One woman's gastronomic trek to recover a part of her old life.
From It’s Not About the Hair / And Other Certainties of Life & CancerBy Debra Jarvis, Sasquatch Books, 2007
I’m not a big drinker. What I really missed about not being able to drink wine was the ritual. I missed the way Wes would ask, “Shall we open some wine?” as we were rooting through the refrigerator getting dinner together.
I would laugh when he opened the bottle with that silly, rabbit-shaped opener because every time he would say proudly, “So easy!” I loved the sound and smell of the wine being poured, the clink of the glasses, the kiss. We tried to keep the ritual with Crystal Light, but it wasn’t the same.
It reminded me of youth pastors who, in trying to be hip, used Coke and M&Ms for communion. Please. I suppose if you were trapped in a snack shack at the county fair and that’s all there was, and you wanted to receive communion because it was clear you were going to die before someone rescued you, well, then I think it’s OK.
Anyway, at first when wine started tasting bad to me Wes would say, “Let’s open a different bottle! Maybe this one is too dry.” But when we had so many open bottles that it looked like a wine tasting, he realized it was useless. After a while he stopped drinking wine, too.
I think everyone with cancer struggles to keep domestic rituals. Nancy finished six months of chemotherapy and had a mastectomy. Her 3-year-old son, Riley, was used to snuggling up to her every night before bed.
“So we told him Mommy has a ‘soft’ side and a ‘tender’ side, and he could snuggle only on the soft side.”
“Was he able to remember that?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah,” she answered. “I started to shake hands with my doctor and Riley piped up, ‘That’s her tender side!’ ”
You just do what you can to keep life normal. The hardest ritual for me to keep was eating dinner with Wes. About halfway through my chemo was when ev-erything changed. It was as if my tastebuds, who all these years had been wearing khakis and polo shirts, suddenly started wearing leather vests and jackboots.
To me, eating was more than simply putting food in your mouth, chewing and then swallowing. I could do that. But what I couldn’t do was enjoy the same foods he did. All I wanted to eat was pineapple, pickles, nopalitos, sour olives and salad with Italian dressing.
So gone were the moments when we would take a bite of something, look at each other and say, “M-m-m-m.” Eating was no longer a shared experience.
The only exception to this was steak. I was anemic, and my oncologist was pushing red meat like a waiter with last night’s special. I was thrilled we could eat steak together, and I was thrilled we could afford it. But Wes comes from a family of heart disease, so we really didn’t do it too often.
I said, “If you have a heart attack and die because we’ve been eating steak because I had cancer ...” Well, I couldn’t even finish that sentence. It was too ridiculous.
I wish I could tell you I did this delicately. But the truth is, somewhere between Best Animated Short Film and Achievement in Costume Design, I took a cleaver and whacked off his head.
“OK, I’ll take care of it.” I took one last look into Santa’s chocolate brown eyes and carefully placed his face into my mouth. He was delicious — just like I remembered chocolate. That was my defining moment; that’s how I knew I was getting something resembling my old life back.
As a chaplain at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Debra Jarvis had counseled hundreds of cancer patients before learning she had breast cancer — a week after her mother was diagnosed with the same disease. In dealing with her treatment, Jarvis worked on being her Best Real Self, emphasizing the importance of being authentic. Below, an excerpt from her book ?It’s Not About the Hair explores how she and her husband, Wes, dealt with life as treatment ended.
So I was looking forward to being able to eat again. I somehow thought I would wake up one morning and, ta-da, the taste buds would be back! But that’s not how it happened. It was gradual like an incoming tide. About two weeks after my last chemo, I found myself eating a piece of cheddar cheese that had formerly tasted like Play-Doh. A few days after I sipped some wine — not exactly drinkable, but getting there.
At Christmas a friend arrived at my door carrying an elaborate 2-foot-tall chocolate Santa Claus. His eyebrows and beard were in white chocolate. His belt buckle and boot were in dark chocolate. I was stunned at his size.
“All I can tell you,” she said, “is it didn’t look this big in the catalog.” Everyone who came over took a picture with the giant chocolate Santa.
I didn’t want to cut into the Santa until I was sure chocolate tasted good to me again. This was no drugstore chocolate Santa; it was Dilettante chocolate. I wanted the day to be something special. And it was — the Academy Awards.
I wish I could tell you I did this delicately, like some kind of skilled surgeon. But the truth is, somewhere between Best Animated Short Film and Achievement in Costume Design, I took a cleaver and whacked off his head. His head broke into several pieces, the largest of which was his face. I dumped it into a little bowl.
“Eeww,” said Wes. “I don’t think I can eat him with his face looking up at me.”