Breast cancer

Matricide and Patricide

Murdering Dad and Mom 

 

Mamma Cass

Be cold and blue

Janis Joplin

She got screwed

Jimi Hendrix

He dead too

Sing about it

Too ra loo 

 

One professional boundary that should never be crossed is to medically treat first-degree relatives. By definition, there can be no objectivity in this adventure.

If it is true that the shoemaker’s children often go barefoot, then it also axiomatic that a physician’s children should avoid the care that any other lay person would intuitively believe to be easily accessible.

I learned this lesson the hard way when I attempted to treat my mother for an episode of prolonged incapacitating inner ear vertigo; then also my father for severe back pain. After all, what do I know about the ear or the spine; I’m just a Cardiologist. But when filial guilt set in, I capitulated to the pleas that forced me to do my best.

In my mother’s case, she would usually have to be dragged behind the car on a leash to get her to a doctor’s office. This behavior was in part justifiable because of her ordeal with breast cancer, which had been diagnosed when she was in her thirties.

Her surgeon was so aggressive that besides doing a radical mastectomy with lymph node resections, he also put her on quasi-experimental chemotherapy. In subscribing to his personal theory about estrogen receptors in the breast being a future potential hazard for recurrence, a few weeks later he performed a total hysterectomy. At the time, none of this was scientific protocol, but the surgeon was operating with the best interest of his patient as his first and final intention. To some degree he was eventually proven right, while in others, he was not.

Weighing ninety pounds, bald, and looking like death warmed over when she finally left the hospital, my mother then did everything in her power after that to avoid medical care. The irony was that she survived the cancer only to live long enough to become demented; dying of Alzheimer’s’ Disease when she was eighty-four.

So, in my attempt to help her out with the decade’s post-cancer episode of vertigo, after several failed trials of empirically or otherwise recommended drugs, I gave her Dilantin. a drug used to control seizures, as a last resort; having read one case report on it’s efficacy for refractory vertigo. This anecdotal medical trial, was for me the equivalent of one of my patients getting all their Cardiology therapies on Med M.D. and nearly culminated in being her last resort as well. As a drug mediated reaction, she developed a spiking fever to 106 degrees that nearly cooked her to death.

Ironically enough, the fever also cooked away the vertigo, and although being cured by serendipity, she then believed by inverse logic that I was a fantastic doctor.

She said:

  • See. All that money we spent on Medical School was worth it after all.
  • Yes. Brink of death therapy should be my new mantra.

In my father’s case, well after my mother had been placed in a nursing home for Alzheimer’s disease, he drove to my house one day in agonizing back pain. His regular doctor was off for the day and he begged me to refill the Valium previously prescribed to relieve the back spasms. Not wanting him to suffer, at first I balked but then complied with his request.

Later that night I decided check on how he was doing, only to find him in bed, nearly comatose, barely rousable, and so stoned he was beyond the ability to even slur his words.

The intensity of the back pain had caused him to misread the label on the prescription bottle, so he not only overdosed by taking 20 mg instead of 5mg but had also mixed the drug with the wine that he customarily drank at dinner. He thought the label said to take four at once, then four more four times a day, instead of reading it correctly as not to take more than a total of four in one day.

I did a bedside coma vigil, periodically rousing him, and hoping he would not pull a John Belushi or a Momma Cass. But he did make it through; waking up the next day feeling tired, amnesic for the episode but also feeling somewhat better.

He said:

  • Wow. That was great. I don’t know how you did it, but my back feels terrific.

That was a good thing too, because if had not awakened, there is no doubt that various eyebrows and certain suspicions would have been raised in the ensuing police investigation.

  • So, you gave your own father a lethal dose of Valium, eh? I also understand that you are the Executer of his Trust. Is that true?
  • No sir, I really loved my daddy. And yes sir, I am.

