Wednesday, April 22, 2009


My father was a raconteur par excellance. He was able to make an extraordinary story out of an ordinary event. He loved telling his stories, loved the laughter that followed a laughter he shared, his whole body shaking in delight.

One of the stories that came to my mind recently, as thoughts of my father emerged across the holiday table, was of a visit he made to the home of one of his first patients.

He was a newly minted doctor, who had just opened an office on the lower east side of Manhattan. That area was very different then than the hip neighborhood it is today. Most of the people who lived there then were recent European immigrants, barely able to speak English. They lived in small tenement houses, with many occupants sharing limited space. Insurance and Medicare were words they had never heard.

Shortly after he opened his office, he was called to one of these tenement houses. The situation was described as an emergency--the head of the household was dying. A home visit was the order of the day.

There were no telephones, no cell phone, no pagers. My father stood in front of the tenement and a member of the household leaned out of the window to direct him to a fourth floor apartment.

While he was climbing the stairs, he heard crying and moaning. When he arrived at the proper door, a weeping woman told him "Mien mann is gestorbin"--he's dead! My father was led into the room where he saw a body on the bed, covered in newspaper. He extended his sympathy and was about to turn back, when the family beseeched him to stay while they ran around the streets, conveying the sad news to relatives and friends.

He agreed and sat down in a chair near a window, filling out some papers. After a few minutes, his eye fell on the bed nearby and he was startled to notice that the newspaper covering the body was stirring. He concluded it was because of a breeze from the window. But there was no breeze--it was a hot, humid day.

After a few minutes, he saw more movement of the newspaper. He rushed over to the bed, tore off the paper and found that the man was indeed alive. What he did in those moments is not very clear in my memory; but when the family returned, he announced that their beloved relative was indeed alive and breathing, as they could all see for themselves.

The family was besides itself with joy. They embraced my father and ran into the street, proclaiming that the new, young doctor had brought a dead man to life! He was a miracle worker, a savior.

From that day on, the new young doctor became an overnight success. His bell rang all day and, yes, all night. His practice was so busy; he had to hire an assistant and his career was off to a blazing start.

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