuffed meatloaf—polpettone—my Auntie Dora made when my daughter Grace died suddenly when she was just five years old. During that spring and summer after Grace died, as I sat in my pajamas struggling to breathe, to think, to understand, Auntie Dora brought polpettone, my mother made hundreds of meatballs, and my other aunt fried sausage and peppers, all of this the mortar that held us together, that kept us—me—from falling permanently apart.

~

My mother, Gogo, was a legend. Tough-talking, chain-smoking, quick to cry or laugh or sting you. Just as quick to take in strangers or wayward relatives, to feed meatballs to electricians or plumbers or roofers, to give loans that she wouldn’t let you pay back. It was my daughter Grace who named her Gogo. Before that, she was Grandma Gloria to my son Sam, Auntie Gloria to her dozens of nieces and nephews and godchildren, and Babe to my father. But once Grace started calling her Gogo—a toddler’s inability to say Grandma or Gloria—the name stuck, and she was Gogo to everybody. When Grace died, right there in the hospital, my mother said, “No one can ever call me Gogo again. I couldn’t bear it.” No one stopped, though, and she bore it for fifteen more years.

For me, my mother’s small kindnesses outweighed her barbs: the extra pairs of pantyhose she kept in her purse for my first wedding in case anyone tore their stockings; the Chanel N°5 and extra-large bottle of Advil she gave me every Christmas; the emergency spaghetti sauce she drove all the way from Rhode Island to Manhattan whenever I got sick; the cards with tens or twenties tucked inside that she sent to me every week during college, and then during flight attendant training in Kansas City, and later to writers’ conferences where I taught, from Vermont to Oregon. “Buy yourself a nice dinner!” she’d write. “Love you till hell freezes over and all the little devils go skating!”

But how she could wound with her words, this fiercely proud but vulnerable woman! What I didn’t realize until I was well into adulthood was how tragedy had shaped her: her father buried on her sixteenth birthday, her favorite sister dead at twenty-three from anesthesia, a brother a few years later from a heart attack, and all of this in the 1950s, without therapy or antidepressants or grief counseling. That was not even a word used then to describe such enormous losses: grief. She’s just sad, I thought. She’s just in a bad mood. Sometimes she would sit for hours in the car in the driveway and cry. Sometimes she would lie on the couch and pretend to sleep. When my brother died suddenly in 1982, my father and I worried she’d kill herself. She threatened it, a lot. Years later, she told me the only reason she didn’t kill herself back then was me.

By the time Grace christened her Gogo, my father had died, too, and I’d convinced her, finally, to take antidepressants, and her sadness came less frequently. She had always been a good laugher, but she laughed more after that. Or so it seemed. On Saturday nights my kids slept over and she fed them chicken cutlets, macaroni, ice cream sundaes. They played elaborate games late into the night. On Sunday mornings she got up early and cooked French toast, scrambled eggs, bacon. When I arrived to pick them up, they would all be playing cards. She’d never let them win and delighted in beating them, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, eyes gleaming behind her thick glasses.

But then Grace died and nothing was ever the same, for any of us. Didn’t Auden tell us to put out the stars, pack up the moon, dismantle the sun? I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong. “How much more can I take?” she’d cried in the hospital waiting room that night. “God, tell me! How much more can I take?” When years later she told me how she’d considered suicide after my brother died, how I’d unknowingly saved her life, she said she’d worried I would kill myself after losing Grace. “I wouldn’t have blamed you,” she said.

~

The last month of her life, I made her spaghetti carbonara for dinner, and brought her the taco salad she loved from Taco Bell. My husband made his famous fried chicken, brined overnight, soaked in buttermilk and spices. “Eat, Gogo,” I said, pressing food on her: doughnuts and apples and Italian grinders. I brought her magazines and biographies of the movie stars she loved. I set up a Facebook account for her and checked it every day, pointing out messages from people she used to work with, nieces and nephews who lived far away. I showed her how to look at other people’s pages, people she didn’t like, like my ex-husband. “Oh! He looks so fat!” she said with delight. I was saying: See how fun the world still is, Mom? Now stay in it with me, please.

Why did I think I could keep my mother alive? She was eighty-six years old. She’d been limping and in pain ever since her hip replacement cracked—she broke that hip the morning she fell in the street taking out the trash after playing poker all night. She had a heart attack, for Christ’s sake. Even after she came home, I stared at her as she slept, as if I could will her to live. Don’t die.

~

“Make me a grilled cheese,” Gogo said as soon as I walked in. It was two days before her final trip to the hospital, the one from which she wouldn’t come home.

“You got it,” I said.

I smeared two slices of Wonder Bread with butter, and melted more butter in the pan. I placed two slices of American cheese on a piece of bread and placed it in the pan, butter side down.

Smoke rose; the bread turned black.

Damned electric stove, I thought, and I tossed out the burned sandwich, wiped out the pan, began again.

This time the bread just soaked up the butter, turning it into a wet mess. Why the hell couldn’t I make a simple grilled cheese?

