Come Back to Me Lemon

Well, this is absolutely going to ruin my love of all things lemon, I thought as I held a lemon swab in my mom’s mouth for her.

This seemingly benign, care-taking piece of her cancer meds pack. Fresh, sweet lemon scented the air for a moment, but for once in my life, I didn’t savor it. My mom was propped up on her pillow in bed, rapidly losing coherence as cancer violently conquered her blood and bones, her organs, her beautiful soul. My house had settled into quiet around us. For a brief moment, even my mom’s struggle to breathe had gentled. It was a peace I was suddenly grateful for. I closed my eyes and tried to keep my emotions from seeping out.

In the darkness of my vision, a memory came rushing over me like a waterfall of emotion, and I savored it. Instantly I was a child again, nine or ten, and my parents had just returned from a trip away. My sister and I sat on my mom’s bed while she unpacked, waiting, oh-so-patiently waiting to see what she brought us. She felt around in her suitcase with her elegant fingers, long nails painted like red wine to match her lipstick, and there they were, these charming tins of hard, sugared, fruit-flavored candies, Pastillines Bonbons.

The day lemon and I fell in love.

My mom placed the tin of lemons in my small palm. I opened my Les Citrons, and the barest lemony, sugary breath flew to my nose. How darling they were, miniature lemon-shaped candies with a gossamer thin dusting of sugar over each one. I put one on my tongue and first came the sweetness, then that tart lemon flavor arrived and melted into the sugar. My mouth puckered up with the hint of sour lemon, so well balanced by the cobweb-thin sweet that there was joy in the sour.

A soft beeping from the oxygen tank drew me back along with my mother’s painful, short, moaning breath. My memory faded before I could keep it safe.

A hospice nurse had visited and gotten my mother’s “comfort pack” of meds sorted out from the pharmacy that seemed to think the intense pain, caused by tumors pressing against my mom’s brain, could wait a day or two. This nurse gave my mother a suppository to calm her nausea, and then, with a squeeze of my hand, she left. Everyone else at my house had scattered that afternoon, to run errands, to pick up my daughter from daycare, to walk the dog. And here I was now, alone again with my sweet mom, helping her suck on a lemon stick.

It was too soon for more morphine, although what did “too soon” mean, then at that bereft moment? Morphine, I had just learned, was to help make her comfortable, to take away her pain. And that was my job now, comfort, but morphine and I weren’t well acquainted. Our true dance—the link between my mother, her new pain warrior and me—had not yet been fully choreographed. What I thought I knew, that it was an extremely strong narcotic to be used with caution, was vastly different from what role it would actually play at the end. We, morphine and I, had hours yet before the final performance and the learning curve for me would be steep.

Silly, ignorant daughter that I was.

So, morphine, rolling her eyes at my stupidity, waited patiently up high on a shelf for her next act. My mother had already taken a dose of lorazepam for her anxiety, and although she was hooked up to oxygen, the sound of her breathing—like brittle ice severing branches off a tree, these haunting, evil, rasping moans—felt like mini-sharp daggers scraping my skin off bit by bit. My need to do something pressed down on me and threatened to take my breath, a panic attack waiting gleefully in the wings, and the nurse said these lemon swabs might soothe my mom’s dry mouth.

Of all the changes cancer wrought upon my mother’s body, suddenly, in this moment of absolute uncertainty, her lips were all I could focus on. Lips I will forever remember donned in the perfect shade of deep reddish-brown lipstick. She never went anywhere without her lipstick. Although countless times over my lifetime I had watched my mother put on her makeup, I think, I believed she actually woke up looking that beautiful, that put-together, her lipstick akin to a Lan-côme model. Foreign to me now, her lips were naked, cracked open and raw. In some far away place in my brain, I knew her parched lips were the least of our worries, but faced with the way this disease brutalized my mom’s body, I fumbled to do anything to help her, to help me.

