Life’s Mysteries

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Her skin smelled different as I gave her a hug. Nana was just back from a vacation to Florida. Her freckles had blended from the sun, her face and arms a burnished copper. I felt a little sad, a bit distant. I wanted her familiar scent, her familiar skin. But I was grateful that she was home at last.

That trip to Florida must have been longer than others because I remember writing a letter to her. I remember thinking I was quite clever because I wrote, “Everyone misses you, but I miss you most of all.” A variation of the line from The Wizard of Oz, the one where Dorothy tells the Scarecrow she’ll miss him most of all. Though I don’t think I had that in mind when I wrote it.

More commonly, we were the ones leaving – at least for the summers. My Dad, a teacher, used his summers to attend graduate school. We spent, as a family, one summer in Worcester, MA at Clark University, and three summers at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (I have written about our road trips and time in Illinois here and there).

One summer I was especially uneasy about leaving home because I was taking care of a cat. We didn’t have pets in my family, my mother was deathly afraid of all animals. I always wanted a cat so I befriended a neighborhood stray that I named, creatively, Cutie. Mom allowed me to feed her in the garage and I could bring her in the basement to play with now and again. I considered Cutie to be my cat. I didn’t want to leave her when it was time to go to Illinois. Nana agreed to look after Cutie.

While we were away, unbeknownst to me, Cutie was injured. I later learned that the neighborhood kids were mean to her (not all that surprising given how they treated me), throwing rocks and taunting her. Nana tried to protect her, but she wasn’t outside much. Cutie recovered, but she was left with a scar. When I came home and saw it, I was devastated. She had a patch of fur missing on her neck and there was an ugly scab there. Every time I looked at it, I felt sick to my stomach. I was so upset, I didn’t want to handle her anymore. Rather than holding and comforting her, I rejected her. My nine-year-old self couldn’t cope with the disfigurement, which made me feel worse. My Dad stepped in and explained that since I couldn’t care for Cutie anymore, it would be best if we took her to an ASPCA shelter. I reluctantly agreed.

Dad got in the front seat of the car and I held Cutie on my lap in the back. We didn’t have a carrier. Cutie got agitated once the car started moving. I managed to hold her for a while, but eventually she wriggled out of my arms and climbed on the back of my Dad’s seat. At that moment, Dad opened his window. Cutie leapt out. I screamed. I think we were on Utica Avenue, or a similarly busy thoroughfare. I didn’t see where Cutie went, though at least I didn’t think she had been hit by another vehicle.

“Stop the car!” I pleaded.

“I can’t, not right here,” Dad said firmly.

“You did that on purpose!”

“What?”

“You opened the window on purpose! Now what will happen to her?” I was crying.

“Linda, I didn’t open the window on purpose, but it may be for the best.”

“Shouldn’t we look for her?” I asked desperately.

At this point, Dad pulled the car over. We were looking out the windows in every direction, but we didn’t get out. There were so many people crowding the street, so many cars blocking the view of the sidewalks, shops with racks of goods outside, buses coming and going; general chaos. It was hopeless. There was no way we would spot her.

“We were bringing her to a shelter, anyway, Linda,” Dad offered. “Maybe this is better. I’m sorry. Let’s go home.” He circled around the block. I was still looking frantically, through my tears. I didn’t see her. I didn’t really believe that it was better, but I didn’t know what to do.

It was a painful episode for everyone. I think we all felt guilty. I was mostly disappointed in myself and how I reacted to Cutie’s injury. One thing I don’t recall doing: I didn’t blame Nana. I knew that even if I had been home the same thing could have happened.

I always wondered if my father opened the window to let her out. That will remain one of life’s mysteries. Maybe it was for the best. At the time, I didn’t understand how shelters worked. Thinking about it now, it is unlikely that she would have been adopted. She had always been a street cat. I tried to convince myself that she figured out how to survive in a new neighborhood.

I still loved cats, but it would be quite a while before I took care of another one.

Another one of life’s mysteries began with another trip. This one Nana took – to Portugal. That seemed like quite an exotic destination to me. People I knew didn’t travel to Europe. She went with her older sister, Sadie. I had a sense that this was a big thing – maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity that Nana felt she couldn’t pass up.

