The Other Side of a Tuna Sandwich

One especially hot July morning in 1980, the day twelve people in St Louis died from the effects of a prolonged heat wave, my 49-year-old father took the day off from work. He was still recovering from a heart attack the summer before, which meant he had added some exercise to his self-prescribed regimen of heavy drinking. While it was still early in the day, before the worst of the heat settled in, he went for a long therapeutic walk and got caught in a fierce and sudden downpour. Instead of finding cover or shrugging off the pelt of giant raindrops, my father ran all the way home. He arrived at the carport just as my brother Dan, the only child still living at home, ran out to the driveway to jump in his car and take off for work. Exposed in the storm, they didn’t stop to speak.

After my father burst into the house, drenched and panting, he ran upstairs to change his clothes, leaving the dripping outfit hanging in the shower, marking his trail with wet footprints. My mother had stayed in bed because she hadn’t slept well the night before. When she got up around 11:00, she went down to make a tuna fish sandwich for lunch, noticing that the stairs were wet. She walked towards the den, where my father always sat alone when he was home, to see if he wanted a sandwich.

She knew as soon as she saw him that he was dead.

She called an ambulance and her minister, who was about to see my church-loathing father for the first time. Then the sudden widow went back to the kitchen to empty the can of tuna into a bowl and stir in the mayonnaise. She was sitting in the dining room eating her tuna fish sandwich when the minister arrived, several minutes before the ambulance.

When the minister came in and saw her interrupted lunch on the dining room table, she realized that he might think she was wrong to be eating at that moment, what with her widowhood so fresh and her dead husband frozen against the couch on the other side of the living room. But the minister reassured her that he saw nothing wrong about the sandwich. What a relief it was to her that he was so understanding.

I’m not quite as accepting as the minister said he was, though I try to be fair in analyzing the essence of this meal. Maybe the tuna sandwich doesn’t show anything about her heart, and maybe it is wrong to question it. I struggle with how to interpret the sandwich, even now that I understand that Aspergers interferes with her feelings about other people. I brushed it off at the time she told me about the sandwich, back when I still insisted to myself that she was a typical mother. But now that I am more honest with myself about her emotional boundaries, it’s harder for me to believe that eating the sandwich is nothing more than any other way to wrestle with the horror until help arrives in a devastating crisis.

Is it too harsh to think that eating that sandwich is another sign of her shallow emotions about other people? Maybe she needed that serving of normal, of continuity and comfort to help her manage the shock of a suddenly dead husband and the specter of a startling new life. Don’t we all react in unexpected ways when we face such a shock? I want to believe in her. I still want to believe that there is a deep well of feeling for others, though she has shown over and over that there is not. But still, maybe that tuna fish sandwich doesn’t mean much. Maybe it was not a show of hand.

Copyright 2014 Sarah Meyer Noel. All rights reserved.

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