Anne stared at her mother’s battered and torn recipes and wished she wasn’t dead because she didn’t feel like making halfway cookies, they were Tess’s specialty. She missed Tess. Death is inconvenient especially around the holidays, thought Anne. She felt much more than inconvenience since Tess’s miserable, drawn-out death. In fact, most days she wasn’t entirely sure how she functioned. Her children saved her, kept her occupied with their schedules and needs. Their never-ending stories, sentences that began with “and” starting at one pick up, continuing to the next drop off allowed Anne to feel engaged but mostly sad and hollow all at the same god damn time. Anne could forget, though, when the day mercifully allowed it.
Sort of. When her mind didn’t ache from all she pushed through over the last two years. Ya, she could forget if she willed herself. She forgot about holding Tess’s hand as she struggled to breathe and feeding her spoonfuls of water. Watching her son and her husband feed, Tess teaspoons of water was especially awful. Changing her diaper wasn’t as bad as Anne expected because there was nothing left to expel. Everything was shutting down, something they mention in the helpful reading material hospice had left on their way out the door while Anne held Tess’s hand and watched her slowly transition from this world to the next.
Telling the nurse not to offer Tess any more food as she may choke was especially heartbreaking for Anne. It was just so final. Decisions were made without fully understanding that, yes, Tess would soon be gone. Administering morphine and lorazepam to Tess as she begged for help, tiny squirts from a plastic syringe dribbling down her tongue, into her throat, smaller than a pea and so painful for Tess to swallow made Anne want to vomit. A grimace on her mother’s face after each swallow, followed by relief until Tess saw Anne wasn’t done, not yet. More morphine.
“Please help me, please help me,” Tess whispered. Anne felt small. “I don’t know what to do,” Anne cried. “Yes. you do,” Tess said. Hadn’t it always been this way? Anne a mess and Tess calm and knowing. She hated and loved her for it.
Anne watched the hospice nurse change her mother’s bandages. Every time they asked Anne if she wanted to leave the room. Anne never left. Cancer on her mother’s breast now like a crater on the surface of the moon, devouring Tess, reaching for her collarbone. Additional tumors were growing, making their presence known in the form of little mushroom heads and excruciating pain. The smell was gone now.
So many indignities for such a beautiful, refined woman.
The hospice nurse called Anne at two in the morning to let her know her mother had passed but Anne knew when she left her mother to pick up the kids from school just hours prior, she would not see Tess alive again. She hugged and kissed her; told her it was ok to let go now. The words flowed easily from Anne’s mouth to Tess’s ear as if someone else was speaking for her.
How could you tell her to let go, Anne?
Anne hours before, holding her mother’s cold hand, watching her chest rise, her mouth ajar, teeth exposed as if drawn by a caricature artist, lips dry, crusted, and colorless. The breathing pattern had changed as mentioned in the handy death pamphlet. Anne studied that pamphlet like she was getting a graduate degree in end of life care as if it would somehow predict when Tess would leave this world and maybe, if Anne were lucky, she could escape the tsunami of grief that was headed her way if she was prepared and organized.
The joke’s on you, Anne.
She harassed her sister via text with the latest bodily changes Tess was undergoing during the transition, every time asking herself if it was necessary to share so much dying with her angry and already grieving sister who lived two thousand miles away. Maybe the next text would go to her brother who had removed himself from the situation just enough that he could put off the grief until one day when Tess was gone and the grief brought him to his knees.
And then the call.
Tears struggled to come. Anne steadied herself, threw her messy hair into a ponytail, and put on her glasses. She felt her husband’s hand on her back like an anchor reminding her of all the life that was still waiting for her. The hand felt heavy as if it was asking too much of her to keep going, to keep pushing through when she was bone tired and heart-broken. Anne kissed him goodbye, relieved the weight was gone if only briefly.
Anne drove in silence to her mother’s house. The land looks different at two in the morning. Twisting and turning in unexpected formations, shadows throwing off perspective. So much unexpected life! Random cars on the highway. Where are you headed? Did you just lose the love of your life too? The serpentine road that took Anne to Tess’s house was full of nocturnal animals, shocked by the car’s headlights, watching Anne pass, pausing to acknowledge her existence in their world, seeming to pay homage to Tess, as if they knew a good soul had passed.
Anne pulled into the driveway. Tess’s house looked so alive with nearly every light on as if letting anyone who passed know something was amiss. She steadied herself, walked in, said hello to the old cat purring by his water bowl, and the night nurse sitting in the rocking chair. Anne’s father stood before her in a t-shirt and pajama pants looking older than he had a week prior. They hugged briefly before Anne went into Tess’s room. Tess looked beautiful with the covers up around her shoulders and the pink rosary beads Anne had just given her lying across her chest. The giant seventies lamp cast a warm glow on the entire room making Tess look as if she was just resting, certainly not dead. Anne collapsed on her mother’s bed and held Tess, crying like a wounded animal. Tess’s forehead was still warm but her cheek was cool, almost waxy. Anne gently rubbed Tess’s hair and cheek just as Tess had done so many times when Anne was a child. She put her head on her mother’s chest. The weight of Anne’s head pushed the remaining air out of Tess’s lungs making a ghoulish, cinematic sound and yet Anne felt nothing but comfort resting against her mother. The last of Tess’s breath exiting and Anne breathing in all she could, taking some of Tess with her. Internalizing her. She closed her eyes and may have slept.