 

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

 

 

© Pfizer www.drugrehab.net/img/valium.jpg

 

 

 

I Go Blind

I Go Blind

Suddenly in the transition from third to fourth grade, I went from being a straight-A student to being a marginal flunky. Because of my preference to sit in the back row, it was soon discovered that my sudden academic decline was due to two factors; I couldn’t recognize the teacher and I was no longer able to see the blackboard.

My eyes were so near sighted, also including astigmatism that the proverbial coke-bottle-bottom-lenses would be a requirement that would once again allow me to properly visualize and focus on the world around me. The ophthalmologist referred to myopic astigmatism as though it were some sort of ocular leprosy. Although I still don’t know what it means, except for the fact that presbyopia has also been thrown into the mix, the bottom line is literally ocular mysticism. He should have made it simple by telling my mother:

  • Your son is as blind as a nocturnal marsupial.

After being outfitted with a horrendously heavy pair of thick horn rimmed glasses, which my mother said made me look “so handsome” while at the same time being outfitted with a nifty set of old fashioned metallic braces which made me afraid to ever smile again, I was ready to once again tackle academia.

Making up for lost time, I soon moved back from column F to column A in grades.

It was easy. With four eyes and a metal mouth, I developed such little confidence in an appearance instilling such a monumental lack of self-esteem, that without any burning desire whatsoever to socialize, I just went home to my room every day and studied or fiddled around with toy trains, model airplanes, or my chemistry set.

Beside the horrible physical appearance of the old style glasses there was something else about them that bothered me to the point of distraction until I finally solved the mystery.

When someone else looks squarely at your face, near-sighted lenses will cause a refractory distortion making the facial lines at the level of the orbit become discontinuous. The lenses pull the eyes closer to the nose, thus enhancing the beady-eyed rodent like aspects of the encumbrance. The stronger the lens, the more the facial distortion and the beadier the eyes become.

As a natural consequence of this ocular stigma, the blind mice of a feather at school began to flock together creating a local scientific geek community.

Several years later with the help of another introverted scientifically oriented friend, Richard, the home chemistry set passion blossomed to the point that I became an expert on making gunpowder out of powdered sugar, granulated charcoal, and Saltpeter.

Being enamored with scientific names, but also with rudimentary sophistication on scientific terminology Richard gave it the secret code name: “phithle-phathle-phithalene.”

The Saltpeter was obtained at a local pharmacy from my father’s druggist friend Henry Nash who always handed it over with a skeptical look in is eye.

  • You know, Sal, there isn’t a lot you can do with this stuff except to make bombs or dissolve tree stumps.
  • It’s OK Henry. These kids don’t know what they’re doing anyway. Just let them have all they want.
  • You’re the boss, Sal.

An ancillary rumor spreading around the High School at that time was that if one drank a solution of Saltpeter, it would make a person so horny he would not be able to live with himself and might go crazy if he didn’t masturbate.

I never tried it, because I was more interested in making rocket fuel, didn’t want to waste it on an experiment in masturbation, didn’t have a girlfriend, didn’t know how to get one, and then wouldn’t have known what to do with her anyway.

It is also fortunate that my shy diffidence and lack of self-confidence,  would have never allowed me to approach a girl in the first lace, because if so I might have taken my friend Eddy’s advice on sexual intercourse in his distorted interpretation of “The Facks a’ Life”, and asked her if I could piss in her ass.

Nevertheless, it remains fascinating that Saltpeter is a sodium nitrate and that modern drugs like Viagra designed to enhance male potency have nitrate like effects; meaning that many rumors actually do have substance, credibility and a ring of truth to them.

Richard was fascinated with rocketry and the German V-2 program. He idolized Werner von Braun; so between the two of us, we traded recipes on making gunpowder.

Over time the gunpowder mixtures started to become more efficient to the point of achieving the manufacture of a few small functional firecrackers that we used to blow up neighborhood mailboxes. Still we never did quite attain the ultimate intended goal of making a successful solid fuel rocket.

Our Amory already included CO2 gas powered plastic rockets with little plastic astronaut capsules on their tops, in which we placed honeybees for manned sub-orbital space flights.

