No Judgment Zone

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Sometimes I think too much

We know the old saying, ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover.’ We know this applies to people, yet we do it anyway; we judge. Looked at another way, is the idea that you never know what is going on with another person, unless they share it with you. I am going to share, with the hope that it helps others.

I take Zoloft and I have for many years. Some may read that and think, ‘Big frickin’ deal! Doesn’t everyone?’ Others may be surprised since my life is so charmed (and it is). And some may wonder why I would share something so private.

It is that last one that motivates me to write this post. Struggling with depression and anxiety is no different than other illnesses. I think there are some who view having cancer or diabetes or high cholesterol as a private matter – but not out of shame.

I hesitate to label myself as mentally ill. I have never been clinically depressed, as I understand that term. I have suffered only one panic attack that I recognized as such, and that was when I was a teenager. But, I have struggled my whole life with persistent melancholia. Whether that qualifies as a mental illness according to the DSM, I will leave for a doctor to decide. The label doesn’t matter, I was struggling through my life. It took a few things to get me to finally seek help.

One significant trigger was my son. When he was an adolescent, he asked me why I was always so unhappy. That opened my eyes to the impact my moods were having on my children, and that maybe it was getting worse. I also realized that I was fed up with ruminating. When things would go wrong, let’s say a family member said something that hurt my feelings or an interaction at work was frustrating, I would replay the incident in my head for months, imagining what I should have said in response, or how I would talk to them about it, only to do nothing. I would get stuck in that place and time, I couldn’t get out of my own way. One more factor led me to reach out and that was my daughter was approaching college age and she would be leaving home. I wanted to prepare myself and I wanted to handle the stress of that process better.

I asked my internist for a referral to a psychologist. I wasn’t thinking that I needed medication. I thought talk therapy would be sufficient. The referral worked out well – the therapist was a terrific match for me. She took a cognitive approach and we agreed that we would look at adding medication down the road, if we thought it would help.

After a number of months of weekly visits that were useful, I still wasn’t progressing the way I hoped, we revisited the medication question. We decided that I would try Zoloft (my internist actually did the prescribing). It was the right decision. It hasn’t been a miracle drug. The big difference I noticed was that I wasn’t in my head all the time. I could move past the aggravations and hurts that are a normal part of life, but previously I was not able to let go of. It didn’t suddenly fix my self-image problems, or remove all anxiety or regret, but it made it less of a struggle.

After a while, having learned some strategies and having better insight into myself, I thought I would try stopping the drug – I discussed it with both my therapist and my internist. I weaned off of it. After about a year, I realized it wasn’t a good move. The aftermath of my father’s death was a particularly challenging time for me. I also came to the realization that whatever it was about my brain that led me to ruminate was still there – it wasn’t going away. While I may have been able to manage it behaviorally, it took so much mental energy to do it that it was exhausting. I needed to come to peace with taking the medicine for the foreseeable future.

I write this because during all the years that this was playing out, I had numerous occasions where people commented on how lucky I am, or how happy, assertive, or comfortable (insert positive characteristic here) I seem to be. I am those things, some of the time, and not without considerable effort. If only they knew, better living through chemistry! Now they know!

So, there are three points in my sharing this. First, don’t make assumptions based on what you see. There is an internet meme that says you never know the battle someone else is fighting. Every time I see it, it resonates. Start with compassion. Second, it shouldn’t be a thing for someone to share that they take an anti-depressant, anti-anxiety or any other medication that helps to regulate mood. We shouldn’t sit in judgment. We may be moving in that direction, but we aren’t there yet. Lastly, I hope it is helpful to someone to know my story.

 

High Anxiety

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I have always prided myself as someone in touch with their feelings.  I can usually pinpoint the source of my emotions. Frustration with a relationship, disappointment in an outcome, anxiety about a challenge, excitement about an upcoming new experience – I can usually identify what is going on. Lately that ability seems muddled – I’ve had more free-floating anxiety than usual.

I was driving south on the Thruway the other day, heading to New York City for something like the 5thtime in a month (I’m usually excited by the prospect of time in the city). This time I just felt nervous, my brain flitting from one thing to another, I was having a hard time concentrating.  Thankfully I was able to focus on the road – it would truly have been a really bad sign if I got lost. I can make the trip on autopilot at this point. I tried to think through what has been going on, why this unease? Why have I been feeling more overwhelmed than circumstances seem to warrant? Since I was alone in the car, I took the opportunity to try and sort it out.

I am well aware that I am very fortunate, my life is an embarrassment of riches. I try to keep gratitude in the forefront, but, oddly, I find that the more I have, the more I fear losing it. I’m not referring to things (though I do have a confusing relationship with things, I like them more than I should), but to people. Readers of this blog know that our daughter-in-law is expecting a baby any day now. I think humming along in the background of my brain has been an awareness of the risks involved for everyone. I am also well aware of the fact that I have no control over how things will go. If only I could wrap up my loved ones in a cocoon to protect them! Obviously, not an option. So, maybe one contributor to my heightened level of anxiety is anticipation of this big event.

