One of the strangest repercussions of a brain injury is that I can remember things from 20 years ago with crystal clarity, but as for 5 minutes ago... Life is an ever-evolving series of memory aids. But a sales rep I haven't seen for eight years walks into my workplace and I'm like, "Hi, Richard!" while a conversation I had 5 minutes ago might need jogging... So what sticks & what doesn't?
Oddly enough, of all the languages I've studied, my grade school lessons in German are the most ingrained, despite how little opportunity I've had to use it. Not so surprising is that the German vocabulary that's most easily re-callable for me, to this day, has to do with food. Does anyone else remember practicing how to order a Viertel-Pfünder mit Käse? Years later, I'm horrified to think that I, or any of my former classmates would be so neophobic as to choose to eat at McDonald's in Berlin or any other European city. Another chapter oddly retained by my brain is "Marianna hat eine Party" where the hostess plied her teenage friends with Brezel und Senf. So if you need some prezels & mustard for your next Auslander hoo-ha, I'm your gal.
As a poet, one of the things that I love about German is their predilection for compound words. They even created their own compound word for these words, bandwurmwörte, which translates as tapeworm words. Translated examples from one of my favorite German poets, Paul Celan, include: wordcaves, breathturn, threadsuns, deathfugue, self-kindlingflowers. Mark Twain said it best, "Some German words are so long that they have a perspective."
Which leads me to Kummerspeck, an absolute genius compound word, meaning Griefbacon. This is the German word for emotional overeating. At one point I joked that for every new job I got or lost, I gained 10 pounds. Unfortunately, the scale seems to agree. I have many wonderful friends who constantly assure me that I look great, especially if they saw me at the frail 116 lbs I weighed when I got out of my 2 month stint at Harborview. But truth is, I am currently obese by any medical practitioner's standards.
Cut to 7 years ago when "the brainmonster" struck. I was just about to lead a wine-tasting for the monthly group I was in at the time when suddenly everyone appeared to be warped & it felt like an ice pick was ramming me in the head over & over. I laid down on a couch, hoping it would pass & that I could gain enough composure to continue. But after an excruciating number of minutes, I motioned for my husband & said, "I need to go to the hospital right now." He sped me to University of Washington's emergency room where an hour later they recognized my symptoms & transferred me via ambulance to Harborview Medical Center.
One of the last things I remember was watching snow flakes fluttering down like moths drawn to the parking lot lights, being wheeled in on a stretcher amidst the howl of sirens, and the surgeon leaning over me, asking what I did for a living. I answered "I'm in food & wine," to which he responded, "Ok, I won't touch that part." My husband has joked for years, "I should have asked him to save the part that remembers to do the dishes!" to which I respond, "Sorry honey, I never did them anyway.."
I had thought that I might have fabricated this particular memory, until, a reporter confirmed this fact with the surgeon while writing an article about this miracle sommelier. It seems that where the burst had occurred was mere millimeters away from my sense of smell & taste, and Dr. Sekhar had done everything possible to preserve it. His chilling quote for the reporter was that I had "more or less come back from the dead.”
I was fortunate enough to have family & friends quickly rally & set up a meal tree through Lotsa Helping Hands. Pretty soon my family was receiving deliveries of Jonathan Sundstrom's Pommes Dauphinoises to supplement the dismal hospital food. Journal entries from my two months in the hospital record the bemused reactions of family & friends to my food commentary while hooked up to beeping life support machines, finding a glimmer of hope with each quip:
"Catherine remains somewhat confused about time and place. However she is able to distinguish the cheeses brought to her by their smell. Yesterday she was able to tell the ingredients in a gourmet soup brought by one of her friends. "
"She has been eating better and thanks to our friends and family who have been able to bring her meals her appetite is well inspired. Catherine's palate remains in peak performance as when we tested her the other day by having her identify a cheese merely by sniffing she said, 'Teleme, this cheese is Teleme.' Right on!"
But I seemed to have lost interest in those foods-- my appetite for complex flavors replaced by a burning desire for strawberry milkshakes & grilled cheese sandwiches. In essence, as the reporter doing my story wrote, "One day, Catherine Reynolds was a vivacious 38-year-old wine seller with a promising new business. The next day, I woke up and I was 5.'" For years afterward, I had the daunting task of retraining my palate, which was acting out like a bratty toddler. Vegetables? Blech. Vinegar? Too sour. Alcohol? You guys like this stuff? It wasn't until I was with my husband at a local restaurant when the talented bartender made me a cocktail that signaled a turning point. With so much sweet, I was able to get past the sharpness of gin.
In fact, sweet was at the top of my food pyramid--I was like a pregnant woman filled with insatiable craving for chocolate, glazed doughnuts, and frozen custard. And yet, I had NEVER liked sweets even as a kid. So much for the 5-year-old palate theory. Why this sudden fundamental change in appetite?
Enter science. As a person recovering from a brain injury, I'm told I was burning up to 5000 calories a day, just laying in bed. Research on the physiology of taste has shown that a child's heightened taste for sweets correlates with their need for highly caloric foods which fuels physical growth. While most of us grow out of our preference for sweets, my body was acting like a teenager going through a major growth spurt. In the wild, smaller creatures are reliant on foods that pack a major punch of calories with less bulk, where as larger primates can spend up to half of their day masticating fibrous fruits. Mystery solved.