Family

I was taking another drive to New Jersey recently. Usually I listen to music, but I have been exploring podcasts. A friend recommended Marc Maron’s WTF, saying he was a good interviewer. He’s also a comedian so I thought there could be some laughs. I enjoy a good interview and laughing so I decided to check it out.  (I agree with my friend; he is a good interviewer and I enjoyed the three podcasts I listened to – it is a long ride!).

Anyway, one of the comments he made got me thinking. He was relaying a story about family vacations. He did not remember them fondly (don’t worry, Mom, I remember ours very warmly). He talked about his family of four sharing one hotel room and in that cramped space they got on each other’s nerves. He mentioned that they didn’t know each other that well. He pointed out that they were probably all too self-absorbed in their day-to-day life and didn’t actually know each other. When they were thrown together in the confines of a single hotel room, it could get unpleasant.

The idea of not really knowing your own family gave me pause. On the one hand, I would have said that we knew each other quite well. We were a close family; we spent a lot of time together. On the other, maybe not…. especially when I was younger. Most of my time with them was as a family unit, and we fell into certain roles. Dad was the disciplinarian. Mom was the one directing our activities. Mark was the instigator, looking to get a rise out of someone, mostly me. Steven was the sphinx, keeping to himself, getting along. I don’t know who I was – sometimes I know I was the whiner, “Mark touched me!” I would cry with great indignation.

I don’t mean to reduce us to one characteristic, but I think there is something to that. We still fall back into those roles.

I remember once when I was a young adult living in Albany, having already started my own family, Dad came to visit alone. He was attending a social studies conference at one of the hotels in the area. He stayed overnight at Gary and my house. It was all fine, but it felt odd. It isn’t that I never spent one-on-one time with my Dad. But that was when I was a kid.  When I was 9 or 10 years old, I would go to watch him play tennis. I would ride with him to Marine Park, where he met his friends and they would play doubles. I would alternate between hitting a tennis ball against a wall and watching them play. On the way home, we’d stop for an egg cream. I remember enjoying those times, they are special memories for me.

I’m sure that was more time than some daughters get with their fathers. Yet, when he visited that time in Albany, it struck me that there was some awkwardness to it. Maybe it was because as an adult it had been years since it had just been us. Maybe we didn’t know each other as adults.

It wasn’t that he disappointed me in any way during that visit, or that it was unpleasant. I became aware, though, that our relationship was inextricably tied to our connection to my mother. I was more accustomed to spending time with them as a couple. It felt a bit weird to relate to him as an individual.

This notion was reinforced, years later, when my Dad died. I became aware that my relationship with my mother was changing. She was likely changing, after 50 years as a partner to Dad she needed to find her own path. I discovered different parts of her personality, as she may have been discovering different aspects of herself. It is hard to disentangle the varied strands – was she changing? Was I? was that who she had always been, but now I saw it?

I also think back on ideas I had about other family members. It’s funny how my understanding of our family has changed over the years. When I was young, I thought we were perfect. Then I went through a phase, not surprisingly, as a teenager, where I hated them (okay, hate is a strong word – they annoyed me profoundly). Then I got to college and realized I was so lucky to have two parents who communicated their love and care clearly, and an extended family that I was deeply connected to. As I grew into adulthood, I saw our family in more nuanced ways. I became aware of tensions that ran beneath the surface – not so much in our immediate family but with aunts and uncles. I realized that things were more complicated than they seem on the surface.

I remain deeply connected to my family. I continue to get to know them. How well do we know each other?  I can’t answer that. I wonder what others experience in their families. Do you know each other?

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part of my family

 

The Fifth Commandment

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. It was a wonderful day for me – I felt loved. Need I say more? Probably not, because that sums it up pretty well. But, I do want to say more (otherwise I wouldn’t have much of a blog post, would I?).

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Part of my mother’s day. I am so lucky!