Naturally Nana came back bearing gifts. She brought back a gold filigree bracelet. I marveled at its intricate pattern and delicacy. She also brought back an embroidered bag. It was black with bright flowers and the word ‘Portugal’ sown on. I kept my doll collection in that bag for years.

Unfortunately, she also brought back an infection in her big toe. People with diabetes often have difficulty healing, especially in their extremities. I didn’t understand that at the time, I only knew that this toe infection became a serious medical problem that required hospitalization. Once again Nana went to Unity Hospital in Brooklyn.

For a time, it looked like they might have to amputate her toe, or maybe even her foot. Nana, who was looking forward to dancing at Uncle Terry’s wedding in a few months’ time, flat out rejected that possibility. She was determined to keep all her toes, perhaps even at the risk of her overall health. She was released from the hospital with all her toes. She danced at Terry and Barbara’s wedding in January of 1971. Three months later, in April, she died. I don’t know if there was a relationship to the infection. I didn’t think so at the time.

To an 11-year-old, three months is a long time. It is strange how the perception of time changes the older you get. The infection and her death seemed too far apart to be connected. Now I’m not so sure.

Jewish tradition doesn’t generally permit an autopsy because of the belief that the body is sacred, shouldn’t be desecrated and should be buried intact. There are exceptions if the law of the land requires it or if a physician determines that new knowledge could be gained to help others. Neither exception applied, so we never fully understood Nana’s death. An embolism or an aneurysm were suspected. Perhaps the adults knew more but, if so, nothing was shared.

These events left me with many questions. Why would anyone harm an animal? Why didn’t I have the stomach to care for Cutie after her injury? Did Dad deliberately open his window to let her escape? Did the infection hasten Nana’s death? Could things have been different for Nana if she had taken better care? Of those questions, there was only one I could do anything about. I could do better with my next pet.

I suppose we all carry questions that we can’t answer. I look for meaning in the losses and I think I find it, even if I don’t have answers. As a child, I learned to love and cope with loss – the two are inextricably connected.

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Roger and Raffa posing in my bedroom May 2017

15 thoughts on “Life’s Mysteries

  1. Nana’s health had always been an issue. I remember growing up and visiting her in the hospital every year. She joked it was her vacation from the hard work in the bakery. She had so many medical issues. The diabetes was a destructive force that was attacking all her systems. She very well knew the future and did not want to live her life differently. She could not accept the thought of an amputation of her toes and then foot and eventually her leg. It would change her life style and she would be dependent on others. This was a woman who always took care of others. How could she not continue her role and be the same caring person she had been. With today’s medicine and science, things might have been different. I think this was one of the driving forces in me becoming a podiatrist. Podiatry’s biggest concern is preventing amputations and treating diabetics. Maybe I thought I could help someone else’s mother from the same fate. Your recollections of Nana are so accurate. She was a one of a kind individual. She was such a profound influence on everyone she touched. Her soul lives on in each and every person she knew. I knew it has been the driving force in forming my character and personality and I am eternally grateful that she was my mother. I know how much she loved you and all of her grandchildren She just had that ability to share her love and be a guiding force. I think every body appreciates reading your memories of her and keeping her in our hearts.
    Uncle Terry

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    1. Thank you, Uncle Terry. I appreciate getting your perspective. Truthfully, I had not thought of it that way, but it makes perfect sense that she wanted to continue to be the caretaker and continue to be independent. I wonder if some of the same was the case for Aunt Simma.

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  2. I remember Cutie so well and always felt terrible that she jumped out the window. No,Dad didn’t know that Cutie would try to escape. I still feel so bad about the whole situation. If I remember one of the boys from the block tied a rope around her neck. Nana told me how that horrified her. She removed the rope, but she didn’t know which of the boys did what I suppose they considered it mischief. I think to this day it was cruel. I am glad you have Raffa and Roger that your family got you for Chanukah and how excited you were. I still don’t like pets but appreciate how good they are for the people who don’t have my hang up.

