To make last cookies, you first must make not-last cookies—Chocolate-Almond Biscotti, packed in a large tea tin. These you must give to your father to give to his sister at Christmastime, his sister having stayed home in New York City, as she was too ill to visit Boston for the holiday.
Of course, you can’t go so far as to call this a batch of “everyday” cookies, because your aunt is so sick, but they are at least vaguely feel-good cookies because while she’s lost her appetite for almost everything else, your aunt (whom you have always resembled) eats them one right after the other while lying on the couch in the apartment she shares with your father, attached to an oxygen tank and watching Dr. Phil with her nurse’s aide.
“She loves them,” your father tells you during your next phone conversation. “She can’t get enough!”
Last cookies come later. In fact, one of the primary ingredients for last cookies is procrastination born of active denial. It works like this: from the moment your father tells you how much your aunt loves the biscotti you made her, you resolve to make another, larger batch and send it off. Every day, you think, today’s the day I will make Aunt Karen an extra-extra large batch of Chocolate-Almond Biscotti!
But every day there are other things to do, and biscotti are time-consuming—you have to bake them twice, after all. Besides, to make them would mean to contemplate your aunt and her diminished body, her dwindling appetite, the cancer that migrated a year ago from her brain to both lungs—inoperable tumors that have not responded to chemotherapy or radiation.
In this way, weeks go by. Then months. Your father visits the funeral home, and still you don’t make the cookies. He helps your aunt pick out what clothes she’ll wear in her coffin, what music she wants played during the service. And still you don’t make the cookies. He feeds her slender tubes of sub-lingual morphine twice a day, informs you that she’s starting to smell from the cancer itself, that she’s lost a tremendous amount of weight, has large bald patches, can’t hear well anymore, and seems to be hallucinating at times. Still, no cookies.
It boils down to a childlike form of denial, as in, if I don’t make the cookies, my aunt can’t eat them; if she can’t eat them, she can’t die. Logic is not the point. The point is to secretly believe that there is some kind of cause-and-effect action at work, no matter how nonsensical, and to place yourself in the “cause” part of that equation. In this way, you allow yourself to believe that you actually have some control over the situation. That’s the generous interpretation. The less generous take is that your procrastination is borne of a selfish indulgence in childlike behavior. Because the somewhat tentative yet deeply affectionate relationship you have always enjoyed with your aunt is rooted (at least in your mind) in the fact that on some level she still sees you as the little girl you once were.
Over the phone, a few days in a row, your father mentions that things are changing quickly. You and your husband decide to drive down to New York with the kids. You have a whole week to make the cookies. But life is so busy. Somehow, you don’t get around to it until just hours before you’re supposed to leave. The cookies are complicated. You’re distracted. Pre-occupied. You almost burn them, but your husband pulls them out of the oven in the nick of time.
Unfortunately, when you get to New York you discover that your aunt is no longer eating solid food of any kind—only a half-pint of Ensure every day, out of a plastic cup. She has no interest in the cookies. The cookies do not even warrant a glance because food is not on your aunt’s mind, instead, what she likes now is to look out the window in the living room on the fourth floor, past the permanently installed air conditioner that occupies the bottom third of that window, onto a view of leafless black tree branches preferably in a scene of rain or falling snow, which she finds so peaceful.
Kim Adrian’s short stories and essays have appeared in Tin House, Agni, the Gettysburg Review, Crazyhorse, the New England Review, Ninth Letter, the Raritan Review, and elsewhere. Among the awards and recognitions she’s received are a P.E.N. New England Discovery Award, an Artist’s Grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, three Pushcart Prize nominations, and the Editor’s Prize in Nonfiction from the New Ohio Review, as well as residencies at the Edward Albee Barn, Ragdale, and VCCA, and scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Key West Literary Seminars. Find more at kimadrian.com