Though I didn’t set out to tell the story of Gary’s graduation from medical school, it has been the thread that has pulled me along. His graduation was momentous, for Gary, of course, but for all of us. It was a culmination and a beginning.
I had stopped work at the Finance Department to prepare for our move and enjoy all the festivities leading up to the graduation ceremony. And there were festivities! Other than packing, both of us were without responsibilities for the first time in years, as were our friends, and that led to some serious celebrating. Gary and I were never major party-ers, but we gave it our best shot that week.
The graduation ceremony was held on the Tuesday after Memorial Day, May 29, 1986. In addition, the senior awards ceremony was conducted separately, before the weekend. The schedule clearly was not made with out of town guests in mind. Our families weren’t able to come to Pittsburgh for that long of a stretch. They came into town on Sunday. This was quite unfortunate because our families missed what may have been the highlight of graduation.
We knew Gary was getting an award, but we didn’t know what it would be. We got to the room where the ceremony was held, eager with anticipation, and most of the seats were already taken. We nodded hellos to his classmates as we made our way to two open chairs toward the back. The room wasn’t an auditorium, as I recall, it was more like a mid-size ballroom, set up with a podium at one end and rows of chairs. Awards in different categories were given, for different specialties. The Heard Senior Prize, honorable mention, for excellence in Medicine, went to Gary. First prize went to Monica Parise. Gary was not surprised, he believed Monica was very deserving. I was a bit disappointed, tremendously proud, but a little let down on Gary’s behalf. We didn’t know there was more to come.
More awards were given. We were coming to the end of the ceremony. The announcer presented the Jamie Sheehan Memorial award, voted on by the students, given to the “individual who is most aware that the role of the physician is to serve and honor the patient and who is most sensitive to the healing power of the doctor-patient relationship” to Gary Bakst. This was completely unexpected. Gary had said nothing to me about the vote. Later he told me that he had no thought that anyone would vote for him. He voted for a classmate who was instrumental in setting up a clinic for unemployed steelworkers. But, his classmates saw something, a quality that I knew well.
Gary got up to receive the award and the audience rose, as well. He got a standing ovation! I was smiling ear-to-ear, clapping, trying to take it all in. I did have one stray thought: I never realized how short Gary is! I couldn’t see him. I stood on my tiptoes, straining, trying to follow him as he made his way down the aisle to the front – to no avail. That was a ridiculous observation, of course, in the midst of the pride and pleasure in his recognition.
I was only sorry that his family wasn’t there to see it. Damn the planners!!! But I would be sure to tell them all about it. Meanwhile, we celebrated. It had been a long, hard four years for both of us. We earned that celebration. We weren’t our best selves by the time our families arrived on Sunday, but we managed to rally.
As I reread my previous post about “The Match,” I realized there are some pieces of the story I wanted to add. Once again, the beauty of a blog presents itself: I can add to the history I am sharing whenever and however I want! Of course, hopefully I am keeping it coherent and interesting!
First, I want to explain how Albany, New York came to be ranked so high. The charms of Albany might not be evident. A number of my blog readers live in Albany and are well acquainted with its appeal, but not all of you are, so I will explain.
Some medical students, when they had breaks from school, went off for a beach vacation, Gary and I took the time to visit family. We’d start in the city, see Gary’s parents in Queens (Gary’s mom was kind enough to lend us her car so we could make the rounds), then mine in Brooklyn. We’d hit Jersey to see my brother and sister-in-law, Steven and Cindy. Then we’d travel up Route 17 to Middletown to see Gary’s brother and sister, Steven (so many Stevens in our lives!) and Rochelle. Finally, we’d go to Albany to visit my brother and sister-in-law, Mark and Pam, and, importantly, their sons, our nephew Joshua, and their newest arrival, Samuel Lee.
Mark began a campaign to have us come to Albany. Perhaps because of his fond memories of our grandparents and then our aunt and uncle living upstairs from us in Canarsie, Mark had visions of creating a family compound in Albany. He took every opportunity to lobby family members to relocate (his efforts, by the way, have paid off over the years. We don’t have a family compound, but some members have relocated, but more on that another time).