The pale yellow swab looked like a small lollipop, not perfectly round like a Dum Dum, smaller than a Tootsie Roll Pop, and flat, like those ones wrapped in clear plastic the eye doctor gave me as a child, but I couldn’t bring myself to call it that. A lollipop, even by name incites happy, carefree, Candy Land images, children at the fair riding on the merry-go-round. And for certain, a carnival ride this was not. Lemon Glycerin Swab was the official name for this lollipop impostor in my mother’s hospice drug kit.

Lemon lollipops and morphine, what a combination.

It was June 29th, my mother had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer just twenty days earlier. Twenty days. No fucking way. Talk about in the blink of an eye. In the blink of an eye, I missed the shooting star trailing across the midnight sky. In the blink of an eye, the slight of hand, a magician, used to trick me was undetectable. In the blink of an eye, my mom was no longer. How could that be? Her decline was so rapid I was out of breath trying to keep up, my lungs burning as I pushed my body through the last lap of my 200-meter backstroke, racing to towards the finish line even though my legs had gone beyond pain to numb. Still, I fought to finish, as I fought to deny her death. It was as if this cancer in her lungs robbed us both of breath.

Although I didn’t know my mom only had half a day’s life left in her at that moment, all I could focus on was this stupid, tart and sweet smelling lollipop imposter she was sucking on. My precious memory of her unpacking a candy gift for me was marred. More importantly, I couldn’t stomach ever wanting to smell or taste another lemon or lemon flavored food in my life. How dare her cancer take that away from me too.

Lemon wasn’t just something I liked to eat; lemon was my muse in the kitchen.

Although I was a daughter, a wife, a mother and a writer, what I truly hungered for daily was cooking, always searching for new recipes, for tasty ingredients, for scrumptious ways to feed my family and friends. And lemon played a role in so many of my recipes. Cooking was what I loved, some days more than I loved people. Although, the combination of feeding people with my cooking, well, the two were so intertwined in my brain that perhaps I loved them, needed them in equal measure. Like veins need arteries, that journey from the heart to the body, the body to the heart, both necessary to circulate oxygen. One could not exist without the other. My mom gave me my love for cooking. How could I exist without her?

In the beginning, I loved lemon for its role in sweet things, the too-sugary lemonade of my childhood, my mom’s lemon bars, lemon icing on sugar cookies, and those special lemon-shaped Pastillines candies. As I grew into my cooking and love for all kinds of foods, I added lemon and lemon zest to so many savory dishes too, raw oysters, lemon spaghetti, lemon squeezed onto my grilled broccoli. If I had to choose one item in the kitchen I could not live without, aside from salt, it would be lemon.

Without lemon I was bereft. My shrimp scampi linguine—my mom’s recipe—would never have that edge again. The light and airy, gluten-free lemon almond cake I had perfected for my celiac husband, sayonara, baby. Goodbye to that huge twist of lemon in my perfect Manhattan. My herbal hot tea would be forever wanting. Fish and chips, fresh crab, almost every pasta and salad I ever made, all of them completely bland. A lifetime of mouthwateringly delicious, bright mouthfuls reduced, in the blink of an eye, to cardboard.

Lemon added beauty to every savory and sweet item on my menu of life. The citrus, the acid, the zing it brought to so many dishes. Lemon infused my cooking, my life with brightness, just like my mother did. Now that she was dead would I ever be hungry again?

Hungry or not, the left behind, somehow go on living.

I know I cooked for the first few months after my mom died, or at least I went through the motions; I made meals for my children and my husband, but the kitchen and I were strangers to each other. I lumbered through that once favorite room as if I had lost a limb and my body refused to adapt to the loss. Cooking brought me no joy. It felt more like a series of endless rainy days on Puget Sound, when the gray hue of the brooding sky weeps into the same gray water with no definition, no contrast, no flavor.

Slowly, often painfully, the body makes accommodations.

That first fall after her death I craved her hugs and warmth and laughter so much, the only thing for it was to be in the kitchen where my memories of her were the strongest, to cook all of the things we used to love to make together, all the things that reminded me of her. I mixed the stuffing for her cannelloni with my bare hands, the way she used to, imagining that my fingers were as confident and graceful as hers. I taught my daughter how to make my mom’s truffles, our hands messy with bittersweet chocolate, and as the cocoa powder hit the back of my throat, I coughed through the ache of needing her there with me. It suddenly felt necessary, even if it meant my longing for her would add tears and sadness to the dishes I made, because anything had to be less lonely than to deny my grief, to walk in grayness, or cry alone in the shower every morning as the hot water hit my eyes and set my pain loose, like I had been doing.

