Deborah Eisenberg recommends “The White Spot” by Jonathan Blum
A doctor teaches his son about x-ray machines and anti-semitism in this story from Jonathan Blum's new collection
INTRODUCTION BY DEBORAH EISENBERG
It’s baffling––not to say enraging––that so many readers consider fiction that is short to be also small. What could be larger, more powerful, than, for example, this story by Jonathan Blum which deals with the scope of hatred––its spreading toll of trauma, its ineradicable endurance, its intractability, its transmission, the reverberating distortions of character and psyche it exacts?
In fact, it’s largely the concision and restraint of “The White Spot” that produce the story’s explosive power. The tone seems casually anecdotal and the language could not be more natural, graceful, and straightforward as the adult narrator provides us with a faithful record of his 9-year-old self accompanying his physician father on hospital rounds in the months after his parents’ separation.
The brilliant child’s sensitivity and decorum are striking. His admiration for his father, his anxiety to deserve his father’s respect and love, exert a tremendous appeal. Any parent would want to cultivate such a child’s talents; any parent would be proud, so it’s all the more shocking to witness the compulsions to which this father’s pride are bent, the purposes the remarkable child serves. How quickly love, or something of the sort, is infected by an irrepressible, blinding history.
Although the “bitter custody battle” of the first sentence is never referred to again, it burns through the story like a missile. The white spot of the title refers to the appearance of malignancy on an x-ray, something that looks to the untrained eye like normal tissue or bone, and it’s as if we are learning to discern such a malignancy as we read. Although the story is recounted from a significant distance in time, the narrator leaves it fastidiously to us to interpret what we’re told and to experience its devastating implications.
– Deborah Eisenberg
Author of Your Duck Is My Duck
Deborah Eisenberg recommends “The White Spot” by Jonathan Blum
“The White Spot”
by Jonathan Blum
When I was nine, my parents went through a bitter custody battle over me. In the end, the judge decided that I should live with my mother Mondays through Saturdays and go for visits with my father every Saturday night and Sunday. Back then, my father was on call at the hospital seven days a week, and he had no one to look after me during the hours he had to work, so he started bringing me to the hospital with him on Sundays and keeping me in the break room on the same floor where his patients were located.
The break room was only about the size of two closets. It had a coarse plaid sofa, a low-hanging spherical leather chair, a coffee maker and mugs, a sink, some cabinets, a telephone, and a laminated poster above the telephone that was called Screening Guidelines for Invasive Carcinomas, which was put out by the American Academy of Pathology. That first day in the hospital, which was my first time in a hospital since birth, I tried to sit up straight on the plaid sofa and read one of the sports biographies I carried with me everywhere, but I couldn’t concentrate at all. My mind kept wandering, wondering what my father was doing—where exactly he was and who he was with.
My father never talked about his work, not during his residency, not now, but I knew a few things about what he did. This was because, starting a couple years earlier, I had skimmed through the back sections of two of his medical books and seen pictures of sick pulmonary patients. I had seen many pairs of lungs that were removed from their bodies after death and photographed. One such pair, which had belonged to a person with emphysema, had an oozing gray coating over the usual healthy red color. Another pair of lungs had holes, caused by black carbon deposits that were the result of smoking. I had also seen a smoker with a gangrenous, partly lopped-off foot, a smoker with a gaping hole at the base of his throat, and a smoker with no tongue in his mouth.
In my own shy, optimistic way, I took pride in the fact that my father treated lungs. Lungs were vital—and underappreciated. I thought of them as the unsung heroes of the human body. Unlike the much-celebrated heart and brain, no one ever talked about the lungs and yet we couldn’t last four minutes without them. They took in and released breaths every three seconds or so, usually without our ever noticing. They moved oxygen to the bloodstream and removed carbon dioxide. They kept us going, even when we were sleeping.
