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Meal tray communion

By David Giuliano

I’m thankful in spite of it all. In spite of the hair-growing flesh-flap relocated to my forehead from my thigh and the excised bone beneath it replaced with titanium mesh. In spite of the excruciating pain — only moments ago — of having a 15-inch drain winched from beneath my knee to thigh incision, I’m thankful. You know the list: the doctors and nurses; my friends and family who visit; my beloved Pearl and our children; the food and clean sheets; and the beauty of life, itself. I’m genuinely grateful.

Today, I’m also feeling sorry for myself and a little jealous. Here it is, Thanksgiving, and I’m shuffling the halls of Toronto General Hospital, trailing my intravenous pole and displaying the rear-end of my boxers. I’m in pain. Body and soul. I’m jealous of everyone who’s tucking into a turkey dinner and enjoying the warm glow of familial companionship.

I’m jealous of Pearl, my mom and my dear friend, Keith, who have crossed University Avenue to the Swiss Chalet for a dinner of chicken, stuffing, cranberry sauce and potatoes — fried mashed or baked. How self-pitying is that?

When my dinner arrives, Keith and Mom are on their way back to Owen Sound, Ont., and Pearl is at my bedside. She positions the table over the bed. I push the button to raise the back and poke a finger through a venting hole on the plastic cover and unveil the plate. There’s a mash of something red and white. It may have been lasagna when it emerged from some subterranean industrial kitchen. That's before it was delivered to the loading dock downstairs. There’s a vegetable. Are those carrots? There’s tea. There’s a little dish of pineapple. It appears to be fresh, not canned. Be still my heart.

There’s a hard, white bun hermetically sealed in a cellophane baggy. There’s a half-cup of juice in a plastic container with a tinfoil lid. I lift the container closer to my right eye — the good one — to see what kind of juice it contains. Grape. Heretofore, juices had arrived predictably: orange on the morning tray; apple on the lunch and evening trays. That reliable pattern is shattered by grape, and it seems like a minor miracle.

I’m a preacher and a cradle Christian. To me, a bun and grape juice is Christ’s clarion call to the table. It’s as reflexive as standing when a hymn is announced. Holding the juice cup in one hand and the bun in the other, I say to Pearl, “We can have communion.” I mean it as a little joke, but the words catch in my throat. My eyes spill over.

I finish my lasagna and savour the pineapple. I eat all of it because I’m hungry and because even in my self-pitying funk, I know there are too many people who would trade plates with me in an instant. I’m privileged in ways that embarrass me.

Pearl goes down the hall to refill my cup with water and ice. I clear the blue plastic tray of detritus, plates and packaging. I spread a clean white tissue on it, tear open the bun bag with my teeth and peel back the foil juice lid. I centre them on the tissue, on top of the tray. Pearl returns and sits on the edge of the bed — the elements between us.

I repeat the story of Jesus’ last meal — how he broke the bread and poured the wine, and asked his friends to remember him when they ate and drank. We say a prayer, naming the things for which we are grateful. We break and eat the dry bun, and wash it down with grape juice. I don’t know if Pearl is crying; my own eyes are too flooded with tears to see. Tears of gratitude for a bun and a cup of grape juice — for Jesus and his friends who I experience in those unremarkable elements.

In that bun and juice, the entire cosmos is present. The communion of saints — living and dead — gather round to hold and heal us. Meanwhile, my roommate is vomiting in the bathroom. The sound of it grounds me on the earth, allowing my puny sufferings to be woven together with the far greater sufferings of the world and carry the remembrance of Jesus’ own suffering in my body. Paradoxically, my small bit of suffering helps me to feel closer to joy than I have felt all day.

It’s a mystery the way that the simplest of actions, like eating and drinking, can become sacred ritual and break the world open to us — and us to it. The most mundane things, a bun in a bag and a cup of juice, become conduits of the Holy.

I’m grateful for all the Sundays when I ate and drank juice, and it meant nothing to me. Each one of them were training for moments like this.

David Giuliano is the former moderator of The United Church of Canada, an award-winning writer and author of "Postcards from the Valley: Encounters with Fear, Faith and God." He lives with his wife, Pearl, in Marathon, Ont.
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