It’s funny in some ways because we spend so much time wishing for things (both tangible things and situations/events) and then when they happen, you realize it isn’t quite what you thought. There are strings attached.

You hope that your child finds a partner in life. But when they do, it changes your relationship (in all sorts of ways, many positive, some unanticipated). You look forward to being a grandparent, but that brings new worries. You look forward to a trip, but then you deal with the aggravation of delayed flights or turbulent weather. You want the luxury of a swimming pool in your backyard, but then you have to deal with the maintenance (a seemingly never-ending source of aggravation in our case). These may seem like wildly different ‘things,’ but there is a theme. There is a cost that comes with the things we want. Perhaps that is obvious, but it makes me stop and think. There is virtue in simplicity. Maybe I should consider Buddhism! The way I understand one of its central tenets is that you shouldn’t become attached to things or ideas – you need to let go of expectations. I don’t know if I can do that.

Or maybe I need to figure out how to not let these things get to me; figure out a way to acknowledge the worry, but then set it aside, especially when there isn’t something to be done.

But, it is so easy to lose perspective. Over the last couple of months, we have been enmeshed in the process of buying a condo in NYC. That’s the reason for so many trips to the city. Filling out the paperwork for a mortgage and shepherding it through the process felt like a full-time job. How blessed am I that making this purchase is even an option? But it is also a source of anxiety. It is a huge investment, the numbers are scary. But then I would remind myself that if it fell through, there was no real loss. And, if we successfully closed on it, and it turned out to be too big a financial commitment, we could sell it. So why did it feel so stressful?

In part, I blame Trump. You may ask, what is the connection? As I was driving down the Thruway, mulling things over, I realized that another large piece of my anxiety came from worries about our country’s future. I happened to be reading a novel, Ready Player One, set in a dystopic future that was all too imaginable to me. I have no faith in Trump, he has appalling judgment and is intent on sowing seeds of hate and fear, and Congress isn’t willing to take him on. The threats of climate change, of civil unrest rooted in the growing divide in this country, of America losing its footing, are all too real. Not to mention the tragedy of gun violence. Making such a huge investment in a time like this feels like a leap of faith, but my faith is shaken.

This unsettled feeling about our future was reinforced by an experience I had on that trip. On the day I was driving, a video went viral of a white guy going on a rant in a New York deli because the employees were speaking Spanish. It is the type of thing that seems to be happening a lot more in this age of Trump and ubiquitous cellphones. One of the reasons I was making the trip was to be at the new apartment for the guy to install cable and wifi. The guy arrived, at the appointed time, and, as is often the case, it took quite a bit longer than expected for him to successfully get things running. He was there for a couple of hours. At one point, while we were waiting for technical support people (he was on hold with his office) to try and fix things on their end, his personal phone rang and he asked me if I minded if he answered it. “If I do, I will be speaking Spanish,” he explained. “Of course you can answer your phone,” I responded. He shrugged sheepishly, as he answered. I moved toward the kitchen to give him space.

As I reflect on this interaction, I realize that I would feel differently if he had been in the middle of explaining something to me, then it would be rude to take a personal call, regardless of the language he spoke. But at that point we were just waiting awkwardly. I had no problem with him taking his call. I thought it was a sad commentary that he felt the need to explain that he would be speaking Spanish. It was a personal call, it wasn’t my business to understand his end of the conversation anyway. When he got off the phone I said we had come to a sad place if he needed to ask if it was okay to speak Spanish. He gave a small smile and another shrug.

During my 2 ½ hour drive and as I continue to think about my state of mind, I have come to a better understanding of what’s been going on. Not surprisingly, most of the issues are out of my control. I decided I need to focus on what I can do to manage it.

These are the strategies I came up with:

  1. Avoid reading dystopic novels (at least for a while).
  2. Reduce the number of times I allow myself to look at Twitter and Facebook to two times per day. Look at blocking some of the more vitriolic sources from my Facebook feed.
  3. Find an organization or campaign that I can volunteer for that is in concert with my values. (Or, alternatively, assuming Dan and Beth will allow/need, help with the baby!)
  4. Devote more time to productive activities, whether it is clearing clutter in my home, doing research for my memoir or talking to friends, spend more time doing constructive things so I don’t dwell in worry.

I hope that isn’t too ambitious. It doesn’t seem like it should be.  If you have suggestions, please share. I’ll report back.

