JONATHAN FERRINI - BAC SAI
Jonathan Ferrini is a published author and resides in San Diego. He received his MFA in Motion Picture and Television Production from UCLA.
It’s been a long day and I retire to the front porch of my home with a panoramic view of the turquoise Pacific Ocean. Its late evening and I sip a cognac which helps to steady my trembling hand. The Parkinson’s disease prevents me from performing surgery but I’m happy to serve as a general practitioner for the island’s inhabitants. The cognac and site of my daughter Aiyana and granddaughter Catie playing in the moonlit surf of French Polynesia warm my heart. A refreshing trade wind brushes the palm trees and abruptly opens the tattered journal which has recorded my life. The notebook pages I filled over the many years are a reminder of the long, twisting, and unpredictable path leading me to this paradise. I’m thankful for my journey.
My hand trembles as I read the scribbled sights, sounds, and impressions of my life. One of the first pages includes my parent’s admonition to, “Enunciate. Spit it out. You’ll never amount to anything with that stammer!” The humiliation and sadness I experienced at that moment of my youth cause me to reach for long sip of cognac to brunt the emotional pain I can still feel after these many years. As I turn the page of the notebook, a matchbook cover from the Oak Room falls into my lap and my eyes well with tears.
I had a front row seat from our pre-war penthouse apartment with a view of Central Park on the Upper East Side of New York as the innocence of the early sixties morphed into the cynical and violent late sixties. During this tumultuous decade, “I want to hold your hand” was replaced by “I can’t get no satisfaction” and “West Side Story” was replaced by the Broadway sensation “Hair”. My mother’s tailored suits gave way to paisley prints and tie dye. My father’s thin lapels and ties were discarded for Nehru jackets and silk scarves.
My parents were successful psychiatrists treating the neurotics, alcoholics, bulimics, and ego maniacs from their plush office on Fifth Avenue. They were the children of the holocaust fleeing with their parents to America with only the clothes on their backs and choosing to abandon their Jewish identification for assimilation. The fear my parents experienced as adolescents running for their lives from Germany hardened them. Although they displayed empathy with their patients, they told me life was, “Short, unfair, and only the strong survive.” I longed for the empathy and understanding they provided their patients because I never experienced it.
Drs. Singer hosted the artistic, financial, and political elite of New York at dinner and cocktail parties in our home which resembled a museum with original artwork including Pollock, Rothko, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Giacometti and others who gifted or bartered their art for psychotherapy. My home felt sterile and I longed for the warmth of the home Beaver Cleaver enjoyed.
My parents were ambitious and didn’t expect to have a baby in their thirties. I was an only child and stuttered. Although I was treated with the best speech therapy money could buy, they made me feel like a burden and an embarrassment to them. At their dinner and cocktail parties, my parents would trot me out for a quick meet-and-greet to their adoring guests then I was hustled back to my bedroom. Although they were trained to treat the emotional disorders of their patients, my parents were unable to provide for the emotional needs of their son. I never wanted for material possessions but craved their love and attention which wasn’t available. I spent hours alone in my bedroom watching television, reading, and scribbling in my journal.
I was often awakened by a shattering cocktail glass or raucous laugh emanating from a party in our sunken living room. One evening, I was awoken to a beautiful ballad sung by a young musician with curly hair who strummed an acoustic guitar while blowing into a harmonica. The guests sat around him transfixed by his lyrics and I couldn’t get the song out of my head for days. In later years, I’d awaken during the night to pot fumes and bad LSD trips. I’d peek out from my bedroom door and the antics I witnessed seemed at odds with the symbolism of the Mezuzah on my door frame.
I was teased at school because of my stuttering and would return home crying to an empty apartment. I’d run down to the lobby and into the loving embrace of Ace Rodriguez who was our doorman. Ace would assure me, “Don’t worry little man, all things shall pass. Just keep playing it cool my man.” In the cold of winter or sweltering humidity of summer, Ace was adorned like a General in a double breasted black coat with gold epaulets, black trousers with a gold stripe down the pant legs, black cap with gold trim, and shiny patent leather shoes. Ace was from Puerto Rico and had a zest for life and loved his job. He whistled the popular tunes of the day and cheerfully greeted each of the residents as they came and went. Some mornings, the specter of bullying was too much for me to bear and I would ditch school and spend the day with Ace who taught me how to handicap the horses he enjoyed playing at Belmont.
My playground was Central Park which was conveniently located across the street from our building. Its natural beauty and variety of people stimulated me. I found surrogate parents amongst the homeless who camped within Central Park in the spring and summer. They lived on subway grates during the winter. Visiting them was like attending a Boy Scout Jamboree. The stories I heard from these homeless men gave me a world view different from my cloistered life in the Upper East Side. Many were Korean War and World War Two veterans. They were haunted by the traumas they witnessed in war but were the strong silent type of their generations whose bottled up PTSD manifested itself in alcohol, drug abuse, and homelessness. Hearing their war stories prepared me for the horror I would soon experience.
The eldest and wisest of the group was a Korean War vet nicknamed “Redbird” because his long beard was red in color and resembled a bird's tail feathers. He was missing a front tooth and wore his hair in dreadlocks. His face depicted a hard life and I suspected he may have done time and was a former junkie. Redbird’s prize possession was a tenor saxophone which he played for spare change in the park. Redbird played the sax like it was an extension of his soul and was likely a professional musician in the past. Redbird knew I was a well off, lonely kid from the Upper East Side but made me feel comfortable and protected. Redbird ignored my stuttering and was patient with me during our conversations. Redbird challenged me to think hard about “what” I wanted out of life and told me to forgive my parents inattention, “They’re on their own trip, Abby. You have your own road to travel.”
One autumn afternoon, a cold breeze announcing winter's arrival shook the trees and the band of homeless knew it was time to return to the subway grates. Redbird placed a hand carved wooden statue of a young man gazing up into the heavens into my hand. It was his parting gift to me. Redbird told me, “You can’t change your parents but you’re writing your own journey, Abby. Question everything you hear and see. Examine it from the inside out and then you’ll understand what it means to you. Goodbye my young friend.” We hugged and I never saw him again.
