Driving into the parking lot of Pollo Tropical, I eye the drive-thru line, a dozen cars deep, and decide to brave the line inside instead. I pull into the closest space to the door, reach over my father to grab the blue handicap parking pass out of the glove compartment, and affix it to the rearview.
“Where are we?” my father asks as I maneuver his body out of the car. After months of waiting for him to relearn how to disembark by himself, I’ve instead learned to lift his legs and swing them towards the car door. Once his lower body is out of the car, it’s easy to hoist him onto his feet and propel him forward. This all must be done swiftly, though, because my father often forgets midway that we’re in the process of getting out of the car and will reposition himself securely in his seat, ready to hit the road.
“We’re at Pollo Tropical,” I say, guiding him towards the door.
He narrows his eyes. “I don’t think so. Are you sure?”
“Yep. Look at the big green sign. Pollo Tropical. See?”
Assured that we’re in the right place, my father follows me into the fast food joint. The line is not as long as I imagined it would be—just a crew of construction workers and a couple of teenagers—but getting my father to stand beside me patiently is a challenge. As the line inches forward, I pass the time by reading the menu to him out loud even though we always order the same meal: a quarter chicken with rice and beans and a side of sweet plantains. Sometimes the fried yucca if I’m feeling fancy.
Whenever my father sees me, his mind immediately goes to Pollo Tropical. That’s all I am to him, now: the girl who takes him to Pollo Tropical. He doesn’t always remember the name—”We could go to that place that has food and we could eat something, what do you think?”—but I help him out. “Are you thinking of Pollo—” “Tropical!” he shouts, cutting me off. Jog his memory and he’s one hundred percent onboard. I try to get him to take a walk around the block with me first, but he bugs me the whole time. “When are we going? Pollo Tropical. Pollo Tropical.”
If it wasn’t for this obsession, Pollo Tropical would be the last place I’d take my father. I’ve begun to see the world through his eyes, always trying to assess surrounding stimuli the way that I imagine he takes it in. And Pollo Tropical is way too loud and crowded for someone in his state of neurological decline. Yet here we are. Again.
Having successfully put in our order, I try my best to entertain my father while we wait, showing him pictures of butterflies and caterpillars on my phone, but he keeps on getting up and demanding his food at the counter. I guide him back to the booth and try to discourage him from standing. Although many things have changed about my father in the last few years, his willfulness is not one of them. Having spent his career as a sailboat captain, he’s used to being master of his domain, the boat being the tiny universe in which he reigned. When he gave orders, the crew jumped into action. But the last few years have been a gradual loss of control: first the slow disappearance of his neurological faculties and now the spiraling derailing of his entire world.
As a distraction, I serve my father a glass of water and then rush to grab napkins when he spills it onto the floor. I promise myself that this is our last time at Pollo Tropical. A man leaning against the soda fountain eyes the two of us and I can’t help but wonder what we must look like to a stranger: a full-grown man in his sixties wearing pajama pants and flip flops being chased around by a harried-looking younger woman. My father has become a real-life version of Benjamin Button, aging in reverse.
Finally, they call our number and my father’s eyes light up when I place the tray of chicken in front of him. He digs in, shoveling handfuls of rice into his mouth, dropping most of it onto his lap. I hand him a set of plastic cutlery and hope for the best.
Growing up, my father’s ideas about table manners went far beyond your standard “no elbows” rule. Each member of our family had their own wooden-handled Opinel knife fit to their size and purchased in France. We were taught to cut our meat with the right hand and seize bite-sized portions with the fork in our left. Switching utensils from hand to hand was strictly prohibited, because that was uncivilized. Our father’s obsession about the proper way to hold a fork and knife was so ingrained in us that my sister and I developed a knee-jerk reaction to other people’s table manners. Wide-eyed, I’d watch as friends held forks like spears in their fist, sawing with the knife in their left hand. Later in life, if I met a cute guy who didn’t know how to use his fork and knife the way that I’d been taught, I knew that it wouldn’t work out; I could never bring him home to meet my family.
