Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “Last Meal at Whole Foods” was originally published in the July 28, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
In “Last Meal at Whole Foods,” Saïd Sayrafiezadeh has a young man tell about his mother’s approaching death. The young man is touched by his mother’s strength and also by her beauty, given that she is dying young, and given that she is not the kind of person to fall apart, even in the face of death.
Even though her doctor says that “the next few months are going to be the most challenging,” she appears to be resolute. But her son is slowly being overwhelmed.
In contrast to the short time that remains for my mother stands the long time that remains for me. This long time includes everything I must do during and after her short time.
At various places in the story, the young man who is the narrator mentions “powerlessness,” “the jumble,” “paralyzing randomness,” “defeat,” and “desolation.” I take these words out of context purposely. Thus illuminated, they outline the young man’s terrible situation, even though he tries to be understated.
Death takes people in different ways. This young man seems to have almost come to a stop. We do not hear of relatives bringing cake; we do not hear of any friends who offer relief; we do not hear of a girlfriend helping out. The silence is deafening.
Most of all, there is no husband to comfort her; there is no father to comfort him.
Given that this young man has apparently been his mother’s significant other for a long time, this death is going to be difficult. Has she also been his significant other?
This story makes a useful counterpoint to Allegra Goodman’s “Apple Cake,” which appeared a few weeks ago. Both dying women are staunch in the face of death, but in the one there is a large family fighting, and in the other (“Last Meal at Whole Foods”), there is one young man bearing the entire burden. In my experience, grief can actually take the form of inexplicable fights. It can also take the form of immobility.
The title interests me. It suggests that they have eaten at Whole Foods before. There is the wry aside that not even Whole Foods could prevent the progress of this illness, although some modern Americans have taken an almost religious interest in eating the right food. The title also suggests that this is the last time she will eat there.
Given the slight allusion to the Last Supper, the reader notices how alone they are. I am put in mind of the Rockwell painting of the family taking Thanksgiving in the diner. The reader also takes in the associated holiness of the moment — something the young man thinks about, offhandedly, along with thinking about all his other obligations: the doctors’ appointments, the necessity of finding some kind of help for these last “three” months, and how, in the end, he will have to sell the house she had managed to acquire.
As in the last supper, there is the premonition of betrayal: the doctor’s coolness; the cost of the nursing home; the absence of the head of the family — the husband/the father.
This is a beautifully written story. It reads so real that when I began writing about it I treated it as Sayrafiezadeh’s own story, and had to go back.
But I must point out, the woman’s beauty and courage make it possible to read, make it possible for us to feel the young man’s fear and sorrow, make it possible to admire her determination. Modern death is not often so easy on its prey.
I liked this story immensely. Complexity is alluded to, complications are brushed in. Sayrafiezadeh tells a unique story about a time that is three months before a death. Many of us remember the same paralysis, the same loneliness, the same struggle to make something of the very few ordinary moments that are left.
But most of us do not write about it, and if we do, most of do not have the time, or the self-discipline, to keep the writing from boiling over. “Last Meal at whole Foods” keeps it all at a simmer: memory, regret, recrimination, anger, fear, and hope. This is a story that’s delicately told.