Squash Casserole and Chemotherapy
By: Bill McFadyen
My wife, Susanna, routinely suffers a great injustice while entertaining at our home. She goes through a mental list of potential guests. Once chosen, their attendance is confirmed, at which time my wife plans a menu representative of all the food groups with starters, main courses, side dishes and desserts.
From about mid-day on the day of the event, she is thereafter engaged in preparation. Washing, mixing, measuring, slicing, baking, plating, pouring – all in a poetic, purposeful and perpetual motion.
Meanwhile, I am at the office. Somewhere around an hour or two prior to the time the guests are expected to arrive, I drive home to accomplish my tasks for the dinner party.
My wife at that point is usually into what I call “the Burn.” It is that last crucial hour when excellence may possibly be achieved, but only if she performs in an efficient and competent manner from that moment to when the doorbell rings. I tiptoe during the Burn – it is an intense (almost frightening) scene.
About the time the guests arrive, I generally have released the carbonation from a bottle of malt beverage and take drink orders for the newly arrived. Then I head out to our over-priced charcoal grill designed to cook meat without the need of human interdiction. I put Kingsford briquettes into a chimney device, strike a match and light newspaper balled up at the bottom of the chimney. I sit outside on the hardscape’s furniture to supervise the fire’s catching on the charcoal and its subsequent burn to the top of the chimney. When that arduous task is accomplished, I dump the coals into a level mound, clean the grill, and deliver word to Wife that it is time to start the ribeyes.
She delivers to my cooking station the marinated steaks in a pan. I deftly remove each slab of meat and go about arranging them symmetrically over the fire. Eventually, they rest on a plate also provided by Susanna, centered in the midst of all the other choices she has prepared.
Five minutes into the meal, the aforementioned injustice occurs. Someone at the table makes a guttural sound of pleasure while chewing a piece of meat, looks at me and says, “Bill, this meal is delicious!” Twenty-four years into this marriage, I know not to make eye contact with my wife. I ask my nearest tablemate for more squash casserole to show that my favorite thing is something Susanna prepared without my help.
All the same, the misdemeanor against the Law of Etiquette had been committed, and I am judged as contributorily negligent.
In college, I had a swell pal from Long Island, New York, with whom I undeniably and repetitively misbehaved for two of my four college years. We never hurt anyone. Our misbehavior could have been accurately characterized as a mostly harmless display of irresponsibility. Our actions almost always elicited our own uncontrollable laughter. For instance, it was he who first demonstrated to me that a standard light bulb would perfectly disappear when flushed down the toilets of our dormitory’s third floor. I cannot explain why that was so funny, but I remember vividly my peals of laughter 35 years later. He and Jeff and I played a very poor version of intramural flickerball – a somewhat void-of-rules version of flag football. We would gather in Jeff’s room and crank Foghat’s “Slow Ride” as our version of the theme to “Rocky.” We loved the deep tracks of rock and roll and called up Queen’s “Stone Cold Crazy” as our contest-winning air guitar song in the very first Phi Delta Theta Air Guitar Contest in 1982 (a party which I have heard still rages on at Davidson College). My swell pal excelled in his role as Freddie Mercury.
He went on to law school while I finished undergrad. We went about our lives for the next twenty-five years with only blurring memories of our days together. We both married, raised children, made some money, travelled on our jobs and played far less irresponsibly apart than we had together. We were both generally unaware of the other…. until we reunited in 2010.
In this past decade, we have called and texted and emailed a gazillion times. We have been together for one classic rock concert, three weekends at the coast of North Carolina and one journey to a wildlife preserve in Granville County. We discussed a trip to Colorado to see Jeff and we planned for sailing and hiking in Vermont.
My pal’s daughter texted one night this past April. I had never interacted with her until that moment. I knew she was cherished by her dad and I know that she has found a place of credibility in the working world among very famous people. Her message though was ominous. Her dad, my swell pal from then and now, had a tumor at the base of his skull. It was a traumatic introduction to a young woman that I had waited a decade to meet.
My pal is home today. He has survived brain surgery. He has done nearly a half a dozen rounds of in-patient chemotherapy. (He texted to me during round two of chemo that the color of the liquid flowing from the bag to the point of entry into his vein was exactly the same color of his favorite craft beer from his favorite brewery in Vermont.) He has engaged in physical therapy to restore motor skills and mental calisthenics to remain cognitively sharp. He texted a picture of his newly shaved head to Jeff and me. Jeff responded with one his own bald head. I went to Fantastic Sam’s for a #2 buzz cut of what hair I have left.
My pal told me that uncountable numbers of folks have lauded his fortitude in this fight. Then he told me that what he was doing was cooking the steaks for the main course. He told me of the prep work no one else sees.
I have also never met my pal’s wife. I know that she too holds a law degree and that she, like my pal, had put aside the practice of law to enjoy the last third of her life doing the things that she wanted to do on her own timetable. Today, she spends almost all her waking hours in a poetic, purposeful and perpetual motion, though the poetry is of a darkish nature. Her days are spent wrangling with insurance companies or hospital administrative staffers, coordinating doctor and PT appointments, chauffeuring the formerly independent patient, researching medical procedures and the effects thereof, and calculating strategies for another that can literally determine life and death.
My swell pal says this, “People go on and on about how strong I am without understanding what she is doing and going through as my dogged and incredibly effective advocate.”
It is an imperfect analogy – that of my slighted chef alongside that of the unlauded and exhausted caretaker. The two things are as incongruous as me texting my swell pal about the single barrel bourbon I drank while he was intravenously enjoying a craft-beer-colored poison designed to hopefully save his life.
I have no vocabulary to express the angst of yearning for my swell pal to again cast his flyrod at schooling bluefish while I watch off to one side. I have only one vocabulary word, insufficient as it is, for the wife of my swell pal as she labors under this indescribable burden.
And Susie, you do make an incomparably delicious squash casserole.