Sorry that I was not able to post my weekly essay today, but hopefully you will understand. Gary and I were in Spain this past week (!) and I had no time to write and little access to the internet. Vacations are wonderful! We took a whirlwind tour that included Barcelona, Granada, Cordoba, Ronda, Seville and Madrid – fascinating and beautiful places all.
Now if I can just figure out what day and time it is, I will be back next week with more stories. Thanks for staying with me!
Driving home alone, I could barely concentrate on the road.
My eyes welled up.
Will I be a good mother? Can I do this?
what I suspected was confirmed.
This was planned, yet I was overwhelmed.
I took a deep breath,
focused on the road and the sky, made my way home.
Into our little brick house.
I rush to the phone to call Gary.
He is still on rounds at the VA.
I have him paged.
It takes many minutes, seemingly forever.
Wow! This is such great news!
When do you think you’ll be home?
The usual time.
You can’t get out early?
Linda, you know I can’t.
I sighed and exhaled, resigned to this reality.
Okay, we’ll talk later.
I was left to my thoughts.
Eight months crawl by.
I was not glowing with new life.
Queasy, tired, morning, noon and night.
Ear infection, bronchitis, heartburn
I didn’t enjoy sharing my body.
So many rules:
No caffeine, no alcohol, drink milk
I don’t like milk.
Vitamins the size of Pluto.
Alcohol was no loss, caffeine another story.
I’m responsible for this new life!
I don’t want to screw it up!
The due date kept changing.
First May 2, then May 11, finally May 16
That day comes and goes.
The longest gestation in history.
I am ready! Nature has its way, though.
May 20 Gary travels to Long Island to take part 4 of his medical boards.
My parents come up from Brooklyn to keep me company.
At 5 pm they leave me with friends and
head back home, Gary is on his way.
I feel some contractions: Braxton-Hicks or the real thing?
Gary gets home by 9pm.
My water sort of breaks after midnight.
We call the doctor.
He tells us to come to the hospital.
It is before dawn on Thursday morning.
We put the garbage cans by the curb before going to Albany Med.
27 hours, the last 7 hard labor,
an apt description.
First, no progress, then Pitocin – a brutal treatment.
Finally, I push!
Such a relief! My body is almost my own again.
4:39 am, Friday, May 22, I look at my baby.
Labor was hard on me, but she is perfectly formed.
She is part of me and yet, she might well be an alien.
We are one and we are separate.
I understand her; I feel her joy, her hunger, her frustration.
But I am clueless, she is a mystery.
I fall in love over those first few weeks.
Her wondrous eyes, sparking with light.
Her pink, smooth skin.
She emerges into herself.
Curious, demanding, loving.
30 years later and
it is all still true.
[Note: Gary’s remembrance of that same time]
September 12, 1986. I was on rounds when I heard my name over the VA hospital intercom for the first (and only) time in my life. The operator put me through. Linda tells me that we are going to be parents. You could have knocked me down with a feather. I was elated and scared and excited. She asked me if I could get home early that day. But the patients cannot wait. I work as fast and furiously as I can to get out early but 10PM is the best I can do. I remember not being able to concentrate during rounds that day which is the one and only time that ever happened.
That VA rotation was in many ways horrible. Perhaps it was also an experience in growing up. The VA is an underfunded, second rate health care system and, in my mind, a poor excuse to offer people who fought for our country and now are down on their luck. And, to be sure, if you are a veteran and have other health care available to you, you are not going to the VA. So these are the guys who things have not gone well for after they came back home.
I was an intern along with two others on that rotation. Claude Scialdone was another intern with me and he was amazing. I can’t remember who the third intern was but it was not someone who did all that much. Worse than that, our resident who was supposed to guide and support us was an empty suit (perhaps an empty white coat is the better medical term?). And the attending physician came by in the morning to round, as he was supposed to do, but did nothing else. So Claude and I were basically two guys just out of med school trying to keep 40 very sick veterans alive with basically no help.
It was frightening and it was exhausting. On a normal day, when I was not on call, I would get there before 7AM and get home anywhere from 8PM to midnight. When I was on call I wouldn’t get home at all.