When we got to Albany, as part of our New York grand tour, Mark began the hard sell. He drove us around the residential neighborhoods near the hospitals, he showed us around the suburbs. He was on the verge of getting Gary carsick, but then he gave us quotes on property values. Gary had an appreciation for those numbers. We learned we might be able to afford to buy a house – not an option in most of the other places we were considering.
Mark pointed out that we were less than three hours from Boston and New York City, and only four hours from Montreal. He knew I loved those cities. He also dangled the offer of lawn passes to see the New York City ballet at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in the summer. During my teenage and young adult years I went to the ballet regularly with my mom, her sister, Aunt Simma, and her daughter, Laurie. We had a subscription. I loved (and still love) the ballet.
Our visit ended with us sitting on the floor of Mark’s living room playing with Josh and Sam.
That’s how Albany made it to number two.
When ‘the match’ revealed itself and we learned we were going to Albany, I think Gary was a little perplexed. His interview at Columbia had gone well. He had done research there before attending medical school in Pittsburgh. His grades and board scores were excellent. While he certainly didn’t feel like a shoo-in, it seemed like a reasonable bet.
We thought it was just one of those things that we would never understand. But not long after match day, Gary saw the head of Pittsburgh’s internal medicine department, Dr. Levy, and they chatted a bit. Gary learned that during the process Columbia had called Dr. Levy to express their interest in Gary but wanted to know if Gary would attend if they selected him. We were unaware that there was gamesmanship going on behind the scenes. Dr. Levy told them that Gary was planning to come to Pittsburgh. When hearing this, Gary was speechless – he didn’t know where Dr. Levy got that impression. Gary didn’t apply to or interview at Pitt. When Gary shared this with me, I wondered whether there was something that could be done. Gary believed that when you entered the match, you agreed to the terms, which would mean accepting the assignment. We also thought maybe it was for the best anyway – the stresses and strains of commuting and working at Columbia were daunting. Though neither of us put a lot of weight on fate, we decided to let it be.
And, finally, another word about the Firebird. The car, when last we left off, was sitting in a Breezewood, Pennsylvania service station, 123 miles away from me in Pittsburgh. After many phone calls, I had the car towed back to Pittsburgh to a recommended repair shop. They found a replacement engine. Since the car had been gifted to us with the understanding that we would return it when we no longer needed it, we wanted to repair it. The problem was that the cost was $1100, not including what we paid to tow it! I don’t recall now, but our credit limit on our Mastercard may not have been high enough to handle it. But, I was blessed with an unbelievably supportive father – I could always count on him. With Dad, if I even hinted at some difficulty, he was quick to offer his help. Fortunately, Mom and Dad were in a comfortable place financially at that point. I didn’t even have to ask; he knew we were struggling to make ends meet. He gave us the money, no strings attached!
Dad’s birthday is coming up, he would be 86, this Friday. It seems particularly appropriate to end this blog post with a remembrance of him and his extraordinary support and generosity. It may be almost 14 years since he died, but I think of him all the time and he is alive in my heart.
Sometimes I slip and say, “when we went to medical school.” Of course, I know that I didn’t go. In fact, when I would meet Gary on campus, we would take a short cut that went through the anatomy lab. I kept my eyes tightly closed, held my breath and he guided me through as quickly as possible. I wasn’t cut out for blood, guts or formaldehyde. But, I still feel like I went through it. Maybe because it was so intense. Maybe because our lives were totally consumed and structured by the demands of Gary’s schedule. Whatever the reason, now and again the phrase still slips out.
When I joined Gary in Pittsburgh, one of the things I was struck by, and people will be pleased to know this, was how seriously Gary and his fellow students took their learning. I don’t know if it is like this in other medical schools, but at Pitt, with a few exceptions, students were committed to learning all of the material. There was concern about grades, too, but the focus was actually on learning. They took their responsibility very seriously. Not only were they studying for a given test, they were trying to retain the knowledge beyond that test. Certainly, this was true for Gary and his circle of friends.
