Nonfiction by Johanna Rauhala
Johanna Rauhala writes about cancer, comfort food, nourishment, & the will to survive.
I have cancer. “Have”: the word makes it sound like a kitchen utensil, a toy, a new car. It makes it sound like a possession you can own or take away, or buy or sell, innocuous like a round-trip ticket a few checks will pay off. You can have a vacation, you can have a home. A toddler takes your phone? “Honey, let me have it.” Announced at the barbecue: “We have a new dog!” The Labrador rushes into the backyard, her tail a wildly swinging hose, and jumps (“No jumping!”) and licks and splays her belly to be joyfully rubbed.
“Have” — the word sounds like “hovel.” From Wiktionary: “From Middle English hovel, hovil, hovylle, diminutive of Old English hof (“an enclosure, court, dwelling, house”), from Proto-Germanic hufą (“hill, farm”), from Proto-Indo-European kewp- (“arch, bend, buckle”), equivalent to howf + -el. Cognate with Dutch hof (“garden, court”), German Hof (“yard, garden, court, palace”), Icelandic hof (“temple, hall”). Related to hove and hover.”
I have and live in the hovel of, and hover over and with and through the “hof” (like Hasselhoff, house of hazel), the heave of the whole heft of it: cancer.
I miss things.
I miss frosting, the buttercream of cake roses and white cream, scooped out and up in a spoon, a full-bodied alluvial fan of sweetness and fat panning my palate like an embodied swoon, the sheer sweet pleasure of a magenta or tropical blue frosting balloon in a wide swath of rich bliss coating my mouth and tongue in the sin and sinning of sugar. Lo, this devil’s food.
I miss jelly beans. The little gem drops were marbles in my pocket, rattling when they shook, a meant-to-be-opened small pivot-sweet bag. They were hard shells, bright crushes of mango, or kiwi, or apple or lime, and softgel tributaries of jelly payoff once bitten; they were a rush of cherished peripherals, staking a claim in the food pyramid’s entertainment industry and always a reward, a cheery extra to carry past the doldrums of a workday’s end.
I miss cake. I miss pudding, Coke, chocolate malts, sundaes, syrup, salami, bacon, cheese pizza, beer, fries, apple strudel, milk chocolate balls. I miss sugar with impunity, not thinking about each bite. I miss wine, sweet mint mojitos, reaching for a chip, of that or this a sip. I miss orange Hostess cupcakes, peeling off the frosting for a rush of questionable ingredients, who cares, I’ll bite into the cream anyway for the pleasure of its tasty pastry questionables.
I miss fried chicken.
I miss the bliss of not caring, not monitoring, knowing my body can be trusted. That it’s working for the good, for health and not manufacturing, cell by tiny cell, my death.
You could say: Continue.
You could say: Go on.
In a world with signposts to an anticipated future, housed in a healthy body, that would make sense.
“Sense.” To feel and know you will wake tomorrow. As if you had been given the new day. It is so expected it is almost an afterthought.
Before cancer, my life was a flotilla of day to day living and tasks. It was pleasant and ordered, a series of ongoing events connected by a sense of assured time.
I imagine it now as if seeing faded photographs:
1: My daughter Annika is 7 years old. The three of us — Manny (my husband), Annika, and I — are in Saint Petersburg, Russia, standing in front of the Winter Palace. Two nearby soldiers stand poised, wary. Small clusters of tourists huddle and disperse, cameras and phones in hand, and the morning light is a slow curtain opening itself on the city. We’ve arrived, after months of planning, to see the opulence and gildings inside the home of Peter the Great. The wide space of the Palace Square, its openings into Nevsky Prospect, the rise of the Alexander Column, the archway into the Building of the General Staff, its encompassing finitude and history — all these place our bodies in time. There’s a hush among us, as if an event, or someone revered, has passed. Timelessness and gold. We’re visitors here, I know, but if, in remembering, I imagine my arms are open, I can touch one point (July, 2011) to another (now) and trace us in its gilded, and fraying, and completed frame.