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    1. Mom, you can stop feeling bad about the situation – at least in the sense that you had any responsibility for it. We can both feel bad about the cruelty inflicted on Cutie, but there is nothing we can do about that. Also, you are entitled to your feelings about pets, you don’t have a cruel bone in your body – you always respected living things and I understood that even as a child.

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  3. Another inciteful essay. Regarding Cutie, it occurred to me while reading that maybe your rejection of her when you saw her scar had something to do with your mother’s focus on physical appearance. When I wrote the reading for my mother’s unveiling, it struck me how much I had absorbed so many of her beliefs, good and bad (like disliking the color blue). Although you didn’t inherit your mother’s aversion to animals, maybe a lifetime of being exposed to her comments on appearance subconsciously sunk in. I am not implying your treatment of Cutie was your mother’s fault, I’m just thinking that sometimes our behavior is influenced in ways we are not aware of. Regarding Nana, when she died my mother told me it was due to her refusal to have her toe amputated. As a result, I’ve always thought the infection in Nana’s toe was the cause of her death. I was told when my mother died that it was probably heart failure, even though she had never been diagnosed by any doctor with a heart problem. I have my own theories. Still, absent an autopsy, I’ll never know the true cause of her death. Watching Uncle Mike and my mother both ignore medical advice, which I believe hastened both their deaths, it is not too hard to see where that pattern of behavior came from. I have often wished all three of them had taken better care of themselves so we could have had them with us longer. But like you ably pointed out, we’ll never know the true reasons we lost them. P.S. I still have the embroidered box Nana gave me from Portugal.

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    1. I appreciate getting your perspective, too, Laurie. Thank you for sharing. One of the things I will likely write about in the future is the complexity of taking care of yourself. For some it may be straight forward, but I think most people struggle with it.

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  4. linda, your stories are so wonderful even though i didn’t know your nana i knew your aunt simma and of course your mom, who i miss every day that she is not here in Florida. Keep the stories coming

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  5. There are so many compelling topics for discussion in this beautifully written blog entry. I would like to focus on one that might seem very peripherally if at all related-science. The issue that you describe is the mysteries of life. One of them is whether Nana’s death might in some way have been connected to the toe infection she had suffered just months earlier. That infection was related to her longstanding diabetes as you explained. There are some ways that we actually can address the question that you asked.
    For example, if she had evidence of an ongoing infection, then it is reasonable to believe that in some way, the infection could have played a causative role in her passing. So I would wonder whether she had fevers, chills, sweats, swelling or redness of the foot, evidence of an open infection. If so, she may have had an infection that was never resolved. If not, it would seemingly be unlikely that the infection caused her later deterioration but more likely served as a signal of her poor circulatory status.
    The point that I am trying to make is that some of life’s mysteries can potentially be answered by science. Science is not magic and it will surely never answer all of our questions. In fact, science well done often raises at least as many questions as it answers. But, the application of the rigorous system of approaching questions from a scientific perspective can answer questions. And it has led us to longer, healthier and better lives.
    We are living in an era in which many people are unwilling to accept the findings of science. And it feels like many people don’t understand what science is, how it works and how it can help us. Leah, in particular, has a lot of expertise and passion to bring to this issue. Sometimes science leads us to conclusions that challenge strongly held beliefs. It turns out, the sun does not go around the earth. A bacterium called Yersinia pestis rather than evil spirits caused bubonic plague.
    Those concepts are obvious now, but were controversial in the past. Now we have other areas in which science and strongly held beliefs come in conflict. I believe we have to live with whatever we learn from well done, reproducible scientific investigation, even if we had wished it to be otherwise.

    In any case, while I suspect that nobody else will choose this topic as a response to your post, the fact is that each of us responds to it in our own way. Mostly, each of us responds to it. We are moved, we feel things, we think things, we question and evaluate things. That is testimony to how well written your blog posts are and how well chosen the topics are. Thank you.

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  6. Very interesting read Linda! So many questions left unanswered… it’s nice to have family to try to figure out some of the mysteries together. I appreciated your theme of caretaking in the article… you with Cutie and Nana as one of the qualities that she identified with most in her life.

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