Thursday, September 11, 2014

Weathering the Storm


I open Noam Chomsky’s e-mails on weekdays and forward on to him those I can’t take care of, at a second e-mail address.  Once in a while I open up a nasty rant from a person who doesn’t like his politics, most likely because they misunderstand his point of view (the beauty of a blog is that I can say what I think, plus, I have been reading these messages for twenty years). 

Putting aside his significant work in linguistics, Noam is a prominent human rights activist, a defender of mistreated and voiceless individuals, groups, and countries, and an exposer of problems with mainstream media and US foreign policy.  He’s concerned about fracking, tsunamis, the so-called drug war, and the survival of the planet. He participates endlessly in debates and discussions, is an inexhaustible lecturer, holds interviews two days a week in his office, and responds to e-mails through the early morning hours.  He does much of this at great personal expense, traveling extensively both within and outside the country until he’s too tired to stand, and the only time he sits is to write, and sometimes eat. 

More than a few times I’ve been tempted to hit “reply” and give an enraged writer hell, telling him how terribly misinformed he is.  I would tell him that Noam doesn’t fabricate numbers, statistics, or facts – you can find almost everything he quotes in a journal or newspaper article, or book.  I would point out to them that sympathizing with Palestinians doesn’t mean he hates Jews.  He’s a pacifist – a guardian of peace, he believes war is unjustifiable.

Many of these ranters suggest he leave the United States and live somewhere else. I would insist that his criticism of the US government’s policies doesn’t mean he hates being an American. I would remind them of the first amendment, which guarantees “the rights of free expression and action that are fundamental to democratic government.” And I would suggest that they become more informed about the real facts – and maybe actually read something Noam has written with an eye toward understanding. 

But it’s my job to pass all messages not directed toward me onto Noam, whether an e-mail from a colleague or a note from one of his grandsons, and thousands of others in between, many from people he’s never met.  So, once I've added any essential piece of backup for clarity, I pass them on, even the few I would prefer to send to the trash with one simple keystroke. 

A few months ago, when I was angered by one of these slanderous e-mails, I jumped out of my chair, gathered up some travel and scheduling items for an impromptu meeting, and stormed into his office.  Ok, I didn’t actually storm.  Noam doesn’t respond to that kind of drama.

I excused myself for interrupting his reading, asking him if I could talk with him for a minute, then I launched right into it. “Noam, don’t you ever get upset with the nasty, antagonistic e-mails from enraged people?  Considering the [immeasurable] sacrifices you’ve made, how do you keep from getting angry?” I asked.

Noam replied, “Do you get angry with a hurricane?”

“No, I don’t get angry with the hurricane, but I am upset when people are hurt by a hurricane.”

Noam repeated, “But do you get angry with the hurricane?”

“No,” I said, becoming frustrated that he wasn’t sharing my outrage.

“Well, people are hurricanes,” he said. 

I thought, what the hell does that mean, ‘people are hurricanes?  Judging by what I know about Noam, he wanted me to think, and to figure it out for myself. I guessed he was reminding me that anger can be a big waste of time unless you harness it into action.  Also, hurricanes are unpredictable, and they erupt, just like people.  And I suppose when you find yourself in the path of a hurricane, it’s prudent to protect yourself, and keep out of harm’s way, as you can’t control it any more than you can control a person.  These are my thoughts. 

As with most things, I went home and talked this over with my partner Laura, a psychotherapist who has witnessed anger and frustration in a multitude of sizes and shapes.  She said, “I think there’s a way in which people carry their own weather systems.  Weather is affected by both internal and external experiences – past and present.  By what they’ve learned, what they’ve eaten, their assumptions, and by what’s going on around them.  There are some people who walk in the door and you can feel the storminess around them, and sometimes you feel something more subtle.” 

I wondered whether that was what Noam intended to convey to me, as well – people have their own unpredictable weather patterns, so it’s best to put on your raincoat and boots and wait it out.  Weather isn't something we can control any more than we can control other people.

I had to check with him again, so I recently asked Noam to give me some insight on how he keeps from reacting to a writer’s fury.  I worded it in a way that wouldn’t hint that he was possibly answering a question I was supposed to have figured out for myself.  He said “People usually have reasons for being angry, however distorted and unpleasant.  And there's always some hope that they can be dealt with. Sometimes it even works, after a lot of effort.  But what's the point in being angry about it?  A three-year old doubtless has a reason for an annoying tantrum, but do we get angry at the kid?” 

I realized two things as he said this.  First, something that I keep learning in a circular manner, that even an unpleasant and hostile form of discourse can be a step toward understanding.

And second, he was talking about compassion all along. 


Monday, September 8, 2014

Meeting Noam Chomsky




I heard the knob hit the wall before I saw the man.  I looked up, startled by the sound, and saw a nice looking man of slim to medium build, somewhere around 5’10”, with a healthy head of white hair and large wire-rimmed glasses, standing at the wall of faculty mailboxes which were for some reason located in our suite.  He was wearing a light blue shirt, blue jeans rolled up with a full four-inch cuff, and black sneakers with white socks.  In one hand he held a bulging worn briefcase, and in the other, a dark blue canvas bag.  He looked to be in his early to mid-sixties.  I had read a little more about him over the last week or so, and the more I learned, the more overwhelmed and intimidated I became.  He was a media and US foreign policy critic, he worked alone and side-by-side with Howard Zinn and others as a Vietnam War resister, he was a human rights advocate, and of course a linguistics professor.  He debated experts like Jean Piaget, Michel Foucault, John Silber, and William F. Buckley. I recognized him from his pictures, and it wasn’t until I stood to introduce myself that I realized how nervous I was. 

I extended my hand toward him, and he took it.  “Hi, Professor Chomsky.  I’m Bev Stohl.  It’s nice to meet you.”  So far so good, I thought, as he murmured a preoccupied ‘hello,’ plopped the leather briefcase onto my desk and fished inside for a handful of papers. I noticed the initials NC in faded gold at the top, near the handle, so I knew I had the right guy, but the quiet was unnerving. I needed to fill the void. “It must be strange for you to come in and meet your new assistant for the first time.”  As I said this aloud, it occurred to me that this probably wasn’t at all strange to him.  It was too late to start over, and fainting or quitting would make a bad first impression, so I just stood there, looking at him.
“You can call me Noam,” he said cheerily, his widening smile easing my anxiety, “And I have full confidence in Jamie and Morris’s decision.  If they chose you for the job, then I’m sure we’ll make a great team.”   I noticed that his smile emanated not only from his mouth but also his eyes, which sparkled mischievously behind his thick lenses.
He tilted his head slightly upward when he said this, making him seem playfully delighted – I hoped at the thought of our working together.  Maybe I wouldn’t have to be shipped home after all.  And standing there with him for the first time, I wondered “What’s the big deal about working for Noam Chomsky?”

