A Spoonful of Sugar

Gabriella’s husband John thought she was baking to keep her mind off her upcoming medical intervention. Their neighbor Helen thought Gabriella was baking to keep herself busy, to keep herself from worrying. John and Gabriella’s daughter Suzi thought that her mother was baking so everyone would have enough to eat while they were home and she was incapacitated. For whatever the reason, Gabriella had run a regular assembly line in the kitchen for the past two weeks. When Suzi arrived from Baltimore, she predicted that she was going to put on weight just from the fumes. John warned his wife that the chest freezer in the garage was almost full, but still she kept baking.

Gabriella was the chair of the sub-committee of the women’s association at her church that was in charge of providing refreshments and logistics for funerals and memorial services. These days, there were far more of the latter. Gabriella had owned this duty for almost two decades, and everyone agreed that she was exceedingly good at it. At first, Gabriella had fretted about reaching out to the bereaved families (some of whom she had never seen before as they lived far away or were not church-goers) to talk about their expectations. How many people would be there? Would they like anything special to be served? Did they want punch or lemonade in addition to coffee and tea? Did they want to set up a table with pictures and memorabilia of the deceased? Did they need a ride a ride to the airport? Of course, Gabriella did not do this alone. There was a committee and an additional list of names from the women’s auxiliary to be called for baking the coffee cakes and cookies that were standard fare. But Gabriella was the driving force.

In the time that Gabriella had been doing this, the church had gone through two “permanent” pastors and one interim, but everyone knew that the best one to call if you had a loss was Gabriella. Gabriella was easy to talk to and you could leave it to her to explain things to the pastor if you wanted. She had helped more than one family pick our hymns and Bible verses, and often even provided poetry for the grandchildren to read so that they could be part of the ceremony. She was much appreciated, and quite busy since the congregation, like most church congregations, was very elderly indeed.

Gabriella had observed things in being around all those bereaved people. For instance, there was tremendous variety in the response to a loss. Sometimes the families just seemed to go through the service in a perfunctory manner, telling her they didn’t care what she served and being in rather a rush for the reception to be over. And sometimes it seemed that the widow or daughter or best friend couldn’t bear to leave the last special event to be planned for their loved one. Even though the latter are often crying, they seemed more peaceful than the first group.

Gabriella tried to bake desserts for memorial services that were the favorites of the deceased. Some were easy. Old Hazel Goodlett had loved oatmeal cookies with M&M’s in them. Sammie Howard was crazy for blueberry buckle. Old Ned Forrest would have killed for a raisin square. Even though they could not taste these last treats, nibbling on them brought back pleasant memories of their loved ones to friends and family, and Gabriella’s efforts did not go unnoticed.

Gabriella had suffered from relentless pain for several months. It hadn’t slowed her down though, and John had been surprised when she came home from her regular doctor to say that she had been referred to a neurologist. Things went quickly after that. The neurologist ordered an MRI and other tests and called in two surgeons – a brain surgeon and an ophthalmic surgeon since it appeared that Gabriella had some kind of tumor behind one of her eyes. They had to go to Duke for the operation, which was over three hours away. Hotel rooms had been booked, Suzi had flown in from Chicago, and one neighbor was feeding the cats while another would mow the lawn and take in the mail. They were going to Durham on Monday and the surgery was scheduled for early Tuesday morning.

Gabriella had been baking for the whole two weeks between the diagnosis and the surgery. She had filled the refrigerator freezer and the freezer in the garage, and the cookie canisters were stashed with dried biscotti – chocolate in one and almond in the other. If asked, Gabriella said she was making this effort in case they were needed for memorial services while she was recuperating. She had baked everyone’s favorites. First, Pastor Simmon’s snickerdoodles (because he would be there no matter who died). And then she baked all her family’s favorites because she figured they would not go to waste if they were not needed at the church. She made lemon date squares for John, ginger snaps for Suzi, meringues for her sister Rose, and peanut butter cookies for her neighbor and best friend Helen. And she made her own favorite – hermits. After putting aside two cookies from each batch for John’s dessert on baking day, the dozens of cookies were carefully bagged and labeled and put in the freezer. In addition, there was an “inventory” list, a copy of which went to Kim Long, who took care of memorial receptions in the rare instance when Gabriella was not available.

