It’s December 10. I don’t know it yet, but this will be the last time I see Dad for many months. We have no idea what’s coming. We have no idea that I’ll decide, last minute, to cancel my next visit in the first week of March, just before his retirement home goes into lockdown.
But on this icy December day, things progress as usual. Normal. Dad and I discuss dinner plans sometime between breakfast and lunch; he debates spaghetti and chili. Both of them were recipes in Mom’s repertoire. Let me be clear: chili with an i. Chili without chile. Unfathomable in New Mexico, where I have lived for many years. But it is what I grew up believing chili/chile to be: ground meat, tomato sauce, bell pepper, onion, a smidgen of garlic, beans, pasta, and several shakes of Penzeys chili powder (which is very tasty, and certainly has its uses, but it’s not chile-with-an-e chile). And suddenly, I realize what Mom’s chili really is: it’s a kind of spaghetti with beans.
So that’s what we’ll do. We shop at Sendik’s, and Dad pushes the cart to give himself balance. I stop first for a bottle of red – merlot – because he says M likes it. M is Dad’s next-door neighbor, and he’s invited her to dinner, as I knew he would. Since Mom died, Dad and M have become close friends.
She arrives promptly at 5 for cocktail hour. We’ve met a couple times, but we don’t know each other, haven’t spent time together. She hugs me in a first step toward something because neither of us, I think, knows where to begin. And beginning at this age and stage feels a bit strange because of all the life and memories that came before.
We sit in the living room and chat, the TV on low (thank you!), and I soon cross the room to the kitchen alcove to make dinner. It’s an open-floor plan, so I can hear them talking as I open cans of tomatoes and get all teary while chopping an onion. I boil water for the noodles (Mom always used shells, which I couldn’t find, so I use elbows instead – gluten-free. Shhh! Don’t tell Dad! Not that he’ll notice. I know he won’t.)
Dad and M sit side-by-side on the couch, holding hands, watching the news. I brown the ground beef with garlic, onion, and green bell pepper. Then a large can of crushed tomatoes and a can of tomato sauce, followed by sprinkles of spices left in the pantry from Mom’s era – the Penzeys chili, of course, and a bit of dried oregano and cumin, salt, pepper. I stir, then add the beans – a can of tri-colored “chili beans” with pintos, kidneys, and black. The pasta bubbles in the rear pot. When it’s ready, I rinse and add to the chili. A little more salt, more chili, more cumin. Done.
As I was growing up, Dad was known for his spectacularly reserved assessments of dinner. “Fine” meant good. “Good” almost never came out of his mouth. And I’m not sure he’s ever in his life eaten anything “great.”
Maybe it’s his 85-year-old taste buds. Maybe it’s the fact that M is sitting beside him at the table. Or maybe it’s the organic tomatoes and grass-fed beef. But Dad declares this chili “very good!” M says she really likes it, too, and even I think: for spaghetti with beans, this is pretty darn fine.
It’s four months later, and we all know what happens. As the virus spreads, Dad’s place closes its doors to all but the most essential workers and medical visits. The nightly cocktail hours with friends have ceased. Dad is alone in his room, though he still sees M next door. But she’s battling a condition that has only grown worse.
Here in New Mexico, spring is springing, and the temperatures rise. It doesn’t really feel like chili weather, but somehow, one night between every-other-week grocery runs, it seems the most sensible dinner decision. We have canned tomatoes and one last package of frozen ground beef (though Mom’s chili can easily be made with crumbled tofu or textured vegetable protein instead). We even have a tiny jar of Penzeys chili powder, which came in a gift box of assorted spices.
I go through the motions, browning the meat, adding way more garlic than I did that night in December. I cheat a little, too – Mom would expect no less of me! – adding a few glugs of wine (from an open bottle made from our homegrown grapes) and a fair bit of powdered New Mexican red chile with an e – the hot kind. But that doesn’t change the dinner. It’s still Mom’s chili with an i, and on that particular night, it’s exactly what my stomach needs.
Another month passes. We have a jar of that leftover chili in the freezer for another night when it seems right. Dad moves to my sister’s for a while. M suffers a setback and moves to another facility. After several attempts at window visits, Dad is finally able to see her in person, briefly, though she sleeps much of the time.
M died this week. I never saw her again, never really got to know her at all. But she was a very good companion to Dad – and he to her. That cold December night when we all sat down to bowls of chili, I never thought it would be the last time the three of us would eat together in his (badly lit) dining area. I envisioned more meals there – and also dinners out. Noisy restaurants packed with people, food we didn’t cook, cocktails we didn’t pour. Different tables, different views, different conversations. But the universe had different plans.
When Mom was in her third year of cancer in 2016, I visited multiple times between summer and fall. I was there in October, and we talked of Thanksgiving. She was slowing down at that point, so I planned to bring my gear and record a series of conversations with her when I returned for the holiday. But she didn’t make it to Thanksgiving. The next time I saw her, she was in hospice – able to recognize me one last time before the morphine knocked her out and a few days later she slipped away.
I have no recollection of the last meal that Mom, Dad, and I ate in that badly lit dining area of their apartment. I have no idea the last time we all sat down to her chili.
We never suspect the bowl we’re eating together will be the last.
Essentially, Spaghetti with Beans
1 package ground beef, firm tofu, or textured vegetable protein
1 large can diced or crushed tomatoes
1 can tomato sauce
1 onion, diced
garlic (how much do you like?), minced
1 green bell pepper, diced
Penzeys or other chili powder (contains ancho, cumin, garlic, and Mexican oregano)
1 package pasta shells or elbows
1 can chili beans
hot chile powder (if you like)
extra cumin & oregano (if you like)
glug of red wine (if you like)
salt and pepper to taste
sour cream for topping
Sauté the meat and slowly add onion, garlic, bell pepper, salt, and pepper; continue until browned. Meanwhile, boil a pot of water for the pasta. Add to the meat the tomatoes, tomato sauce, and spices; let simmer for several minutes. Add a touch of water if needed. Add beans, more spices if you prefer, and wine. Simmer until all ingredients and flavors are mixed. When pasta is al dente (don’t over-cook), rinse under cool water and add to chili. Stir well and let simmer another minute. Remove from heat. Serve with sour cream.