Archive for September, 2010

There’s a car alarm that’s been going off indiscriminately on my street over the last several days, once at 1 a.m., and three times this morning starting at 7 a.m. It blasts the same sound for about four solid minutes, in which you want to pull your hair out and take a bat to the vehicle’s windshield. And then it stops, and it feels as if the sun’s come out, and it’s good to be alive.

This morning when I went downstairs, I saw a police car parked in the street outside my house. I knew he was there about the car.

“Did you call?” he said.

“No, but I’ve heard it,” I said.

He said the car was registered to an address about 10 miles south. He asked me if I knew anyone who lived in that town.

The Menace

“No, but I can tell you, almost all of these houses are single family homes, and I know all of the owners, and I haven’t heard of anyone staying with them,” I said. And then in one of those moments in life when you realize you’ve departed from a world you used to inhabit, I pointed to the small multi-family building across the street and said, with a hint of contempt, “That building’s full of apartments. Maybe he’s staying in there.”

It wasn’t that long ago that I lived in an apartment. And I never viewed myself as anything more or less than a renter. I didn’t realize some of those around me who owned property might be looking at my building – and by association, me – as unsavory. But right now, given the volume and frequency with which that car alarm was going off, I looked at that building and all of its inhabitants as undesirable, and I wished they’d just go.

Just yesterday, the beagle who lives in the first floor apartment barked all day long and into the evening. I had to close my front door. Before that, a drug dealer lived there, and police would come every now and again to arrest him. Prior to that, there was a young man who would fix trucks right in front of the building, leaving a mess of car parts and motor oil in the street. He had a big old pick-up truck, himself, and every time he came or went, he’d rev the engine, vroooooooommm, vvvrrooooooommmm, vvvvrrrrroooooooom, just to make sure every part of the car had its proper nutrients.

“Well, we’re trying to get in touch with the owner. There’s not much more I can do,” the officer said. “The alarm isn’t going off right now.”

He pulled off and headed down the street. I walked into my backyard to put my garbage pail back into its little garbage house, and moments later, the car alarm sounded. I threw down the garbage pail lid and ran out into the street. I could see the police car about three blocks up the road, and I began waving madly with my arms, hoping he’d see me in his rear view mirror. I saw him take a right hand turn and head toward the main road, back in my direction, so I headed toward the main road, waving my arms again. He drove right past.

“Damn!” I thought, and started walking back to my house –the car alarm blaring in defiance.

I felt like a bit of a tattle-tale, and I thought if people weren’t sure I was the one who called police initially, they were definitely going to think that was the case now. I’m currently writing a story that involves gangs, and I read an article last night about a man who was shot and left to die in the trunk of a car because he had talked to police. “Snitches get stitches,” is the motto in most gang neighborhoods. I don’t live in one, myself, but I still felt a little dirty talking to police.

Just then, I saw the police car coming up my street. Apparently, the officer had seen me. When I walked up to his car, he was talking on his phone, presumably calling in the crime. Maybe he was calling for back-up. You never know what’s going to happen when you accuse people of being noisy and tell them to quiet down. I stood there for a moment. The officer barely looked at me. Even he had contempt for snitches.

I walked back into my house. A few minutes later, I was walking past our front window when I spotted my neighbor across the street, whose beagle had barked for about six straight hours yesterday. I walked outside to catch him before he left.

“Your dog,” I said.

“What?” he said, innocently.

“Barked. And barked. And barked,” I said. The voice in my head said, “Snitches get stitches.”

I’ve always been sensitive to noise. Sometimes when it rains, one of the gutters on the side of our house drips, and it can keep me up all night. I’ve woken up and run downstairs because I heard someone walking through our backyard when it turns out it was just a squirrel or a possum brushing against my hydrangea. The dog next door has a leash with a couple of tags on it, and every time he runs from one end of the yard to the other, I hear those tags jangle, and it unnerves me. I sometimes have to change seats two and three times when I ride the train because the person seated behind me is speaking too loudly on their cell phone.

“Did you hear that,” I’ll sometimes say to Bruce.

“Hear what?” he’ll say. And I’ll attribute whatever it was I heard to my over-sensitivity to sound.

I walked back into my house and poured myself a bowl of cereal. And I took comfort in the fact that I’d soon have a screaming baby that will drown out the sound of everything else — at least in my own head.

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My neighbor, Paul, found a mourning dove’s nest in a planter on his front porch. Soon there were two eggs in it, and not long afterward, the mourning dove had two babies. The mother now sits on the babies, as she did the eggs, and Paul took me up to his porch yesterday to see them.

