Remembering my mother, Leona

Every life includes experiences we never want to give back. Reuniting with my birth-mother Leona on the evening of January 8, 1987 in Stamford, Connecticut is one of those moments for me. Getting to know her over the years until she died 10 years ago today, even more so.

For some very understandable reasons she surrendered me for adoption seven days after I was born in New York City’s French Hospital on October 2, 1953. She told me once that she held me every second she could during those seven days because she knew that time together would have to last both of us a lifetime. Fortunately, she was mistaken. She was 19 when she got pregnant. Being a pregnant, single Catholic girl of Irish, French Canadian and, I would later learn, Mexican stock, walked you into a world of merciless judgment. That, coupled with the fact my birth-father was, or so he claimed, an unhappily married 39-year-old who was not about to help with raising a child, made my adoption inevitable.

My mother had the rare ability to recognize opportunities to truly touch the hearts of  others that most people would miss. The sanctity of another’s humanity was never lost on her. Her compassion was limitless, her instinct for the wounded and the ignored, remarkable. I remember commenting once on the close relationship between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. “That’s true,” my mother said. “They were very much in love. But does anyone ever think about what it must have been like for Tracy’s wife? My heart always broke for her.” Being old-school Catholic, Tracy never divorced his wife after he became involved with Hepburn.

On my first birthday after we’d been reunited my mother gave me a teddy bear, “to make up for the one I couldn’t give you when you were growing up.’

The day I married my second wife on September 12, 1991 was the only time my two mothers met. I did have two mothers. In my heart and soul their claim to motherhood was an equal one and I only use the terms adoptive-mother and birth-mother so the listener, or reader, can distinguish which is which. A quick aside: if you want to insult and probably anger someone who’s been adopted, ask them who their real parents are. All their parents are real, make no mistake about it. At any rate, this day was the one and only day they two of them met.

The wedding took place outside and was attended by perhaps 30 people. Everyone, save my adoptive-mother Virginia, was standing. She was in some pain and had a chair. We’d asked the minister, my first childhood friend in fact, William Damrow, to ask people to hold hands with the person next to them when the moment for the final vows arrived. People were video-taping the wedding and later, we watched the video that was taken from behind the minster. In the background my mother Virginia was on the far left of the group and my mother Leona was standing on the far right. When the holding-hands’ request was made, my mother Leona walked over to my mother Virginia and held her hand through our final vows.

Some say I’ve inherited the instinct for touching the hearts of others from my mother.  I don’t know about that, but I do know I touched hers on a day that held a deeply special moment for the both of us. The French Hospital had been located at 330 West 30th Street between 8th and 9th avenues in Manhattan. It was built in 1928 by the Societe Francaise de Bienfaisance. It is now the French Apartments, but the words, Societe Francaise de Bienfaisance, remain carved in stone above the main entrance. On one of her last visits to the east coast my mother visited family in New Jersey. I drove down to pick her up and drive her back to my home in  upstate New York. On the way back I drove into the city and pulled up in front of 330 West 30th Street. The two of us held hands as I said, “We’re back.”

“They always made me go through the back door,” she said. “I was from the home for unwed mothers.”

“Okay then,” I said, and promptly drove around the block to the back entrance. We both said, our voices a mix of defiance and pride, “We’re back.”

My mother Leona died in California of liver cancer 10 years ago today. On December 21, two days after she died, I received a package from her in the mail. In it was a gift-wrapped package about the size of a box a pen would come in. I called my daughter on the phone so we could share the moment together. I removed the gift-wrap to discover a narrow black box. I opened the box. In it was a Saint Christopher’s Medal.  Legend is a child asked Saint Christopher to carry him across a swollen fast-moving river. Christopher, said to be a large and powerful man, carried the child across the river to safety. It was then the child revealed himself to be Jesus. Then, according to legend, the child vanished. Saint Christopher is the saint of safe travel through life. I turned the medal over and read the engraved words on the back. “Peter, I will always be in your heart. Love, Mom.”

She is always in my heart and in every stride and breath I take.

