Saïd Sayrafiezadeh: “Last Meal at Whole Foods”

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.

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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.

18 thoughts on “Saïd Sayrafiezadeh: “Last Meal at Whole Foods””

  1. Updated with Betsy’s thoughts.

  2. This story comes at a strangely appropriate time in my life. I wanted to like it, but I came away feeling like I had just witnessed a very competent and apt performance from a skilled dancer. All of the expected steps were there, all executed with clear and wonderful technical prowess, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something missing. I suppose even though the main character’s mother is dying, there is an absence of real tension or conflict. Life seems to unfold so smoothly from one event to the next. There’s no fretting over the cost of the nursing home, of insurance–they own their family home, and it will be sold once she dies. There just seems to be an abundance of easiness in the way they go about life. Maybe that’s it. Maybe I feel discomfortable about their level of financial comfort that I’m left wondering about the immensity that is the sheer financial burden of taking care of someone who is terminally ill. I could get over that if not for the fact that the mother’s illness is giving a similar treatment. She gets the status of the ill, but she seems to bear none of its burden. Yes, the narrator frets over the inevitable existential questions about what will happen once she is gone, but the woman herself, the body itself, which we must surely observe if we are to inhabit the character’s mind, bears no outward manifestation of the illness. It does not mar her. It does not stain her. She is a little sleepy, and ‘maybe’ that’s a outward manifestation of her illness, maybe! This amounts to a kind of “first-world problems” version of illness and dying, which is compounded by her beauty. If her beauty were enhanced by her illness, if there were some drawing from the bone, some untethering of her beauty by imminent death, then I could understand, but what we have here is a pair of people who seemingly haven’t a care in the world except that one of them is dying very slowly–though we have to take their word for it since there’s no actual proof.

    It read nicely, but I don’t buy it. It didn’t feel authentic.

  3. Betsy Pelz says:

    Brandon, when you say that you couldn’t shake the feeling that there is something missing, To me, you have perfectly described what is going on.

    I was struck by the young man’s immobility, his paralysis. The son feels like he is the one who has already died. To me, this story is less about the mother’s death than it is about a family system where something is missing. This is a family system where parent and child are more like husband and wife. The son’s paralysis is something that has happened long ago. Sons were not meant to be their mother’s husband. Somehow, a part of the son is missing, a part of his maturation. But too, some people react to a prolonged death by becoming more and more frozen.

    In addition, he feels like a child who feels abandoned. He is not able to care for his mother – notice, I think, that he doesn’t touch her. He has withdrawn from her, like a sulky husband who is no longer the center of his wife’s attentions.

    Your thoughts bring us back to the present – that there is something missing in this death experience. The pain! The terrible pain.

    The finances of death – I agree. That he is able to manage the cost so easily – that seems too easy. He seems unable to tell us straight out that he can manage it – but cannot manage to have her die in his home. He admits that the place he puts her is like a coffin.

    The toll a long death takes on the body appears to be missing – I agree. A death from cancer can reduce a once beautiful woman to 70 pounds. What is the illness that is killing this woman that she will still be beautiful when she dies? His delicacy in not identifying the illness feels part of his frozen nature.

    I agree – this death and this sorrow doesn’t match up with the death from cancer that I watched. But one thing does feel authentic to me. The death from cancer that I witnessed was so horrible that, looking back, parts of me were frozen.

    You point out to me, though, that possibly I have gotten too caught up in the take that this is really a story about a family system gone awry.

  4. Your take about the family system having gone awry and this kind of malaise arising from that dysfunction functioning as an illness of sorts is pretty spectacular. I definitely see that, and it enhances my appreciation for the story.