Chloe was the most beautiful and complex woman I ever knew. She was one of my parents patients and introduced me to the demands of psychiatry my parents practiced. I was watering the potted plants and emptying the waste baskets after school when she entered my parents waiting room for her appointment. She was razor thin, a brunette with her hair tightly pulled into a bun, wearing knee high patent leather boots, a miniskirt, brightly colored silk paisley blouse and white satin elbow length gloves. She sat, opened a copy of Vogue, lit a cigarette, and waited to be called for her appointment. There were two doors to my parent’s office. The first door was to the waiting room and the second door was a discrete exit door so patients could leave their session unnoticed. The therapy sessions lasted about an hour and I waited for her to exit. She was beautiful and I was attracted to her like a magnet. I wanted to meet her.
An hour later, Chloe exited the office agitated and approached the elevator. She opened a black alligator skin Dior handbag and was frantically searching for something. The elevator door opened and we both entered. I offered to hold her handbag as she reached inside to find her pack of “KOOL” brand cigarettes and lighter saying, “Thank you, young man. I need a cigarette. My nerves are shot. Hey, aren’t you the kid from the doctor’s office?” Yes, miss. I’m Abby. The doctors are my parents. I motioned for her lighter, lit her cigarette, and returned the lighter. “I’m Chloe, Abby” and I shook her hand covered by a satin elbow length glove.
Chloe invited me to join her for tea at the Pierre Hotel and I accepted. We were interrupted on more than one occasion by one of her elite clients stopping to say hello and I was conscious of the stares she drew from the men. I was mesmerized by her long graceful fingers with French manicured nails gripping her tea cup. Chloe wasn’t put off by my stuttering and said, “Take your time, Abby” as I gathered my thoughts and spoke. Chloe wanted to see the world from the perspective of a seventeen year old whose parents were psychiatrists and was riveted by my every word.
Chloe and I bonded over tea. We both agreed to keep our meeting a secret from my parents and not to discuss Chloe’s therapy but I pondered what demons she was battling inside her mind. She was surprisingly frank about her past. Chloe was twenty nine and a successful real estate agent who worked her way up from a typing pool into the lucrative world of high priced Upper East Side real estate sales after moving from Detroit. Chloe had a tough upbringing and was the only daughter to an alcoholic mother. They lived on welfare and Chloe alluded to sexual advances by her uncle which her mother ignored. Although Chloe was adored by her fashion conscious, trend setting global clientele, she was a lonely heart drifting from one vacuous relationship to another desperately seeking love. Although Chloe never wanted for a date, she was bored by the wealthy and powerful men who pursued her. We each longed for the love of attentive parents. Chloe exuded fragility and vulnerability and I wanted to protect her. I respected Chloe for escaping her unhappy childhood and making a new life for herself. I realized that I would have to do the same.
Chloe provided me the nuturing I craved from my parents. I told her I was jealous of the attention my parents provided their patients and felt neglected. Chloe didn’t excuse my parent’s inattention but offered an analogy, “Your parents jobs are like playing for the Yankees or the Jets. They have to invest all of themselves into their work and at the end of the game; they leave it all on the field. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you. Does that make sense, Abby?” Chloe gave me a useful tool for managing my feelings of abandonment and hostility towards my parents.
We spent the Fourth of July together on her roof top balcony with a 360 degree view of the city. I knew Chloe had her pick of lavish parties to attend and was flattered she would spend the evening alone with me. It also spoke to a detachment Chloe had with her many clients and lovers. I suspected her “demons” demanded solitude. Chloe ran to me and gave me a big hug exclaiming, “Happy Fourth of July, Abby. Welcome.”
We drank wine and patiently waited for the sky to grow dark and the fireworks to light up the city. I felt a comfortable buzz from the wine but as the first of the fireworks began to light up the sky, Chloe dropped acid which combined with the wine, provided Chloe the ability to numb her demons. Chloe loved the Rolling Stones and cranked up the volume on her stereo and the lyrics resounded,
“She’s like a rainbow...like a queen in days of old…She comes in colors…”
Chloe lit a handful of sparklers for each of us and shouted, “Let’s dance, Abby.” Chloe removed her clothing revealing sexy lace panties and bra. We danced and ran about the balcony waving our sparklers like children. Around and around we ran becoming dizzy. I felt free and careless for the first time in my life. Chloe stopped dancing and leaned dangerously over the balcony saying, “Look at the fire flies” referring to the car lights and pedestrians forty floors below. Chloe rolled over on her back and only my grip kept her from tumbling off the balcony to join the ‘fire flies”. She demanded, “Let me fly, Abby”. I pulled her safety back onto the balcony. Chloe grew limp and fainted. I carried her to a chase lounge and tried to awake her. She was breathing. Chloe, are you ok? Should I call somebody? Chloe muttered, “You’re a lovely and lucky boy, Abby. You have boundless opportunities ahead of you. Don’t waste your time with me. I’m broken.” Chloe fell into a deep sleep. Chloe always wore elbow length satin gloves and tonight one of them had unraveled to her wrist revealing razor scars running the length of her forearm. Chloe had a habit of excusing herself to visit the bathroom after our meals. I knew Chloe’s cutting and bulimia were signs of severe emotional pain but I never judged her or brought it up. Instead, we provided each other the emotional attention and intimacy we craved. I covered her with a nearby blanket and left as the last of the fireworks trailed off into the night sky.
The last time I saw Chloe was on her birthday. We met in the Oak Bar at the Plaza Hotel. Chloe was subject to mood swings and turning thirty placed her into a deep depression. She was sitting in her favorite secluded booth and already on her second martini. Angelo the bartender sent his waiter over with a pitcher of martinis and an extra glass for me. It didn’t matter that I was underage because I was with Chloe who he adored. I sat and moved in close to Chloe. She gave me a kiss on the cheek saying, “Hello, Abby, my darling. I apologize if I’m a drag tonight, sweetheart. I’m thirty years old, alone, and it’s all meaningless.” I assured her she had everything a woman could want including beauty, style, money, independence, and a best friend. Chloe reached for my chin with her satin glove, traced the contours of my jaw and inserted her finger tip into my mouth saying, “You’re a darling, sweet Abby but someday you’ll understand.”