After I had been daydreaming for more than an hour, my father, who was a big man—six-feet-two, a hundred-and-ninety pounds, with curly black hair in a white lab coat and brown Wallabees—came back into the break room, sat himself down in the low-hanging chair, and crossed his legs, his feet close to my feet. The air conditioner wasn’t working right that day, and there were beads of sweat on my father’s forehead and odoriferous spots under his arms. His breaths were quick and confident. He had just seen all his patients, and he had to write up some notes. As he went through page after page of triplicate paper with a blue ballpoint, checking boxes, scratching words, signing his name quickly at the bottom of each page, I half-hid my eyes behind one of my sports biographies and pretended to read.
I was very curious what my father was writing on those pages—one white, one yellow, one pink—but I didn’t dare ask. I had decided it was best not to talk to him at the hospital unless he talked to me first.
Finally he asked, “How’s Roberto Clemente?”
“He died trying to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua,” I said.
“Yeah, I remember that,” my father said. “You ready to get out of here?”
My father got called into the hospital almost every Sunday. Sometimes these calls were for what he called real emergencies and sometimes they were false alarms. His beeper would usually go off while we were at his apartment playing chess or else squaring off at our favorite game, Encyclopedia, in which we picked a single volume of the encyclopedia, opened it up at random, and quizzed each other about the facts inside. After my father’s beeper went off, he would usually say, “All right, kid. Let’s go.”
Some weeks my father just saw one patient; other weeks he saw many. Sometimes he went down to ICU; other times he did rounds only on the pulmonary wing. Just hearing him refer to the people he saw as my patients excited me; it meant that he was the one in charge of their care. I didn’t dare ask him what he did when he saw his patients, although there was nothing I would have liked to know more. I just stayed in the break room, reading, while he was gone.
One Sunday morning, my father got called in earlier than usual. We stopped in the hospital cafeteria on the way. At the register, a ponytailed woman with a flappy chin smiled when she recognized my father, then asked him who was this fine young gentleman he had brought with him today. The woman was surrounded by a pot of chili and oyster crackers, a jar of Little Debbies, some loose cold cuts and cheese slices, and a box of mayonnaise packets. After telling the woman my name, my father bought a couple cinnamon buns, which the woman heated up in a microwave that was spattered with drops of soup. My father ordered a coffee.
As we rode up the elevator, I counted floors.
When we arrived at the break room, my father tousled my hair and said, “You’re a good kid, coming in here every week and not complaining. You want to learn how to read a chest X-ray today?”
I couldn’t believe my good luck.
Almost two hours later, after he had seen all his patients, my father came back to the break room, carrying his clipboard.
“Let’s do it,” he said.
He and I walked down the hall toward the pulmonary wing. He saluted nurses. I ran my fingers along the wall. We passed paintings of muhly grass and Tampa vervain. Soon we arrived at a narrow opening in the wall. Inside was a small alcove with a wall-mounted X-ray viewer. Screwed into the wall next to the viewer was a plastic box in which dozens of loose X-rays were haphazardly stuffed. Behind that wall was a closed door.
My father disappeared through that door, then came back a minute later with a small pile of X-‐‑rays in shabby paper envelopes.
“Okay,” he said. “First you need to know how to read a normal piece of film.”
He put an X-ray up on the screen and flicked on the viewing light. At the center of the image was a pair of long black regions, not quite symmetrical, one with a sharper, more curved bottom than the other.
“The lungs,” I said.
“That’s right,” he said.
At first the two lungs in the X-ray made me think of lakes or pools, then of wings or windows, and then of the tombstones you see in cartoons.
“Can you guess why they’re black?” my father said.
I shook my head. My shyness amounted to a terrible fear of saying the wrong thing.
“Cause they’re mostly air,” he said. “But you don’t want them too black. That could mean air is getting trapped.”
After my father had pointed out the features of a healthy lung, including the soft webbing of bronchi, he directed my attention to the white areas that framed the lungs: the ribs, clavicle, vertebrae, trachea, shoulder bones, arm tissue, diaphragm, and heart.
He then slid over the normal chest X-ray and said, “Now we’re going to look at some pathology.”
