Sunday, May 18, 2008

'My 50th Birthday' by Marla Lukofsky

It was a hot sunny humid day on July 3rd, 2006 in Toronto. Nothing unusual about that. Summers are pretty brutal here. But today was special. It was my birthday, my 50th to be exact. The big 5-0. Some say it’s a turning point in one’s life. I’ll let ya know.

I woke up very early from my restless night’s sleep and began my day as I usually did. A hot cup of instant coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and sat on my balcony staring out at the active world around me.
'What are they so busy with?' I wondered as I alternated between my smoke and my java. 'And why do they feel the need to keep spinning like little tops on a board game?' When my cup was empty and my butt was put out, I headed outside and walked my dog in a haze of sad feelings. I bumped into a woman on the beltline, who told me about ‘the glass being half full’ rhetoric. I didn’t respond to her words, as I usually would have since those types of phrases bring out the debater in me, but my heart wasn’t in it.

Soon after, I drove to synagogue for morning prayers and saw my two older sisters, Elaine and Fern, standing in the hallway. At first I thought, 'Wow, they came to pray with me.' So moved by that thought, I started to cry. Elaine, my middle sister comforted me. Fernie laughed nervously not knowing what to do with my vulnerable feelings. After some discussion I found out that my sisters were actually there to support a friend’s last day of Kaddish prayers and were on their way out. So, they weren’t there for me after all, I realized.

Elaine asked if I wanted her to stay with me for the later service. “Yes, I would Elaine. That would be really nice”, I gratefully replied. Once we got settled in our favorite pew, my sister stood right beside me and put her arm around my shoulders holding me throughout the entire service. Her touch felt like heaven. Most of the ladies I became friendly with at that synagogue were away for the July 3rd weekend, and the pews seemed emptier than usual. But who isn’t away when it’s my birthday. It’s the long weekend every year, ya know. When I was younger, I took it personally that no one was in town on my ‘special day’ but now that I am older, I know better and I still take it personally. I said hello to the few familiar faces and some wished me well.

Thirty minutes later, the service concluded. I told my sister Elaine that I needed to go to the cemetery. She said she understood and asked if I wanted her to come along with me. At first I thought ‘no, I want to be alone’. And then I realized that deep, deep down, I did want her to come and be with me so I said “Yes Elaine, please come with me. I’d like that. But first walk me to my car. I have to show you something, something strange that I did.” She took my hand and we walked over to my car. When we got to my tin haven, I opened my car door and grabbed an envelope off of my passenger’s seat. I handed it to Elaine without saying a word. She looked at the outside of the envelope’s inscription and read it to herself.
‘ To Marla… From Mommy.’ Elaine looked back up at me, smiled and nodded her head with understanding and acceptance. “I don’t think this is strange at all,” she said. “May I read the inside of the card?”
“ Yes…please” I replied.

Elaine opened the card and silently read it slowly and carefully, taking her time, absorbing every word with the utmost concentration. She looked back up at my face and said, “ Yes, Marla, this is all true.” My eyes began to tear up.
“Why don’t we take one car to the cemetery Marla and you can drive. I know you like to drive and you’re such a good driver”, Elaine suggested.
“Ok, Elaine,” I sniffled.

When my sister and I arrived at the empty cemetery parking lot, we could see that the long weekend had not only affected my birthday, but the amount of visitors who would have usually come to see their loved ones as well. It was so quiet, so peaceful, just a perfect day for a visit.
Elaine and I stood at the fresh looking grave. The earth was still settling in.

Elaine offered to read out loud the card I had shown her. I agreed, “That would be good if you could do that for me Elaine, because I can’t.” There was a sprinkler nearby which kept spritzing us every two minutes and it interfered a bit with our time together at the grave site but it did not stop us for a moment.

