By Janine Kovac
In 2009 my father-in-law was diagnosed with a rare and stubborn form of cancer. After several surgeries and two years of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, the painful decision was made for him to enter into hospice care. For five weeks my husband and his siblings took turns flying back to their hometown where they kept vigil with their mother and took care of their father. They moved furniture and medical equipment, took notes at doctors’ visits, and fielded calls from friends and neighbors.
The hospice nurse, who dropped in once a day to check on their father, clarified the dosages of morphine and described which signs to look for in the final weeks. His last piece of advice for my father-in-law was, “Make sure you eat dinner as a family. Even if you just sit there and don’t eat anything. It’s the most important thing you can do for morale.”
A few weeks later, my father-in-law passed away.
The next day, we gathered at my husband’s childhood house: his siblings, their spouses, their mother. We spent the first day cleaning, getting rid of medical supplies no longer needed, preparing the house for guests, assembling photos, drafting the eulogy, fielding telephone calls, writing thank-you notes. Sometime in the early evening a neighbor stopped by with a meal. We put down our pens and our brooms and shifted into the common space of the dinner routine, moving within the silence of a common goal.
One brother counted out the silverware we’d need. My sister-in-law folded napkins as my husband retrieved the extra chairs from the guest room. Places were set. Food was heated. It was like a well-oiled machine: eight people repeating our nightly ritual, one we had participated in as children in our respective homes, one we repeated with our own children.
We said grace; we remembered the one who was with us only in spirit. My brother-in-law recounted their father’s last dinner conversation (discussing a recent Wall Street Journal article about dinosaur flatulence). We laughed and sighed and dabbed our eyes. The easy tone of the conversation contrasted with the weight of losing a loved one, the way you feel after a day of swimming: alert but exhausted. After dinner we cleared the table and washed the dishes, concluding the ritual.
It was calming and connecting — like meditating without even trying.
The next day the “real” rituals began: the memorial service at the funeral home, the funeral Mass at the parish, the burial at the cemetery, a lunch hosted by the church, and a final gathering for family. The list of tasks grew. There were maps to print and relatives to retrieve from the airport. There were more thank-you notes to write and more phone calls to answer. It was overwhelming and emotionally taxing. Even writing about it makes me feel drained.
But then I remember that dinner — the ding of the microwave, the shuffling sounds of drawers opening and closing, the light bwap of kitchen cabinets shutting, and the whoosh of the sliding glass door as we set the table on the patio. And as we ate: the deep sighs, the heartfelt laughter, the sniffles and tears. What a strong circle we made around that table. Not because we were trying to build morale or strengthen our family connections. Just because it was dinnertime. And that’s what we do in our family. We have dinner together.