I came across an essay by Anne Lamott, a writer I like very much, in which she argues for cancelling Mother’s Day. (If you want to read her post, here is a link: here, though if you aren’t on Facebook it might not work.) She made a lot of valid points. It is a day that can be fraught for many reasons: it can be a reminder of the painful loss of a mother or child, it romanticizes motherhood when for most the relationship is not as simple as a Hallmark card, it can be alienating for those struggling with infertility….the list can go on. But all celebrations have a flip side. Birthdays can be reminders of what we haven’t yet accomplished. The holiday season can feel intensely lonely. I think we need to be sensitive to that and reach out to those who may be in pain. We should also emphasize the love, not the consumerism. But we shouldn’t cancel the celebration. Mothers deserve to be celebrated, even the flawed among us (which would be all of us). Most of us are doing our best, which sometimes isn’t enough. And there are some who aren’t doing that, but then I hope we could celebrate those who helped us overcome, who played a nurturing role. A mother, whether they are biological, adopted, or chosen, is worthy of recognition.

After all, it is in the ten commandments. Even if one doesn’t believe in God, or has their doubts, the ten commandments offer some good moral guidance, and the fifth commandment says to honor your father and your mother. I have wondered what that means.

I remember when I was a child being in the room when my dad had an argument with one of my mom’s uncles. Uncle Morris was saying that children owe their parents respect and love. My father, in his forceful way, disagreed. He said children didn’t ask to be born. Parents were obligated, since they brought the child into the world, to care for them, but a child didn’t have to return the favor. Uncle Morris was taken aback. I think I understood, even though I was a child, that somehow this related to my dad’s feelings about his own parents. I’ve written about this before, but I believe my father didn’t feel loved or supported by his parents (at least not in the way he needed to be). To his credit, he, in turn, did his best to make us, his children, feel loved and supported.

What do we owe our parents, if anything? My mother has often told me that she doesn’t want to be a burden. I appreciate her saying that. I make a choice to drive to New Jersey to take her to the doctor in New York City. I choose to call her almost every day. Is that burdensome? Maybe. When I am crawling through midtown traffic to get to the Lincoln Tunnel to take her home from the appointment, it can be onerous. But, it still feels right. I want to do those things. Sometimes I wonder if I can or should do more. We are all pulled in different directions. Balancing it, our relationships, our work, our hobbies, our own health, is a never-ending struggle. I am constantly in conversation with myself about whether I am striking the right balance. It is not a very satisfying conversation because most often I feel like I am coming up short somewhere.

Do you have that conversation with yourself? Any comments on that fifth commandment? – it is a tricky one. Maybe they all are.

Bittersweet

NOTE: I have changed the names out of respect for the privacy of those involved.

April 20th marked twenty years since the tragedy at Columbine High School. It was a watershed moment for many reasons. It is one of those times where I remember exactly where I was as the horror unfolded on live television. We were in the living room of our friends’ home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Memories come flooding back…bittersweet memories.

Memories:  Of flying kites on the beach, where we could count on a stiff wind to make it easy to get the kite to lift off, almost taking our children with it!

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Leah and Daniel on one of our early trips to the Outer Banks circa 1992

Of Daniel assuming the pose of a martial arts master to slay the waves. He also had a penchant for chasing sand pipers. I was so relieved when they flew away beyond the grasp of his small hand.

Of taking Leah and Christine, our friends’ daughter, to the pool – as older girls (four and six) they could swim. They amused themselves in the water for hours.

Of sunny early mornings, before anyone else was awake, sitting on the deck facing the ocean and reading whatever novel I had brought with me. Our time on the Outer Banks was often my only chance to read a book for pleasure and I relished it.

Of walking with some combination of our kids the couple of blocks to the shopping area where there was a donut shop. Breakfast was often coffee and a donut.

Of retreating from the midday sun to the cool of the air-conditioned house for an afternoon nap.

Of Gary, legs coated in sunscreen and sand, building elaborate sand castles with the kids.

Of quickly packing up everything and evacuating ahead of hurricane Hugo – which actually missed the Outer Banks and made landfall in Charleston, South Carolina, but we couldn’t take chances with our children. We drove inland through the night and went to the Martins’ home in Maryland.

When we first went to the Outer Banks in 1989, we rented a house near Duck, we loved the name of the town. Wild horses could still be seen by the roadside. We drove down from Albany, an arduous trip, in our Camry station wagon. It was the first car Gary and I ever bought and we didn’t get air conditioning, thinking we didn’t need it living in upstate New York. Plus, we would save a lot of money, which was still very tight. That was a serious mistake and we paid for it in a myriad of ways, including on those trips. Neither Leah nor Dan appreciated hot air blasting through the open windows as we made our way south on the Jersey Turnpike.

