A Taste of Life

taste of life

taste of lifeby Melissa Wilbanks

It was writing my obituary that opened my eyes to food’s ability to connect us to ourselves and to our community.

The awakening happened in the spring of 2003, and I’m happy to report that I’m alive and well today. So why did I go through the seemingly morbid task of composing my own obituary? It began with the decision to make good on an enduring New Years resolution to volunteer my time for a worthwhile cause. I desperately needed something to remind me of the beauty of everyday life, that there were matters more important than a promotion at work or new Jimmy Choos. And what could be more significant than people dealing with impending death? If I was going to go for it, I was really going to go for it. So, I signed up for training.

To get the group more comfortable with the idea of helping someone else live joyfully in spite of a terminal illness or die with grace and dignity, we were asked to explore the feelings and fears we had about our own death. To that end, we were assigned to write our own obituary. It could be as fanciful or as real as we liked. Some people in the group chose the exact day of their death and gave the statistics of their lives: birth and death dates, names of surviving family, that sort of thing. Call it silly superstition, but I didn’t want to tempt fate by naming the date, what with manifest destiny and all. I did, however, pick a season. I was comfortable with that. Too, I knew I wanted my obituary to allow the essence of my life to shine through, not simply list my degrees or career accomplishments.

I also liked the idea of knowing that the end was near, so I could really appreciate every moment, live it, as they say, to the fullest. I’m a realist in many ways, so I imagined that if I knew the end were coming, perhaps I’d be at home recovering from a lengthy treatment for one of the Big Three that run in my family: cancer, diabetes and heart disease. I imagined that the doctors would’ve sent me home to be comfortable until it was time. Much like we enjoy talking about how we’d spend our millions if we won the lottery, I daydreamed about how I would use those last precious hours. Since I’ve written in a journal since my Big Chief tablet days, I figured that writing a journal entry was a fitting way to imagine my last day.

When I finished, I went back to read aloud what I had written. After all, the second part of the exercise was to read it to everyone at the next training session. As I read I realized, to my surprise, how much food figured in to my last day. I suppose it shouldn’t have come as such a shock. Food is, after all, a celebration of the senses, a soulful ritual of our lives. Food can bring memories bubbling to the surface. Its textures and aromas can transport us through time. For example, it’s impossible for me to make a batch of oatmeal cookies and not think of my grandmother as I unabashedly gobble a big spoonful of dough. Or to pull out a sheet of aluminum foil and not think of my mother’s Tollhouse cookies neatly lined up on a sheet glistening in the light of the oven’s hood in the kitchen of my childhood home. (Cookies, they’re big with the women in my family. Generations of us linked together by thick, chewy discs of oats or chocolate.)

This obituary exercise introduced me to myself and to the woman I long to become: A woman who savors every trial and every triumph, every perfectly poached egg and every fallen soufflé. A woman who eats life up and gets drunk on love. Writing the obituary sparked the beginning of a new journey. I in fact got the promotion at my job only to discover that the work didn’t feed me. And after a year of soul starvation I made the leap. I quit my job and moved to a new town to go to culinary school, where I would learn to feed others. I’m graduating now, and even though my poached eggs always come out scraggly and either a little over- or underdone, my spirit is well fed and happy. And here is how the journey began…

The Times
Anytown, USA
On this day, this spring day (because spring is about new beginnings, and because it’s more difficult to be sad in the spring), a day that has never been and will never be again, Melissa Wilbanks died, at just the right time. In lieu of a traditional obituary, Melissa requested that this journal entry written the morning of her death be published.

Dear Journal,
This is it. Today’s the day. I feel it, that deep knowing that it’s time to go. I think I’ll begin the day cooking for the family. I’ll bake cinnamon rolls and make omelets with vegetables and herbs from the garden, and fry up salty slices of bacon because it was my mother’s favorite, and she is on my mind today. I think we should eat outside to feel the breeze and smell the jasmine, and I’ll use the fine china. I’ll invite the whole family along. And we’ll laugh and eat to bursting, and I’ll pull the children to me and smell their sweet heads.
There’ll be no need for deathbed letters, for I’ve tried every day to let the people I love know how much they mean to me. A lesson I learned as a teenager from my father’s untimely death. Perhaps I’ll order them flowers to be delivered next week after I’m gone-a reminder to taste and smell and touch and see and listen to life while they can because it wilts and withers away much too quickly.
After breakfast, I’ll ask my husband to watch our wedding video with me, and he’ll indulge me because he’s such a romantic. We’ll laugh about how many photos I let him pose for with white chocolate icing (his favorite) caked in the corner of his smile. And when the golden sun beams through the bedroom window and makes pretty squares of light on the covers, we will make love. Yes, in the middle of the day because he always told me how much he loves to see my body in the full light of afternoon, which made me feel so adored because I knew that all of my flaws showed so clearly then.
As he naps, I’ll dig in the garden and smell the earth and brick it in my hands like the mud pies I made as a girl at Grandma’s. The roses need trimming and the mint is becoming a nuisance. I’ll fill a paper sack with lemons from the tree and leave it for the neighbor with my recipe for lemon squares. And as I pick, I’ll turn my face to the sun and let it soak me to the bone. I’ll relax a bit in the creaky lawn chair with the cat, heavy and warm, purring in my lap.
The rest I think should be a surprise-the mail that will come, the friends that might call, the mishaps, the quiet moments when he kisses the back of my neck as I wash my cup from afternoon tea.
I’d like to be cremated and my ashes buried under a tree in the park, where I’ve sat so often, thinking, thinking, thinking. Yes, under my thinking tree. And for the service someone should make Mom’s recipe for chocolate cinnamon cake-no nuts this time and with dark chocolate icing. Coconut ice cream with whole coconut cream would go perfectly with it. And then I’d like to know that everyone celebrated the fact that no matter how short or long, I lived a full and happy life during which I loved deeply and was deeply loved. The only thing that matters in the end anyway.

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