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ONLINE ONLY: My Auntie's Wedding

Fiction by Stephen L. Kanne

At 5 foot 8, my Auntie May-Ling is tall, at least by Chinese standards. She is also regal and strikingly handsome. When I attended her wedding at Hong Kong’s Peninsula Hotel two weeks ago she was 71 years of age but had the figure of someone 30 years younger, a figure set off at the time by the off-white silk Versace gown given to her by her future husband on which she had pinned two pieces from her magnificent jade jewelry collection. As always, her hair was cut short and brushed back, a habit she had acquired during her four years at far-off Wellesley College, from which she graduated in 1950. When she exchanged her vows of marriage that night, I knew I had fulfilled a promise made many years before: I had brought happiness to my Auntie.

Young people are impressionable, and I was no exception. When I was 18, something occurred which I shall always remember. My Auntie and I were alone in her Hong Kong apartment enjoying what you in the West call floral tea: tea from pods resembling snail shells which, when immersed in boiling water, burst into flowers. We were seated in her living room watching a lotus blossom unfold as if captured by time-lapse photography. The beauty of the moment gave me courage and I asked her a question long hidden in my secret thoughts: why had someone so kind and so beautiful as she never married? My Auntie didn’t answer; instead, she began to weep quietly. Ashamed and embarrassed, she excused herself and retired to her bedroom. When she returned a short time later, I swore never to ask about this again. Satisfying my curiosity was a selfish endeavor. But still, I wanted to know. I suspected that my Auntie was the victim of unrequited love—and, oh, how wrong my suspicions would later prove to be! Out of respect for her, I changed the subject. I told her of my recent acceptance by Stanford University, of my determination to perfect my English, and of my desire to become a great surgeon. We spoke of all this until the sun disappeared. Walking back to my family’s apartment afterwards, I vowed—perhaps childishly—that someday I would arrange a marriage for my Auntie. I thought this would bring her happiness.

And now, looking back upon the grand event of just two weeks ago, I know I succeeded. But it turned out that arranging my Auntie’s nuptials was the most challenging and difficult task of my life—far more difficult than mastering English or perfecting my surgical skills. That her wedding occurred at all is nothing less than a miracle, one which must have been helped along by divine intervention.

What I am now about to relate to you came to me from another, and thank the good Lord that it did—for who would want to bear witness to such horrors?

In March of my senior year at Stanford, I was beginning my final term—at the same time looking forward with anticipation to entering its medical school in the fall. One of my courses, Twentieth Century World History, was taught by Professor William Bethany Farr, someone we students all revered. In the third week of the term he began to discuss man’s inhumanity to man. He spared no detail. He started by describing the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis on Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and political dissidents. And then he proceeded to tell us of the rape of Nanking by the Japanese military, something I had never known about: in December 1937 and January 1938, they had slaughtered thousands of my fellow Chinese.

Nanking! The city of my late mother’s birth; where she and my Auntie had been raised. Why had I never heard of this? Perhaps Professor Farr was mistaken. Yes, he must be talking about some other place. Not Nanking!

As if anticipating my skepticism, the following day Professor Farr brought a scrapbook to class. And there they were—photographs so horrible I could hardly bring myself to look at them: pile upon pile of corpses; severed heads; pummeled bodies; stacks of limbs and body parts. And then I saw something which changed my life forever: the photograph of a young girl in her teens lying on the ground naked in a pool of blood, impaled by a long ugly bamboo shaft rising from between her legs. I recognized her immediately: my Auntie! A sickening feeling took hold of me as I rushed from the room. In the hallway I began to convulse before finally collapsing to the floor.

There has rarely been a day since first viewing that photograph that I have not thought of my Auntie. Oftentimes during medical school my mind would stray and I would see her lying there. The pain she must have been in! The scarring to her body that mutilation must have caused! I was beginning to understand why it was that she had never married. I could only imagine the shame she must have felt knowing that she had been rendered less than half a woman.

During the summer following graduation from medical school, I must confess that I thought little of my Auntie. I was selfishly focused on being accepted into a surgical residency program, something normally unavailable to women. But, as luck and hard work would have it, I succeeded, and, thus, almost 4 1/2 years after first viewing that infamous photograph, here I was seated alone in a corner office of the Weinberg Building at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore awaiting the arrival of the chief of its surgical residency program, Dr. Phillip Galanter. While moving into my apartment earlier in the week, I had received a call from the medical school asking me to make an appointment to meet with him as soon as convenient.