We were sadistically entertained after blasting the bees into subsonic space; retrieving them and then watching them spin around in hopelessly disoriented circles because their sun focused navigational sensors had been scrambled up.

But the science lab was forced to close down when my mother, then in her mid thirties, had a prolonged hospitalization for beast cancer surgery. Aunt Polly had to come up from Virginia and moved in temporarily to take care of us three children while my father went to work. Because it was during the school year, Byron had to stay home under the care of his father; which meant that he was being only partially supervised and probably having a ball, while my siblings and me, under the scrutiny of the mother-clone, were not.

One day Aunt Polly did a giant load of wash, including all the bed sheets, towels and pillowcases. With the weather being bad, she couldn’t hang everything outside to dry, so instead she strung some makeshift clotheslines in the basement, and then put all of the laundry up on it to dry.

At that time, I was working on obtaining a lower flash point on my gunpowder and was using the basement bathroom as a temporary laboratory.

Having mixed quite a large amount of the stuff in a big bowl, while trying to get a small portion on the side to ignite quickly, the entire batch suddenly caught fire and burned itself completely into aerosolized soot, which then filled the basement with a smoky ash akin to a small pyroclastic volcanic explosion.

Needless to say the soot landed on and imbedded itself into the newly washed whites which completely wrecked the laundry load beyond salvage.

To put it in perspective, it took Tom Sawyer all day to cajole his friends into helping whitewash his Aunt Polly’s fence, but it had taken me only less than thirty seconds to blackwash my Aunt Polly’s entire laundry

Polly was furious at having to do the whole laundry over again and banished any further experimentation from the inside of the house. She said:

  • Not only did you ruin my entire laundry, but think what could happen if you set the house on fire. And why are you playing with that stuff anyway. What are you going to do, grow up and be some kind of bomb maker?

When my father got home from work he put an end to the gunpowder business for good by calling his friend the pharmacist, Henry, to forbid him from letting me have any more Saltpeter.

Perhaps I would have been better off, if I had embarked on the search for refining a male potency drug, instead of trying to launch miniature insect astronauts or blowing up the neighbor’s mail boxes by making progressively bigger, ever better bombs.

In the over all scheme of things then, perhaps it was Aunt Polly’s whitewash hanging  on a makeshift basement clotheslines that may have saved the world from the Unibomber II. Or instead, it might have been the proscriptions against continuing to experiment with Saltpeter that delayed the development of what would eventually become the world’s most famous nitrate based wonder drug: Viagra.

H Bomb

 

Make love. Not war.

And don’t stare directly into the sun. It will make you go blind.

 

Photo source © National Archives

 

Wedded Bliss

Wedded Bliss

 

Any marriage is doomed to fail, if you do not bring the best of yourself to home each night

(Inspirational speaker)

The argument my parents had over my name was a significant harbinger of worse things to come.

One of my earliest childhood memories was a loud shouting match between my parents; after which my father left our apartment, and then ran upstairs to hide under his mother’s skirt. He slammed the door so hard that a piece of the plastered kitchen ceiling fell out. I was too young to know the particulars of the contest, but my terrorized confusion led to a small epiphany about what ‘Chicken Little’ had feared the most.

Things did not change much over the next fifty years, as there were only rare incidents when bickering was not the mainstay of my parent’s personal interactions. There was never physical abuse toward each other or very rarely to their children; but they were naively unaware that the aftermath of this emotional abuse could be just as devastating as a real physical beating. Their relationship was influenced by differences in culture, personality and the proximity of my father’s family, as opposed to the great distance to home and family for my mother. Then tack on a few children and suddenly these differences magnify a venue for both direct as well as indirect ventilation of the problems.