    However, I find myself unable to give in to that conceit completely. It doesn’t bear enough weight to support an entire story. It feels reductive, in a sense, not penetrating enough. To me, that’s a story dealing with surfaces. It calls to mind a story that Sayrafiezadeh read for the New Yorker Fiction Podcast: Thomas Beller’s “A Different Kind of Imperfection”. In that story, a son and a mother have effectively become each other’s significant other. The father died many years previously of cancer, and his death still echoes through both their apartment and their cores as individuals. This story appears to be heavily influenced by that story. However, the Beller story sank deeper and got at more of the meat of the matter, of grief, of longing, of memory.

    On the surface, this story functions wonderfully as a hall of shifting mirrors. All of these delicate, paper-thin moments peeling away to reveal another, equally delicate membrane below. It’s only when I examine it closer that I find myself still missing something. I think this story is unresolved–and I do not mean in the lyrical, literary sort of way, where death leaves us all unresolved and how every life is a life left unfinished in the moment of death, but in a technical sense. The tension is gone. Even the character’s fretting over his mother’s death feels trapped to the surface, and I understand how this works on the level of portraying grief for the paralytic that it is, but wouldn’t the story have transcended merely capturing life as it really happens if he had forced the character to deal with the oncoming truth in a more visceral way? When I first started reading the story, I thought we would pitch higher and higher until eventually the thin, artifices of modern life gave way and we were thrown head-long into some genuine moment of overwhelming pain or hurt. But we didn’t. This story had a different, a gentler trajectory.

    I think you are dead on about the character’s delicacy is gorgeous and wonderfully portrayed. It’s the author’s delicacy that is at the root of most of my qualms. Where the character is frozen–and understandably so–the author, I think, can be brave, can be bold, can push the story into more painful places. But here, it feels like that didn’t happen. Here, it seems that the story followed the character’s wishes too closely, as if the author were afraid to test him, to pain him.

  5. Betsy Pelz says:

    Brandon, that’s interesting — that Sayrafiezadeh read a story on the New Yorker fiction Podcast in which, as you say, “a son and a mother have effectively become each other’s significant other”. (Thomas Beller: “A Different Kind of Imperfection”)

    Thank you for that and also your good discussion of the “delicate, paper-thin moments” that comprise this story. All of your remarks make me wonder if the author, too, had in mind a longer work – one in which the main character is finally pitched into a situation where his feelings must come to the surface..

    But it sounds like this writer’s methods are not your cup of tea. I don’t disagree with that at all.

    “Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir” by David Rieff, tells the son’s story of Susan Sontag’s death, but my quick read of the blurbs on Amazon suggest to me that this is a somewhat problematical, celebrity book. Goodreads, as it happens, maintains a page entitled ‘Cancer Booklists.”. I am reminded of “One True Thing”, the novel by Anna Quindlen, and the unflinching movie protrayal of that dying woman by Meryl Streep. The movie certainly captured some of the storm that such a death can cause in everyone affected. Quindlen deals with the anger, for one thing.

    I happened upon Mookse and Gripes because of a story by Jim Gavin entitled “Costello”. It was about a man whose wife had died of cancer and he was having difficulty getting going, climbing out of the grief. One sentence in it hooked me: Costello says something like “The thing that died in that bed was not you.” I understood that sentence. The rest of that story is about how Costello grieved, and I thought it was terrific, partly because Costello seemed like a guy I might know.

    But I wonder if Sayrafiezadeh is purposely exploring the very thing that makes us so uncomfortable in his story- the distance some people employ to survive pain, not to mention the distance some people employ to survive parent child relationships that are both lonely and overwhelming.

  6. Betsy: Your last paragraph is a beautiful summation of my experiences with grief. I’m currently in the midst such a thing! Difficult relationships do make for complicated grieving. I think that this character and his mother had a complicated relationship–due to the factors you pointed out earlier, where the mother-son relationship acquires dimensions of a more spousal relationship–but I wonder to what degree things were made difficult by this. I’m left wondering about the overall facile nature of their relationship. Things seem to run down the mother’s back. She takes things in stride. I appreciated the scene where the mother unfurled blueprints, where she unfurled all of her dashed dreams and looked on them not with self-pity but a gleaming kind of anticipation. She appears to me very strong (I would have loved to see her actually elbows-deep in the restoration of that fireplace!) and very capable. It’s only in the son’s grief that she takes on this unvarnished, polished surface of perfection, almost like those stone angels you mark graves with. It’s the son who to me seems emotionally, physically neuter (Which very well could be a product of his emotional incapacitation). If their relationship was difficult, it seems that all of that has been forgiven now that she is dying. Which is a shame, because I think it might have lent a bit more tension to the story.