One particular patient still sticks in my mind. He had been there since well before I started my 6 week rotation and he was often times confused, weak and kept running fevers. I worked him up for sources of infection again and again. I ordered chest x-rays to look for pneumonia, urine cultures and blood cultures but they repeatedly came back negative. I asked my resident about the guy – I told him I was certain we were missing something. There was something going on and we were failing to identify it. The patient was treading water at best and sooner or later we were going to lose him.
My resident responded by asking me if any of the cultures had grown anything and the answer was no. He then explained that this means he’s fine. He wasn’t fine. He wasn’t close to fine and I knew that in my marrow, but I was out of ideas and had no help.
At that time, the VA closely controlled the use of the newer, broad spectrum antibiotics. If you ordered any of them, you automatically got an infectious disease consult. Normally that might not seem like a problem, but in the Albany VA at that time, it meant you got Dr. Aldonna Baltsch on your floor. Dr. Baltsch was as feared as any doctor I have ever known. She was a phenomenal, dedicated, passionate physician but she was also a perfectionist with a temper. She would come in and yell at you for all the errors she determined you were making. I think she just wanted to make us better doctors but perhaps didn’t exactly know how to go about doing it. In any case, nobody ever wanted to see Dr. Baltsch around.
For that reason, nobody ever called for an infectious disease consult. And the interns and residents became experts at using combinations of older antibiotics to avoid the newer ones that came with a dreaded visit from Dr. Baltsch. But in this moment, I realized I feared the prospect of failing and losing this patient more than I feared Dr. Baltsch.
So I ordered a new wave, broad spectrum, expensive antibiotic when my resident wasn’t looking. I did so because I knew that, while it would bring the holy wrath of Dr. Baltsch, it would also bring her expertise. She came up and was really, really angry. It was as if Mount Vesuvius was going to erupt and the lava would scorch us all. However, as it turned out, her anger was entirely directed at my resident. She never even spoke to me – which was fine with me.
And she ordered exactly the same tests I had ordered. But this time, after they yet again came back negative, she ordered an LP (spinal tap). That came back negative too but she told the lab to hold onto the spinal fluid sample longer for viral cultures and they eventually came back positive for Varicella (the virus that causes Chicken Pox). Turned out he had Varicella encephalitis, an infection of his brain caused by that virus. This is still the only case of Varicella encephalitis I have ever seen.
He was placed on antiviral antibiotics. His fevers ceased after a few days and he finally started to get better. Dr. Baltsch called for a special meeting of everyone in the entire department of medicine basically to humiliate my resident. It looked like vultures picking at a carcass as the entire faculty went after the guy. I almost felt sorry for him.
That rotation eventually gave way to others, some nearly as hard and some not quite as tough.
But fall turned to winter and winter to spring and then I took my boards exam on Long Island. Knowing Linda was past her due date and could go into labor at any minute, I rushed through the exam. It was the only time in my life that I was the first person out of the room on such an exam. That night, Linda had spontaneous rupture of membranes (her water broke). We took out the garbage and drove reasonably calmly to Albany Medical Center where she gave birth after 27 long hours of labor.
She was an amazing trooper. No anesthesia. One single dose of one pain killer. Hour after hour. I spent much of the time with her but also left to do rounds and see patients during parts of the process. At the end, on May 22nd, Leah emerged, perfect, beautiful, alert and brilliant. A miracle in our lives who has been such a great joy ever since.
Leah was a force of nature. It is hard to explain how even in those earliest days she had a spirit and a liveliness and a curiosity. I felt like she saw and understood the world around her in ways that most babies could not and her smile melted my heart. Life had taken on new meaning and I fell in love with her.
Still I was torn. I could not devote less time to my patients than what I felt I needed to. And yet I wanted to be home; to be with Leah; to help Linda who was in some ways almost a single parent. She was exhausted and I was exhausted. And I could not do all I wished I could do. I could not do all Linda needed me to do.
Having already completed all of the hardest rotations in May of 1987, my last rotation of internship was scheduled to be an easy one in a community hospital very near our house. It was going to be perfect. I would be working a short walk from our house, the hours would be reasonable. A long, hard winter was about to give way to a beautiful spring and hours with Leah and Linda. It didn’t work out that way. On the day Leah was born, an intern quit the program and the department of medicine met to determine who should cover that intern’s rotation. They decided I should cover it. I was back in the VA hospital.
