Taking Over the Waiting Room

My mother called to give me an update on my aunt Ruthie’scondition. She had a cancer-spotted kidney removed a few days ago,and the family Jew-Ex was hot with medical reports. My mother, whosecurse it was to be the firstborn, was cursed a second time by havinga daughter who she used to liken to her sister Ruth whenever Istepped out of line — which was often, according to my mother.Ruthie’s curse was to be born two years after my mother and to neverhave had a daughter.

In the course of our phone conversation, Mother and I talked aboutmy grandmother and how she lived to 94 — namely, by never going todoctors. The only time she ever saw the interior of an examining roomwas when her eyes were examined by Dr. Kauderer, which was once everyfive years or whenever her glasses broke. I have her last pair ofglasses, and when I tried them on recently, I realized that her eyeswere better at the end of her life than mine are now.

If she were alive today, she would be considered in the vanguardof alternative medicine. My grandmother dispensed her own antidotes:for croupy chest, a slab of mustard plaster that, when removed, alsotook with it the last layer of skin (I swore that was the reason Iwas flat-chested until 15); a wool sock filled with kosher salt,heated in the oven, placed behind the ear for earaches (I used thison my son); cold baths for high fevers; milk of magnesia forclogging; and enemas for everything else, including the common cold.

I used to go to school sick rather than be treated by her brand ofmedicine, but my cheeks blazed with fever and gave me away, and I wassent home to face the medical establishment. My grandmother wasalways in. Since being sick in my house always carried the extraweight that death was just around the corner, vigils were the waydeath was warded off.

My family is absolutely terrific if someone is in the hospital. Wetake over the waiting room from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. We read charts,question the doctors, rearrange the furniture, solve other people’shealth problems and sometimes, as in the case of my uncle Joey, savelives.

It was my aunt Ruthie who discovered that he was running a feverafter a gall bladder operation more than 25 years ago. She refused tobe dismissed and pressed the doctor to find the reason. Joey wasbeing attacked by a virus that had invaded his blood and probablywould have killed him had it not been for Ruthie — or Nurse Klavell,as she used to be known.

And, now, as I write this, a vigil is happening in a Miamihospital for Ruthie. My aunt Syl, aunt Adele, Ruthie’s boys, Michaeland Stevie, and my mother are standing guard against the angel ofdeath. Those of us in the diaspora get the news strained throughselective memories and stories. Take the topic of yesterday’swaiting-room conversation: the upcoming wedding of Ruthie’sgranddaughter and how she has been told to wear navy blue. Navy blue?

I remember when my grandmother was told to wear yellow for mywedding — the first one where color coordination mattered. Not onlydid she wear pink, but she walked down the aisle alone, refusing tolean on anyone’s arm — proof that she was in no way infirm. How ourconversation segued to my wedding, I’ll never know, but my mother andI were matching memories, and I disagreed about who paid for mywedding gown (me, and it was $60 wholesale), who allowed mygrandmother to wear pink (me), and, suddenly, she backed off andsaid: “You’re a writer, so if you want to remember things like that,go ahead. I understand.”

What’s a girl to do? So I pretended to be one of those consecutivetranslators at the United Nations, and here’s how I heard it: “I’mright, but you’re not exactly wrong.” I think we’ve reached amilestone in our communication system.

I come from a tightly knitted family in which disagreements arenever resolved, because everyone is right. My aunt Ruthie soughtjustice and understanding in this family and received none. But, now,as she lies in the intensive-care unit, she has everyone’s attention,finally. And everyone has solidarity on one issue: No one should beforced to wear a navy blue dress.

Linda Feldman, a former columnist for the Los Angeles

Times, is the co-author of “Where To Go From Here: DiscoveringYour Own Life’s Wisdom,” due out his fall from Simon &Schuster.

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