  

Saturday, May 31, 2014

An Offer I Could Have Refused: Interview with Morris Halle for position as Noam Chomsky's assistant

Morris Halle called across the suite to me, “Bev, can you come and show me how to get my phone messages?” I walked down the short hallway to his office, where I found him looking at his phone as if it were a foreign object, and saw that his password was still taped to the top of his phone, above the rectangular digital window. 
“There is it Morris,” I said.  “You just press the buttons in sequence where I’ve taped the numbers one, two and three, and the phone will prompt you for your password.”
“Oh, yes, that should work,” he said.
**
My childhood dream was to be a pink-tutu’ed ballerina.  As a seven-year-old girl in 1961 I wasn’t aware of man y other career choices besides teaching, which I seriously considered until my teacher shocked me by marking my first X ever on a vocabulary test when I proposed that the word tongue contained two syllables.  So teaching was out.  But every Saturday I looked forward to pulling tiny black tights and leotards over my rail-thin body for my morning ballet classes, where a dozen girls stretched at the dark wood barre and pirouetted across the tired oak studio floor. So it was settled in my little girl mind that when I grew up, I would dance the ballet.
And this is what I wrote in my requisite “What I want to be when I grow up” essay in Mrs. Burke’s second grade class at the Plympton School in Waltham, Massachusetts. One thing I know for sure is that I did not mention in that essay, not even in passing, that my dream was to work at MIT as right-hand person for left wing activist, scholar, linguist, dissident humanitarian liberal philosopher, author, and media and US foreign policy critic, Professor Noam Chomsky.  In fact, I had just learned my left from my right.  And though my vocabulary was excellent for my age, ton-gue be damned, these terms were far beyond the scope of my knowledge.
Thirty-two years after announcing my future plans, the incontrovertible evidence of my two-left-feet having dashed all hopes of becoming a ballerina, I was still trying to figure out my special purpose in the world. 
In 1979, my younger brother Paul, a new MIT graduate about to continue his studies there toward a doctorate in physics, took me to the HR department to check out job listings.  I wanted to be home in the afternoons for my seven-year-old son, so I took a part-time position working for a Department of Energy project headed by Fred Salvucci, previous Secretary of Transportation in Massachusetts under Michael Dukakis.  I loved the team of people I was working for, but more importantly I found it appealing to work in a university atmosphere rather than a corporate setting.  The dress code was casual, and I felt at ease spending my days with and around grad students, who, on average, were just a year or two younger than I.  Feeling the pressure to grow and move on, in a few years I took a full time administrative position at the Transportation Department’s headquarters office, moving onto Civil Engineering’s headquarters office, where I worked as assistant to the graduate program administrator.  I soon moved up to MIT’s now defunct Ocean Engineering Department as their graduate program administrator, finally landing in a salaried position as program administrator in the cutting-edge Department of Economics. 
Then one day in 1994, I looked around and wondered how I got where I was – sixteen years older and twenty pounds heavier, making more money and feeling less personally connected to my own goals. I loved working with the students, and the administrators and most of the professors were good people, but I was feeling a lot of stress and little joy in my job, so I began looking for a less challenging job that would allow me time and space to finish a degree in counseling psychology.  At least then, I thought, I could eventually pursue a career that centered on my personal agenda, and not on the agenda of an institution.  I applied for a position at MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy that I thought I could handle while finishing my studies, but my friend and colleague Jamie Young called to tell me she had offered the job to someone else literally minutes before opening my application.  She did have another position open, she said, as assistant to a professor named Noam Chomsky.  In the MIT hierarchy, this job was one level down from the job I had applied for, so I presumed it would be an easier job. I had heard Chomsky’s name around the Institute, but I knew little about his work, though I did learn that he was so tightly scheduled that the process of finding a new assistant was put in the hands of two other people.
First I met with Jamie Young.  She had held the position as Chomsky’s assistant before accepting a promotion as the departmental Administrative Officer, or AO, and in fact was still handling most of his travel arrangements.  His last assistant, she would later tell me, had become too stressed trying to handle the demanding work load, and quit. “She tried too hard to be perfect,” Jamie told me.
“Oh, good,” I thought, “I do tend to worry over small details, but I’m not a perfectionist, so the job might suit me well.”  Jamie had some knowledge of my work style since we held more or less the same job as grad program administrators in different departments, and she agreed that I could be a good fit for the position. 
 My main interview would be with Morris Halle, Chomsky’s trusted long-time colleague, suite mate, and personal friend, and a professor of phonology, morphology, poetics, and Slavic languages. Jamie referred to him as the godfather of the suite.  I preferred to understand that to mean he watched over his little group, and I squelched the image of having my legs broken for filing his papers out of order.  Professor Chomsky was working from home on the day of my interview, something he did two days a week.  
When Jamie walked me through the entrance to the Chomsky-Halle suite for the first time, I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.  The large posters of Palestine, East Timor, and Bertrand Russell, and political drawings beyond my range of understanding and world view at that time told me this was a much different milieu than that of the MIT I had become familiar with over the past fifteen years. That had been a world of classes, exams, grade sheets, and stressed-out students handing me their theses after pulling a string of all-nighters.  Even before meeting my new boss,  I wanted to click my heels together and go back to what I knew – offering students ginger ale and a pat on the back when they were sick or overwhelmed, reminding them that I had seen students in this state of anxiety many times, and they had all graduated in the end. I was a therapist to the core, for God’s sake!
Jamie introduced me to Professor Halle – assuring me it was ok to call him Morris.  He was about my height, around 5’8”.  He was balding in a newly-hatched bird kind of way—more accurately, I know now, he was in a perpetual state of thinning.  Large square wire-rimmed glasses framed his roundish face, and he wore a light weight gray vest over a striped blue and white dress shirt. When we shook hands, the playfulness in his smile surprised me. Jamie left us, and Morris began the interview. 
“So, Beverly…” I made a mental note to tell him I preferred to be called Bev, although the way he had said my name, Be-ver-ly, one clear syllable at a time, pronouncing the “r” in my name with a slight accent I couldn’t place, made it seem like something I could live with, if I got the job.  He continued, “Let me give you a little background about this office.  It is a very busy place.  You will not be here to develop a friendly relationship with Professor Chomsky.” His choice of words made it sound like my working there was a done deal, but I hadn’t said a word yet. “Managing his office and coordinating his lectures and travel schedule is not a warm and fuzzy job.”   Morris laughed as he said this, and added, still laughing, “Do you know what I’m getting at?”  I did not understand what he was getting at, but nodded my head to show that I was listening.  I still had no clue of the scope and depth of Professor Chomsky’s work.
As the interview progressed, two things became clear to me. First, that the job was mine if I wanted it, and second, that Morris was concerned about my empathic nature.  “Beverly,” – there it was again - “I want to be sure that your psychology background doesn’t make you too gentle in handling the more difficult personalities and situations you might encounter here,” he warned. 
The flutter in the pit of my stomach was unsettling. I pictured myself being spun around on a dusty old leather office chair by a crazy person insisting I make time for him on Professor Chomsky’s packed schedule.
 “Some of Professor Chomsky’s secretaries, for instance, had problems asserting themselves with journalists, who quite often try to extend appointments far beyond the end time,” he told me.  “And there have been some issues where questions have been answered to the press, erroneously, on Professor Chomsky’s behalf.  These things have caused some problems, which I won’t go into now.”  I  nodded my head in reply, but I was thinking, “Did he just call me a secretary?” And what the hell goes on here, anyway?  What could I be stepping into?  My mind’s eye held a cartoon image of Chomsky’s last assistant running down the hallway screeching, arms waving madly, clasping her palms together and diving through the cracked single glass pane of the wonky second floor window at the end of the long and bleak creaky wood-floored hallway.
I shook my head to clear the image, and reminded myself that I didn’t have to accept this position if and when it was offered to me.
 “When Jamie worked as Noam’s assistant, one journalist who couldn’t get his way accused her of having ‘steely impersonality.’”  Professor Halle emphasized each of the last two words with an upward stress, in his deepest voice, raising a fist in triumphant emphasis.  Steely was about as far from my personality as one could get.  I could be assertive when needed, but I also liked to joke with people.  I liked to hug people.  “As Professor Chomsky’s secretary, that’s what I want you to demonstrate!”  Professor Halle’s habit of laughing and talking at the same time was endearing. “Do you see where I am going with this, Beverly?” he asked, spitting on me just a little bit in his enthusiasm. 
I forced a smile despite my growing fears, and told Morris “I think I’m getting it,” though whatever I was getting, I wasn’t necessarily liking.
The second use of the term “secretary” hit a nerve.  I had held higher positions at MIT, including interim acting Administrative Officer, and I realized Morris either hadn’t gotten the memo that this search was for an “administrative assistant,” or, more likely, at nearly seventy years old (yes, he’s ninety now!) he was not going to change his vocabulary.  Flashing inside my head in bright red lights were the words “fight or flight,” and for some reason, I stayed put.
“Are you familiar with ‘Manufacturing Consent?’ he asked me, and since I didn’t know whether it was a book or a video, or if he just meant the term itself, I answered simply, “No, I’m not.”
Professor Halle looked pleased with my reply, as if by not knowing, I had passed his test.  He said he had one last thing to tell me. Over the years I would come to see that this way of looking at things was true to his wonderfully straight-shooting and lively personality.  “I would like you to pretend that you have an on-off switch,” he said. “The off position is appropriate when acting as Chomsky’s representative, planning his local lectures, office meetings and interviews, and his extended travel,” he explained.  “This will be your normal mode.  But the on position should be activated for those who want to take advantage of the good nature of our office. (On, as in “the reverse of n-o.” This was the note I made to myself to remember which represented the “be tough” mode.) You reserve this attitude for the people who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.  The ones who don’t respect our limits.”  Again he lifted his fist and laughed. “For those situations, I want to see you turn on your steely impersonality!”  This time I laughed along with him.  I was beginning to like Morris, and I figured if he thought this was somewhat funny, then I could maybe heed his warnings with a grain of salt.  
At the end of the interview, despite my reservations and endless internal questions about the inner workings of World Chomsky, and maybe to some extent because of them, I walked back into Jamie’s office prepared to accept the position as Noam Chomsky’s assistant. There were plenty of groupies interested in the position, she told me, but she and Morris preferred to hire someone who was not a Chomsky fanatic – someone who would not be distracted by his notoriety.  They were both convinced that would be me. 
The plan was for me to meet Professor Chomsky in about ten days, on my first day of work.  This felt strangely like an arranged marriage.  What if we didn’t like one another?  Would they ship me back to my home in Watertown, Massachusetts, or would we try to stick it out for a while to see if we could learn to get along?  I figured I would find out soon enough.