Gabriella seemed calm. Even when the doctor told her that they would have to shave her head and replace part of her skull, she took it cheerfully. When her daughter Suzi arrived with an assortment of scarves, the two of them spent a pleasant evening on the internet looking at various ways one could cover a bald head. Suzi and John were scared, but Gabriella’s seeming lack of fear made them hesitate to show their own panic. Yet Suzi could not help herself as they were loading the car on Monday morning.

“Aren’t you worried, Mommy?” For the first time in years, Suzi slipped from Mom back to Mommy.

Gabriella patted her daughter on the cheek. “Now, what good would that do?”

Suzi just smiled wryly. Her mother’s constant cheerfulness was sometimes overwhelming and intimidating. But if it could cover not worrying about brain surgery because it would do no “good,” perhaps it really was something to be emulated. For the first time, Suzi wished she had inherited it.

What Suzi had really wanted to ask her mother was whether she was afraid of dying. She wanted to know if all those years of attending church every Sunday, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and being promised the blessed redemption had made her mother…really believe it. Suzi had done all that for the first seventeen years of her life and even sporadically since then, but she was still afraid. And she was also afraid to ask her mother. But clearly her mother did not show any fear. No tears, no wringing of hands, no desolate looks. And even the incessant baking was not frenetic; it was just calm and purposeful.

In the hotel room the night before surgery, the three of them played whist until ten. The next morning, they had to have Gabriella at the hospital before six, but were allowed to stay with her for an hour while preparations were taking place. Once her head was shaved, though, and they started painting solutions on her pitiful white scalp, they were relegated to the waiting room. Suzi went to the cafeteria to get breakfast for the two of them, and they settled in to wait.

Gabriella survived the surgery; the doctors even saved her eye. She went home with one of Suzi’s scarfs wrapped around her head to cover the fuzz and the raw scar. She had some trouble with coordination of her right side. John took his wife to physical therapy on Tuesdays and Thursday for several weeks, but before long things were back to normal. While she was recovering, no one had called her about funeral services, although she learned that Joanne Fritz’s 102-year-old mother had died in the nursing home while Gabriella was still in the hospital. Gabriella hadn’t known the old woman, but she did have some of Joanne’s favorite banana bread in the freezer, and she thought it was a pity that no one had thought to come get it.

Seven weeks after the surgery, Gabriella called the pastor and told him that she was ready to take up her responsibilities again. She then decided to inventory the freezers to see what she had on hand. As she piled up the carefully labeled bags full of ginger snaps and macaroons and hermits – the favorites of her friends and family – she realized for the first time that she had been preparing for… her own funeral. Would her daughter and husband have even realized what she had done in this feeble effort to reach out to them across the great divide after she was gone? The thought made her take a seat at the kitchen table. Gabriella had been unconsciously assuming that she herself was going to die. She hadn’t realized it at the time. Death hadn’t scared her then, but suddenly mortality did seem rather frightening. Was she really ready to meet her end? Gabriella made herself a cup of instant coffee and thought about this for a little while.

Gabriella turned the problem over in her mind and surveyed the bags of goodies. Was this how you got ready to die? By baking everyone’s favorite cookies? There were worse ways, she supposed. But she had been preparing for her death without really realizing that was what she was doing, without looking death in the eye.

But maybe you can’t, she thought. Maybe it was like a solar eclipse. You couldn’t look directly at it. You could just look at the reflection and in her case – it was reflected in…cookies. Cookies. She thought about that old cynical adage about heaven – pie in the sky when you die. Was it a case of a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down? Give me a brownie and I won’t mind being forced to think about death for the duration of one memorial service? Cookies, pie – surely there were better ways to consider death? Gabriella did not know better ways, but it would give her something to think about.

Gabriella sipped her coffee and looked at the freezer bags spread on the table. She thought maybe she did not have enough macaroons. Ann Moss was already in hospice and they were her favorites. Gabriella couldn’t figure out death today. But she would think about it again. Meanwhile, she would make more cookies.