She began to read my card with great feeling and meaning, making the most out of every single word, as if she knew how much it meant to me, to give me something, some strength, some peace, something that there are no words for. As I heard the words being read, I started to cry and suddenly I cried harder than I had cried all year. Harder than I knew I could cry. My tears came from the depth of my very soul and resonated from my belly. I was making up for lost time, I guess. Elaine put her arm around me, comforting me as I wept, and the sprinkler continued to spritz us as she continued to speak aloud its contents.

The words in the card were:
I know I have a wonderful daughter in you
because I see your strengths and talents and all your hard work.
I see your warmth, your thoughtfulness, and the way you care about other people…
I see the person you are inside-
The goodness and generosity that are so much a part of your daily life,
And I want you to know how much I love you and how grateful I’ll
Always be to have you as my daughter.
Happy Birthday

As we stood in front of my mother’s gravestone, which she shared with my father who died a year and a half before her, we read over the dates of my parent’s death out loud, together.
Louis Lukofsky: Died June 1, 2004
Ruth Lukofsky: Died February 9th, 2006

I felt the need to explain to Elaine why I got the card.
“You see Elaine, I went to Shoppers Drug Mart to buy some toiletries, the night before my birthday, when suddenly I steered straight towards the card section specifically to the ‘birthday for daughters’ section. It was as if I had no control over my body. I riffled through many cards, reading one after the other, trying to quench a thirst I had, in finding a card that I thought Mommy might give me if she could have. I just had to find the right one and buy it and pretend somehow that Mommy gave it to me.”
Elaine listened intently. I continued.

"You know Mommy was an honest person and didn’t flower things up. She would never give me a card saying that I was the perfect child who never gave her a bit of trouble. On the contrary, her cards always said something specific and true, with some details of that particular person. I was so relieved when I found a card where I heard her voice coming through. After I bought it, I took it home, placed it on a stool and hovered over it like a rare fragile gem. I couldn’t sign it. How could I? That would be wrong. So I just stared at it for hours. Later on, I put it in its envelope, went down to the underground garage and put it in my car to take to the cemetery.”

Elaine said my mother’s spirit and memory guided me to the store, to that aisle, and to that very card, and she added that my mother would have indeed thought those things of me if she could have lived to tell them to me.

While standing at my mother’s grave, I felt the need to ask Elaine a very important question that had been burdening me since my mom died. It was in regard to my mother’s request for me to help wrap her in the ritual burial shroud. I was concerned of my mother’s mental status at the time.
“ Did she know what she was asking of me Elaine? Was it real?”
Elaine assured me that at the time, it was one of the last times my mother spoke with great purpose and clarity. She requested to see her sister, her best friend and her rabbi to make her last requests known.
I told Elaine, "Mommy asked me in private, if and only if I could handle it, would I wrap her in the burial shroud after she dies. And if I can’t handle it she will understand. I didn’t even know what a burial shroud was but I knew one thing for sure. I knew I could handle it because I would do anything for my mother in time of need and I told her just that. 'I can do that for you Mommy… I will do anything for you… and I can handle it.'
And Mommy said to me, 'I knew you could…that’s why I asked you.'

Elaine responded.
“ Marla, do you think those are the words of a person who is not in control of their mind and thoughts? Those are the words of a person who knows exactly what she wants. Mommy told the rabbi of her unique burial wish. She told Fernie and me separately that she wanted you to wrap her in the shroud. She knew this might be the last time she would be able to talk like this and let her wishes be known. Marla…don’t think for a moment that she didn’t know what she asked of you. She knew what you did for Daddy…staying with his body all that time, getting it cleaned up in the hospital and placing him in the body bag and waiting by his grave until the last drop of soil was put on him. She knew if you could do all that, then you could do this for her. She didn’t ask Fernie or me because she knew we couldn’t handle it. That’s not our strengths. It’s yours. So if anyone questions Mommy’s request to you, ignore them, and remember that others did not understand your relationship with Mommy. You two were very similar. You two have strengths in being devoted to loved ones."

