Memoir — From the August 2017 issue

Eat, Memory

A life without food

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The last time I ate real food, actually chewed and swallowed, was six years ago. During those final meals, I ordered a pastrami sandwich, a pork-belly bun, and vegetable soup. The sandwich needed more fat, the bun more seasoning, and the soup I barely touched, because by that point it had become too painful to swallow. More memorable than my soup was the lamb burger served to my wife. It was a thick, luscious disc of meat; she cut it in half to show me the perfect pinkness inside. I made a mental note that I wanted one of those, once I was cured.

With the tip of a spoon I fished a cannellini — my favorite among the beans — out of the tomato broth, chewed until a fine paste was achieved, then swallowed, chasing the bolus like aspirin, with water and a jerk of the head. Everything in the bowl tasted like a blurry version of its vegetal self. A bite of carrot caught in my throat. I reached up reflexively and there it was, cancer at my fingertips, a hard bulge like an Adam’s apple, just left of the original.

The neck is crowded real estate, dense with activity and structures; more systems of the body converge, commingle, here than anywhere else. It is the site of biological and social essentials such as breathing, speaking, and swallowing. The nurses had warned me that radiation to the throat area is the most painful of cancer therapies. It damages soft tissue, causing ulcers to erupt in the mouth. Food tastes strange. Appetite leaves you. Eating becomes hell. Previous patients, the nurses said, had quit treatment midway and taken their cancers home. My symptoms kicked in around the third week.Sores flourished. I lost weight. My throat swelled — evidence, I hoped, that the mass was in its death throes.

A month earlier, my wife and I had been at dim sum with friends when my ENT, Dr. H, phoned with the pathology report. My wife took the call outside, turning her back to the restaurant as if to shield me from the inevitable. I could see her tilt her head into the phone and roll her shoulders inward, shrinking from the news. When my wife returned to the table she stared at the dishes: shumai, har gow, rice-noodle rolls, taro-root cake, jook with pork, and thousand-year-old egg, all getting cold or congealing. I pointed at her plate, urging her to eat the lotus-wrapped sticky rice, our favorite. She shook her head, too upset for food. Then she arched her eyebrows and said, “You eat it.” Which, being a pig, I did.

Eating had been my one enduring talent. More gourmand than gourmet, I loved to chew and swallow. My desire for food had the urgency of lust; I was constantly horny. Breakfast. A second breakfast forty-five minutes later. Lunch. Snacks all afternoon: last night’s meat, cold cuts, a hard-boiled egg. Happy hour with my wife: drinks, chips, cheese, and salami; if she wasn’t home, just drinks and chips. Then dinner, with wine, until it hurt.

When Dr. H discussed my tumor with another oncologist, I overheard him comparing its size to a plum. My first thought: What kind of plum? Italian, Santa Rosa, Greengage? But I didn’t need comparisons to stone fruit to know that cancer was flourishing. Every raspy breath, every hoarse word uttered, told me that it was in there. I was sent to Dr. L, a radiation oncologist who had a reputation for taking on the worst cases, for pushing the limits of what a body could tolerate. At the end of the appointment, Dr. L seemed gleeful; he was “very excited” about my tumor. My disease and I had stumbled beyond Stage 4. We had entered the realm of sport, had become a challenge like Everest.

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is the author of Pangs of Love and The Barbarians Are Coming. He lives in Venice, California.

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