Sunday, October 13, 2013

God Makes Boys, Mothers Make Men

They say it’s the squeaky wheel that gets greased and we men do a lot of squeaking.

I've written about my father before.  First medical man in the family; hero to the poor and sick of Camden, New Jersey. The driving force behind my career practicing medicine across the globe.   I've realized recently that I'd been remiss by not writing about the influence behind the influences;  the greasers of the squeaky wheels;  the persons responsible for keeping all the plates spinning while the rest of us  pretend that it happens all by itself:  the Mothers.  More specifically, my mother:  Rochelle June, of Brooklyn, New York.

My family comes from a long line of tough Ukrainians, especially the women.  The first to step foot on American soil was my great-grandmother Fagel Ellman from Odessa, Ukraine. At thirteen years of age Fagel landed in  Ellis Island, the port of immigration in New York City.  She and a cousin boarded a slow boat bound for America  in 1900.  After arrival and documentation, she stayed with cousins who were living in the Jewish ghetto of Brooklyn.  Her parents were already dead, but we never knew how or why it happened.  Fagel would never speak about it even to the day of her death.  All we knew was that it was terrible and occurred at the time of massive purging in late nineteenth century Russia. Though she was intelligent, she was not given the opportunity to  attend school or learn to read and write English. She began working in a small local dress shop and stayed there for years earning enough money to live on her own.  As a young woman she married a local laborer named Pinya Cohen, also originally from Ukraine.  He died just before I was born.  Eventually Fagel learned to be a midwife and was  responsible for the births of the pregnant women in the ghetto who could not afford to visit a hospital.  She and her husband bought a small brown-stone building in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.  It was there that my earliest and fondest memories of my family were forged.  It was like Odessa in Brooklyn and always smelled of  Borscht and freshly baked Challah bread. Fagel was a brave, self-made woman   and though she’d experienced horrific hardships, the only thing she ever complained about was her arthritis (de rigueur for any Jewish grandmother).

Of all Rochelle's jobs, this is her favorite.
Her daughter, my grandmother, was Betty Zeig.  She was born, raised and spent ninety-eight percent of her life in Brooklyn, New York.  She contracted Polio as a two year old and nearly died.  Polio left her with a bad and permanent deformity of her right leg for which she would wear a brace her entire life.  While in her sixties she fell and broke the disabled leg twice.  Each time she just pushed forward with a smile saying "What can you do?" As children we'd listen excitedly for the creaking and clanking of the brace to know when she was coming to the house.  Each visit promised a chance to rifle through her purse where hard, colored candies and square sweet Toffies lay in abundance.   She worked full time and, like her mother, didn't complained for a moment.  The thing I remember most about Betty Zeig was that she never had a bad word to say about anyone.  Even  those who had it coming to them.  When the talk  turned negative and gossipy she would change the topic by shocking the listeners with an off-color, racy joke that had no business coming from the mouth of a grandmother.  She was another intelligent, confident, strong lady and  the most loving woman I've ever met.

This brings me to the point of this story: my mother, Rochelle June.  She is the glue that holds the machine together.  Without her tireless attention to detail, devotion and love we would have been deprived of a father for at least the last ten years.  And if he is a great man, it is because she was there to make it possible.  But this is only the end of the story……………………………

My parents combined education included attendance in every city college and university in New York City.  Statistics showed that Rochelle June was the brainier of the two and was heading on a direct course towards a career in medicine.  Edward meandered between teaching, accounting and  gigs as a piano player before deciding to become a doctor at age 32.  As children, Grandma Betty Zeig would remind us constantly that Rochelle only ever got one grade less than A in her entire scholastic history.  This was a fact that created endless anxiety when  report cards came around.

Where it all started
Both Edward and Rochelle were headed for a career in medicine at the same time, but the money was tight. They grew up in post-Depression New York in homes that were only one generation separated from poverty. They knew the value of working hard, saving what you can and spending what you must to survive.  Admittedly, mom was better at this concept.  There’s a famous family story about the day they were down to their last fifty cents for the week. My father grabbed it from the kitchen counter and used it for cigarettes.  

Mom remained ever vigilant and conscious of spending.  She made money by working in an animal research lab at the medical school attended by my father in Kirksville, Missouri. On weekends she’d take the rabbit  clippers home and use them to give my brother and I haircuts.

