Today I Feel Like Talking About My Dad

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Peter Workman and Bookshelf

Today I Feel Like Talking About My Dad

My dad died Sunday. The words don’t look right sitting on the page, they don’t feel like they belong to me, they must have been written by someone else, someone with a dead father.

He was sick for 6 months. A long time. No, a short time. Kind of a lifetime. It was brain cancer, and the kind where from the beginning you know what the end of the story will be, you just don’t know how many pages the book has or what happens in the chapters leading up to the end.

My dad was an amazing man. I can say it, and mean it, but he was actually the kind of amazing man where a lot of other people are saying it, too.

Dad was an eater. Boy, did he love food. And like all great eaters, he was just as eye-rollingly happy with a fantastic tuna salad and a box of Triscuits as he was with a multi-course meal at Le Bernardin. He was probably happiest if there were ribs involved. We are a full on food family; my mother, my sister and I all cook, we entertain, we are the type of family that talks about lunch with our mouths full of breakfast.

Dad talked about really good food with reverence and huge joy, as he talked about a stirring symphony or a wonderful piece of art. There were italics in the way he spoke of something he loved. ”That cheese is marvelous!” “She made a chocolate tart that was in fact, very possibly the best chocolate tart in the world.”  “The meal was just simply extraordinary. No really, it was extraordinary.” He really wanted you to understand Just. How. Good. This. Was. Though often from the look on his face you weren’t quite getting how extraordinary this meal had been.

He ate very slowly. Like, very slowly. As in, on any typical Thanksgiving people were starting in on the pies and he was reaching for another wing.

It took a little while for his appetite to change, and there were a bunch of ebbs and flows. Early on, there were still requests for pastrami sandwiches, turkey platters with all the trimmings. At the end a sip of apple juice was a chore.

Right after his surgery in late September, which was right after his diagnosis, he was in the hospital and a specialist came in and cheerfully announced, “Hi, I’m Cindy from Swallowing!”  It wasn’t a joke; she was there to evaluate his ability to chew and swallow. She spooned a little canned pear into his mouth, then let him nibble a Lorna Doone. “I think we can put you onto a mechanical soft diet!” she announced, explaining that that meant small bites of pre-cut soft foods. She left. Dad looked at me, and opened a bag of pretzels someone had left lying around and ate them. Bite that, Cindy from Swallowing.

We all made him food. Sometimes he wanted to eat it, sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he would take a bite, sometimes he would eat a real meal, sometimes he would just smile and shrug.

The night before Christmas he was back in the hospital and I told him I would bring dinner the next night, and asked him what he wanted. He didn’t know. I suggested chicken soup, noodle pudding — unchallenging, gentle foods. “How about prime rib?” suggested a visiting friend. “Oh, yes, and Yorkshire pudding!” he said. And the next night he ate it, our family sitting in a shitty windowless conference/supply room with hideously bright fluorescent lights  and the occasional nurse popping into the room for a fresh bandage or catheter.

Towards the end when he wasn’t eating much at all, I cut a paper thin sliver of pear and handed it to him. He ate it very slowly. His nurse and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows, a silent tiny triumph. I handed him another transparent slice. Then another. One hour later, the pear was eaten. It was the most beautiful core of fruit I have ever seen.

If food is love, and someone won’t or can’t eat, it feels terrible.

So, my dad died on Sunday. We are all doing kinda sorta ok, for now, and because it’s my way of coping you will shortly see this blog ramped up again with recipes, and food-and-family reflections and the like. But today I feel like talking about my dad.

About Katie Workman

Katie Workman is a cook, a writer, a mother of two, an activist in hunger issues, and an enthusiastic advocate for family meals, which is the inspiration behind her two beloved cookbooks, Dinner Solved! and The Mom 100 Cookbook.

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  1. Hi Katie,
    When I first read this in April 2013, I was so moved – and impressed at how well written it was. So, I posted a link to it on Facebook. This morning, Facebook, as it does now, reminded me of my post (“On This Day”) and I read your story again. Tears, and smiles, again. Thank you and best wishes.

  2. My father died from glioblastoma in December, 2009. Tomorrow would be his 79th birthday. I try to celebrate his birthday every year by making some of his favorite foods – blueberry buckle, fish chowder. As his illness progressed and he stopped eating, the one thing he could manage was a bite of pie. I love the memory from our last (and very difficult) Thanksgiving together, he could not eat dinner but was ready for pie.

  3. Oh, Katie, I am so late to this party, but my tardiness does not diminish my great respect for your Dad. He was someone to look up to, admire, and find accountable for great creative thought and brilliant publishing. Plus he has a wonderful family. Peace, Jonathon Lazear

  4. so absolutely beautiful and touching. thank you for sharing your heart and your fathers sweet spirit.

  5. BEAUTIFUL. I felt like I was witnessing his Christmas meal and the pear. Thank you. I lost my dad to cancer also ~ many years ago. I was 18, he was 59.

    At 52, I still miss him a lot.

  6. I knew your dad, sold him books, lost money to him at poker (mostly), cadged rides from him after the game so I could catch the last train out of Grand Central, and I always felt free to ask his advice, and he always freely gave it and he always considered carefully what he said.
    We had a number of points of connection (and we had some fine home-style food together–I have a memory of Peter happily going at a large order of mashed potatoes at an eatery near his office). The last such was a special Spieler Agency-Workman Publishing clause we devised for our most recent contract together: if the author delivered on time, Peter was going to stand me to a steak dinner at Peter Luger’s. I made sure my client delivered on time, but by then it was too late.
    Your dad was super-smart, focused, generous, supremely honest in every way. I came to love him, and I will always miss him.