I vividly recall arriving at the rental house that first time. It was a beautiful home – weatherworn shingles, with multiple decks and, of course, the smell of the ocean coupled with the unique scent of the Carolina lowlands. We went inside and I nearly burst into tears. There was a long staircase to get to the main living area. There were glass coffee and end tables. We had a 7 month old (Dan) and Leah was two and a half. A week of keeping Leah and the other kids safe from falling down those stairs, or banging into the glass tables flashed before my eyes. Gary and Evan, his buddy from medical school, ushered me outside while they quickly moved the tables and did as much baby-proofing as possible. I practiced taking deep breaths.

It turned out to be a great week and the beginning of something we would do for more than ten years.

On Tuesday, April 20, 1999 we were a few days into our spring break from school and our friends had, years earlier, bought a house in Whalehead (a newly developed area on the northern edge of Outer Banks). We were fortunate enough to be invited to continue our tradition of vacationing with them.

That afternoon, having spent the morning riding bicycles and playing mini-golf, we were hanging out in the great room on the top floor.  We happened to have the television on, tuned to CNN. We watched as events unfolded in Littleton, Colorado. After leaving it on long enough to understand that it was a school shooting, we turned it off and went about our activities. We didn’t want our children to be distracted or troubled by the images.

I remember being angry – at the gunmen of course, but also at the media coverage. They didn’t know what was happening. They were broadcasting live coverage from a helicopter – but the reporters didn’t understand what they were seeing, so they could only speculate. Like a car wreck, it was hard to look away, fortunately we did, eventually. I remember thinking that the speculation of the reporters seemed reckless.

That tragedy was a watershed moment in many ways. It was my first real understanding of the power and problems caused by the 24/7 news cycle. Since I was a school board member at the time, it represented a major change in the way we thought about school security. And, though it was entirely coincidental, our times going to the Outer Banks were also coming to a close.

Our children were growing up, beginning activities that would take time and commitment. The Martin children were doing the same. We would need to make difficult choices about how to spend our limited vacation time. There were always some stresses and strains between the kids, and in our friends’ marriage, that sometimes interfered with the fun. Those rough patches were outweighed by the laughter and adventures.  But then tragedy truly struck and things were permanently altered.

In April of 2003 the Martin’s oldest son, at age 15, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Gary and I visited them in early August and found them shattered by the devastating prognosis. I came back and spent a week at the end of October, to help with their two youngest children (their oldest daughter had started college), so Evan and Amy could tend to their son. It was beyond painful. He died in January of 2004, just shy of his 16th birthday.

Not only had they lost their son, but their family was irretrievably broken.

While April of 1999 was not our last time vacationing together, we had one or two more trips, it felt like the beginning of the end of something. Somehow the terrible events of that day and the subsequent tragedy for the Martin family are forever linked in my mind.

 

Full Circle

When Leah was born, my first child, I was overwhelmed. Not surprising, most first time moms are. Each time she cried, which seemed often, I would go through the possibilities: hungry? wet diaper? too cold/ too hot? needing to be cuddled? In an effort to bring some order to chaos, I kept a pad where I wrote down how long she slept, how long she nursed, and her diaper production (a nice way of saying her pooping and peeing). Writing it down seemed to help. With time it became more routine, and I relaxed as I learned about my baby.

I noticed that when Dan and Beth had their beautiful baby girl they more or less did the same thing, but they had an app for that! She is now approaching 11 months, they stopped using the app quite a while ago, as they too eased into parenthood.

Both my mother and my father-in-law, 85 and 96 respectively, have faced serious health challenges over recent weeks. My mom had an operation to have a cancerous tumor removed from her left lung (the second time she faced this, 3 years ago she had a cancerous tumor removed from her right lung). My father-in-law had pneumonia. He was hospitalized, fortunately briefly, and seems to be slowly recovering. Pretty miraculous – I don’t think many 96 year olds survive pneumonia. They are both progressing in fits and starts.

My anxiety about their recoveries reminds me of how I felt when Leah was born. A fear of doing the wrong thing, of not knowing what might be helpful, of understanding whether a symptom is serious or not, of not being attentive enough or maybe too focused. You can make yourself crazy.