2. It’s a Saturday morning. The radio station reports another explosion. Manny sits at the table with his checkbook and a stack of bills. French toast sizzles in the pan and Annika, 10, is drawing a fairy. It’s not a workday: I’m humming, the coffee’s hot, and sweet syrup will soon pool the plate. Annika holds up her picture, and we praise it.
3. Maureen and I are 17. We’re seniors in high school, and it’s the end of May. Adulthood looms, and in this photo we’re in a car, restless, driving to Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” with the windows down on a summer night in California, the road long ahead of us and our long, blond hairs a wild and unruly skein of freedom tangling the air.
4. And then: A routine PAP smear. A routine breast check. My doctor’s brows are furrowed, an abrupt turn to the computer. Furious typing. “You’ll need a biopsy.”
“It’s stage 3,” the doctor told me two years ago. The worst kind of breast cancer: triple negative. It’s an aggressive and rare type with a poorer prognosis, meaning fewer options, and currently no targeted treatments. The chemotherapy would be generic, a cocktail meant to kill all rapidly replicating cells and with it, hopefully, the disease. We would be poisoning the body’s entire field just to kill a few rabid weeds. For a while, it worked. After the grueling 6 months of chemotherapy, I was cleared. No more tumor. Also: no hair, no eyebrows, no lashes. No energy. No right breast. No fallopian tubes.
I looked out at the landscape that was my body. It was cracked earth, a mute absence of one breast’s flesh, a hill-less and bleak swath of parched territory.
But I was alive.
And no more did mirrors speak for me.
In the enclosure of the dressing room I arch my back, suck in my stomach, turn to look at my profile. The dress fits and falls in an asymmetry made more pronounced by the sliding breast prosthetic, which is making its way toward my armpit. Under the fluorescent lamps the gloss of my bald head shines like a giant raised thumb and the dress, it slides down onto the floor in a rivulet of giving up.
I say things, make declarations, and then reverse them.
“Mirrors don’t speak for me.” (They do.)
“I’m going to eat vegan, all-organic.” (I don’t.)
“I’m cutting out sugar.”
“I work out every day.”
Some days I select only the freshest heads of lettuce. At the farmer’s market, I meander and slowly consider the varieties of local mushrooms . I cook pistachio-encrusted salmon with a side of steamed broccoli and drink it all down with some fresh matcha green tea. I make blueberry and ginger smoothies and leave bowls of chopped pineapple, strawberries, and honeydew for snacking. Walnuts and brazil nuts and almonds, like culinary syncopations, crunch in my mouth during brief and daily intervals in which, smug in my antioxidant consumptions, I feel hope. A whoosh of blender spins cry out the start of the day and then, turning up the sound of a woman singing, I reach my arms high and, in a secular yoga pose, think thank god.
Other days: Coffee with half and half. Four cups before noon, full caff. Fistfuls of soft brioche bread and leftover chocolate chip cookies=breakfast. When I look up my calories on a health app, half the day’s allotment is shot. Whatever. Then it’s the discount grocer and boxed pasta and cinnamon bread and Coke and stopping by the ice cream store for a double scoop with caramel sauce and whipped cream, and some cheap drive-thru burger with sauce in a colorful fold-up box and then later watching reality dating shows with their youthful participants and makeup and bright lipstick ads in shades of plum, peach, rose. I am not a flower. I am not a fruit.
I turn off the TV.
Sorrow, relief. This new body with its elephantine lows. Its gravity.
The mantel clock continues its ticking. Some old escapement, some pendulum keeps swinging.
Your hope is mixed with grief, says the therapist.
Yes, I say. I nod.
This is a natural response to a traumatic event.
Of course. A blank computer or TV screen. Listlessness. Words like whatever, wait, what. Periods at the ends of vague statements. Shrugging. Potatoes. Scrolling without clicking. Huh. Half-hearing. A slow wandering and pausing in the middle of rooms. Occasional rushes of terror and sudden stops.
