Last Meal

Hilary (left) and Kim

Hilary: 2 children, teacher, parent, choir director

Best friend of 15 years: Kim, 3 children, nurse, died ... in 1996 at age 41

When she threw a dinner party, the quality and adventure of cooking was paramount, but the house or her outfit never seemed to matter.

How did you meet?

I first met Kim in our small town, when she and Kenny were visiting his family. They both went to college in New York City and had fallen hard in love. I’d known Kenny all my life. We shared a common history, rooted in our parents’ deep friendship.

I stopped by to drop something off for Kenny’s mom. Kim answered my knock at the kitchen door. She welcomed me like an old friend. “Hi, you must be Hilary, I’m Kim. Come on in.” Her long, wavy, dark hair set off pearl-like skin and a Grecian nose. Kim was wearing denim overalls and Birkenstocks. It was a nourishing contrast to our conservative, waspy, summer resort stylishness. I liked her right away.

What was the friendship like?

A few years later Ken and Kim married and moved back to settle for good. Kim and I became good friends. Being with her was like being in a new town, even though I had grown up there. We liked walking around Main Street doing our errands. Kim stopped to talk to everyone she met. I marveled at her delight in each person, storekeepers to pedestrians. And they opened up to this Birkenstock wearing new comer, even those I had known for years, but had never gotten to know.

I was newly married and she had just had her first child, a son. Two years later, we both got pregnant at the same time and had our first daughters a month apart. Then two years again, our second two daughters arrived four months apart. With five young children between us, we were over at each other’s houses on a regular basis.

Kim was relaxed about housekeeping, dress and the presentation of her kids. I was the opposite, having been brought up to value appearances. I was also obese: 100 pounds overweight. She never talked about looks or style. Instead, she asked about what I liked or what was on my mind. It was a relief to simply be myself around her. She dropped everything to visit, even if there was a bunch of dishes or a pile of laundry on the sofa. I would have been full of excuses and apologies, embarrassed by my lack of homemaking perfection. When she threw a dinner party, the quality and adventure of cooking was paramount, but the house or her outfit never seemed to matter.

One time we went over to their house for a small dinner party. They were renting a home about fifteen miles from us in another town. The living room was scattered with toys and laundry. Her two other kids were playing all around the house. Her youngest was six weeks old. Kim had put her in her crib down the hall and we could hear screaming through the intercom on the kitchen counter. Kim was nonplussed and assured us the baby would settle in eventually. And she did. That child grew to be very loud in general, a trait we loved in her.

I describe these characteristics of Kim because they nurtured the bound up, anal way I lived. I was always worried if I was good enough. She simply accepted me. And I loved her.

On all our visits over the years, Kim and I knit: socks, sweaters, scarves, hats. We also drank hundreds of cups of tea while the kids played together. She taught me to heat the milk in the microwave so the tea would be scalding hot as we liked it. A Serengeti of miniature porcelain animals from the Red Rose tea boxes multiplied along the kitchen ledge.

Kim was a “foodie” years before the term existed. She introduced me to all kinds of exotic foods. She reported on the “best whatever” wherever she went. The Riverhead Grill, a no-frills diner on East Main Street, was the spot for lemon meringue pie. “There’s a fantastic bagel place in Kansas,” she announced after a cross country trip with Kenny before they had kids. Her favorite magazine was Gourmet from which she actually cooked. I dieted and binged depending on what phase I was in, but her cooking felt good any time.

The year our youngest girls would head to kindergarten, Kim and Ken built a house right down the road from ours. Kim’s new kitchen was raised a step. It was like a work stage with open, chest high walls all the way around. It contained no table, just counters, sink, cabinets, refrigerator and double oven. The counters were aqua Formica. There was a stool in the corner. We were the audience on the outside, our wine glasses on the wall’s ledge, taking sips and talking as she cooked. She was thrilled to own a house. They were financially stretched. The living room had only a rocking chair. It didn’t matter to Kim. She simply laughed it off and we made do.

Describe how the friendship ended.

Kim was a trained nurse and worked part time for a summer camp. She was considering going back to work full time when her youngest went to kindergarten in September. One day, we sat in their big empty living room. Kim was in the rocker near a window where the sun was shining in on her like a painting. I sat on the stool from the kitchen. My husband and I had launched into home schooling our girls. Kim assured me I could send them over whenever I needed a break. She rubbed her forehead and complained of strange symptoms she had been having, chalking them up to worry.

One morning in early October, Kenny called me and asked me to run into town for some new lollipop underwear for Kim, an unusual request. Next he said, “The doctor discovered a tumor in Kim’s brain.” We were only thirty-nine years old. The news was indigestible. I had no time to cry. I brought the underwear to their house as Kim came down the stairs. We simply stared at each other and hugged. Then Kenny whisked her one hundred miles away to Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City.

All our friends and Ken’s family got to work finishing the construction of their master bedroom and bathroom; a project which had been on hold until they could afford it. Meanwhile, the doctors removed a large, aggressive tumor from the base of her brain. The prognosis was, at most, six months to live. Everyone pitched in on a beautiful sleigh bed Kim had been eyeing in a local store. After three days in the hospital, she checked out, against doctors wishes. She hated the food and the strict hospital protocol.

