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I wake early from a restless sleep and decide to make shepherd’s pie. The grocery store is down the street but I arrive before it opens.
It’s Halloween, the week when the local elementary school holds a painting contest like an extended gallery in the store windows of our town. The A&P grocery store sits between a flower shop and a hair salon. From my car, I see a blue ribbon in the salon window, “First Place” for a lopsided jack-o’-lantern with crooked teeth.
The store opens and I wander the aisles, trying to remember what I’ve come for. I lock eyes with an older man at the register. He smiles as I place items on the conveyor belt. We nod at one another and he slides two paper bags my way. I feel the urge to confide in him, instead I mumble a thank you and head to my car.
The call lights up on my cell phone the night before. I motion to Jack, my husband, that I’ll take it upstairs. I close the bedroom door and sit down. Mom rarely calls me after dinner.
“Hey,” she says softly.
“Hey yourself,” I whisper back, swallowing hard.
“So, uh, don’t worry,” she says, not finishing.
“Mom,” I mumble, “the scan?”
“Tumour,” Mom pauses, “brain.”
No matter how many times I play it back in my head, I can’t remember what I said.
Shepherd’s pie was the comfort food of my childhood, what my mother cooked when I was young. The morning after she called, I woke up with an image of her recipe, steam rising from the edges of a casserole dish in the centre of the dinner table.
Back in my kitchen, I turn the stove to low allowing time for the meat to simmer. The sirloin begins to brown, bubbling into a gravy that gathers in the corners of the pan. I scrape the sides and pile the ground beef in the centre of the skillet, mixing in chopped garlic and a dash of steak sauce.
The scan reveals an inoperable tumour, tucked away in a part of the brain thatcan’t be reached the doctor explains. He’s almost certain that any attempt at removal would result in paralysis or loss of speech. My mother is seventy-five. His recommendation is for immunotherapy and radiation.
I drain the meat and scatter it evenly along the bottom of the baking dish. The peas and carrots I’d cooked earlier become the next layer. I take my time with the mashed potatoes, the best part, Mom always said. I add butter and a touch of milk, turning the heat up under the saucepan and dipping my finger in for a taste. Next, I mix in the shredded cheese, my mother’s special ingredient, and spread the whipped potatoes on top in a wave-like pattern that looks like frosting on a cake. I place our shepherd’s pie in the oven at 350 degrees, wiping my hands on a dishtowel and setting the timer for thirty minutes.
I can be at Mom’s by early afternoon.
My name is Cathleen Daly and I live in Nashville, TN. I'm a writer, mother and wife. I recently had two pieces published in the 2022 Generations Issue of Motherscope Journal. I'm in the process of completing a memoir about my mother, who passed away in 2018. My hobbies include reading, hiking and travel.