Eating Octopus — Essay by Judith Gille
My brother-in-law Andy and I decide to take his mother (my mother-in-law) out for a “Last Supper.” We are calling it that because she is scheduled for brain surgery next week, and at age ninety, the outcome is hard for even the neurosurgeon to predict. Andy is eager to try the Omega Ouzeria, a new Greek restaurant that recently opened on the street below my Seattle condo. They specialize in seafood and he loves eating things that once swam in the sea. In fact, he loves eating every kind of food.
The week before the Last Supper, my mother-in-law discovers that the mortality rate for neurosurgery patients is not 3% like she thought. “It’s 5%!” she exclaims, as if the neurosurgeon or someone in his office has been trying to pull something over on her. I remind Maxine that she still has a 95% chance of survival. “I think you’ll make it through the surgery just fine,” I say, “but recovery could be challenging.” (Actually, I might have said “hell”).
While living in France years ago, I learned the distinction between un gourmet who is a connoisseur of fine food, and un gourmand, a lover of food in general. My brother-in-law falls decidedly into the latter category. Like my Uncle Harry, who once said, “I’ll eat anything that moves,” Andy is from Texas. I don’t know if this is a trait of Texans in general, but I do know Andy has paid for this philosophy of food more than once when our families have traveled in Mexico together.
Maxine’s life has been a miracle of modern medical intervention. When she was a child she had radiation treatments for a severe ear infection that supposedly could have killed her. At age 45 she had a hysterectomy, at age 68 she got two bunion-ectomies, at age 75 she got a cochlear implant, at 78 a bladder saddle, and at 80 she had a pacemaker installed, at age 88 she had her left hip replaced, and at 89 she had all of her teeth recapped at a cost of $40,000.
Rain is coming down in sheets the night Andy and I take Maxine to the Omega Ouzeria for dinner. Being nearly paralyzed on her left-side (hence the need for surgery to remove the benign tumor thought to be causing the paralysis), it takes a Herculean effort on Andy’s part to get her up and out of her apartment, down the elevator, through the Fred Lind Manor Retirement Home, and out to where I’m parked in the back alley. The two of us get drenched as we struggle to get Maxine and the walker she needs to get around into my Honda Fit. When we arrive at the restaurant, the whole routine is reversed. We are drenched all over again.
We are sitting at Omega, our clothes soggy and hair matted to our heads, studying the menu. Maxine is slumped on the bench seat across from Andy and me, complaining about the noise even though there is no one else in the restaurant on this evil-weathered night. Everyone else had the good sense to stay home.
At her apartment, prior to the surgery, I try to share a few Buddhist principles with Maxine. I talk about things like forgiveness and not judging ourselves or others too harshly. I also want to ask if it would be okay for me to send metta, thoughts of loving kindness, to her while she’s in surgery, but she cuts me off. “Science is my religion,” she says firmly. She has told me this many times. Once again, she’s betting science, or at least the modern medical establishment, will “save” her.
At Omega, we settle on a small plate seafood extravaganza. We order oysters, a plate of mussels in a garlic, butter and white wine sauce, and some smoked trout. “How ‘bout a little octopus?” Andy says ogling a long white tentacle with dark red suction cups packed in ice at a nearby serving station. I cringe. I don’t like the idea of eating octopus. The last time I ate octopus was over forty years ago. I was living in Mexico with my boyfriend and we shared a cóctel del pulpo at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where mostly gringos hung out.
Octopuses are cephalopod mollusks with eight suckered arms, a soft sac of a body, and sharp, beaklike jaws. While orangey-brown is the color most commonly associated with octopuses, they have special pigment cells called chromatophores in their skin that connect to their nervous systems allowing them to change color and pattern to match their environments or warn off predators. The extremely venomous blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena lunulata), changes from deep blue to an eye-ball busting yellow with blue rings when threatened. My uneasiness about eating octopus, however, isn’t because I’m afraid it might be poisonous or because they can change color so adeptly. I’m hesitant about eating a creature that is believed to be the most intelligent of all the invertebrate species. Paul, an octopus with the same name as my husband, lived at the Oberhaven Aquarium in West Germany and could predict the outcome of World Cup soccer matches more reliably than the bookies. The eight-armed oracle went 8 for 8 in his 2010 prognostications.