Angelo approached with an elegant, petite chocolate cake adorned with a sparkler and wished Chloe, “Happy Birthday, Madame.” I gave Chloe a hug and said make a wish. Chloe closed her eyes briefly and opened them to a thin rectangular gold wrapped gift with a silver bow I placed in front of her. Chloe’s mood instantly improved as she gently opened the gift revealing the Stones album “Between the Buttons” which was autographed by Mick as a gift to me at one of my parent’s parties. Chloe jumped from her seat, ran to Angelo and asked him to play, “This song,” pointing to one of the tracks on the album. Angelo was pleased to accommodate his favorite client at the expense of the Mantovani music which was the staple of the bar.
The Stones lyrics filled the bar startling the patrons and attracting them to the beautiful and stylish woman dancing alone to the lyrics while hugging the album jacket. Her mascara was running down her face from the tears flowing from her eyes. Chloe removed the clip from her hair bun and her long brunette hair fell to her shoulders. Chloe was lost in her own universe. The bar remained silent as Angelo increased the volume and the lyrics to the song whaled:
“She would never say where she came from…goodbye Ruby Tuesday who could hang a name on you…when you change with every new day still I’m gonna miss you…she can’t be chained to a life where nothings gained…catch your dreams before they slip away…lose your dreams and you will lose your mind…Goodbye Ruby Tuesday…”
The song ended and the bar erupted in applause. Chloe ran to the ladies room clutching the album cover. I never saw her again. Chloe provided me with a respect for my parent’s work and insight into the challenges they faced as they fought the mental illness of their patients. They couldn’t help but carry the enormous challenges of their work home with them those many years. Chloe was correct in saying my parents work required them to “leave it all on the field”. I would never forget Chloe and her advice prepared me for the challenges I would experience in the years to come.
I graduated from high school and was admitted to City College but never enrolled. I took Redbird’s advice and nothing made sense to me anymore. College and life with my parents just wouldn’t work for me. It was time to leave home and strike out on my own. I packed a bag and was readying to hitchhike to San Francisco but my draft notice derailed my plans. I didn’t care. My parents were mortified that I would be fighting in Vietnam and implored me to stutter during my physical examination in hopes of being labeled unfit for military service. They offered me prescription medications which would dull my cognitive abilities and fail the psychological testing. I found it ironic they would now embrace my speech impediment because it was useful but it was also the first time in my life they displayed love and protection for me. I ignored their suggestion and didn’t fill the prescription. My parent’s political connections couldn’t get me a draft deferment and I received orders to report to the Army’s induction center.
It was a day of physical examinations and written tests. Based upon my aptitude tests and maybe some political “string pulling” from my parents political connections, I was selected for medic school and ordered to report to Fort Sam Houston after completing basic training. I would be in the Army for two years. Medic school would change my life forever.
LBJ escalated the number of troops sent to Vietnam so basic training was like an assembly line designed to graduate as many “boots” as possible and get them into Vietnam quickly. It was eight weeks long and I was stationed at Fort Knox Kentucky. My fellow recruits were teenagers representing every race, religion, and ethnicity from every corner of the country and in between. The minority kids shared one thing in common. They were poor. About eighty percent of our class was drafted. The remaining twenty percent were volunteers. The common denominator of my basic training class was that my fellow recruits were largely the children of the working class or poor. These young men didn’t have the money for college and a deferment. The lucky draftees were already working. The poor were hanging out waiting for their draft card or a jail sentence.
Our Drill Instructor was a career Army Master Sergeant nearing retirement who saw action in World War Two and Korea. Master Sergeant Pike was a big white man with a Texas drawl and reminded me of the homeless veterans I met in Central Park. He had an empathy about him which confounded me. He was never cruel or abusive and demonstrated a sarcastic wit and sense of humor. Throughout basic training, he emphasized tactics designed to keep us alive more than kill. He was a professional warrior and concluded Vietnam like Korea was a political conflict, not a noble battle between good and evil like World War Two. We respected Master Sergeant Pike who had become a father figure to us. The night before our graduation, Master Sergeant Pike ordered us to attention, removed his DI hat and said, “I wish to congratulate each of you on graduating basic training. Remember to keep your heads down and write home often. There will be no heroes, just survivors. Good luck and God bless each of you.” We pitched in for a new stereo system and Master Sergeant Pike’s eyes became teary when he was presented with our gift.
Medic school was different than basic training. It was ten weeks long and was held at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. My classmates were former ambulance attendants, hospital orderlies, and fireman before being drafted. We shared a respect for human life and many held unfavorable views about the war. We wanted to save lives and not take lives. Training consisted of basic first aid, CPR, giving shots, drawing blood, suturing, starting IV’s, using splints for broken bones, treating gunshot wounds, conducting amputations, treating head wounds, shock, burns, dislocations, and seizures. We were also trained in the hospital which involved a lot of bedpans and enemas. The ten weeks of medic school flew by fast and I was assigned to the 15th Medical Battalion (Airmobile) of the First Cavalry Division.
Life as a medic resembled that of a firefighter. When the bell rang, we ran for the helicopter and flew into battle encountering sheer terror as we found ourselves landing in the middle of a fire fight. I’d jump from the helicopter and run or crawl from wounded soldier to soldier assessing who required the most urgent care. The screams and cries from the wounded shook my soul and most of these boys cried out for their mothers. I often wondered if I would have cried for my mother or Chloe. Morphine was my first treatment to calm these kids. I’d bandage, suture, intubate, and whisper to the dying, “It’s ok to let go, man”. We loaded the wounded onto the helicopter and lifted off for the mobile surgical hospital or “MASH” unit. We called the lift off a “dust off” because of the whirling dust created by the blades of the helicopter.
