When I was in P6, my English teacher asked me
‘What do you think a feast is?’
‘A really big, fun, tasty and expensive meal’
My teacher replied
‘Do you really think so? Have another think’ and then she laughed. I thought about it for many days, and I could not find an answer. She said to me
‘It’s OK. You’ll find out soon’
Earlier that week, my sister graduated from university with a degree in nursing. There was a family feast, with everyone present, even my pet squirrel. There was champagne, caviar, smoked salmon, the lot. It was a full and rich dinner, a meal I definitely classed as a feast at that time. It carried on until one in the morning, and I fell asleep at the table.
My sister was sent to work with the Red Cross in southern Nigeria. She was due to work for six months, helping with the treatment and controlling the spread of Malaria. This is what she always wanted to do. Work voluntarily and help others. She was kind by nature.
However, within two months she was flown back from Nigeria in an emergency helicopter. My parents and I rushed to a huge hospital in London. The doctor started explaining.
‘There is a very effective treatment for Malaria that is being used in Nigeria, but it can sometimes be very dangerous. The treatment involves using highly penetrating radiation to kill blood cells affected by Malaria. The casualty rate for the patients is about 1 in 13000.
But I’m sure you can understand the risks the doctors and the nurses are in. In the Nigerian Red Cross Camp there are hardly any safety regulations, and people are exposed to radiation constantly if this technique is being used. Unfortunately your daughter has been exposed to high doses of radiation and has now shown some very severe symptoms. We still need to do a thorough check of your daughter’s body, but I am afraid that, with the signs being shown, we all may have to be prepared’ and he left without looking back.
I was only in P6, and I did not understand what the doctor meant by ‘being prepared’. It was obvious my parents understood it though. Blood and colour drained from my father’s face, and my mother was streaming out tears.
We booked a hotel close to the hospital and visited every day. After five days, my mother’s stress got too much and she had a breakdown, and she stayed in the hotel bed all afternoon. A week after the initial briefing by the doctor, we were once again summoned into his office.
‘The test results are out’ he said with a grave face. No one spoke for a full ten seconds. The doctor then restarted.
‘I am truly sorry. It was as we feared. I am afraid your daughter has contracted Leukaemia. Leukaemia is the caner of bl…’
‘I know what Leukaemia is!’ It was my mother. We all turned to her in surprise. This was the first time I had ever heard her shout. Even she looked surprised at herself for interrupting.
‘I'm sorry...I...can you...can you please just tell us how long she has left?’ she added in a quiet voice.
There was silence which seemed like an eternity.
I had to go back to school in Liverpool, and my father had to return to work. But my mother rented a flat close to the hospital and took care of my sister every day. My father and I went to visit them every weekend. The first time we visited, I was shocked by the change in my sister and my mother. My mother looked as though she had aged twenty years. My sister had lost all her hair, and her scalp had numerous boils. She also had to be pushed on a wheelchair and had a tube going from her nose into her arm. It was unbelievable as the last time I saw my sister she had beautiful flowing dark hair, she was walking normally and she could quite casually give me a hug. Now one of her arms was invalid and she could not even use the toilet on her own.
As time passed and my father and I both got used to the changes in appearance, my sister seemed to get better and better. Three months turned to six, and eventually it was a whole year after receiving the verdict. I went into P7 and I moved to a boarding school in London. A few weeks into term I heard from my father that my sister was granted leave for a week. It was fantastic news, and I jumped with joy. However, the week she was allowed out was during a school trip, so that meant I could not see her. But I was not too disappointed, because I firmly believed that I would be able to see her anytime I wanted in the near future.
My parents decided to take that week off and go on a holiday. They took a massive bulk out of their savings and booked a first class cruise in the Mediterranean. I suppose they deserved it more than I did. I was allowed out for dinner the day before they left, and I gave my parents a necklace to give to my sister as a homecoming present, and also as an apology for not being able to meet her.
It was a five day trip, and I reached school. I was unpacking my bags when one of my friends came to me and said that my family was waiting downstairs. I raced down and found all three of them smiling. My sister had bought me a massive book of Italian stamps. I liked stamp collecting, so I was overwhelmed. She also thanked me for the necklace, and I noticed that she was wearing it. It suited her very well.
‘Was it fun? Did you have lots of nice food to eat?’
My sister replied 'You know what? None of us really took part in the dinner. We were all too busy doing other stuff on the ship, so we just ended up eating sandwiches’
‘So you just missed the first class feast?’
‘Yeah, but I don’t mind. The sandwiches were good’
I was surprised. My sister was really into her food and gourmet, and I thought she would have jumped at the opportunity to dine in the first class cabin. The bell for evening prayers went and I said goodbye to my family.
Two days later I was called urgently to the hospital. I took the bus, the underground, and ran the final two hundred metres. When I reached the ward, both my parents were crying, the doctors and nurses were solemnly standing by the bed, and a white sheet was covering my sister’s face.
The funeral was held in my school’s chapel. I was allowed leave with my parents. We reached our house, and I went to bed. I was stressed and tired, and the funeral did not help. Some hours later I woke up. It was darkening outside, and I was thirsty. I went down to the kitchen for a drink, when I saw a figure in the dining room.
It was my father holding a sandwich. He was staring intently to the sandwich, and tears were rolling from his eyes.
If my English teacher from P6 came to me now and asked that question again, I would answer it like this; a feast is a memorable meal you have surrounded by the people you love and are supported by.
A feast does not have to be expensive; it does not have to be huge; God, it does not even have to be good. Just so long as you can eat with the people you care for, and so long as you can appreciate and treasure the moment that you can be with those people, any meal is a feast.