He posted an X-ray on the viewer, next to the normal one. “What’s different from the normal X-ray?” my father said.
This was an easy one.
“One of the lungs is white,” I said.
“That’s right,” my father said. “The left lower lobe is white. In this patient’s case, the small air sacs in the lungs, known as alveoli, have gotten clogged with dense liquid. The patient has pneumonia.”
“Could the patient die?” I said.
“Not necessarily,” my father said. “We’d have to know some other things. Like the status of the infection. And the age of the patient. But probably not,” he said.
My father put up another X-ray.
“What’s wrong here?” he asked.
This one was harder. I shook my head.
“Look at the lungs,” my father said. “Healthy lungs are elastic. When we breathe, they expand and contract. But with certain diseases the lungs lose their elasticity. They hyperinflate. Look how narrow the heart is. You see the flat, low-set diaphragm? These lungs are too big and too dark. Dark, I told you, means air is getting trapped. The blood’s not getting enough oxygen. This person has emphysema.”
“Could the person die?” I asked.
“Yes, they could,” my father said.
“When?” I asked.
“Anywhere from eight months to a year, maybe two years. Depends what treatment, if any, works.”
I thought about this answer, wishing I understood death as well as my father did, as well as my grandparents did.
“Here’s something that’ll make you pause and wonder,” he said. “By the time emphysema patients get to me, they generally have one foot in the grave. They’re lifetime smokers. Their lung function is impaired or badly impaired. And yet these same people, who know that the only possible way to stop their disease is to stop smoking, go right on smoking. They sometimes sneak cigarettes in their hospital beds when no one’s around. You can smell it halfway down the hall. What do you think of that?”
My father got out another X-ray. “One more?” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
He put the diseased X-ray up next to the normal one. The two looked virtually the same.
“Look closely,” he said.
I couldn’t see any difference.
“Here, below the clavicle,” he pointed. “This opacity. This white spot.”
I saw what he was pointing at. But because the spot was dense and white, like the bones and tissue nearby, it didn’t look that different from the white in the normal X-ray.
“I see it,” I said.
“That’s cancer,” my father said.
I didn’t dare ask if the person could die from it. Of course he could. Instead, I wondered what my father saw when he looked around him every day. How much more did he see than an ordinary person did?
“Is there any way to get rid of it?” I asked.
“For most people,” he said, “by the time it’s detected, they’re already a goner.”
“How fast do they die?” I asked.
“Ninety percent of the patients I see with lung cancer die within a year of diagnosis. Often it’s just three or four months. But I never tell them that. Unless they ask.”
“Don’t you think people deserve the chance not to lose hope?”
I thought about this. I then asked my father to show me another X-ray that might or might not have a white spot. Then another. And then another. I wanted to be able to identify the spots as quickly and accurately as he could.
Finally, I got the hang of it. I identified three cancerous spots in a row. “Now imagine having to break news like that to a patient,” my father said.
The words startled me, because up until that moment, finding the white spot had been something exciting, like discovering buried treasure.
“All right,” my father said. “Enough for one day. Let’s get out of this place.”
Within a few weeks of reading X-rays, I could tell the difference between healthy lungs and chronic bronchitis, tuberculosis, pneumonia, emphysema, and cancer. I saw collapsed lungs and severe asthma. I saw a rare lung disease with a long name that mainly afflicted younger people.
One Sunday, on the ride over to the hospital, my father told me that he was sick of looking after patients seven days a week. He needed a break. But he didn’t have anyone he could call who could cover his patients on Sundays.
“I’ll cover your patients,” I told him.
“You know, that gives me an idea,” he said. “How would you like to come around with me today and visit patients? You could just poke your head in the room and say hi. It would probably cheer them up. A nice kid like you.”
“Any day,” I said.
So the plan was hatched. I would walk the halls of the pulmonary wing with my father; he would tell me when to come into a room and when to leave.
“You’re going to see some people who’re in bad shape,” he said. “Can you handle it?”
“Of course,” I said.
“Actually, I think I’ll start you with one patient today and we’ll go from there.”