The MASH unit was nothing more than a large tent sectioned off into treatment and surgery wards. Although it appeared like chaos inside the tent, each physician, nurse, orderly, and soldier showed determination and empathy for the wounded. I was proud to be an American medic because whenever possible, the Army treated everybody including GI’s, civilians, and even the enemy. The MASH unit was filled to capacity and all of the doctors were busy treating the injured American soldiers. I was busy moving from cot to cot caring for the wounded. I came upon a stretcher placed just inside the opening to the MASH. On it laid a dying teenage Viet Cong soldier who had nobody but me to care for him. It was that day I discovered my path in life. His torso was riddled with shrapnel which opened his abdomen and scrambled his organs about. He was bleeding to death but there was no blood to spare for a transfusion and his wounds were fatal. He was semiconscious because anesthesia was in short supply but I gave him what morphine I could scrounge. I placed each organ back into its proper anatomical position knowing I couldn’t save his life. A fresh cool breeze blew open the canvas doorway to the MASH and the dying teenager raised himself with every ounce of strength left in his body saying, “Bac Sai. You try save me. You be good doctor, someday”. He seized up, his eyes rolled back inside his head, and he died. I gently laid him back onto the stretcher. A nurse passing by placed her arm around my shoulder and said, “Bac Sai means doctor, Abby.”
I was a good Medic and it gave me the personal satisfaction I never before enjoyed. My stutter was gone. On more than one occasion, a doc told me, “The trauma work you did in the field saved this kid's life.” The Chief of Surgery was Dr. Abner. I’d watch him move from operating table to operating table working with urgency, skill, and passion. He was a large Black man and the surgical instruments looked like toothpicks in his bear-like hands. Dr. Reginald Abner was an Army Colonel and made a career in the Army. He was the son of Black sharecroppers from Mississippi. He was drafted into the Army during the final months of World War Two which was his ticket out of the Jim Crow South. Although the Army was desegregated, Black soldiers were assigned to infantry regiments seeing the brunt of the war or low level support divisions such as cooks. Dr. Abner was assigned to an all Black Medic school created to train Black medics to treat Black soldiers because White soldiers harbored prejudice at being treated by Black medics. Dr. Abner saw a great deal of action treating Black troops but as his skills increased, and reputation as a life saver spread throughout the Army, he soon was treating White soldiers and officers at the best field hospitals in Europe and Asia. Dr. Abner completed college and medical school while in the Army. Although he was a world class surgeon, he realized that his skills would be unappreciated as a Black civilian surgeon in America.
After an eighteen hour shift, Dr. Abner invited me to share a cup of coffee during an early morning monsoon rainstorm. He told me, “My surgeons tell me you got the hands for surgery, kid. Ever consider medicine as a career?” Dr. Abner sized me up as a privileged kid and was impressed by my dedication to saving lives and medical skills. I told him my parents were both psychiatrists and although I considered medicine, I didn’t have the patience to complete four years of undergraduate pre-medical coursework and four years of medical school. He told me, “I was a poor kid from Mississippi and felt the same way. Think about it, kid. By the way, change your name because the unit can’t keep us straight.”
In the months following our coffee break, Dr. Abner would call for me to stand next to him during surgery while he patiently explained the procedure and sometimes asked me to assist in some minor way. Dr. Abner convinced me to become a surgeon. I scrounged a bottle of bourbon and requested an appointment to speak with Dr. Abner who had finished a long shift and welcomed a drink. “What’s on your mind, Dr. Singer?” he playfully asked. I leveled with him that I was mature beyond my years and the thought of sitting in class with kids fresh out of high school for four years and another four years of medical school wasn’t appealing but wanted to become a surgeon. Dr. Abner replied, “Are you aware there are combined undergraduate and Medical programs permitting completion in seven years, Abby?” Knocking off even a year of school was a revelation to me. Dr. Abner continued, “You make an application directly to medical school, complete the premedical coursework, and move quickly into your medical education. Sound interesting?” I said, yes and Dr. Abner replied, “Where do want to attend Medical School, Abby?” I replied, I want to go home to New York. Dr. Abner took a second shot of bourbon and said, “Here’s my advice, Abby. Write a well thought out essay explaining why you would be a great doctor and recount your experiences in Vietnam. I’ll see what I can do.” He raised his glass and said, “Here’s mud in your eye.” I raised my glass to meet his and proclaimed L’Chaim. Dr. Abner repeated, “L’Chaim”. I spent the night typing my letter relying on Redbird’s rhetorical approach as my outline. My letter was titled, “I Must be a Doctor” and I placed it inside Dr. Abner’s mail pouch.
The months sped by and my tour of duty was coming to an end. I didn’t want to re-enlist and didn’t have a clue what I would do when I returned home to “the world”. I came off a fifteen hour mission and landed with the last of our injured for the day. I headed off to the canteen for chow. A letter was dropped in my lap by the company clerk with a return address of a New York City medical college. I hurriedly opened the letter to find a single page letter accepting me to medical school pending completion of a list of premedical courses. The Dean of Admissions of the medical college included a handwritten note on my acceptance letter saying:
“Dr. Abner’s recommendation is the gold standard, Abby. Welcome to medical school!”
Dr. Abner was transferred to the Army hospital in Japan. I never saw him again and wanted to thank him. I heard he retired from the Army and my attempts to find him over the years led to a rural Mississippi medical clinic which had closed due to lack of funding.
I received an Honorable Discharge and left Vietnam for home. As my plane landed at JFK, my first stop was the men’s room where I changed out of my uniform and into civilian clothes. I couldn’t handle the gauntlet of protesters awaiting returning soldiers. Although I respected their right to protest the war, I believe they would have admired the work we performed for soldiers and civilians alike. I left my duffle bag and uniforms in the restroom and kept only my discharge papers and memories of my mentors, comrades, and patients in Vietnam.
I rented a small apartment in Greenwich Village a few blocks from campus and began the pre-medical coursework which would require three years of intensive study and devotion. The Village changed while I was in Vietnam. The trendsetting musicians, filmmakers, and writers had left for Hollywood. They were now “California Dreamin”. I went to Central Park to visit Redbird but he was nowhere to be found. A prominent sign was posted warning “No Camping Permitted”. Chloe wrote me several times in Vietnam and her writing was increasingly morbid. I hoped she was still seeking treatment and longed to see her. I contacted the real estate agency where she worked to learn she had “accidently slipped” from a balcony and fell to her death. I knew better. Chloe committed suicide.
I was a determined and passionate student studying around the clock with time only for weekly dinners with my parents. The dinners were uneasy and consisted mostly of small talk. My parents still couldn’t relate to me as a son although they were proud of my achievements. My experiences in Vietnam made it impossible for me to relate to them or anyone who hadn’t shared the Vietnam experience. I completed the premedical coursework consisting of chemistry, biology, physics, genetics, and calculus with high marks.
