Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Specialist and The Undertaker

“I tell you, the old-fashioned doctor who treated all diseases has completely disappeared, now there are only specialists, and they advertise all the time in the newspapers. If your nose hurts, they send you to Paris: there's a European specialist there, he treats noses. You go to Paris, he examines your nose: I can treat only your right nostril, he says, I don't treat left nostrils, it's not my specialty, but after me, go to Vienna, there's a separate specialist there who will finish treating your left nostril.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

It seems finding the right medical attention would have been easier in 1880 Russia than it is now for my mother in 2015 Western Massachusetts. At least 135 years ago, there was some humor to be culled from the absurdity of the process.

My mother has been ill with a few possibly related symptoms. It’s easy to jump to conclusions, and naturally the worst-case scenarios plague me day and night.

I’m not a doctor, so I cannot diagnose and treat her. The problem is the person “treating” her isn’t a doctor either. Trapped in Western Massachusetts, she is limited by the number of medical practitioners she can chose from without having to travel to Boston or New York, or Paris or Vienna, which she doesn’t want to do, at least not for repeat visits.

The utter incompetence wrangled in outright arrogance of the Western Massachusetts “medical community” astounds me. My mother has been mistreated in so many ways. I’m often tempted to find a lawyer to make the case for medical negligence, even abuse.

Whether it’s personal or just the way this small-town system disrespects the elderly, my mother sees a physician’s assistant rather than a medical doctor. The practice claims this is all she deserves, despite have Medicare along with a pricy state plan my father had paid into for decades as a state university professor. My mother says this non-MD is “nice,” but yet every time she leaves that office her health continues to decline.

Meantime, my mother has been banned from one of the few specialist offices in this insular community, because she went to see another specialist, one time. It is against the “office policy” to “allow patients back after they have left the practice,” say the churlish staff who command the phones and act as gatekeepers for anyone with any potential intelligence.

For my mother, the challenge of finding doctors to treat her among these parochial confines, is complicated and restricted by an abundance of those who have failed to diagnose and properly treat both my mother’s parents, and my father. All three arguably suffered more than required and died prematurely due to a lack of proper medical attention, even negligence. My mother had been encouraged to file negligence claims. If only for fear of being further ostracized from the Western Massachusetts pond of medical professionals, she refused to take any legal action.

Yesterday, when I called her from my office to check on her latest and most alarming symptom, I asked if she’d made a specialist appointment. After enduring inane phone calls with the office that refuses to allow patients who have “left the practice” back, I embarked on a search for an office with any semblance of compassion.

I finally found another specialist practice, with a far less surly receptionist who heard my plea for my mother’s immediate health woes. Her symptoms constitute what merits a 911 call, but she’ll never make the trip to the ER or consider the post-insurance expense of an ambulance. Meantime, her “primary care” office, by denying her visits with a physician, repeatedly dismisses these critical red flags.

In the midst of this painful conversation -- she was choking back tears and riddled with anxiety and I was mustering any ounce of emotional strength to not openly and loudly weep, instead gnawing the insides of my mouth to keep mum – she shifts gears.

“I know you don’t like taking about funerals,” she opens her new train of thought. This has begun many conversations that have lead along a somber path in my mind and heart, and she knows that.

“But I have to make a decision about a pre-payment I made …”

I’ll abort the conversation, as the minutae of this doesn’t add any substance to the story.

Many hours after my unsuccessful attempts to answer her financial advice query, my husband -- who is far wiser and better equipped to advise her on such matters – managed to elicit her sardonic humor as he explained that her pre-payment was “safe.” She joked that perhaps she’d selected the wrong coffin color, as her eyes are blue, and they’d be closed anyway. I lack the disarming charm to win her jest.

As my husband puts it, “all she knows is death.”

From her early childhood, as the sole surviving sibling, watching her youngest peers, family, and other loved ones, shot down, blown up, brutally murdered, or die from starvation or exposure to elements, it’s no wonder this obsession with death seems “normal” to her. Moreover, none of the lives taken during her early years in prison and work camps, and on the run from various enemy factions, have any real existence after death. There are no marked graves. She has vague recollections of which oblast (region) some were dumped into mass graves. There was no opportunity to mourn properly, to practice any ritual, to honor the dead in any way, at the time of their death.