Using his fingers, my father loads a spoonful of black beans and maneuvers it towards his mouth. I hold my breath until they make it in. Turning to the chicken, he holds the thigh with one hand and wields the knife in the other, hacking away. It doesn’t take long for him to abandon any attempt at civility and unceremoniously bring the chicken thigh straight to his mouth, tearing into the piping-hot meat. This meal will teach me not to order boned chicken anymore; from now on it’s only Tropi-Chops. In the meantime, I do my best to mitigate the damage, wiping globs of food off of his pants and scooting the table as close to him as possible to minimize the space between him and his lunch.
Growing up, my sister and I were never allowed to step foot into a fast food restaurant, unless it was Wendy’s, back when they still had an all-you-can-eat salad bar. Family members would take us to McDonald’s from time to time and treat us to Happy Meals, but only if we swore that we would never breathe a word of it to Papi. We weren’t the only ones afraid of our father.
A proud Frenchman, my father was emphatic in his distaste of all things American—cheerleading, automatic cars, and especially food products. Unfortunately, everything my sister and I wanted to eat fell into this category. At the grocery store, he was horrified that a yellow substance disguised as mustard would call itself “French’s” and American “cheese” was deemed to be salted plastic. We begged (unsuccessfully) for Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Lunchables, and Sunkist. Pop Tarts were an abomination and the fact that Hershey’s was considered chocolate was beyond his comprehension. The closest we got to peanut butter is at Christmastime when our Americanized cousins (who did not know how to use their fork and knife properly) gifted my sister and I a jar of Jiffy with a bow on it, only to have it quickly confiscated by our dad. He was big on prohibitions. When I left home for college at eighteen, I binged on all the things that I hadn’t been allowed to eat, eventually making myself sick from peanut butter, Doritos, and Sour Patch Kids.
This isn’t to say that my father was a health freak. In fact, his sweet tooth is legendary in our family. He’ll dreamily recount—without an ounce of remorse—the time he polished off a mousse au chocolat made by a family friend from two dozen eggs. When we were allowed ice cream after dinner, he’d make a show of serving us all tiny scoops and then using the container as his bowl and the ice cream scoop as his spoon. In our house, we weren’t allowed to drink soda of any kind, but spreading Nutella on everything was highly encouraged. Sometimes, when we were driving around town running from one marine supply store to another, my sister and I were allowed to choose a chocolate bar from the checkout, but I think this was only because my father would have felt too hypocritical treating himself to a Kit Kat and leaving us high and dry. (Ironically, we ended up naming one of our cats after the much-beloved candy bar.)
Kit Kat bars aside, my father valued quality above all else. The meals my father grew up eating in Belgium and France weren’t considered gourmet; they were simply made from quality ingredients. Both of my grandparents were tremendous cooks and many of the meals my father cooked at our house were adapted from their stained cookbooks: cream-drenched gratin dauphinois, the ceremonial leg of lamb, crepes flambéed in Grand Marnier. Birthday cakes in our household were freshly glazed tarte aux pommes with a birthday message inscribed on a sliver of marzipan purchased from the local French bakery, where we frequently bought pain au chocolat and croissants aux amandes on Sunday morning even though my father called their prices highway robbery.
As you can imagine, our trips to Belgium revolved around food, with every family member vying to cook for us—the American cousins—the best meal. Breakfast would bleed into lunch which would melt into dinner, no meal complete without a spread of the stinkiest cheeses in existence. Dining at restaurants meant indulging in a Dame Blanche for dessert, a Belgian delicacy consisting of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and warm molten chocolate. A walk through the park might include buying a warm gauffre from a vendor, sugar crystals baked into the dough, or a cornet de frites, a cone of french fries straight from the deep fryer with globs of mayonnaise squirted on top.
