Susan Toy is an author and publisher that lives in Bequia, a tiny island in the Caribbean. She is a tremendous supporter of her fellow writers as well as an exceptional story teller. Her award winning short story below was originally published in The White Wall Review #33. You can read more about Susan and her novel - Island in the Clouds - at www.susantoy.com
50 Ways to Lose Your Liver
The night Grandma died was a liver night, and we were all so engrossed in getting the damn meal finished and over with that, when it actually happened, we didn’t believe at first that Grandma had really left the table – in the permanent sense.
Grandma was a lifelong professional hypochondriac. I believe that, as a young girl, she may have aspired to become a doctor; so constantly proclaiming sickness at least got her into the company of doctors.
And she knew her medicine! This was long before anyone could look up symptoms online, imagining they were dying from any variety of serious
ailments. We were so used to Grandma’s constant histrionics over her health, always self-diagnosing she was about to pass away…at any moment now…that when it finally did happen, how were we to know she was actually up and dying – for real?
A few years before, when Grandpa—God rest his hen-pecked soul—died, my mother felt obliged to move the four of us—her, Dad, my younger sister, and me—into her parents’ much-larger house. Our older siblings, a sister and brother, had already moved away from home, so they were spared those years of “living with Grandma.” They still came to visit, for family dinners, birthdays, holidays, all occasions, but they didn’t have to suffer, day-to-day, listening to Grandma’s complaints about her bones, her gall bladder, her acid indigestion, her eyes, her sick headaches… My younger sister, Sally, and I would place bets with each other as to which would be the malady du jour when joining Grandma every morning at the breakfast table.
“Oh, Gotta,” she’d greet us. (She was Belgian and still spoke an accented-English sprinkled with Flemish, even after nearly sixty years of living in Canada.) “Oh, Gotta, kinder. I didn’t sleep a wink last night. It was the vater galla.”
Sally would turn to me and whisper, “Pay up!”
We never did find out exactly what the problem was with Grandma’s vater galla, or even which part of her body she was referring to, but that seemed to be the most common physical complaint she suffered from. So it was a no-brainer on my sister’s part that she usually won the bet; Sally always picked vater galla.
Grandma insisted on kissing us both before we went to school, as though that day would definitely be her last on earth. “Say goodbye to me now,” she would moan, a tear in her eye. “I might die before you come home this afternoon.” She’d spent a lifetime expecting her own demise, and as it still hadn’t happened, Sally and I would leave the house, pretty sure we’d be seeing Grandma again at the end of the school day.
Our brother was the only one who effectively put an end to her bidding him goodbye in the same manner. “Don’t worry, Grandma,” he laughed. “I just bought a new dark suit. If you do die, I have something nice to wear to your funeral.” As the only male heir, who could also escape to his downtown apartment, he got away with being disrespectful.
Mom suffered her remaining parent silently, although Sally and I could see it was wearing thin most of the time. She had been genuinely ill much of her own life, had had several operations, and a brush with cancer. But none of that ever came close to any of Grandma’s imagined problems – at least as far as Grandma was concerned.
Dad worked in an office on weekdays. Whenever he was home, he’d hide behind the newspaper, rustling its pages every once in a while, clearing his throat, denoting that, while he could hear Grandma’s complaints, he wasn’t going to pay her any attention, no sir!
So Sally, at six-years-old, and me, being ten at the time, the two youngest of the family, were still under the impression we had to at least listen to our eldest member, sympathizing with all her aches and pains.
Besides, she was so happy having an audience that she actually paid us in cold, hard cash. We quickly calculated that, for just a little bit of commiseration on our part, we would eventually become rich!
Now Mom, and Grandma, were of generations that grew up believing eating liver once a week was necessary for everyone, not only for growing children. That was a time when liver was the main guaranteed source of iron in a diet. Sally and I didn’t know enough to realize we were probably already taking in enough of the mineral from what was added to milk and boxed cereals. If we’d had any idea that was the case, we might have made more of a protest against our predictable Wednesday night meal of liver, mashed potatoes, and salad. Dad would eat anything, so there was never any point in asking for his support in our efforts to ban liver from the dinner table.
And the liver itself might not have been so bad, had Mom known how to cook it properly. She didn’t. It always had the consistency of cheap shoe leather and the taste of…well, that was the problem – it didn’t taste like anything at all that Sally and I could recognize. Since those days, I’ve heard liver referred to as a “toilet sponge,” which goes a long way to explaining that indescribable flavour.
We tried, on those dreaded Wednesday-liver-nights, to: claim we weren’t hungry; that we were too sick to eat; had already filled up on after-school snacks; or were thinking of joining a new religion that forbad the eating of liver. But excuses never worked. Mom would give us “that look,” point at our chairs and, without a single word, force us to sit and partake – quietly!
One evening, searching for a laugh, I clutched my abdomen and cried out, “I think I’m getting liver disease!”
But all that garnered was a slap across the back of my head, and Mother’s snarl of, “Quit fooling around and eat!”
Sally, her body jiggling the entire time while I suffered, tried so hard not to visibly react. At six, she had already managed to master a near-perfect poker face.
