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​Watermelon Man

AFTER MAJOR surgery to remove a tumour from my gullet on December 10, and with two-thirds of my stomach removed (against the spread of my oesophageal adenocarcinoma), I had to eat much smaller portions of the few foods I was permitted.

Overnight, Christmas excess became Ramadan moderation. On Friday, the day before surgery, I could have piled a plate high with chicken curry, paratha, channa-aloo, chataigne, pumpkin, bodi, mango all soaked in dhal, and cuffed it down like a Russian soldier meeting a Ukrainian civilian in Donetsk. On Sunday, I was in ICU for two days and in hospital for six more. Thin soups were as rich as my meals got.
It was close to Christmas before I was allowed soft mashed potato. Dieticians and gastroenterologists add new items to a patient’s diet as if they’re adding phosphorous to water and all solid food is one big vat of nitroglycerine to them. I was out of hospital for two weeks before I was allowed a piece of toast with my one scrambled egg: what was left of my stomach just couldn’t take it.
Any life-saving major surgery is also life-threatening. A year into Putin’s war, Ukrainians could tell you there’s a good reason they call it “invasive” surgery. All major surgery is traumatic – but major abdominal surgery is the worst.
And I’m not saying that to impress the chicks in the ICU.
All surgery risks complications but abdominal surgery just seems to have much more that could go wrong. Brain surgery may have more horrendous potential complications – but you’ll probably be in a coma and unaware of them; with abdominal surgery, you footy well know you’re in a monkey pants.
My post-surgery complications meant I wasn’t able to eat a lot for most of December and I couldn’t keep food down at all in January. Between the end of December and mid-January, the food I ate was not digested. It floated around in a kink in what is left of my stomach, like an eddy at the side of a waterfall, quietly rotting.
And it remained there until I threw it up.
Between December 10 and February 10, I nosedived from a possibly chubby 175lbs to a certainly emaciated 129! Even though I’ve started putting weight back on – I’m up to 134lbs and eating cake and ice cream like crazy – friends who have known me all my life this week looked straight past me when I walked through their front doors; they were expecting BC and Gandhi-ji arrived!
On Saturday January 14, craving the delicious taste of a slice taken straight from the fridge, I went out looking for a watermelon – but could not find a ripe one. As it happened, on Sunday January 15, after violent projectile vomiting all Saturday night, I was admitted to hospital, where I remained for two weeks. Since then, I have been fed by stomach tube.
But, in the last fortnight, my surgeon’s suspicion that the impediment to digestion was massive internal swelling (that comes with major abdominal surgery like Fay-Ann comes with Bunji in Road March) started looking like the right diagnosis: everything in my digestive tract had been just too swollen, post-surgery, for anything but liquids to go down.
For five weeks, the only “food” I had was a readily digested, hugely expensive imported whey protein-based liquid pumped directly into my intestines through a stomach tube. Since 15 January up to today, not a day has passed that I have not been attached to a feeding pump connected to my stomach tube.
But, from the second week of February, I was gradually allowed more and more food by mouth, starting with soups and smoothies.
On the morning of February 12, more than a month after I began craving it, I walked to the fridge and took out a bowl of cold diced watermelon.
And stood by myself and bit into the most delicious food I’ve ever had. What a joy it was, to finally taste the thing I’d wanted for so long. My heart soared, my tastebuds ran riot.
Every morning since then, I’ve started my day the same way.
With the same delight.
And thought: God, it’s good to be alive!
And to eat a food so divine.
And to begin to think that, soon, with luck, I just may have a life more ordinary and less complicated.

BC Pires is a lifelong Herbie Hancock fan and a present day Mahatma Ghandi impersonator

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