So, we have come full circle – concerned about those basic bodily functions. Here’s hoping that they continue to work, and that my anxiety lessens as they do.

It is times like these that I wish I was a person of faith, but I don’t feel it. When my dad was seriously ill, and it turned out was approaching the end of his life, I had these same anxieties. Though I don’t believe in God (that’s an essay for another time), I found myself offering up a prayer to the universe: give me strength, give me the wisdom to know what to do and have mercy on my father. I silently repeated those words regularly over the course of the weeks. I don’t know if it helped. I did get through it. I offer that same prayer now. I will see this through, too.

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While Mom was in surgery, I looked out the hospital lounge window and saw this. I appreciated the bit of whimsy in that moment.

Gratitude

My friend Merle, who knows about these things and knows me as well as anyone, suggested I keep a gratitude journal. Not that I am not grateful for the blessings in my life already, but if I wrote, even briefly, each day about positive, joyful moments it might help move the needle from my tendency to dwell in negative spaces. So, with that in mind, and in acknowledgment of International Women’s Day, I want to share this:

I am so grateful for my granddaughter’s soft cheeks, wide blue/gray eyes, and sweet disposition. Gary and I got to spend time with her this past weekend and seeing her discovering the world for the first time, her pleasure in eating, her little legs kicking in the high chair in anticipation of the next spoonful of yogurt, learning to wave and say hi, provides me with sustenance and treasured memories. Hearing her say ‘Nana’ – it is possible it was just babble – but I will choose to think she was addressing me, makes me smile just thinking about it!

I am so grateful for my daughter-in-law who knows how to throw a party like nobody’s business. She made a 30th birthday party for Dan that was thoughtful in every detail, from the activities (ping-pong) to the beverages (favorite beers) to the food (BBQ) and decorations (his likeness on blue cups). Not to mention her gifting us with said granddaughter! She has added to our son’s happiness immeasurably and they are making a life together that is a source of pride, joy and hope.

I am beyond grateful for my daughter! When she enters the room I’m sure I’m smiling ear-to-ear. Her bright eyes, inquisitive and incisive mind, her playfulness and curiosity are infectious. I look forward to every visit, and our chats in between sustain me. She is fierce, determined and is in pursuit of social justice – all things I admire deeply. It doesn’t hurt that she may be my biggest cheerleader.

Finally, I am grateful for my mother. Her spirit is indomitable, even in the face of yet another health challenge. She shows us all how to embrace life, enjoy the beauty that surrounds us in nature, music, books, dance, films, and ideas. Even at 85, she shows no sign of losing that spark. I am thankful to have her as a role model to me, and our family. She may not be perfect, and she can be very hard on herself, but she is always striving to be better, to learn and grow. What more can you ask of a human being?

It is Monday morning and I am facing some challenging times ahead, but I am glad I took Merle’s advice and began the day with a moment of gratitude.

 

Flexible or Adrift?

The room is dark, but I hear Gary rolling out of bed. I open my eyes to see him slowly standing, unplugging his phone, and walking stiffly to the bathroom. “Is it time to get up already?” I ask. I squint at the clock, which reads 6:04 a.m. “Yup, but you don’t have to,” he reminds me. “I know,” I say as I turn over and settle back under the blankets, “it just seems too early. Sorry….” I don’t finish the thought.

Gary will go off to work, I will drift back to sleep. I am lucky. Most mornings I don’t have to be up at a specific time. My schedule is my own, except when it isn’t. I find it to be an odd existence. I retired three and a half years ago and I still don’t have a routine. I have a love/hate relationship with this reality.

My life is made up of:

Home-making – I take care of (almost) all the things that go into supporting Gary and my life together. Maintenance of the house, our two cars, paying the bills, shopping, gift-buying, planning travel, preparing meals, laundry, etc. Full disclosure:  I admit that we have a cleaning person come every other week and we do order food in pretty frequently (but I do cook at least 3 times a week). I take care of our cats. It surprises me how much time this all takes. In fairness to Gary, he takes care of outdoor things, and, importantly, makes the coffee every morning.