This was a contrast from my experience in graduate school, where my fellow students at Columbia were present and worked hard, but didn’t display that level of commitment, not even close. The med school students saw a connection between what they were learning and the quality of care they would later provide patients. I found it very reassuring.
The first two years of medical school were comprised of traditional classes. Gary lugged huge, thick texts on biochemistry and anatomy and physiology to and from the apartment – sometimes to one of the libraries on campus, more often downstairs to a room in our building. Ruskin Hall, where we lived, had a lounge on the first floor that was good for studying. There was a long wooden table with sturdy chairs and some more comfortable chairs against the walls. It was never terribly crowded, but there were always some people studying there. When he wasn’t in class or lab, that’s where I’d find Gary. It became a routine: every evening around 8:00 I’d bring him a cup of Maxwell House International Suisse Mocha (the instant mix). We’d touch base for a minute or two and then I’d go back up to the apartment, watch t.v. or read and go to sleep. I didn’t know what time Gary came up.
It could be lonely for me. Other than Gary, I didn’t know a soul in Pittsburgh. It took a few months for me to find a job, but even after finding one, it was hard to make friends. I was an outsider at work, being so young, a New Yorker and Jewish (I wrote about that here and here). My colleagues were married, with children and in a different place in their lives. Though it was fine for work, for the most part, I couldn’t make a connection that went beyond a celebratory drink during the holidays.
We did have a circle of friends from Gary’s class, which included some women. I did become friends with one who was in a similar situation, she worked while her husband went to med school. She was a copy editor at a publishing company. But her life took a major turn when she got pregnant and had a baby during the second year of medical school. We remained friendly, and we socialized as couples, but she, understandably, was preoccupied.
I tried some different things to network and branch out. I joined a group called Women in Community Development and edited their newsletter. I enrolled to get my PhD in Public Administration at the University of Pittsburgh and took a few classes, while working full time. I joined a gym near work. None of those efforts led to the kind of connection I wanted. Looking back, I think my loneliness and sadness were more about my general melancholia, not yet treated with medication.
I muddled through, trying to be as supportive of Gary as possible, while simultaneously leaning on him to fulfill all of my emotional needs (perhaps a contradiction in terms). The third year of medical school brought new and different challenges. Gary began rotations in the hospitals, each one exposing him to another specialty. Most med students, early on, made a choice: medicine or surgery. There were many specialties within each of those two branches, but the two areas called upon different skill sets. Surgeons tended to be action-oriented, take-charge, fix-it kind of people. Internal medicine drew problem-solvers, relationship-focused, detail-oriented folks. There was some trash talk between the two groups, with those choosing medicine disparagingly referred to as ‘fleas.’ I don’t recall a pejorative assigned to surgeons, but the general idea was that they wanted to operate first, ask questions later.
Gary chose medicine, not surprisingly. As a result, the medicine rotation loomed large for him. He was determined to ace it. It was the longest rotation, lasting almost three months, taking him to different hospitals with a long stint at the VA. The hours were brutal. Gary would leave the apartment at 6:00 am and get home around 9:00 pm, if not later, and then he would read/study. I don’t recall him having weekends off, and if he did, they were spent studying. There was just so much to learn.
One night, tired of eating dinner alone and feeling resentful, I asked Gary if he had to keep these hours. “Can’t you cut back a bit? Does everyone do what you’re doing?” Gary carefully explained to me that this was time-limited, the rotation would end. He felt he needed to go all out because it would be important for future choices. If he wanted to get a residency placement of his choosing, the better he did in this rotation, the more options he would have. I didn’t know it then, but this argument would become a recurring theme in the first ten years of our marriage: me questioning whether Gary’s long hours were necessary. This time I told him I understood, and tried to suck it up.
I don’t know how he did it, I barely made it through the ordeal. I have this unfortunate tendency when in a dark period to feel like it will never end. I find it a challenge to see light at the end of the tunnel. Fortunately, that isn’t a quality Gary shares – he certainly wasn’t seeing much light, literally or figuratively. It was the fall, he left in the dark and came home in the dark and spent most of his time in the dim fluorescent light of hospital wards.
