Aunty Jean was my favorite aunt on my mother’s side of the family, and she made a tremendous impact on my life from a very early age. I remember meeting her for the first time during my first visit to Hawaii at the age of three. My uncle Tadashi had suddenly died of a heart attack, so my mom flew us both out to Hawaii to pay our last respects.
From the moment I set foot on Hawaiian soil, I was mesmerized by the islands and felt immediately at home. It certainly helped that I was able to meet my mother’s extensive family, and was greeted warmly by them. Jean was especially doting, and spent a great deal of time with me during our week on Oahu. She engaged me in arts and crafts, took me to the garden in the backyard to teach me about tropical fruits, and spoke pidgin English, a weird combination of Japanese, Hawaiian, and English which delighted my young mind.
Aunty also let me tag along and watch her cook. It was on one of those days during which I was watching her that I exhibited behavior which she thought was peculiar and brilliant, and went so far as to share the incident with other family members. The strange thing is that I barely remember the incident, but she remembered it vividly and loved retelling the story.
Aunty was standing in front of her kitchen sink, cleaning a whole fish. I stood next to her on my tiptoes, peering over the sink’s edge to watch her scale the fish.
Then I said, “Aunty, take one eyeball out.” She was alarmed.
“Why do you want one eyeball?”, she exclaimed.
“Please, Aunty, can I have an eyeball?”
She looked at me, impressed by my determination. “Well, okay, but I don’t know why you want it.” She proceeded to enucleate the fish on one side. “Okay, now what?” She looked down at me expectantly.
“Cut it in half.”
“What? Why do you want me to cut it in half?”
“Okay.” She shook her head in wonder and then cut the eyeball in half. “Now What?”
I held my hand out, palm up. “You can give it to me. Both pieces.”
Aunty obliged, placing two half-orbs onto my palm.
“Thank you Aunty.” I smiled at her, then looked down at the cross sections, studying their anatomy, bringing my hand to eye level to get a closer look. Once I had the anatomy lesson in my hand, I no longer paid attention to the full fish corpse which Aunty was cleaning.
My aunt found my fascination with a sliced fish eyeball completely odd, and was overcome with the strong sense that I would become either a scientist or a physician when I grew up. How right she was. During my entire grade school, high school and college years, I was in large part a science nerd, and when dissections, science experiments or surgeries on small animals were presented to me as class assignments, I dove in with feverish enthusiasm. At one point during college, I held a major in science illustration (I later switched to exercise science and obtained my Bachelor’s degree in that field). Eventually, I endured the rigors of medical school as well as three years of family practice residency, and I have enjoyed a career as a board certified physician for 13 years.