In the late 80s, I was teaching religious studies classes at Heritage College in rural Washington. One of the students was a hospice nurse. During a class discussion, she shared an experience that has fascinated me ever since.
She was recently divorced at the time, but on good terms with her former husband. His father was apparently a cantankerous, ill-tempered fellow few people wanted to be around. The fact that he was dying did not improve his disposition. Her ex-husband asked her if she would be willing to be his nurse. She had always gotten along with her father-in-law despite his behavior, so she agreed.
Two days before he died, he asked her for a favor. His appetite had been diminishing as his body began to shut down, but he asked her if she could possibly fix him a special food.
“I’d be glad to make you anything you want,” she said. “What will it be?” “
“That will be easy,” she said. “Would you like anything special, like extra butter or sour cream?”
“No,” he said, “Nothing special.”
“Ok,” she said. “Just potatoes and a bit of salt for flavor?”
“No salt. Just mashed potatoes.”
She prepared the potatoes as he had requested.
She put a bowlful and a spoon on his tray. He took one bite. He paused and smiled with a calm and radiant appreciation she had never seen before. After a few more bites, he was satisfied and thanked her. It was the last food he ever ate.
I’ve prepared potato dishes many times in my life, and it’s hard to imagine not adding something. I add salt and butter. My wife likes salt, pepper, butter and sour cream. But every time I cook potatoes, I remember this story.
When some people are close to death, the simplest things become sacred.
I’ve known people who are very much alive and have already discovered this secret. I try to be open to those moments when I might taste what they taste, hear what they hear, and know what they know.