Finally, the rotation came to an end. I arrived home from work and found Gary already in the apartment. This was a major step forward, he was never home before me. I hung up my coat, went to the bathroom and came out to greet him. He was standing by the kitchen sink, taking a glass of water, but looking quizzically at me.
“What?” I asked, feeling like I must’ve missed something. Turned out I had.
“Did you go into the bathroom?”
“Go in there again.”
I was perplexed but I did as he asked. I looked up and taped to the mirror was a piece of paper. I don’t know how I missed it the first time, though I do try to avoid mirrors. I recognized the format – it was the end of rotation evaluation. Gary got honors in Medicine! I screeched and jumped up and down. I threw my arms around him. We danced around the apartment. I later learned that Gary was one of only four students (out of 140) to achieve that distinction. Gary was well on his way to leaving his ‘imposter syndrome’ behind, and hopefully getting a choice residency when he graduated.
Somehow, after recounting the drama and trauma of my in-laws journey through an anti-Semitic landscape, the events of this past weekend are crushing to me. It is a terrible reminder of our need to be vigilant in the face of hate and violence. I can only hope that we, as a country, will turn the tide. I hope the coming election sends a clear message. Please vote – and please vote for change.
Although I have covered the broad strokes of the Bakst family’s story, I do have a few more essays to write on that topic. I have learned a lot in the process of researching and listening to David’s stories, and I have thought quite a bit about the meaning of his and Paula’s experience that I would like to share.
But, first, I am taking a short break. In fact, I write this from Barcelona, the first stop on a Mediterranean trip. Lucky me! Don’t worry, though, I voted by absentee ballot and so did Gary!
What is left to tell? Paula and David began their life together in Queens, New York. David continued working at the pickle factory. Paula was a homemaker and managed their finances. She was very frugal and even with David’s modest earnings, they were able to put away some money. Eventually they bought a car, and a few years after that (in 1963), they were able to buy a house in Rosedale, Queens. Rosedale bordered Nassau County, Long Island and had the look and feel of a suburban neighborhood, even though it was in the New York City limits.
Their oldest child, Rochelle, arrived 18 months into their marriage. Paula’s mother and sister, Lea and Sofia, flew up from Cuba to meet the newest generation of their family. Four years after that, in 1956, Paula and David’s first son, Steven, was born. Lea and Sofia came north again, this time on permanent visas. They stayed and lived with David and Paula. It was tight quarters, six of them, in their small apartment with one bathroom, but it was nothing they couldn’t manage given all that they had been through.
Gary arrived in 1959 and was the baby of the family for 8 years, until Doreen entered the picture. Now the Bakst family was complete. David, as he envisioned when he spoke to Uncle Nachum years earlier, moved up to become the general manager of the food distribution company that the pickle business grew into.
In their early years in New York, David and Paula attended night school to learn English and, in time, they became United States citizens. They straddled two worlds. They were a product of their Eastern European shtetl childhoods, a world that had been destroyed by the Nazis, and they bore the scars of that trauma, and now they were trying to fit into the modern American society of the 1950s and 1960s. They embraced much of what America offered, but were also anxious about their ability to understand American institutions. They continued to seek out the company of family and friends that shared their shtetl experience. The generation gap, a common experience of that era, was alive and well in the Bakst household.
Not too long after her arrival, Sofia met and married Marvin Bressler, and began her own family. The Bresslers also settled in Rosedale. They had three children, a girl and two boys.
Lea continued to live with Paula and David, until her death, of a brain tumor, in 1973. She was 80 years old. She was the only grandparent the Bakst children would know.
Bernie didn’t leave Cuba until after the communist revolution in 1959. He was a businessman enjoying his life in Havana, and in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of the Batista government, Bernie made a lot of money. With some reluctance, he, along with Nachum, Bushe, Solomon and Mary, left for Florida. The aunts and uncles, and their children, settled in North Miami Beach, a community of Cuban-Jewish exiles. Over the years, Paula and David would visit when they could. Nachum lived a long life, well into his nineties.
Bernie eventually moved further north and became a successful businessman, marrying, and starting a family in Woodmere, on Long Island (a short distance from Rosedale). He and his wife had two children.