I devised a method of eating the foul meat that worked for me. Cutting off the tiniest piece possible, I’d completely coat it in mashed potatoes, then stick my fork into the white ball and shove the whole mess as far back into my mouth as I could, way past the taste buds, swallowing immediately so I didn’t need to chew.
That was okay, until Mom caught on and decided to change the vegetable portion on our plates to frozen mixed peas and carrots.
Sally had her own avoidance technique. She ate everything else on her plate first, then quickly gobbled up all the liver at once, washing it down at the end with a full glass of milk. In great satisfaction, she’d turn to me, flash a liver-eating-grin and, holding her palms up and out, would mouth “Finished,” while I still struggled with swallowing the rest of mine. But, then, being the younger of the two, she always got a much smaller portion than I did, anyway, which wasn’t fair at all.
But, thanks to my ingenious sister, after the night Grandma died, we never had to eat liver again.
Grandma was often in the habit, during dinner, of placing her cutlery on the plate and sitting back, patting her chest with one hand, while saying to no one in
particular, “Oh, Gotta!” Now that could have meant “Oh, Gotta, the food is good,” or “Oh, Gotta, my indigestion is acting up,” or “Oh, Gotta, the vater galla.” That evening though, I seem to remember her saying, “Oh, Gotta, it’s the liver,” before her head fell to one side, her eyes still open. We all kept eating.
Mom looked over at Grandma first. “Ma, what’s the matter?” She reached out and put a hand on Grandma’s arm, which made Grandma slump over immediately, her face falling forward to rest in the plate of unfinished liver on the table in front of her.
Slapping a hand across my mouth, I stifled an involuntary laugh. Mom began screaming, which started Sally crying, and Dad tried to calm everyone down. I pushed my own plate away and jumped up from the chair, not sure what to do next.
Dad checked for a pulse and, yep, sure enough, Grandma had kicked the bucket. All those years of expecting it would happen at any moment, then when it did so—and suddenly, as predicted—we hadn’t had enough time to properly say goodbye.
Dad phoned for an ambulance. Mom, after pulling a used tissue out of her sweater sleeve, tried to spit-clean the grease and food residue from her mother’s face. Sally was still sitting at the table, next to our now-deceased Grandma, crying.
“Joanie, look after your sister, will you?” Mom said, while silent tears streamed down her own face.
I helped Sally up from her chair and led her into the living room. “Let’s go upstairs,” I whispered.
But she shook her head in a defiant No! sitting down on the couch where she had an unobstructed view of the dining room, and of Mom and Grandma.
Within ten minutes we heard the siren. Dad opened the front door and ushered the paramedics into the dining room where they quickly confirmed that Grandma was indeed dead. They set out the stretcher and loaded her body on it, covering her face with a sheet. As they lifted, and were about to carry the woman out of her own house for the very last time, Sally jumped up from the couch and cried out, “Mommy killed Grandma! It was the liver!”
The attendants exchanged a look and rested Grandma back on the floor again. The older of the two said to my parents, “We need to call the police. If there’s any suggestion of wrong-doing in a death, the police need to investigate.” He radioed dispatch and requested police assistance as Mom and Dad flashed each other worried glances.
In the meantime, Dad attempted to console Sally, who was wailing by that time. Mom stood beside the dining room table, silent in her grief, but also glaring in disbelief at her youngest baby who had fingered her for the murder of her own mother.
Once the police arrived, they quickly straightened out the facts of what had happened.
Dad tried smoothing things over. “Out of the mouths of babes… heh, heh,” he nervously declared.
The policewoman said, “I’m sorry, sir, but there will likely need to be an inquest. That is, unless the cause of death can immediately be determined by a doctor.
We’ll accompany you to the hospital, ma’am.” She held a hand out to guide Mom towards the front door, but waited while Mom took her coat out of the front hall closet, and grabbed her purse, along with Grandma’s, from the kitchen table.
“I’ll call you when we get to the hospital,” Mom said to Dad, walking out the front door, accompanied by the policewoman, and following behind the paramedics who carried Grandma on the stretcher.
In the end, it was decided that Mom’s cooked liver hadn’t killed Grandma after all; Grandma’s heart had just finally given out. Sally and I claimed her heart probably couldn’t take any more of those weekly feedings of liver, and we were surprised the rest of us hadn’t succumbed to heart attacks long before that night.
We knew enough, though, not to say anything of the like out loud to our mother; after that night, it was understood – the entire subject of liver was forbidden in our family.
The following week, once Grandma’s funeral service and burial were over and done with (our brother looking very handsome in his new suit, by the way), Sally and I were overjoyed to discover that pork chops would replace liver on the Wednesday menu from that night forward.
We smiled across the table at each other that first night as Mom placed the plates in front of us. I gave Sally a two-thumbs-up, just above the edge of the table, and out of Mom and Dad’s sight.
Sally winked at me while mouthing the words Pay up! before tucking into her food.
Please join me next week when one of my regular guests, Lockie Young, shares another of his entertaining short stories, always a treat.
I am publishing a series of short stories which will be dedicated to my three wonderful grandchildren.
SHORTS Vol.1 is for the oldest, Matthieu Isaac Young.
Available at www.amazon.com.