But I couldn’t embrace lemon again; it no longer belonged to me, rather, like it had never been a part of my life, to begin with. Lemon had betrayed me in the worst moment so far of my life, a true taste aversion, its lovely memories dead with my mom.

Or maybe, I had betrayed it. That’s the thing about grief, while your drowning in it so much of life seems upside down, with no way to turn it back right again or even figure out which way was right. I don’t honestly remember consciously cutting lemon out, it was more hauntingly subtle, like I lost my sense of smell, of taste for a while.

One day, almost two years after my mom’s death, my husband, kids and I were in a tiny gourmet food shop in Chicago buying snacks to take back to our hotel. I stood drooling over the smooth pastel gelatos in the glass case when something near the register caught my eye, petite, silvery, oval tins with a vintage Parisian look to them, full of hard candies inside. Pastillines Bonbons Assortis, Les Framboises Bonbons Fruits, and the most special of all, Les Citrons.

And at that moment I smiled at these hard lemon candies and the memory that unfolded again. So simple, these tins of candies, my mom probably bought them at the airport at the last minute. They in no way indicated where my parents had been, the misty emerald land of Dingle, a warm terracotta villa in Puerto Vallarta, or Vail, Colorado covered in feet of snow. I didn’t care. To me, these lemon gems were everything. What they said was that my mom was always thinking about me, even when we were separated. This distant childhood memory collided with that last afternoon I sat with my mom and helped soothe her aching, dry mouth with a lemon swab. My first memory link of love for lemon, connected to my mom’s love for me and mine for her. And that was the only thing that mattered.

As I clawed my way out of those first, foggy years of grief, I welcomed lemon back with a vengeance. Now I see that those last few hours I had with my mom are not shrouded in lemon-taste-aversion, or more importantly fear and pain, but rather a precious experience of saying goodbye. I can look back at that moment by my mom’s bed as I held a lemon swab in her mouth, cast off my guilt and know that, yes, I had absolutely no idea what the hell I was doing in that moment, and that’s okay because I was trying to bring my mom some comfort.

In the end, it’s the only thing we can do.

Now in my kitchen, where my link to my mom still exists, I welcome sweet memories of cooking with lemon; I allow them to warm me and give me comfort. Dusting powdered sugar over my mom’s lemon bars as a child with her in our kitchen in Denver. Laughing in the dining room of an old cottage on Lake Erie as she taught me how to cut the perfect twist of lemon for our icy glasses of white wine. “Not a slice, a twist,” she’d always say. Squeezing the lemon over our finished pasta with grilled chicken and parsley as she stirred it, when she lived with us in Everett.

I surround myself with lemons again.

I have learned to cook, to live without my mother; the brightness and beauty of lemon and lemon scented memories once again infuse my life. And finally, as I sit down at the table to enjoy a meal with friends and family, I truly appreciate all the tartness and sweetness that life prepares for us.

Photo Credit: caligula1995 Flickr via Compfight cc

  1. Susan P. Blevins

    O Sarah, you brought tears to my eyes. You reminded me of my heartbreak when I was caring for my mother in the final stages of her all-consuming cancer. Such pain has to be experienced to be understood. You brought it all back to me in a flash. Thank you for your honesty and love.

  2. So beautifully written and expressed, Sara. Your writing always makes me curiously nostalgic for something I don’t have: memories filled with rich, vivid, textured, detailed experiences. Your Mother lives on in you. Your children, I have no doubt, will one day reminisce and recount their own beautiful memories of and tributes to the priceless gifts you passed along to them. Mary would be so proud of you. Actually, make that present tense!

  3. Beautiful story so thoughtfully told. I caregive for my mother and I know this day will someday come. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and memories–I’m holding on to them tightly and will savor them sweetly. Just a wonderful blog. xD.

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