As I began my first year of medical school, I found my classmates were over-achievers who entered medical school straight from college. They lacked my maturity and experience. I couldn’t relate to them. The medical school class was mostly male and white. One of the few women was Kate. She was raised on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. After graduating from nursing school, Kate was commissioned as an officer in the Air Force and served as a nurse at the Clark Air Force base hospital in the Philippines and saw a lot of action as a nurse. She was in her late twenties and had a wholesome, innocent beauty about her but we had no romantic chemistry. Kate was on a mission to become a physician and I could use her help. Because of our shared military experience, we agreed to become study partners.
The first two years of medical school were boring, consisting of lectures, reading textbooks, and taking examinations requiring only rote memorization. I craved the hands-on medical treatment I practiced in the field. In our first year, we learned anatomy. In the second year, we studied the diseases of the body. The textbooks, lectures, grizzly photographs, and the anatomy lab were nothing like I witnessed in battle. There were many times I thought about giving up on medical school but Kate encouraged me to finish. I received a postcard from Kate many years later learning she accepted a Midwest faculty post in OB/GYN after finishing her residency. I was fortunate to have known Kate and will never forget her.
After completing our second year in medical school, I started two years of study within the hospital learning to examine patients while rotating through the various specialties of medicine. I reveled in my ability to treat patients again but now with an increased sophistication I learned in medical school. I was beginning to feel like a physician. As I rotated through the various medical specialties, my surgery rotation felt natural as I stood side by side with surgeons whom I only watched from the sidelines as a medic. I was a quick study and my surgical professors and residents knew I had seen action and saved lives. I was fascinated by all of the surgical specialties including general surgery, neuro, cardiac, and orthopedic surgery but gravitated towards trauma surgery. I reveled in the uncertainty of emergency surgery where my medical skills were tested by the clock.
I accepted a trauma surgery residency at a major New York City hospital. Although the stabbings, shootings, and beatings I treated were reminiscent of Vietnam, they were senseless. Although they were the casualties of a type of war being raged in the poverty stricken neighborhoods of New York, they were not battlefield casualties and could be prevented with political intervention if anybody gave a damn. I had come a long way from a draftee and longed to put my medical education and skills to the best use possible and the only remuneration I wanted was to feel satisfied that I was making a difference. I’d return home after a long shift exhausted but not feeling satisfied. My parents suggested I join a successful surgical practice and the money would improve my morale. They still didn’t understand me. My stuttering was beginning to return and I was turning to marijuana and booze just to make it through the week. A nest of birds showed up outside my window. It reminded me to consider Redbirds advice and examine my feelings “from the inside out”. I had to leave New York and find somewhere to heal from the horrors of Vietnam and the senseless carnage I was treating in the city.
I had dinner with the Dean of the medical college who had admitted me years before and explained my situation. It didn’t take him long to conclude, “Abby, you’re a brilliant surgeon but you need time to heal from Vietnam. You haven’t had a break from medicine since leaving the Army.” He encouraged me to consider working for a time at a rural medical clinic. These clinics were in desperate need of surgeons. It was going to be a cold winter and he said, “Why don’t you head out West, Abby? I have a friend at the Bureau of Indian Affairs who might find an opportunity for you.” The Dean told me it was beautiful wide open country and he was confidant I would find the personal reward I was seeking and emotional healing I needed to continue medicine. Within days, the Dean called me and said he found a small medical clinic on the Hopi Indian Reservation about 110 miles north of Flagstaff off Interstate 40 with only an RN providing medical care. He warned me it would be no vacation paradise because the poverty and sickness I would encounter on the reservation was no different than the villages of Vietnam saying, “Poverty and sickness doesn’t have a nationality or international border, Abby.” I immediately accepted and the decision would change my life forever.
I was met at the baggage terminal in Phoenix by an elderly Hopi woman holding a cardboard sign reading, “Dr. Singer”. My heart skipped a beat thinking this old woman was the RN and asked her: “Are you Cat Azure?” The old toothless woman didn’t speak English but nodded “no” to my question. When I reached for my suitcase, she quickly grabbed it and motioned towards the parking lot. The old woman was quick on her feet. We arrived at a beat up old van with large red crosses painted on. I opened the passenger door to see that it was the reservation ambulance equipped only with a stretcher and oxygen tank. We didn’t speak one word during the four hour trip to the reservation. I had fallen asleep but was awakened when the old woman veered off Interstate 40 onto a dusty single lane dirt road which extended for miles through the beautiful desert punctuated with cactus and orange mesas. I had never been to the Southwest and was impressed with the landscape.
We came upon an assemblage of mobile homes pieced together like building blocks and the old woman parked the van, hurriedly leapt from her seat, grabbed my suitcase, and motioned me towards the “Reservation Medical Clinic”. The waiting room was cooled only with a ceiling fan and was filled with Hopi ranging from the elderly to newborns all patiently waiting their turn to see the nurse. Each gave me a warm smile as if they knew I was the new physician and surgeon. The old woman dropped my suitcase behind her receptionist counter, handed me a white coat, and a pair of sterile gloves. She led me into an examination room where I met the RN who was splintering a fractured index finger of a crying boy. The Hopi nurse was wearing surgical scrubs, tennis shoes, and a beautiful braided necklace. I worked with some great nurses in Vietnam but I was particularly impressed by her flawless orthopedic skills, speed, calming bedside manner, and multitasking ability. She was about five feet four inches tall, medium build, and her long straight black hair was braided. I was attracted to her large brown eyes, delicate smile, and natural beauty. I was eager to introduce myself but before I could say a word, the RN said, “Dr. Singer, I’m Cat Azure the clinic RN. Please go to exam room two and check on the baby who is crowning, I’ll be in shortly to assist.” Her nursing skills and English were impeccable and I knew she received excellent nursing training.
