A Valediction

We both knew this. I had my miseries, not hers;
she had hers, not mine. The end of hers would be
the coming-of-age of mine.
– C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed


I’ve read that when Grant Achatz, the famous modernist chef, came down with cancer of the tongue, his ability to taste salt was the last to go. I am working from memory, but I believe sweetness faded first, followed by the sour, and then bitter flavors. Saltiness lingered a while, rendering each morsel a monotonous chore, but before long it was all just texture, varied gradients of sand brushing up against his tender tongue. I’ve wondered if that sequence would be the same for everyone, or even the same for every chef. Perhaps sugar would linger for the pastry chefs and bakers. Maybe the garde mangers would cling to bitterness.

It’s worth asking if Achatz felt “less” as his ability to taste eroded away. While his mind and experience and unrelenting creative capacity let him continue to develop celebrated dishes and flavor pairings (the year following Achatz’s cancer diagnosis was widely considered Alinea’s zenith to that point), the inability to taste for himself must have induced some fear or uncertainty. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Fate (or whatever it is) delights to produce a great capacity and then frustrate it. Beethoven went deaf. By our standards a mean joke; the monkey trick of a spiteful imbecile.” But would we elevate Beethoven so high had he never been deaf? The great Swiss mathematician Euler reached the peak of his productivity after he went blind. Frustrated, yes, but not stopped. Taking on water but not yet sunk.

And so I go back to tending my heart’s garden, praying a soft prayer that when this rhubarb ripens I’ll be able to dip a stalk in caster’s sugar and eat it raw, that the magical sweet and sour taste will transport me to some summer morning ages ago when everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
– James Donne, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning


2 thoughts on “A Valediction

  1. “Yet this is unendurable. And then one babbles—
    ‘If only I could bear it, or the worst of it, or any of
    it, instead of her.’ But one can’t tell how serious that
    bid is, for nothing is staked on it. If it suddenly
    became a real possibility, then, for the first time, we
    should discover how seriously we had meant it. But
    is it ever allowed?”

    More Lewis.

  2. So it is I believe due to the Dichotomy of man. A soul/body individual. When we, unavoidably must live by the fallen nature, all is fueled by that Dichotomy, no matter even if we attain the Spiritual (original state) to fuel us. To be under the dictates of the soul/body means the governing Duality, and so by contrast the light of life (this earthly gift, temporal) must dim. What awaits however for those who have attained the promise of wholeness, completion (As in Christ) will be a promise of deliverance from the dictates of the Dualistically governed existence, which consumes our preoccupation (sensorial) and so here we value those same senses, and so they reach expiration dates. The more value we place upon them, dualistically, they consume themselves, expire their temporal fuels.
    I love this post. Thank you.

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