Age: 17, Grade: 11
School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Caitlin Donovan
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
How to cut a Date
I grip the knife in my rough, red right hand, bending the back of the white polystyrene blade to its near breaking point. In front of me is a brown, baby brain, its wrinkled umber cerebrum glazing my mahogany table with a colorless sticky sugar. In the vicinity sits a clear polypropylene container stuffed with dozens more of the sweet Medjul devils, fresh from Trader Joes, and an amber bottle of Turkish honey. There are no lights on in the apartment, which is gradually filling with the paling blue hues of early dawn in the city, and the yawning sun outside, red as my palm, exhales warmth onto the winter-frosted window sill. The dates have been prepared. I am not. The procedure? Deceptively simple. Remove the seed from the fruit, fill a quarter of the vacant interior with honey, and stuff a walnut into the remaining space. Reassemble the pieces and voila! a soft, saccharine and nutty capsule — my sugary after school pick-me-up snack — is born.
Actually, that’s not the procedure.
It is 5:15 AM and the one-man hospital of my room is in a silent, secret frenzy. As my parents sleep, the tiny, wrinkly patient rolls around on the wooden operating table. The malignant brain tumor – glioblastoma multiforme – grows inside his splenium and there is not a moment to lose. First I must pierce through the dura mater (the pericardium) with the scalpel. I must then peel back the arachnoid and pia mater (the myocardium), isolate and remove the tumor (the cotyledon), fill the lesion with the lost cerebrospinal fluid (the honey), and repair the damaged connections with a new corpus callosum (the walnut). The last step isn’t really possible, but it makes my “semi-craniotomy” all the more engaging: I am crossing the frontiers of modern medicine to do something that hasn’t been done before. Cue the music. If the honey spills, if the walnut falls out, if the date breaks, the operation is ruined. If I can’t do the little things right, I most certainly wouldn’t be able to do the big things right.
My first cut is straight through the middle of the fruit, slicing the date sagittally in half. The knife, my plastic scalpel, bends like a reed in the wind, and two minutes later I’ve pierced through the dura mater. I’m in the central nervous system, yet I’ve also sliced the brain in half. Of course I can remove the seed and fill the hole in each half with ease. But how do I close the wound?
“Easy. I’ll press the two halves together.” Of course, I forget that there’s nothing to keep the two halves together, and the little date falls back open, spilling honey and pieces of walnut all over my stretcher, the plate. I killed my patient in less than five minutes.
“I’ll try again!” This time, I’ll cut a coronally, and if that doesn’t work, an axial slice should do the trick.
I don’t want to talk too much about the number of patient-fruits I massacred that day, but I will say that if they were real people, I would not only lose my license but would also be rendered forever in infamy.
I’ve been at it for over two hours. There are two dates left in the bowl. It is 33 degrees fahrenheit outside, but sweat is dripping from my messy hair and seeping into the table. There are five minutes before my parents’ alarm sounds, and I get yelled at for wasting so many dates. My hands ache.
“This time,” I decide, “I will be subtle.” I will not slice through anything, but make small incisions. I will be precise. I will make a small hole at the top, push the conglomeration of cells through, fill the region with a small amount of fluid, and gently squeeze in the replacement cells.
And so, despite having murdered an absolutely incomprehensible number of patient-dates, I can confidently say that I have at least saved one.
I’ve discovered that there are many ways to cut a date, in the same way that there are many ways to approach a problem. If one approach fails, I can try another. No matter how boring it may appear at first glance, to make the problem special I must believe that it is special.
Each morning I get up early, ready to successfully save another human being, whom I will devour hungrily later on in the day.