I arrived at the clinic sometime in the morning and it was already dark outside when we finished our last of many cases. Cat introduced herself, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Singer. You must be famished. Follow me to the break room and we can get acquainted.” Cat led me into a room with a refrigerator, hot plates, sink, table, chairs, freshly cooked foods, breads, pies, soda pop, and wine. Cat saw I was surprised by the culinary bounty and remarked, “Perks of the job, Dr. Singer. Our patients pay with home cooked food. Please help yourself.” Cat and I each took a paper plate, plastic utensils, and loaded our plates. We sat and Cat said, “Thank you for coming, Dr. Singer. The community hasn’t had a physician in years. So, what’s a nice Jewish boy from the Upper East doing in a place like this? Running from something?” I replied: “Please call me Abby for now on. I’m just a guy seeking a new tribe to join.” Cat broke out laughing. For a Hopi girl, Cat was surprisingly hip to Jewish zeitgeist. I was drawn to her sense of humor and we connected immediately. She was a native Hopi and only child to a hardworking mother who hand-crafted jewelry which she sold wholesale to the merchants of Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff, and Scottsdale. Her father was an abusive alcoholic and split when she was a teenager. Cat tired of the reservation and obtained a scholarship to attend nursing school in Phoenix, obtained a BS in Nursing, and rose to chief RN of the family medicine department at the university hospital. On her trips home to visit her mother, Cat saw the need for a clinic on the reservation since the nearest hospital was over a hundred miles away in Flagstaff. Cat applied for and obtained a grant to open a clinic which she single handedly had been running for five years. Her only staff consisted of Hopi volunteers many of which she trained to the level of LVN’s.
At the end of dinner, Cat walked me out of the clinic and to my new accommodations. The night was warm; there was a full moon, and the sky so clear I had never seen so many stars. She pointed to an old house trailer saying, “It’s not the Plaza Hotel but at least you don’t have a commute! I live in the trailer next door. We work around the clock, Abby. The clinic is open 24/7 and staffed in the evenings by a clerk who will knock on my trailer if we have a case. I’ll do my best to provide you as much sleep as possible but if I need you, I’ll come knocking.” Cat’s trailer was in no better condition than mine but I had lived in more austere conditions in Vietnam. I looked forward to a good night's sleep and starting work in the morning. I lay in my musty old trailer and heard coyotes wail for the first time. I also couldn’t get Cat off my mind.
Cat was born and raised on the reservation. She was not only beautiful but smart, humble and a determined nurse reminding me of the nurses in Vietnam. We worked fifteen to eighteen hour days, seven days a week, including holidays. I may have been the physician and surgeon, but Cat and her cadre of volunteers ran the clinic freeing me up to practice medicine. Never in my life was my work so satisfying. Cat and I provided routine examinations and inoculations, delivered babies, sutured wounds, set broken bones, and performed minor surgeries. Those cases requiring more sophisticated care and hospitalization were stabilized in our clinic and then driven or flown by helicopter to hospitals in Flagstaff or Phoenix.
Cat introduced me to her mother who I admired. Mrs. Azure was a single mother who raised a wonderful daughter but it wasn’t lost on me that they struggled as a family. Cat and I ventured into the reservation and I was impressed by the rich culture and heritage of the Hopi. It broke my heart to witness their poverty and reminded me of the poverty I witnessed in Vietnam. There was virtually no opportunity for the youth on the reservation to advance as the schools were inferior and Cat was lucky to have attended college. I admired Cat for returning to the Hopi as she could live a comfortable life off the reservation.
Cat knew I saw horror in Vietnam and knew I yearned for the love and nurturing of a family. Cat learned from me that life was not always “greener on the other side of the fence.” She admired my sacrifice and dedication to the clinic and we grew close.
It was a harvest moon and the US Forest Service was fighting a raging brush fire about two hundred miles off the reservation. Our clinic was the only alternative for the life flight helicopters to stop on their way to the hospital and seek immediate care for the most critical who might otherwise die in route to the university hospital over one hundred miles away. Cat and I did our best to stabilize the firefighters suffering from severe burns and respiratory trauma before their “dust off” to the university hospital.
Cat and I worked seventy two hours straight with time for only naps. We worked as one and she anticipated my every move. It brought back memories of the MASH units. As the brush fire was contained and the life flights stopped, Cat retrieved a bottle of wine and said, “Let's head out to the mesa”. It was approaching sunset as she drove the beat up ambulance van towards the mesa. She unbraided her hair and it blew in the wind. We pulled up to the mesa providing us with a beautiful view of the setting sun. We sat on the edge of the mesa, our feet dangling off the edge with the canyon hundreds of feet below us. I was reminded of my night on the balcony with Chloe. We watched the flames of the dying fire dance their last waltz in the distance below the setting sun. It was hot and the wine quenched our thirst and a cool breeze brushed over us. We watched the sun set into the west leaving behind a band of flickering flames against the pitch dark night then we kissed passionately succumbing to an emotional tension which had been building for months. Our daughter Aiyana or “Eternal Blossom” was conceived that night.
We were married by the Justice of the Peace in Flagstaff. We returned to the reservation for a small celebration. The specter of marrying a Hopi woman and having a baby with her would be incomprehensible to my parents although it might be hip for them to mention at one of their parties. I wrote them a letter including photos of Cat and our baby. My parents responded with an expensive Reed and Barton tea set and place-setting for eighteen. The gifts were appreciated but not useful. We hawked them and used the money to purchase surgical instruments.
Cat was a wonderful mother for the first ten years of Aiyana’s life. These were the most wonderful years of my life. We were a loving family and the love I felt was deeper than any emotion I ever experienced. Aiyana looked just like her mother and I can still see my loving wife in her eyes and smile. We took Aiyana everywhere with us. We camped, swam, and Cat was mindful to introduce Aiyana to both the rich traditions of her Hopi heritage and my Ashkenazi roots. Aiyana blossomed in the wide open spaces of nature. Before beginning school, she spent her days with us at the clinic. She was fond of wearing her own scrub suit and proudly wore a toy stethoscope. She assumed the position of entertaining the waiting patients and following them to their treatment rooms. She took to medicine like a natural. Aiyana was inquisitive. We read to her daily and engaged in games and puzzles to stimulate her intellectual growth. It became obvious to us that she was having difficulty reading. Stuttering didn't prevent me from becoming a surgeon so we figured Aiyana would learn at her own pace and grow out of it.
