The Last Table

My uncle is still waiting to die.

Last night I woke up and thought about him, lying prone, still and silent, just like me. I imagined him underneath his blankets, breathing in and out softly. But while my own thoughts kept percolating restlessly, I really hoped that his were not. I hoped that he was more at peace.

I had woken from a dream where I was in a doctor’s waiting room with my father, and I didn’t know what was wrong. And when I approached the receptionist, she asked me what my symptoms were. I turned to my dad, and he just shrugged. I didn’t have any idea either.

Then she told me to blink three times, and I did. But then I kept blinking – six, seven, eight more times, and I couldn’t stop. And the woman shook her head and said, I see – so that’s why you’re here.

And I woke up with hot tears blinking out from under my tight eyelids.

There are days that I have no idea what I’m supposed to feel, and nothing seems natural.

I want to go back home, go to Maryland, to be at my uncle’s memorial. And yet I don’t. I don’t feel ready, I’m afraid. For some strange reason, seeing my family feels overwhelming.

I feel a loss of control in my life that I fear will sweep me away in the wake of the strong personalities in my family. And in the veritable drama of funerals.

And memories of the last funeral, and my mother.

It’s been so quiet and protected here in Switzerland. It feels like the unreal bubble around me will be pricked and the chaos will seep in, and my tears will just be too much.

But my uncle is still waiting, as we are all waiting – for him to go, as he must.

Last week in Milan, we took time off and went to the Santa Maria delle Grazie to see Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, The Last Supper.  It is set in a small stone chapel in its old refectory, in its original site.  We were ushered in by groups of fifteen, and only allowed a precise fifteen minutes of time to be with the painting.

We passed through two air-locked doorways and followed our guide into the small, dimly lit chancel. And there sat our host, at the center of the lively gathering – Jesus.

The table and the figures were quite large but the wall was not. And the hues were beautiful – muted eggshell blues and terra-cotta, with crackles and dark patches that covered parts of the mural. And there were blotchy places that look erased and sort of incomplete.

It was pretty decrepit, even a bit suspect, but still fascinating.

I stood where the guide told me to stand, and I appreciated the vanishing point leading towards Jesus, and the triangular perspective, and the intimate relationship of my own body to the huge table. I noted the painted Italian countryside in the windows behind Jesus’s head. I counted out the trios at the place settings.

And I felt the muscular emotion of the scene, how Jesus is captured at the moment of his question: Which of you will betray me?

As we know, Da Vinci’s interpretation veered radically from the traditional depictions of his time. It is not a flat, static scene. His subjects are more physical – active and gesturing, with the apostles’ arms and hands moving all down the table, Italian style.

And like most everyone else, I wanted to solve the puzzles – to find Judas, whose face is turned, a little more in shadow. And to pick out the strikingly effeminate figure next to Jesus, and decide that it’s truly Mary Magdalene, in spite of the historians.

And I tried to imagine da Vinci spending more than two years in that cramped space, painstakingly contemplating that one specific moment of the biblical narrative. An artistic tension in itself.

To capture a mood held in suspension. A moment at a party where everything in the room changes. Someone is being gossiped about, then singled out, accused. Awkward. And the host’s startling question is being absorbed, reacted to, avoided – but mostly denied.

It’s widely known that since it’s creation, The Last Supper has been restored, over and over, many times, even badly. The processes involved completely stripping down the layers underneath and then painting over everything again. It’s very likely there is no actual paint remaining that came from da Vinci’s brush.

This fact disappoints me. I feel like it’s sort of a rip-off, a charade.

But when I stop and think, maybe it’s a little bit like family history, with all the anecdotes and stories that we tell and re-tell. How we each add a layer to the actual facts, a patina of our own memories and interpretations.

And maybe these stories become more real than the truth, more like the crucial nugget, the essence of the event. So maybe the way we keep coming back to the events is the most important thing – the ritual itself.

So I sat on a bench where the grey light illuminated just how delicate the crumbly old thing was. And I looked up into the watery colors, the golds and the smudges of shadow. And I stubbornly tried to find my own meaning. My own vanishing point, not the guide’s. One that could point to anything I wanted it to.

For me, one of the frustrations of The Last Supper moment is in its helplessly irrevocable nature.

Jesus knows he will die, and his best friends sit at the table with him, also knowing. And we all stand by watching – no one able to stop the evening from turning to morning. Even in the drunken camaraderie of celebration, no one steps up to stop what will happen next.

And for us, as readers and art-lovers and believers, we’re helpless and frustrated. Why won’t Jesus save himself? If he knows he will be betrayed, why not do something?  Why won’t he just refill their glasses and smooth things over?

But then we see that Jesus’s arms are heavy underneath the robes, they have a solid, undeniable weight.

What I took away last weekend, was the solitary figure of this very human person. And how he wasn’t my favorite character. In fact, I didn’t like him very much. He was passive and sort of vague.

But he sat across from me at the table, holding his hands out, and they were open and gentle. And to me they didn’t look accusatory at all, they were completely soft and forgiving.

And his palms weren’t expressing anything confrontational – they just seemed to be inviting me to stay. To come, to eat, to be with the others at the dinner.

And I remember just wanting to linger and sit on the wooden benches and rest my feet. To close my eyes and imagine an artist on a scaffold mixing paint, with the monks eating lunch behind him, watching curiously as he worked – critiquing, judging, as they must have.

I only wished that I could have said goodbye to my dinner host more gracefully. But the tour guide was herding us out, unfortunately our fifteen minutes were up.

Life is so brief.

And it’s possible that we’re all suspended in something like those fifteen minutes of narrative.

But sometimes for me it can just feel like inertia. Like I’m flattened in bed with my arms in heavy Jesus robes that I can’t lift – I can’t shake off my frozen reality.

And it occurs to me that I’m lying awake at night trying to grasp what’s real. Something like Leonardo’s truth – cerulean blues and exquisite vermillion brushed faithfully across solid stone walls.

I want control, certainty, a reassurance that the brilliant story will end the way I want it to. Like the disciples at the table, maybe I’m hoping and I just want to believe.

Like them, I’m just looking for proof, authenticity – for something loyal and true that won’t ever fade away.

And I wonder if my uncle is also awake tonight and doing the same.

6 thoughts on “The Last Table

  1. Beth, again I am amazed at your artful interweaving of stories—your uncle’s process of passing on, the Last Supper (the event, the painting, and the restoration), the retelling of family stories—all connected with this wonderful thing we call “life.” With your writing, you give us readers the gift of seeing how your mind and heart are working through life’s events. Please know that my heart goes out to you, across the miles.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Beth, this piece is so very moving, I hardly know where to begin. I had to take a day to just immerse myself in it and then come back to it. It is likely the best writing you’ve done to date. (Except for all the writing you must have done in the, what, 35 years since I last saw you.) How is it possible that you can write like this while you seem to be awash in loss?
    By the way, your picture next to the text is amazing!! It perfectly illustrates your writing and yet it doesn’t. I see lightness in your face. But there was also lightness in your narrative, especially when you describe all the colors, strong, but faded. Your description of the dream you had was really kind of unsettling. I don’t think I’ve ever seen your dad shrug; certainly about anything important. Maybe it represented his response to the inevitability of loss, or his message that love somehow conquers death; the corporeal body doesn’t limit who were are to each other.

    Anyway. It reminded me of my strangely protective reflex to the prospect of loss, which is to vanish.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Even though I know the end of your story, you have nailed the end
    …..of the rests of our stories. Thank you, Beth.

    Loving you ,

    Liked by 1 person

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