Memoir — From the August 2017 issue

Eat, Memory

A life without food

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 2 of 8 )

Three weeks after the vegetable soup, when even scrambled eggs were too much to bear, I told my wife that I was through with eating. She looked at me as if the cancer had spread to my brain. I clarified: I would go on a liquid diet. A friend had given me a smoothie recipe that her mother had sworn by (until breast cancer killed her): yogurt, milk, protein powder, banana, peanut butter, chocolate sauce, flaxseed oil, honey. At first, the intense sweetness and big flavors astonished me. My taste buds were zapped; I had become unused to recognizing what I tasted. But the moment the cool liquid hit my tongue, there was a burst of intelligibility.

For the next two months I drank the same smoothie four times a day. Each feeding was a marathon. The lump in my throat — formerly the mass, now irradiated tissue — made swallowing a struggle. Treatments had ended weeks earlier, but the expected improvement in my physical condition never came. I felt as wretched as during the radiation’s worst days. The swelling was pressed up against my larynx, crimping the airway and paralyzing the vocal cords. I lost the ability to inflate my words to their proper dimensions. My breaths were no longer automatic, they were always on my mind.

I was sent for a barium swallow, an X-ray of the pharynx and esophagus. A nurse served me a thick, chalky suspension of barium, a heavy metal that absorbs X-rays, making visible the passageways through which it travels. After swallowing the barium, I would graduate through a mise en place of green water, applesauce, and cookies, set up on a tray nearby. I shook my head. My wife, standing next to me, knew exactly what I meant: I didn’t stand a chance against those Lorna Doones.

I never even got to the water. The test was called off when the barium, a thin black line on the monitor, veered off course toward my windpipe. My doctor had seen enough — food or drink inhaled into the lungs puts one in danger of myriad complications, including pneumonia. He said, unequivocally, “You’re getting a G-tube.”

I balked. A G-tube was a sick man’s game. Sick like late-stage Parkinson’s. Advanced dementia. Comas.

My doctor explained that the tube would be inserted through my abdomen, to deliver nutrition directly into my stomach. He said, reassuringly, that the tube would be manufactured from state-of-the-art silicone, installed by a state-of-the-art surgeon, at a state-of-the-art facility. But it was still a tube embedded in my gut. What’s more base than sustenance delivered directly to the stomach, like gavage to geese? I babbled to my wife about bodily integrity, how mine was, after these many years, unmarred, unpierced, un-broken-boned. Never mind the human condition. You are a body, first and last.

In reality, though, I was relieved. My weight was down to 112 pounds, and I was sick of smoothies.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

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

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2020

Trumpism After Trump

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My Gang Is Jesus”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Cancer Chair

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Birds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Skinning Tree

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Interpretation of Dreams

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dearest Lizzie

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Close

You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.