After listening to all that Elaine had said, I felt more at peace with my query. I then spoke to my mother out loud, in my own words, from my heart and Elaine listened quietly and patiently. Finally I was finished. I cannot share what I said to my mother. Some things are private.

We walked back to the car, and drove over to pick up my sister Fernie. Then we headed out to 'Sushi on Bloor' for my birthday lunch. So there we were, me and my sisters, going out for lunch together, just the three of us, instead of it being five. It felt so strange without my parents joining us.

While we ate our sushi delights, my sisters pulled out my birthday cards.
I read Fernie’s first and it was lovely. “Thank you Fernie”, I said.

Then I read Elaine’s three cards. She always gave more than one you see.
The first one was from Charly, my dog, thanking me for giving him a good life and saving him from the pound and impending death.
The second one was a mushy meaningful one for being a special sister to her. And the last one…was a card in an envelope that had an inscription on it saying ‘ To My Daughter, From Mommy’.
I looked back up at Elaine, shocked and desperately asked her, “ Did Mommy pick this out for me before she got too sick? Is this really from her?”
“No”, Elaine said sadly.  “I picked it out myself yesterday."
Then it hit me. That’s why Elaine didn’t think it was so strange, me buying a card on behalf of my mother to me, because that’s exactly what Elaine did too. We shared the same thought. We have a special understanding Elaine and I. She asked me to read her card.
I did:

‘Dear Daughter,
On your birthday, I want you to know that, in my heart, you’re always with me. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about you, care about you, and wish good things for you…
Not a day goes by when I don’t appreciate how lucky I am to have a wonderful daughter like you.
With Love on your Birthday and Always,’
Love Mommy. Elaine wrote the signature but it still felt that it had come from my mother in a way. The gesture meant a lot to me.

I locked eyes with my sister and cried openly. Then Elaine cried too and finally, Fernie opened up her floodgates and joined us in tears. Elaine reached out and held our hands. She said, “ Mommy would be happy you are celebrating your birthday Marla. That’s what she wanted you to do.” I was still torn with the feelings of celebrations on such a sad day.
I added, “ Mommy would be happy that we are sitting here together, the three of us, talking and sharing our thoughts and feelings and emotions.”
So there we were, the three Lukofsky girls, crying, holding each other and eating sushi. I wondered what the restaurant staff was thinking. But in the end, it really doesn’t matter what anyone thought of us. It was real and it was honest.

My mother told me, on July 3rd 2005, as she lay in her hospital bed receiving her first of three chemo treatments to slow down the leukemia, that she would be with me on my next birthday, my big 5-0. Her exact words were,
“ I’m sorry for ruining this birthday for you, but I will make it up to you for your next one and it’s that special birthday, the big 5-0.” Of course I assured her that she wasn’t ruining my birthday or any other birthday and never could. I assured her that my birthday wasn’t important to me but her health was. I assured her that there was nowhere else I’d rather be than by her side. And as she spoke of her wishes for me for the next year, I wondered, ‘will you be with me Mommy, to celebrate my 50th birthday, as you would want, as I would want? Will you?’

My mom died in February, six months before my 50th birthday, July 3rd 2006. Not having my mom there, made it very hard for me to celebrate my ‘special birthday’. I attended and partook in certain activities, a gathering of friends after my sister’s lunch, but I was walking through most of it. Just going through the motions. It felt wrong to enjoy the day. It felt wrong to be joyous. Someone was missing from the picture. I did my best to get through it all because I know that’s what she would have wanted me to do, or at least to try. And as I reflect upon all that had happened that day, I could see that in a different way, my mother was with me after all. On some level, on some alternative dimension, my mother was indeed with me.

By: Marla Lukofsky
July 2006

Saturday, May 17, 2008

'Thank You Daddy, Thank You'

(This story was inspired by a visit I shared with my father at Mt. Sinai Jewish Cemetary on Septemer 11th, 2002, in Toronto. It was just before Yom Kippur and we were paying our respects to our relatives who had passed on before us. I learned alot that day.)