Anytime we went back to my father’s homeland, we always brought with us an empty suitcase or two to be filled with contraband that couldn’t be found stateside. Blocks of unpasteurized cheese, cartons of Cote d’Or chocolate and Neuhaus pralines, logs of saucisson, packs of fine LU cookies, and jars of proper Dijon mustard, Nutella, and Bonne Maman jam loaded with chunks of cherries. I learned how to lie to the airport customs agents about the contents of my bags from an early age.
Chocolate was something of a religion in our family. In Brussels, I loved going with my father to the fancy chocolate stands at the mall and staring at the rows of meticulously decorated pralines. He’d pore over the offerings, ask questions, and make his selection. The attendant lifted each praline off the tray with silver tongs, placing it carefully inside a little box lined with crinkly paper. Then, she’d weigh the contents, fold the flaps, and wrap it with a golden bow. Each store’s box was slightly different, but the idea was always the same: this was a box of sacred treasure. It was to be handled with care and consumed with reverence—and they were usually all gone by the time we reached the next vendor!
Back in Miami, Papi kept track of every ounce of chocolate. After dinner, if it was someone’s birthday or we’d been good French-speaking girls, my father would break out one of the cartons of pralines from the bottom drawer of the fridge where they lived. My sister and I would watch with anticipation as he undid the ribbon and opened the box. The elegantly designed chocolates were neatly packed into two levels, with a snazzy divider between them, and my sister and I were each allowed to choose one. We’d inspect the little card that came along with pictures of each praline and descriptions of what came inside, but despite our research, we usually made our choice based on appearances. If it had drizzles of dark chocolate and an almond set into it, that was the one to go for. Biting into it, we’d pray for creamy filling and not the oozy fruit stuff. Sometimes we lucked out with vanilla cream or sweet hazelnut. Other times, we’d bite down on mushy marzipan and wish we’d chosen differently. Luckily, marzipan was Papi’s favorite and he could always be convinced to trade. If the praline gushed with acrid liqueur, we’d make a pinched face before passing it off to my mother. Still, each bite was savored slowly, eyes closed, silence around the dinner table. Then, the closing ritual of counting the pralines, closing the flaps, tying the bow, and setting the little box back in its special drawer in the fridge.
I should have known that something was wrong with my father when he started drinking Coke. He always made sure it was Mexican Coke, though, which he swore was better since it didn’t have high fructose corn syrup. Around the time his Coke obsession began, while I was graduate student in my late twenties, he began exhibiting other strange behaviors, like calling me in the middle of the night as if it were midday and literally breaking his laptop out of frustration when he couldn’t get it to work properly. Then he started getting lost in his neighborhood and seemed unable to thread a belt through his pants’ loops. That Christmas I watched as he struggled to make his legendary leg of lamb, forcing the enormous slab of meat into a pot that was too small. When I offered to help him move the ingredients into a larger pot, he flew into a rage and threw the whole thing into the backyard, where his dog was happy to indulge in the meal that we wouldn’t eat. My father would never cook his famous fish stew or leg of lamb again. A few months later, an MRI of his brain confirmed our deepest fears: dementia, vascular, early onset. He wasn’t even old enough to qualify for Medicare.
These early stages were the hardest, but I suppose every stage has been hard in its own way. After his diagnosis, he still possessed enough self-awareness to believe that he did not need any help from anyone because he was perfectly fine. We put him in an assisted living facility (ALF) near my sister’s home in Atlanta, a move he fought with vigor, pushing furniture against his door so the nurses couldn’t check on him and threatening suicide anytime my sister and I called. He refused to eat the food provided by the dining hall, choosing instead to eat his meals at a steakhouse nearby. Eventually, he persuaded the waiter who’d become his friend to drive him to the airport so that he could take a flight back to Miami.