“That’s the bird that goes woo-ooo hooo hooo —-every goddamned morning?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s them,” he said.

“Why I oughta—“ I said, raising my arms in the air in mock anger.

“Hey! Hey! You’re going to scare her!” Paul said.

We stood there and talked some more, about mourning doves and their habits, and when he told me there were actually two babies under the mother, I moved in closer to try and see the second bird.

“What’s that?!” I said, pointing to some furry bits under the mother’s belly. I could see the one baby, but then to the left of it were some bits of feather and fur that seemed to be attached to the mother’s body.

Look closely. There's a bird in there.

“Careful,” Paul said. “You’re getting too close.”

I backed off and pointed from farther away. “That, there. What’s that?”

“I think that’s the wing of the baby she’s sitting on,” Paul said.

“Hmmm,” I said.

The conversation soon wound down, and I started to leave.

“Look at her. She’s starting to relax. Her wing’s not shaking anymore,” Paul said. “You made her nervous.”

I obviously have a lot to learn, though I couldn’t tell if it was about motherhood or mourning doves –or Paul. Either way, I left with a familiar feeling, of being a pariah.

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I watched a woman pushing a baby in a carriage in the subway station, and when she reached a set of stairs, she lifted the carriage up into the air and ascended the steps with the ease with which one might lift a carton of eggs or a pile of towels. I was walking a little bit behind her, and by the time I reached the top of the stairs, I was winded. I was carrying a newspaper. This baby business is a younger woman’s game, I thought.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to be having a baby. I’m thrilled science has advanced enough to help a 47-year old woman nearing menopause to have a child. But my age and that of my husband, Bruce, who will be 51 next month, will undoubtedly be an issue as we raise this kid. I asked Bruce the other day what he thought would happen first: our child goes to college or our hearing goes. He said, “I think we’ve already lost that race.”

The other day, a neighbor told me she had baby items in her house that she no longer needed, now that her grandchildren were older. This being our first child, we’re starting from scratch. Envisioning a playpen, a mechanical swing, maybe a high chair, I jumped at the chance and wondered whether I should drive over in our pick-up truck rather than my small two-seater. When I got there, she started to pick through a box full of small stuffed animals  and plucked a couple of them out and placed them in a plastic bag. Pick-up truck? I could carry this stuff home in my teeth, I thought.

tommy the tugboat train

“Oh, Tommy the Tugboat,” I said, as she threw a little rubber boat into the plastic bag.

She turned around and looked at me. “Thomas is a train,” she said.

“Yeah. I knew that,” I said. “So who’s the tugboat?”

“I don’t think he has a name,” she said.

My father was the child of older parents. His father was about 42 when my father was born. My father said he constantly lived in fear that his father would die. Our child may have the same fear –and he’ll be justified. He’ll be lucky if we’re still alive by the time he hits 35.

But age is just one of the problems our child will face. Bruce and I are a little out of step when it comes to modern technology. A long line of electrical gadgets  – the iPod Nano, a GPS device for the car, Sirius radio, an electronic recorder – have all entered our home and remain in their original packaging. We seem to resist that which we don’t understand, and neither of us has the patience to read instruction manuals for things we’ve already learned to live without.

It’s not just these items that are alien to us. It’s the people who use them. When we were in Nantucket, Bruce and I walked down to the beach and saw a young girl sitting on the sand, texting. We both watched her for a moment, sitting in front of the picturesque Atlantic Ocean on an empty beach, not a cloud in the sky, texting. As we looked out at the water, I suddenly saw two seals swim by. First their heads peaked out of the water, then their fat bodies, followed by their tails.

“Look!” I exclaimed.

Bruce looked out at the water, and as we both watched the seals go by, we turned to the young girl on the beach.

“Did she see them?” I asked.

“No,” Bruce said. “She’s still texting.”

A friend of ours said he wanted to have family night with his children so that they could spend a little time together, and as they all sat around the living room watching television, my friend said his daughter’s hands were behind her back, and her arms kept flinching like she was having a small seizure.

“Are you texting,” he said, standing up and looking behind her. “Give me that,” he said, trying to get the phone away from her.

“Dad!” she cried and ran out of the room — with the phone.

When I was in Florida last week, I met a couple by the pool who have a 14-year old son. I asked them if it’s hard to deny their child some of the technological gadgets that most kids have these days. I don’t want my child sitting in his room all day because he’s addicted to his computer, or sitting in front of the television playing a video game with a friend, sweating, his heart pounding, as he races across New York City firing his AK-47 out the car window trying to kill as many women and children as he can before the clock runs out.

“I don’t have a hard time telling our son he can’t have something. I tell him, ‘No means no.’ And he gets that,” the husband said.