5 Boroughs in 5 Hours

When Leah called me back in January and asked if I wanted to do the 5 Boro Bike Tour, my answer was a definitive and excited yes. For those of you not familiar with it, this is a 40 mile bike ride through all five boroughs of New York City. I thought it was a great idea. I love biking – it is an awesome way to sightsee and get exercise. I would plan it and get to experience it with my daughter, we would build memories together. It was a full four months off so I could train for it and get in shape. All of which turned out to be true, except for that last one about the training.

Spring came very late to Albany, in fact we had a number of Spring snows, which made biking outside very difficult, if not impossible. I admit that I am a fair-weather bicyclist. I did up my walking/jogging routine. And when the weather finally permitted, I cleaned up my pretty red bike, Gary put air in the tires, and I took to the road. The longest ride I managed, though, was 14 miles. A paltry amount compared to the 40 the tour would require. But, I was determined and that would count for something.

As the date of the tour approached (it is not a race! all the promotional materials make a point of this, I think mostly for safety reasons), I found myself increasingly nervous. I had butterflies. Aside from the inadequate preparation, I was worried about a few things, in no particular order:

  • potholes – New York City streets and highways, especially in the Spring, are a disaster. I worried, with so many bikers, would I be able to avoid them?
  • the weather – Rain was forecast. While I don’t mind the rain generally, the idea of slick roads and obscured potholes (see above), was frightening.
  • bike malfunction – The tour materials suggest bringing a spare tube because flats are common (again, see the first bullet), and I didn’t get one. Also, I didn’t get my bike tuned up, which was also recommended. So, I was concerned that something would go wrong and I didn’t know how that would work out.
  • my 58 year-old body – I do exercise regularly, but I still manage to be quite overweight. In addition to the lack of preparation, I worried about how my various parts would handle such a long ride.
  • logistics – I read and re-read the online information about the tour, but I still worried about all the logistics, like getting to the start on time, getting back to the apartment, getting separated from Leah, etc.
  • disappointing Leah – I wanted this to be a fun experience for both of us, I didn’t want to fail or be a drag on her.

I think that about covers the sources of my anxiety. I was surprised by how nervous I was. Looking at the list of my concerns written out, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

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The route map. Blue is water, the black is land (kind of hard to decipher at first)
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The start – they stagger the start in waves. We were in the third wave at 8:45a.m.

Anyway, I plowed ahead and did it anyway, and I am so glad I did. Here are my thoughts and observations on taking a 40 mile bike ride through potholed streets and highways with my daughter:

  • Leah is the best teammate ever! She is fun, encouraging, fierce and strong (in every sense). I could rely on her. She remained in good humor (with one brief exception I will get to later – which wasn’t directed at me, but at circumstances beyond our control). She took pleasure in the sights. She believed in me. Yay, Leah!
  • The weather was perfect. Cloudy and a little cool, it was awesome for biking. Maybe some sunshine would have made some of the dingier parts of the city look better, but cloud cover was wonderful. We learned later from Gary that there was rain in every direction, but the city was spared. We were in our own dry bubble.
  • The ride up Sixth Avenue from the the financial district to Central Park, and then into the park (in full bloom), was exhilarating. With no automobile or truck traffic, we had the wide avenue to ourselves (and thousands of fellow bicyclists). We passed through different neighborhoods and could appreciate the architecture, sculpture and people as we passed. Central Park was in all its glory with flowering trees and clumps of tulips and green grass.
  • Seeing Gary waving us on as we exited Central Park at 110th Street was a great surprise. Seeing Dan and Beth, in her ninth month (!),  at the side of the FDR at 120th Street was encouraging and so very cool. It’s funny because Leah and I were passing 106th Street a few minutes later when I said, “You know we passed Beth’s school (where she teaches), but I didn’t note it or mention it. Oh well.” I was making a point of mentioning landmarks or places related to our family history. Beth told us later they were standing in front of her school! Obviously I so excited to see them, I didn’t notice anything else.
  • We heard only one lewd comment. We were riding up Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard when a man on the sidewalk yelled out, “Oh, I wish my face was a bicycle seat!” Leah and I laughed about that for a couple of blocks, and periodically throughout the rest of the race.
  • Water is essential! Somehow we had neglected to bring a water bottle. Since this event was ‘eco-friendly’ the water stations offered no cups or containers. We used our hands the first time. When we got to Queens, I suggested we pull over and I ran into a bodega and bought a large bottle of water. The guy in the store took one look at me, and pointed down an aisle, “The water is over there.” What a relief! We refilled it as necessary.
  • The experience of riding with so many people was almost entirely positive. Some riders had blue tooth speakers set up with music blaring. That created camaraderie and gave us a boost. Plus there were real musicians along the way – we heard every type of music. Gospel, bluegrass, rock, jazz. There were also cheerleaders – we had no idea what team they represented, if any. It isn’t like the NYC Marathon where spectators line the route, but that was fine. At times there were bottlenecks, a particularly bad one exiting the FDR and approaching the Queensboro Bridge, where we had to dismount and walk for a while. Most people were courteous. We did see some accidents, but thankfully nothing too serious. The organizers of the tour did a good job – there was lots of support and people giving directions.
  • Riding on the FDR and BQE was an eerie experience. The BQE, in particular, was strange because there isn’t much in the way of scenery to appreciate, it is hard to gauge progress and the road is textured so it created a lot of vibration. My body, from head to toe, did not enjoy that. It also  seemed to feature a lot of gradual uphills. Nothing dramatic, just enough to feel really shitty when you’ve already gone 28 miles. This was the most challenging part of the day for me. My legs were not happy and my spirit was sagging and I knew we had a demanding uphill to come (the Verrazano Bridge). We pulled over, I drank some water, took some bites of a power bar, and Leah gave me a pep talk. We resumed the trek.
  • I told Leah that I might have to walk some of the way on the Verrazano, my legs just may not carry me. I knew I would finish, but I didn’t know if I could ride all of that. Leah wanted to ride it – she was fresh as a daisy (she may not say that exactly, but she was in good shape). We made a plan to meet at the finish and agreed that she should do her thing. Later when we compared notes, I was so impressed with her. The climb up the bridge was tough. I was pleased with myself because I stayed on my bike. I thought I had reached the point where the downhill would begin, but alas, it wasn’t! There another stretch of uphill (at a slightly lesser grade, so it appeared from a distance that you had already crested the hill). What a disappointment! I got off my bike and walked the last part of the uphill. Leah had the same experience of expecting the end of the climb, but fierce woman that she is, she just pedaled harder.
  • We started at 8:45 a.m. and ended around 1:30 p.m.- a bit slower than we hoped, but we had no complaints.
  • We met after we got our medals at the finish line and walked our bikes through the festival area where there was music and concessions. For probably the first time in my life, a cold beer sounded very appealing. We wanted to get back so we didn’t partake, just followed the hordes of people to the exit. We re-mounted our bikes and rode to the Staten Island Ferry. The ride started out pleasant enough. But then it kept going and going. I got angrier and angrier. Where was that fucking ferry!?! I was muttering and cursing. I was not mentally prepared for the four mile ride to the ferry! This was truly the worst part, for me. For Leah, the next part was the worst. Waiting on line to get on the ferry. She was facing a four hour drive back to Boston and was eager to get back to the apartment, get changed, eat and get on the road. She handled her frustration well. It was probably close to an hour of waiting on line before we got on the ferry. I was never so happy to sit down!
  • Gary was waiting a short distance from the ferry landing with the car. We walked less than two blocks with our bikes. He was parked right next to a hot dog vendor, so clutch! I bought a soft pretzel and a Diet Coke and climbed into the back seat. Delicious! Leah and Gary secured the bikes to the car and, other than hitting some traffic in lower Manhattan, we got back to the apartment in reasonable time.
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Taking a break in Brooklyn

What a day! I was pleasantly surprised that I could still walk. My 58 year old body didn’t fail me. I took a hot shower. Leah and I debriefed a bit with Dan, Beth and Gary. I shared a long hug with Leah before she got on the road.

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medal and tour booklet (which I studied!)

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As I sit here writing this, I am not in agony – everything is a bit a sore, but certainly tolerable. I will carry great memories, and, as always, great appreciation for my family. Their encouragement and pride are a constant source of strength and joy.

Sturm und Drang

Are you afraid I’m going to steal your lunch?” he asked.

I was hunched over the table in the cafeteria of my junior high school when some guy, who I didn’t know, asked me that question. My left arm encircled a Tupperware containing a small chef’s salad, while I shoveled a forkful of lettuce in my mouth with my right hand.

“No,” I mumbled.

I could see how it would look like I was afraid of that, given my posture. But, actually, I was trying to hide what I was eating. I was trying to keep to the Weight Watcher program I had begun six months earlier. Most kids didn’t bring salad to school. I wished I was eating one of those moon pies – a chocolate marshmallow confection of gooey goodness that they sold at school – but none of that for me.

I was humiliated by his question, though I didn’t think he meant to be cruel. He sounded more curious and bemused as he asked it. Still I was relieved that he moved on and left me alone. I continued eating, but tried to look less protective of my salad.

Junior high school was a challenging time. I was still recovering from the death of Nana a year and a half before. I was trying to find my way in my second year at a new school where I knew very few of the other students. The vast majority of my elementary school classmates were zoned for a different junior high. I made it through 7thgrade and now it was the beginning of 9th(I skipped 8thgrade as part of a New York City program that compressed junior high into two years instead of three) and while I was beginning to make some friends, it still wasn’t easy. (I wrote about one aspect of my junior high school experience, the boycott of schools caused by the busing plan in this blog post)

Making matters worse was the fact that I had matured early. I was fully developed which made me self-conscious. I also had menstrual problems. My period was very irregular and when I got it, after missing it for several months, it was terrible. It would last for two weeks, with cramps, and I bled profusely. My situation wasn’t as bad as my mom’s in that when she was that age she would pass out when she got her period. She told me that she had a friend assigned to keep an eye on her when she was in junior high school. Though she shared that story, I didn’t feel like I could talk to her about my concerns. I wasn’t passing out, and the thought of someone being assigned to me was completely unacceptable. My goal was to fly as far under the radar as possible. At 13, if I could have blended into the woodwork at school, I would have been happier.