I threw that one out, too. I started once more. Buttered two pieces of bread. Added two slices of cheese. Melted more butter, put in the bread butter side down. This time it managed to be both blackened and soggy.

My mother began to call for me. “Sweetie, come on already!”

I was almost out of bread and cheese. I’d made hundreds of these over my lifetime and never failed. It was a grilled cheese sandwich, the easiest thing in the world to make.

I began again.

“Ann, come on!”

“I’m just finishing your sandwich.”

Wrong again. Undercooked. Refusing to brown.

“Ann!”

At least the cheese had melted. I cut it into two triangles and brought it to my mother on a red plate. She changed all of her dishes and silverware and napkins to match the holidays. Valentine’s Day was two days away and her house was a profusion of red (plates, curtains, tablecloth, bath towels) and pink, hearts were everywhere, smiling cupids. On February 15, I knew, she would take it all down and replace it with shamrocks and leprechauns—green everything—except of course this year she wouldn’t.

“Here you go!” I said, handing her the pathetic lunch.

She was sitting in her favorite chair, a game show blaring on the television.

“I kept messing it up,” I told her.

“Who cares?” she said. “I just want to spend time with you. That’s all I want. Just please sit here and let me look at you.” And she looked at me with such love that I actually doubled over slightly. I knew my mother loved me, but this seemed something otherworldly, almost too much.

“Well,” I said with false cheer, “here I am!”

~

“Be my valentine?” I asked Gogo two days later, on Valentine’s morning. “Lunch. You pick the place.”

Gogo loved the chain restaurants I loathed: Chili’s, Applebee’s, TGI Friday’s. But this day she wanted a steak, so off we went to Outback Steakhouse, where she had surf and turf.

She’d confessed she didn’t feel right. “A little off,” she said. But she was glad we’d gone out to celebrate. Like her house, Gogo matched herself to the holidays, and that day she wore a red cashmere sweater and a necklace of pink and red hearts. When I admired the necklace, she took it off and put it around my neck. It wasn’t my style, but what the hell? I kept it on all day, even after I dropped her off at home and picked up my daughter Annabelle from school and drove to my cousin’s with flowers.

I was still wearing the necklace as I raced to her house after the call came, Gogo screaming in pain, unable to speak, screaming for help. The ambulance beat me there, and I jumped in, confused. “She was fine a couple of hours ago,” I told them. Then: “Take her to Rhode Island Hospital” (instead of the local hospital a couple miles away). But the EMT said, as calm as can be, “She might not make it all the way to Providence.”

If you have ridden in an ambulance with a critically ill person, you know the terror that grips you during that ride, which seems interminable even if you’re only going two miles. You know the panic of being in the ER, being rushed past the waiting people with the flu or sprained ankles. The questions. The tests. The serious faces. The phone calls to loved ones telling them to come, now.

Gogo didn’t die that night. Instead, she was diagnosed with a bowel obstruction, put in a regular room, then rushed later, after I’d gone home, to ICU. I was beckoned in the middle of the night and, standing in the hallway outside her room in pink pajamas with playful cats on them, was told they could make her comfortable and that she would be gone in less than ten minutes. Or they could do surgery that she would most likely not survive. No one wants to make such a decision. No one. Not for their father, their daughter, their mother. Haven’t I had enough? my mother had cried at Grace’s still body.

As usual, Gogo saved me. “I want the surgery,” she said, gripping my hand. To everyone’s surprise, she survived. She started to get better. She went from the sickest person in the ICU, to their miracle. The same had happened with Grace. “She’s turned the corner!” we were told. But then she turned another corner.

I thought I could save my father when he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer by making a pilgrimage to Chimayo, New Mexico, and bringing back healing dirt for him. I thought I could save Grace when that doctor looked at me and said, “Your daughter is not going to make it,” because five-year-old kids aren’t supposed to die. Surely a mother’s love—my love—could keep her alive.

“Don’t die,” I whispered to my father, who died anyway.

“Mama’s here. You’re going to be all right,” I whispered to my daughter, who died anyway.

And then another phone call. Another race to the hospital. “Don’t die,” I whispered to Gogo. “Don’t die.”

The day my mother died, the necklace with the hearts broke. It fell right off my neck and into my lap, spilling pink and red hearts everywhere. I picked them up and put them in my coat pocket, where they still are, over a year later. When another winter comes and I wear that coat, I slip my hand in the pocket and rub those broken hearts as though I could put them back together again.

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Ann Hood is the author of fourteen novels, including The Knitting Circle and The Book That Matters Most. Her memoir, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, a New York Times Editors’ Choice, was named one of the top ten nonfiction books of 2008 by Entertainment Weekly. Her most recent book is Kitchen Yarns: Notes in Life, Love, and Food. Hood has won two Pushcart Prizes and two Best Food Writing Awards, and her work has been reprinted in The Best American Spiritual Writing and The Best American Travel Writing. She lives in Providence and New York City. (updated 4/2020)

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