My dad’s tumour left us with time only for food made with love
What do you give a man with two months to live? All the treats, and affection, that you can
Jon Smith with his father: my mother, sister and I resolved to make those final weeks special, to show him how grateful we were for everything he had done for us down the years
I was sitting closest to the monitor when the consultant showed us the scan. One glance at the shadowy mass on the left side of my dad’s brain and I knew what was coming.
His hopes had been raised on his last visit to hospital: he was in excellent physical shape, the doctor had told him. Whatever the problem was, he was in a great position to fight it. But there was no hope now. It was an aggressive, untreatable brain tumour, and he had two months to live.
After that initial, numbing shock, my mother, sister and I silently resolved to do whatever we could to make those final weeks special, to show him how grateful we were for everything he had done for us down the years. His had been a life lived primarily for others: his family and, as a head teacher for the best part of three decades, his pupils. Now, in the early years of his retirement, he finally had time to himself, or so he had thought.
But what do you get for a man with so little time left? Most gifts seemed futile. As we all know, you can’t take them with you. And the idea of a dream holiday was out of the question when his condition could worsen, unpredictably, at any stage.
The best answer, it turned out, was food. No more the soup-and-packaged-sandwich lunch, no more the hastily assembled dinner in front of the nightly news. Every meal now had to be a treat. My sister and I plundered my barely touched Nigel Slater books for inspiration.
A roast loin of pork on a bed of aromatic rosemary and garlic with potatoes, parsnips and carrots smeared in goose fat. Not forgetting the crusty, salty crackling – something he had never eaten before but now attacked with gusto.
A rich tomatoey curry with a zing of lime and a pinch of cardamom, with tender chicken thigh meat falling away at the bone.
Soft, warm chocolate brownies with a dusting of icing sugar and dollops of extra-thick cream.
For wine, I fought my way through shopping bags and musty winter coats in the understairs cupboard to find the dusty rack of bottles my parents had bought on French beach holidays in the 1980s, stowed away for some unspecified special occasion. An internet search revealed the two or three that were estimated to have held up well.
To my dad, it was like nectar: he grasped his glass with both hands and tipped it back, like a baby with a feeder.
“We’ll just have to deal with it”
He took his illness stoically. “We’ll just have to deal with it,” was his response when the consultant broke the news. In many ways, he carried on as normally as possible in those early days.
I wondered why he still got so annoyed at news stories about lenient sentences for criminals and so on, but maybe the human mind cannot realistically accept the prospect of imminent death.
One morning, he came to me on the verge of tears after my mother suggested she make her 1970s-dinner-party favourite of gammon steak with slices of pineapple. Hadn’t she seen the recent report that processed meat increases your chances of getting cancer?
I assured him I’d come up with something else.
He was also upset when his two puddings a night and the accompanying dollops of cream began to catch up with him and he struggled to fit into his trousers – a problem solved by my mother ordering some identical pairs with an extra 2in on the waist, cutting the label out so he would be none the wiser.
Of course, the strange near-normality of those days and the joy of those family meals could not last. As my dad’s condition worsened, he could barely see the food in front of him. His very last weeks were far from restful, as his tumour tormented him relentlessly in ways we had not been prepared for.
The memories of those days haunted me for months after his death, but now, just after the second anniversary of his diagnosis, I can look back at the happier times and am grateful that we were able to give him some weeks of happiness, albeit a very meagre return on the years he gave us.
Like the true head teacher’s son, I feel I should end on a moral. What did we learn? Well, you can eat and live as healthily as you can, and my dad did, but it won’t guarantee you a long life.
But that’s not it.
No, if I could draw one lesson from this it would be: learn to cook a couple of show-stopping meals, the kind of thing that would make a man in the last weeks of his life turn to you with a childlike grin and say: “Can we have that one again?”