Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | April 29, 2011

Ordinary Magic (The Amazing Story of the Fried Shrimp)

“When I look back on my ordinary, ordinary life,  

I see so much magic, though I missed it at the time. “

-Jamie Cullem

This is dedicated to friends currently struggling with life and death issues.
It’s a story about a summer afternoon, the penultimate afternoon of my husband’s life. I’ve been considering retelling it for a while now, and a confluence of themes that have been swirling about make this seem like a good moment. This essay is an illustration of a most precious day, even though I did not know it at the time.


There is an ongoing discussion of journaling and its place as stress-relief for caregivers. I’m fairly certain this afternoon would have been lost forever if I had not written it down within a few days. I was operating on little besides coffee and adrenaline at that point, and many memories of those weeks of home hospice have vanished. But I wrote a lot while Jeff was sick. I wasn’t trying to be creative or even to document. Much of it was letters to far-flung family and friends, to keep them abreast of what was happening with Jeff and with all of us in the orbit of planet Cancer, that gravitational pull of chronic serious illness and its effect on every aspect of daily life. And maybe, at the time, writing, even just letters, was a stress reliever. (Can’t say I remember.) But now, nearly two years out, I can see this act of writing stuff down had other uses. I am sure there is much from those days that I might remember differently or not at all, seen through the flawed and scratched lenses of sleep deprivation, panic, grief, and time.

I know several people in the late stages of terminal illnesses, with all that entails. In particular, one man and his partner are considering end of life care and what that will likely mean to them both. He is considering choosing when to end his own life. I am firmly in favor of his legal and moral right to do so with compassion and help from family and friends and their own chosen ritual, at the time he sees appropriate.
While I defend vigorously his autonomy over his own life, I also wonder how one can know when the time is right. We were incredibly fortunate that Jeff had little pain and that he remained lucid throughout nearly every moment. Many dying people do not get that gift. But I wonder, if he had chosen to end his life at any given point, what moments we might have missed. Moments like this one. When do we say: this is all I can take, I can’t do this, I just want it to be over. Maybe the next day will be better – we don’t know. Maybe it will be much worse. What price do we pay when we choose to go, or choose to stay?

Recently I have been struck hard with word of another dreadful illness. I have no right to any but the most basic human empathic response. I don’t know this person, and I know a family member only very slightly. Yet my visceral reaction was sheer horror and dread of what is to come. A wish to cut to end-scene, fade to black, and avoid the suffering that our mortality can bring is understandable. But again, I wonder what unknown moments of grace and beauty and even joy may await this family in the midst of the acknowledged drudgery and exhaustion and sadness that is to come.


The Amazing Story of the Fried Shrimp

Jeff lay immobile on the couch as the hospice nurse performed her examination. He was deeply asleep, making no response as she lifted his wrist to check his pulse and blood pressure. The jaundice which had first been noticeable in his eyes and face had spread to his arms, hands, and chest, and his body was badly swollen with ascites, the abnormal buildup of excess fluid in the abdomen. His breathing had been affected by the swelling, and his appetite was fading. He had eaten only juice, melon, and smoothies for several days. No room left inside.

His sister Karen and I spoke quietly with the nurse. What happens next? we wondered. For the past few days it had taken both of us using all our strength to help him move from the bedroom to the living room couch ten feet away. One of us would hold his legs, the other his arms and shoulders, and in one motion we would try to gently swing him from lying to sitting, then to standing, then into the wheelchair. The wheelchair had just arrived the day before. We knew we wouldn’t be able to use it for long, but the hospice people had sent it quickly to make moving him as easy as possible for as long as possible. We had trouble getting him into and out of the wheelchair, and he couldn’t really help much anymore. We had been strongly encouraged to medicate him so he would stay in bed, safe from falling. He still wanted to move about the house, though, even if it took more energy than any of us really had to do so. And we wanted him to have what made him happy, as happy as he could be, and that meant NOT staying in the hospital bed that had taken over our dim bedroom. His favorite perch was the living room couch by a picture window, with activity outside and gardens to observe. In summer the window is sheltered by a big oak tree, its leafy green curtain sighing in the breeze.