When we arrived at the hospital, my father went down to ICU. He had a guy there who was barely holding on.
While I was in the break room waiting, I wondered what it was like for my father to lose his patients all the time, even when he did the exact right thing you were supposed to do to treat them.
When he returned, he pinched my shoulder and said, “All right, let’s go.”
We walked down the hall toward the pulmonary wing, my short legs unable to keep pace with his longer ones.
“This lady has emphysema,” he said under his breath.
He wouldn’t show me her X-rays; that would be an invasion of privacy. “But you have a good idea, from experience, what her film would look like.”
The lady’s door was almost completely closed. Facing us was a work of art by a four- or five-year-old, some trees and flowers made out of paper plates, markers, Popsicle sticks, crayons, glue, and pieces of colored yarn.
“All right, here we go,” my father said.
He knocked on the door. A woman’s hoarse voice croaked, “Yes?”
“Halloooo, Mrs. Grinnell,” my father said, his voice ringing out. He pushed open the door and put on a smile.
He stopped and then I stopped at the foot of the bed. An old woman with gray hair that had turned a dingy yellow was propped up in bed. She looked pale and worn out, as if the muscles in her face could no longer follow instructions for what to do. Stuck deep inside her nostrils were a pair of small, flexible tubes, which attached to a green tank on the floor that had some kind of valve on top of it. The old woman was wearing a blue hospital gown and watching a game show on TV, in which the audience was aahing because the contestant had made a mistake.
“How’s your shortness of breath today, Mrs. Grinnell?” my father said over the game show. The woman was sucking in air every few seconds. “Is the oxygen helping?”
My father went over and took the remote control from the bedside and muted the game show.
“I believe so, doctor,” she rasped, then sucked in air.
“You believe so? Yesterday you characterized your problem with shortness of breath as being a 2, 1 being the worst. Is it still a 2? We’re trying to prolong life here. Are we making headways?”
The woman gathered her thoughts.
“Who’s the boy?” she rasped.
“He’s mine,” my father said. “Can’t you tell?”
In fact, my father and I didn’t look a great deal alike. There were lots of ways I was probably never going to equal him; physical strength and size were just a couple.
“You want to show this lady what kind of head you’ve got on your shoulders?” my father asked me. “It’s crammed with knowledge,” he confided to the woman.
I cracked my knuckles to show readiness.
“All right,” my father said. “What’s . . . um . . . 24 times 48?” “1,152,” I said, without missing a beat.
“31 times 13?”
“What’s the capital of Iceland?”
“Who was the twenty-first president?”
“Chester Alan Arthur. Republican from New York.”
“What year was Tampa founded?”
“Indians started living here twenty-five hundred years ago. But after the Spanish arrived in the 1600s, most of them died of diseases. Today’s Tampa started forming in 1824, after the United States purchased Florida from the Spanish.”
“All right, now you ask him one,” my father said to the woman. “Try and stump him. See if you can.”
“I may be up to a 2.5,” the woman croaked, and gulped air.
“That,” my father said, “makes me happy. That,” he said, “is what I like to hear.”
My father told the woman that he was going to keep her on oxygen twenty- four hours a day for the next couple days and see what happened. He was also going to start her on a medication that would help open her breathing passages and promote air flow.
The woman coughed deeply; her lungs sounded as if they had holes in them through which a wet substance was trying to escape.
“Just lay off the tobacco,” he told her. “Or else.”
An old man in a plaid shirt and a silver crewcut, clearly the patient’s husband, entered the room and slowly made his way over to the far side of his wife’s bed. He seemed as though he was trying not to look worried.
“I’ll check on you tomorrow,” my father said to the woman and her husband.
“Bye,” I waved.
The following Sunday, my father let me visit a few patients. Mrs. Grinnell had been released, but there were plenty of others to see. A few doors down from Mrs. Grinnell’s old room, we went to see another patient with emphysema. On the way, my father whispered, “This guy’s finished. Three months max. He’s not responding to anything.”