IT was a nice sunny yet breezy day, a nice day for a visit to the cemetery if there is such a thing as a nice day to go to a cemetery. I picked my dad up at the house at 73 Wenderly Drive. My mom, Ruth, had a plastic bag ready for us, full of things that were needed for the visit to the Jewish cemetery off of Wilson Ave. so my dad could visit his parent’s graves and say a prayer for them. In this plastic bag was a prayer book, a little bottle of water so that we could rinse our hands, a Jewish ritual, some paper towels to dry our hands, and a little paper bag with about 4 small smooth stones to place on top of the tombstones, yet another Jewish ritual. It shows that someone visited the gravesite.

My mom and I helped my dad put on his jacket and zipped it up. My mom suggested that my dad wear a cap instead of a yarmulke because of the breeze but my dad said no, he wants a yarmulke. As always mommy was right and in the end, my dad did take the cap.
I helped him into the car and started to pull the seatbelt over to his hand when suddenly he said purposefully "I can do it myself." I often have to remind myself that my dad has to have the option to exercise some independence since so much of it has been taken away from him due to his circumstances of osteo-arthritis. My dad was securely seated in the car and I jumped into the drivers seat and away we went.

The two of us drove the regular route to Mt. Sinai Cemetery, down Wenderly to Dufferin, make a right and go along Dufferin to Wilson, make the left, and within a few minutes we were there. We didn't talk during the drive and the talk radio filled the silence. I parked where he wanted me to, in the handicapped spot.

We got out of the car and I took his arm and together we walked a bit of a way to the first area. Each area is designated to each synagogue congregation with different names. Ours was in the Shari Shomeyim Lebovitch section. We walked along the cemented pathway together, arm in arm, with the plastic bag full of goodies in my other hand. I kept looking closely reading all the names on the stones looking for the name Lukofsky. As we got closer, there was a space in the line-up of gravesites, and my dad pointed to this empty stoneless space and said, "That is where we are going to be."
By ‘we’ he meant my mom and him. Then he started to cry but kept walking along a few stones to his parent’s graves. It was very hard. Hard to see that my dad knows he is at the end of his journey of life and not ready to give up and die.

We walked a little further ahead and there it was on a black granite headstone with the letters in a written font, Lukofsky. It was strange to see it and every time I see it, every year, I feel that same strange way. My dad was sad but strong. We stood in front of his parents shared tombstone with two separate graves nicely kept up with flowers and greens. I am not sure what flora they were. My dad started to weep but spoke at the same time.
"It's nice, isn't it?” he asked.
"Yes, it’s very nice Daddy,” I agreed as I held back my tears."

I pulled out the prayer book and saw that my mom had a marker in it for the appropriate prayers. One was for a woman and the other was for a man. My dad took the prayer book in his hands, swollen and twisted from arthritis. He started to pray over his parent’s graves in Hebrew. He cried as he read. I had one arm around his back gently rubbing in circular motions while my other hand was placed on his chest to give comfort to his soul.

He first read for his father and then for his mother. My Dad put the marker back in between the pages and gently closed the cover of the prayer book. He began to speak to his parents in English. He told them as he wept (and me along with him,) that he missed them; that he loved them; that they were good parents; that he was not doing so well; that Meyer, his brother was sick too and that’s why he was not here with him today, and finally that "Marla, your granddaughter is here with me to pay respects to you both." When he was finished, I gave him a tissue to wipe his face and handed him two stones, one for each of his parent’s monuments. He placed them gently on top of their gravestones and I did the same.

After spending a considerable amount of time with his parent’s, my dad wanted to visit his aunt's grave, which was several rows away. As we walked along, I quickly scanned the ground in search of more stones because there wasn't any left in the little paper bag to place on my father’s aunt’s site. I eventually found two smooth stones and we carried on.