“What happens now?” we asked, as Jeff slept nearby.
“Well,” she answered, “given the extent of the liver damage we can see”, as she gestured at his color and his swollen belly, “he will likely slip into a coma any time now. Most likely within a day or two. His breathing will deteriorate, and he will go into a deeper and deeper sleep, from which he will not awaken, and then he will Just. Stop. Breathing.”

A coma? Like, now? His sleep was so deep already, there on the couch.
“How will we know what is a coma and what is just sleeping?”
“You will not be able to awaken him.”
“What do we do if it happens here, on the couch?”
The nurse responded, “You call all the strong guys you know, and they carry him in to his bed.”

Karen and I looked at each other, horrified. A coma. At any time. This was something we had not considered. It was hard enough moving him when he was awake and trying to assist us. The nurse gave us some helpful advice and chatted a while longer and then left.

It was nearly 3 in the afternoon and none of us had eaten. Anna, Karen, and I discussed a takeout order from the sandwich shop on the corner – we had become regulars in the last difficult week. Jeff opened his eyes and wondered aloud what was happening. Discussing lunch, we told him. More as a courtesy than because anybody thought he would really eat, we asked if he would like anything.

“Mmmmm, fried shrimp,” he replied dreamily.
“Fried shrimp?” somebody gasped.
“Fried shrimp. And COLESLAW.” he answered forcefully.

Fried shrimp and coleslaw was Jeff’s last meal. That was Wednesday afternoon, and he passed away in the early morning hours of Friday. The last thing he ate was one bite of Anna’s fudgesicle, late Wednesday evening. On Thursday he had only a few sips of water in the morning, and was unable to take even that by afternoon. The nurse was right. By mid day Thursday I suppose he was comatose: his restless movements had slowed and then ceased; he lay unmoving in the bed except for his breathing which became more labored as the day progressed.

There is more to the story. There is the part about how I considered cooking a few shrimp from the stash in the freezer and grating some cabbage for a quick coleslaw, knowing he would only eat a few bites, but he insisted that we get takeout to save me the work of cooking. There is the part about how when Karen and Anna came back with the food, he was sitting upright on the couch, knife and fork in hand, ready for his shrimp. There is the part about how Mike arrived as we were eating and Jeff kept pushing fried shrimp toward his friend. There is the part about how the hospice booklet on dying says that often a person will have a burst of energy, or request a favorite meal, as the end draws closer.

But mostly this story is about the will to survive and the power of love. Jeff had one more day left and he wanted to spend it enjoying his favorite fried Maine shrimp and coleslaw. With us, his family. On the couch, dammit. Not in bed.

So that is what he did.



  1. We have struggled tremendously with when to make the decision with four terminal pets the past 2-1/2 years. We knew when we knew but not more than half a day or so more. We could have pre-empted that last bit of suffering, theirs and ours. Boone stood up for the first time in a couple of days to go out & take his last short tour of the yard to potty. Becky lifted her head to look at the kids and me to say goodbye after it looked like she had been already fading away in her sleep for a couple of hours. Those last few precious moments of life & closure are indelibly etched into completeness of our memories, of this shared love.

    I’ve never really ordered fried shrimp. But you know, I might, Carrie. I just might.


  2. I just read Fried SHrimp….what an illustration….because of my work the language is my language…the scene, one I am so familliar with……your struggles these many months speak of your love… your attention…your willingness to expose yourself….It has helped many in many ways….including me. Thank you.


    • Annie, I am deeply honored. I wouldn’t doubt that you were also here with us that day. Your work is so vitally important to so many and you bring to it such strength, compassion, and grace. If only doing the work excused one from living that pain in one’s own life!


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