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Fish

The fishmonger leaned his elbows on the counter and smiled at me. He was a big, broad man in a stained white jacket. “The swordfish is very fresh,” he said. But the swordfish was twenty-four dollars a pound, and the salmon was eight. It wasn’t a tough decision. “I’ll take two pieces of salmon,” I told him, still staring at the swordfish.

The sterile fish counter at the supermarket was a far cry from the fish market in Forest Hills, where my husband’s family once lived. Somewhere between the start of dialysis and my father-in-law’s first heart attack, we started trekking down from Ithaca to Queens to see him most weekends. Our four-year-old son played with his grandfather while we shopped for dinner, taking the baby with us. Grandson and grandfather argued like sandbox rivals over every game they chose – checkers, Scrabble Jr., pinball – but both invariably wanted to repeat the same routine each time.

Jon and I walked down Austin Street, piling groceries into the stroller. Last stop was always the fish store. The market, with its sawdust-covered floor, displayed a variety of fresh fillets and shiny seafood laid out on crushed ice. There were plenty of temptations, but we were there for the swordfish.

Lester loved swordfish and so that’s what I cooked for him, every week. In retrospect, he might have liked it best because I could cook it. Gripped by the fear that undercooked fish would be the straw that broke the camel’s back, making him even sicker than he already was, I obsessively baked and broiled the swordfish. And it was still good, really good, as if some divine intervention was taking place inside the oven, ensuring that I could not destroy the fish regardless of how hard I tried. We all sat down to a real dinner as a family. When I looked at the empty seat for Jon’s mother, who had died suddenly a year before, I thought, ‘we’re trying.’ And trying was good.

Until there was no more space for trying, just a string of hospitals, a rehabilitation facility, and finally, a nursing home, where, one day, my father-in-law discontinued his dialysis. He spent the next day with my sister-in-law; we arrived later in the afternoon. He watched our toddler flick the lights in his room off and on, and listened as his now five-year-old grandson told him about his class trip to an apple orchard. An hour later, after talking on the phone to his best friend, on his own terms, he died.

That’s the thing about caring for people and watching them slip away – you never know what will bring them back to you. It could even be a piece of raw fish.

Somehow this man behind the counter understood. He placed some salmon on the scale, but then gently put it back in the case. He picked up two pieces of swordfish, wrapped them in crisp, waxed paper, slapped the salmon label on top and handed me the package. “Sometimes you should get what you want,” he said.

And I took the fish home.

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