Note: At the end of this piece, Gary offers his perspective.
It was the beginning of our relationship. Gary and I had long conversations about our histories, comparing our families, and sharing our dreams for the future. I knew the broad outlines of his family background, that his parents were Holocaust survivors who had not been in concentration camps. But, I didn’t yet grasp the impact of that on Gary. On one particular autumn night, with a particular conversation, I touched a nerve and, thus, I began to learn.
We were in the living room of the apartment that he shared with two friends. It was late at night, as it often was in those days when we hung out and talked into the wee hours. I was sitting on the floor with my back against the chair he was sitting in, his legs framing my arms.
It started as an innocuous conversation, at least it seemed so to me, about his need to take the MCATs (the medical school entrance exams) and the timing of the test.
A little background might be helpful. Most pre-med students take the MCATs at the end of junior year so that they can apply to medical school during senior year. This sets them up to go directly from college to med school. Since med school is four years and there is additional training required beyond that, which often takes anywhere from three to ten years, many want to be as efficient with their time as possible. Unfortunately, Gary wasn’t in position to do that. His junior year had not been terribly successful. He lost motivation and stepped off the track he had been on, and didn’t take the MCATs. It was now the 1979-80 school year, our senior year, and the test wasn’t available to be taken very often. I think it was offered maybe twice a year. Gary’s next opportunity would be in the Spring, but he hadn’t filled out the application yet.
In order to take the test, Gary had to fill out some paperwork, write a check and mail it in. Paperwork wasn’t a strong suit for Gary, as I was beginning to learn. But, it turned out there was more to his procrastination than met the eye.
“So, let’s fill out the application now and you can mail it tomorrow,” I helpfully suggested.
“You don’t understand,” came the testy reply.
“What do you mean?” I asked, moving to turn around to face him.
“You don’t understand the pressure I am under,” his voice was tight. I heard anger, frustration and anxiety.
“Explain it, then.”
Explain he did. A torrent of words describing high expectations placed on him from as early as he could remember. “It’s good to be a doctor,” his father, David, told him when he was in Kindergarten. It was an idea David repeated regularly over the years. Gary was a good student, it was clear he was intelligent from the get-go. The seed was planted early and his father could be relentless. It was assumed he would go to medical school.
This story isn’t unusual among Jewish families. Many children were on the receiving end of those messages. My response, thinking I was supporting his vision for himself, was to say, “But you can do whatever you want! You don’t have to be limited! You don’t have to be a doctor.”
“You’re not hearing me!” Now he was angry. Gary didn’t, and doesn’t, get angry often. He was angry now.
“I feel like I do have to be a doctor! I will disappoint my father, let down my entire family, if I’m not!” He went on to describe how things went at family gatherings, how it was assumed he was on track to go to medical school. His parents, not aware of the particulars of college and graduate school, didn’t know where Gary was in the process. He was carrying 22 credits that semester (and would have to carry an equivalent load again the next semester), to make up for junior year and to graduate on time. He explained how so much was wrapped up, for his father in particular, in his earning a medical degree.
At first, I stuck to my thought that Gary could do what he wanted. “You’re great at explaining things. You could be a great science teacher,” I said. After all, I was thinking, both of my parents were teachers. I thought it was an admirable profession.
“You’re still not getting it!” Gary exploded.
I recoiled at the power and emotion behind his words. I retreated, “Okay. Okay.”
We agreed that it was late and we weren’t going to solve anything in that moment. I told him I wanted to understand, and we could talk again after we both got some sleep. We said good night and I went back across the hall to my apartment.
It was the beginning of my understanding the impact of his parent’s Holocaust experience on Gary and how it shaped him. No child wants to disappoint their parents, I certainly didn’t, but there was a more intense sense of responsibility and deeper obligation for Gary, knowing how much his Mom and Dad had gone through, how much they suffered. Gary had this opportunity that they never had, and he felt a duty to make the most of it regardless of his own wishes. I was beginning to appreciate the weight of that.
I think our conversation was also a step along Gary’s journey to sort out what he actually wanted for himself and what others expected of him. He began to acknowledge that it was okay to factor in what his father wanted, after going through an internal rebellion. And, over the course of the next two years, it would become clear to him that he did want to be a doctor.
Of course, there was also all the other anxiety that every pre-med student deals with: getting good grades, scoring high enough on the MCATs, getting into a program (preferably in the United States!) and succeeding in one. Under the best of circumstances, it is a fraught journey. Not nearly as fraught as the journey his parents had taken, but challenging nonetheless.
Some thoughts from Gary:
We all should pursue our own dreams. Right? That seems straight forward enough and yet that very question was at the heart of my dilemma back when Linda and I had that tense conversation. To be fair, that idea, the belief that each of us can and should do what we want to do, is something that many in the world would find laughable. It is a luxury many don’t have.
Many people are just trying to survive and it is for those who are fortunate enough to grow up in the right county and in the right circumstances to even think about such questions. How many people dream of picking up garbage or cleaning hotel rooms? Of working endless hours picking fruit on farms, or working in mines? On top of that, many people really don’t have a dream. We fall into whatever and we do our jobs and earn our paychecks and the world keeps spinning around.
But back then, I firmly believed I should pursue my dreams. And, while I had no reason why being a physician couldn’t be my dream, I had one really big problem: My father wanted it for me more than anyone. And that left me with the dilemma. Did I want it or was I doing it for my father? And how could I do it if it wasn’t for me? And how could I not do it after all he had been through and all that he seemed to have emotionally invested in my becoming a doctor?
As it turns out, medical school was four of the best years of my life and being a physician has allowed me to utilize my inclination to think scientifically and serve people in a most important and personal way. It has brought me a tremendous sense of purpose, a sense of doing something meaningful. And it has given me financial rewards beyond what I would have ever imagined reaping. As it turns out, it was the perfect decision.
But at that time, it wasn’t clear to me whose decision it was; where did my father’s will end and mine begin? Certainly, complicating all of this was the fact that my parents are Holocaust survivors. The children (and I’m sure grandchildren) of survivors have common traits. We tend to be anxious. We tend to be driven. We tend to live with the guilt that comes from the fact that we never had to endure what our parents did. They were getting shot at. I was more concerned about whether Keith Hernandez would get the lead runner out when fielding a bunt. They didn’t have food. I was annoyed when my brother changed the channel on our TV.
Even now, if you ask me whether I should feel guilty, I think the answer would be yes, I should.
3 thoughts on “A Tense Conversation”
Yes the guilt and anxiety…also the need to be perfect and protect our parents because…after all they endured so much and we had everything.
Nobody gets out unscathed. Even the survivors, their children and grandchildren. But I must also say that I have never thought of us as victims. It is a term that I reject for myself and for our family. I feel like we (really they) have overcome and are not victims even given the horrible losses they endured. I feel very proud of them.