Anne remembers the hospice nurse arriving, removing her stethoscope, and checking for a heartbeat that no longer existed. I’m sorry for your loss. God those words feel empty tonight.
Anne remembers falling asleep next to Tess listening to the sounds of her father weeping upstairs.
Let’s wait until morning to call the funeral home.
Try to sleep.
Anne woke a couple hours later to find Tess very cold and pale. Mouth firmly open, one eye half parted. She was gone. There is a difference Anne now understood in acknowledging the love of your life will soon be gone and living with their absence.
After months of no tears, the tears came and Anne worried they may never stop.
Anne watched the funeral home director and his assistant place Tess’s body into a black, sterile body bag. The sound of the zipper so decisive. A folksy blanket placed over the bag, over Tess, so it didn’t look quite so unnerving. Tess was wheeled out to hearse and that was it.
It was over now.
Something Anne had wished for repeatedly. Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. Anne drove home, stopping at Dunkin’ Donuts for a coffee and thinking how funny it was to do something so ordinary when something so life-altering and extraordinary had just occurred.
The months that followed Tess’s death were foggy. Anne could barely remember the details of those initial days. She slept and cried. Ate when she felt like it and drank too much. Spring turned into summer and then into fall. The kids went back to school. Her husband checked in daily, tending, as best he could, to her grief. The days passed and Tess was still gone. The saying life goes on is so horribly true and gut-wrenching when you lose someone you love more than yourself. The reality of so much life continuing without Tess, some days, just too much to shoulder.
Today Anne’s house was quiet except for their old dog snoring and farting in the hallway. Christmas had passed and Anne somehow managed to push through it all. Expectations remained intact. Expectations are worthless, Anne believed, something she learned shortly after her mother died. Keep your expectations of other people low and you won’t be disappointed. Anne’s new mantra, if you want to call it that, brought a sense of peace to her. She could let go of the raw hurt she felt from those who had disappointed her. Those who didn’t show up. How great it felt to be free of everything unnecessary. Is this what Tess felt now? It was a relief for Anne to rid herself of that weight because there was just too much to carry. The grief had changed her but into what she was unsure.
Anne made the halfway cookies. An Avett Brothers song repeated in her head like a tripped record. Like a prayer. “No hard feelings, Lord knows they haven’t done much good for anyone.”
Chocolate Half Way Cookies
Makes 24 bars
Recipe slightly adapted from Evelyn Hamilton, my grandmother
1 cup or 2 sticks of unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup of sugar
½ cup of brown sugar
2 egg yolks, slightly beaten with 2 tablespoons of water
1 teaspoon of vanilla
2 cups of all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon of kosher salt
½ teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of baking powder
1 package of chocolate chips
Ingredients for meringue topping:
3 egg whites, beaten stiff
¾ cup brown sugar
Preheat your oven to 350F. Lightly grease a 14×10 jelly roll pan and set aside.
Add the flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder to a medium bowl. Blend together using a whisk. Set aside.
Using a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides and the bottom once or twice. Add the egg yolks (with the water), one at a time, until well blended. Next, add the vanilla. Beat for a few minutes until everything is blended. Reduce the speed of your mixer and add the dry ingredients. Mix on low speed until everything is well combined. Add the dough to the prepared pan. Spread it evenly across the pan using your fingertips until the dough covers the entire pan. Spread the chocolate chips evenly over the dough. Press the chips into the dough gently. Set aside.
Beat the egg whites on medium speed until stiff peaks form. Add the brown sugar. Beat for an additional 2 minutes. Spread the meringue across the prepared dough. Bake until the meringue and cookie dough are golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes. Cool on a wire rack completely before cutting. Once cool, cut into squares and serve. Halfway cookies are best the day they are made but taste damn good the next day as well. Enjoy! Store any leftover cookies in an airtight container at room temperature.
5 Cookie Links
Indulge a bit this holiday season and make The Vanilla Bean Blog’s holiday cheesecake cookies. Yum!
Fudgy brownie crinkle cookies- yes they exist and they look divine! Head to Mike Bakes NYC for the recipe.
Oatmeal lace cookies are a holiday classic and a sure winner. Head to Julie Banner for the recipe.
If you love red velvet cake, why not make red velvet cookies? Food 52 has the recipe for you.
Six years ago, I made these Italian lemon ricotta cookies and they were a huge hit. Check them out!