Despite being a dutiful mother, Cat kept a herculean pace at the clinic. She was happy. During a routine examination, a lump in Cat’s breast led to a double mastectomy but the cancer cells left behind were too tough of a match for Cat who fought valiantly to her death a year later. Aiyana and I buried Cat on the mesa where Aiyana was conceived and where Cat could enjoy the sunset for eternity.
It was impossible for me to practice medicine and fill the void left by Cat. Although I loved Aiyana, I could never be the mother she needed and deserved. Cat’s mother loved Aiyana, treating her like her own daughter and the volunteers all pitched in to help me raise her.
When Aiyana began grade school, the Principal at the reservation school expressed concern about her academic progress and suggested I have her reading difficulties assessed. I consulted a speech pathologist who diagnosed Aiyana with Dyslexia. Complicating matters further, being half white, Aiyana wasn’t fitting in with the Hopi kids and was being teased. Cat would have wanted the best treatment for her daughter but I would have to get her off the reservation and into an environment where her Dyslexia could be treated and receive the best education available. Phoenix was my only local option but four hours from the reservation. I wouldn't place Aiyana in a boarding school and Cat would have agreed with me. It broke my heart to leave behind the clinic and patients of the reservation but I had Aiyana to consider.
I contacted my former Dean at the medical college and explained my circumstances. He offered me a tenure track position as a Clinical Professor of Surgery which would afford me stable hours and maximum time with Aiyana. My parent’s health was also failing and returning home would enable me to care for them. I accepted the position subject to finding my replacement at the clinic. Although it took six months, the clinic welcomed a Peace Corps surgeon and his wife trained as a Physician's Assistant. They had spent the last ten years in French Polynesia. Doctor Alvin and Rose Fisk were an energetic, retirement age couple with a passion for medicine and the clinic was fortunate to have them. It was a tearful goodbye to the beautiful Hopi people and I would never forget them.
I found a three bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village with a small back yard and walking distance to work and Aiyana’s school. My professorship provided me with a flexible working schedule and I enrolled Aiyana in a private school trained in treating Dyslexia. Aiyana and I returned to the reservation two years later to bury Cat’s mother next to her daughter on the Mesa. It gave me great satisfaction to see that the clinic was flourishing under Dr. and Mrs. Fisk.
Before entering medical school, Dr. Fisk was a mechanical engineer and inventor. During his off hours at the reservation clinic, he conceived of and patented several groundbreaking endoscopic surgical instruments he sold to big pharmaceutical companies. To his credit, he used his millions to build and staff a state of the art clinic and hospital on the reservation. I thanked him for picking up the baton but instead he thanked me saying, “Coming here revitalized my career and re-ignited my inventive spirit, Abby. The reservation gave me a second turn at life. I want you to know these people loved and appreciated you.” He placed his arm around me and said, “All us docs know when we begin to lose our edge. When your time comes many years from now, look me up and I'll point you in the right direction.” I was in the prime of my career and his suggestion felt awkward but I dismissed it as nothing more than a goodbye from an old doc.
My parents were kind to Aiyana but they simply couldn’t provide the love and emotional support of grandparents because they couldn’t provide the love and emotional support to their son. They remained detached and unemotional.
I did my best to spend the the type of quality time with Aiyana I never received from my parents. I hoped to meet a woman who would accept an adopted daughter but the city had changed. It was absorbed by cocaine and materialism. I missed the gracious, humble, and gentle Hopi. It crossed my mind to return and seek a bride on the reservation but I had chosen to take another path and needed to stay the course for the time being.
Aiyana learned to manage her Dyslexia but worked twice as hard as the other kids to graduate prep school. She lacked the academic record and ambition to attend college. She met me in my office and told me she had enlisted in the Army and was going to be trained as a Medic like her father. My heart skipped a beat because the world was a volatile and hostile place.
I remembered the excitement of striking out on my own and supported her decision to enlist. Aiyana hugged me tightly and I knew she was happy to please her father. She received her Medic training at Fort Sam Houston.
Aiyana flourished in the Army where she learned discipline, goal-setting, and was able to work and live amongst a diverse group of soldiers. I was relieved to learn she would be stationed at the Army medical facility in Landstuhl, Germany for the duration of her tour. I settled into the routine of training future surgeons. I had a few dates but nothing serious ever developed. I was still in love with Cat. Whenever one of my blind dates suggested we meet at the Oak Room, I politely suggested another establishment. The Oak Room would always be for me and Chloe.
Aiyana finished her tour of duty, returned home, and told me she was pregnant. The father deserted her. Aiyana wanted to become a nurse like her mother. I told her she could have it all and we would work it out. She gave birth to a healthy baby girl we named Catie. Aiyana was a wonderful mother and I couldn’t help but see my beloved Cat in her face, gestures, and multitasking abilities. Often times I would tear up and Aiyana would put her loving arm around me saying, “There you go again, dad. I miss her too. Mom’s still with us. I can feel her presence.”
When Catie stopped breast feeding, Aiyana began her nursing studies at my medical college affording us the opportunity to be together. We had a wonderful group of devoted nursing students who were paid to provide daycare for Catie. Aiyana graduated nursing school and accepted a position within the family medicine practice at the university hospital. Catie was growing like a weed and already enrolled in preschool near campus.
My parents didn’t age well and each was afflicted with dementia. Towards the end of their lives, they didn’t recognize me. It didn’t hurt me because I’m not certain they ever recognized me for who I was. With Chloe’s advice, I forgave them many years previously. As Redbird said, they were on their own journey and I was on my own. They received the best at home-care money could buy surrounded by their art collection. My father died first and the next day, my mother drank the “cocktail” of prescription medications she had stashed for the appropriate time so she could join her husband on their journey together.
As I was gathering their personal effects, I came across a framed photo of Cat, Aiyana and myself I had sent them years before. I opened the drawer to the night stand adjacent to their bed. Inside the drawer, I found the hand carved little boy Redbird had given me many years before and a collection of my photographs paper clipped to a stack of heartfelt letters they had written to me in Vietnam years ago marked, “Unable to Deliver. Return to Sender” by the Post Office. I opened one of the letters at random revealing their genuine depth of concern for my well being and heartfelt apologies for the love they regretted never providing me at home. In one poignant sentence they wrote, “We gave all of our emotional energy to our patients. We were
emotionally bankrupt at the end of each day. Please forgive us.”