On my first day, Jamie let me in before Morris arrived, and sat me at an old gray metal desk circa 1940.  I scanned the place more closely, a very strange suite of offices that seemed to have slipped back in time into the bowels of MIT. To a collector, the place was a goldmine. Even shoddy replicas of the ancient metal desks and large wood and leather swivel desk chairs would sell at a high price at a store like Restoration Hardware.  The coat racks were sturdy metal.  My father would have looked around at everything and said, “They don’t make them like this anymore, ya know.”  And they don’t.  Anyone trying to achieve a retro look at home or office, which was the rage back then, would have benefited from checking out our office.  The furniture and accessories lacked the glitter and gleam sold by the retro stores, but if you could look beyond the dust and a bit of white powder covering the original circa 1940 furniture, lamps, large area rugs, barrister bookcases, and even a few of the framed pictures, the look was there.  All it needed was Fred Flintstone’s bird-beak-needled record player.
I looked down to review the notes I had taken in an earlier meeting with Jamie, trying to familiarize myself with Professor Chomsky’s DOS-based e-mail system.  Most of his correspondence came by mail in those days (you remember mail – envelopes, stamps, etc.) but he was receiving an increasing amount of e-mails, up to forty a day, which was a lot then, considering each one required a five-step transitional procedure before he could read it on his home computer.  It took at least an hour to transfer thirty to forty e-mails.  Noam has always written his correspondence, lectures and books from home, and even now, almost twenty years later, he doesn’t have a personal computer in his MIT office, although once in a while he’ll lug in his laptop to check e-mail when he has a break between office meetings and a local evening lecture. 
Professor Chomsky was at that time still using an antiquated word processing program called Final Word, which his son Harry had set up for him as a young teenager in the late 70’s.  One of my favorite of Noam’s stories is this:  About once a week, when he had a problem with Final Word, he or his wife Carol called the school under the guise of a ‘family emergency’ and asked that Harry be taken out of class to come home for a few hours.  Harry never worried when the principal called him out of his classroom.  He knew that his father had probably hit the wrong series of keys again.

Building Twenty, which housed our department, was old and crumbling.  Fragments of wood shingles cracked off in summer heat and the ice of winters and dropped to the ground.  The building was originally designed as a temporary army barracks, and the whitewashed walls of the long wide hallways had faded with time and dust into a dull gray.  Each time the large wooden door to our suite flew open, a knob-sized hole in the wall poured another layer of white dust onto the floor.  Asbestos, I later learned. 
So this was to be my new home.  Sweet.
**
Now, twenty years later, I go back into Morris’s office to check on him, and I find him gathering up a few things – a book, a paper – sliding them neatly into his ever-present worn red back pack.  He has been here less than two hours, but he is ready to go home.  We hug good-bye – something that has become the norm for us in these later years – and he heads out toward the door for his ten-minute walk to the “T” where he will make his way toward the building near Harvard Square that he has called home since his wife became ill. I call to him on his way out, as I do every time he leaves, that I will be here when he comes in again in a day or two.  I am guessing that reminding him of our long-held office routines brings him comfort. These days, thinking about the distance the three of us have come together makes my heart almost overwhelmingly tender.




