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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Savoring life's most sumptuous flavors
Cancer treatment robs a prolific cook of her sense of taste, but it can't take away the bond of loving family gathering for a meal.
By Jeff Karon, Special to the Times
Published November 27, 2007
In the first months after surgery and radiation for mouth cancer, my mother-in-law subsisted on cans of Boost, a drink-in-a-can that promises complete nutrition. I imagine it as a sort of reverse infant-formula, something we might all be forced to drink in our last stage of life.
Clearly, Boost was not enough to maintain her body weight: Though she had to give up her lifelong pleasure of smoking, she did not gain weight, but steadily lost it until none of her clothes fit.
My mother-in-law, Belle - short for the lyrically Southern Lula Belle - is tough, however. She had entered no "last stage" but instead rallied enough to realize how lousy she could feel.
While Belle felt lousy, she looked better and better - indeed, close friends and family members repeat that she looks younger and healthier than ever. And this for a woman who already had a cardiac pacemaker.
She tolerated Boost at least: Most food had no taste, except for those odd items that now repelled her. Even pure water might be gut-wrenchingly bitter.
Taste had become a traitor, a false guide: Belle could not be sure what she was eating unless she examined her food like a visitor to some exotic land who has been forced to eat scorpions.
If the food was too spicy, she might suffer from ulcers burned into her gums. A simple dish could sting.
Before, during and after her cancer treatment, Belle navigated the labyrinth of medical insurance and managed care, a maze that required ceaseless wandering through phone calls, letters, bills, corridors and waiting rooms and with her deteriorating knees offering another source of pain.
As with anyone who undergoes prolonged cancer treatment, my mother-in-law endured undignified, nerve-wracking procedures. But one counts particularly as an episode of horror:
To ensure that the radiation doses targeted her mouth correctly, she was fitted with a fine mesh mask. Then she had to lie flat while this mask was bolted down around her head, so that she could not twitch.
This is the essence of enforced helplessness, no matter how kind or well-meaning the nurses and technicians might be. Belle was the cancer patient in the iron mask, and screaming or crying was not permitted.
But she never cracked. She demonstrated resolve and courage at the center of the labyrinth.
Back in her home, though, Belle no longer could find comfort in the food rituals that bind together holidays and birthdays. A Southerner who married into an Italian family, Belle cooked dishes that ranged from New Years' black-eyed peas to Neapolitan clams and macaroni.
Every holiday or party meant heaping platters or heavy casseroles whose contents would be determined by the end of the previous get-together:
After the dinner or brunch had wound down and the plates cleared, out would come pens and notepaper, while Belle and her three adult daughters floated possible appetizers, entrees and desserts like baseball trading cards.
Someone always clamored for oyster pie, and Belle would respond dutifully that she would make it once again.
She gradually weaned herself off Boost as she found a few palatable choices. Wendy's milk shakes made at a particular location tasted good enough that she bought extra and froze them. My father-in-law became a grand negotiator, charged with the unenviable task of insisting on a Friday that the restaurant make its milk shake exactly the way it did on Monday.
Belle still hated to eat, and she became frustrated with the doctors' vague prognoses. Maybe, the doctors said, she never would regain her taste.
Sometimes my mother-in-law weeps - very rarely, she weeps all day. Such days seem to be tangles of wistfulness, regret and the overwhelming fear of mortality. She occasionally weeps over the very act of weeping itself, believing that it causes pain in those around her.
Certainly, I have seen the frustration that my wife and her sisters feel when their mother is inconsolable.
But for my part, I do not think that these tears, and even the associated regrets and fears, are evils to be overcome and banished. They might reassure us that Belle is trying still to make sense of her life, as well as the lives of her family, as she faces an affliction that drains her existence of taste and piquancy.
My mother-in-law sometimes cooks dinner, or comes to our house for dinner, forcing herself to eat each time. Occasionally she will comment that she regrets losing one of life's great pleasures, but she always tries the food, and sometimes lately, a familiar taste briefly glimmers through.
Belle keeps cooking dinners for all of us and attending dinner parties, and trying as many of the dishes as possible. She laughs quite a bit more than I would in her place, refusing to wear the cancer patient's iron mask. She always thanks all the cooks.
My mother-in-law's suffering is quite real, but I am reassured when she comes to the table. In our home, we strive to remember that a fine meal is more than a plate of food: It is bright music, illuminated art and literature that one continues to ponder.
There is plenty of time between courses for laughing or weeping, for making sense of life and family, as Belle sees fit. Who are we to say what emotion can be removed from the recipe?
Jeff Karon is a freelance editor, former professor and occasional writing teacher who lives and dances Flamenco in Tampa. He can be reached at email@example.com.