Upon being quizzed by my father, I told the man the four nucleobases that DNA nucleotides are made up of—cytosine, guanine, adenine, and thymine. I told him the average life expectancy of an American in 1780 (thirty-six), 1880 (forty), and 1980 (seventy-three). I named a major league baseball player who turned a childhood disability into an advantage—Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown.
After that, we saw two other patients with emphysema, neither doing well. I told them both a joke my father loved whose punch line was, “Yeah, the food is terrible. And such small portions.” Once the joke was finished, I took a small bow.
Then we saw a guy with chronic bronchitis who, my father said, might just walk out of this hospital in pretty decent shape, though if he doesn’t lay off the cigarettes, he’s sliding down the same chute as the rest of them.
“Ready to get out of here?” he finally asked.
The following week, my father said he was going to test my maturity. He was going to bring me in to see a patient who was dying of lung cancer. Tumors everywhere. She was on a ventilator, which eased her pain, but by next week there wasn’t going to be anything left of her to ventilate.
We stopped at a soda machine on the way. My father dropped in some coins, which rattled in the machine’s innards. He punched the machine twice and two cans of Mountain Dew came flying down. We both took long drinks.
“This is a lady you’re not going to be able to cheer up,” my father said. “I’ve been seeing her for months. Nothing amuses her.”
We went inside. The patient, who was propped up in bed, had a thin netting of white hair, anger lines across her forehead, and the most liquid eyes I had ever seen. They were blue and welling up and staring at me, piercing me. She was wearing an oxygen mask over her nose and mouth that was connected by a tube to a red, peeling canister beside the head of the bed. Another tube led from a ventilator on wheels down into a hole in her neck. The ventilator kept making a whishing sound.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Szabo,” my father said. “Jó napot.”
I was shocked. My father never spoke Hungarian, his parents’ language. On the two or three occasions per year when we left Florida to visit my grandparents in Wilmington, Delaware, my father did everything he could to block out his Hungarianness and Jewishness.
“Look who I brought,” my father said, examining the ventilator settings and jotting down notes on his clipboard. “My son, Jay.”
Mrs. Szabo stared at me with stern brows and liquid blue eyes. She looked as if I had somehow just personally offended her or was about to.
I looked at my father. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing.
“Mrs. Szabo’s family is from the city of Pécs, in Hungary, isn’t that right, Mrs. Szabo? In the beautiful Carpathian Basin. Not far from my mother’s home village.”
Mrs. Szabo’s chest rose a little when she inhaled and fell soon after. I could see the outlines of her toes underneath the bedding.
“Mrs. Szabo came to the United States as a young girl. On the eve of the First World War. Her family was poor and uneducated. They were looking for opportunity. Her father found work as a coal miner. In Western Pennsylvania. Hard life, but, income-wise, he did better than he would have done in Hungary. Raised four kids. Spoke Hungarian in the home.”
My father’s voice sounded tinged with malice; I had never heard him speak that way.
“His dream was to make enough money in America to be able to go back to Pécs and buy a plot of land and plant orchards. He wanted to have a family business that shipped out fruit to the rest of Europe. Sour cherries in the summer, apples in the winter.
“Mrs. Szabo’s told me all about her family,” my father said. “Their ups and downs. Their hardships and disappointments. But she’s never asked about mine. Even though I have a Hungarian-Jewish surname. Maybe she doesn’t want to hear about mine. What do you think, kid?”
Mrs. Szabo’s liquid blue eyes stared out across the oxygen mask. They looked like they were permanently geared up for a fight.
“Hungarians don’t like to hear our stories, do they, Mrs. Szabo? The way we Jews go on and on about our miseries, you’d think we were the only ones who ever suffered.
“Well, I want you to know how my parents came to the United States.” The ventilator went on whishing.
“This is where you come in,” my father said to me, crossing his arms.
“When we go see my parents,” my father said to the woman, “the kid just sits there at the table for hours and listens. Soaks it all in. Me, I can’t sit still for half a minute. I go for jogs. I listen to rock and roll on headphones.