It was 1972 and they didn’t have the feminine products available today – sanitary napkins were bulky and didn’t come with a wrapper in which to dispose of it (you had to wrap it in toilet paper). If memory serves correctly, the girls’ bathrooms in school didn’t have waste receptacles in the stalls either, just a garbage pail by the sinks. All of which meant that it was nearly impossible to be discreet about having my period. I needed to carry a purse (something I didn’t ordinarily do), and I would have to take that purse with me to the bathroom. Even on an ordinary day, the idea of using the bathroom was an anathema to me, I tried to avoid it. I didn’t want to be marked, I didn’t want anyone to know about my bodily functions. I don’t know why I felt ashamed, but I did. I thought other girls, if they even got their period, didn’t have the issues I had, and I didn’t have the nerve to broach the subject with anyone. So, I suffered in silence and muddled my way through, hoping not to embarrass myself by staining my clothes (which sadly did happen on more than one occasion).

Eventually, I had an episode of cramps that were so bad, I had to tell my mom. She made an appointment for me to see her gynecologist. I remember Dr. Holland asking me a series of questions before examining me. Mom was not in the room with me for that part. He asked me if I had had intercourse. Surprised by the question, I answered no (I was still only 13!). He asked me if I was sexually active. I didn’t understand the difference between the first and second question, so I told him no, again. A nurse stayed in the room for the physical exam, which wasn’t that traumatic. Fortunately, he found nothing wrong. He made some suggestions to treat the cramps if they were painful in the future and that was that.

Though I continued to struggle with my menstrual cycle, not everything was bleak during my junior high school years. Eventually I connected with a few girls. Toward the end of 9thgrade, a couple of us made a plan to leave school for lunch, a daring idea. Geri and Lisa came up with the notion of sneaking out –  everyone had to eat in the cafeteria, no one was allowed to leave for lunch (maybe they were afraid we wouldn’t come back!). We decided we would go to Lisa’s house, where no one was home, since it was only a couple of blocks from school. We would make sure to get back in time for our next class.

The big day arrived and we successfully escaped. We were feeling triumphant and excited as we hurried to Lisa’s house. As we were walking down Avenue K, we heard a car horn and some hooting and hollering. We all turned to look. At first, I didn’t know what I was seeing. I saw flesh pressed up against the rear window. They were butt cheeks! We started shrieking and running. We were afraid the car would follow us. We got to Lisa’s house – we were laughing and terrified at the same time. One of the girls knew that it was called being ‘mooned.’ I had never heard of that. We took it as some kind of sign that we shouldn’t have snuck out. I didn’t leave school for lunch for the remainder of the year. I don’t think any of us did.

I ended my junior high school career on a high note. I was given an award – the Ben Ramer Memorial Award – for outstanding female athlete. When they told me about it, that I would receive it at the graduation ceremony, I was incredulous. The thing was there were no opportunities for girls to participate in sports, other than gym. There were no teams. We did the Presidential Fitness Program and we had physical education, but that was the extent of it. I couldn’t imagine how they determined I should get the award. I felt undeserving, but proud, nonetheless.

Mom and I went shopping for a graduation dress and found one that I felt pretty good wearing, which was saying a lot for me. Graduation day was humid with intermittent showers, which perfect for my hair! It curled just the way I wanted it to, the humidity calmed the frizz. I wore white platform heels and managed to walk across the stage without stumbling. After all of the Sturm und Drang of my junior high school years, things were looking up. I looked forward to a new beginning in high school.

Flight 5 EWR to FLL

Note: Gary’s Dad was hospitalized last Thursday morning with difficulty breathing. Gary flew down to Florida to be with him and oversee his care. He wrote this on the flight down and gave me permission to share it.

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It is a trip I have taken before.  It is filled with dread and anxiety.  It is filled with a sense of obligation and duty and a sense of purpose.  Once again, my father is at a crisis point.  He is hospitalized and in some significant danger.  Each time, it is a bit worse than the previous episode.  Each time, yet another illness has been added to the list of threats to his survival.

I travel there as his son.  I am not his doctor but yet I am.  Every major medical decision is really made by me at this point in time.  I know too much.  He has multiple diagnoses each of which carry a very limited life expectancy, starting with him being 95 years old.