Morris at my home in August, 2014
Bev and Noam - 2014

  

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Returning

When I was seven, I was taught to pray to the God I learned about in catechism class: our omnipotent savior in a skimpy loin cloth, his outstretched palms and bare feet trickling blood where the nails held him to the crucifix.  The nuns and priests of my childhood were formidable, never to be challenged or questioned, so it wasn’t until my late teens, with my first communion, confirmation, and Sunday service far behind me, that I began to move away from the Catholic Church. I stopped reciting the Hail Mary, the Our Father, and the confessional Act of Contrition, the prayers I had repeated in what I saw as a guilt- and fear-based religion threatening eternal hell for serious transgressions. Over time I moved my beliefs to a more universal spirituality that felt less rule-bound, and more open to personal interpretation.  This is all putting aside the scientific questions evoked by Adam and Eve, apples, and snakes.

So, walking toward MIT’s medical department with my dog, Roxy, to refill my blood pressure meds a few weeks ago, I was surprised to find myself reciting (internally, of course) the Hail Mary.  This is something I do when I’m afraid and want to call in the big guns of my childhood. I was thinking about my pending trip to Rome with Laura and Noam, and the possibility that we would meet the seemingly more contemporary and forward-looking Pope, Francis.

But meeting the Pope wasn’t the thing that was moving me to pray.

In late November just two months before, flying home after a visit with Laura’s father, and her sister, Linnea, in Kauai, I had a medical issue on the plane. A half hour into the flight I felt discomfort building in my chest, and within fifteen minutes it intensified, spreading to my shoulders, neck, and back.  I kept calm with some deep yogic breathing, pressing my fingers to my heart area every few minutes to convince myself I was not having a heart attack as long as I felt no specific pain there.  When the pain continued to increase, I complained to Laura.  She made some sympathetic murmurs, but was in headphones, focused on her Italian lessons.  I finally put on a bit of a Woody Allen routine, using my arms and hands and intense facial expressions to portray to her just how I felt, until she gave me some tums for my pain and half an Ativan for my mind.  She took time from her lesson to suggest that I might have gas pains from hurrying back after a rich meal to the tiny (and foodless and boring, aside from the pervasive, hypnotic smell of plumeria) Lihue airport four hours earlier, for this first leg of our flight home. I paced, I changed positions, I leaned forward, backwards, sideways, stood and stretched, but two hours into the flight my pain was a solid “8”.  A Woody Allen “13.”  I was officially scared.

“Laura, I need help,” I said, pulling the left side of her headphones from her ear.  “I think we ought to tell the flight attendant.”  Laura, a nurse, clicks into gear during a crisis, and I watched her ‘get’ that this was a serious situation, and not just me needing to burp. 

She moved quickly, and in seconds a flight attendant was crouching next to my seat.  The first thing she asked me was whether I felt the pain before I entered the plane.  She was probably trained to avoid a lawsuit first, and tend to a sick passenger second.  Satisfied I was at potential risk, she called through the speaker, “Is there a doctor on the plane?  One of our passengers needs medical help.” 

The experience felt surreal.  These things happen to other people.  There was a buzz of conversation as the passengers looked around to try to figure out who the sick person was. I looked around the plane as well, maybe out of denial but mostly out of self-conscious angst. But a female doctor blew my cover by rushing to my side, taking the place of the attendant. She questioned me calmly and quickly. “Are you on any medications?”  I told her yes, for blood pressure. “Did you take all of your meds?” It dawned on me then that I had been skimping on my meds the last two days, as I hadn’t brought enough along, and I told her so. She didn’t seem too concerned.  “Do you feel nauseous? Does your head hurt?  Can you describe the pain, and tell me exactly where it’s located?” 

“It started in my chest, and spread to my lungs, then my back and shoulders,” I said. “I feel like my ribs are going to explode.” The passengers had fallen silent. I was dressed for comfort, not for attention, and I self-consciously pulled my Google t-shirt down over the waist line of my black leggings to try and gain some normalcy and order. Laura observed with the face of calm concern. Standing close by, the flight attendant suggested that I might be having an anxiety attack, and I felt insulted.  The doctor, who turned out to be a pediatric surgeon, listened to my heart with a (I am tempted to say tiny) stethoscope she pulled from her own bag.  My heart rate was slightly elevated, but sounded normal, she told me.  She took my pulse and blood pressure, which was just outside my normal range, at 145 over 84. She eventually gave me two Mylanta tablets and told me she would check on me again.

I watched the flight attendant pull down a heavy, gray oxygen tank from an overhead compartment, offering it to me with simple instructions:  “Put this over your mouth, and breathe. It might help.” The sight and fact of the tank elevated my nervousness to a nine, although the oxygen did seem to help calm me down. Concurrently, my pain had downgraded to a six, and eventually, with a half dozen antacids and the oxygen tank on board, to a one. 

In the end, they wouldn’t clear me for the connecting flight until I took a loudly-announced solo walk out of the plane, with all heads turned toward me in silence and pity.  I endured a brief exam by three young medics who had been called in to treat me.  By then my blood pressure was 190 over 95, and I signed a waiver because I refused to go by ambulance to a hospital.  I was sure that dragging out this experience would cause me to stroke out. Strokes run in my family. 

A few days later, I had an EKG and an upper GI series, and learned that I had a “sliding hiatal hernia”.  How lovely.  The docs who tested me had no idea whether this hernia was the cause of my flight episode, and the unknowing left me uneasy. 

So here I was on my way to the pharmacy, as the days to my next lengthy flight approached, reciting my childhood prayer toward the sky:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
(I dutifully bobbed my head out of habit at the word “Jesus”)

“I’ll tell you what,” I said, still using my 'inside voice', and glancing up surreptitiously, “Show me something that might bring me back toward the Catholic Church, at least in spirit.”  After all, there was a chance I would meet the Pope in Rome, and this was a good time to remember my religious roots.

I had, as usual, been contemplating during the ten months since my mother’s death whether the people we love are really gone when they die – “lights out” as my friend Gene likes to say, a sentiment echoed by my son Jay, who attended Catholic school until college, and my brother Paul, a physicist who requires scientific proof, and others - or do they remain around us in a different way?  

My mother was my biggest cheerleader; she enjoyed and applauded my writing, and at least every few months she asked me in her inimitable Waltham accent, “when are you gonna finish your book about working with Noam?” 

I don’t know whether my blog pieces will become a book.  I write because I’m driven to, and many stories, like the people who visit our office, stay with me - and sometimes haunt me. But something has kept me from writing the things queued up in my head since my mother died last March. There are lots of excuses. With the selling of the summer cottage Laura and I shared in Maine and the concurrent renovation of our downstairs apartment, I felt I had no time to write, but the basic truth is, I wasn’t putting aside the time. I feared the writing I'd held so close for eighteen months would crash and burn like my childhood beliefs. When my mother died, she expected I would be writing a book.  I didn’t want to let myself down, but mostly I didn’t want to let her down, especially in death.