I felt relieved.

The man continued. “All his friends have blackberries. I’m not getting him a blackberry,” the man said.  “He’s got a cell phone, and that’s got to be good enough for now. Maybe when he’s 15 he can have a blackberry.”

We’ve got a little time before we have to cross the technological divide. I’m hoping our child is at least in kindergarten before he wants an iPhone. Until then, I’ve got bigger things to worry about – like what to do when I’m pushing the stroller and I reach a flight of stairs, or how I’m going to stay awake long enough to breast feed.

And what about childbirth? I hope my 47-year old body is up to the task. I’m already developing hammer-toes on my right foot, and sometimes when I look at the back of hands all brown from the sun, they look flat and wrinkly, like paws, like my grandmother’s hands used to look. I get leg cramps and have had to pee in the middle of the night, even before I got pregnant. And I found a brown mark on the side of my face that I thought was dirt, but when I tried to wipe it off, I realized it was an age spot. I may have a 20-year old’s eggs, but I have a 47-year old’s uterus. I hope it still knows how to contract.

When I went for my walk on the boardwalk the other morning, I passed a woman jogging and pushing a stroller with two kids in it.

“Is that hard?” I asked as she went by.

“Yes!” she gasped.

“Shit,” I said.

I’ve been looking forward to getting back to jogging after I give birth. I’ve already acquired a jogging stroller through “Freecycle,” but “hard” is not really what I was looking for. As I continued to walk, I passed a second woman pushing a jogging stroller, except she had only one child inside it. She was also moving downhill.

“Is that hard?” I said as she moved past me.

“Not bad,” she said, smiling.

That’s what I wanted to hear.

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September 8, 2010 Florida

My grandfather was still driving a car until he was 96. His children finally took his keys away when he tried to start the engine by sticking his seatbelt into the ignition. It didn’t help his case that the car was already running.

Without a car, my grandparents have had no way of getting around, so my mother makes the 25-minute journey to and from their condominium several times a week to take them food shopping and to doctors appointments, of which there are many. Sometimes, my grandfather, who is now close to 98, will invite her to lunch.

The Burger King

“He’ll say, ‘C’mon. It’s on me. I’ll take you to my favorite restaurant: Bur. Ger. King,’ ” my mother said. “They love the dollar menu.”

My 95-year old grandmother enjoys my mother’s visits because she has no other way of getting to the local grocery store. While my mother likes spending time with her mother, she complains that my  grandmother hangs on to the grocery cart like it’s a walker and pays no attention to where she’s going. She runs into people because she walks down the aisles looking for the items she wants, oblivious to oncoming traffic. She’ll park her cart sideways, not realizing no one else can get by. And she’ll back up her cart without looking behind her if she’s passed an item she wanted.

“I have to hang on to the front of her cart to steer it so she doesn’t run anyone over,” my mother said. “And every time we get to the grocery store, she stops in the doorway and starts looking for things in her pocketbook. I have to keep saying, “Ma. You can’t stop in the doorway.'”

Because I was in Florida to see my grandfather, I accompanied my mother when she went to take him to the doctor. As we pulled into the parking lot of the medical complex, my mother started to make a left hand turn toward the first set of buildings and said, “This way, right? And then he’s around the bend?”

“No! No, Sandy!” my grandmother barks from the back seat.

My mother quickly turned the wheel to the right so that she could continue driving straight, deeper into the medical complex.

“You passed it,” my grandfather said, referring to the left hand turn my mother had started to make.

My mother made a U-turn and headed back to the first set of buildings. She pulled into a parking spot, and the four of us got out. Both my grandmother and grandfather are using canes now, and they hobbled toward the ochre-colored stucco building.

“I don’t see your doctor’s name on that sign,” I said, quickening my pace so they wouldn’t have to walk all the way to the building in vain. “It’s Kaufman? He’s not on there,” I said.

I walked down the parking lot to the next set of doors in the building.

“I don’t see a Kaufman here, either,” I said.

I continued walking along the building until I reached the end. I turned the corner and found another set of doors. The sign above that door said  Kaufman. I ran back around the corner.

“He’s here!” I shouted.

“I told you,” I heard my mother say. “Right around the bend.” I knew she couldn’t resist.

The Burger Queen

I watched my grandparents waddle down the parking lot like Charlie Chaplin. They’ve had a good run. For a long time, they seemed like they were going to last forever. They aged, but slowly, and not enough to make a real dent. But now, my grandmother keeps falling, and when she does, she gets black-and-blue marks and scabs on her bony little arms that make her look like badly-bruised fruit. And with the careless vanity of the elderly, she uses band-aids that aren’t large enough to cover them.