However, I do not wish to portray my mother as purely being the victim.  Although the separation from home combined with the influence of my father’s lukewarm, passive aggressive and uncompassionate family were undoubtedly important factors in her unhappiness, there were independent elements of her personality that set the substrate for a state of perpetual dismay and dissatisfaction. Like a baby duck, she must have been so imprintedly bonded to her sisters that it probably had a lasting influence on her inability to let other people into her life or to let them get too close. I have a suspicion that while growing up, the four girls were an inseparable and relatively insular sorority that took great delight in finding faults or imperfections in any one who was not one of them. Perhaps the relative isolation of farm life played a role, but there was still a certain element of xenophobia or paranoia lurking under the surface, making me doubt that no one else could ever qualify to be in their little club. They all developed a mutually reinforced superiority complex. Or perhaps it was just pernicious insecurity and intolerance.

After my mother died my father confessed to me that she also had irrational paranoid jealously about everyone and everything; making it impossible to know if the overall behavioral issues were due to genetics or to environment. In 1944, when he was stationed overseas in Okinawa, she wrote letters accusing him of having had a sexual liaison with a mutual friend back home; which made pleasant reading for a guy stuck on a Pacific island littered with the bloated bodies of a few thousand unburied U.S. and Japanese soldiers. A veritable snail-mail nightmare.

Over a lifetime I witnessed most of my parent”s friends fall by the wayside, as the slightest perceived insult, fault or flaw by any of these individuals caused them to be permanently crossed off my mother’s social register. Her ingrained character traits had eventually caused her to become the queen of cognitive bigotry, while equally detrimental; as she carried her personal grudges around for a lifetime they became an overweight suitcase of perpetual unforgiving.

My father’s method of dealing with the hostile home environment was simply solved by being absent. He worked every day except for half-days on Thursdays and Saturdays, but then had engagements every night of the week including Bowling Leagues, or meetings of the Board of Education, Knight of Columbus, Lions Club, Sons of Italy, or any other distraction, which would facilitate a sort of sanctioned absence. As such he was an excellently competent dentist, a model citizen, and was consistently praised by his colleagues at both the professional as well as the civic level. He was a paragon of virtue.

For example, at Valhalla Hospital, he volunteered his services on Thursday afternoons at the County Prison. As a consequence there may yet be a group of ex-convicts running around today with mercury amalgam fillings that will never fall out. He did that work for decades until quitting one-day for good after a convict severely bit his hand in a physical demonstration of feelings about dental discomfort. This occupational and environmental hazard finally was not worth the altruistic effort. He said:

  • I do the work for free, and I get rewarded with a bite. From now on I don’t care if all their teeth just rot in their heads. I’m done.

When he was out of the house his personality was fetching, as he made friends where ever he went, but always brought his alter ego unfriendly self home at night. Later in life when people told me how wonderful he was, I would say:

  • Not necessarily. After all he wasn’t your father and you didn’t have to live with him.
  • Oh. Yeah. Right. But he’s still just as sweet and friendly as he could be. Sometimes it’s just hard to be a dad, you know.
  • Yeah? But you must be referring to a real dad, right?

On Saturday and then filling out Thursday afternoons he could be found on the golf course playing with my uncle Jimmy. But then in creating agendas that made Sundays as good as any punishment meted out by the Spanish Inquisition, this day was devoutly devoted to Church, yard work, weeding, housework, exterior house painting and then eventually to visiting his mother’s grave or to tightening up my braces. That way, my dental work would not interfere with cash generating business hours.

In an effort to bond with her husband and to assume some common interest in one of his activities, my mother actually attempted to play golf. But her golf career was cut short when around age thirty she suffered a protracted recovery after a radical mastectomy, followed by a radical hysterectomy and compounded again by experimental chemotherapy. The stress, nature and consequences of this illness did nothing to smooth matters over between my parents, because although fortunately, she became a long-term survivor of breast cancer, my mother never got over the emotional devastation of a total beast amputation, lymph node dissection and pelvic evisceration. I suspect it may have also ended their sex life.