Once I reached the MIT medical department, the pharmacist told me my prescriptions would be ready in another five minutes, so Roxy and I ambled over to the nearby waiting area and I took a seat on one of the long, padded benches next to an older black woman.  I was drawn to the vibrant yellows and brilliant blues of her jacket and hat - not the usual MIT attire.  She caught my eye as I sat, and reached out and took my hand, holding it firmly.  I felt strangely at ease in this very odd circumstance.  Looking at Roxy, she said, “The spirit world knew you wouldn’t let them comfort you in life, so they sent you this dog.”  She looked like a reasonable, normal person, emanating a sense of calm and straight-forward confidence, and I found myself leaning toward the experience.  I was touched, because despite my many friends, she was right, my dog is my best friend.  I thanked her, and she went on to talk with a middle-aged woman across from me about her life’s purpose as an artist. She was still holding my hand, to keep me in the conversation, as if she wasn’t finished with me.

“Get yourself some paint brushes, a pad of drawing paper, and some water colors, and start painting,” she said to the woman, who was wiping tears from her cheeks.

The woman said to her, “I bought a package of drawing paper and some colored pencils over a year ago, but I haven’t opened them because I’m afraid I’ll fail as an artist.”

“You already are an artist,” she said.

The pharmacist called my name, and I pulled myself away, as the stunned woman asked in a small voice, “Is it ok if I use colored pencils?”

I collected my meds and looked back to see the two women hugging in the waiting area.  The artist stood up and wordlessly squeezed my arm before leaving, and I looked over to say a reluctant good-bye to this lovely, dropped-from-the-sky stranger, but she was already walking toward me.

“I tell my children,” she said, standing inches from me, her face in mine, “that I won’t always be this woman of full flesh and body, but when I’m gone, I tell them, I am going to come to you as a stranger and put my eyes up to yours and tell you just what you need to hear.”  Then she put her arms around me and whispered loudly into my ear, “You are worthy of this.  Now get back to your writing, and don’t be lazy.” 

I was dazed with disbelief, and crying.  What had just happened to me? I could feel my mother in those words – in the phrasing of it, and in the little jab about not being lazy.  That was her sense of humor. After all of my questioning about whether the spirits of those we love can reach us after dying out of this world, I was sure, in that moment, that if not specifically the spirit of my mother, something in the universe wanted to get a message to me.

But being me, I needed more. I asked this woman, a complete stranger just fifteen minutes earlier, “Where does this come from, for you?  Is it intuition?  How do you know this?  How do you do this?” 

She formed an angle with her left hand, pointing and tapping all of her fingers on her chest, and said, “God.  It’s God.”

I thanked her, mumbling something incoherent even to myself.  Then I tucked my meds into my deep coat pocket, pulled gently on Roxy’s leash, and walked back to my office. 

I doubted I could ever explain this to Noam, but I was ready for the Vatican.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Beanie's Beantown Finale

You can't get a new pet to take the place of one that you've lost any more than you can replace your very first car or your favorite threadbare sweatshirt.  Each one has its own personality, feel, and relationship with you.  But that's what I was trying to do when my much loved black and white tuxedo cat, Sam, died just months before my father, in 1997.

I found Sam during a visit to my parents' house after I moved out, when I heard what sounded like a human baby crying near the shed in the back of the property.  "You tak-a da kitty home," the Italian woman who lived next door yelled over to me.  So I did.  From the beginning, Sam made it a habit to crawl up onto my chest while I was lying on my back, positioning herself to stare into my eyes as I read.  After months of this, I finally put down my book and stared back. "What is it?" I asked her. "Are you my grandmother, Florence?"   She slept draped over my head, with her paw on my hand.  Maybe she was my grandmother.  I don't know how old she was when I got her, but I had her for nineteen years.

My mother could never stand to see any of her family in pain, and was eager to help me find a replacement for my irreplaceable cat.  Just weeks after Sam's death, she learned that her cousin had a new litter of kittens, some of them black and white.  We pulled into the driveway of their house in the Lakeview area of Waltham and I met my mother's cousin and his family for maybe the second time in my life.  In the corner of the living room was a basket full of kittens, snuggled up and piled on top of one another inside an old comfy sweater. I reached down inside this basket full of kitties - black and whites, grays, and multi colored, and pulled up the one at the very bottom, a funny looking black and white fluffball with long whiskers on her tiny face that curled inward and met at her nose like the unopened petals of a black-eyed Susan.  To be honest, she looked like a tiny Gremlin, and her nasty hissing as I lifted her from the comfort of her litter mates made her seem more so.  I glanced sideways at a sleek and gentle gray kitten with an admittedly cuter face, but for some reason I still don't understand, I chose the gremlin.  At home we named her Bean for two reasons - she had brown oval paw pads, and she tended to pop straight up from standing like a Mexican jumping bean.

I won't lie and say she had a friendly personality.  In fact, our dog Roxy, who joined us when Beanie was six,  learned quickly to walk a wide berth around her after just one warning scratch to her nose. Many of our friends and family had other nicknames for her:  Mean Bean, Mean Kitty, and That Nasty Cat.  True, she attacked us and bit down on our hands til they bled if we didn't understand her request, but we saw her sweeter side - the one she liked to hide from the rest of the world.  She was our Beanie girl, Beanie Baby, Bean Head. On the Sunday nights when we returned from a bi-monthly weekend in Maine, our tenants knew to let her out after dinner to wait for us.  Laura and I always joked as we neared our home about what we would see at the end of the driveway - little Beanie's face in our headlights, her wide mouth meowing soundlessly outside our car's closed windows as if we had left her for dead.  We hated leaving her, but she despised car rides and would have foamed at the mouth at the four hour trip to Maine, and the four hours back, so we compromised by not staying at our cottage for more than a long weekend, so that we could get home to her.

Just a month or two ago we noticed a small hard bump at the top of her head, but we didn't think too much about it because we were busy with other things.  My mother, Beanie's "finder," passed away in late March.  Just days after we buried her, I decided to follow through on a five-day work trip to Ireland, and when Laura and I returned home, Beanie was great for a day or two, crying for a drink from the bathroom faucet or waiting outside the shower stall for our game of throwing bowls of water onto the shower floor for her to lick up.

