My existence, since mid-April, perhaps a little before that has been much like wandering in a fog in a valley whose sides are inaccessible to climb and too unnerving in the swirling mists to dare make the attempt if I did feel the slippery moss and tentative routes would support my futile efforts. Daylight turns into night, hours slide away from the minutes and time flows in a strange nonlinear way that I don’t really recognize. I realize that I am sick, that names and dates and memories are becoming a blur, exhaustion is dogging my every step and I feel as though a small animal is awake within my abdomen, clawing madly to get out. When I do dare check my temperature, it’s always the same: 99-101 degrees Fahrenheit.
The pills my doctor prescribed seem to be doing very little, if anything, to clear away the numbness in my mind. The steering wheel feels too big in my hands, my kitchen knife, as intimate to me as my wife’s shoulder feels like a stranger some mornings, especially in the early hours, before anyone else is there. I can feel my abilities in the kitchen slipping, to my horror. My family and my job as a cook is really all that I live for these days.
After being absent, not physically, but mentally for so many years, I am learning how to be a husband again. My wife is mostly patient and kind and showing me the ropes. Addictions steal so much from you – and they keep taking. Even after you have kicked the monkey, things keep showing up. A tic here, a wasted moment there, a memory, half forgotten, comes crashing in to demand retribution. There are a thousand physical things too – wavering appetite, ears ringing, slight tremors that manifest at inopportune times, like while mincing carrots for garnish. Pain tolerance is unpredictable. It’s often seconds before the searing heat registers as a burn, long enough to cause serious burns.
Then, the unthinkable occurs. I am no longer able to cook professionally. I’m not reliable. I’m simply no longer strong enough to carry the pots, take the hours on my feet, throw around sacks of dried goods. Picking through piles of parsley, spring greens and choosing meat products becomes impossible, as my decision making abilities vanish.
I’m admitted to the hospital after a complete meltdown. I didn’t know the date, who the president was or where, exactly, I was. Ammonia levels in my bloodstream had approached toxic levels.
I was released a few days later. I tried to return to the kitchen, but simply couldn’t cook. I was afraid of the food now. Afraid I would overcook, overseason, overdo, and overcompensate for my insecurity. I had never experienced insecurity with food before.
A cook who now can’t is the saddest train wreck in the world. I sank close to depression, but found other ways to stay occupied. Then, one day last week, my wife wanted duck. The problem was, she was leaving in a half hour. Rather than freezing up inside, with panic gnawing at me with my ears ringing; I felt unchained, lifted out of the fear of failure. My brain sidelined and on one knee, watched in amazement as my hands and instincts took over along with the inevitable ticking of the clock. Risotto in mushroom stock, quickly cooked until el dente, topped with fresh blanched asparagus, wild mushrooms in a mild gouda fresh raspberry sauce that danced around the taste of the mushrooms, allowing them to display their sexuality and earthiness without diminishing their flavor. Duck browned and into a 450 degree oven for five minutes. I stepped to the porch with my own voice ringing in my ears. “Never use a garnish you can’t eat.” I returned with fresh honeysuckle blossoms, still dripping from the dew.
Plated now, done. I smiled for the first time in what seemed like forever. I still have it. It’s still there. It may be injured and hidden, but it is still there.
Late that night I dug out my worn copy of White Heat. I think everything is going to be fine. Better than fine.