When Ken brought her home, everyone was there: twenty, including kids. The mood was hesitant and awkward. But, Ken took Kim’s bald, stapled head in his hands, paused and looked at us, then asked, “Isn’t she beautiful?” Everyone laughed, including Kim. Ken then gathered all the kids in a bedroom to explain what was happening. They reappeared twenty minutes later and scattered back to their games, while we had a dinner Kim had not cooked.
In February, Kim and I took our kids skating at the pond. Kim insisted on driving despite her peripheral vision impairment from the tumor, which was growing again. I did not have the heart to argue, so I made sure the kids were strapped into their big S.U.V. and away we went. At the pond, we sipped her home-made cocoa. She didn’t talk about her fears or emotions. I was full of both. She kept everything in the present, helping the kids tie their skates, yelling at her son, serving cocoa. Once again, she was making it easy for me to loosen up, even though the ground was falling away.

Spring returned. Kim went in for another removal of the re-growing tumor. In May she and my youngest daughter blew out the candles on a shared a birthday cake. Kim was strong, and we were hopeful.

Summer brought lots of beach days. Once, Kim came down to the beach after a doctor’s visit in the city. She scanned the crowd, looking for me with her kids. From a distance, she appeared just like any other beach goer observing the scene, but as she neared us, her pallid skin and close cropped hair told the truth.

In the second fall, she had more trips into New York City for cutting out the tumor and treatments. She was exceeding the diagnosis of six months. Yet, one evening she sat between Ken and his sister at a program we attended. I watched her. Her Grecian face was bloated and lifelessly beige from medication and sickness. It was a simple glimpse, enough for my mind and heart to allow the gravity of our future.

That winter, we continued to eat and knit as usual. But, it wasn’t usual. Kim was beginning to converse as if reciting lines from past conversations. It was like she wasn’t there, but instead an actor playing her habitual self.

In February, the disease took its final descending toll. We sat in her living room. She was on her brand new, bright aqua, leather couch. Pillows surrounded her supporting her spine, now filling with cancer and rampant pain. A surge of sadness hit me, but I restrained the gathering river of tears for Kim’s sake.

“Let’s have some noodles fried with butter,” she suggested. It was her favorite snack.

“Let me make them. You relax,” I suggested.

“No, I want to.” Kim insisted.

I propped her wasting frame from behind, and wrapped my arms gently around her fragile ribs. Her back rested against my heart. With halting steps, we shuffled to the kitchen.

Leaning heavily on the counter with her left forearm, her right sliced a huge slab of butter to sizzle in the heavy frying pan. Now propped on a stool, she poured in the noodles, stirring them for several minutes still hunched against the counter. She minded the pan with the familiar focused attention as she had for countless other feasts. Soon they were perfect, slightly crisp and browned. “They must have lots of salt,” she mumbled, dashing the shaker over the pan. Taking a breath to muster energy, she spooned them onto two plates, and graciously served our last meal together.

Within days, Kim was unable to move out of the sleigh bed. No food was consumed, just an occasional sip of Ensure. She became skeletal over the next five weeks.

A week before she died, I sat at her bed side in the late afternoon observing her in a peaceful sleep. Downstairs, the family gathered from school and work. Her oldest daughter, now nine, poked her head in. “Mom,” Kim’s eyebrows lifted in recognition of this beloved voice. “Mom, how hot do you set the oven to bake chicken?” Kim mumbled something unintelligible. “Did you say three fifty degrees, Mom?”

It was the last food conversation Kim had.

How did you cope with her loss?

Ken called me at 7:00 in the morning. “Kim is gone,” he said, “come right over if you want to see her before the undertaker comes.”

I raced over and went directly upstairs to the sleigh bed. There lay Kim. She was completely relaxed. It hit me. Her spirit, who she really was, had not died. She was still there. This was simply her body that was done. I was absolutely calmed and soothed by this truth.

I went home and wrote a piece about Kim and Kenny. I had never written anything before except a diet journal. They loved movies and the piece I wrote was as if their life together had been a movie: comedy, mystery, drama and adventure. The next day, I gave it to Ken. He re-appeared minutes later and asked me to read it as the eulogy for Kim’s funeral. It was a great honor. The service was attended by about three hundred people who loved Kim, from the local butcher to her divorced parents from San Francisco. Every chair in the building had Kim’s favorite chocolate and a beautiful program handmade by her sister-in-law. Her closest women were the pallbearers. We carried the simple wooden box built by her brother-in-law.

After that, things changed like the seismic shifting of an earthquake. Ken called me a month after her death and asked to come over. He sat down and cried. He said he had fallen for Kim’s good friend from nursing school and asked her to come live with them. He told me that he could not do it alone; raise three young kids. Shocked, I understood and gave my blessing.

Over the next year, I cried often at random times triggered by mysterious moments: driving the car, at the grocery store, reading to my girls. I cried over the loss of our lives together and the fragility of everything. Her kids drifted away. Kim visited me in my dreams every so often and I woke up very happy. I carried grief for years. Our girls drifted apart with separate social lives, even though our families remained close. I became good friends with Ken’s second wife.

About ten years after Kim’s death, when the girls were in high school, we invited their youngest daughter on a ski trip. I hadn’t been around her except at big family parties for all those years. Being with her brought everything to the surface. Every night I wept in bed before sleep. The loss of Kim, the shifts in our families, all felt tragic. But most of all, at age fifteen she was like Kim, physically and in mannerism. I realized that parts of Kim lived on in her children, of course.

Recently, Kim and Ken’s son had their first grandchild, a daughter. My heart lurched on hearing the news. My first thought was that Kim continues in this new beautiful being. I look forward to getting to know her.