There was not enough money or loans for both of them to go to medical school at the same time.  The plan was for Edward to go first and Rochelle would follow.  Then along came my older brother.  Then me.  Then my sister- all  within five years.  Plans changed and money got tighter.  Mom’s dreams of becoming a Pediatrician changed to the reality of being a mother.  She swears to this day that she is happy with the way it worked out and says she wouldn't have changed a thing.  If it bothered her (and I don't see how it wouldn't), she would ever let us know.  She did become our Pediatrician though.  For as the shoemakers son goes barefoot, so does the doctor’s child occasionally remain sick-- if not for the shoemakers wife of course.  Mom’s diagnostic and prescribing skills were epic and if not for the days we were faked illness, we would have rarely missed a day of school. Even neighbors brought their kids by for her evaluation.  We all knew she would have made a world class Pediatrician.

She was, and is, surrounded by the men in her life living what should have been her  career dream.  Her brother, her husband and her two sons were all doctors, all with successful, interesting careers. I know it must have been hard for her to give up her dream, but as with the other strong women in our family, she never complained.  Twenty years ago she decided to immerse herself in the study of “alternative” medicine. This choice was often subjected to  chagrin and ridicule by members of her family who remain  deeply embedded in Western medical science.  By chance she met a  talented “Chi Gong” and Chinese Medicine master  and helped him establish a hugely successful American practice. Ultimately his practice catered to some of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities and a few famous Fortune 500 executives.  Mom studied with him and soon enough all the antibiotics in the house were replaced with organic Silver compounds and horrible smelling potions, powders and teas.  When my father was diagnosed with advanced, Stage Four prostate cancer she began treating him with with daily tiny “bird peppers” instead of chemotherapy, radiation or hormone treatments.  Amazingly the cancer was diagnosed as Stage Four over fifteen years ago and has never progressed.  Thus her informal practice began to grow and those seeking medical advice from our family only turned to those of us with Western medical degrees when mom couldn't handle it.  She solidified her position in alternative medicine by going through the rigorous ten week training to become a certified Bikram Yoga teacher at the age of sixty-three and still teaches well into her seventies. But this was reallyanything new for Rochelle.  She was the founding member of the Yoga Research Society in Philadelphia in the mid-1970’s which was the first of its kind to investigate the documentable scientific health benefits of yoga.  She was a pioneer.   She may not have held a Western medical degree, but she had no shortage of patients.

Real Ukrainian women don't fear tigers!
I’m an open-minded doctor and have practiced alternative medicine as well in my career, but even I scoffed at some of her theories now and again-- only to be corrected.  Once, while skiing, she took a bad fall and broke three major ligaments in her knee.  An MRI of her leg showed complete disruption of the ligaments as though they’d been cut completely by a knife.  I saw the MRI with my own eyes. All the learned doctors in her life told her to go for surgery as it was the ONLY  means of treatment.    When she said she’d rather try alternative medicine first we all angrily ridiculed her.  I told her it was like cutting a rope in two and waiting for the good will of mankind to piece it back together.  I implored her again and again to get it fixed, but the stubborn Ukrainian part of her said no.  She’d do it her way.  She went for weekly Chi Gong treatments from her friend and did her own exercises and meditation at home.  She received acupuncture and drank teas and potions that smelled like boiling garbage and must have tasted even worse.  Six weeks later she had another  MRI and the ligaments were completely healed. She was back doing yoga in seven weeks.  I don’t think any of we learned medical men admitted we were wrong (doctors don’t generally go down that dead end path), but we knew we were.

For keeping my father alive and with us for so many extra years we, her children and friends, can never thank her enough.  If not for her moment to moment care after his heart attacks, kidney failure, dialysis, prostate cancer, bladder cancer and heart failure he would not be here today.  This is  not the first time she’s done such loving care.  When Grandma Betty Zeig developed terminal breast cancer in her eighties, mom moved her into the house and cared for her until the day she died.  Rochelle will just tell you that it was just the right thing to do.

The extraordinary adventures of Rochelle June could fill volumes of books and still would not do her justice.  It wasn't until I had my own family that I truly appreciated what she’d done for us-- how she’d sacrificed and  thrown herself into our well-being without regret or complaint. I see my own wife doing the same thing now. As a man it baffles me and makes me comfortable at the same time.

Men make adventures and women make families.  I've recently changed my mind regarding which is more important. 

God makes boys.  Mothers make Men.

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