During my father’s absence, my mother’s frustration inspired her to rally her children around her point of view, resulting in the seriously grievous error of turning my affections and those of my brother and sister against her own husband. She perpetually complained about his behavior or arbitrarily just about anything else he ever said or did. She also did the same thing directly to his face, which precipitated rounds of endless bickering and thus more paternal absence. It became a positive feedback loop of negativity. Thus, because he was never home enough to defend himself, her brain washing held significant influence over me and my siblings, undermining our respect for him as she succeeded in making us believe that he was our enemy as well as her own.

When my mother became mentally disabled, I told my father about this particular habit of hers. He seemed shocked, but I was equally shocked to know that he had been completely oblivious to what had gone on behind his back. However since he was not paying close attention in the first place, this naivety about being an absent father should not have come to me as a total surprise.

He said we should have heart to heart talks more often, with the best response I could muster was pointing out that he was closing in on 90 years old. It was way too much, far too little, and many, many years too late.

Matters were not made better by the fact that my father expected a sort of mandatory, old world Italian, filial style love from his children simply because he happened to be the sperm donor. He wanted his children to run to him with open arms when he came home from work excitedly yelling: “Pappa, Pappa.”It was a fantasy illusion he carried for his entire life, which subsequently led to a lifetime of unfulfilled expectations and disappointments. Because he never understood that respect had to be earned, or that those romantic Hollywood movie scenes do not too often ever reflect real life scenarios, he never did get this type of respect from us. Although he was a man of mostly “good intentions”, they were unfortunately expressed less in his home and more in his social milieu, which then made them part of the pavement in the notorious roadway that winds itself straight to Hell. Over a lifetime we got sick and tired of him coming home to tell us he had “gotten kind of friendly” with some one or another perfectly absract stranger; when this charity was never being expressed domestically.

Spending little or no time with our activities or extra-curricular life, he would often become impatient when taking the extremely rare opportunity to teach us anything about sports involving balls or sticks. Having been a very good multi-sport athlete in High School and College, he had a difficult time teaching those skills and probably should have sent us for lessons instead. If we were clumsy enough not to get it right the first time, he would quickly morph into an ogre; causing the lessons to typically end abruptly; followed by his shallow inability to understand why we didn’t want to continue.  He pushed us very hard to learn golf but the instruction could be as qualitative as his lifetime mantra about it:

  • You know, the golf swing is not really what you think it is.

I guess that must mean that the golf swing is really what you think it isn’t, but that left a lot to the imagination as far as actually being able to execute what it was really supposed to be. In fact I am glad I did not learn his swing because its terrible intrinsic flaws leaves him endlessly frustrated by his lifetime inconsistency.

But he was too stubborn to ever take a lesson himself and to this day seems hell bent on practicing the “what it is not” part but not the “what it is” part of the swing. Over and over and over again, it’s the same old bad swing; practicing the same old routine until it becomes embedded in muscle memory as a nasty bad habit that will only ensure the scoring of numerous bogeys, very few pars and an inexplicable and seemingly out of the blue “others.”

It was almost an iconic yet predictable image to come down his driveway at dusk watching him tirelessly banging wiffle-balls against the seasonally absent next-door neighbor’s summer house, but hypocritically never banging them against his own. After all:

  • If I did that, it might damage my shingles.

Then to make matters even worse, my father attempted to take us out on the golf course one day after only one or two backyard lessons. That was a fatal error, not only for the safety of the turf, but also more importantly for the safety of any other player within the vicinity of our hacking hooks and banana slices. I had a miserable time, hated every second of it as did any of the foursomes backed up behind us. After that it took me years to forget that whenever I walked outside the combined smell of grass, fertilizer and lawn poisons did not necessarily mean I was going to automatically have a bad day. This was also when I became exposed to the counterproductive negative thinking of the amateur athlete; because every time we came to a hole with a fronting water hazard my father would quip before my swing:

  • Now don’t let the water intimidate you.

This of course would absolutely guarantee dumping the tee shot into the pond and would be equivalent to Mickey Mantle standing at home plate thinking:

  • Golly gee. I only have one more chance now, so I hope I don’t strike out again. Maybe I won’t even swing at the ball, then.