“What year was my mother born?” my father asked me.
“1926,” I said.
“And tell Mrs. Szabo about my mother’s life when she was a young girl.”
“Like what happened on the way home from school?” I said.
“Yes, like that,” he said.
“On the way home from school,” I said, “two girls in her class would kick her and make her nose bleed and say, ‘Rotten Jew. You will all die.’”
“And what did my mother do?”
“To get them to stop,” I said, “she did their homework for them. And gave them money every week. It was a time of Depression in Hungary.”
“And what else do you know about that time?”
“Her two favorite people were her older brothers, Lajos and Sanyi. Lajos taught himself how to make leather so that he could make her a pocketbook for her birthday. The next year he made gloves.”
“Mmm,” my father said. “And what happened after that?”
“Hitler’s armies entered Hungary.”
“March 19, 1944.”
“And when did the Jews have to start wearing the yellow star of humiliation?”
“April 5, 1944.”
“And when were the Jews in my mother’s village forced into the ghetto?”
I lowered my eyes, which I now realized were filling up with tears. I couldn’t remember the date. I would have rather said no date than the wrong date.
“Tell Mrs. Szabo about the ghetto,” my father said.
“All two hundred Jews from the village were forced to live there.”
“Two hundred out of how many people total in the village?”
“You see how much he listens?” my father said to Mrs. Szabo. Her liquid blue eyes seemed to be burning with rage.
“They all had to sleep in the temple,” I said. “Or else jam themselves into three small houses around the temple. Everybody said, ‘Something bad is going to happen.’”
“And what happened?” my father asked.
“First, Lajos and Sanyi were taken away to forced labor camps. With some of their friends.”
“Right, right,” my father said. “And after that?”
“All two hundred Jews from the village, including my grandmother and her parents, were shipped off to Auschwitz. It was a three-day ride with no food or water.”
“Oh, Mrs. Szabo doesn’t want to hear about Auschwitz. We Jews, obsessed with talking about Auschwitz.”
My father, standing beside the ventilator, bowed his head gloomily, placed his hands behind his back, and squirmed.
In fact, at Auschwitz, my grandmother’s parents were sent right to the gas chambers. On arriving, my grandmother’s mother said to Mengele, in German, “We are mother and daughter and we would like to stay together.” He separated them. If my grandmother had insisted on staying with her mother, she would have been sent to the gas chambers too.
“This kid could tell you stories—100 percent true—of what went on there,” my father said. “But weren’t there some good Germans at Auschwitz? I once heard my mother say she’d have never made it out if not for the German who put an extra piece of bread in her pocket or the ones who took care of her in the clinic when she got diphtheria. At any moment, they could have just gassed her.”
Mrs. Szabo’s eyes were boiling over with rage.
“What happened next to my mother?” my father said.
“By miracle, she got sent to Lenzing. With three hundred other girls.”
“What was Lenzing?”
“A subcamp of Mauthausen. In Austria. She did factory work. The girls all became skeletons.”
My father’s beeper went off. He silenced it. A nurse popped her head in the door. My father raised a finger and she disappeared.
“I hope we’re not taxing your patience, Mrs. Szabo,” my father said. The old woman’s liquid blue eyes were burning inside the masked pouch of her face. “We Jews. Can’t stop broadcasting our troubles to the world.”
“So what happened after that?” my father asked me. “The Americans liberated Lenzing on May 5, 1945.”
“And where did my mother go?”
“Back to Hungary,” I said. “By train.”
“And here we get to the part of my mother’s story that you’re really not going to enjoy, Mrs. Szabo. Mrs. Szabo is a true Hungarian,” my father said to me. “She goes back to Pécs once every three years. As often as she can afford. Speaks fluent Hungarian. If there is such a thing as an American with a Hungarian world view, Mrs. Szabo has it.”
The old lady’s eyes narrowed. Her chest rose and fell more slowly, as if she were starting to fatigue. For some reason, I found myself picturing what her chest X-ray must look like, white spots everywhere. And if she was at death’s door, why weren’t any of her loved ones here?