In the end, when the ALF kicked him out for one too many microwave mishaps (which usually resulted in a visit from the fire department), we had no choice but to bring him home—with the caveat that we’d hire someone to care for him every day. As soon as my father figured out that the woman we’d hired wasn’t going to be his girlfriend, he fired her. We coaxed her into sticking around, but again my father complained about the food. This caregiver was vegan but we asked her to make our father’s favorites, mostly meaty dishes full of butter. She did her best. He insisted on a glass of red wine with his meals, because he was civilized, after all.
Living at home did not last long for my father. A nasty urinary tract infection led to a lengthy hospitalization. He was furious about being bed-bound and we did what we could to make him comfortable, including bringing him home-cooked meals. Always very particular about his food, he asked for salt and pepper but turned his nose at the packets provided by the hospital. We rolled our eyes at his persnickety behavior but quickly learned to pack a pepper grinder and salt shaker from home. We spent Christmas by his side, and this time my husband cooked the leg of lamb and brought it to the hospital with all the trimmings: mashed potatoes, string beans, fresh bread, and a plastic table where the whole family could sit and eat together. My father may have lost his ability to take care of himself, but his refined tastes were still very much intact. Unfortunately, we would watch as even those began to slip away.
Several months of hospitalization further deteriorated his condition and he was fully incontinent by the time he was discharged. The search for a decent caregiving situation was exhaustive and frustrating. ALFs didn’t want patients like my father: strong-willed, young, and combative. Eventually, we found a small facility run by a Jamaican couple out of their home. My husband jokes that I chose them because of the promise of delicious Jamaican food and the tropical fruit trees in the backyard. Unfortunately, the food they served my father was nothing close to the flavorful Jamaican dishes that I loved so much. Instead, his meals were bland and sub-par. Lunch might be a simple sandwich on moldy bread or a can of Spaghetti-Os. Surprisingly, my father—not sedate but not exactly lucid—never complained. I watched him shovel into his mouth whatever was put in front of him: brightly colored Jell-o, Little Debbie donuts, and greasy chips. His former self would have been horrified.
Anytime I’d visit, he insisted that I take him to a restaurant. He seemed to be endlessly hungry and was putting on weight, which was fine considering he’d lost a lot during the hospitalization. I read that this was normal for dementia patients, who often forget they have just eaten. There wasn’t much by way of restaurants in his neighborhood. Plus, we were already spending a fortune for him to live in this ALF, so picking up regular restaurant tabs wasn’t exactly wise. Still, I wanted to give him the gift of pleasure, and I knew that pleasure for him meant food.
I quickly learned that, now, when my father said “restaurant,” he didn’t actually care if the place had cloth napkins or plastic cutlery. Thus, we entered the era of Pollo Tropical, sometimes even grabbing a Frosty with fries at the Wendy’s drive-thru to share at the park nearby. If ever we passed through a convenience store, he’d pitch a fit if I didn’t get him a Snickers or Milky Way. I’d help him unwrap it in the car, making sure he didn’t eat the plastic wrapping along with the candy bar. I learned to always have snacks on hand—juice boxes, cookies, or fruit. Clementines were a hit: not too messy and always delicious. I loved the way his eyes lit up whenever he bit into a slice, perpetually surprised by their juicy tartness.
On special occasions, I’d drive him to the yacht club on Watson Island where we used to spend our weekends when I was a member of the Sea Scouts. We’d have a fish sandwich and watch the boats bob in the marina, rigging clanging against masts in the wind. But I could never tell if he was actually aware of where we were, surrounded by sailboats as he had been his entire life as a professional sailboat captain. Nevertheless, he was content, especially when the ice cream sundae arrived, dressed to impress. “Gourmand,” I’d call him, the French word for glutton, and he’d give me a goofy grin. Guilty as charged.
This went on for about a year. We developed a routine and both found pleasure in it. On an afternoon like that one in Pollo Tropical, we couldn’t leave the fast food restaurant until my father got his latest obsession—key lime pie—a dessert that he wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole in his previous life. After gobbling down one slice, he’d plead for another, never noticing if they gave him cheesecake by accident. It was all the same to him: sugar to satisfy his enormous sweet tooth. On the other hand, I rarely managed to eat a bite in my father’s presence; like a mother tending to her young, his needs were my main focus.
