The joy of the fi­nal meals I shared with my dad.

Ever the head teacher, my fa­ther took his ill­ness sto­ically while he rel­ished the fi­nal meals we pre­pared and shared as a fam­ily

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Jon Smith

Iwas 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 ex­trathick cream.

Rack of bot­tles

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.

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.

Iden­tit­cal pair

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?”

I can look back now 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


Jon and Rod Smith and (right) Rod savours wine set aside for many years: “He grasped his glass with both hands and tipped it back, like a baby with a feeder.”

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