Friday, March 20, 2009

What, Again?

Joe in Lyon, France with chicken liver salade, happy

I figure it’s time to talk to my friends and readers who may be interested in what I’ve been up to lately. The quick answer is I learned that I have cancer. Again. After thirty joyous years of being a proud “survivor” I’m back being a “patient” again.

As I have written about here in the past, my first experiences with cancer and recovery actually led to some good things, like my intense interest and pleasure in food and wine and “life its own self”, to quote the sainted Dan Jenkins. Most of my cooking and eating experiences since 1979 are the outgrowth of those battles with cancer and the aftermath in which I began to reprioritize my new life.

Since then my wife and I wrote a quirky little cookbook/novella, “The Amazing Afterlife of Zimmerman Fees”. We teach cooking classes at Central Market in Austin and we have been known to cook for parties and dinners for money, and to be serious about it. I have written for Saveur magazine and others. We cook for our own pleasure and the pleasure of our friends and family and guests, as another expression of our artistic personalities. Cooking is fun, is expression, is life, family, reunion, reinforcement. And, as one of my writer heroes Jim Harrison says, “Eat or Die!”

So, to find out I have cancer now is rather unnerving. I have a small cancerous area on the inside of my gums, next to my jaw. Nobody knows yet just how large or deep it may be. I plunged into fear- fear that I would lose the ability to eat at all, much less slowly and laboriously as it is now. That I would lose my lower jaw, that I would lose my face, or my life. When you learn something like this your imagination runs as wild as a pet chimp let loose in a mall of horrors. What if this? What if that? What will they do to me? How much pain? Horror? Misery? Blood? The human mind is capable of both soaring sweetness and mindless blundering fear.

However, there is a vast beaming City on a Hill (a hill of hope only, since Houston is so flat the gutters don’t flow) called M.D. Anderson. On going there last week I met a team of brilliant doctors and speech pathologists and nurses and beaming staff, smiles and kindness at every turn. Capability everywhere brought to an acute point- you realize you are in the place where the best people are doing the most advanced and specialized things.

Instead of sadness and despair, people are undergoing treatment with hopeful eyes and confident faces. Treatments that out there in the world look sci-fi. Chemo, radical surgeries, skin and tissue grafts, skin radiated until it is literally glowing red. Out there we are great oddities and people stare at us uncontrollably (more on that later, I have thought about that a good deal over the last 30 years) but inside MDA we are all just people being worked on, no big deal.

In a week I went from runaway terror to runaway giddiness after I finally got a dose of reality. A brilliant lady surgeon who made me feel a hundred times better within an hour. A chemo specialist whose intelligence and sense of humour were like a cool drink of water on a West Texas summer day when the grasshoppers are louder than the oil derricks. I am apparently to be surrounded by a team of doctors and researchers all of whom would be considered the best in their fields in any hospital in the world. An oncological dentist whose mind, while examining me, begins to fly through vast expanses of possibilities and then quickly draw up tentative plans and ideas to make me better, almost whole, again. We ask her what she is going to do and her answer is “I’m going to think!” And when she thinks, big stuff happens.

I like being in the care of women. It reassures me. There is nothing in the world more competent than a woman who has triumphed in a man’s world, as this Western medical world surely has been for hundreds of years . As I observed to Kimmie afterwards at late lunch at our favorite Houston bistro, CafĂ© Rabelais, you can bet that any girl who makes it this far would have been able to kick the classroom-ass of any guy in school, both because she is really, really sharp, and because she has had to work harder to prove it.

And, now, as the final, wild, impossible cherry on top of this sudden Gulf Coast Good News Sundae, the women (again) in speech pathology say I should be able to speak again. Uh-huh. I, in my sternest fashion, say that I come here with very little hope of that possibility. Jodi the speech pathologist is not fazed by my fatherly gravity. She sneaks up on me and jams a little white tube up my nose and down my throat and tells me to loosen up and quit whining. When she has it halfway to China, she tells me to breathe in and when I breathe out, say “One, Two, Three”. Ok. I breathe in, open my mouth which I haven’t used to speak a word in exactly thirty years, and out comes a gurgling, deep “one, two, three” and it is me, talking quite clearly. I look over and Kimmie has tears coming out of the corners of her eyes and down her sweet cheeks and she says “that is the first thing I ever heard him say”. I laugh and say I sound like one of those movie swamp monsters. They ask me if I want to say anything else and instead of saying “I love you” to Kimmie like I, played by Russell Crowe, will say when they make this movie, I just raise my hands in claws and gurgle “AAAaaaaarrrrghhhhh” like a swamp monster. It gets a big laugh but I notice the other speech lady also has tears and she has to leave. My nose-tube taskmaster Jodi tells me about this patient she has who is in exactly the same shape I am in- no larynx, no tongue, but he is, like me, shaped correctly to be able to use this method to “speak” and has been now for six years. She will put me in touch with him so I can get it from the horse’s mouth, via email.

Yikes. As of today, I’m still walking around this one, kicking the tires and wondering if I can drive this baby or not. It is the Porsche Cayenne of my dreams, as Rodney said later. I am imagining the comic possibilities of this new toy, saying ridiculous things, cursing, singing in a monotone in a voice like Tom Waits. Let me at it, I can’t wait to try this out. Surgery, smurgery. Pain? Gimme morphine for my pain and red wine for my brain. The memory of pain is short. Me talking again? The crazed wonder of it is carrying me away on a river of impossible happiness.

So, that’s what I been doing while school was out. Wish me luck and wait for the audio file of me singing “Picture in a Frame” to appear soon in this space.

Peace and Love,
Joe Gracey, Jr.