Add to that lung cancer, kidney disease, about 7 decades of hypertension, atrial fibrillation that used to be paroxysmal (coming and going) but now is chronic, diabetes, a monoclonal protein that could at any time turn into myeloma or other blood cancer, nodules on his kidneys, a large nodule on his prostate.  And now congestive heart failure.

I guess you could say the most surprising thing is that he is still alive.  He is, if nothing else, a remarkably determined man.  He is still, all these years along the road, inspiring to me.  He is not the man he used to be.  Time and illness have taken away much of his incredible vigor.  He is physically and mentally slower than he was.  But he still finds a way to love life and even to enjoy it.

He is not like me.  I am probably better in math and science than he is, but in the most important ways he is stronger and more resilient than I could ever imagine being.  He enjoys people.  He tends not to be overly possessive.  He doesn’t like to wait; patience is not his strongpoint.  He is beyond courageous.  He will not let terrible things make him unhappy; his will is immeasurably immense.

He trusts me and I feel like he has always trusted me.  At least for as long as I can remember going back to my childhood when I got to drive his car in the parking lot when he went to check out the refrigerated warehouse that held the cold cuts he was responsible for distributing to supermarkets.  He trusted me to drive the forklift at too young an age.  Both of those experiences were thrilling for a youngster and I was not going to crash and betray his trust.

I will not betray that trust today either.

In a sense, the flight that I am on, this trip to Cleveland Clinic Florida hospital, is symbolic of the larger, sad journey we have been on for some time now.  He will die at the end of it.  If we do everything right, he will die.  There will be pain and loss and sorrow.  If we don’t do everything right, there will be guilt as well.  There will not be guilt.

This journey is one variation of the journey most children ultimately take with their parents.  It is the journey Linda took with her father.  It is the way things are supposed to go.  The children bury the parents.  That is what happens when it goes the right way.  And if you are very lucky, you get 95 years, perhaps even a bit more, of meaningful life.  Of life that is by and large happy.  Even when your parent, your hero is less than he was.  Even when the limits of life are more and more closing in on him, when his wife, your mother, is no longer the person she had been in almost every way.

It is really the best you can hope for.  It therefore ought to be good enough.  It doesn’t feel like it is.

I am grateful for so many things.  For the tremendous efforts my siblings have made to arrange essentially everything in my parents lives so that they could go on and live out what remains in dignity and with as much independence as possible.  I am grateful for Linda’s eternal support and wisdom.  And for the endless good wishes and support from my children and my lovely daughter in law.

I have friends who are kind and a work environment that is flexible and understanding.  Nobody says anything more than good luck when I have to cancel patients at the last minute to take one of these emergency trips down to Florida.

But, despite this, I am still filled with the same dread.

Postscript: David was released from the hospital late Saturday afternoon. His breathing greatly improved. Hopefully with an adjustment in his medication, he will be stable and able to continue to enjoy his time in Florida. If all goes according to plan, Gary and I will visit Paula and David to share Passover with them. We are keeping our fingers crossed that there are no medical crises between now and then (during or after, for that matter).

1982: A Year of Change

 

 

Changes were afoot in 1982. It was a big year for the Brody family. Joshua, the first grandchild, born to my brother and sister-in-law, Mark and Pam, arrived February 1st. In April Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara moved from the upstairs apartment in Canarsie to a large suburban house in Morganville, New Jersey. My parents had their first non-family tenants take their place. I began my job search, as I was in the last semester of my master’s program at Columbia. Gary was waiting to hear about medical school admissions, he was wait-listed at Pittsburgh and Downstate (in Brooklyn).  It was a time of excitement and anxiety.

In the midst of this, and maybe because of it, my parents started looking for a second home. I think my father thought that, since they would truly be empty nesters for the first time, my mom needed a distraction. Financially things were more comfortable than ever before. All three of us kids would be out of the house (two were married), they would have a market-rent-paying tenant, and their own salaries had crept up over the many years of teaching. They could afford to consider getting a country home. Their close friends, Cliff and Muriel, were in a similar position and together they went on weekend jaunts exploring places where they could consider buying.

Cliff was my Dad’s closest friend. He was principal of an elementary school in Brooklyn. Muriel was a home economics teacher.  As couples and individuals they shared many interests: travel, food, wine, books, and, for the men, tennis. Cliff and Muriel shared a unique quality: each had a very distinctive voice. Cliff’s was a gravelly bass rumble. Muriel spoke loud Brooklynese with a shrillness that could be hard on the ears. Fortunately, she was funny and interesting, her voice grew on you as you got to know her.

The two couples took weekend trips to the Catskills and the Poconos. They were looking for modest lakefront homes where they could escape from the stresses and strains of Brooklyn living and working. After checking out a number of areas, they came upon Edgewood Lakes Inn, a rustic hotel outside of Livingston Manor in the Catskills. Private homes were being developed on property adjacent to the hotel. Owners would have access to hotel amenities and to a lake. The two couples took the plunge and put down a deposit. Arrangements were made with a local builder.

