I have arrived in an alien place, a destination I have not chosen and have failed to prepare for. As though anyone could. It’s not what appears on the table that brings reality crashing home, it’s the prohibition: nothing raw. No sushi, certainly (this is not a hardship). But no fruit either. No uncooked vegetables. No lettuce.
No lettuce? I’m a salad eater, a nibbler of raw things, practically a rodent.
But no longer. In this new place, this new condition, “raw” is synonymous with the threat of uncontrolled infection. With spells of hospitalization, pumping antibiotics into already-overtaxed veins. With “dead.” So, okay, I give up the lettuce.
And the fruits, even though it’s summer now and they’re sashaying into season like beauty pageant finalists down a runway: pears, plums, peaches, apples, grapes. Flaunting, delectable. Out of reach.
There are exceptions, I’m told. Two of them. Bananas, first of all, as long as the skin is unbroken and pristine, with no hint of those tawny stripes that might indicate bruising, not to mention flavor. Practically unripe, in other words, tinged with green on the outside and, inside, tough and bitter.
And then there’s watermelon, that summer siren. With its alluring crackle as you stab it open. Its succulent flesh the bold color of temptation. Its rush of sweetness as you sink your teeth into the top of a wedge and the juice seeps, teasing, down your chin, across your wrists, clear to your elbows.
But, no again. Erase the erotica of memory. This is no watermelon I’ve ever known before. This one’s sedate, reserved, confined by ritual and the dread of divine retribution if I omit the smallest provision of the law.
I have studied the routine and vow to follow it with manic dedication. It is my own life, after all, that I’m attempting to save with all these machinations. Only it’s not the cancer I’m fighting now—it’s the treatment: chemotherapy, with its frenzied, primitive attack on virtually every body system, in the hope of exposing and destroying those few renegade cells that remain after the disfigurement of surgery. The arbiters of my fate assure me that the threat of death from chemical intervention can be mitigated if I follow their strict instructions on how to feed my besieged body; the decision to do it is entirely up to me. But of course it’s not. Given the consequences, what choice do I have but to comply?
I begin with the knives, two of them. Not the Swiss Army knife I would normally draw casually from a pocket, flip open in the gleaming sunlight out-of-doors, plunge into the hulking melon as it sits on the picnic table. The kids would be off playing somewhere, and by some instinct they’d know to gather just as the watermelon was cut, cluster around the table begging for huge chunks to chomp, spitting the seeds to sprout in other seasons.
This time, the kids—Tony and Dara, young adults and the only two of our nine children still at home—are somewhere around, but obviously not attracted by this faltering new watermelon ritual. This is no picnic, either; this is the privacy of my kitchen where my sorry head, bald from this medical madness, can escape exposure to both sunlight and painful public scrutiny. And these are two huge bread knives spotless from the sterilizing effects of the dishwasher, laid out with precision on a fresh kitchen towel.
I proceed to wash the watermelon. With soap. I trundle it into the sink, where it does not fit, but the rules are silent on how to handle this awkwardness. For a moment I think of calling the hotline the oncology nurses have given me, just to be sure I get it right; I’m that helpless. But reason prevails, or maybe simple impatience. Phone calls to their office are recorded and then responded to in the order of seriousness; somehow I sense that this watermelon foundering in my sink will not qualify as critical. It might be hours before they would advise me.
I turn the faucet to its hottest setting and begin to scrub whatever parts of the slick skin the water will reach. I soap the melon, rotate it, scrubbing and rinsing as I go. Then I hug it, soaked and slippery, and flip it so the other end can reach the cleansing flow. I repeat the process, anxious not to leave some strip of the center unscoured and defiled.
I turn off the water. Sit down and rest a minute. Two minutes. Five. In fact, I retire to the couch and try to recover my breath. Cry awhile. Mop the tears. Change into dry clothes. Back to the kitchen.
I end up using a towel to retrieve the slippery monster from the sink. Wrestle it onto the counter and mop it dry. Then I pick up the first knife and, with its sharp tip, incise a line through the mottled green skin clear around the middle, not deep enough to touch the sterile red flesh. Around again, slightly deeper this time, and the seam I’ve made begins to spread slightly. I slip the blade into the opening once more and work it back and forth, widening the slit without cutting any deeper. When the tips of my fingers fit, I wedge them in and pry the halves apart, and the fruit falls open on the table.
Success. Still the kids do not appear. I scuttle the first knife into the sink and pick up the second. With this clean one I carve the untainted flesh into chunks and lift them into a waiting bowl. And I’m done. I can sit down now and eat it. I can pretend it’s any other watermelon, any other summer. Any other point in my life but this one.
In the place I currently find myself, the problem is my blood cells, which have succumbed by the millions to the chemical onslaught. Without them I’m helpless to stop bruising, internal bleeding or infection. My only hope is to prevent these things from happening in the first place. So: no bumping into the furniture, no gardening, no walking barefoot through damp grass. No uncooked food, with its capacity for carrying bacteria past the defenses of my skin and straight to my unprotected insides.
Eventually Tony wanders in, glances at the rindless hunks of melon piled in the serving bowl.
“Watermelon?” he says, and he sounds genuinely dubious.
“That’s right,” I assure him. “Pretty great, huh?” I’m determined not to contaminate the occasion with my towering self-pity.
He leans over the bowl and peers, wrinkling his nose. “Why the heck did you do that to it?”
Despite my conviction that chemotherapy will never end, I enter my final week. Another blood test designed to track the degeneration and eventual recovery of my blood cells. The latest test was just yesterday, and I call the oncology office, as I have every week, to ask for the results. Since this kind of information seeking is hardly critical, I’m accustomed to waiting until late afternoon for the return call. This time there’s the hope that when they call me back, it will be to tell me that my blood cells have rebounded, at least enough to allow me to resume my salad habit. Hope—but certainly no assurance. I need the cold figures before I dare a celery stick or a crisp bite of tart apple.
The tone sounds and I leave my message: “I did my blood work yesterday and would like to know the results. Thank you.”
I should hang up now, but I hesitate while I consider all I’ve left unsaid, the vulnerability of these months of longing. And then I plunge ahead, abandoning all pretense of patience or calm maturity. “It’s nothing critical, I understand that. But if my white blood cells were back up to normal, and if you called me back before lunchtime, you know what I’d have? Salad with all the trimmings. Tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, the works. And a big ol’ bowl of Bing cherries.”
I hang up, embarrassed. I visualize the nurse on the other end pressing the button and listening to my plaintive voice. I hope she’s professional enough to ignore my humiliating outburst when she returns my call.
Within minutes the phone rings. I haven’t moved far from the phone, and I pick it up before the second ring. “Hello?”
The disembodied voice at the other end is warm and insistent, as urgent as my need for an answer to this long hunger, as breathy as my longing. “Go ahead, eat,” it says. “Enjoy!”