    As an interrogation of our relationship with grief, I think this story partially succeeds. It certainly sets the pieces up, and puts the characters through a wonderfully choreographed dance of courtship, courting both each other and death and still yet the courting of a life beyond death, but we never see that courtship come to fruition. We know that, given enough time, the mother will die, and the courtship between the son and the mother will end, at least physically. But the present isn’t where he keeps the true image of her alive anyway. In many ways, she only comes alive in his memory. That’s where she’s fully realized as a person, always in the echo, the ghost of herself. When he is with her in the present, she is diminished in some sense to nothing more than a beautiful husk with a voracious appetite. But in his memories, she is strong, capable, and sharp. However, in the story, he is also simultaneously courting a life without her. He is courting that far-near future where she’ll die, and he’ll sell the house, and move on, try to move on. But we don’t really glimpse that. Short stories take a moment in time, in existence. They function as snapshots, so I understand that the form constrains him to take a moment and draw from it as many parallels as he can. But still, he doesn’t tie things off neatly, I don’t think. I can’t help but to wonder what the conclusion is, though maybe that unresolved echo is just what he was after. The haunting, uncompleted call, where you aren’t sure if it was your name or something else. It’s that uncertainty, and that frustrated innate desire to complete the pattern that do create a kind of meta-tension here.

    I would certainly read a longer work with this as a nucleus. I’m curious about how this gets resolved, haha. Thank you for those recommendations! I’ll add them to my TBR list immediately. Also, thank you for the wonderful discussion. It has certainly given me many more insights into this story!

  7. Betsy Pelz says:

    It’s important that we acknowledge that Said Sayrafiezadeh’s mother died suddenly, not long ago, in a somewhat similar fashion.

    He talks about this here (http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/week-fiction-sad-sayrafiezadeh).

    We all mourn in our own ways. If we know the death is coming, we all mourn the coming death in our own ways.

    Death is such a violent event that quietness is, for some of us, a heroic response.

  8. Roger says:

    I, too, am of the view that this story was well-written at the technical level but didn’t do much dramatically. I’m not unsentimental enough to have been completely unmoved by it. And the page does come to life when the narrator goes on the tour of the assisted living facility. But otherwise, this struck me as stagnant and more or less formulaic.

    A big part of the problem is that the plot, or situation, is so commonly found in literary fiction, including in the New Yorker, and including in the recent story “Apple Cake,” as Betsy points out. Indeed, it’s found ad nauseum in genre writing, movies, and television. When a writer writes a story about a family member dying, he is writing into a very large and crowded context. I don’t think this story does much to distinguish itself from the countless others it crowds in among. The mother’s relative youth and beauty are novel elements, but to what end?

    The first line comes close to self-parody: “I’m having dinner at the Whole Foods on Center Boulevard with my mother, who is dying.” It is as if the writer is saying, or warning (which upon reflection is kind): “I’m going to tell you a story about a dying mother. It will be like other such stories you’ve read.” It is a line that would serve nicely as an illustrative sentence under the dictionary definition of “melodrama.”

  9. Betsy Pelz says:

    Sayrafiezadeh has also written a well-reviewed memoir of his childhood: “When Skateboards will be Free”. In this book, he reveals that although he has two older siblings, they grew up with his father. Sayrafiezadeh apparently grew up a solitary kid in the care of his mother. The isolation was deepened by his mother’s politics (she was a member of the Socialist Workers Party) and by her poverty.

