It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when you turn a corner in recovery from surgery after removal of a brain tumor, but for me last night may have been it. Previously, a battle loomed where I needed to consciously force myself down (just like commanding a dog, “DOWN, boy!”, as I—as well as MJ and many of my readers—have commanded me to do over and over). It’s just hard to stay DOWN when there is so much you want to do UP. But I did my part. When I was up for little things, I listened closely to my body, sensing for dizziness, disorientation, loss of coordination, or fatigue. I did a good job returning to the couch the moment I might be overwhelmed. Despite the episodes I have so far written about that send readers to their wits’ end, I, like a dog, was being a good boy.
Until last night. All day I could feel it coming. Yesterday I was still on the couch, comfortably tucked in with my Cranbrook Kingswood sweatshirt, comfy pants, pillows, wool blanket, laptop, book, cards, newspapers and folded crossword puzzles, just as I had been for a week straight. I had a system by now to stay down as much as I could. The couch itself, while looking great in the room, has not been perfect for loafing. The stylish back and armrests slope and are at odd angles so I never feel engulfed. Rather, with my own height and size I’m always about to be pushed off somehow. But I developed a system where I would set up three pillows for my back, tuck one foot between the seat cushion and the back, and tuck my other foot underneath the same cushion between it and the base. I held. Pull blanket up, head back. Book. Crossword. Internet. Journal. I was DOWN for a week.
Yesterday was Friday, just the next day in my rehab, so I scanned the Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Edition for its great crossword, my third favorite of the week ranking just after the Sunday and Thursday New York Times puzzles. But instead of finding it right away, my eyes went straight to an article with a recipe for grilled hanger steak: a nice, tough cut with a pronounced beefy flavor. I have been eating haphazardly since coming home from the hospital because my condition is so irregular, but this picture of raw beef turned on some inner switch that had been shut for a while.
Hanger steaks are impossible to find in Grand Rapids. They are one of those “butcher’s treats” because there is only one small hanger steak per animal and they are difficult to stock and market in large quantities. About six months ago I convinced a local organic farmer to save a few for me, but we ate them already. In larger cities you can find them in the right places, and in great restaurants they are prized.
It was getting close to lunch. When MJ came down to heat me some soup I showed her the article, trying to disguise my ravenous, Neanderthal cravings. I kept pointing over and over again to the picture of the hanger steak while hearing Aaron Copland in my head: (“Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.”)
There was no way to get a hanger steak today in Grand Rapids, but I guess I love all cuts equally regardless of their price or general regard. Especially in these lean times some of the most satisfaction can come from a piece of meat costing only a few dollars which, if prepared right, can be fantastic. A great flank or skirt steak, for example, marinated with lime juice and a few herbs and grilled is one of our favorites. Sliced thinly against the grain, you get a taste of the charred edges, a layer of cooked beef just inside that, and a deeper flavor of rare meat in the center if you have managed the heat just right. With a filet mignon, you just throw it in a pan and eat it, but with so many of the other cuts (reprehensibly mislabeled “lesser” cuts) there is an art to the transformation. Easy to ruin, no question, but with proper technique and respect for tradition these cuts are in many ways superior.
I was also in luck. Noah, our 160-pound black-furred Newfoundland had run out of his daily “begging” treats of green beans and cabbage, and MJ had to run to the store to pick these up along with a few other things. She could get me some meat. I wish I could help with things like this (a perfect example of my frustration now) but I simply cannot drive a car until my recovery is farther along. She had a long evening in front of her, playing the live soundtrack to the first Lord of the Rings movie (four hours long) in concert, which would leave me alone all night—unsupervised—if I wanted to make dinner.
“You sure you’re well enough to do the grill?” she asked.
I looked again at the picture in the newspaper. I was never more certain of anything.
I returned to the couch. She went to the store. She came back. I sprang up and wanted to help. I was at the door, offering to bring bags in. She had also made a side-trip to another store just for a special lump hardwood charcoal. My kind of woman. I lugged this large bag of charcoal out to the back porch all by myself. I came back in, gathering up the plastic shopping bags and putting them away for another use. Once everything was put away I stormed the kitchen, cut open the flank steak, washed it, scored it, made a marinade with lime juice, olive oil and herbs, and sealed everything together in a vacuum.
