The public health nurse came to our living room and sat on the green couch. One cushion had a dramatic cigarette burn where mom had dropped a cigarette. We moved the ashtrays and the big silver lighter from the coffee table. The nurse brought a big folder. As she opened it, forms and brochures tumbled out.
Mom sat down, but my sister Elaine and I stood. The nurse got right to business:
“Your father has tuberculosis and that means he can not come home. In California, it is against the law for him to be here with children in the home.”
I knew dad was in the hospital, but I didn’t really know quite why. This Nurse was delivering the news.
Just a few days earlier, I came home from school. It seemed normal. I walked from Will Rodgers Jr. High School. I dragged my pile books and binders up the stairs to our apartment. On the way home, I stopped with friends for our usual 25-cent taco. We hung around the dairy queen. Finally, around 4:30 in the afternoon, I went home.
I walked through the house; not expecting anyone to be home and indeed it was empty. I began to rummage around in the kitchen. I cranked open the windows to get some ocean breeze. At night we could hear the ocean, 2 blocks away. In the afternoon we got a nice cooling breeze from the sea.
“I wonder why nobody is home? It’s kind of late”.
I put some water in a pot and boiled two hot dogs. I made a little sandwich and sat in the dining room. Wonder bread and hot dogs. “Yumm”.
Finally, at 8:00 pm, my sister came home.
She looked worried. She said, “Mikey, dad is sick. He is in the hospital.”
That was it. I didn’t know why. I didn’t ask why. It seemed odd. I don’t recall dad ever being sick. I thought, “Was he ever sick?”
Dad went to work every day. He would shave and put on his Mennen’s after-shave. Sometimes he would slap my face with that bright green sweet smelling lotion. I loved the smell. When dad was done, he would rinse out the sink with Isopropyl alcohol. Didn’t everyone do that? It made things clean. That alcohol gave off a clean smell. Didn’t everyone have a bottle by the sink?
The nurse in our living room had come to tell us all to get tested for TB.
I asked her:
“What is TB? Can you catch it?”
The nurse patiently explained the disease. She also told us:
“You should never tell anyone your dad has TB. You should always lie. You should say, if pressed, that he has a lung infection. That is the truth, but not the whole truth.
She told us: “People are afraid of TB. If you tell them about your dad, they may be afraid of you. So just never tell.”
Through some kind of family social networking, dad was admitted to the City of Hope hospital in Duarte, California. He was there for 1 year. It was 38 miles from our home.
My mother and father had bought a small delicatessen in Long Beach. They worked 16 hours a day, almost every day. Now, mom was alone in “the store” as we called it. She would bring in others to help. In time, I would help.
Mom, already exhausted, became still more besieged as she began to make the weekly drive through Los Angeles to The City of Hope. There was no fast highway. We crawled along in heavy traffic. Our car would often over-heat and break down. My job was to ride along. When we stalled, I would jump out and raise the hot hood. The chrome trim on our Chevrolet burned as I tried to pry the hood open. Smoke and steam would blast into my face. The air was choked with 1955 LA Smog. It was so very hot. I hated the drive.
When we arrived at the hospital, it seemed an oasis. The road to dad’s ward was lined with blooming flowers . Mom and I sat at a picnic table in a tall grove of eucalyptus trees. By the time we arrived, it was late afternoon and beginning to cool. The aroma of the trees was soothing. I was not allowed inside the hospital, but dad could meet us outside.
Dad always seemed tired. He was pale. He always wore a seersucker blue robe. Normally he would hug and kiss me on the cheek. He called me “Mikey Boy”. Now, there was no touching. My parents talked about the store. They probably talked about money. I was oblivious. I was imagining the grinding drive back to Long Beach. It was always just as bad as the drive-in to the hospital. On the return drive, we had the added benefit of the setting sun as blasted through the smog and straight into our eyes.
At home, I began to have, what I now know to be: anxiety attacks. I would often not want to go to school. I would throw up. I was “worried.” That was the word I used to describe my feeling of fear. It was “the worry” that would crawl through my limbs and fill my body. It accompanied me to school and throughout each day.