Even in her “free” life as an American, she has witnessed decades of anguish and torment, especially with the extended illnesses of her parents and her husband, all of whom she cared for alone, at home. She spared no expense for their funerals, but is frugal planning hers, aside from wanted to be sure limo services, taking her survivors 180 miles to and from her home to the monastery, are paid for.

To her, the right of burial is a great honor. I just wish I could make it easier for her. Coming from a very different perspective – one of weakness and a lack of the real-life experience that most people in a violent world must endure -- I empathize, but so detest the business of death in the United States, and want no part of it. For her, even the most gruesome of “parlors” offers a dignity that doesn’t exist during war or in death camps.

By the time I was my son’s age, 5½, I’d attended dozens of funerals with open caskets. After all, it’s just an extension of Russia’s death-laden folktales or skazki. And those are for children.

Vladimir Propp's The Historical Roots of the Magic Tale (1946) was criticized for being too dependent on Western scholarship and, worse yet, placing Russian narrative in a global context. Written 18 years after his Morphology of the Folktale, which was panned for being too formalist, Propp aimed to prove that folktales originated in ritual, especially initiation and funeral rites. In order to avoid prison and losing his professorship, Propp’s subsequent work, Russian Heroic Epic (1958), would take on a more Marxian, even Marxist, tone. But seven years before his own funeral, Propp returned to the acceptance and explanation of calendrical ritual in Russian Agrarian Holidays (1963).

To this day, I dream of mass graves I have never seen, but was told about as a young child, as well as funerals, past and future. My science-focused son speaks frankly and openly about death and dying, even as it relates to humans. But he has yet to ask me about a funeral. Trust that with my own myth-steeped experience, that’s the “big talk” I most dread as a mother.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A “Vetuchu” Perspective on Veteran’s Day

I haven’t written about Veteran’s Day since I was assigned to do it by Wilbraham, Mass., public schools in the 1970s, or to cover memorial events as a cub newspaper reporter. I recall coming home from elementary school to delve into one of my father’s gargantuan etymological dictionaries to figure out how Veteran’s Day differed from Memorial Day, when we were doled out identical assignments. Basically, I learned it meant old, and specifically in Old Church Slavonic (still used in the Russian Orthodox liturgy) it was derived from “vetuchu,” meaning old.

The focus of Lubachka is on the civilian survivors and casualties of war, but today I’m writing about my American-born father and his U.S. military service. I know that witnessing so many civilian (as well as fellow soldier) casualties as such a young man had a tremendous impact on him, and certainly would help him empathize with the horrific plight of his future wife and her family.

Looking at this from a “vetuchu” perspective is unavoidable, as even fewer records of my father’s military service exist than those of my mother’s early childhood in work camps and civilian prisons. Michael William Gural’s military records were among the approximately 16-18 million destroyed in a July 12, 1973, fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis suburb.

Moreover, I generally avoid writing or speaking about Veteran’s Day because of my strong views opposing much of U.S. military policy and action, present and future. But none of that undermines the tremendous respect I have for those men and women who were either forced or volunteered to serve their country, or at least do what they thought was best at the time.

I have a lot of anecdotal evidence of my father’s various stints in the U.S. Army, including how he was one of few survivors of a leisure swim off a boat during a tsunami in the South Pacific. A broad-shouldered, former competitive swimmer, my father did what he could to save others swept away in the violent waters.

Other stories were less heroic or tragic musings on daily life in the bunker, like how other enlisted young men (never him, he stressed) would use isopropyl alcohol to set ablaze the toes of a sleeping solider, peeping out of worn socks and combat boots that had been busted open with overuse. (My father was more a big-hearted comedian than a prankster.)

I also recall my father saying he’d lied that he was two years older to gain access early to ROTC so that he could both send money home to his impoverished immigrant factory worker parents in Newark, N.J., and also qualify for the GI Bill.

