How can you eat at a time like this?
My family used to call me the ring of power.
Not because I ruled them all, but because I attracted odd situations the way the one ring attracts evil.
Here’s one of those situations.
The Story of Aunt Claudette
“You kids wanna see my surgery?”
My Great Aunt Claudette was referring to her wound, the marking left by a recent surgical procedure.
When someone asks if you would like to see something strange, always say, “Yes I would.”
Life’s diamonds are almost always in the strange.
My little sister Meg and I had been left for some reason at the house of our Great-Aunt Claudette.
The way I remember it, when Aunt Claudette asked if we would like to see her surgery, she was in the dining room, lying on the table.
Though this can’t be right. She must have been in the living room, lying on the frog-colored couch, the one sitting beneath her favorite painting, The Last Supper.
Maybe I remember her on the table like a meal in cannibal land because she was lying beneath The Last Supper, or maybe its because that day was bizarre, and my mind warps the memory to make sure it still feels as bizarre now as it did then. Ten years from today I’ll probably remember Aunt Claudette was wearing a top hat and playing the harmonica.
Her son Bobby stood beside her, gripping a black, medical bag.
Bobby was an old man but still lived with his mother. This mystified us. We thought of him as a boy, but one forgotten on the shelf too long, decades past the expiration date of childhood. He seemed to know it and thought it was funny. He was always smiling.
“Do you?” she said, a little upset to have to ask again. I guess she was used to people answering, “Yes please, right away. Get me some surgery I can look at.”
Well, did we want to see it?
Children have so little power. Our parents say, “Would you like to play the piano?” and “Would you like to play baseball?”
Our hearts fashion the only answer: “I would rather die.”
However, by the time these words reach our mouths, we realize the questions weren’t questions, but more like “F.Y.I., you are going to play piano and when you’re not doing that, you will play baseball. Oh, and you’re going to like it, damn it.”
My sister looked at me. Her face seemed to say, “I’d rather have surgery than look at her surgery,” but she left the wording of this up to her big brother, the one who was supposed to be her protector here on earth.
But what could I say? I couldn’t say, “No thanks,” as if Aunt Claudette had offered us a fifth helping of beef. This was her body, the only one she had, her oldest possession, and it was nice of her to ask if we wanted a little, private tour. Wasn’t it?
I said, “Yes,” but I think it came out as nothing more than a grave nod of my head.
Bobby’s eyes seemed to glow, as if saying, “That’s the spirit.”
Without further ado, he lifted her shirt, and I saw my first 83-year-old stomach.
It reminded me of pizza dough. It was sort of fluid, but a sluggish fluid, like candle wax trying to drip off the edge of your frog skin couch, slow enough that Meg and I could have escaped without breaking a sweat if it came after us. The chase scene would show the stomach pursuing and then us walking ahead of it slowly, taunting it by our lack of speed.
Once Bobby had revealed his mother, his fingers went in for the kill.
He picked at the edge of a huge, square bandage. He lifted. We saw stitches. We saw the color red. And yellow.
Smells joined in. All the smells of the hospital were there, concentrated, as if Bobby had lit an aromatherapy candle, a candle he had purchased in hell, one that filled the room with an odorous bouquet of death.
When Bobby began treating the long gash, he and Aunt Claudette seemed to forget all about their audience. Their eyes and minds were only about the wound, the whole wound, and nothing but the wound.
Meg and I had to aim our eyes anywhere else. We chose to stare at the beloved painting, The Last Supper.
We looked long and hard at that ancient supper, at the feasting and the fellowship, all the mostly-nice things going on in that upper room, a place that was hundreds and hundreds of years and miles away from where we were, a place that seemed much better than where we were, and I thought it would be nice to be there at that table, reclining, talking, but all I could think to say to Jesus and his disciples while the smells of Aunt Claudette’s red and yellow badge of experience were drilling up my nose was, “How on earth can you guys eat at a time like this?”