Although she didn't seem interested in chasing her plastic jingling balls down the hallway, she continued her habit of turning down our initial offering of cat food and treats until we spooned and scooped enough that she could pick from the smorgasbord laid out in front of her. But late on the second day we noticed the lump on her head had grown, and she had a reddened abscess on her back.  We treated it with hydrogen peroxide, which my mother always insisted could cure anything.  During the following days as her appetite diminished, I took a good look at her and found a lump on her neck, another under her throat, and several on her stomach.  We took her to our vet on a Thursday morning, and she confirmed that Beanie appeared to have a breast lump and other hard tumors that were most likely cancerous judging by the growth on her back. Laura and I quickly agreed that we would spend a couple good days with her and then let her go before she was in any pain.  She was still purring and grooming her gorgeous long black coat with a white ring around her neck which had earned her the temporary nickname "Ringo" early on. Her black and white rear legs resembled pirate boots, which added to her irascible personality.  She was still able to jump on and off the sofa and beds, but she was no longer crying outside our bedroom door in the middle of the night for a drink and extra attention, and only took water from the faucet when we lifted her onto the sink and held our wet fingers to her mouth. She seemed to have forgotten all of her familiar routines, including eating.  The sight of her treats in an untouched pile pulled at my heart.

Early Friday morning, I woke to purring.  Laura is allergic to cats, but the morning routine is this:  Laura gets out of bed an hour or so before I do, pulling up the sheets and comforter on her side of the bed and throwing decorative bedding over her sleeping pillows.  After Bean's second breakfast and third drink of water, she jumps on the bed to lay next to me, and all was well with the world when I opened my eyes and found her there, knowing Roxy would join us once she and Laura returned from their morning walk.  On this particular morning, Laura lifted her up onto the bed.   As I petted her, I was hit with the realization that this was her last full day with us, and I hated to go to work and leave her.  I whispered to Bean how much I enjoyed our mornings together and told her I would be home as early as possible to spend the night with her.  I was forcing myself to get up when Laura appeared at the side of the bed with a grave look on her face.

"Bevy," she said.  "It's been a nice quiet morning here at home, but I have to tell you something."

"Is someone hurt?"  I could feel blood flushing my face, and my heart was already racing. She had never learned to approach me in a different way, despite knowing how I jump to horrible conclusions with a sentence that begins this way.

She said, "A police officer at MIT was killed last night outside the Stata Center." That's where Noam and I work.  She went on to tell me it was suspected that the guys who shot him were connected to the horrific Boston Marathon bombing on Patriot's Day, the Monday before. And that wasn't all. Watertown, where we live, was under lock down, and we were all being asked to "shelter in place."

"Shelter in place?  What the hell does that mean?" I asked.  I understood what the words meant, but I didn't understand what was going on.  This day was supposed to be about Bean.  Laura told me that she had locked all of our doors, and our tenants had done the same.

"But why?  What's going on?" I asked, probably a little impatiently.

"There was a car chase after the shooting, and one of the two men was killed around the corner, at School and Mt. Auburn Streets. The other one sped off in the car, and then fled by foot, and they haven't been able to find him.  The men were shooting and throwing hand grenades from the car, and the police think the guy who got away might be wearing an explosive vest."

This was a hell of a way to be able to spend my cat's last day with her.  It felt like the world outside our home had fallen apart.  We soon found out that Jay had been up all night watching the news, and he had tried to call me and texted Laura around four in the morning to make sure we knew what was happening, and were safe.  The day had barely begun and it already offered more sorrow than we could contain. I was mourning the ending of our verbal and demanding little pal. I knew it would be difficult to focus on Bean, who had become an integral part of our family, while all of this hell was going on around us, but I was going to do my best to be with her during her last full day. I was also still mourning my mother, and it hit me hard once again that I couldn't commiserate with her about all that was happening, or be grateful with her that my son Jay, who was between the two blasts at the Marathon, had delayed walking to the finish line just before the blast.   Later in the day I thought about how I would have called to convince her that my nephew Erik was safe at the Arsenal Mall, where the police had taken him and others who were too far from home as a safety precaution while the second man - the younger brother of the one who was killed - was at large.

I had a difficult time prying myself away from the endlessly looping news stories, waiting for police officers from Watertown and surrounding cities to find some clues in their door-to-door searches, and tried to block out mental images of the bomber running through back yards to end up hiding in our basement.  I went downstairs and checked all of the locks, sick with dread and sadness.  Beanie was next to me on the sofa, and I followed her to the guest bed when she became restless, and laid next to her, covering her with a soft blanket, and singing the song I made up for her when she was first with us, never making it past the phrase, "Beanie, McQueenie, I'm so in love with you..."  When my tears fell onto the top of her head I smoothed them into her soft fur, and thought of the Catholic ritual of dipping ones fingers into holy water as I gently ran my moist index finger over the growing lump near her left ear.

As if things weren't difficult and stressful enough, Laura finally shared with me that earlier in the morning she had received a text telling her that her close friend in a nearby state was in trouble and needed to go to a hospital. It was all too much.  The universe seemed to be shaking itself up on our doorstep.  And speaking of shake ups, she received a text later in the afternoon that there was a tsunami warning in Hawaii, where her father lives.  Fortunately, we learned through a phone call to her father that the report was an exaggeration, and we found space to be grateful for that one break.

By the end of the day, the second brother was found in a back yard in our town, hiding in a covered boat, where he lay bleeding but alive.  He was taken into police custody, and by some miracle and the good, capable work of the police officers, nobody else was hurt in the process of his capture.

That evening and the next morning, Laura made phone calls on behalf of her sick friend, petting and sitting with Beanie when she could.  I told Beanie stories from her life, and listed her favorite sunny places, and told her what I would miss about her, like her wide-mouthed greetings every time we returned from Maine, and pulling up in the driveway and spotting her through the window on the back of her red living room chair where she waited for us to return from work every day.

My son Jay and his veterinarian friend Pat showed up just before 1 pm the next day, a Saturday.  Pat had his black bag with him, and I hugged him and called him the Grim Reaper.  After a sedative, some time together, and two shots, Beanie, stretched across our thighs, left us.  I cut some fur from her neck, where the white ring mixed with her soft black mane. I lifted her little body and folded her into the carrier and let Patrick take her away for cremation.

As I think about Beanie's last full day with us, I think how fitting it was.  It was mean, biting, and nasty.  But the love that  rose from it, and the community that bonded together in fear, relief and gratefulness, reflected the sweet, soft sides of the Beanie who shared our home for sixteen years.

On Sunday Laura drove for three hours to pick up her friend's dog to stay with us for a while - a beautiful black border collie with a sweet disposition - and a white ring of fur at her collar.



Sunday, April 14, 2013

Fields of Gold


Today is Sunday, and Laura is still sick with the cold she caught from me after I caught it on the plane on our trip to Ireland less than two weeks before.  I hate when Laura is sick on Sundays because it means I have to get out of bed at 7 am to walk Roxy, which might as well be 4 am.  The Boston Globe was on the front steps when we walked out.  At least it wasn’t raining. I heard loud chirping and looked up at the house from the bottom of the front stairs and saw birds in our gutters – pieces of nesting were poking up in two different spots, near two altogether different birds – one a robin red breast and one a starling, or something like a starling. I would have to clean out my gutters.  It never ends, this upkeep of a house. What I really want to do is separate my two-family house into condos and move to a quiet condo with a pool and a fireplace, where someone else does my landscaping and fence repairs and worries over the siding and the driveway. 

