A Bittersweet Ending; Plus Coca-Cola Cake Recipe

The cake was sweet, but the occasion—a daughter cooking for her failing father—was not

by Jan Barker
coca cola cake recipe image
Coca-Cola Cake: Seriously sweet and easy to make, this dessert is a family legacy that links the generations.
Photograph: Christopher Testani

So Dad started cooking for selfish reasons; he was tired of charred Frito Pie. Dad was a pharmacist by trade, and his chemistry know-how came in handy. His sauces were emulsified, his sautéed onions caramelized, his salmon perfectly seared. Mom, the first to recognize her shortcomings, was happy to turn over the reins.

Now when we cook together, Dad can relive his childhood, and I can remake mine. My father knows that producing beautiful meals is one of my ways of ensuring that despite divorce, my children have a warm and loving home. As I watch him now, digging into his pasta with gusto, I know that in the kitchen, I earn his respect.

“I need to leave room for dessert,” Dad says, pushing his salad away while reaching for more garlic bread. He has stage 4 prostate cancer but is convinced he is going to beat it. He survived a childhood in Depression-era Alabama, where his family was so poor, he swears his grandmother sifted the dirt on the floor for salt. Cancer? “No problem,” he says. “I’m going to whip the fool out of this thing.” I believe him, too. As he devours his food, he doesn’t look like a dying man to me.

“He must be wasting away,” a friend says when I recount the litany of illnesses he is suffering from. In addition to cancer, my father has congestive heart failure, congenital lung disease and only one functioning kidney.

“Nope, not Dad,” I reply. “The man loves to eat.” When one of his children isn’t there to monitor meals, his caregiver feeds him a steady diet of red meat, processed foods and ice cream, all, he insists, doctor approved.

Six months later, I am back in Wyoming looking at a man I grew up thinking was a cross between John Wayne and James Bond. But this time, he isn’t wearing his cowboy boots or shooting clay targets or telling tall tales with his buddies. Instead, he is wadded up in his recliner with an oxygen tube in his nose, his skin as gray as the ashes from the cigars he used to smoke. The table beside him is cluttered with pill bottles, crumpled paper towels, empty water glasses and the Wall Street Journal.

“What have you been eating, Dad?” I ask. “A little Jell-O,” he mumbles. “Chocolate Ensure.” Jell-O and Ensure? This I can’t digest. Dad has been telling all of us that he is fine, that the chemo is working. This is a man who used to blow snakes’ heads off with a shotgun when they slithered into our backyard in Texas, then chop the bodies with a hoe for good measure. Now he can’t stand up on his own.

He perks up a bit, though, happy for my company, and we spend the rest of the afternoon remembering old times. I regale his caregiver with stories about growing up in small-town Texas and working in our family pharmacy—the time old man Stephens got locked in the store overnight, the asphidity we sold to people to keep away the “evil spirits,” Miss Louise and the way she used to run her tongue around that strawberry ice cream cone.

“We had a lot of fun, Jannie,” Dad says, laughing. “But we didn’t know it at the time.”

“Well, we know it now, Dad,” I tell him, “and that’s all that matters.”

Then, because it’s what we’ve always done, I cook a feast for him—chicken stuffed with goat cheese and dried cherries, oven-roasted asparagus and his mother’s chocolate Coca-Cola cake, a recipe so delicious that when I make it for my children, they eat it straight out of the pan with a spoon.

But Dad eats almost nothing. He is exhausted. I sit across from him, choking down my food, hoping against hope that the love I have poured into our dinner will magically cure him, even if I am the only one eating. Fat tears fall onto my plate as I watch him doze in and out of consciousness. For the first time, food can’t heal either one of us.

“You don’t understand, Jannie,” he says when I wave the cocoa-scented cake under his nose in an attempt to entice him. “Nothing matters.”

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