We were laughing in the snow. Tossing snowballs at each other in front of our house in Canarsie. Sliding around on the snow-covered walkway and driveway, enjoying the horseplay. The way I remember it, my brothers, Uncle Mike and maybe my cousins, Laurie and Ira were there. But, I may be remembering a photograph of us in the snow from a different time. This is clear: I felt a cold snowball smushed into my nose and mouth. Uncle Mike suddenly had me in a headlock and had a mound of snow that he was pushing into my face. I twisted and squirmed to get away. Just as suddenly he let me go. I was shocked. I didn’t know where that came from. It would be some years later, but I would come to understand.
It seems to me that a significant part of life is luck. The family you are born into, the time and place, the particular constellation of genes that you inherit are all out of your control. That isn’t to say a person can’t overcome a bad hand or those disadvantages mean a life won’t have joy and accomplishment. But some people seem to be blessed with a life of mostly sunny skies, and others not so much. Uncle Mike, my mother’s younger brother, fell into the latter category.
From the get go Uncle Mike couldn’t catch a break. He was born with a digestive problem that required that he go to the pediatrician’s office regularly for an injection. According to the story my mom told me, she would take Mike in his carriage to the doctor’s office. When he realized where they were going he would start to cry. Mom, not knowing what to do, would mislead him into thinking they were going somewhere else. She felt guilty about this and carries the weight of that to this day.
Despite the health issues, Uncle Mike grew to be a big man, around 6’3”. He struggled mightily with his weight. Obesity runs in our family and at various points Uncle Mike was morbidly obese. Some big men have a toughness about them, or are a presence in a room. That was not Uncle Mike. He was good-natured and he had a softness that wasn’t just physical. He had many friends, but was also the target of bullies. He carried the scars of low self-esteem.
Uncle Mike was 13 years younger than my mother, 13 years older than me. He lived upstairs with my grandparents while I was growing up. He graduated from high school but didn’t get a college degree. He was smart, but he didn’t pursue higher education. In contrast, each of his three siblings earned graduate degrees. For a number of years he drove a truck delivering bakery goods in the city (for the same commercial bakery where my grandfather worked). He frequently worked nights and slept during the day. I was careful not to wake him.
Uncle Mike was fastidious and had no tolerance for anyone who was ill-mannered. Chewing with your mouth open was a favorite target of a zinger. If he heard me chewing gum, he let me know about it. “What are you, Elsie?” his voice dripping with sarcasm, referring of course to the cow, followed immediately by the reminder, “Chew with your mouth closed!” Actually, it was a good lesson – perhaps it could have been delivered more kindly.
An important part of our family life was sports and Uncle Mike was no exception. He was a fan and he participated, playing football and softball with his friends. Uncle Mike was a Jets and Mets fan. My mother and her two brothers had season tickets to the Jet games at Shea Stadium. One more piece of evidence that my family was a little unusual – my father didn’t go to the games, my mother did!
My brothers and I relished watching Met games with him in his bedroom. He would have the air conditioner cranked to meat locker temperature – it felt great since the rest of the house was usually stifling. He provided funny commentary about the lovable losers. He always identified with the underdog. He hated the Yankees, which was the team I favored, though I did it quietly. He loved the movie “Rocky.”
He had a loyal group of friends who visited the house often. I grew up knowing his buddies: Alfred, Philly, Walter and Barry. I was the official scorer at their softball games. I went with Uncle Mike to Staten Island where they played and kept the scorebook for them. While I would have preferred to play, it was fun being there and I learned some colorful language, too.
During my later teen years, Uncle Mike made a concerted, successful effort to lose weight. He moved into his own apartment. I remember going with him to shop for new jeans. He was looking forward to going out on a date and we picked out some sharp clothes.
Uncle Mike was trying to turn his life around. Though in that day and age, it wasn’t spoken of, I believe he sought help through therapy. I remember my dad saying that if emotional issues got in the way of your day-to-day life, and you weren’t able to be happy, it was time to seek help. I think he said that in the context of Uncle Mike, but I’m a little fuzzy on that. Either way, I took that message to heart.