Maxine’s primary care physician counselled her against the surgery, but my husband and I find this out too late. We are sitting in a small consulting room at Virginia Mason Hospital waiting for Dr. L., the neurosurgeon, to arrive and give us news of how the removal of the meningioma went. I’m expecting a skinny, older Chinese guy wearing wire-rim glasses and dressed in a white lab coat. My preconceived notions about neurosurgeons are blown out of the water when a husky, exhausted-looking, long-haired millennial in wrinkled green surgical scrubs comes in and casually throws himself into an upholstered chair facing us. Dr. L. shakes our hands. “It pretty much went as expected,” he announces with a yawn. “Except that I couldn’t get all of it.”
In addition to predicting soccer matches, octopuses use tools, solve problems, and can find their way through mazes which is more than you can say for some humans. They are good mimics and can ape the behaviors of other species (my son can do this, too!). They build fortresses out of shells and other objects they find. Like ravens, they are drawn to bright, shiny objects. This is what The Octopus’s Garden, the only song Ringo Starr ever wrote, was about. That and the infighting going on between members of the world’s most famous rock band.
After our meeting with Dr. L., my husband and I head up to intensive care to find Maxine. My mother-in-law has always been a coquettish beauty, in the vein of Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly. She had round blue eyes, high cheekbones, clear skin, perfect teeth and a delicate, turned-up nose. Now, laying the hospital bed with a shaven head and ninety over-sized staples holding her blood-caked, carved up head together, she looks like the Bride of Chucky. Paul and I find her not only awake, she’s euphoric. It’s hard to tell if this mind state is being produced by some drug she is on or relief at learning that she is still alive.
To some Northwest Coastal tribes of British Columbia, the octopus plays an important role as a medicinal animal and is considered to possess formidable powers over sickness and health. Japanese, Alaskan and Northwest native groups sometimes refer to the octopus as the Devil-fish. Devil-fish images can be found on totem crests of the Tlingit and Haida. In the Nootka legend “Raven Annoys Octopus,” the wily Raven gets his due when he insists on bothering Octopus while she is gathering clams. It’s a rare animal that can one-up Raven.
From Avia, Queen of the Symbolic Meanings blog: “Octopi are invertebrates, meaning they do not have a structured spinal column. This is symbolic of agility, grace and flexibility. She is able to slip out of the tightest places, and ambulate as if she is the embodiment of water itself. Take the time to observe the way the octopus moves — it is hypnotic. As a totem, the octopus reminds us to loosen up — relax. The octopus can detach a limb at will to serve as a distraction against would-be predators. From a totem perspective we could translate this to mean that we ourselves have the ability to cut loose excess baggage in our lives in order to achieve our desire.”
My mother-in-law is not reconciled to the “excess baggage” she has cut-loose. Unlike the octopus, she can no longer ambulate, let alone gracefully. More than a month after surgery, mobility has not returned to her left-side and the strength on her right side is a fraction of what it was pre-surgery. Another of my husband’s five brothers, the one who is an M.D. himself, tells me a joke he learned in med school: “What do you call a walking, talking neurosurgery patient?” Answer: “Pre-op.”
The neurosurgeon and neurologist are baffled. They claim there is no clear reason for the fact that Maxine can do little more than lie in a bed or in a reclining wheelchair in the nursing home she is now consigned to. She is angry and disconsolate about what has happened to her and blames Dr. L. Dr. L recommends psychotherapy. Maybe it will help her “loosen up.”
Andy asks the waiter at Omega if the grilled octopus is good. “Best thing on the menu,” she says without hesitation. So we end up ordering it. The avid gourmand in him wins out over my silly objections about eating an invertebrate that often demonstrates more smarts than we humans do. Maxine declines to try it but I decide to have a taste. Mixed with a lightly-dressed salad of fresh field greens and fingerling potatoes, the octopus has a tender texture and faintly smoky taste. I chew it slowly, deliberately, savoring each delicious bite.
Andy is back in Seattle a month later to visit his mother in the nursing home and he is still carrying on about how good the octopus at Omega was. As for me, I’ve learned a couple of important lessons since that night and am now convinced of two things: 1) I will never eat octopus again and 2) if I ever reach age 90 and still have my wits about me, I think I’ll also pass on brain surgery.
Judith Gille’s articles and essays have appeared in numerous newspapers including The New York Times, the LA Times, and The Dallas Morning News, in magazines, literary anthologies and online journals. Her memoir, ‘The View from Casa Chepitos: A Journey Beyond the Border,’ was awarded Writer’s Digest Grand Prize in 2013.
Image courtesy of Antonella Lombardi, via unsplash
Originally published at Fiction Attic Press.