Once we found my father’s aunts grave, we repeated the same ritual. My father read from the prayer book, we placed some stones on top of her monument and then we walked slowly out of that section.

As my father and I walked together, we passed a monument that had so very many stones on top. My dad noticed this and said, " That person had a lot of people visiting them. That's nice." I looked around at the sea of monuments. So many monuments had one or two stones on top, some had four or six, and many others had nothing at all. No one came to see them, to remember them, to pay their respects to them. That made me terribly sad for those lonely people. I started to wonder… who would visit my grave?
Some Jewish rituals have more relevance than others. I can see how the ritual of leaving a stone on top of the tombstone can tell a story all on it’s own.

My father and I had finished our visits with the departed so we walked along the graveled roadside of the cemetery towards the parking lot. When we approached the car, I felt the urge to go to the washroom and I told my dad that I had to pee and wanted to use the chapel washrooms.
He asked, " Can you hold it”?
I thought my dad meant, until we get back to the house.
"No way” I shouted. I’m gonna bust"!
My dad explained and assured me that he meant, could I hold it until I get to the chapel washroom after taking him to the car to sit down.
" Ohhh… Of course I can Daddy,” I said sweetly.
I assisted my father into the seat of the car, and left the door open for air as I quickly ran inside the chapel to use the facilities. I ran out just as fast to check on my dad, and found him quietly sitting with one leg on the pavement and one leg in the car, just thinking. What his thoughts were must have encompassed many things. Things I wish we could talk about no matter how painful they may be.

I got my dad comfortably settled in the car, with the seatbelt secured and the car door closed. I jumped into the drivers seat, closed the car door and buckled up. We were now ready to go back home to mommy.
I took the same route back only reversed. I knew it well. Along Wilson to Dufferin. Make a right at Dufferin and take it straight to 73 Wenderly Drive. Easy driving.
While driving, I started to think of what a good son my dad is.
I said to myself 'Say it outloud Marla… tell him what you think before it is too late'
I suddenly got this big lump in my throat and I was fighting back the tears, but I got it out. " Daddy… you are a good son."

As we drove along, I looked over at him occasionally and he looked so cute to me, my father, the patriarch of our family, the man we still rely on for so many things and he is still handsome and cute yet older and frail.
I stroked the back of his head, gently smoothing his fine white hair. It’s so soft. I always love that part of my dad's head. Then I held his hand and I felt his hand hold on to mine as well, and we drove all the way back to the house holding hands in the car. The silence was broken by a phrase from my dad that meant so much to me.
" Marla, you’re a good girl… a good girl."
I have wanted to hear that for a very long time.
He said something else to me after a minute or two.
" Marla, you are a good driver… very good."
"Thank you Daddy, thank you."

(My father died 2 years later and he lies in that very grave he pointed out to me.)
By: marla lukofsky

'One Moment in Time' TEDx Talk, published

 (TEDx talk, published in Cell2Soul, International User-Driven Healthcare Journal, Health Story Collaborative)

I want to tell you a story.

It took place during the radiation phase of my breast cancer treatments.

My radiation sessions were scheduled at the same time, every day, for six weeks. Each day I saw the same patients and the same technicians. We were all on a first name basis.  I saw the same hot chocolate-cappuccino-coffee machine, the same cheap plastic bowl of fresh apples, oranges and bananas, the same stack of well-worn out-of-date magazines, the same relatives and friends accompanying their loved ones, and the same zapping of radiation. The one thing that didn’t stay the same was our changing bodies. We were all deteriorating. Not only was my body changing from the radiation but also the deep chemically-induced menopause I was in, was severely affecting my quality of life. If you can imagine how regular menopause affects women who lose their hormones gradually over a period of years, just think how it felt to lose mine in two weeks. I was having extreme hot flashes every ten minutes, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, some so harsh they left me faint. Menopause can also create a depressed feeling and I felt that creeping in as well. My doctor told me that losing my hormones so fast due to chemotherapy was doing such a job on my body, it was like driving my car into a brick wall at forty miles an hour. I found his analogy validating because that’s exactly how it felt. Smash! Bang! Boom!