    As I mentioned above, Sayrafiezadeh’s mother died a couple of years ago. “Last Meal at Whole Foods” thus appears to be a mix of memoir and fiction. A writer can create his work as he pleases. As a reader, though, I notice I view fiction and memoir differently. The unheroic nature of this character’s encounter with his mother’s death reads one way as memoir and another as fiction.

    The blurred line between memoir and fiction puzzles me. Perhaps that jis ust me – that I react one way to fiction and another to memoir.
    Obviously – all authors use their lives to fuel their writing. War, love, death, friendship – these must come out of the author’s own experience. Still – here’s the thing – I feel at ease having opinions about fictional characters. I feel ill at ease judging what is someone’s life.

    Because Sayrafiezadeh has written a successful memoir, it makes me wonder if the memoir will have another installment in which he does talk about his mother’s death. I wonder if this story is one take, a preliminary take, and if there will be another take, later.

  10. juliemcl says:

    Hi Betsy, I may be wrong about this, but I don’t think the author’s mother has actually died (unless she has done so after the Q&A was done); he says his own mother “beat the odds and the lymphoma went into remission” but just that the “spectre of her death transformed itself into [this] story.”. He also details how “not long ago” he played Scrabble with her, but does not explicitly mention her dying since then. Was there another source you gleaned this information from? I’m interested to know. I do agree with you that much of the story seems drawn from his own life based on some of the other things I’ve read by him around the web.

    I really liked this story, although, as they did Brandon above, the financial details bothered me. The narrator grew up poor enough to shop for dishes that smelled like mothballs at the Goodwill, yet now his librarian mother has restored a fireplace “at great expense” and he is able to afford a $4,045 a month room for his mom? Who has that kind of money? Not many people. Something’s been left out that maybe could have been explained efficiently enough. Anyway, a loose end.

    But aside from that, I thought it was a great and subtle meditation on the frivolous vs. the serious in our lives. A few years ago I had just been laid off from a job I had had for nearly 10 years; that summer I got really into baseball. I didn’t want to do much else except watch baseball. I would watch any team, though I had (and still have) a soft spot for the perennially underdog Cubs. (Betsy, you nailed it on the head when you mentioned paralysis and immobility above.). Look at how the world kind of stopped for the recent World Cup too, even with all that was going on in Ukraine, Iraq, etc. When you are watching a sporting event, you and all the other spectators are kind of collectively agreeing that the outside world doesn’t exist, or has stopped, that this thing’s outcome has a bearing, is important. I notice when the TV is on SportsCenter or something like that, it’s its own little enclosed world, with nothing but talk of the little details of these millionaires’ lives. Nothing else can penetrate.

    But even before we get to the end of the story with it’s sports-centered focus, the author has seeded it with juxtapositions of the frivolous vs. the serious. The serious is always, first and foremost, illness and death – what will come before and after – but also poverty, his abandonment by his father, he and his mother’s persistent sense of yearning (“something more we wanted, something more we were just about to get, something that was going to turn our situation around once and for all”). The frivolous includes:

    What they are eating at Whole Foods (“broccoli cake and something or other, as if any of this mattered”)
    His own sustenance (“the least of my concerns”)
    The gentrification of Center Boulevard (“When the boulevard crumbles and returns to its genuine self, Goodwill will be the last man standing”)
    The playing of Scrabble (“in order to pass some of our precious time”)
    The pretty view from the assisted-living facility (“superfluous and ostentatious”)

    I think in our lives we always have this push and pull but it only becomes starker when death is in the picture. When we watch sports, we can forget about it all and make it the only thing that matters, which is why I think it has so important a place in many peoples’ lives (even if only for a short time). Sports make the world seem simpler and just, contained. It’s also kind of a religion, or that is to say, people can get religious, ritualistic about it, as shown in the story. As Betsy says, there are many allusions to holiness/religiosity in the story. When the guy who runs the facility is trying to convince the narrator to watch the pre-season game, the narrator says “…deep down we all want to be believers.”