That evidence exists. The National Archives online database lists both the Michael Gural enlisting in 1943 at age 18. (He was born in 1926, and therefore was only 16 at the time.) Under serial number 32922859, my father is noted to have been “skilled occupations in the manufacture of miscellaneous products.” But based on serial number 12102416, my father reportedly enlisted in 1944, this time with his real birthdate of Oct. 18, 1926, as a Medical Administrative Corps (MAC) Officer.

I know he wore many hats during his years in the Army, also serving as a radio sergeant, a cook aboard the boat that encountered the deadly tsunami, fighting on D-Day, and eating horse meat while deployed ahead of the Korean War.

For all his sacrifices, my father was punished despite his greatest efforts to help and protect the United States. When he volunteered to parachute into Siberia -- because: a) he was too poor to ever parachute recreationally and really wanted to do it; and b) he spoke Russian – he was red listed. That punishment carried on for decades, well into my childhood and teens. We had an unlisted phone number to avoid the harassing and threatening calls of “commie” and “pinko.” He also was fired after a brief stint in a dream job with The Bureau of Labor for his alleged affiliation with anti-American factions.

To temper my views on Veteran’s Day, I’ll leave you with three quotes from my father’s peer Kurt Vonnegut, who dropped out of Cornell in January 1943 to enlist in the U.S. Army. Deployed to Europe to fight in World War II, Vonnegut was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, and interned in Dresden, where he survived the Allied bombing by hiding in a meat locker.

Reflecting on his own experience: “The Second World War absolutely had to be fought. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. But we never talk about the people we kill. This is never spoken of.”

From my favorite Vonnegut novel, Slaughterhouse-Five: “You know we've had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves. We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock ‘My God, my God,’ I said to myself. ‘It's the Children's Crusade.’"

I risk enraging some who haven’t read Cat's Cradle, but this quote must be taken in the context of the novel. The tedious task of writing local Veteran’s Day feature articles slapped across the top of the front page with a sprawling American flag graphic that put nothing in perspective (while real wars played out in the streets, gang violence claiming young lives almost daily) always makes me recall it: “Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns.”

Tuesday, March 3, 2015









These are among the many misspellings of my mother’s maiden name as they appear on various prisoner, work and displaced persons papers from Germany. The Anglicized, phonetic spelling my maternal grandparents choose was GRISHAEV. Grishaev is a patronymic surname formed by adding a Russian suffix to the personal name Grigori (Gregory). Grigori was my maternal grandfather’s first name.

As many variations for the spellings of first names Grigori, Alexandra (my maternal grandmother) and Luba (my mother) exist on those German records.

The English spellings they choose were very important in creating a permanent identity once they arrived in the United States in 1950.

Today is my Babushka’s birthday. She was born March 3, 1913, in Dubrovka, Vitebsk Oblast, and died March 4, 1998, at my mother’s home and under my mother’s sole care in Wilbraham, Massachusetts. As part of my remembrance process (a hybrid of grief and fond and joyful recollection), I was going trough photos and records mostly from the 1940s.

I have countless times compared the different misspellings and what they might imply. Yet it only occurred to me this morning why mother was so upset by my tween and early teenage practice of playing with different existing and made-up spellings of my own name.

As a young girl I thought: it’s my name, I can do with it what I want. As a westerner, why would I think otherwise? Clearly I’d shut off my eastern mind and for decades shut out contemplating what drove my mother’s emotional and adamant reaction to my name word play. To me it was as innocent as practicing new eye makeup application techniques, one of my favorite 1980s pastimes.

Poring over these papers this morning, entering all German text into Google Translate, I was walloped with a fresh dose of guilt over all the anguish my tween and teenage rebellion inflicted on my mother.

Of course she was angry that I’d want to spell Natasha, which is the best phonetic transliteration of Ната́ша, any other way. I was taking for granted being born in a country free of deadly domestic upheaval and genocide. I was lucky that U.S. agencies and authorities agreed to document my name as it was given.