Consulting – I facilitate school board workshops for NYSSBA and sometimes I do policy projects for them (which involves reviewing and writing policies for school districts). This work is inconsistent. I can have a number of assignments in a row, particularly in the summer and fall, and then there can be dry periods. It is unpredictable. When I conduct a workshop, it involves several hours of preparation and discussions with the district, and then travel (usually a couple of hours), and the session itself is no less than 3.5 hours. The policy projects are more time consuming, usually taking the equivalent of a week of full time work.

Babysitting – Sometimes I am asked to watch our granddaughter, which is no hardship! I love spending time with that cutie pie, who is now almost 8 months old. Sometimes the request has come at the last minute, other times it is planned well in advance. I want to be flexible so that I can be there when they need me. Occasionally I help out with my cousin’s child who is now three years old.

Writing/Reading/Researching – I try to spend time writing most days, but this is the first thing to get pushed aside when other things get in the way. I participate in three writing groups which each meet once a month. I also spend time doing research on the things I write about in my blog. I’ve spent a lot of time researching Brooklyn in the 1960s and ‘70s, public education and the Holocaust. I can get lost in the rabbit hole of research. I’m also a devoted reader, both for pleasure and in order to develop my writing.

Visiting/overseeing my mother’s health care – My mom now lives in an independent senior community in New Jersey. I don’t visit as often as I’d like (or as often as she would like). Sometimes this involves only making phone calls and reviewing lab results. Other times I accompany her on doctor’s visits. I make it a priority to go to appointments that aren’t strictly routine.

Working out/jogging/biking – I try to maintain some level of physical activity. Three or four days a week, depending on the weather, I go to the Jewish Community Center to use the treadmill or if it isn’t brutally cold or raining/sleeting/snowing, I walk or jog at the nearby SUNY campus or take a ride on my bike.

Other stuff – Occasionally I play tennis or have lunch with a friend. Sometimes there are other family things that need attention. Gary and I aren’t hugely active socially, but we do make plans with friends and family and I make those arrangements. I’ve also been known to go out to protest or march in support of Planned Parenthood or other causes near and dear to my heart.

Looking at this list, it seems simple enough, and not terribly demanding. As long as everyone is healthy, it isn’t stressful. But, it doesn’t lend itself to creating a structure for my day. Some days I love that – the freedom of it, that I don’t have to report to anyone. Other days, though, I feel lost, adrift.  I wonder: is this enough? Am I being productive?

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day. I spent some time reading a speech he gave in 1965 at Oberlin College’s commencement. [I vicariously take pride in crediting Oberlin as the site of the speech because our daughter went there.] It was so inspiring! I also finished John Kerry’s memoir, Every Day is Extra. They lived big lives, momentous lives. I’m not comparing the two, just pointing out that each, in their own way, tried to accomplish so much. They participated in large movements working for change. Not everyone leads such a big life. I wonder, though, if I have done enough. Have I tried hard enough to make a difference?

As I think about it, maybe these are two separate issues. Am I doing enough? vs. Do I need more structure in my life? But they feel related. When I’m feeling lost or stuck, I can’t sort out the source.

How would I go about adding more structure? If I take on more responsibilities, let’s say a commitment to volunteer certain hours each week, then I lose the flexibility I wanted when I retired. I want to be available to help my kids, family or friends when they need it. I want to be a writer, which doesn’t require structure (unless you’re getting paid for it, which I am not, though there is always hope!). Of course, I could create my own structure. But that requires a discipline I don’t seem to have. Argghhh!

As far as the question, am I doing enough? I struggle with that. When I was a child I imagined a bigger life. My dreams, and I’ve written about this before, were to be Barbara Walters (at the time a prominent broadcast journalist) or someone who solves world problems. I was even voted ‘most likely to succeed’ in high school which gave credence to those dreams. Things haven’t played out that way, though, I have more success than I could have hoped for. I’ve been married to the same great guy for over 35 years. I am blessed with healthy, happy children. I have a wonderful extended family and good friends. We have a standard of living that I didn’t think was a possibility. I think my work has contributed positively. But have I done enough? Can I make peace with the size of my life? Anyone else out there think about that? Or, maybe it’s hubris on my part.

I can go round and round on this, so I’ll just stop now. If you have any insights or suggestions, feel free to share! Meanwhile, I’ll keep muddling through.