As for him, his eyes are always glassy, like foggy windows, and his eyelids are swollen because he has eczema in the corners, and he’s constantly rubbing them. And that’s when he’s awake. These days, he sleeps most of the time, waking only for meals, which he barely eats. He’s lost about 25 pounds  this year. He now has to drink cans of Ensure to keep his weight up. He’s trying to make it to his 75th wedding anniversary, which is next May. Sometimes, he sifts through his address book looking for guests to invite, and all my grandmother hears is a litany of, “This one’s gone.” “That one’s gone.”

The doctor visit is short, and soon we’re all back in the car. My grandfather, who is sitting in the front seat, begins to opine on why he doesn’t trust doctors.

“When she had bleeding ulcers,” he says, referring to my grandmother, “the doctor  gave her Plavix.”

“Bob, he did not give me Plavix,” my grandmother says. “He gave me Plavix when I had a stroke.” She turns to me and says, “He always says this. The doctor gave me Plavix for the stroke, not the ulcers.”

My grandfather is undeterred by fact. “You don’t give someone Plavix for a bleeding ulcer. It’s the last thing you do,” he says.

We drop my grandfather off at his house, and my mother and I then take my grandmother food shopping. I grab my grandmother a cart, but she wants to push it herself. She drops her purse in the seat of the cart and begins to move forward, leaning heavily on the cart for balance. Just inside the grocery store, she stops and begins rummaging through her bag, looking for coupons. A woman with a cart enters the store behind us and tries to get by.

“Ma! Get out of the doorway,” my mother says, grabbing the front of my grandmother’s cart. She pulls the cart — and by default, my grandmother — out of the doorway and looks at me. “See?” she says.

I look back at my mother and smile, knowing she’ll recount all of this with a sweet nostalgia when they’re gone. Until then, my grandparents will probably continue to click through the years, albeit at a slower pace, amassing more great grandchildren and possibly a great great grandchild or two.

When we got back to their house, my grandfather went into his room and emerged wearing a baseball hat with a number written on it in magic marker. It was a tally of how many great grandchildren he had. With my pregnancy, he had reached #24.

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Sept. 7, 2010 Grandpa

I went down to Florida this week to see my 98-year old grandfather. It’s not that he’s ailing. It’s that he’s aging — with more speed than he had done in the past, according to my mother. I feared if I waited much longer to visit, I would run into a period where I would be unable to fly, on account of pregnancy, and by the time I’d make it down to Florida, it would be too late.

To get a sense of my grandfather, one only had to look at the screened-in porch of my grandparents condominium. The room was filled with broken vacuum cleaners. My grandfather used to own an appliance store on Long Island, and until last year, he still collected broken vacuum cleaners and repaired them. He gave one to his grandson, Lanny, who couldn’t afford to buy his own, and then took Lanny’s broken machine to fix with the hope of giving it to someone else. Some of the others he retrieved from the garbage of his condo, to salvage the spare parts.

“I want them out of there,” my grandmother said the last time I went down to visit.

“They’re good vacuum cleaners,” my grandfather said.

“Nobody wants them, Bob!” my grandmother said.

My grandfather has always fixed things. You’d know when he’d been to visit our house because some pipe or hose was now gerryrigged with duct tape and rubber bands — but the appliance would be working. My husband always said I followed in my grandfather’s footsteps, because I had the patience and the confidence of a mechanical engineer. I was not afraid to take anything apart. He changed his mind when he came home from work one night to find me brutally jamming a knife into the slot of our VCR.

“He’s always fixed things with spit and glue,” my mother said of her father. “I never wanted him to fix things for me because I was afraid of what it would end up looking like.”

My grandfather wasn’t schooled as an engineer. He came from a poor Jewish family in Brownsville, Brooklyn. What little mechanical training he received was in the trade school he attended as high school. After he and my grandmother got married, my grandfather began selling Electrolux Vacuum cleaners door to door. After a while, he went to work at the Hoover Vacuum Cleaner Company. One day, he told his boss the company was wasting a lot of money by shipping the vacuum cleaners in large boxes. He suggested they remove the handles so that they could ship the vacuums in smaller packages. They took his advice, and in our family folklore, he made vacuum cleaner history.

“His boss took all the credit for that,” my mother said with the bitterness of someone who nearly had it all.

After a couple of years, my grandfather opened up his own appliance store in Cedarhurst with his friend, Murray. While my grandfather was a decent salesman, Murray handled sales and my grandfather took care of all the repairs, making house calls to fix broken washing machines, leaking refrigerators, or freezers that no longer got cold, for one reason or another.