Unfortunately, another UTI led to yet another hospitalization, which led to another serious decline in my father’s condition. This time, though, he didn’t demand fresh ground pepper or shout for a slice of key lime pie. Instead, he did the opposite of what he has always done during his life defined by a hearty appetite and devotion to food as pleasure: he clenched his teeth and refused everything. Food, water, medicine. His doctors were at a loss.
There were moments when he’d unclench his jaw long enough to tell my sister or I that he’d had enough, that it was all just too hard, that he was ready to go. Then he’d go back to clenching with all the power in the world, hissing and spitting anytime we tried to get anything into his mouth. It wasn’t only his jaw. His hands, too, were clenched into perpetual fists, and he’d yelp with pain anytime I tried to loosen his grip. I brought him his beloved Cote D’Or chocolate and boxes of his favorite pear juice. I tried coaxing him with Mexican Coke and juicy clementines. Nothing worked.
Watching him refuse the foods that had once brought him such joy shook me to my core. “T’es un gourmand?” I’d ask him, reminding him of his old nickname and hoping for a smile. Eventually, I broke it down for him: “You haven’t eaten in several weeks,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady, “and your body is going to start shutting down. And that’s okay, Papi, if that’s what you want.” He stared into my eyes, alert and clear. Then hissed.
It’s clear that my father hates everything about what his life has become. In his new existence, there is nothing he has control over. Not where he is, what he wears, what he does, when he sleeps. Complete powerlessness. His days are punctuated by aides jostling his body to undress him, bathe him, dress him, feed him, transfer him from the bed to the wheelchair and back into bed. It’s an introvert’s nightmare, or really, anyone’s nightmare. And he is done with all of it. Somewhere in his psyche, our father has enough wherewithal to know that ingesting food is the only thing he has control over, and he will exert his power over this if it’s the last thing he does.
On my father’s sixty-seventh birthday, I have a meeting with his medical team and they lay out the facts. He’s lost thirty-five pounds this summer and his weight continues to plummet. He’s ingesting the bare amount of liquid to sustain his fluid volume but not enough calories or protein to sustain energy. Typically, at this point, the patient needs a feeding tube. “It’s a question of sustenance,” his doctor says gently.
Thankfully, my sister and I are clear about my father’s wishes. For him, this is not life. This is not living. As much as I want him here with me, no matter the circumstances, I respect his choice, and I’ve asked others to do the same. There will be no feeding tube.
Still, a plate arrives with his name on it during every meal. I try to match the mounds of mush on his plate to the menu: steamed broccoli, chicken parmesan, apple pie. The nurses tell me I should keep trying, but when I hover a spoonful of brown goop near his mouth, he shakes his head. “Ça ne m’intéresse pas,” he says. Food does not interest him any longer.
When he was first diagnosed with dementia, I learned that people with this disease usually die when their body forgets how to swallow, which can sometimes take a decade or more. But that is not the case for my father. This is not his body forgetting how to eat; this is a man using what’s left of his mind to make a final decision.
“Animals stop eating when…” I don’t finish my sentence but my mother knows what I’m getting at. Nodding her head, she responds. “We’re animals, too.”
There are times when my father stops hissing and spitting. He loosens the bullish grip in his fists and relaxes long enough to let out a hearty laugh while my sister reads from the Asterix comic books of his youth, or when I whisper the word “gourmand,” into his ear, listing all of his favorite delicacies: mousse au chocolat, pralines, pain aux raisins. “T’es un gourmand,” I tell him, reminding my father of the person he’s always been, the person we’ll remember him as. In these moments, he seems serene, calm. A man who’s taken back control of his life.
Rumpus original art by Lizz Ehrenpreis.