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One of the places I like to go when I feel adrift – Central Park.

Graduation

The end of our time in Pittsburgh was filled with emotion. I looked forward to being closer to family, but I dreaded having to start anew in another unfamiliar city. I wasn’t sure what I was going to be doing when I got to Albany. I hadn’t found a job yet, doing a search long distance proved fruitless.  As a result, like my move to Pittsburgh four years earlier, I was relocating without anything certain. Gary, on the other hand, knew exactly what he would be doing, but it was daunting. Internship and residency, more tests of his knowledge, skills and endurance awaited. We were also saying good-bye to close friends who were scattering far and wide, each going to different programs.  It was bittersweet.

It was into this emotional stew that our families arrived for graduation. My parents flew in and were staying in dorm rooms on the University of Pittsburgh campus, just a few blocks from our apartment. Gary’s parents, sisters and brother drove from Queens in his Dad’s Cadillac. They stayed at a hotel. Planning for our families to be together was stressful. Everyone got along fine, but we were still new at this. Our families’ styles were so different. Gary’s family would enjoy a tour of the medical school, with extended stops in the pathology and anatomy labs to look at specimens. Not so much for my parents – a tour of the med school would be fine, but they’d prefer to skip the labs (or maybe it was just me that didn’t want to go to the labs!). They would be more inclined to visit a museum or take a walk in Schenley Park.

Meals were another thing. Gary’s parents didn’t require kosher food, but there were limited options. It was important to have fish (not shellfish) available. My parents liked fish, so that wasn’t a problem. The question was where to go to get it, Pittsburgh wasn’t famous for seafood. Gary and I, living on a tight budget, didn’t go to the fancier restaurants either. My perception was that the Baksts liked finer things (note the aforementioned Cadillac). Gary had told me years before that his folks didn’t go out to eat often and that his mom liked a restaurant that had white tablecloths. Celebrating Gary’s graduation was a big deal. I wanted the dinner to be perfect. Not too much pressure!

After asking around, I made a reservation at the Fox Chapel Yacht Club. After all my worry, it went fine. At least I think it did. I have no memories of the meal itself. So, I am assuming if something horrible happened, I would remember! I do have some photos, showing us smiling, which may, or may not, support my assumption.

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Gary and his sibs in their traditional pose – youngest to oldest (L-R) in front of the yacht club
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Gary and his dad.

We did a mix of things over the two days they were there, showing them around and leaving time to relax. We always loved showing visitors the Cathedral of Learning, a gothic tower at the center of a green space on Pitt’s campus. On the ground floor of the cathedral there were model traditional classrooms from other countries, including Sweden, Israel, Poland, among others. I never got tired of looking at them.

We successfully made it to the morning of graduation. Everyone gathered at our apartment. Gary put on his gown. I asked him to put on the cap so I could take some pictures. He was none too pleased. I think his nerves were a little frayed, he was impatient to leave and he was taking his stress out on me. Rochelle interjected, asking him to cooperate, after all he would want pictures. He did, but he wasn’t happy.

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See? The photo he begrudgingly posed for.

Then he left. We would meet up with him after the graduation.

I led our group to the Carnegie Music Hall, so many things in Pittsburgh bear the Carnegie name, where the graduation ceremony was held. It was a gray, rainy day, but the Hall was only a few blocks from our apartment.

We entered the grand foyer of the hall, with its marble floors and ornate columns, looking appropriately majestic for the occasion. We saw all the graduates gathered on one side, in their black robes and green hoods, arranged for a group photo. We stood for a minute, scanning the group, finally spotting Gary in the first row. I waved and smiled. He looked happier, more relaxed.

We went up to the balcony to take our seats. My parents were on my right, David sat to my left. I looked through the program. In front of Gary’s name there were two symbols; an asterisk indicating that he was Cum Laude, and a small cross which meant that he was admitted to the medical honor society (Alpha Omega Alpha). I proudly pointed out the honors to everyone. Not many of his classmates had achieved either honor, much less both.

During the ceremony, each time I turned to look at David, he had tears in his eyes. At one point, as he dabbed his eyes with his handkerchief, he whispered, “Who would have thought I would get to see this?” He shook his head in disbelief. “I had nothing when I came here.”

It had been quite a journey for the entire Bakst family.