It was around that time that Uncle Mike apologized to me. The way I remember it, we were riding in his car to Aunt Simma’s for dinner. He said he was sorry for teasing me so much when I was younger and for giving me such a hard time. I didn’t know what to say, I was so surprised. He went on to explain that he resented my relationship with Nana, his mom, and took it out on me. I accepted his apology and told him it was okay.
I didn’t fully appreciate his gesture until I became an adult. The courage it took to be that honest with me. In so many ways life wasn’t kind to him. His marriage didn’t work out and as a result he was separated from his son, various business ventures fell apart, his health deteriorated, diabetes ravaged him.
Uncle Mike was living in Zada’s apartment in Century Village West Palm Beach when Gary, my husband, and I went to visit him somewhere around 2002 or 2003. At this point his eyesight had deteriorated so that he couldn’t drive and he had parts of his toes amputated because of diabetes. We chatted in his apartment before going to lunch. Uncle Mike wanted to give us a gift. He looked around the apartment, knowing Gary was a huge Met fan. He picked up his mousepad with a giant Met logo in the middle. He insisted Gary take it. Gary was reluctant, but understanding that Mike wanted to make the gesture, he took it.
Through it all he remained good-natured, he enjoyed a good meal, loved movies and telling stories, rooting for the Mets, seeing family and friends. Uncle Mike died of complications of diabetes when he was 58 years old in 2005.
My mother’s parenting approach can best be described as laissez-faire – not the adjective one tends to think of to describe a mother. My brother says we grew up with a Jewish mother, just in our case it was our father. He was the one who checked to see if we were wearing a hat before going out into the cold. Although Mom’s parenting was not always a great fit for me as a sensitive and insecure child, she got many things right.
One muggy August night in 1975 I was tossing and turning, feeling nauseated, my heart pounding. As I lay sweating in my bed in my room the size of a closet, my thoughts were flitting from one unhappy topic to another; taking a mental inventory of everything that was wrong in the world. From the latest crime wave in New York City to more personal worries about Grandma being in the hospital with something serious, but as yet undiagnosed. Earlier that week my father’s friend, someone he had known and played poker with for more than 20 years, committed suicide because of gambling debts that no one suspected. I had also come home earlier that month from a job at a sleep-away camp because it seemed to me everyone on staff was getting high and I wasn’t. All in all I was feeling unmoored, the ground under my feet was shifting.
I lie in bed looking out my window at the bricks of the house next door and felt the world closing in. After trying to manage alone for a while, I woke my mother up.
At first she thought I might be physically ill, but after going over my symptoms it became clear that I wasn’t, so she took a different approach. She started a different kind of inventory – reminding me about the good things in my life. My brothers were fine, she and dad were okay, too. I was entering my senior year of high school and would be applying to college soon. Exciting possibilities awaited. Of course that was scary, too.
Mom had an idea to distract me. She suggested that we plan a sweet 16 party. I would turn 16 in early October. Between having a birthday late in the year and having been part of a New York City program that combined three years of junior high school into two, I was young to be a senior in high school. I had gone to many sweet 16 parties the year before and I thought people would be tired of them. As my mother talked I found myself getting excited in spite of my doubts.
“You promise people will come?” I knew it was a silly question even as I asked it, but I couldn’t help myself.
“Yes,” she said with assurance, “we’ll come up with something really great. Maybe a ‘mystery bus tour’? “
Hmmm, I thought, that sounded interesting.
Going out on a limb, she said, “I promise it will be a success. And, we’ll have fun planning it.”
She convinced me.
Fortunately, the rest of the summer passed without further tragedy.
We chose the off-Broadway show The Fantasticks as the destination for our mystery bus ride. Mom arranged to rent a yellow school bus. I could invite 20 friends. We would have fried chicken from Chicken Galore on the bus and make-your-own sundaes back at the house after the show.
We still had to find something for me to wear, no mean feat given my self-consciousness. After combing the aisles of A&S, we managed to find dressy corduroy overalls. Who knew such a thing existed?! I lived in overalls so it was perfect.
Now my main worry was about the party once we got back to the house. I actually explained this to my parents: at virtually every sweet 16 I attended, people left the house, went for a walk and came back high. I didn’t like the idea of being alone at my party waiting for people to come back stoned. Of course, if they did, they would be especially appreciative of the make-your-own sundaes.