I returned to the couch, perhaps for the first time simply out of habit and not because I was dizzy. I had just done a lot of physical activity—reaching, walking, chopping, bending over—and I still felt fine. But I had to keep reminding myself that only days ago I was undergoing brain surgery. We settled in for a late afternoon nap, and I dreamt of the lime juice working its way between the tough grains of the flank steak in the vacuum container.
After our nap, MJ got ready and drove off to play the Lord of the Rings concert, leaving me alone for the next five hours. Noah sensed the changing of the guard and came to the couch to ask me for some treats.
“You want some green beans?” I asked.
He pawed the couch.
I got up and went to the fridge. I took a handful out from the large bag MJ had just purchased, threw a couple to Noah, and deposited the rest in the handwarmer section of my sweatshirt for later. I love Noah, and that special bond between pet and owner is sometimes so piercing you must remind yourself your dog is not actually a person, but an animal. To complicate matters, Noah is huge like a bear, larger than a lot of people if he could stand up, and indeed I have dreams from time to time that Noah is standing along with me and some other people, making casual conversation at a cocktail party. ("Yeah, I like the chicken and rice biscuits," etc.) His face has expressions so pure you can always tell what he is thinking.
I wasn’t about to test my luck with overdoing dinner prep, though. The rehab plan (still just over a week since a tumor came out of my head) always must allow for retreat at any moment, so I couldn’t do anything that required constant tending on the stove. Quick, fresh, easy. Done. That’s all I would be able to make. MJ was coming back quite late and would piece together something from what was left.
Feeling certain I had a good energy reserve, I started the coals on our “Big Green Egg” cooker outside which I use all the time. (We also have a duplicate at our cottage up north. They are great.) I came inside and chopped up a tomato, some scallions, some cilantro, squeezed some lime juice in with some spices and made a kind of tangy salsa from that. I sliced an avocado, started some rice, shredded some lettuce leaves, and found some fresh corn tortillas.
I also spied the massive layout of peppers I had harvested the other day from our garden, now safely inside from the cold, many of them still unbagged.
I went outside and checked the grill. The new hardwood coals were getting hot. Things inside were set. I went to the couch out of habit once more.
Noah came up to me and I gave him a green bean out of my pocket. He went to the door and I followed, letting him out on his tether.
I looked again at the array of peppers on the counter, hundreds of them, sorted by size, not knowing which were hot and which were mild. I grabbed four or five long and skinny green ones, as identical-looking as I could find, and set them aside. Grilling fresh peppers is possibly the single easiest thing to make in the world. There is zero preparation. Take a pepper straight from a plant, put it right on a hot grill and turn in until it is soft and charred.
There is enormous margin for error. Bring the softened peppers inside, pull the tops off, scoop the seeds out and you have a great zesty topping for burgers, tortillas, or salads. Just taste a corner in advance to make sure you realize how much heat you will be dealing with. When I see tiny jars of roasted peppers selling for dollars apiece in the supermarket, I cringe. I really do. I want to smash those smelly old jars.
I checked the coals and they were ready. I twisted the air lock on the vacuum container sealing the flank steak and heard a hiss as the pressure equalized. I grabbed some tongs, the peppers I had chosen, and put everything in the grill.
When everything was cooked, I did feel some dizziness coming on, the first such sensation of the day. I needed rest or this could get bad quickly. This was by far the most activity I have done since my brain surgery. I filled some corn tortillas with thin strips of the flank steak, the salsa I had made, the avocado, rice, roasted peppers, and squeezed fresh limes over all of it to refresh the flavors. I made it back to the couch with one final effort.
Noah followed me.
This is a problem. I can’t eat by myself with Noah watching. Even if he is blocked off and can’t get near me to drool, he stares. He follows the fork to my plate, up to my mouth, and when I swallow he gives this look of incomprehension – “WHY? Why did you just DO that to me? I WANTED that!”
