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24 February, 2015


Every few weeks, school starts late, and I have the joy of an extra couple of hours with my youngest kid. For a while now, we've been using that time to head downtown to Darby's for breakfast; it's happened enough that we could call it a Tradition if we wanted. It's a luxury, having this extra time, and being able to spend it sharing coffee (she mostly warms her hands with it, but usually also sneaks a sip) and eating pancakes is a treasure I will not trade for anything.

Sometimes on weekends, we pry her older sister out of bed and head downtown to the diner. Or maybe it's not until afternoon, but that's no problem, because like any real diner, you can order breakfast all day. One time, the music was some rap about pancakes, and we could hear the cooks talking about pancakes (sorry to be repetitive about pancakes, but me and the girls tend to be selective with our terms, and cannot abide flapjacks, hotcakes, and especially flannel-cakes). One of them said, "I guess I eat a pancake about every damn day!" We cracked up, and repeat that phrase often, if not every damn day. Beneath the laughter, we all recognize a purity in the boast: the guy really enjoys having a pancake every day. A humble pancake sticking to your ribs gives you strength to face whatever the day throws at you.

Even a short stack can be too much for a kid, and sometimes there are leftovers. She works her way through methodically, cutting enough to eat and saving the rest of the disk, so there will be a substantial something instead of a pile of syrupy pieces. Usually, the dog is the beneficiary. Only recently, DNA analysis showed that a key difference between domesticated dogs and their wolfy cousins is that dogs can digest carbohydrates, and our hound excels. She gets a stale pancake and prances around for a while, showing off to those crows who sometimes taunt her that she has a delicious pancake, before settling down and gobbling it up.

Sometimes, I cook the pancakes. After years of messing with recipes and bisquick versions, I found a local pancake mix that does the trick best. These days, the youngest daughter mixes it, then I come along to knock out a few more lumps, and we let the batter rest while the skillet heats up. Cast iron is the only acceptable surface for me. Some of my earliest memories are of the thin blue smoke that my grand-dad let rise before flipping. Then watching my dad, him teaching me that watching the bubbles pop led to browned perfection without grand-dads carbonized edging. Dad cooked on an 11.25-inch Griswold skillet that family lore (or at least my recollection) says was given to him when he went away to grad school. With this classic American iron, he could cook anything the lone male physics student was apt to eat (all three meals). I have that skillet now, and continue to cook all kinds of stuff in it, sometimes to the chagrin of my kids...except when it's a pancake day.

For some reason, my recollections (not yet lore) of Dad's last few days focus on pancakes missed. He had a terminal illness--refusing to knuckle under to the "terminal" label for a couple years already--and was having such a hard time we'd scheduled a doctor visit. After some listening to lungs and flipping through charts, the doctor sat down with Dad, Mom, and me, and explained that Dad needed to be admitted to the hospital. I knew, and I think Dad did too, that the unspoken end of that sentence was "to die."

It was mid-morning now, and Dad said he was hungry. Stupidly, I sought permission go out to eat before going in to the hospital. I should have just taken him. But the message from the nurse was something like, "Now, you know we can't let you do that." That special gentle condescension that transforms dead men walking into incompetent children had already kicked in. I should have nodded, walked him out, turned the other way, and escaped to a stack of pancakes, but Mom was also worried about what might happen and still believing that after a day or two of hospitalization, we'd go out for breakfast. I didn't want to take that from her, and besides Dad probably wanted to believe in that too.

Instead of dropping dead over pancakes, he died in a bed surrounded by machines, stuck full of tubes. My aunt did smuggle in one of his favorite meals before the end, but we never got that last moment of freedom, that last stack of pancakes.That that's my big regret is a blessing, but I still wish I'd whisked my parents away and met my sister for a Last Breakfast.

So, on those late-start days, I'll be sitting at a table with my kid, looking out at the street-scape shenanigans of making silverware sculptures while was await the pancakes. Falling behind a little on work doesn't matter. Eating carbs I don't need is not as unhealthy as missing time with my kids. Following hospital protocol but subverting a dying man's wish was a shame. Pancakes are life, and even if you cannot have one every damn day, it's worth sharing a stack with someone you love.

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