Time has become a white room with scattered boxes that I continue to sort and sort into a series of piles with no pattern. To do, or not to do. Left, right. I attempt to sort the boxes into categories: Now vs. Later. Postponing Temporarily vs. Postponing Indefinitely. Wrinkled Laundry vs. Sleep. Daughter’s Lunch vs. Empty Bag. Urgent Disability Paperwork vs. Hours-Long Infusions. Joy vs. Rage. Love vs. Disgust. Body vs. Mind.
The biggest stack: Life vs. Death.
We think of food and we think of nourishment.
One is the other, is both the one that feeds and keeps us living. Without food we die. Without chewing, eating, offering the body its nutrient due, we can’t sustain going on. Food is one thing but also another. It is object, vegetable, fruit, meat, bean, leaf; it is teeth and bone, muscle, sinew, earth, and flesh tethered together in a long string of efforts led by the basic, driving, human, and ancient impulse to survive.
It is also nutrition. Food abides where we speak, where we swallow, where we digest and weep and sing. What do we take in, what do we eat? What words, what is the language of need? What food satisfies the desire to rest? To grieve? To receive full and complete comfort? What is the food for love? For cancer? What tree-plucked fruit could link all this sorrow to meaning? To joy?
And if it did, would I eat it?
I’m not making sense.
Here’s the thing: I love food. Since cancer, it’s almost all I think about. I read recipes, research vegetable dishes, consider exotic sauces, grind almonds for curries, spin daily smoothies, pile up bowls and scraped pots and drink green tea and eat cruciferous vegetables, including radishes, brussels sprouts, broccoli, watercress, cabbage (red and green), kale — and berries and quinoa and lentils and beans, and wild-caught salmon sometimes accompanied with a local honey sauce. Torn magazine pages with recipes, flipped-open books, and papers and dog-eared pages form a collage on our kitchen table, removing any space for the actual act of eating. I’m hither and yon with my culinary distractions. I have been known to pull the softest hollow of bread from the center of brioche, leaving behind only a long, bread-tunnel hole. Sometimes, after I slowly rise from the sofa, tortilla chip crumbs litter the pillows, marking my binge-watching like bright flea husks. I was here. I ate.
And then, ladies and gentlemen? Back to blueberries, to broccoli, to tea.
And time passing.
I am searching for the perfect recipe. The ambrosia. The cure.
The cancer came back.
Two years later, almost to the day, it came back. Five centimeters. Found after the routine yearly MRI scan, it appeared first as a “shadow.”
We’ll need to follow up with a CT scan.
Renewed panic. All circles come to a close. Fists. A new kind of gripping. Close the aperture, close it.
“The epiglottis is a leaf-shaped flap of cartilage located behind the tongue, at the top of the larynx, or voice box. The main function of the epiglottis is to seal off the windpipe during eating, so that food is not accidentally inhaled.” 
I continue to breathe and to take in the oxygen the body requires. My husband and I curl up in the early mornings and weep together, quietly so our teen daughter does not hear. We swallow sorrow, swallow worry, swallow sadness and pain and rage. We stroke each other’s hair and cry.
We feast on grief.
What is the food for despair?
I imagine a dinner party. I’m serving the hottest of peppers, the Carolina Reaper perhaps, the capsaicin a jolt into the cusps of pain. I am a sweaty and hefty old-world grandmother hovering over the guests, urging everyone to “Eat, eat!” Slowly, with great caution, they lift their forks to their mouths and nibble just the tip, like horses, with thick lips and big teeth, emitting the slightest huff and then gobbling water, lots of it. Clatter-clang of dropped forks. No one makes eye contact. I am a terrible hostess.
I want to wake up and halve the cancer. I want to have — a house of, a hovel, a hill or farm, and be free of the fear of my future’s doors closing. I am not able to plan. I do not know if I will see my daughter’s senior year. I come and go and do not work. I see doctors and am pricked. The tumor is a golf ball growing in my chest, and while we wait for answers, I gulp air. Pockets and pots and pans of it, and it is invisible, and hopeful, and filled with oxygen and gas. It is everything, a remembered palace, a home I have filled with lists and appetites, and when I look at it, it offers me nothing at all.
 Maitake, shiitake, white button, lobster, chanterelle, trumpet. Sometimes crimini.