As a student of Russian literature, I became obsessed with the origins and meanings of names, but yet my own mother’s visceral objection to my manipulation of the spelling of my name eluded me until now. In my attempt to delve deeper into the meaning of 19th century texts, I’d alienated myself from my own mother.

In my own ignorant defense, I meant nothing by adding or subtracting or substituting letters in my name and now feel foolish for not realizing why and how I’d hurt my mother. At the same time, I was inscribing Bowie and Le Bon as my last name on the backs of notebooks and textbooks. My mother had no problem with the surnames, as long as Natasha was in tact. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Binds of Birthplace and Social Aspiration

Certainly I cannot compare my early childhood with my mother’s, as by all human standards I have been extremely fortunate. Yet we both were plagued by very similar social pressures, brought on by our very different circumstances of birth, manifesting in stereotypical opposites.

A first generation American born into the middle class, only because my maternal grandparents and my parents worked around the clock at menial jobs and spent as little money as possible, I envied the new money spendthrift heyday of the 1980s and loathed the old money elitism of established New England.

Constantly reminded that I was not like the other kids, whether it was shopkeepers claiming I had a German accent or girls teasing me for wearing off-label clothes, I quickly developed a complex further exacerbating my abnormal behavior. My early attempts at embracing a preppy look were thwarted by my inability to convert prominent Eastern European features into generic Waspiness. My Sperry Top-Siders from Marshalls were “irreugular” (the wrong shade of stone) and my whale print raincoat wasn’t reversible and maybe not even real vinyl.

I was barely a tween when I learned about David Bowie, and from the son of a Russian Orthodox priest. I’d found my real cultural identity, the one I still embrace, before I understood many of the concepts that defined it. As I learned everything I could about the history of counter culture, I was baffled at how my mother escaped any brushes with the celebrated 1960s youth movement. How could she choose to become a social conformist over a free spirit? It made no sense to me that someone who’d been persecuted and oppressed from birth would opt out of the counter-culture and drop into the normative.

Not to undermine all her struggles of assimilating into American society, as her first years in the United States brought on suicidal thoughts. But owing to a regulation hottie status maintained by a daily diet of three hard-boiled eggs and three small oranges, my mother blossomed into the prototypical high school sweetheart with movie star looks. She ruled the workplace in high fashion and perfectly coiffed hair, her bosses inviting her on their family getaways, gifting her with golf clubs and pardoning her days off. She effortlessly switched careers, without worry of scoring her next job in a hetero-normative marketplace where a bright, educated woman with an exotic name and a flawless complexion would always be hired.

For years I’d be told by people, mostly men, my mother had worked with, studied with or socialized with in her younger years, that “she was so beautiful,” even “the most beautiful woman,” and of course with a “figure to die for.” This often was punctuated by “and you look just like your father.” It was exactly what an insecure, self-conscious teenage girl did not need to be told.

Somehow I was, by my physical imperfections, cursed by my Eastern European heritage while my mother had transcended the ideal of American beauty.

It’s taken me decades of feeling inadequate and inferior to my mother’s enviable appearance in her younger years (she lost weight during her pregnancy with me due to illness and complications and was stunning and slender immediately after my birth), to realize how we could have chosen such different social aspirations.

My mother’s desire to be a typical American teenager is born from her lack of any identity, any access to clothing or amenities of any kind and any connection to a society, as a young child. My exposure to the 1980s stock- and real estate-market wealth explosion (and implosion), as well as the old guard New England mainstay, would fuel my ongoing passion for a pop art, post-punk rebellion.

I am ashamed when I curse America, knowing how being born here is a privilege, particularly for someone of my family background. Still, I see how this country continues to force outsiders into assimilation and how my mother’s success at gaining one-time social prominence has made it more difficult for her to cope with the struggles of post-traumatic stress and survivor guilt as she now lives in (largely self-imposed) isolation. After giving up her own life to care for at home her sick father and then her ailing mother and then my cancer-stricken father, she never has regained any ambition to live the American dream.