When my wife MJ is with me it’s easy. “Noah, NO! All gone, Noah!” she says sweetly but firmly, and Noah dutifully puts his head down and waits for us to finish, staring forward at a spot on the wall while the two of us make conversation. But I have no such control, and I feel so selfish eating the tiniest morsel as he watches. Again, Noah is a Newfoundland. 160 pounds. A bear. Imagine a giant black bear watching you. Imagine the feeling that everything you do for your own enjoyment is something that will stab him in the heart.
“Noah . . . sit?” I said.
I reached into my pocket and threw a few more green beans on the floor for him to scour. As he chased them down I sneaked a few bites of my tortillas with flank steak. Nice. Perfect. The char on the outside had a great little crunch with tender meat inside that bit away easily. The spiky lime flavors refreshed. The avocado was silky. The pepper was mild with just a touch of heat on the end. Bliss.
I looked up and Noah was staring right at me. His look clearly read, “Did you just f---in’ trick me?”
Any pleasure I had just derived from that bite was now permanently flushed away with guilt. Noah can't even eat meat—his stomach is too temperamental for such things—but he still knew the bites we both just had did not rank in the same gustative category. I summoned a reserve of strength, picked up my plate and walked it back to the kitchen where I left it for a moment on the counter. I would try something else.
"Noah? Want to see a magic trick?"
I love doing card tricks for children, seeing that amazement in their eyes, the belief that magic is real. And sometimes a variation of this worked on Noah too. I held both hands, open-palmed in front of me, empty.
"Does Noah want a green bean?" I asked.
He wagged his tail, but when I didn't move my hands he looked back in my face, confused.
"Do you really want a green bean?" I still held my hands in front of him, totally empty.
Noah wagged his tail as hard as he could and started whimpering.
"But there AREN'T any green beans anywhere, Noah! They're all gone! No green beans. Sorry." I turned my palms totally up and opened my fingers.
"Oh, but wait! Maybe I can use my MAGIC powers. Does Noah want me to use magic?"
I moved one hand, which he zeroed on like a laser. I slowly put my hand in my pocket. It came back out empty. Noah's gaze flitted instantly to my other hand. I moved my other hand into the other side of my sweatshirt pocket and this time brought out a single green bean.
"Roooo-roooo!" Noah said.
"Do you want the magic green bean?"
I placed it in front of him and he devoured it with elán.
That took the rest of my strength, so I left him there and took my plate into the darkened living room and scarfed down the rest of my tacos. They were cold now, but the protein gave me a little burst, allowing me to remain standing. I put the plate in the sink and covered the rest of the food for when MJ would come home. I went to the couch and fell asleep.
The phone rang and woke me up. MJ was done with Lord of the Rings and she was driving home. I roused myself, put the flank steak in the oven to warm up a bit, and took the condiments I had prepared out of the fridge again. Anyone in the Grand Rapids Symphony was tired that night, playing four hours of music about orcs. It was the kind of taxing concert orchestral musicians refer to as a "blow" and everyone knows what you mean. Nothing relating to the audience experience or the quality of the music, just the effort. Playing LOTR is a blow and I knew MJ would be ready for rest as soon as she could get it.
Noah greeted her at the door (he always gets to her first). She hugged him, leaning her aching back atop his and stretching, then she hugged me and we kissed.
"Did you do all right?" she asked.
"I Sure did."
She changed quickly and made herself a salad plate with the lettuce on bottom, topping it with some of the other veggies and some nice juicy strips of the flank steak on top. Before starting on her own well-deserved meal, she pulled a fresh box out of the cupboard, something she had hidden in the back after returning from the store earlier.
I was interested. I wanted to see what she had in her hand.
"At the store today I got this for you!"
She shook the box.
It was one of my favorite late-night snacks, some fresh nuts and berries mixed together that are just fun to munch on. Everything was so fresh, nicely roasted, sweet, not too salty and not oily. Just refreshing and crunchy with no morning guilt I might have to worry about. I chomped away eagerly on this snack box while she ate her salad next to me.
Noah perked up at the sound of my crunching. He lifted his huge head, rested it squarely on the coffee table and made droopy eyes at what I was eating.
MJ—whom I don't need to remind you had just spent five hours working—was on him like a hawk. "Noah, NO! NOT for Noah. Dad had to work hard tonight. The treat is JUST FOR DAD. Noah goes night-night."
Noah put his head down and slept.
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