Thursday, October 18, 2018

Discovering Joy In Memory Eternal

Roaring laughter and exhilaration breathed new life into my parents’ living room, where a group of my father’s closet friends and professorial colleagues gathered on this day in 1996 to fete his 70th birthday. It was a radical departure from the everyday remorse that created an atmosphere in that room, so heavy that it was like trudging through cement while blinded by fog. 

The small party was a surprise organized by my mother and me to honor my father, Michael William “Brother Mike” Gural. The house where I was raised and where my mother still lives alone, has played host to more memorials, wakes (including my maternal babushka spending the night in an open casket in the dining room), and other rituals focused on death and loss, rather than cheerful festivities. Up until two years ago when my son Michael Alexander guided me back to the church with a commitment to faith that didn’t involve profound and constant sadness, misery, guilt, and mourning, I thought I was “sinning” if I wasn’t constantly lugging a ponderous sense of worthlessness.

Looking back to Oct. 18 22 years ago, I now realize the joy that transformed the living room into a celebration of life was the most truly Orthodox experience I’ve had there, in the house where I was partly raised. (I spent most of my formative years with my maternal babushka and degushka in a very different multi-ethnic urban neighborhood, which made going to school in a very white, very quintessential New England, suburb a culture shock.) My babushka and my father died in that house. My babushka’s death bed remains as a shrine, and my childhood bedroom where my father drew his last breath is where my husband and I sleep when we visit. My mother tempestuously scolded me several years ago when I commented that it was depressing to sleep in that room and eat in that dining room: “Obviously, you didn’t love your grandmother or your father!”

 (This photo was taken in the early 2002, at my 8th floor walk up on 178 Thompson St.. It was my dad's last visit to New York. His pain, walking up 24 tiny pre-WWI flights of stairs, didn't dull that trademark Brother Mike smile.)

I must remind myself to embrace that joyous Oct. 18, 1996, when Brother Mike’s crystal blue eyes glistened and his impeccably white, straight teeth shined as he flashed a fixed (well, for the duration of the celebration) smile. That’s the image of my father I strive to hold dear, every minute. That image reminds me so much of the grandson he never met. My son’s hand gestures, when he begins to wax philosophical about a correlation he’s just discovered, uncannily mimic those of the дідусь (didus) he never met.

Of course my father had a dark side, though the best of it was his black humor and his penchant for classic horror and the occult, which I immediately adopted. He told me, repeatedly over three decades: “If you can accept that life in 99 percent disappointment, you may find happiness.” He joked on Oct. 18, 1996, “You must all know something I don’t. Clearly, I’m about to die.”

Brother Mike, who never took an aspirin or any prescription medication, who swam and exercised every day, who labored outdoors every day, who never smoked, who drank only socially, who ate vegetables he grew, who voraciously studied natural medicine and curated his own supplements, was in fact “dying” on Oct. 18. 1996. Specifically, despite his doctors’ incessant claims that “you’re healthier than any of 30-year-old patients,” my father was dying of cancer that went undiagnosed until four years later, when it was Stage IV and metastasized to every vital organ, and eventually his brain.

In an effort to maintain the joy that permeated Oct. 18, 1996, I won’t rant about the failures of health care in western Massachusetts, where fraud and incompetence are rampant. I will refrain from wallowing in the regret that my parents chose to not seek treatment with top oncologists at Dana-Farber or Memorial Sloan Kettering, where my former colleagues used their influence to score “impossible” appointments.

Memory Eternal, Michael W. "Brother Mike" Gural, who was born in Newark, N.J., on Oct. 18, 1926, and who fell asleep in Wilbraham, Mass., on Friday, June 21, 2002.

“It's life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself, at all.” _ Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky

Thursday, June 21, 2018

On the Path to Humanbecoming

“You’re just like your father,” my mother would say, hundreds, if not thousands, of times, often as a back-handed compliment.

She accused me of “acting like a Communist, drinking from the same glass as others,” even though she accepted Holy Communion from the same cup as others. My father, a card-carrying Social Democrat, imparted his progressive views to me as part of a humanist education. Even though my parents were at odds politically (and, moreover, both politically active), my mother respected my father for his moral and ethical values and actions.

My father was patient (when he wasn’t brimming with the rage that comes from enduring tyranny), a professor who had to thole thousands of pages of poorly written essays which didn’t begin to demonstrate even a basic understanding of the economic theory he so clearly explained, dumbing it down to a level that made his soul quake. There were the exceptions, the scholars who were misled into studying business or finance, who truly understood the underlying value of mastering economic principles and how those principles permeate our greater (or, too often, lesser) existence in an alleged free-market economy and so-called democracy. Fewer were those who embraced Brother Mike’s teaching to better comprehend how unjust life is for the majority of humanity throughout the world. Many of his students weren’t in classrooms. A scholar by spirit and nature, he would lecture to anyone willing to sit and listen. And those who have done so have been captive for hours.