Given that my parents were life-long Brooklynites, they entered this project with some trepidation. They had no history of being outdoorsy. I don’t recall them ever hiking or fishing or skiing. They had an appreciation for nature – but at a distance. When we drove through a national park, like Yellowstone, we pulled over at scenic overlooks. There were no hiking boots or backpacks involved. If we came across a mouse in our house, we all freaked out. My mother was afraid of all animals. Buying property in the woods, and building a house there, was a bold choice.

Those plans were proceeding while I moved toward graduation. I found a job with the Mayor’s Office of Operations in New York City. Gary continued working at a lab at Columbia Presbyterian, still waiting to hear about medical school.

At the end of June, I started my new job. I was assigned a cubicle in a row of interior cubicles. I was given a standard issue desk, chair and telephone. I called home and gave Mom my number so they could reach me if necessary (this was long before cell phones). I went through some orientation activities in the morning.  I was setting up my desk in the afternoon when the phone on my desk rang. I was quite surprised. I thought, who could possibly be calling? I was even more surprised when I heard Gary’s voice. I hadn’t even given him the number yet. He shared great news; he was accepted at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine! He was very excited and I was, too. But, it was also complicated.

Through my final semester in graduate school we wanted to coordinate our plans. We hoped the timing would work out, that I would know where he was going to be for medical school and I could search for a job there. But it didn’t play out that way.  Time was passing, I had to make a choice, so I took the job in the city. On my very first day of work, on June 21, 1982, we learned that Gary would be moving to Pittsburgh at the end of August.

That night Gary picked me up after work and we went to a bar in Sheepshead Bay for a celebratory drink. We sat at a table and raised a glass to toast his good fortune. Then, Gary asked me to marry him. Though Gary and I were planning our future together, we had not formalized it. There had been no proposal. For reasons I couldn’t really understand, Gary needed to know he was accepted to medical school before he would propose. It didn’t matter to me. I knew I wanted to be with him if he was a science teacher, lab tech or doctor. But, he didn’t see it that way. Now that he had the certainty of admission to Pitt, he popped the question. I said yes. He didn’t have a ring yet, he wanted me to shop with him so he would know what I liked.

We had decisions to make – and not just about the ring. I couldn’t see leaving the job I just started. We agreed that it was probably good for Gary to start medical school on his own so he could concentrate fully on his classes and get adjusted to the workload without worrying about me. Our preliminary plan was for me to stay at my job for a year, get married and then join him in Pittsburgh.

We shared all of this with our parents. Years later I learned from my father that they considered backing out of purchasing the house at Livingston Manor because of the looming cost of the wedding. They had not anticipated that we would be getting married that soon. After considering their options, they decided not to change course. Though it would be tight, they thought they could manage it.

The summer of ’82 passed. We planned the wedding. At the end of August, I accompanied Gary on the drive to Pittsburgh. His father rented a small van and we nervously drove it the length of the curvy, foggy Pennsylvania Turnpike. I helped get him settled, then I flew back home.

I came home to an empty house. In New York City the school year, my parent’s work year, didn’t start until after Labor Day which fell on September 6 that year. They were squeezing the last bit of pleasure out of the summer by spending the days leading up to Labor Day at Edgewood Lakes Inn.

My parents called me from there late one afternoon. That day, September 1, Cliff had a massive heart attack and died. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it happened while he was on the tennis court with my father. It was shocking. Cliff was 52, my Dad was 49. I was devastated for my father, actually for everyone. It was hard to take it all in.

Again, my parents faced a decision about going forward with the house. It was starting to feel like it wasn’t meant to be. While I wasn’t privy to all the details, they decided to move forward and Muriel did, too.

When I look back at 1982, it was such a roller coaster for my family. The birth of Josh. The traumatic death of Cliff.  Dad went for a thorough physical afterwards and found out that he had a bundle branch blockage, meaning that two of the three electrical pathways that regulated his heartbeat were blocked. He was told that eventually he might need a pacemaker. He also found out that his cholesterol was very high. Dad made a number of lifestyle changes as a result. It took him some time to get back on the tennis court, but he did.

Gary finished his first semester of medical school very successfully. We decided six months at my new job was enough, rather than a full year, and I moved to Pittsburgh in January of 1983, we got married in July. The house at Livingston Manor was built and was a happy home for my parents for over 20 years. They hiked, they went cross-country skiing, they hosted family and friends, they picked blueberries from the bushes in the woods nearby, they dealt with an invasion of bats. They mourned Cliff’s loss. Life went on in all its bittersweet glory.

