Chocolate ice cream for dinner

My dad’s final meal was a small cup of chocolate ice cream.

Thinking about that makes me smile. 

He was 88 years old and in the end stages of dementia. He hadn’t whispered more than a couple words in weeks. He could no longer walk or feed himself. The hard-working, complex and devoted family man who raised me no longer even looked up when I entered the room.

I ended up crying in the car after most visits to Cedar Crest, where they took more loving care of him than I could have ever done. After two years of watching his body and mind fail, it was hard to remember who my dad was.

Except for the chocolate … that was Dad, through and through.

We moved him to Janesville five years ago, after my mother died, because he was struggling with depression and isolation. That meant leaving the town he had lived in for over 60 years. It was hard on both of us. But it gave us Sunday night dinner.

Richard would prepare something we knew Dad would like — he was a steak and potatoes kind of guy. I would have a cocktail waiting for him on the front porch. We would have a cake from a local bakery ready for dessert. 

The drink was always “much too strong,” but he was the first to finish it. He would always be stuffed at dinner and the first to scrape the plate of his “too big” dessert. We’d sit for a while after, chatting about the week or listening to old Navy stories. Then he would get in his rusted Sebring convertible and tip us a little wave as he drove away

At the visitation, I heard about how my parents always drove from Mt. Horeb to Verona to get Michael’s Custard cones on the day their Social Security checks arrived. My niece-in-law told me the story about a trip to Florida with my family where my dad ordered chocolate cake for dinner. She laughed about how shocked she was that people could do that.

I thought about the tough time when Dad was hospitalized for depression and how Richard brought him a Culver’s chocolate peanut-butter shake over his lunch hour every day. How Dad grabbed the fork from me when I was feeding him dessert to let me know I’d missed a spot of chocolate sauce.

To me, it seemed like my dad was already gone. It was in the last days of his life that I realized he was still there beneath the fog of dementia. He was there through the food he loved. The food that brought him comfort. 

He died at Agrace HospiceCare’s inpatient unit in Janesville while I was waiting at the gate in Milwaukee for my nephew Sam’s plane to land. We thought we had at least another day. I was sitting there when I got a call that started with, “Are you driving?” That’s rarely a good sign.

My dad's timing was quintessentially his style as he would never stand in the way of a good meal. We were hosting our first event at Lark that night, the BBQ & Bourbon Dinner. Sam’s brother, Andy, was already in Wisconsin for a pre-planned visit when Dad got sick. Unexpectedly, we found ourselves sitting at the bar, enjoying each other’s company, sharing stories of Grandpa, and marveling that it was the first time we had all been together in over six years. 

My dad never got to see Lark. Honestly, the food would probably have been too exotic for him. But I think he would have finished his drink and dessert. 

Those are the two most important parts of the meal anyway.

Thanks to the wonderful staff at Agrace and Cedar Crest for taking such good care of my dad and my family.  


Joan Neeno