Not long before she died I asked her if she had any advise for me. She said, “Yes. Be good to yourself, Peter.” I’m trying, Mom. I love you and miss you my whole wide world.


Colonoscopies, Sandpaper, Attila the Nurse & The Great Escape

I finally overpowered what some might call an irrational fear and went for my first colonoscopy. The entire colonoscopy experience established two things beyond a reasonable doubt. First, the colonoscopy itself is nothing, you go to sleep, wake up, and it’s over. It’s like you aren’t even there when it happens. Second, the day before proves that despite all the aren’t-we-soft-and-fluffy advertisements, toilet paper is made out of sandpaper. Not the fine grain sand paper, but the really course sandpaper, the kind you might use if you wanted to get the bark off an Oak Tree.
Actually, I learned a third thing. How to escape from the hospital after the procedure. No one calls it a colonoscopy there. You are there for a procedure, thank you very much. Procedure my ass which, come to think of it, is exactly what they did.Anyway, you are told to have someone drive you home because you will still be under the influence of the anesthesia. In my complete and utter lack of wisdom I decided I was going to drive myself home and, if I didn’t feel I could drive, I would call a cab, the latter being an option, I would later learn, that medical professionals frown on,
When I arrived I was directed by a rather fierce looking tiny nurse, we will call her Attila, to a curtained-off cubicle and told to take off all my clothes, and yes, I could leave my watch and Saint Christopher medal on. “Who is driving you home?” she asked, her pen hovering above a form on a clipboard, her mouth foaming with venom. “Uh, I’ll be calling a friend of mine to pick me up,” I said. A complete and utter lie.Attila’s eyebrows shot up, nearly reaching her hairline, and I swear to God a puff of red smoke came out her nose. “Number?”
“Pardon me?”
“Phone number. We need the number, what’s the number. We will make the call.” More smoke.
Convinced I would be led before the nearest firing squad if I did not come up with a number, I gave her my friend Chris’s number hoping to God he wouldn’t answer or would at least handle it well if he did.“Good,” Attila said. “Clothes off, we’ll be with you shortly.”
It’s amazing how a tiny person can scare the hell out of you. Once the pro-cedure is over you are brought to another curtained-off cubicle where you are allowed to get your bearings and then told to get dressed. Once told, I got dressed. Now the question was, how the hell do I get out of here and to my car? How do I escape? I felt fine and able to drive.
But, there was Attila, pulling back the curtain with the same damned clip board in her hand.“Where is your ride?”“I’m sure he’ll be here.” 
“I called and left him a message, you can’t leave until you have someone to drive you.” Another puff of smoke, more venom foam, and damned if she didn’t paw at the ground with her right foot.
“He’ll be here,” I said, figuring my next move was to figure out which door led to the waiting area which led to the hall which led to the elevators that would get me to the first floor and freedom. We were on the fourth floor.
“I will call again,” Attila said, snapping the curtain closed, leaving a puff of smoke in the air behind her. 
I waited a few minutes and pulled back the curtain. Off to my right I saw a door open and close. When it was open, I saw the waiting area. When no one was looking I made my move. In the waiting area I stopped at the checkout desk to make my next appointment. I was handed my appointment paper and had just begun to turn towards the exit when I smelled smoke and felt a firm chilling tap on my shoulder. I turned toward the tap and there was Attila in full venomous foam, snorting blasts of red smoke out her nose. “You have no ride, now get back in there until you have a ride.”
I followed her back inside feeling very much like a little boy who just got caught playing hooky. Ten minutes later I see another opening! I am out the door in a flash, through the waiting room at high speed and soon I am punching the elevator button hoping to God one gets there before Attila catches me. The elevator arrives, the door opens, and in I go. And elderly couple get in with me. On the ride down the elderly man is standing to my right.“ How you doing?” he asked.
“I’m okay, actually. First colonoscopy today.”
“Surprised they let you leave by yourself.”
He knew what I was doing. He said, “Mind if I give you one piece of advise before the door opens?”
“You might want to take the hospital band off your wrist.”
Bless that man.