My grandfather eventually retired and moved from Long Island down to Florida, but he quickly grew bored and wound up taking over a vacuum cleaner business his son had bought. The store sold every type of machine — though my grandfather was always partial to Hoover uprights — and he repaired every aspect of those machines, from motors, to hoses, to filters, well into his eighties.

Until last year, he had a room on the second floor of his condo building that he called his workshop. He stored tools there as well as a workbench, and soon everyone in the building began bringing him their broken appliances, from sewing machines, to toaster ovens and coffee pots, because they knew he could fix them.

My grandmother also benefited from my grandfather’s transformative powers. When she wanted a new kitchen set, he spray painted her Formica table gray. When their children complained they were hard to reach because their phone was often busy, my grandfather realized it was because the new phone they’d gotten for the hearing impaired was being put back in its cradle upside down. He painted a large blue arrow on it so that he and my grandmother would know which way to hang it up.

“Bob, that’s not our phone. We’re renting it,” my grandmother said.

When I arrived at my grandparents house this visit, I noticed the center of their doorbell was painted with red nail polish.

“Grandpa, why did you paint the doorbell red?” I asked.

“Because people were neglecting it,” he said. “That’s the problem these days. People neglect things.” 

A couple of months ago, my mother paid a visit to her parents, and when she walked in the door, she saw my grandfather had plastic Yoplait yogurt cups on his ears. Now hard of hearing, he had cut the bottoms out of the cups and stuck them on his ears to work like little megaphones and enhance the sound. He looked like Shrek, my mother said.

“It works,” my grandfather said.

I don’t doubt it did.

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I wrote this essay about my father in 2005. It seems fitting to post it this time of year.


Change rarely visits Bialystoker Street. Every morning, men in black hats make their way to the Bialystoker synagogue for morning prayer. About an hour later, women wearing wigs and black stockings emerge from their apartments, pushing baby carriages with two or three other children in tow. The little boys wear yarmulkes. The girls have patent leather shoes.

So it surprised me to see that the bench outside my old apartment building was no longer there. It was a standard-issue bench with solid-concrete sides and wood slats painted parks-department green. The whole row of them was gone. Poof. Vanished. The only thing that remained was a couple of indentations on the sidewalk.


My father complained over dinner about how my mother had this terrible habit of using the word “she” twice in one sentence, when she was referring to two different people.

“I’m constantly having to ask her, ‘She, who?’ my father said, and then turning to my mother, he said, ‘You can’t say “she” twice in one sentence and think I’ll know who you mean.'”

“Eddie, will you stop criticizing me? Enough,” my mother said, throwing her fork down on the table.

It might have been any old day. But it wasn’t. My father was dying of esophageal cancer. As a last ditch effort, he’d signed up for a clinical trial at Memorial Sloan Kettering that had a 66-percent success rate. But we were told that morning that he was among the unlucky 34 percent. His cancer was spreading, and he was out of the program. My father was going back to his home in Florida to die.

“Let’s get some munchies,” he said as we walked back to my parents’ hotel. Despite carrying around coffee cakes, pretzels and little cans of apple sauce to nibble on in between meals, my father’s 185-pound frame was down to 128 pounds.

“Everything’s closed,” I said.

We were sitting in a restaurant on 36th Street and Sixth Avenue, so close to the Empire State Building that if it fell, it would hit us. Things like that mattered that day. It was September 11, 2001. There was an eerie quiet in Midtown. Sixth Avenue was nearly empty but for a lone man in a sweatshirt walking down the street with a video camera. At the corner of 35th Street, a homeless man and a man in a suit stood next to each other, watching the news on a television set that was resting on top of a garbage pail. Police tape blocked pedestrians from walking on 34th Street as armed men in uniform walked bomb-sniffing dogs back and forth in front of the Empire State Building.

I dropped my parents off at their hotel and walked to Pennsylvania Station, hoping a store along the arcade would be open. It was 8 p.m. and hundreds of commuters were standing near the board that listed train departures. They were stranded when the entrances and exits to Manhattan were sealed.

My parents were among the stranded. They had come into Manhattan from Long Island for chemotherapy and were on a subway heading to the hospital when the second plane hit. Subway service was suspended, and my parents were forced out of the train at Times Square. They walked all the way to the hospital on the East Side only to find chemotherapy was canceled, but my father was given his CAT scan results. The tumors had not shrunk. They had grown. Dejected, my parents tried to hail a taxi back to Penn Station but every cab was occupied. They eventually bribed a taxi driver, who already had a passenger inside, while he was sitting at a traffic light. They made their way back to Penn Station only to find that the train service to Long Island was suspended, so they orbited the station, trying hotel after hotel until they finally found a vacancy.

