If I Should Fall Behind

Large RoseI don’t do a lot of personal writing here anymore, but in this case I’m making an exception, with a little tribute to my sister, who recently died from cancer.

Pam was a quintessential Berkeley hippie. A free spirit, child of the 60s, early commune resident, fanatical about alternative medicine and homeopathy, and as far left as you could go – a fervent believer in every government conspiracy. There were many times she made me want to bang my head on the wall in frustration. Pam was also a mother, daughter, sister and a teacher who had a knack for dealing with children and an unbridled love for her work.

Truthfully, we had little in common, with the exception that we were raised by two parents to whom food, wine and travel were a large part of the essential elixir of life. Those same obsessions passed down to the two of us, and though we quickly learned to avoid many subjects, we loved nothing more than to cook, talk about and eat good food and drink wine, hopefully while listening to great music.

She was a frequent visitor to Portland, in love with this city and our food scene. Pam took particular pleasure in reading my reviews of the places we had eaten at together, and had strong opinions on every component of our dining experiences which she didn’t hesitate to share, whether I wanted them or not.

We had our differences, but I had nothing but admiration for the gusto with which she lived her life. She lived for the moment, never for tomorrow, and once she was diagnosed, fought for every moment of life.  At one point, just after finishing a long course of chemotherapy and radiation, still getting used to wearing a colostomy bag, she called me, so excited that she could barely speak. “Have you been in an accident?!”, I shouted. “Hell no!, she screamed back. I’m in the mosh pit at the Springsteen concert!” Pam loved everything Bruce Springsteen. Later I said to a friend, “Who does that? Who leaves the hospital and goes to a concert,  months from death, laden with medical devices, so weak she can hardly get around?” “Your sister does”, she said, “and you should be damn proud of that.” And so I was.

Chez PanisseA few months ago she was more or less confined to bed. The thought of any food was more than she could deal with. I was at a loss of what to talk about; our common ground had been pulled from under us. For the first time, food was off the table. Instead we ventured into death and fear, lost loves, and hopes for her family.

The week she died, I wrote her a letter. I don’t know if she was able to read it; in the big picture it was just important for me to write.

“Do you know that most of my treasured dining moments have been with you? Sitting in your kitchen one raining evening in 1982; you made a risotto out of wild mushroom that friends had just picked. To this day I have never tasted a better one. A fall night at Genoa restaurant here in Portland with you at least fifteen years ago. The waiter recognized me from when he and I had worked together at John Ash restaurant so many years before. Losing ourselves in the tasting menu at Park Kitchen on a warm summer night in 1999. Exceptional sweetbreads at Beaker & Flask. On another night, dinner with you at Ten-01 was so memorable – the company, cocktails, food, wine, everything; it is one of the first experiences that I think of when someone asks me about my favorite meals of all time. Multiple dinners in the early days of Oliveto in Oakland, The Slanted Door and Greens in San Francisco.  Then there was our final dinner together last winter at Chez Panisse. We both knew that your path was short, and I could only imagine how much pain you must have felt, and yet I was important enough to you that, no matter how difficult it was, you were going to make sure we could experience another dinner downstairs at your favorite restaurant. I went with full intention of writing about it, but was so overwhelmed by the entire experience, I never managed to put many words on paper.”

On my last visit to see Pam, she was too sick to get out of bed, and angry at the world. I told her that I would be driving up to Healdsburg that afternoon for lunch. Her eyes brightened. “Remember John Ash? What a restaurant that was back in the day! You have to go to the Downtown Bakery and have a croissant… they are so wonderful!”

I crossed the bay, relived memories, visited old friends and had lunch and a glass of sparkling wine. Afterwards I strolled across the little square and bought two croissants and a tart, and later that afternoon, wound my way east, through Anderson Valley, Knights Valley, Napa… a warm sunny day, all the windows down, the hills emerald-green, mustard painting the vineyards, and Tom Waits singing San Diego Serenade. It was an incredibly wonderful moment, too wonderful perhaps, and I was suddenly overwhelmed and burst into tears, remembering the same drive many years before in happier days with both of my sisters. I did what anyone with a bag of croissants would do at such a time, tore open the paper and bit into a pastry. The crust  shattered into the wind, blowing back and sticking to the tears on my cheeks. And so I laughed, and sang, and screamed, and cried, and worshiped the beauty of the vineyards and the loss of a beautiful life.

A few nights before she died, Chez Panisse was reopening after a fire. In one of our last conversations she said, “I’ve got reservations for opening night! You have to come!” A fighter to the last-minute, but soon she was slipping away.

One day I will return to Chez Panisse. I’ll eat downstairs, save a chair, and think of her and that last reservation. Who knows, maybe I’ll drop a pinch of ashes into a plant on the way out. She’d like that.

Thanks for permitting me a self-indulgent bit of writing. Now I can get back to writing this site with reviews and the frequency as I used to. Oh, and personal friends, please don’t share this on my Facebook. Anonymity reasons.

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. says

    Wow, thank you so much for sharing. I appreciate that your love of food has a great story and cherished memories. I am so sorry for your loss.

  2. psp2pdx says

    An achingly beautiful tribute of sibling love, loss and a life well lived.
    Berkley, Chez:Panisse and The Boss…..she had it her way.

  3. grapedog says

    FD, I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your sister. Reading your words, so full of emotion and memories, brought tears to my eyes. I’m glad you wrote about Pam and shared some of her story with all of us.

  4. garden girl says

    Thank you for a lovely, loving and poignant tribute to your sister. I appreciate your sharing these memories and thoughts of your sister with all of us. It’s never easy to lose someone with whom you have so many intertwined memories, breaking one strand that connects us with a shared past.

  5. liza says

    So sorry for your loss. Personally, I think losing a sibling must be one of the hardest losses to bear.

  6. Renee Oberdorf says

    Thank you for sharing this incredibly poignant tribute. It sure gets to the heart of life, and brings back so many memories of my own…..

  7. Revalani says

    My condolences, Dude. Pam sounds like someone I would have known and liked in my own Berkeley hippie days.

  8. kobekar says

    FD, very well written, I had tears in my eyes while reading. A wonderful tribute to a Sister, Pam, I will remember you forever!!

  9. says

    I’m so so sorry about the loss of your sister. Your words recounting the many meals you shared with her are incredibly touching. What beautiful memories you have of your sister to keep her present in your life.

  10. Colleen Mendola says

    Really beautiful tribute. A brothers love lives on forever. We sisters are the lucky ones- that you love us unconditionally and regardless. Thank you for sharing this- I hope you do pinch some ashes in the plants. When I go, I will reflect how wonderful the foliage seems. Hugs to you FD.

  11. says

    What a wonderful tribute to the love you both shared for each other and for wonderful food. It is funny to those of us who love food how we always remember special moments around the table! So sorry for your loss.

  12. says

    I am woefully behind on my blog reading so I just read this today. Cancer has been such a part of my life unfortunately and I am sorry to hear of the loss of your sister. What a beautiful tribute and what a zest for life she had. Thanks for sharing.

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