Roxy pulled to the right when we reached the street, which was a bad sign.  She wanted to go to the park, and this meant a longer walk. I thought of Pavlov’s dogs.  Did the yellow-wrapped oversized newspaper on the front steps signal a walk to the park for her, since Laura usually takes her to the park on Sunday mornings, just after the paper has been delivered?  I walk her there sometimes on my day off, but I didn’t feel like it this morning. I was barely awake, and I’d forgotten my Fitbit, a gift from my son at Christmas.  What a waste – to walk well over a mile and not have it register on my Fitbit.  I am not a morning person, and I wanted credit for this walk.

I made a last-ditch effort to steer Roxy off course and take the shorter route, but she stopped short and wouldn’t budge, staring me down with her plaintive cocker-spaniel eyes until I relented and turned right, over the rocky, leafy overgrown lot to a path that slides precariously down to the railroad tracks.  Before crossing the set of double tracks, I looked both ways like my mother taught me as a child, and leaned into the steep incline of loose rocks, cheating a little by locking Roxy's leash and letting her strength help pull me up.  We turned right at the top onto a sunny footpath toward Beaver Brook.  I was not enjoying this. Blocked sinuses made me dizzy, and I was already planning the apology I would give for my sloppy appearance if I ran into someone I knew.  A bad habit.

We turned left and slid down the slope toward a stream that emptied out from two corroded half barrels beneath the ground.  Roxy was hastening my stride at the front end of the leash – what would the Dog Whisperer say about this? - and I found myself taking a deep breath and humming, “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go.”  It struck me, as it does almost constantly these days, that there is no longer a grandmother for my son or nephews.  We buried my mother, Charlotte, at the end of March, just before Laura and I left for Ireland to meet up with Noam.  After ten nights with little sleep, I hadn’t even dozed on the calm overnight flight to Dublin. I remember looking out the window and finding some peace watching the half moon hold steady in a clear sky, with a soft bed of clouds below.  At that moment I wasn’t afraid of death.  My mother had already passed over, and I felt that she, or her spirit, would be there – somewhere – waiting, when my turn came. This thought took me by surprise, as I had been too sad and angry after she died to feel spiritual. 

Heading toward the park, the song was still playing in my head, the words “grandmother’s house” echoing over and over, and I realized I was thinking like a writer again.  What’s the story here?  What’s the feeling, the thread, the theme?  My mother is gone, and I have been too numb to write about it, or anything, since my brother and sister and I summarized her life in a neat one-page obituary.

Roxy pulled me along and I braced myself for the chaos of the park.  She doesn’t play well with other dogs, and we usually take our own, circuitous route, which is fine with me.  The cool air and physical exertion were making my nose run, and I sniffed as I walked, having forgotten to stash kleenex in my pocket. The small, familiar bridge appeared just after the crest of the hill, and a few ducks floated underneath us in the still, sparkling water.  Roxy didn’t seem to notice the ducks – she was too busy sniffing the base of a tree.  The park appeared pristine and sundrenched in front of us.  And something else.  There was nobody there.  No barking dogs, no people whistling and throwing sticks and balls.  The quiet, welcoming beauty was so surreal that I kept Roxy on her leash until we rounded the corner and took a good look, but it was truly empty.  I unhooked her collar, put my hands in my pockets for warmth against the damp morning chill, and watched her investigate the low-lying bushes.  Eventually we crossed the open grassy area and took a right up into another part of the woods, then scurried down into a valley, where we were forced to cross the brook again.  It was only four feet at its widest, and we found a muddy two-foot expanse to jump, climbing another small hill to exit the woods again onto another open field.  When did everything turn green, I thought.  Just weeks ago the ground was grey, and it surprised me to look ahead at small undulating patches of greens.  I was trying to find the words for an Irish song about the fields of something, the fields of Dover?  Clover? But Eva Cassidy queued herself up in my head instead: “Fields of Gold.” I sang the words to myself, maybe aloud, I wasn't sure.  My first cry of the day.

Many years have passed since those summer days
Among the fields of barley
See the children run as the sun goes down
Among the fields of gold

You'll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You can tell the sun in his jealous sky
When we walked in fields of gold

Heading toward a welcoming circle of grass at the top of an incline, I recalled a conversation I had with a barrister/boxer/singer named Gary Daly in Dublin during the recent hazy days following my mother’s funeral. Gary impressed me by phoning his “Mummy” after having his picture taken with Noam, whom he had always admired.  We got to talking about music, and he told me that Eva Cassidy was extremely popular in Ireland.  I hadn’t realized Sting's wonderful song about the fields of barley was written about Ireland, but it’s no surprise that it’s running through my head now.  

I recall this version of the story: Eva Cassidy sent her music to a record producer who liked to throw arbitrary tapes into a recorder and listen while he dressed.  One particular morning he chose Cassidy’s tape, and after just a few minutes rushed to his phone in his stocking feet and called his office.  “We have to meet this woman.  Her voice is phenomenal,” he said.  But he was too late – Eva Cassidy had passed away some months earlier from cancer.  Many of her recordings were released posthumously, like one of my favorites, “Somewhere over the rainbow,” which I learned a few years back is often played at funerals.  Geesh.

My mind turns back to Ireland, where my mother’s dear grandmother was born in County Cork.  My mother, terminally ill with cancer and complications from chemotherapy, asked me a few weeks before to buy her a ring in Cork. I never imagined she would die just before the trip. 

At least the sun was out to counter my thoughts of cancer and death. Roxy and I had by now turned back toward the woods where we first entered the park, and she took off to chase a squirrel.  I heard the train before I saw the top of it just a couple hundred feet in front of us, and I noticed Roxy running ahead.  I pierced my own silence, yelling above the train, “Roxy stay!”  No, that’s not right.  “Roxy stop!”  Laura always warned me to keep her on leash.  She finally heard me and waited for me to catch up to her and reattach her leash.  I was wide awake now.  The train passed and we scrambled back down the rocky path and crossed the tracks once again, on our way back home a few streets away, where the birds and the Sunday paper now welcomed us like a scene from “Our Town.”

My mother always told me to relax more, to take more time to drink a glass of wine, to walk outside and enjoy the sun.  I think I will use some of the money she left me to hire someone to clean out my gutters and replace a leaning fence section while I take more time to walk through fields, and breathe.  And maybe now I’m ready to write about our Ireland trip, where I hoped to find a sign, or proof, that we remain connected to those who leave us. 