I found a store that was open and bought a bag of sugar-coated nuts, M&Ms, potato chips and two toothbrushes. When I returned to their hotel room, my parents were sitting up in bed, watching CNN. They invited me to spend the night. The three of us squeezed into one bed with me sandwiched between them.

“What are you scratching?” my mother asked.

“I think my cat gave me fleas,” I said.

“Go take a shower,” my father said abruptly.

I stood in the shower and thought about a banker I once interviewed for a story in World Trade Center 7 and how that building was no longer there. I thought about my siblings and wondered if any of them ever had fleas. I wondered if I would ever feel my father’s approval or if that void was so deep that even a thousand loving gestures wouldn’t plug the hole.

When I got out of the shower, I climbed back into bed with my parents. I tossed and turned for about an hour on account of my father’s snoring.

“He’s been doing that since he got sick,” my mother whispered. It was something else about him I didn’t know.

My parents sat on a couch in my aunt’s house on Long Island and watched CNN for days. The towers are up. The towers fall down. The puff of smoke. The towers are up. The towers fall down. The puff of smoke. Young people lit candles in Union Square. Mothers and fathers and husbands and wives wandered the streets, holding up photos of their loved ones in front of the television cameras or taping their pictures to utility poles. At the time, it seemed appropriate. A week later, it was clear an entire city had been in denial.

My parents returned to Florida at the end of September. I followed them down there about a week later. For two months, I researched cures for cancer. I joined a message board for people with esophageal cancer. I investigated the various treatments, proven and unproven. I bought a used book called Cancer Therapy: The Independent Consumer’s Guide to Non-Toxic Treatment & Prevention. I ignored thoughts about why the person who bought the book no longer needed it. I couldn’t convince my father to get acupuncture. He didn’t like needles. But I talked him into seeing a Chinese medicine doctor in a nearby strip mall. The doctor’s face was black and white.

“What was wrong with his skin?” my father asked as we left the doctor’s office.

“I don’t know. Something with his pigmentation.”

“If he can’t fix his own skin …”

“Dad. I know,” I said.

I went to Whole Foods Market almost every day to buy whole wheat pasta, organic vegetables and wheat grass. Blueberries were filled with antioxidants. A cup of raspberries a day contained enough elegiac acid to inhibit the growth of cancer cells. I made my father a concoction of cottage cheese, banana and flax seed oil every morning because a doctor in Germany had fed it to people who were near-death, and it had brought them back to life. I put a prohibition on sugar because I’d read that cancer loves sugar. I went through my parents’ cupboards and pulled out every box of soup, every bag of candy, every can of sauce that contained sugar and put them in boxes that I stacked in the corner of the dining room. One night, I heard my father rummaging through the boxes.

“What are you doing back there?” I said.

A small body emerged from the darkness holding a little can of fruit cocktail.

“I just wanted to take it upstairs with me,” he said.

He looked at me like he was in trouble.

“Oh, just take it,” I said.

For much of the fall, my parents would go to chemotherapy during the day while I’d stay at home, cooking meals from a Whole Foods cookbook. The woman who wrote the book had cured her own leukemia with a macrobiotic diet and now had a cooking show on PBS. One afternoon, I decorated the dining room with pumpkins and squash, and twig wreaths covered with leaves from outside. I strung orange lights across the doorway and lit about a dozen candles. I wanted to watch my father’s eyes light up as he walked in. I wanted to save his life so he would love me.

My father had a piece of paper taped to the side of his desk listing the things he would do after his recovery. Go to Bristol, Tennessee, for a NASCAR race. Join the Boca Pointe board of trustees. Check out the new BMW M3. Visit the kids up North, starting with Caren and Ellen on Long Island, then Richie in Massachusetts and finally Steven in Rochester. He called it his victory tour. Nothing was ever crossed off the list. In July, the doctors had given him six months to live. He died in five.


I stood on Bialystoker Street and watched two boys play basketball through the chain-link fence. The block was so far east in Manhattan’s Lower East Side that the roadway leading to the Williamsburg Bridge at that point was already aloft. I stood under the road, looking up at the cars going across the bridge. A subway train went by. A jogger bobbed up and down in the caged-in pedestrian pathway that ran along the outside of the span. As my eyes watched him move across the bridge, everything else seemed to fall away, the screeching of the subway, the honking of the car horns. Time seemed to go in slow motion, like when your eyes follow a single snowflake or raindrop as it falls to the ground.