As a surgeon, I could now relate to the emotional investment necessary to care for the sick and wounded and I too returned many a day “emotionally bankrupt”. Chloe knew she was fortunate to receive the “emotional energies” my parents provided her because she said years before to me they “left it all on the field”. I apologized to my parents for resenting them and told them I love you. I knelt beside their bed, buried my head in the mattress and cried like a baby.
Their memorial service was held at a beautiful synagogue on East 65th Street. It’s a large synagogue with high ceilings and seats hundreds. As the Rabbi spoke of my parents, I turned my head to see that only me, Aiyana, and Catie were sitting in the synagogue except for a distinguished older gentleman sitting alone in the back of the synagogue. Given all the illustrious guests my parents entertained in their home over the decades, nobody showed up at their funeral. I concluded many were likely dead but it really didn’t matter in the end. A squeaky wheel echoed through the synagogue and momentarily interrupted the Rabbi. I turned to see an elderly man being pushed along in a rusty beat-up wheel chair to the pew behind us by an old woman who appeared to be his wife. As the Rabbi concluded his eulogy and the prayers were finished, I turned to the old man in the wheelchair and recognized him as Ace Rodriguez because he was wearing his old door man uniform sans the epaulets. I said hello, Ace. I’m Abby. It’s so nice of you to come. He raised his frail arm and I held his hand. Ace managed a smile, whispered “shalom”, and was wheeled from the synagogue.
As we left the synagogue, the distinguished gentleman approached us and extended his hand to shake saying, “Hello Abby. It's Fisk. Please accept my condolences. I read about your parents’ amazing lives in the Times. Would you join me for a drink? I have some advice to impart to you.” Aiyana said, “Go ahead Dad. We'll meet you at home. It was nice to meet you Dr, Fisk.” Aiyana and Catie departed with stroller in tow. Dr. Fisk was aging well. The Arizona desert was good to him. He was dressed like an investment banker and suggested we have a drink at the Oak Bar.
It was a short cab ride to the Plaza Hotel and Oak Bar. It hadn’t changed and we were seated in the same booth Chloe and I celebrated her birthday decades ago. Angelo was no longer tending bar but Mantovani was still the music of choice. Dr. Fisk ordered a dry martini saying, “The Oak Bar and the Plaza Hotel are my home base when I'm in town.” The waiter was patiently awaiting my order and I said: “Bring a pitcher of martinis.” My fond memories of Chloe we're turning melancholy and I needed a drink, fast.
Dr. Fisk got right to the point. “Apparently your parents left you a sizable estate. We docs aren't trained in the art of money management and I want you to speak to my tax and legal experts located here in the city. I made my money unexpectedly and without their guidance, I would have unnecessarily lost much of it to taxes and bad investments.”
The pitcher of martinis arrived and the waiter poured our first drink. I asked: “where’s Angelo the bartender?” The waiter replied, “I've been here ten years Sir and never knew an Angelo.” Dr. Fisk raised his glass and toasted, “To Doctor's Singer. May they rest in peace” He took a long sip, placed the glass down, and continued, “Time slips away from us quickly, Abby.” I raised my glass and said, “Here’s to Chloe”. My hand was noticeably trembling. Dr. Fisk said, “If you think you're losing the edge, I want to tell you about a paradise I found and loved. Afterwards, we'll call my financial advisors.”
It was the “go-go” late eighties and the city was flush with cash. With the assistance of Dr. Fisk’s financial and legal experts, I came to learn my parents estate was formidable including the sizable collection of modern artwork whose painters had become all the rage and both Christie’s and Sotheby’s competed for the right to auction the prize art collection. Their expansive penthouse was in one of the choicest buildings in the Upper East Side and would command dozens of cash offers. We were advised that Aiyana, Catie, and I would never want for anything and had the financial means to spend the rest of our lives traveling the world first class. I was also provided with a method of lessening the estate taxes. They advised me to consult my family before the estate was liquidated.
Aiyana and I had a long talk about how we should spend our fortune while providing for Catie’s future. It didn’t take us long to devise our plan. With the assistance of Dr. Fisk’s legal and tax specialists, we liquidated my parent’s estate and established the “The Cat Medical Education Scholarship Fund” for Hopi youth which Aiyana oversees full time from an office in Dr. Fisk’s new reservation hospital and clinic. I opened the “Redbird and Ace Rodriquez Homeless Shelter and Free Clinic” in New York City and traveled to Mississippi to open the “The Doctor Reginald Abner Clinic and Hospital.”
The evening I sat with Dr. Fisk in the Oak Room, he expressed concern to me about early indications of Parkinson’s disease and urged me to obtain a neurological follow-up which later confirmed the progression of the disease. Dr. Fisk reminded me that I led a full life and to consider what I would want to do if unable to perform surgery. My answer was to awake each day in paradise, be useful, and appreciated. He told me about a beautiful island in French Polynesia where he practiced surgery and was loved by the island inhabitants.
With Aiyana and Catie’s lives settled, I spent a year traveling the many islands of Polynesia settling on the same island Dr. Fisk recommended years before. I was welcomed by the gracious island inhabitants and treated like a returning family member. I set up a general practice clinic from my home which was an oceanfront beach cottage. As the demand for medical services increased, I built the “Chloe Clinic and Hospital” which became a highly sought out destination for brilliant medical residents from throughout the world because of its beautiful setting, welcoming population, and state of the art facility. I know Chloe would have been pleased.
Parkinson’s disease is quickly depriving me of a quality life and the end of my journey is in sight. I’m prepared with my own prescription “cocktail”. I have no regrets, just many fond memories of the wonderful people I’ve encountered along the winding road I’ve traveled through life. I’ve learned that everybody you meet is on their own journey and you can’t win every war whether it’s healing Chloe’s emotional traumas, beating Cat’s cancer, or forcing my parents to provide me with love and attention. The lesson I learned is to accept everybody you meet along the journey for whom they are, appreciate their company while you travel through life together however brief, and remember them fondly when your journeys take separate paths. I reach for my cognac and lift the glass in toast, “Thank you to everybody I have met along the way. I love you.”
I hope your journey will take you to exciting places and you’ll achieve an understanding of who you are. I bid you peace.
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