Mom seemed always at work, but at times, at night, we would sit on the edge of her bed and talk.
“Did you know dad was sick?”
“Yes, dad has had TB before, but he got well. He’ll get well again”
“Why didn’t you or Elaine ever tell me?” “Why didn’t I know?”
Mom didn’t answer but sighed.
The little bedside chats always made me feel better. I would pour out my daily 13 year-old Jr. High travails. At school, when the anxiety grew, I would think about going home and “talking to Mom.” Just the thought of our talk helped me get through the day.
Despite by my worry, I did go to school. Each morning, I would consider staying home, claiming illness. But I got dressed and walked the 2 miles to school. That seemed to be my duty.
One dayl, in class, a student entered our room and walked to the teacher with a note.
The teacher announced loudly. “MIKE GORODEZKY go to the office.” The student who had brought the note walked down the hall with me. Alone in the hall he said:
“I see you are going to see the shrink.”
I flushed with embarrassment. “The Shrink!” I knew what that meant. It meant some one thought something was wrong with me.
I was ushered into a tiny office to meet alone with a small, soft spoken man. He began by telling me that my mom was worried about me.
“Can you tell me what is going on, Michael?”
I immediately began to sob. Could my humiliation become still worse.
I was seeing a shrink and now I was crying.
“Its ok Michael. Do you use Michael or Mike”
“Mike I gasped through my tears and running nose.”
“Here, Mike” He handed me a tissue.
“My Dad is in the hospital. He’s been gone a long time.”
We spent an hour together. I walked back to class alone. I had finally told someone the big secret. I felt better. I felt calmer. Talking helped me.
At home, mom said:
“I just didn’t know what to do, honey, so I called the school.” She seemed to be apologizing to me.
“I just didn’t know what to do.”
Slowly some of our family rituals began to connect.
My father would take leftover food my plate at dinner. I was never allowed to have any of his remaining food.
No one in the family shared food. We did not kiss on the lips. In fact, we thought it was creepy when anyone tried to kiss us on the lips.
At school, when someone wanted a bite of food from me, I would simply give them the entire ice cream cone or the coke or whatever they wanted to eat or drink from me. If anyone called “bites” and took a nibble, I could not continue to eat it, even my favorite cookie. It was ruined.
In my family germ phobia was normal.
It all began to make sense. There had been a family secret.
Some months before Dad went into the hospital I had begun to study for my bar mitzvah. Each Wednesday, I took a bus to a nearby temple. I met with a very young rabbi who taught me the sections of the Torah that I would be expected to read. The date of my big day was coming very soon. I was actually doing to something like dress-rehearsals. I would chant a bit of a prayer, then I would take a silver torah pointer as a guide as I read the Hebrew words from the scrolls of the Torah.
As I approached the temple, I noticed my name was posted outside announcing my own bar mitzvah. This was real.
Rabbi Kaplan met me at the door. He was not my regular teacher. He was dressed very formally in a suit. I wore my standard blue jeans and a white t-shirt.
He took me into his book lined office with leather furniture. It was very quiet. He pointed me in a big leather chair across from his desk. A large clock ticked. I looked around the office, trying to figure out why I was in this different, elegant room.
The rabbi asked me to tell him what was going on at home. I took a breath. My Jr. Hi counselor had taught me that breathing could help me relax.
I described the situation with my father.
“I know Milton. I am so sorry he is ill, but you know Michael, he will be getting well.”
“I can see how worried you are, Michael.”
“Yes, I don’t know when he will come home.”
“Michael, he will come home.” I felt the tears coming. I wanted to be a man. I took deep breaths to keep control. Men do not cry.
Rabbi Kaplan continued, “I want to ask you something.” He paused.
“Michael, I know your Bar Mitzvah is this coming Saturday, but would you like to postpone it? We could reschedule it when you father is home.”
The image of the outdoor sign outside flashed in my mind. Everyone knew this was happening. Invitations had been sent. My grandmother from Kansas City, my religious grandmother, was coming. How could I postpone it?