As I glanced around the office, I saw that it was unusually austere. On the desk there was only a framed photograph of an elderly couple. Undoubtedly the good doctor’s parents. Odd—no photos of his wife and children. And on the wall hung a single diploma: Harvard College, 1948. But nothing else. Not a pen, pencil, blotter or calendar. Not even a piece of paper. Just then the door behind me opened and a tall handsome gray-haired man wearing a white coat entered. I immediately got to my feet.

“None of that, Dr. Bonnie Lu. If we’re going to work together, I can’t have you jumping up every time I enter the room.”

“Sorry, sir,” I said.

“I don’t have much time, so let’s begin.” He smiled.

“Any idea why you’re here? We don’t take in many women, you know.” He waited for me to reply but I really had no idea how to answer.

“Here, take a look at this.” He handed me a letter.

“Seems Stan Boetcher thinks you’re some kind of a wunderkind.”

Dr. Boetcher had been my anatomy professor in medical school and I saw that he had written the letter. I began to read:

“Not only did she finish at the top of her class,
but I haven’t seen hands like hers in years. I can’t imagine a finer surgical resident.”

As I read on, I blushed.

“Well, Dr. Lu, you ready to go to work?”

I nodded.

Thus began my surgical residency at Johns Hopkins. That first day I was taken to an anatomy laboratory where, under the tutelage of a staff surgeon, I removed the parotid gland from three cadavers. While I was working on the fourth, Dr. Galanter entered the lab.

“So how we doing?” he asked, as he walked from gurney to gurney examining my handiwork.

“What I thought,” Dr. Galanter said, almost as if talking to himself. Then, turning to me, he continued. “You up to meeting me in O.R. number 12 at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning for the real thing, Dr. Lu? A parotidectomy. You’ll be doing the operating. I’ll only be assisting.”

Although slightly afraid, I managed to say that I’d meet him there. I sensed that this was my first real test. And I knew that dissecting any organ from a living person was far easier than dissecting it from the leathery tissue of a cadaver.

The surgery went well. Dr. Galanter opened and closed, and I removed the gland. Later I was to learn that the patient was a famous celebrity whose career would have ended had I severed or even nicked her facial nerve. And, fortunately, her tumor was benign.

In the ensuing months, I came to realize that Dr. Galanter was my mentor and that I would be working closely with him throughout my residency. We lunched often and it was not uncommon for us to be together in the O.R. two and even three mornings a week. And, as is typical in such cases, a special bond quickly developed between us. But I still knew nothing of his personal life.

On the third day of November in my second year of residency I turned 28. To my delight, Dr. Galanter and a group of my fellow residents threw a birthday party for me at a local restaurant. I felt both honored and happy. And at last I would learn something of Dr. Galanter’s private life—perhaps even meet his family.

But Dr. Galanter arrived alone. Later that evening after he’d consumed more than a few glasses of wine, I felt his fatherly arm around my shoulder: “Time for me to go, birthday girl,” he said. Then he hesitated. “You know, in all these months I’ve never seen you out with anyone. Take it from one who knows, Bon: that makes for a lonely life.” His voice trailed off as he headed for the cloakroom.

The following spring Dr. Galanter introduced me to Patrick Wiley, one of Hopkins’s top urologists. “You and Pat are going to be working together on a project he and I have a special interest in. He’ll tell you all about it, Bon.” From the tone of his voice, I realized that I was entering a new phase of my residency—and, from what I could gather, a fairly important one.

“So here’s the skinny,” Dr. Wiley began. “We’ve got two choices with carcinoma of the prostate: either we castrate them or we take out their prostates. Castration doesn’t really work; at best it only slows down the disease, so I don’t much like it. Taking out the prostate can be a cure, but it has its drawbacks: incontinence and impotence. Only about 6 percent of our patients become incontinent, but 100 percent wind up impotent—and that’s what you and I are gonna change.”

“How?” I asked.