The Wilds of Canarsie Revisited

Note: I originally wrote this piece about how I felt growing up in my particular enclave in Canarsie and posted it on the blog over a year ago. I have edited it with the thought that I would weave it into the longer narrative that I am creating. The edits are intended to allow it to follow the story of the haircut Nana took me to get (which is part of Nana’s Table).

I have added new material at the end that reflects on some of the insights that I have gained regarding perceptions of safety through my interviews of others who grew up in Canarsie. I have been reaching out to talk with others of my generation who grew up there. So far I have interviewed a dozen people. I hope to interview more. Please contact me if you would be interested in sharing your perspective.

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The ‘x’ near Canarsie Park is the house where I grew up – so you can see it in relation to the rest of Canarsie

As a girl growing up in the late ‘60s in New York City, aside from the impossible beauty standards imposed by Madison Avenue and popular culture, I grew up in the shadow of the murder of Kitty Genovese. That story of neighborly indifference, of violence, of the callousness and danger of living in New York City, was part of the air that I breathed. I now know that the story is far more complicated than originally reported; there weren’t as many witnesses as the newspapers said at the time, calls to the police were made and a bystander did actually help her. [A recent documentary, The Witness, released in 2015, explored this ‘new’ information]. But, that wasn’t the story that was embedded in my psyche at the time.

Kitty Genovese was murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens in March of 1964. The legacy of that crime was that I believed that people in New York City wouldn’t get involved, and that New Yorkers took minding their own business to a dangerous extreme. Add to that the nightly litany of violent crimes reported on Eyewitness News, and my fear of victimization was palpable. Perhaps it became a self-fulfilling prophecy for all New Yorkers.

As a consequence, I never liked when my parents went out for the evening, unless Nana and Zada were home. I would hear creaking, rustling and other assorted sounds – the usual sounds a house makes – and I imagined someone was trying to break in. It was hard to distract myself though I tried by watching television with the volume turned up. Of course, some of the television shows, Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, Twilight Zone, played on story lines of break-ins and bad guys, so that strategy failed.

The feeling of menace was heightened by my physical surroundings in Canarsie. With the park on one side and “the weeds” on the other, it was easy to imagine sinister people lurking. “The weeds” were the marshy landfill that separated our block from the Belt Parkway. When I played with Susan, one of my two friends in the neighborhood, we would ride our bikes on the street that bordered the weeds. We would dare each other to run in and run out, a dare I was not willing to take.

Our neighborhood was also in the flight path to JFK. Airplanes would skim over our roof. If you were on the telephone you had to pause in your conversation because there was no chance of hearing or being heard. If you were watching TV you had to hope you didn’t miss a crucial piece of dialogue. If anyone slept over, the roar of the jet engines took getting used to. My cousin Ahri, who grew up in Manhattan (not exactly a bastion of quietude), asked me how I could stand it.

It wasn’t just the sounds of Canarsie that could be problematic.  If the wind was right,  from the southeast, it brought with it the smell of one of the city dumps. One might imagine the breeze carrying the scent of the ocean, since we were so close to it, and it did that, too. But, the dump was adjacent to the Belt Parkway, just east of our Rockaway Parkway exit, and the odors emanating from it trumped the fresh smell of sea air. The mounds of trash rose like a small mountain range on the south side of the Belt. Naturally I had a sensitive nose.

The dump also attracted scores of seagulls. The detritus and Jamaica Bay beyond were quite an attraction for all kinds of birds. The cries of the gulls were part of the soundscape of our Canarsie neighborhood. I needed only to see a few scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds to make the frightening connection.

There was a fine line between the pleasures of the park, the beauty of the gliding gulls, the earthy smell of the marshes and ocean air, and the menace those same features held. All the elements, sights, sounds and smells, conspired to heighten a sense of foreboding, at least in my imagination.


Based on my interviews, so far, it seems that I was unusual in my perception of danger, my generalized fear of violence. Most of the people I have spoken to felt very safe in Canarsie. Some suggested that changed with the summer of the “Son of Sam,” which was in 1977, and introduced a level of fear that they had not experienced before. Some recounted specific instances of threats of being accosted, mostly at John Wilson Junior High School, or particular places they would avoid (for example, Seaview Park after dark, or particular bus routes where they felt threatened), but those didn’t shake their general feeling of safety in and around their block. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to commented on their strong sense of community, especially on their block or in their building in Bayview – that neighbors looked out for each other. I did not grow up with that sense at all. Fortunately, I had my grandparents, uncles, brothers and parents to provide that support.

In addition to discussing fears of violence, I learned a great deal from my conversations about race and ethnicity and perceptions of the boycott of schools over the busing plan.  I will continue to share what I’m learning as I go along. I also hope to put a piece together that summarizes it. I welcome comments and feedback either here on the blog or via email. Again, if you’d like to be interviewed, email me at lbakst.canarsie@gmail.com.