My father was a doctor, a general practitioner–G.P.–as his type was called back then when it was very common. Regular patients called him “Dr. Bill,” instinctively combining honorific with nickname to indicate their respect and affection. At the age of 12 he had emigrated from Russia to the States with his mother and siblings, his father having preceded them. His name is listed in the archives at the Ellis Island Museum: “William S. Bernstein, Russian (Jewish).”
His first job in America was driving a laundry truck. Needless to say, he was rapidly learning English and simultaneously attending school. His formidable mother commandeered the notion that the Jews were “the people of the book” and gave the claim her own interpretation. (Originally, “the book” meant only sacred texts.) But my grandmother, as practical as she was pious, knew that a successful formal education was essential to making one’s way up the ladder economically and socially. Her husband fully, and sternly, agreed. With rueful amusement, my dad told the tale of going to his father to announce with delight that he had received the grade of 98 percent on an important math test, only to receive the reply “And what happened to the other two percent?”
In due course, my father earned an undergraduate degree at Cornell University, a medical degree from Long Island College Hospital, and hung out his shingle. From the time of my earliest recollections, his office and our family living quarters were under the same roof in a workaday Brooklyn neighborhood. He made house calls, even in the middle of the night if the situation required it, and if the poorer people who consulted him couldn’t afford even his modest fees, he didn’t charge them.
Though he may not have been a specialist, like a surgeon, he had a specialty: He was a crackerjack diagnostician. Example: Our local friends tended to congregate casually on our front porch. My parents and I were sitting there one afternoon with a bunch of them when Herbie Bass strolled by. A sturdily built fellow in his mid-twenties, he was the son of a woman in my mother’s mahjong group. Flashing his splendid smile, he stopped to say hello, but didn’t take the seat offered him, making it clear that he was about to move on to a more exciting scene. My father, with his keen analytic eye, didn’t waste a moment on small talk or even on a “How are you?” “Come with me,” he commanded Herbie, hailed a cab, half dragged the astonished young man into it, and away they drove, at law-breaking speed. Later that day we found out that my father had sensed that Herbie was bleeding internally from an ulcer. Any delay and he might have been dead. Instead, thanks to my father, he lived, and eventually–irresistible smile flashing, olive skin glowing, hazel eyes glinting–married the girl he was no doubt on his way to see that fateful day. Or so I like to believe.
Shortly afterward, Carl Feldman, a self-effacing man who lived down the street in a shabby house, was diagnosed with a cancer rushing toward its terminal stage, and my father had a long talk in our living room with Carl’s lovely wife, Jeannette. (Faint southern accent, jet hair, dark wondering eyes, and skin like that of a peach, with a velvety texture and a pink tint at the cheekbones.) Her looks were so delicate, her manner so gentle, it seemed criminal to tell her the terrible truth of the situation. But my father did, within my hearing, as it happened. (Patients and their dear ones never objected to my presence, even in the consulting room. I must have seemed so young and innocent as to be invisible or uncomprehending.)
My father told Jeannette about her husband’s prognosis as sympathetically as could be possible under the dire circumstances. And he adhered to it, insisted upon it unwaveringly–science was science and hopeful lies were anathema–during a miraculous six-month remission, in which Carl would sit on a bench in front of his home every afternoon, playing in the sun with his two beautiful little daughters, replicas of their mother, if more lively.
When Carl finally died, my father didn’t attend the funeral, as a devoted family doctor in that time and place would be likely to do. My father didn’t go to funerals; he couldn’t bear to. He was an assiduous servant of Life, enemy of Death, and did not lend himself to Death’s pageants. He told me once that he had been spurred to become a doctor after watching a half dozen of his siblings die in infancy from diphtheria in the Old Country.
Of course eventually he had to go to his own mother’s funeral or never face his family again. (Five other siblings had survived, married, and procreated. The entire clan, presumably by fiat, gathered together every Sunday afternoon at my imperious grandmother’s apartment.) At the synagogue for the services, I remember my adamantly non-observant father, leaning stiffly forward on the front bench reserved for the chief mourners, eyes fixed on my Orthodox grandmother’s raw wood coffin as, in the ritual symbolizing bereavement, the rabbi pinned a strip of black grosgrain ribbon to his lapel, then slit it halfway through with a large sharp-bladed scissors. And I remember his striding angrily away from the soggy burial ground the moment the graveside rituals finished, a high wind riffling his thinning hair and the slashed ribbon, tears streaming down his craggy face.
My father was not given to crying. The only other time I saw him breaking down like that was after he examined my glamorous Aunt Flossie, when she came to him, too late (was her delay due to modesty? to fear?) with bleeding from the vagina and he found her far advanced with cancer in her “women’s parts,” as the family would say later. While the patient dressed in his office downstairs, my father joined her husband (my beloved Uncle Harry), who had waited out the examination with my mother (his younger sister), and me (the child who silently absorbed everything) in our living quarters above. As he climbed the stairs towards us, I leaned over the banister and saw that he was weeping. Tersely he delivered his diagnosis, referred to an operation that clearly held out no hope, and poured out two shots of his best whiskey for himself and Uncle Harry. I don’t remember hearing the usual Jewish toast as they raised their glasses and downed their first aid for shock in the customary single gulp: Le’chayim! (To life!).
My father’s own death came too soon. He was only 59. Chronically overworked, he tried to overlook his developing heart condition, resorting occasionally to nitroglycerine tablets for the angina and, absurdly, pacing the living room when he remembered he should exercise. Even after his initial heart attack, he might have been spared if he hadn’t insisted upon rising from his hospital bed to supervise a pressing project–the building of a nursing home inspired, ironically, by his new-found interest in geriatrics. It wasn’t until a decade later that I realized how alike we were (I’d always assumed I took after my artistic mother, who was also easier to love), determined to work until we dropped to fulfill our vision of what could be accomplished with zeal and luck.
© 2009 Tobi Tobias