My father noticed my mother one night. As he would tell us, he had seen her once before, and noticed she had come along with the same girlfriend. He told us he was instantly smitten with my mother – 5’2″, chestnut hair, and eyes of blue. That night, he got up the courage to ask her to dance. He was Italian American and looked a little bit like Sean Penn. As he told us, she turned him down. (At that point my sister and I would howl in disbelief as we glanced at my mother, “You said no?” My mother would just laugh and nod, clearly enjoying the recounting of this tale.)
Undaunted, my father went back to the friends and the brothers he came with. (My father was the oldest of seven siblings, and four were boys.) He asked Joey, his friend, if he had a pencil and paper. As my father would recall, Joey replied, “Why do you need pencil and paper? This isn’t school, this is a party!” My father insisted. Joey suggested, “Go talk to Sal – I think he has a pencil. I think Pete has a piece of paper” My father got what he needed. These were the precise words my father told us he wrote:
This is my son’s reference. He is a good boy.
My father then folded up the paper into a tiny square and went back across the dance floor and handed it to my mother. She was a little bewildered, and asked, “What is this?” He replied, “I know you don’t know me. This is my mother’s reference.” Still a little confused, she unfolded the paper and read it in the dim light – and laughed. Smiling, my father asked, “Now that you have my mother’s reference, will you dance with me?” Still laughing, she said yes. What was to ensue was a love affair that would last their entire lives.
My father, Antonio, worked with my grandfather in an Italian specialty store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side at the time. My grandfather and great uncle owned the store, so at the time my parents first met, my father was young and working as a junior helper. (My father was still just learning the ropes of running a business that dealt in highly perishable foods in the hopes he would eventually take over the store with his younger brother, Charles, my uncle, which they eventually did much later.)
When my father heard that my mother had fresh farm eggs to sell him, he jumped at the chance to sell those eggs, for it was a good way to get to know my mother.
They dated 10 years before marriage. She was modern in every respect – she wanted to enjoy her independence and first learn to be self-supporting. She would laugh and tell us, “Your father kept asking me to marry him, and I kept saying ‘No – and that’s final!'” Even though they dated a full decade – she was 28 when she married – it’s important to add here that my father was her first love and only love. She never dated anyone else, for she knew in her heart that he was the one for her.
She was modern and far ahead of her time. Why did she keep refusing my father’s proposal to marry? She wanted to get to know herself, and experience some of the fun and sights of the city. She also wanted to experience supporting herself first – unheard of in her day. She always gave me the advice, “Get married when and if you want children. If you are not ready for children, wait until you are ready, for otherwise, there is no point.” I have to say, I agree with her view.
She asked my father to promise that if they were to marry, that all their children would go to college. In her day, not everyone went to college, and if any child went, it was assumed it would be only the sons. She wanted to be sure if she had girls they would get to go, too. As luck would have it, my parents would have two daughters, my sister and me. I have a BS degree in business, and my sister would get her Masters degree too, in business. (Coming from an ever-practical family, we both chose a major – business – that would lead to a solid job.)
I am getting ahead of myself, however. After my parents were married, I was born first, and then my sister came along several years later. I was born with a severe birth defect that baffled doctors, so she was hesitant to have another child until doctors could decide what was wrong with me. But time went on, so she gave up trying to find out the answer. Astrology told her that the mystery of my illness would not be discovered until I was fourteen. Rather than wait, they went ahead with another baby a few years later, and my sister, Janet, was born, completely healthy.
I loved that my mother was always my staunch advocate, always believing in me, even when the rest of the world seemed against me. Every child needs an advocate – without one, I feel the child would grow up to feel weak and defenseless in this world. My birth defect caused excruciating pain whenever I got a sudden attack, and once it had struck, would last 6 to 8 weeks, one or two times a year. When I was well, I was near perfect in every way, but when an attack would come I was not able to move an inch in the bed. I had different names for pain, in the same way Eskimos had made different words for snow. White pain was the worst and made you want to leave your body, so badly did you want to get away from it. It was worse than red pain or blue pain – it gave you the feeling mustard was in your mouth.
Doctors could not diagnose the problem, and therefore would angrily accuse me of making up my illness so I could avoid going to school. Some doctors suggested I needed a psychiatrist. All of this was preposterous and very hurtful – I would come to identify with the vast number of people accused and unjustly sent to jail. It was hard enough to be in pain, but not to be believed was even worse. The Board of Education would ask, “What kind of illness keeps a child out of school for six weeks at a time and has no name?” Talk about pressure!
I remember one day, as I lay in bed, her putting on her black suit, her red lipstick, her lady-like purse, and black leather gloves and heels, to take the subway to Brooklyn to fight my case with the Board of Education – officials again were demanding answers. She was smart, and could talk circles around anyone who debated her, but did it in a way that was kind and very feminine. This was evident in her gestures, the tenor of her words, and the softness in her big blue eyes. I would be on pins and needles until she got home, but once in the door, she would say we were OK for now, but that the day was coming where we would have to get to the bottom of my mysterious illness.
As things turned out, she was right about the timing of the mystery being solved about my leg – at 13 and 11 months, I had the attack of my life and I was not healing. I waited, but it was not to come. I had to have exploratory surgery. By now I was old enough to do so, so I held my breath and said OK, let’s do it. I was tired of never knowing whether the day would end happily or in agony with an attack.
Doctors found the problem was severe malformation of my veins and arteries that would simply turn to tissue paper and cause massive internal bleeding spontaneously from time to time. Something as simple as being excited about my birthday or Christmas would set it off. There are only 47 cases on record – I am the only person to survive surgery, for it is so treacherous. During the surgery, my brilliant surgeon, an orthopedic specialist and protege to the chief of staff at the time, expected to do a simply cartilage surgery but I disagreed. I was feeling a volume of thick liquid suddenly drop into my leg, something like glycerin, or the consistency of chocolate syrup. (What is closer to blood than chocolate syrup?) My doctor, who was to become one of the most famous doctors in the world in time, and who was even knighted by the Queen of Sweden, was faced with several harrowing surgeries on me.
He had to find a way to keep me from bleeding to death and at the same time save the left leg from amputation – the place where all my circulatory problems were based. When I woke up from surgery, I realized that I had become paralyzed from the knee down that year, but my doctor promised to get the leg working again. I was later to break my femur (thigh bone) four times because so many of the vessels were removed, the bone was starved for nourishment. My doctor got a rod in, but I died on the table during the surgery and he somehow managed to get me back.
I could have never recovered without the brilliant skill of my doctor, but it was also my mother’s love that would get me back on my feet, quite literally.
Little Mom was not going to trust my recovery to hospital food so each day she made homemade meals that she kept hot by jumping into a taxi to the hospital. She did this during the whole time I was a patient, 11 months straight. I had many blood transfusions and too many close calls on my life to recount. The hospital staff had me on tilt tables, parallel bars, and wearing big metal brace to my hip – and then I was back in the operating room for more surgery, a skin graph and other procedures. My mother remained my cheerleader – I did none of this alone – and I walk today because of her indomitable spirit and willingness to keep me going, even when the pain was crushing, and interns were telling me privately not to bet the farm on my recovery. (They were wrong, she was right.)