"The Little Things"

    I started with food that didn’t have a smell—Popsicles and candy with hard shells. I especially liked the Popsicles because they melted so quickly—I didn’t have to feel them in my mouth for very long, which helped relax my gag reflex. Mom pulled out a bag of Skittles that she had bought in the hospital gift shop and gave them to me. I ate them one at a time and felt smug.
    I stuck to the Skittle and Popsicle regimen for half a day or so feeling quite proud of myself, and then a nurse appeared and said, “You need to eat something."
    Somebody put the TV on mute.
    “Okay,” I said and asked for another Popsicle.
    “No,” she said firmly. “Real food. Off the menu.”
    I stared at her as my family sat listening. I felt like it was way too soon—what about all the Skittles and Popsicles! That was huge! It had been weeks since I had eaten anything! Why did she have to rush me? I argued with her, but she stood firm. I stared at her, hating her, worrying that this would only set me back. I hadn’t thrown up in hours.
    Teary-eyed, I gave in and studied the menu, trying to decide what might be the least repellent. Even being able to read the menu without vomiting was a triumph. I eventually settled on the pasta with meat sauce. It would be smelly, but it seemed innocuous enough that even a hospital couldn’t ruin it.
    I waited tensely for food services to bring it to my room, watching TV but not really paying attention. When the clattering cart stopped outside the door, I looked at the curtain over the doorway. Mom put the TV on mute again and pulled the rolling table over to my bed. The waiter brought in the cafeteria tray with the black plastic cover. I held my breath and pulled the cover off, releasing the odors of the steaming pasta and sauce. I acted fast, unwrapping a fork from the napkin and trying not to breathe. I chewed one, two, three, four small bites, and then told Jeff to put the rest out in the hallway where I couldn’t smell it. I drank some water and lay back, feeling the unfamiliar bulk in my stomach, waiting to see what would happen, the green basin close by my side. My family waited with me, seeming to watch TV but really watching me. Ten minutes passed, then twenty. It seemed like it was staying down. I had done it, and I never wanted to do it again.

    I ordered a bagel with cream cheese the next morning while Mom and Cheryl were on their walk, but the dense bread was too much inside my mouth, and I threw it up. Yet I didn’t get too upset. Dr. Sirk had said throwing up wasn’t hurting me, and it was unreasonable to expect it all to stop at once. I told Mom about it when she got back, and she was dismayed. I shouldn’t have ordered the bagel—I thought it was plain and wouldn’t smell much, but it needed too much chewing.
    I don’t remember what my other first foods were, but in a surprisingly short time—just a couple of days—I was able to eat a tiny meal with confidence. I ate very little, but still.
    I remember at some point just a few weeks later, Jeff and I stopped for Costco pizza on our way home from a follow-up appointment in Seattle. We sat down at one of the long communal tables. I took a bite of pepperoni and said with relish, “It’s so wonderful to eat!”
    The lady next to me smiled and looked over. “It’s nice that you’re so appreciative of the little things,” she commented.
    I looked at Jeff.
    She had no idea.