It’s two in the morning.
The door slowly opens to the hallway, and I wake.
It’s Bambi, backlit, a dark, alluring presence.
She slinks toward my bed.
She’s dressed in her nurse’s outfit.
With good reason: Bambi is a nurse — alas, no player in a cheap porn video.
Bambi is my nurse in the ICU.
She is coming to my bedside to deliver pleasure of a sort, one that, unfortunately, marches in lockstep with pain.
The pain? A crushing headache that feels like a bomb going off at the base of the skull, shockwaves radiating to the neck, shoulders, down the back. A teeth-clencher, an invitation to a scream.
I suffer the pain due to a lumbar drain placed in my spine. It is slowly drawing cerebrospinal fluid from my system. The drain is needed to reduce the pressure inside my skull, pressure on a recently opened hole leading to my brain. A small portion of the nasal septum dividing the left and right nostril was cut away, the front wall of the sphenoid sinus opened to make way to the sella — the bone in front of the pituitary gland. The thin bone of the sella was removed to expose the tough lining of the brain and spinal cord called the dura, the dura then breached to expose the pituitary gland.
A tumor was removed from my pituitary cavity.
I developed a leak.
Not good: If things leak out, other things (nasty stuff, like bacteria) can leak in. So, reduce pressure with the drain, help the hole close.
And worthy of some sort of response.
Bambi checks the flow of cerebrospinal fluid as it drips into a long, clear plastic bag, then delivers my bit of pleasure in the form of a blast of morphine and, with it, temporary, but only partial relief.
Ahhh, Bambi, it’s better than a sponge bath with a happy ending.
The next day, I am moved from the ICU to a room on the neurosurgery unit for additional care and monitoring. More fluid drained, more pain. I have IV ports plugged into both arms and, at regular times in what is otherwise a seamless, boring day, various substances are delivered via the tubes. Now and then a cheery fellow comes to the room and removes some of my blood, ferrying it to a lab where white-coated geeks subject it to all sorts of snazzy tests.
I have plenty of visitors. Kathy is joined by my daughters, Aurora and Ivy, and my grandkids, Forest and Banzai. My brother checks in with my niece, Kelsey.
I chat a bit, try to focus, but at day’s end I can’t recall much of what transpired; I am in a fog and I am due to stay in the fog for quite a while. Seems this happens when they root around in your noggin.
My favorite recreation, besides watching surgeries on the health network, is to glance at the bag into which they drain my cerebrospinal fluid. Ivy checks it out as well.
“What does it taste like?,” she asks, bending over, peering at the liquid, prodding the bag.
Due to the leak, some of the fluid seeps down the back of my throat. “It’s salty, faintly metallic,” I say.
“It has to be good for something after they drain it, wouldn’t you think?”
“It’s my understanding they throw the stuff out. Seems a shame to waste it. After all, it took me a lot of effort to make it and I guarantee it’s been an ordeal to rid myself of it.”
Ivy ponders the situation for a moment. “I know,” she says, “we’ll use it in a cocktail.” She has the idea factory open and running full tilt.
“Let’s see,” she says, “slightly salty, a watery consistency. First off, we find our dominant flavor. You love lemon, don’t you?”
“OK, so we mix equal parts of cerebrospinal fluid and limoncello. You’ve talked about pounding down major amounts of limoncello in Sorrento and Capri. Limoncello has the flavor, and ferries some fine memories.”
“Then we balance off the tart and salty components with a bit of simple syrup. Shake the mix with some ice, pour it in a martini glass, garnish with a bit of mint.”
“We’ll call the new cocktail ‘The Cerebro.’”
“Brilliant! And when you recover from all this, we’ll host a dinner. We start the evening with a round of Cerebros and some snappy appetizers. It’ll be a celebration of your recovery, with each element of the dinner planned to reflect some aspect of your brain surgery experience.”
“Sounds good. A theme party.”
“I’ll find the doctor and ask him if we can have the fluid. This is going to be the next big thing on the cocktail circuit, Dad. Cocktails are hot again, you know. I wonder if there’s a black market source for cerebrospinal fluid? It would be wise to corral the market now before the craze takes off. We could make a fortune.”
“I bet we can find an outlet in Myanmar.”
“People sell kidneys. Why not cerebro-spinal fluid?”
“And we’ll make the limoncello.”
For a healthy amount of this liqueur, we’ll need a gallon jar, with lid, washed and dried. We’ll procure a bottle of Everclear grain alcohol (195 proof) and a bottle of regular vodka (80-100 proof). We’ll need about 15-20 thick-skinned lemons, preferably organic, and five cups of pure cane sugar. Also, we’ll hustle up three cups of distilled water.
This is easy. Using a sharp peeler, we’ll remove the peel from the lemons, making sure no pith adheres to the peel. Pith equals bitter. We mix the grain alcohol and vodka in the jar and add the lemon peels. We cover the jar, put it in a cool, dark place, and stir the mix every eight days or so for six weeks.
When the oils from the peels are infused in the alcohol, we remove the peels from the liquid. We mix the sugar and water in a pan and create a thin syrup by bringing the mix to a boil and boiling for five minutes. We cool the syrup on the countertop while we pass the booze through a series of coffee filters. Twice. We combine the cooled syrup and the alcohol in the jar, stir gently and return the jar to a cool, dark place for another month or so.
Voila! … limoncello.
Should be ready for the dinner just about the same time I am.
This sets me to thinking. What to eat at the party? What will be symbolic of my experience?
While in the hospital, I gobble stool softeners like they’re snack mix, preparing to endure the worst punishments of the stay: hospital food. So, why not reproduce a hospital dinner, with a couple notable differences?
First, no need for stool softeners (though I suppose they can be offered as a party favor).
Second, make the fare palatable.
If they fed me in the ICU, I don’t remember what they provided. On the other hand, I remember the meals in the neurosurgery unit all too well.
The standouts: “pot roast” and “turkey meatloaf.”
Banzai ate at least half of each dinner, including the lion’s share of the “mashed potatoes and gravy.” He liked the food but, we must remember, Banzai also eats and enjoys things he finds on the floor, sticky things covered with dog hair.
I, on the other hand, take a few bites of each meal then resign myself to memories of the real things – braised cow goodies rich with collagen, actual meatloaf, with flavor and texture.
The recovery celebration will provide an opportunity to revisit a favorite braise, repair the hospital pot roast, mend the damage to my culinary sensibility.
The options are many: a regular pot roast, braised oxtails, braised lamb or pork shanks. In any case, the meat will be seared then removed from the heavy pot. Veggies will be added to the pot and cooked (onion, shallot, carrot, celery, perhaps some parsnip and, near the end, a wad of tomato paste). The pan will be deglazed with wine, the meat will be put back in with a bundle of herbs (parsley, thyme, etc.) and a bay leaf, broth will be added to come halfway up the sides of the meat. Bring everything to a simmer, cover the pot with foil and a lid, pop the package in a 275 oven for four to five hours.
When the meat is falling from the bone or falls apart when manipulated with a fork, out it comes; the broth is strained, put back in the pot and reduced over medium high heat.
Garlic mashed potatoes, anyone? Roasted potatoes and carrots, perhaps? Some green peas, or asparagus? A simple salad with a rudimentary vinaigrette? Who’s up for wine?
Add to this some tasty pre-meal nibbles, along with a couple bracing Cerebros, and the abuse of hospital food will be nearly undone.
Only one thing remains.
Does anyone have some spare cerebrospinal fluid?