I walked across the street and sat down on the curb opposite where the bench used to be. I thought of a night back in March of 2001, a month after my father’s cancer was first diagnosed. I had called him on my cell phone from 14th Street, and the two of us talked as I walked the 17 blocks to my apartment on the Lower East Side. As we chatted away, it began to snow. It was a crisp winter night, and by the time I reached my apartment, the ground was white. I sat down on the bench.

“Now that you have cancer, do you find it harder or easier to live in the moment?” I asked.

I wondered if having a finite amount of time would make him want to live each day more fully, or if he was so obsessed with the prospect of dying that it was impossible to think of anything else.

He paused, and said, “It’s harder.”

But then he told me a story about how he had been dancing at a wedding with my mother the weekend before, and for a single moment as they stood on the dance floor, he felt truly content. He was in the moment at that moment, and it felt close to bliss, he said.

As I sat on the curb and looked at the spot where the bench had been, the image of that night in March came back to me. It was the night my father walked me home, and we danced as the snow fell around us.

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It began like any other birthday, with a sense of entitlement and self absorption, as if all the world, from the shopkeeper to the bank teller, should know it’s my birthday and treat me accordingly. I’m always left disappointed.

We got up and took a drive over to the home of Bruce’s uncle, who has a house just down the street from Bruce’s parents’ house. We wanted to say goodbye to Bruce’s cousins, who were leaving Nantucket that afternoon. We bid our farewells from the driveway, but I needed to go to the bathroom and so despite knowing Bruce hates when I ask people if I can use their bathroom, I said, “Can I use your bathroom?” Before long, we were sitting at his Uncle Burt and Aunt Ruth’s kitchen table, as they served us peach pancakes and micro-waved coffee. His aunt served yoghurt, which was to be poured on top of the pancakes. Having never seen this before, I tried it. It wasn’t bad –but mostly because I’d poured about half a gallon of syrup on the pancake before she gave it to me. Cedar mulch would have complimented the pancakes, with all that syrup.

I’ve always liked Uncle Burt and Aunt Ruth. His Uncle Burt tells this funny joke I’ve since stolen that goes like this:

A man walks up to the pearly gates, and St. Peter says, “Hello, there. Where are you from?”

“I’m from Jersey City,” the man says.

“Welcome to heaven,” St. Peter says proudly, and waves the man in.

Another man walks up to the pearly gates, and is greeted by St. Peter. “Why hello, there. Where are you from?”

“I’m from Detroit,” the man says.

“Well, welcome to heaven,” St. Peter says proudly, and beckons the man to come in.

A third man walks up to the pearly gates and St. Peter says, “Hey, there, fella. And where are you from?”

“Nantucket and Naples, Florida,” the man says.

St. Peter pauses, and says, “You’re not going to like it here.”

I’ve always liked Aunt Ruth because she has the stiff posture and stern jaw of some of my relatives from Eastern European. And she seems stiff when you first see her, hugging rather than kissing, and holding her chin high in the air. But after a few minutes, she seems to melt and becomes a chatty Cathy, animated, laughing, though still barely moving her neck to the right or left when she speaks. I was enjoying my conversation with her and Uncle Burt so much, I had a second cup of coffee when they offered. And a third  –even though I haven’t drank much coffee since I got pregnant, not for health reasons but because the idea of it made me ill. As Aunt Ruth picked up the milk to pour some in my coffee, she sniffed the carton and made a face. She paused, sniffed again, and then closed the container and threw it in the garbage.

“No good?” I said, concerned. I’d already used it in my last two cups of coffee.

“Oh, it’s probably fine,” she said. I could feel the rotten milk curdling in my stomach as she spoke. Just then, she saw a fly by the window. She picked up a fly swatter and began swatting at it.

“Oh, it’s on the outside,” she said.

We talked about their daughter-in-law Maureen, who had been writing stories for a local Nantucket magazine, and about how Bruce’s father had gotten into a minor accident near his home in Pennsylvania. Uncle Burt, who is Bruce’s father’s younger brother, was unusually  interested in the accident. Grinning and hungry for details, you could feel him filling his quill with arrows. The conversation turned to local restaurants, and Aunt Ruth and Uncle Burt told us about how the owner of DeMarco’s, one of their favorite restaurants on the island, recently adopted a child and that he was thrilled. DeMarco was 68. Aunt Ruth said she believed the child might have been conceived using DeMarco’s sperm, and that it was carried by a surrogate mother, but she couldn’t be sure. She said she once told DeMarco that his adopted child looked remarkably like him. She says he paused, started to say something,and then seemed to change his mind and left to take care of something in the kitchen.

“We’re pregnant,” I blurted out.

“What? That’s wonderful,” said Aunt Ruth.