“The nerve bundles. We’re gonna take that little puppy out and leave those nerve bundles intact. It’s tricky dissective surgery, but I know we can do it. At least from what I hear, I know for sure you can.”

“So if the nerve bundles are left behind, there should be no erectile dysfunction?”

“Correct, Dr. Lu,” he replied, smiling. “Our patients are gonna be whole men when they leave here, not half-men.

Not half-men! It was as if an alarm had sounded: my Auntie, less than half a woman, and . . . Dr. Galanter’s special interest in this project. I decided to risk everything. “And how long ago did Dr. Galanter have his prostate out?” I asked.

Dr. Wiley looked at me in surprise. “Years ago. But how in hell do you know about that?”

“We’re very close, sir. I guess you’d say there isn’t much I don’t know about him. We just don’t talk about these kinds of things openly.” I looked up. To my relief, Dr. Wiley appeared to accept my somewhat evasive answer.

So there you have it: two extraordinarily special people, each with a secret impediment to happiness. Could I bring them together? I would try.
Over the next few weeks I began to tell Dr. Galanter about my Auntie, a beautiful charming woman, a Wellesley College graduate two years his junior, who, as a young girl, had suffered a brutal disfigurement of her private parts—and how this had shamed her into a life of loneliness. He seemed to understand, even to relate to what had happened to her. I told him she would soon be coming to stay with me.

And then I telephoned my Auntie in Hong Kong. “I need you here,” I said. “I will send you a plane ticket.” When she arrived I told her of my mentor at Hopkins who had been rendered impotent by a surgeon’s scalpel and had chosen to forego marriage and family. “You must meet him,” I said. At first she refused. But after my persistent urging over a period of many weeks, she eventually agreed.
Thus it was that Dr. Galanter and my Auntie came to know one another. Soon I recognized a friendship beginning to blossom between the two—a closeness which neither had previously experienced. Several months later I saw them holding hands as they walked through the hospital. It therefore came as no surprise when, not long after that, my Auntie told me she and Dr. Galanter were to be married.

My Auntie, Dr. Galanter and I were seated on a large sofa in an anteroom adjacent to the Peninsula Hotel’s grand ballroom where the wedding ceremony was to take place in less than an hour. My Auntie saw me look at my watch. “There’s more than enough time,” she said. On the coffee table directly in front of us a large clear spherical glass bowl filled with boiling water rested atop a sterling silver warmer. Flames from the warmer’s candles lapped at the bowl’s sides. I saw my Auntie reach into a silken sac and withdraw two small gray objects. She dropped them into the bowl. “I wanted you here to see our love unfold,” she said, smiling first at me and then at her future husband. As if on cue, two magnificent flowers burst into bloom. Curling upwards, they appeared to embrace one another.

“We won’t have the luxury of taking our love for granted, Bonnie. We know that. And we’ll have to count our blessings each day.” Then my Auntie took hold of Dr. Galanter’s hand and gently pressed it to her cheek.

So how do I feel knowing that my Auntie is married and that I’ve finally brought happiness to her? Exactly as my wise and learned preschool teacher, Mrs. Wong, said I would: sated with contentment. “Learn this proverb well, child,” I remember her telling me so many years ago: “‘Contentment comes to the maker of a promise kept.’ So keep every promise you make.” “I will,” I recall replying. And, thankfully, with the help of good fortune and sometimes even divine intervention, so far I have.

STEPHEN L. KANNE, JD ’61, is a retired real estate lawyer in Los Angeles. He’s at work on a novel.


Judges' comments on "My Auntie's Wedding."

Bo Caldwell: I liked the voice of this story, and the writing is confident and accomplished. There are wonderful descriptions (“The beauty of the moment gave me courage”) and striking details (“We were seated in her living room watching a lotus blossom unfold as if captured by time-lapse photography”), and the plot is fresh and very unusual. I also liked the restraint of the writing, particularly given the plot.

Ron Hansen: “My Auntie’s Wedding” finds its provenance in that folk proverb that “What God makes He matches.” Especially fascinating was its linkage of two unlikely horrific events—a mutilation during the 1937 “rape of Nanking” and the enfeebling aftermath of a doctor’s prostate surgery—to join in a lucky and happy relationship a couple who previously felt loveless and bereft.

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