“What happened on the train ride back to my mother’s village?”
“She met a boy. The boy who became my grandfather. He had been doing forced labor in Germany, repairing railroad tracks. He went back with her to her village.”
“And what happened when they arrived?”
“There were no Jews there,” I said.
“And what did she do?”
“She went and knocked on the doors of some people she had known. And they all said to her, ‘No Jews live here.’”
“How long had she been gone?” my father said. “A little over a year.”
“And what happened next?”
“She went to the temple. And the temple was now being used as a warehouse. And she went to the homes of some family and Jewish friends, and all the homes were occupied by other people. And she went to the Jewish cemetery, and the cemetery had been cleared and replaced by a lumberyard.
“Finally, she went to see the man who was the publisher of the village newspaper. She said, ‘All I want is to find my brothers.’
“‘We have no Jews here,’ the man said.
“‘Jews have lived in this village for over five hundred years,’ my grandmother said. ‘May I take out an ad in your newspaper in order to find my family?’
“The man agreed. But nobody answered the ad.”
“Two days later a cousin arrived. She told my grandmother that both her brothers were dead. Lajos had been shot by a firing squad after he injured his foot on a long march in Austria. Sanyi perished in a camp in Yugoslavia.
“My grandmother broke down in tears and said to my future grandfather, ‘I cannot stay in this country another day.’
“They began making plans to come to America. My future grandfather had five sisters in Wilmington, Delaware.”
Once again I realized that I was about to cry. What if I had made some factual mistakes in the telling of my grandmother’s story that would invalidate everything I had said? The idea upset me terribly. My grandmother had warned me more than once that non-Jews often don’t believe our stories, so don’t make errors.
“How many members of our family went to the camps?” my father asked me.
“And how many came back?”
“Gratulálunk!” my father said to Mrs. Szabo. “You see? That wasn’t such a hard story to have to listen to. Now we can both go back to forgetting all about it.”
Mrs. Szabo’s eyes were closed, wet at the edges. My father went over and put his hand on her shoulder.
The following week, as my father and I were driving to the hospital, he told me that Mrs. Szabo had died.
“That old Jew-hating buzzard,” he said. “We showed her what was what.”
Up until that moment I had never given much thought to how anyone could hate a group of people so much that they would want to get rid of them all. When my grandparents told their stories, that was never posed as a question. It was just a given. People hated Jews.
Now that I had kept my composure while visiting a patient at death’s door, my father brought me in to see his sickest cases.
I usually kept quiet and put on a cautious smile. While my father examined and interviewed the patients, he would go on quizzing and quizzing me.
A few weeks later, my father found someone to cover his patients on Sundays. In exchange, he would cover for the other doctor on Saturdays.
While my father told me this, he looked at me as if I would be automatically relieved that I wouldn’t have to come into the hospital with him any longer. Now we could do fun things together on Sundays. Watch football. Go fishing. Barbecue. Get out of town. We wouldn’t have to be afraid that anything we did would be interrupted by a call from the hospital.
But I wasn’t ready to stop going to the hospital. I was learning things there that I could not learn anywhere else.
On my last day at the hospital, I told my father I didn’t want to stay in the break room at all. I only wanted to be with him. So he let me trail him everywhere. He even let me wait for him outside the double doors he used to enter ICU.
By now, I had known four people, including Mrs. Szabo, who had died while in the hospital. Naturally, in every case, the room was reassigned to another emphysema or cancer patient who was in similar need of being cheered up.
Toward the end of the day, we approached Mrs. Szabo’s old room. When I glimpsed inside, I saw a barrel-chested man with tufts of silver chest hair who was staring up at the ceiling. He gave a deep, wet cough. Then another. He cleared his throat, brought up mucus, spit the mucus into a tissue, and took a deep, gasping breath. My father bent over and whispered to me that this guy was not going to be able to stop smoking for all the tea in China.
“I give him six months.”