Cancer in the Family

I’m fascinated by the impact our decisions create; some with major historical waves or most with barely noticeable little fluctuations in the air. Does anything really happen for a reason? My short history’s peppered with the lives of my mother and father and their parents. So here I investigate what my father gave me.

Everyone projects their life expectancy with an equation including a family history. Hoping to uncover relevant information, sifting through our historical data sometimes leaves golden nuggets in our miners pans. Some data insists on investigation although the output may never relate to an end result. Pun intended. I found a hand drawn family tree when sorting through my fathers personal notes a few weeks ago. My family going back to pre 1910 Russia, predating Stalin’s takeover and thus you’re reading my words now.

In 1941, my dad came into his life in a Brooklyn, NY posh Jewish walkup. My grandfather, Jack, born Jacob, one of four children, and the middle son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father, Isaac after whom I am named, was a renowned Rabbinical Cantor who happened to die as the result of vehicular manslaughter committed by a Cuban National in the ‘50s. No breaking tire skid marks were found at the scene, said police, and the driver, a medical doctor, claimed he honked his horn from about a block away when he saw an old man crossing through the next intersection. This Cuban physician, although found preliminarily guilty by a Miami Beach judge and released for trial, was instead extradited and sent running 90 miles south from Miami to Havana.

Not so ironically, Jack had run rum from Cuba to New York during the Prohibition, which in turn led him to a very lucrative career as a purveyor of alcoholic beverages once liquor became a legal substance. Among Jews, four rabbinical groups were approved to purchase wine for services in the temples, which led to some competition for membership. The supervision of sacramental licenses could be used to secure donations to support a religious institution. There were known abuses in this system, with imposters or unauthorized agents using loopholes to purchase wine.

I try not to draw conclusions in the face of such coincidences. But no one ever saw Cantor Kaminsky’s music after he was killed. My grandfather left countless letters from pleading rabbis and cantors for access to the music so it may live on. Jack never relented and all that’s found is one Hanukkah liturgy, still sung today, still felt in the hallowed temples of Orthodox Jews.

His business partnership with his younger brother Morris: stores that sold alcoholism to at risk minority groups in demographically strategic locations around the five boroughs of New York. My grandparents smiled and dressed like movie stars – both good looking and expensively dressed in their photographs: at their cabana at the Fontainebleau pool, in the nightclubs of New York and Miami Beach, holding me as an infant later on in years.

My father took an entirely different approach to Cuba. Instead of capitalizing on the sugar cane fermented sweet rum, my grandfather’s wealth from such profiteering afforded his leftist son (my father was a southpaw as well as a communist) a five year run as a translator who spoke very little Spanish and a decent news caster disguised as a jazz disc jockey (or vice-versa)for Radio Free Cuba. The parallels tantalize even the worst imaginations to seek out commonality in difference. His father looked for any opportunity to show his only son his love and acceptance, while the son looked at these gifts as shadows of something he declared throughout his life as “not quite” what he needed and “never what he [I] really wanted”.

My grandmother, Lee, née Leah Fuchs, born also to Russian immigrant parents, attended high school in Brooklyn at PS 21, graduating in 1921. Leah, a popular and beautiful girl who, after her friends signed her senior autograph book, modeled hats for department stores before marrying Jack in the 1920s. By 1941 when Len, born Leonard arrived, she’d spent her adult life living through innumerable miscarriages and nearly died giving birth to my father.

Amazingly, my father never felt loved enough. Feeling short changed by parents who desperately wanted him, their beloved son experienced the best life could offer a Jewish boy in the 40s and 50s in New York City. A city he loved in return for its embrace of his defiance of his parents’ beliefs. My father became a divorced communist atheist by 1972.

Lee died when I was four years old, and photographs of her in the final years of her shortened life show her embracing me in custom little dresses she had made for me in posh Lincoln Road dressmaker shops. She had found her salvation through grandchild as daughter. I imagine the fact that I spoke full sentences by 6 months helped in allowing her to elevate my young ego and she spent little time without me. She had a radical mastectomy, chemical therapies and eventually died in the hospital and in severe pain, leaving my grandfather heartbroken.

My father eventually died of brain cancer at 71. His personality prior to the ordeal was altered significantly due to chemical changes in his brain. He became incapable of controlling his anger and cursing and mean behavior. The surgeon neglected to tell me what we might expect. Thank you modern medical professionals. Forgetting the closest people to the patient isn’t uncommon with brain surgery, either.

It’s hard not to take such outbursts personally- because it is. It is personal to the one on the receiving end. All of it. When my dad first woke up from his 28 hour brain surgery he cursed at me, yelled and sent me away. We were so close before that yet it took two years for us to repair our scarred relationship enough to have him book a trip out to California which he never got to make.

I used Hospice services with my dad, also with my best friend who died at 37 of HIV related illness. Same scenario for my maternal grandmother who died years before my father in the same loving facility and in the same exact dimly lit room. Ironically though they hated one another. Also hospice was there with my grandfather Jack at his Miami condo.

In the hospital environment for my best friend Allan and later my dad, they were helpful throughout the entire process including wishes for end of life and all the dirty shit for grieving people who do not have the emotional strength to pull it all together. It’s too much for anyone. They also offered me perspective at a time when I was angry for losing two people who meant nearly everything to me.

How can I go on – I go on. Now I’m angry for different reasons but it seems no one wants to deal with stage 4 cancer and a prolonged state of severe depression that’s taking such a toll on me I cannot keep my anger contained. I seriously don’t understand why C still cannot get out of his own way for a long enough time to give me the emotional or physical support I so desire. Then I remember he can’t help it. I feel ashamed for my lack of patience and the need to be here for him is making me resentful. Until something happens.

I know I’m angry with C for having hereditary depression. I hold out my hope like some stupid flag leading a parade of one. I seem to be the only one left in his life, since he isolated himself from everyone else. Yet he’s so much better and I’m still quite angry. Learning to drop the anger and pick up the baton of gratitude must not get lost as an objective if I’m to live a full and rich life.

You see my point. I am angry with all of them to some degree. I’ve spent too much time crying and not nearly enough time being grateful. You see, cancer takes its victims down into places so dark and ugly sometimes we even hate ourselves – we are not humans we become a cancer in a body of genetic tangles as we, the progeny walk towards the graves our greats and grandparents now and forever inhabit.

Yet we, as their hopes, fade in our dying bodies.