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September 12, 2013 7:48 am

Not about birds — or maybe it is

Written by Don Amend

Once upon a time, it was a big event in California every spring when huge flocks of swallows returned from their winter home to the old mission at San Juan Capistrano.

People used to make special trips to watch the bug-eating birds arrive by the thousands, and the event even inspired a song, “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” which was a hit for a group called the Ink Spots back in the early 40s. Among other singers, Elvis Presley recorded the tune and Pat Boone’s version was among the top 50 songs played on the radio for a while back in the ’50s.

However, the swallows themselves weren’t the point of the song. For unexplained reasons, the singer’s significant other had gone away and was due to return when the swallows did, and he was suffering from separation anxiety. The song really wasn’t about birds.

Neither is this column.

When I underwent surgery on my spine back in February, one of the side effects, a common one when they operate on your neck, was that it messed up my swallower.

The little flap that closes my windpipe when I swallow to prevent peppermint mocha from getting into my lungs wasn’t holding up its end, and peppermint mocha isn’t a good thing to have in your lungs because it causes pneumonia, which can kill you.

Well, since the doctors didn’t want that to happen — neither did I, for that matter — they left strict orders that I wasn’t to be given anything to eat or drink.

Well, the prospect of never again eating ice cream, pizza or enjoying any other gustatory pleasures was a bit upsetting, but the surgeon told me that my swallows would almost certainly come back. A couple of therapists agreed, gave me some exercises to provide encouragement to my swallower, and sent me home.

So, for the next couple of months, neither food nor drink passed my lips. The only thing I could do with food is dream about it, and, as you can probably imagine, I did.

Visions of everything from ham sandwiches to popcorn floated through my brain at night. Some days I imagined giving up my kingdom, as puny as it is, for a spoonful of Jell-O, and on really bad days, I might have held up the coffee shop at gunpoint for just a couple sips of coffee.

I frequently had a crazy dream in which somebody would offer me a snack, something like a Girl Scout cookie, for example, which I would promptly toss into my mouth. Then I’d realize what I had done, and I’d frantically try to clear the stuff out of my mouth.

The panic would wake me up, and I’d realize that there really was no thin mint there, and I’d drift back to sleep. Oddly, though, when I woke up in the morning, the taste of chocolate mint would be lingering on my tongue.

I had to be extra careful when I brushed my teeth, and even when I did, my teeth never felt clean, and if I woke up in the night, my mouth felt like it was full of sand.

Things looked up in June, after a couple of swallow tests demonstrated that I could, in fact, swallow some stuff without any thing going into my lungs, so I started eating cooked cereal, pureed fruits and stuff like that. If I was careful, I could even eat a cookie.

Still, my surgeon warned me to take it slowly, and I was still unable to swallow thin liquids, including water, because small amounts of those things sometimes sneaked down where they weren’t supposed to go, and one can’t really eat a cookie without a little milk or coffee to wash it down.

Well, another month went by, and another swallow test showed more improvement. I was cleared to have a cup of tea or coffee, and now I wouldn’t have to threaten to shoot someone for a glass of water.

Well, as you can probably imagine, I’ve enjoyed the last couple of weeks eating vegetables, pasta, even a little seasoned hamburger. Nevertheless, there are limits, so I’m still getting most of my nutrition by other means.

Unlike those California swallows, though, who no longer come back to Capistrano in huge flocks due to development and bug control, my swallow is coming back in bigger numbers. My plan is that when that roasted turkey comes out of the oven in a couple of months, I’ll be ready to take advantage of the occasion.

So I guess this column was about birds — or at least one bird — after all. That and pumpkin pie.

Bon appétit.

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