As a result of their extended time in Cuba, Bernie and Sofia, in particular, developed an affinity for its culture and maintained a connection with it throughout their lives. As part of his business in America, Bernie owned a warehouse in Union City, New Jersey (a community with a lot of Cuban immigrants). Gary worked there a couple of summers and has vivid memories of the experience. Gary commuted from Rosedale to Jersey, with his uncle. Bernie drove like a maniac, waiting until the last minute to dart across three lanes of traffic to get to the exit of the highway. And, Bernie would play a game with the tolls at the bridges, tossing one coin at a time, hoping the wooden arm would go up before the full fare was paid. Bernie employed a number of Cuban men at the warehouse. Gary remembers the men cooking a communal lunch, pork spiced with garlic, pepper, onion and coriander, as well as the smell of strong coffee. Gary also picked up some Spanish words that weren’t taught in high school.
David’s sister, Batya, lived in Israel for 7 years, with Fishel and their daughter Rochelle. Batya left Israel and came to the United States to get a divorce (she wasn’t able to get a divorce in Israel). She lived with David and Paula while she waited for it to go through. After a year, Rochelle joined her mom in New York. Though Batya regretted leaving Israel, she felt she had no choice. In time, she remarried and had a son, Ben, and she became an educator. She and her family lived blocks away from the Baksts in Rosedale.
Batya carried her own brutal memories, one of which she shared in a speech she delivered at the Rosedale Jewish Center, where she was being honored as a woman of valor. With her children, Rochelle and Ben, in the audience, Batya recounted her time in the work camp (the one she was miraculously rescued from by the Iskra Partisan Brigade). She told of one particularly horrific experience. She was walking across the camp compound and she heard a slight thud and a small mew as a piece of balled up laundry fell to the ground nearby. Batya didn’t see who had dropped it and thought it might be a kitten so she bent down to see what was in the bunched-up fabric. She found an almost newborn baby girl, barely alive, seemingly frozen. Without thinking, Batya quickly scooped her up, held the bundle to her chest and hurried to her bunk. She tried to warm the baby. Over the next day or so, Batya smuggled water and milk and fed her as best she could. She seemed to be reviving, and Batya named her Ilana. She didn’t know what she was going to do with her, she was just going from moment to moment trying to protect the baby. At one point, much to Batya’s distress, Ilana started to cry, bringing a German soldier to investigate. The soldier grabbed the baby, and to Batya’s everlasting horror, he plunged a bayonet into her. Batya shared this memory from the bemah in the synagogue. It was the first Ben, who was about 14 at the time, had heard the story. Though he knew his mother had endured suffering during the Holocaust, he didn’t know the depth of her anguish until then. Batya died of a rare type of cancer in 1982, she was 57 years old. Her daughter, Rochelle, lovingly cared for her in her final days. When Ben became a father himself, he and his wife named one of their sons after Ilana.
Paula and David didn’t often speak of their wartime experiences with their children. For the older children, Rochelle and Steven, the impact of the trauma was more apparent. Paula was still having nightmares when Rochelle was young. Gary and Doreen were more removed from it, as Paula and David healed and as their economic circumstances improved. All four of the children, though, were acutely aware of the legacy they carried.
Out of the ashes of the destruction of Ivye and Sernicki, new generations took root in America. The Baksts and Silberfarbs had 11 children, who in turn had 15 grandchildren and, to date, two great-grandchildren.
Note: One of the greatest sources of pride and joy for Paula and David are their four grandchildren, each accomplished in their own right. Laura, third oldest and the daughter of Gary’s brother, was kind enough to contribute this piece.
Nearly five years ago, I made my way across rural Germany to visit my great-grandfather’s grave. While the trip itself took only a few days the process started months earlier in New York, when my Poppy (grandfather) presented me with a disintegrating photograph of his father’s tombstone and the knowledge that it was located in a Jewish cemetery near Kassel, Germany. I could tell that at the age of ninety Poppy was still haunted by not knowing what came of the grave that he last saw over sixty years ago. I also knew that given my upcoming travels to Israel and Europe it was likely the only opportunity I’d have to locate the grave in the near future, and possibly in his lifetime.