My parents reassured me as best they could.
The big day arrived. Friends and family arrived on time. We boarded the bus and had a little contest with everyone guessing where we were going. The Empire State Building? A bowling alley? A museum?
Everyone managed to eat their chicken dinner without too much difficulty. I wasn’t wearing my dinner – a personal victory! We arrived at the Sullivan Street Theater in Greenwich Village. I remember worrying about the seating arrangements, but in the end just gave out the tickets and enjoyed the show.
Afterwards we piled back on the bus and returned to Canarsie. So far, so good.
To my surprise, the guy I had a crush on gave me the album The Divine Miss M by Bette Midler. He suggested we put it on. The song was Do You Wanna Dance. He asked me to dance! I had precious little experience slow dancing. But, I managed. It was awkward and thrilling.
Some people did disappear and came back high, but it wasn’t a mass exodus.
And, I was actually happy at the end of the night! Not all that common of an occurrence in my teenage years. I sat on the couch in the basement, reviewed the night with my mom and read the kind messages in the sign-in book and smiled. My mother made good on her promise.
Our house was located in a small enclave in Brooklyn, situated between a park on one side and the Belt Parkway on the other. An expanse of weedy marsh separated the Parkway from our street. Our neighborhood was made up of four small residential streets that were closed off from the main part of Canarsie.
It was a long walk to school (PS 115). After second grade they redrew the district lines and I was moved to another elementary school (PS 272), also a long walk. In both cases there was a major, busy avenue to cross.
The importance of the distance was two-fold: One, I couldn’t go home for lunch, which left me in the chaotic cafeteria or tagging along like a lost puppy with a classmate who invited me home; two, it was difficult to play with kids from my class after school or on weekends. I had only two friends on my block; the other kids were downright mean. They were the type that when they got old enough to drive would triple park, dare you to honk to get by and, just for good measure, flip you off when you finally did hit the horn.
I wasn’t the only one in our family that dealt with the consequences of our physical location. As a child I didn’t understand how difficult the move to Canarsie was for Nana. Nana and Zada had lived above their store on Rochester Avenue for over twenty years, in a neighborhood where stores and friends were in close proximity. Nana’s arthritis, diabetes and bunions made walking painful and difficult. Fortunately for her (and for me), her many friends and family didn’t abandon her to the wilds of Canarsie.
On any given day, my visit with Nana might have included one of her friends from her old neighborhood. Like Nana and my mother, they relied on public transportation or a car service. But still they came, trudging across Seaview Park.
Alex, the tailor, who had one leg shorter than the other and wore a clunky orthopedic shoe, made the trek. Alex repaired the holes in my winter coat pockets by replacing them with a colorful, satiny smooth fabric. I loved the orange and yellow fabric so much I wished I could wear the pockets on the outside to show them off.
Dora, Yetta and both Goldies made the trek to Canarsie, too. They climbed the stairs to Nana’s second floor home and settled in at the marble table, like I did.
Invariably they would bring a small trinket for me, a large chocolate coin wrapped in shiny foil, or a miniature stuffed animal. Nana smiled as they gave me my small treasure. I would sit with them at the table. After asking me what grade I was in and if I liked school, they went on to speak to each other as if I wasn’t there. They talked about their disappointments, but they laughed and gossiped, too. I listened.
It seemed that Nana was a collector of lost souls. Some had physical problems, some would be considered spinsters, but no matter, they had a place at her table.
Not all of Nana’s friends were lost. There was another group of friends that she and Zada socialized with – who had cars, the women coiffed, perfumed and made up. I was fascinated by the beauty mark on Jewel’s face (yes, that was her name), trying to figure out if it was real or applied.
But as much as Nana collected friends, she was even more connected to her family. Her younger brothers, Jack and Morris, and their wives, were at the house all the time. Uncle Jack and Uncle Morris took sincere interest in my brothers and me. With all of these visitors, I didn’t need friends my own age.
