New life
A chalkboard drawing of Neil Taylor by a special friend, Laura Momaney of Brattleboro.

New life

When you can no longer see and are recovering from cancer surgery, a simple meal in a Chinese restaurant becomes a hurdle to conquer

BRATTLEBORO — After heartfelt good-byes and good-lucks from those who had helped me and cared about me at the hospital, my mom and I crossed what felt like an endless parking lot at a snail's pace. I had not yet gained mastery of the walker I was leaving with. It shimmied and bounced in front of me under the uneven pressure of my weak arms.

Once I was seated in the passenger side of my mom's car, she leaned over and located the seat belt for me. I felt like a decrepit old man. I promised myself that I would learn to do things on my own as soon as possible, but I certainly wasn't there yet.

Without my vision, the simplest things seemed complicated. But despite all the negative thoughts swirling within me, I reminded myself that this was a happy day. I was being released from the hospital at long last, and I could swallow on my own.

All my progress - the baby steps and the giant steps - were cause for celebration. As we headed toward Vermont, Mom suggested that to celebrate we go to lunch at Panda North, one of my favorite restaurants.

“Right on,” I responded. “This will be my first full meal, minus the aftertaste of barium!”

* * *

As we were shown to our table and I felt for my seat, it struck me that this was the real deal - I was actually going to be eating out!

For months as I lay in the darkness in hospital rooms with tubes in just about every orifice, I had fantasized about the feasts I would have someday. But caution had prevailed, and before our arrival, Mom and I had planned what we would order from a menu I knew pretty well.

We had foresight enough to be conservative and not overly ambitious with our choices. We had reviewed things that did not take a lot of chewing and were easy to swallow. I had decided on two of my old-time favorites, both so moist they may as well have been predigested: hot and sour soup and Szechuan dumplings.

Before the food arrived, I felt a hint of anxiety and vulnerability that would accompany the many firsts that lay ahead of me: Was I even ready for restaurant dining?

Before I could work myself up over this question, however, the food arrived.

Forget chopsticks - each bite was preceded by several fruitless stabs of my fork before I could capture a slimy little Szechuan dumpling on the tines. Chewing it, as soft as it was, took more effort than I had anticipated.

The food itself felt like a whole new experience. Everything tasted so much more overwhelming than I expected. I was shocked at how intensely strong all of the flavors were.

Each morsel that I successfully aimed into my mouth was full of competing tastes. The dumplings, which swam around in my once-loved peanut sauce, were exceedingly sweet, yet, at the same time, they were quite salty - almost too salty.

The hot and sour soup, which I had formerly believed was neither of the two, tasted exactly as its name implied. The spices in the broth tasted so foreign to my palate it made my throat tighten up and my mouth and the left side of my face reflexively cringe, like I had just bitten down on a lemon.

In addition, during their prolonged hiatus from eating, my lips and tongue had grown hypersensitive to heat. Each little spoonful of soup I brought to my lips felt scalding. I had eaten at this restaurant countless times before, and I cannot recall the soup being so astonishingly hot.

What I did remember is that I used to tease my girlfriend as she blew on each spoonful before she put it in her mouth. I'd call her “Tender Lips.”

Now it was me who recoiled from its temperature. By the end of the meal I was exhausted.

* * *

It would have been a real stretch for any onlookers to recognize our presence at Panda North that day as a celebration, as not a word was exchanged between my mother and me throughout the entire ordeal.

After the fact, I have to say that no one I know would have had the gumption or the optimism to take me straight from rehab to a Chinese restaurant except for my incredible mother. Maybe it was my imagination, tinged with a bit of paranoia, but I thought I heard out of the corner of my good ear, from the lips of a little kid at a nearby table, ”Look at that man, Mommy - is he eating?”

I can't be a visual witness, but I am sure my mom kept her chin high as she quietly moved my napkin under my hand, just to remind me it was there.

* * *

After this vigorous workout - filling my stomach the old fashioned way - we made our way back to the car, and I was once again strapped into my seat belt. Now I felt less like a decrepit old man and more like an enormous baby boy, which was no less demeaning.

Despite feeling so low about who I now seemed to be, I properly played the part and fell fast asleep for the remaining half hour trip home.

My mother pulled into our driveway and cut off the engine. Here we were, at the old house I had grown up in, my eyes still tightly closed. But there was no question in my mind that we were in the middle of the quiet, quaint village of Westminster West.

Mom reached over and gently shook me back into the dark reality of my life - a life in which I was perpetually a Beginner, a Novice. Part of me wished I could just remain seated in the car forever with my eyes closed.

But I responded, reaching for where I guessed the door lever might be. This fumbling hunt opened the door to the beginning of my new life.

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