I started to whimper a little bit. I was embarassed at my display of emotion, with people I don’t really know very well, but it soon passed.

“That’s great news,” said Uncle Burt.

“We weren’t really going to tell anyone, but the chances of miscarriage at this stage are pretty low,” Bruce said.

It seemed like “too much information,” to be throwing around the word “miscarriage,” but as someone who has a hard time holding on to the most intimate details of my life, I couldn’t possibly say anything to Bruce about excessive sharing.

It turned out Aunt Ruth had actually known about the pregnancy. Bruce’s mother had told her two weeks earlier. But she put on a good show of enthusiasm.

We left their house for a day at the beach. The nice thing about Nantucket is that despite the small size of the island, there’s plenty of beach for everyone. It never feels crowded. We settled at a beach on the south side of the island, set up our chairs and cooler and began to read.

Before long, I had to go to the bathroom. I’m not sure what goes on internally during pregnancy, but my bladder is now like a needy child. It pulls on my arm every hour, demanding to be tended to –even in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, what Nantucket’s beaches have in beauty and abundance, they lack in bathroom facilities. The ocean was our bathroom. But with a hurricane coming up the coast, the seas were pretty rough. Bruce went in first, with the boogy board, to test the waters, as they say, and he was tossed around like a piece of pasta in boiling water. After being carried about four feet in the air by a wave and then dropped onto the dry sand, he said he didn’t want me going in. The ocean was behaving badly. He suggested I simply squat near the water’s edge and go. We walked a little farther down to the most unpopulated stretch of beach. I looked around and saw a house up on the bluff, and perched at the edge of the cliff was a camera, though it looked a bit rusty. Bruce suggested I squat there, that no one would know the difference. The problem was, I would. I didn’t want to be sitting there with a load of urine in my bathing suit, like a dirty diaper. I tried to squat close enough to the waves so that they would lap at the bottom of my suit, but the water wasn’t coming up far enough. So squatting, I waddled deeper into the surf, like a crab, until I could feel the water lapping at my bottom.  I then began to pee and could feel my suit filling up. Disgusted, I waddled farther into the surf and shook my bottom around in the water like a duck trying to wash off its tail.  All of a sudden, I felt a sharp pain in my lower abdomen, and I sprang to my feet.

“What’s going on?” Bruce said.

“Something really hurts,” I said. All I could think of was when I was spotting early in the pregnancy, and I asked the nurse if she thought I could be miscarrying. She asked if I felt any pain. I said I didn’t. She said if I was miscarrying, I’d feel pain. Now, I was feeling pain, and I couldn’t help but think it had to do with the squatting. Maybe the baby slid down to far.

“I just want to walk,” I said to Bruce, and I took off down the beach. I kept hearing Bruce tell his Aunt Ruth and Uncle Burt, “The chances of miscarriage at this stage are pretty low.” You shouldn’t flaunt that sort of thing, I thought. It’s like daring the gods.

The walking made me feel better. We made our way back to our seats and after a couple of minutes, I was starting to get hungry. I opened the cooler, and we split a sandwich. About halfway through it, I felt another jolt in my lower abdomen. I once again sprang to my feet and began to waddle down the beach like an old woman, moving swiftly but with small steps, like I didn’t want anything to fall out of me. I walked for a little while, and when we made our way back to the blanket, I suggested we leave.

By the time we got home, I could tell I was going to need the bathroom. I barely made it in the door.  I don’t know what I ate, but there was a lot of commotion going on in my bowels, and there was a lot of shouting and kicking as everyone was exiting my body. I thought of Aunt Ruth’s face as she sniffed the milk I’d just used in my coffee. No way. It would have to have curdled in my cup to have wrought the havoc this beast was doing on my intestines. Perhaps it was simply having three cups of coffee,when I hadn’t really had any in the last two months. I had also eaten a bunch of grapes, perhaps too many. It could have been any number of things. The thing it wasn’t, much to my relief, was a miscarriage — at least not yet.

I had to make three more trips to the bathroom before we left for dinner that night. Bruce was taking me to a fancy French restaurant for my birthday. I’m sure there have been times throughout history when an inebriated movie star has been in an expensive restaurant and thrown up all over the white linen table cloth. Perhaps a gray-haired dignatory has eaten food that was too rich for his system and shat himself at a dinner party. I can’t have been the first person to go to one of the nicest restaurants on Nantucket and moments after we got there, I was in the bathroom unleashing the sour stench that had inhabited my intestines. It seemed criminal to do such a thing in a room with blue toile wallpaper and little lavendar soaps, but I wasn’t going to stay home on account of sickness. It was, after all, my birthday.

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