Well, actually, that wasn’t true. I wanted friends my own age. I wanted to play with the kids from my class. I imagined that they, who lived in the Bayview Projects or on the blocks that surrounded the school, were always together having fun. On weekends if I went to my parents and said I was bored, my father often replied with, “Bang your head against the wall.” A singularly unhelpful suggestion guaranteed to keep me from bothering him again. My parents, like most of their generation, felt no obligation to entertain their children.
My mother encouraged me to make plans with the kids from school. I didn’t know how to do that. I was too afraid to ask for fear of being rejected and laughed at. She would tell me, “Call a friend from school. You have their phone numbers. Just try it.” I didn’t know what to say on the phone. Rarely would I muster the courage to do it. Mostly kids just went out to play, maybe rang the doorbell of a kid down the street – not a good choice for me. It was more comfortable to sit at Nana’s table.
After renting various apartments in Brooklyn, my mom and dad took a leap of faith and bought a new house in a new neighborhood, built on landfill, in Canarsie, Brooklyn in 1964. They were not at all sure that they could afford it on my Dad’s teacher’s salary. We, my parents and two older brothers, moved into the two-family semi-attached house on East 91st Street, a street that had yet to be paved. Every time it rained the street was awash with mud, puddles and rocks. Nana, Zada and my two uncles, who were teenagers at the time, would take the apartment upstairs, leaving their home in Crown Heights.
Zada, my grandfather and master bread baker, bought Miller’s Bakery on Rochester Avenue in 1941 and the family lived above the store. His challah and rye bread were outstanding, in fact he had trucks delivering his product across the borough. One of my first memories is of standing in front of the display cases in the bakery, eyeing the goodies. I took my time deciding: a brownie? an éclair? a large chocolate chip cookie? Nana waited patiently. She took a break from waiting on other customers to give her grandchildren their chosen treats.
By 1962 the neighborhood in which Miller’s sat was changing. Zada thought that the new people, mostly from the Caribbean, would buy his high quality rye, pumpernickel and challah. But, they didn’t. He didn’t change his product and he didn’t follow his customers to Long Island either. So, for the second time in his life, he lost everything – he went bankrupt. (The first time was in the hurricane of 1938 in New London, Connecticut.) At the age of 61 he went to work for a commercial bakery, moved his wife and two teenage sons and rented the upstairs apartment in our Canarsie home.
Though it was a two family house, with separate apartments, I lived in it as if it was one. The door to Nana and Zada’s apartment was always unlocked. Each day when I came home from school, I dropped my stuff off in my bedroom, climbed the stairs that separated our apartments and let myself in. Nana sat at a small, round marble table. The gold threads in the marble caught and reflected the light from the amber glass fixture suspended above it. The marble table top sat on a black cast iron pedestal. Both were unforgiving on misplaced elbows and knees.
Nana sat with her arthritic hands wrapped around a large teacup with steam rising from it. “Hello, Sunshine,” my daily greeting. She lifted herself from her chair and shuffled across the yellow linoleum floor toward the refrigerator. I settled into a chair next to hers.
“Zada brought home a chocolate crème pie. Do you want a piece?” She was already removing the pie from the refrigerator shelf, getting a plate and fork – she knew my answer.
Zada often brought home surplus goods from the bakery – large black and white cookies, corn muffins or assorted pies. It is no wonder that everyone in my family struggles to this day with their weight.
A small black and white television set sat on the table, tuned to the Dinah Shore show. The Mike Douglas Show came shortly after. I ate my pie. Nana sat back down. We talked about our days, her aches and pains, the performers on the shows. Occasionally I would adjust the rabbit ear antenna so we’d get better reception.
“Lindale, bring me my aspirin,” Zada bellowed from the back bedroom.
Another part of my daily ritual. Zada worked an early morning shift and was resting in bed while I visited with Nana.
“Coming!” I would get a glass of water, go into the bathroom and pour three aspirin from a huge bottle and bring it to him. Zada was propped up in bed, his long legs crossed at the ankles, wearing his sleeveless t-shirt, boxer shorts and horn-rimmed glasses, reading the Daily News. He took all three pills at once and washed them down with a gulp of water.
“Did you have the chocolate crème pie?” Zada asked.
“Yup, it was delicious.”
I took the glass back and returned to the kitchen. The four o’clock sun streamed through the slats of the shutters of the window. I sat in my golden cocoon with Nana until my mom called me down for dinner.