Food is more than just something we eat.
Food eases the pain of hunger. That's nature's way of getting us to nourish ourselves for the day's work.
Food eases the pain of loneliness. From the newborn's first experience of companionable dining at his mother's breast, through family suppers, lunch with friends, and the seductive dinners of courtship, eating together is more fun than eating alone.
Food eases the pain of dying, too.
From Thanksgiving until Christmas, our family provided the home care for our mother, as she waged her last battles in her 10-year war with cancer.
Mom had completed a living will in which she had rejected artificial life-sustaining procedures, including artificially administered food and water.
Death by voluntary starvation is an ethical issue most people argue from the textbook.
Our family's evaluation is first-hand.
This is tough stuff for an onlooking child whose life is focused on feeding people.
Did she do the right thing?
I think so.
Mom's breast cancer had become bone cancer. She had achieved remission several times through the marvels of chemotherapy and lived four, high-quality years longer than anticipated. She even worked full-time until a few months before her death. Obviously she was a fighter, determined to squeeze out every ounce of life available.
But it had to be life that she could manage and control at least a little.
Toward the end, chemotherapy produced such life-threatening side effects that it had to be stopped, and radiation was more painful than helpful. And so the tumors just grew until they began to break her bones.
That process could have gone on and on if she had received intravenous or tube feedings to keep her alive while the disease ran rampant.
Fortunately, she had the foresight to know that enough is enough. She lost her appetite and stopped eating. The pain of starving was assuaged by the morphine given to ease the pain of the tumors. Starvation and disease converged at an appropriate stopping point, and she died.
Despite that brief and clinical description, the process was emotional almost beyond telling.
HTC Each person in our family gained 5 to 10 pounds between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
As we gathered to share Mom's care, we relived our family history in food. We cooked all our favorites from years gone by. We ate everything in sight. For a while, the cooking got so good that Mom stopped starving and sampled everything we made. She even ate Polish sausage and sauerkraut with us as we commemorated our life as a family.
We were lucky. We had time together to say how good life had been, and to share a final meal.
Food was more than just something we ate.
It was our chance to say "Good-bye, Mom."
Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center in Baltimore and national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.