Up until the moment I passed out from anesthesia I could not picture my life after surgery. Though the neurosurgeon told me to prepare a living will, I did not have the impression the procedure was, as far as brain surgery went, high risk. I would leave the hospital after one night with one stitch in my scalp. I did not fear dying during the procedure—but when I tried to imagine what would come next I pictured something like thick coastal fog stretching from sand to sky, a single shade of impenetrable gray. To calm my nerves on the eve of the surgery, I picked up a collection of science writing from my shelf. The page to which I opened described a woman’s experience waking up during a surgical operation, too drugged to speak or move, awake enough to witness everything. Yelping, I slammed the book shut and curled up in bed.
I was having brain surgery because approximately four years earlier I’d woken up during a conference with my head resting on another attendee’s shoulder. Not because I’d fallen asleep but because I’d had a seizure. Adult-onset epilepsy is more common than most people realize. My case was complicated, though, because my seizures were intractable: uncontrolled despite my doctors’ best efforts. My neurologist found medication that reduced my seizures, but physical or mental stress—the flu, holiday travels, hard decisions—sometimes set off several seizures in one day.
For years I had taken multiple medications to reduce the number of my seizures. The medicines I took also reduced my appetite and deadened my sense of taste. For me, raised in a large family that celebrated all life events with boisterous dinner parties or hours-long brunches, one of the saddest things about managing epilepsy had been falling out of love with food. At first, I thought that my cast-iron skillets had somehow gone rancid in the hot Tucson weather. Next, I did research and concluded that the acid from raw tomatoes had ruined the finish on those same skillets. Or perhaps my Indian spices, carried out in hand baggage from holiday visits back East or purchased here and there at Indian grocery stores, were old and stale? As I eventually realized that the problem was not my cooking supplies but my taste buds, I gave up on my exuberant cooking. I turned off the stove, put up the pans, shut the spices in a drawer. I ate salads and veggie burgers, bland beans and rice, food from restaurants. Cooking became a chore instead of a passion. Worse, cooking ceased to be a way to connect with other people. Because I couldn’t tell whether my dishes tasted right, I grew insecure about feeding other people. The dinners I imagined hosting became breakfasts—eggs are hard to get wrong. Meals at restaurants became coffee shop dates.
A year of tests—including one that resulted in my having to skip a potluck afterward because of my radioactivity—revealed that the source of seizures in my brain happened to be a discrete, identifiable, accessible location. Surgery might mean an end to seizures—and an end to seizure medication.
My first clear memories after the anesthesia wore off were from the recovery room, where just a few hours after surgery three of my friends sat with me and teased the nurses. To my surprise and everyone else’s, I realized I was famished. Eat, my friends said. With their help I ordered lasagna from the hospital kitchen. The fog began ever so slightly to dissipate. The future held people I loved, and they held nourishing meals.
My stomach hurt and my fr idge ran empty and still my heart swelled with the wonder of food.
Each day for two weeks after surgery, as my brain rested and healed, different people knocked on my apartment door bearing dinner. Every meal told a story about the people in whose arms it arrived. A fellow student who ate only healthy foods stopped by with a curried dish she had picked up at the Food Conspiracy Co-op’s hot bar while bicycling to work. A couple with whom I’d become close brought a three-course meal that included bread still hot from the oven, delicious home-made stew, and dessert of caramel-laced chocolate chip cookie bars. Three guy friends teamed up and purchased multiple days’ worth of food from a Greek restaurant—after realizing just in the nick of time that it was their day for food delivery.
Sometimes when a friend walked up the dusty stairs of my adobe rowhouse and knocked, I was fast asleep. My friend of more than a decade, Greta, who had volunteered to be my caretaker while my brain healed, accepted the plates and bowls offered, gave a status update on my recovery, and quietly shut the door. Other times, excited to see love made edible, I moved unsteadily into the living room and said hello. I wore pajamas all day and had the remains of my hair in a bun on the top of my head, with Band-Aids here and there on my shaved scalp. My recovering brain vaguely sensed that friends sometimes looked concerned, even shocked, by my appearance. Not enough for my smile to falter.
I loved every bite of everything friends cooked for me—from roasted Brussels sprouts and rice to home-made tofu egg rolls to pumpkin risotto to crusty quiche—and not simply because of the deliciousness of being helped and considered, or the actual deliciousness of the dishes. There was a chemical reason that I gorged blissfully on my friends’ food dishes.
During the first two weeks after my brain surgery, in addition to being fed by friends, I took a steroid to reduce brain swelling—a steroid also prescribed to cancer patients to stimulate their appetites. I remembered once more how good it felt to be hungry, when paired with the anticipation of soon being satisfied. How food could be more than another medicine we take to stay alive—how in the best possible situations, food embodies love, joy, art, community. I ate constantly. I can’t believe I just had brain surgery, I’d muse to Greta while munching cookie after cookie from a batch my mother mailed. My favorites from childhood, chocolate chip, light and crunchy and addictive. And berries—how had I forgotten the sound of strawberries split by teeth, the way the red fruits tasted both sweet and tangy? Greta made steel-cut oats for breakfast, and I hated oatmeal, except suddenly I didn’t, not when served with fresh blueberries and a swirl of sugar. Followed, a short while later, by second breakfast—eggs smeared on toast, the glowing yellow yolks an unspeakable delight the likes of which I’d never experienced, not since breakfast the morning before. My stomach hurt and my fridge ran empty and still my heart swelled with the wonder of food. Every evening something new and delicious appeared in the hands of a friend with a knock on the door. I could look online in the morning to see who would stop by and what they would bring later that day. Then, because part of my brain had not yet rewired for the task of short-term memory formation, the information faded from my mind. I got to enjoy the surprise twice before even tasting the meal.
As buttoning my favorite pair of shorts became a struggle, the wall of fog that haunted me before my brain surgery evaporated further still. I knew that after my two weeks of steroids ended—on the same day that the friendly food deliveries stopped—my appetite would begin to vanish once more. I’d remember to eat just like remembering to brush my teeth and wash my hands—because food was good for me, if not good to me. But I would savor those two weeks on steroids as a vision of what life after epilepsy might mean. If the surgery had been successful and time passed without seizures, I would slowly come off of my medications. Eventually, I would be medication free. The world would fill with hunger, anticipation, flavor—the delight of eating once more. ✜
Maya L. Kapoor holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona and an MS in biology from Arizona State University. She is writing a collection of essays about nature in the urbanizing West.