I gained something personal on that walk, but I lost almost two miles by not taking my fitbit with me.  I will slip it into Laura's coat pocket before she takes Roxy out for her last walk of the night - maybe I'll get back a half mile.  Better than nothing.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Black Ice and The Lady of Spain




January 7, 2011

        Driving home on a dark Friday night after an exhausting work week, I became aware of the thin layer of ice hiding beneath a light carpet of falling snow on Memorial Drive only when a reckless driver cut off a car ahead of me, sending those of us behind into a chain reaction of hitting the brakes and skidding helplessly forward, with the banks of the Charles River just feet to our left.  I somehow managed to slow my car down, barely tapping the car in front of me, then noticed the lights of another car, clearly out of control, skidding toward me from behind. The only thing that would stop him was the back end of my car.

        My dog Roxy, a brown cocker spaniel, was sitting on the seat next to me before the angular hit catapulted her toward the top of the steering wheel.  I grabbed her by the scruff of her neck as she sailed toward the windshield, which now had a crack in it where my head would have - had? - hit it, which was strange, since I was wearing a seat belt.

        The impact from that hit was so sudden and violent that I would testify in a court of law that my eyeballs watched the whole thing suspended in space in front of me - my right arm reflexively snatching Roxy in midflight, my body jolting forward and hitting the windshield, front and back fenders creaking, cracking, and snapping, and my eyeballs springing tightly back into their sockets as my body snapped back forcefully against the seat.  And all of it happened faster than Ashkenazy’s fingers playing Rachmaninoff.

        The only sound piercing the eerie quiet that followed was the hissing of radiators amid the intensifying smell of a mixture of antifreeze, steam, and oil.  Police sirens wailed from a distance.  Roxy kissed my face, her body shaking, and everything began to move in very slow motion.   I heard my own voice coming from somewhere, asking over and over again- where - is - my - phone? - I -have - to -  find - my - phone - 'Lady - of - Spain - I adore - you' - someone - has - hit - my - car - 'Right - from - the – night - I - first - saw - you' - and - now - a - state - trooper - is - yelling – too - loudly - in - my - ear – ‘Lady - of - Spain - can I have your license and - and - you - have - to - get - out - of - the – car.  (I - am – in - heavy - traffic - on - Memorial – Drive.  Do – you – want - me - to - stand - on - black – ice – in – the – middle – of – the – street?)

        The policeman was too busy handing out accident reports to the four drivers to notice my cracked windshield and spacey behavior, but when we were finished trading information and I walked back to my car and got in, the tow truck driver ran over to me.

        “Ma’am,” he said, “your car is not drivable.”

        “What – do – you – mean?” I asked him, truly puzzled.  I needed to get home to Laura, who would check me over and tell me I was fine.

        “Your radiator is leaking fluids, your exhaust pipes are bent and dragging on the ground, and your back door is off its hinges.  Grab your dog and your backpack and I’ll drive you to our body shop.”

        I found my phone in the back seat of the car, and knew something was wrong when I realized I wasn’t quite sure how to call Laura to let her know what had happened.


April, 1962

        I’m eight years old.  I lay paralyzed by fear in my twin bed on the second floor of our apartment.  My small hands are pressed hard over my eyes, which are squeezed closed trying to block out the police lights flashing on my pale green bedroom wall. My fourteen-year-old brother, Ronnie, popular and athletic in our local junior high school, has been jumped from behind and beaten up by some tough kids from up the hill at the apartment complex where my family of six share five rooms. The term  "up the hill" in our apartment complex is synonymous with "tough" because almost all of the trouble makers – the Stanton’s, the Duffy’s and the Murphy’s - live in that same area of the complex, on the hill above the parking lot.  Even the girls in some of those families scare me.  Alice Stanton, who is older than me and a whole lot bigger, grabbed my wrist while I was roller skating in the parking lot, and I can still remember twisting my skinny arm in such a way that she was forced to let go.  I took off toward my apartment, frightened much more at the prospect of her catching me than of the impossible black asphalt incline I was barreling down in the flimsy metal skates I had tightened onto my sneakers with a key just a couple of hours earlier.

        From my bedroom I hear one of the adults say that a couple of the Stanton brothers should be sent ‘up the river’ for this, which made me think of the crying baby Moses floating downstream in a basket, all alone and afraid.

        I call for my mother, almost more in pain over her grief, as she is inconsolable in our small living room one floor below me.  I hear instructions being called out as the EMTs lift my big brother into the back of an ambulance.  I can hear Ronnie moaning, and my body is shaking.  Someone’s soft footsteps climb the stairs, and when they stop at the doorway of my bedroom, I see the outline of a woman, though I can still hear my mother crying downstairs.  As the shadow nears my bed I see the face of our neighbor’s daughter, Pat Johnston, our sometimes baby sitter. Although Pat is nice and kind and very pretty, with blond hair and slightly overlapping front teeth, she is not my mother, and my terror remains when she leaves me alone again in my dark room.   At some point afterwards I notice the presence of my baby sister sleeping in her crib a few feet away, unaware.  It hadn’t occurred to me to go next door to my brothers’ room, where my six-year-old brother Paul might be as scared as I was.  Even if I had thought of going to him, I couldn’t move a muscle, and I remained that way for a long time.

        I remembered nothing else until Ronnie came home from the hospital two days later, a Saturday, announcing to Paul and me that he had a concussion, which he said was like a bad headache.  He seemed impressed with himself for having sustained this injury, even proud, although it meant that he had to stay inside for a week.  My mother told us he shouldn’t move around much or get excited. This was hard to imagine, because Ronnie played basketball and baseball almost every day, and danced around our house singing and entertaining everyone, sort of like Bruce Willis’s character in the old show “Moonlighting.”

        I stayed with Ron all weekend, and each day after school the next week, I ran home to sit next to him on our beige living room sofa, and didn’t leave his side until dinner.  Sometimes Mary Garber sat with us, and sometimes Kathy Johnston, one of Pat’s younger sisters, and Ron patiently pointed out to us a chord.  "This is a C," he would say, showing us where to put our fingers.  "And this is G7."  I was always there, next to my brother with the concussion who had been beaten up but was now back home in our living room playing the guitar.

        I watched with pride and admiration as Ronnie picked at the strings of his rented guitar, carefully placing the middle finger of his left hand between the correct frets, pulling and snapping the corresponding string with the pic in his right hand until the sound was just right, singing along with each note.  He started over again and again after the first few notes, the first six, and back to the beginning again: La-dy - of - Spain - I - a-- La-dy - of - Spain - I - a - dore - you, Right - from - the - night - I - first - saw - you -- Lady - of – Spain – I - a....La-dy - of ...  As a birthday present for him, my parents rented the guitar from Pampalone Music Studios on the other side of Waltham, where he was taking weekly lessons.  In that section of Waltham, kids lived in real houses with back yards, away from the tough guys from up the hill who might be sent up the river.

        Ronnie seemed fine to me - he just had a headache and nobody was allowed to yell at him for a week.  Not so bad, I thought.  By the second weekend, he was looking and acting more like my noisy, funny older brother, and soon after lost his rights to the guitar and music lessons because of a bad report card.  Ronnie was back.

Lawrence Welk show - Lady of Spain