Over the next few months I sifted through archives, including multiple visits to Yad Vashem (Israel’s holocaust museum), attempting to find records on my great-grandfather. Eventually I stumbled upon a German database of abandoned Jewish cemeteries. With the aid of Google Translate, I managed to obtain location information for a gravestone that appeared identical to the one in my grandfather’s photograph. It was in a cemetery in Hofgeismar, a small town in Northern Germany.
Fortunately, it was relatively easy to tack on a detour to Hofgeismar between trips with friends to Berlin and Amsterdam. Nevertheless, I was still nervous to be traveling across Germany on my own; I was the first in my family to return to the country since WWII, did not speak the language, and was traveling in areas not frequented by tourists. Fortunately, the kindness of others made the process a bit easier: I had made a few German friends while I was studying in Dublin who helped me book trains. Julia, a woman who volunteered at the Jewish Museum in Hofgeismar, was generous enough to not only respond to my cold-email inquiring about the cemetery, but also coordinate my entire itinerary for the day in Hofgeismar (unfortunately I was not able to meet her in person as she was traveling for a conference in Israel at the time).
Around 6:45am on a brisk October morning, I left my friends in Berlin and anxiously entered a metro station. True to Germany’s reputation, the four separate trains I took were impressively prompt. After making it to Hofgeismar, I met Mr. Burmeister, the Jewish Museum’s director, who drove me to the cemetery.
I didn’t really know what to expect, but I recall being surprised by the beauty of the place. Though obviously aged by the elements, the gravestone was completely intact, with the inscription still easily readable.
The small cemetery was in a lovely location, overlooking gorgeous valleys and blanketed by colorful leaves.
Following the Jewish tradition, I left several stones on behalf of my family on the gravestone. Across from my great-grandfather’s grave there was a small hill, below which a number of stones from the 1800s once stood. Unfortunately, they were destroyed during WWII (the cemetery houses Jews from after the war and pre-1936), so Mr. Burmeister showed me the memorial stone erected in their memory the prior year (2012).
Mr. Burmeister gave me a tour of the small but substantial Jewish museum, in which we had an interesting conversation about the Jewish history in Hofgeismar and his interest in the subject as a non-Jew. While there are no longer any Jews in Hofgeismar, before the War it was home to one of the highest percentages of Jews in Germany (10%).
Julia’s friend, Gabriele also showed me around Hofgeismar. We walked down to where the community temple once stood, now destroyed. We also drove through where the displaced persons camp used to be, the same camp that my grandfather stayed in after my great-grandfather died from surgical complications. The grounds are now being used for a school and police station. The town center was exactly as I’d have pictured it, with lovely sculptures and traditional German buildings.
Gabrielle pointed out some of the homes where Jews once lived, in front of which small metal squares note their names, dates of birth and death, and what occurred to them during the war. I remembered seeing similar stones in Berlin, and Julia explained that they are becoming more common as people are more open to uncovering that their homes may have been taken from Jews.
While the entire trip was extremely meaningful, what struck me the most was how seriously modern-Germany takes addressing its history. Unlike in America, it’s illegal to deny the Holocaust, display Nazi symbols, or otherwise incite hatred based on religion or ethnicity. All schools deeply educate students about the Holocaust, leaving my German peers more knowledgeable about it than me. People like Mr. Burmeister and Julia chose to dedicate their time to preserving the Jewish history in a small, now Jew-less town. Mr. Burmeister’s parents had no familial connection to Judaism, but rather his interest in the subject was peaked as a schoolboy studying German history. A teacher from a neighboring town told me how she believed it was important to expose her students to Jewish culture early on, bringing her class of 8-10 year olds to the Hofgeismar Jewish cemetery and Museum for a three-day workshop. Through tears she explained that she educates others about Nazism because her daughter has a disability and likely would have been killed had she been living during WWII.
Note: Laura is quite correct in saying that David was haunted by never having gone back to see his father’s grave. In going through the effort of locating and visiting the site, Laura did a mitzvah (good deed) that brought her grandfather comfort. Thank you, Laura, for doing that and for sharing this story on my blog.
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.