    I think it’s kind of funny that the narrator can’t even get away from “violence, desperation, desolation” when he takes his mother to see a movie that he thought would be “simple-minded storytelling with a happy ending.”. Sayrafiezadeh says in the Q&A that he finds his writing funnier than others do and when he asks his wife about it she points out that what he thought was funny is really quite sad. But I think sense of humor may get a little warped when trauma’s been part of the picture. Anyway, I can get with that type of wry humor.

  11. juliemcl says:

    I just want to add: I read a NY Times review of Sayrafiezadeh’s memoir that Betsy mentions (‘When Skateboards Will Be Free’) which wraps up with a quote from the book, referring to his parents and their friends in the Socialist Workers Party: “There was something attractive, alluring, about being in the presence of men and women who had committed their lives to uncovering the hidden, unspoken secrets of the world.”

    That’s exactly why I love short stories; that’s what I feel we have to do with them – uncover the words & feelings & structures behind the words. Mi really love that.

  12. Betsy Pelz says:

    Thank you, Julie – I did seriously misread Sayrafiezadeh’s interview with Cressida Leyshon. (http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/week-fiction-sad-sayrafiezadeh) His mother did have cancer, but she survived.

    In the interview, , Sayrafiezadeh says clearly “It can be traced back to my own mother and her sudden diagnosis of lymphoma two years ago. She was given four months to live if she didn’t begin chemotherapy immediately, and even then she only had a fifty per cent chance of surviving. I flew to Pittsburgh and found an assisted-living facility—in twenty-four hours—that could provide respite care for her. Amazingly, she beat the odds, and the lymphoma went into remission, ”

    Also, a great riff from you on crisis and the way sports relieve the pain. .

  13. Greg says:

    WOW Julie, once again you have added to my enjoyment of the story!

    Your explanation of how some of us use sports as an escape is brilliant! It makes me wonder though whether it is better to face things straight on? Hmm….

    Also, I share your reason for loving short stories. There is so much of life to be learned from them!

  14. juliemcl says:

    Hi Greg,

    Thanks for your kind words.

    Yes, it’s definitely better to face things straight on, but speaking as someone who’s M.O. unchecked is “avoid, avoid, avoid at all costs,” I know it’s sometimes comforting to settle in with a game for a few hours (or even, hey, a short story in the New Yorker) and think “oh, I’ll deal with all that stuff later.”. Except with short stories, you start thinking about all this stuff, and life returns!

  15. Greg says:

    Hi Julie,

    I agree with your seeing literature as a form of escape. It reminds me of this quote from Nietzsche:

    “We have art so that we may not perish by the truth.”

  16. Ken says:

    I would agree with Brandon and Betsy that the story and narrator do seem a bit distanced, but I kind of thought that this made for a contrast with the deeply sad story that is being told. As if too much sorrow would be too much sadness (to sort of quote Neil Young). I also think the distanced quality is because it strikes me as typical of how a writer might discuss something so personal–to always be thinking about the future (when one will look back on all this) and trying to have perfect moments (which reminded me of the quest in Greg Jackson’s story last week). This seems like a writerly way of dealing with things–to always step back. I also, per Julie, enjoyed the contrast between the trivial stuff which takes up our lives–sports, food–and the monumental issues. I thought this, and the other theme of trying to perfectly live and experience and to properly memorialize and create memories, made for a rich, satisfying story even if, granted, it’s not the first story with this subject matter.

  17. Peggy Kaplan says:

    I thought this was one of the most emotionally-powerful short stories I have read in The New Yorker over the last few years. The tone (supressed emotion?) was perfect. I appreciate the discussion as Brandon’s criticism clarified why I liked it so much in contrast to what he would have preferred. Peggy

  18. Peggy Kaplan says:

    typo correction: suppressed

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