If only my verbosity were layered with Brother Mike’s depth of knowledge and prowess to connect the most sophisticated ideas across disciplines, all rooted in his primary scholarly pursuit: philosophy.

There is so much I didn’t say. So much I did say that I regret. I only hope that the sweeter side of my mother’s sentiment may eke out at an odd moment, elevating me, even for a fleeting second, to the status of “humanbecoming.” He would often say “there are so few human beings,” that to be a “humanbecoming” is an accomplishment in our grossly corrupt and thoughtless society.

We threw an intimate surprise party for my dad’s 70th birthday, where he joked “what do you all know? Am I dying?” Even his most profound and spiritual revelations were peppered with a trademark humor that was lost on some of shuttered mind. He also publicity acknowledged my mom that day as a humanbecoming, which she knew was mighty praise, never doled out carelessly.

At the time, we had no reason to suspect his 80th, 90th, and 100th birthdays would become memorials. Having never swallowed so much as an aspirin, exercising and swimming daily, laboring  every day in the yard, and working as a professor (employed at the time of his death because he had never taken a sick day), Brother Mike’s last physical revealed, in his primary care physician’s words “a man healthier than my 30-year-old patients.”

Diagnostic tests at the time of the physical included a sigmoidoscopy, which the PCP claimed “came back clear.” Just 10 days later, my mother noticed that my father’s extremities were very cold and covered him with blankets as he reclined in his dilapidated chair to read. “Mike,” she insisted, noticing a sudden decline in his vigorous physical activities along with an uncharacteristic loss of appetite. “You have to see a doctor.”

I know I am maligned by some for loathing the area where I grew up, but it had already become a healthcare wasteland, and my “healthier-than-a-30-year-old” father, who never picked up a cigarette and drank only socially, went into surgery the following day to remove “a single tumor from the sigmoid section of his colon.” The former military doctor had been applauded by the insurance-fraud-machine hospital system monopoly in the geographic area, as “precise.” Perhaps the U.S. military taught this surgeon to carefully maneuver a scalpel, but it failed at conveying any need for compassion, empathy or a basic ability to communicate with family and patients. For the record, my father served in two wars for the U.S. Army, and came out as a humanist. This surgeon, who was not approaching humanbecoming, strode into the family waiting room and briskly instructed my mother and I to “go into the private room.”

In that isolation chamber, he gestured for us to sit, and blurted out: “the good news is the surgery went well, and he’s fully conscious. The bad news is the cancer spread to all of his vital organs and he has about six months to live. I have to leave for the long weekend, so one of you has to tell him. Also, tell him he has a colostomy bag.”

As I began to hyperventilate, the surgeon shook his head in disgust and told my mother, “she has to calm down or she’ll faint.” My mother said: “I can’t tell him, and look at her, she obviously can’t do it.” He rolled his eyes and told my mother, “Like I said, I have plans for the long weekend. I’m running late. This is your responsibility.”

“What about my daughter?” my mom asked him.

“As I said, she needs to calm down. I can get someone to get her a chaplain to talk to, but it may take awhile.” Without so much as an attempt at eye contact or a tap on the shoulder, he waltzed out.

I managed to use the phone to call my childhood friend Erica, who somehow interpreted my cry-screams, found a neighbor to watch her then-young children, and disregarded multiple traffic laws to race some 18 miles and hold me.

Erica is one of my dad’s students. Not in a classroom (she and I were undergraduates together at a different school), but during countless hours spent in my parents’ home. “She’s brilliant,” he boasted. His delight was irrepressible when she changed her undergraduate from something called hotel, restaurant, and travel administration, to his primary passion philosophy. No doubt Erica was a humanbecoming in the eyes of Brother Mike.

I hope my mother is right, that I am at least the slightest like my father, save for the (occasional) rage which I fully acknowledge as cultivated on my own. I lack his deep well of expertise across subjects and have fallen so far from scholarship, not only leaving behind graduate degrees despite competing coursework, but failing to read voraciously. I do hope I impart a glimmer of his moral teachings to my son, Michael Alexander, who clearly already has achieved humanbecoming. Like a broken record, I lament every year that the pain of loss stings deeper s he never knew his only grandson or my husband, Mike (Michael Damian), who also would have earned Brother Mike’s designation of humanbecoming.

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