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King of hearts

7 Aug

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One of the most solemn men that I have ever known is also responsible for possibly the greatest belly laugh of my entire life.

The man, chief of cardiac surgery at a renowned New York medical insitution, had one day earlier spent eight hours performing an open-heart procedure on a 42-year-old patient named Joe.

“So,” said the man, sounding uncharacteristically warm as he took a seat on his patient’s hospital bed, “how are you feeling today?”

“Okay,” Joe whispered unconvincingly. “How are you feeling today?”

The surgeon smiled briefly and reported that he was doing just fine, then moved closer to his patient.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” he said sounding genuinely concerned.

Struggling with discomfort all Joe could manage was a head nod.

“What I’m wondering, see, I mean considering your history, as well as your family’s, of course, which we’ve discussed…”

For a chief surgeon the man was coming awfully close to stammering, which raised the anxiety level in the room considerably. After all, this was not the first but the second time he had performed surgery on this patient in just five years. How could a professional possessing such skill and confidence behave so tentatively? What awful news was he attempting to deliver?

“Would you ever, just possibly, well…” He paused and straightened himself, as if readying for confession, then blurted out, but ever so softly, “consider the idea of becoming a vegetarian?”

The words hovered above the men for what felt like several moments of electrified silence. In reality it took but a few seconds for Joe to summon what little strength he could muster and answer the man.

“Fuck. No.”

The surgeon and I collapsed into such prolonged laughter that two nurses and as many aides appeared at the doorway to see what the fuss was about.

I probably should have mentioned my presence in the room earlier. Joe is my brother, you see, and I love him very, very much. Where else in the world could I possibly have been at that moment?

Today is his 58th birthday. More important, sixteen years have passed since the last time he was wheeled into an operating room. So this is a good day, one that is worth celebrating.

Joe takes much better care of himself these days. He doesn’t smoke anymore, goes to the gym every morning before work, golfs most every weekend from April through November, and moved to a much nicer neighborhood than he had grown accustomed to for more years than was wise or necessary.

I wish I could say that he eats as well as he should. Joe was diligent about keeping a healthful diet for a few years after his surgeries, but as time has lapsed so too has his discipline.

A heart-healthful vegetarian he is not.

Like me my brother is a product of a very particular culinary heritage: Italian American. More to the point, we each stubbornly embrace this heritage, no matter how many annual physicals we put behind us.

Joe is also a bachelor who works long hours, which presents its own set of menu challenges. His refrigerator is often stocked with prepared foods, many from the Italian grocery/deli a few blocks from his apartment in Queens. There are often balls of fresh mozzarella, arancini stuffed with ground beef and peas, chicken and/or eggplant parm, sausages with broccoli rabe; you get the idea.

I visit Joe a few times a year, always staying in his apartment, usually just the two of us. For a while there I tried being a good brother, suggesting going out for sushi when I really wanted a burger and a beer, or Chinese when our favorite old-school Italian Don Peppe was what I desired. I cannot tell you how many times I have sneaked away alone to a White Castle in order to protect my brother from an unhealthful craving that we both share.

Lately when Joe and I spend a couple days together we eat and drink what we want, without regard to his or our family’s unpleasant coronary history. Recently we were sitting at the bar at his favorite Italian spot in the new neighborhood. About midway into a bottle of red I stopped and surveyed the landscape before us: manicotti, meatballs, lasagne, baked clams, pizza topped with burrata and prosciutto di parma.

I thought about how the surgeon had once tried—and failed—to move my brother in a new direction, but kept it to myself. We were enjoying our evening out together and I wasn’t about to ruin things by being a nag. Besides, I don’t exactly have the cred to lecture anybody about responsible eating.

Maybe it’s time I started working on becoming a better brother.

Happy Birthday Joe!