A lot of this “quality time” was also spent comparing me and my brother’s short comings to the near perfect attitudes, activities, athletic abilities, and house-chore work ethic of my ass kissing cousin “Little Jimmy.” Most things other than my father’s own social or golf related activities or doing home maintenance, he considered to be a waste of time and so anything I eventually came to love such as fishing, boating, water-skiing or sailing were either self taught or taught to me by someone else’s father.

In their defense, my parents were both individuals of great integrity, also of great moral values and ethics, which they successfully imparted to their children. In addition, my siblings and I did not have to pay for any of our higher education, which totaled eight years for each of us; something that for them must have been a serious financial burden. They fanatically believed in education and were fabulous as tangible providers. Another great thing that my father did for us was to pursue his own boyhood dream of having a water front house by the water and fulfilled it in the late 1940s when he bought a small plot of water front property in Southampton, on Long Island in New York. He then spent the next fifteen years building a house on the lot literally by hand, so as children we had the unusual privilege and advantage of spending all our summers at the beach in a little cottage that was a veritable heaven on earth.

The problem with my parents was the constant lack of emotional support both for each other as well as for their children; which stemmed from the fact that they probably never should have been together in the first place. They never displayed interpersonal affection and I do not believe I ever saw them kiss. If they ever had, this affection came to an abrupt stop early enough in my life not to be very memorable. They never said, “I love you” to each other or to their children. As such, the way they eventually came to deal with both each other, as well as with us, was not with emotional expressions, but rather with expressions of straightforward approval or of disapproval.

  • Good grades, son. Bad hairstyle.

There was only one other incident from my childhood that I unsuccessfully tried to suppress. My mother was never consistently cruel or ever physically abusive. She was simply and ice-cold stoic Protestant who probably thought she was doing me and my siblings a favor by teaching us certain survival lessons in how to best navigate a potentially cruel or dangerous world. It took me years to realize that her one and only so-called “lesson in trust” probably stemmed form the fact that when she was a young teen-ager, a much older Uncle had once seduced her to go on a car ride ostensibly “for ice cream.” He got the ice cream, then tried; or even may have succeeded in a sexual assault. She suppressed the incident herself, only alluding to it twice in her entire life, but never divulging entirely the precise details of what had actually happened.

Then one day when she was smoking a cigarette she must have had her own personal nicotine induced flashback as she called me over to the sofa where she was sitting. She said:

  • Come here. I want to show you something.

Of course I did what I was expected to do and came over by the sofa.

  • No get closer. I want you to look into my eyes.

I didn’t think twice about it and thought that perhaps this was going to be a rare opportunity to enjoy an unusual display of affection, so I inched closer thinking perhaps I might be getting a rare hug or a kiss. But the moment turned ugly when she burned me on the forearm with her cigarette. Then I heard her say as I recoiled that:

  • You should always think twice about trusting people unless you can tell for sure they are not offering false promises.

That was either her pathetic way of going about protecting her “favorite” child or perhaps only taking out personal frustrations during an intensely bad  overdosed hormonal relacement surge. I never told my father or anyone else about it until the night I finally spilled the story to my second wife after she accused me of having deep seeded “Trust issues.”

At the original point in time, telling anyone about such parental abuse would have been the same as saying a priest had buggered my ass. No one would ever have believed it and secondarily, no one would have done anything about it. These were taboo subjects hidden in family closets or behind the doors of the Sacristy.

A friend’s wife, Chris, told me years before my wife had alluded to it that she thought I might have suffered from a lack of nurturing in childhood. At the time she said it, I didn’t really grasp what she meant, and somewhat resented the unsolicited opinion about my personality.  Now I get it.

Golf Swing

Dad’s golf swing. What it isn’t

 

 

The bridge at midnight trembles.

The country doctor rambles.

Bankers’ nieces seek perfection,

Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring. 

The wind howls like a hammer,

The night blows cold and rainy,

My love, she’s like some raven

At my window with a broken wing. 

(Love Minus Zero/No Limit: Bob Dylan)