Just to let you know, radiation in itself is actually quite painless. Unfortunately, what happens as time wears on is the skin that’s been radiated gets burned. Sometimes it looks like a fashionable tan, sometimes it looks like a sunburn, and sometimes the skin gets so badly burned, the doctors have no option but to stop the treatments completely. That’s exactly what happened to my friend Lily. Lily and I met in the radiation waiting room while she was being treated for breast cancer. She was of Asian decent, and even though she stumbled with her broken English, and I with my Chinese, we understood each other perfectly. Just like schoolgirls, we saved seats for each other every day. We connected on many levels and as the weeks moved along, we developed a deep love and respect for each other.  One day Lily confided in me that she would no longer be coming for treatment.  She opened up her shirt and I couldn’t believe my eyes. The severity of the burns on her chest was shocking. I didn’t know if Lily’s skin was more sensitive than mine or her level of radiation stronger. What I did know was that Lily’s chest couldn’t tolerate any more and her treatments were stopped permanently. I felt terrible for the hopelessness of her situation and, selfishly, I also felt terrible for myself — I would miss her.  I made several attempts to stay in touch, but sadly Lily and I never saw each other again.

That’s not the story I want to tell you.

Another patient I met while sitting in the waiting room, day after day, was Peter.  He had prostate cancer and we soon became buddies. Peter’s treatments were affecting his hormone levels, similar in ways to mine. He was going through a male menopause of sorts, complete with hot flashes, weight gain, frequent bouts of crying, periods of insomnia, low libido and an overall lack of well-being.  He often shared his emotional and physiological changes with me in great detail because he knew I would understand. Peter and I developed quite a bond, playing pranks on each other regularly. Each afternoon, while waiting for his name to be called, he ate a banana from the fruit bowl.  Peter just loved bananas.   One day, he was late for his treatment and I noticed that there was only one banana left in the bowl.  I didn’t want anyone to grab it, so being the thoughtful prankster that I am, I snatched up that Chiquita and hid it in my pocket.  When Peter finally arrived, he ran over to the fruit bowl but alas — no banana.  His disappointment was palpable.

“What’s wrong Peter?” I asked.  “You look so sad.”

“I wanted a banana but there’s none left,” he answered.

“Awww…that’s too bad.  Well, look down here. Oh my goodness. Is this a banana in my pocket or am I just happy to see ya?”  Quickly I whipped out that banana and Peter’s face lit up. What a sight. To most people, this may have seemed like such a small thing, but those kinds of exchanges amused us to no end and it helped get us through the day.

That’s not the story I want to tell you.

We all had our own routines when it came to our radiation appointments. This was mine: I’d sign in, walk into one of five closet-like changing rooms located within arms reach of the patient’s waiting room, put on one of those terribly revealing hospital gowns and leave my clothes on the hook, praying that no one would steal them.  Of course, I really didn’t have to worry too much about that. Being 5 feet tall, my pants would look like knickers on anyone else. After that, I’d sit in the waiting room, have a cappuccino, chat with a friend, read a gossip magazine to get up-to-date with the really important issues in life, and wait for my name to be called. When I’d hear ‘Marla Lukofsky’ over the speaker, I’d be escorted into a cold room with a large radiation machine and would hoist myself up onto an even colder metal table. Then I’d slide the hospital gown down to my waist, lie there and watch the huge high-tech contraption move across the ceiling until its projected grid pattern aligned itself with the tattoos on my chest. The machine would then zoom in close, and the technician-of-the-day would run out of the room as fast as he or she could, and hide behind a five-inch-thick Plexiglas-sealed container. That got me to thinking, ‘Hey, if it’s that dangerous for them, then what am I still doing in here?’

“Are you ready, Marla?” the voice on the intercom would ask.

“Yes, I am.”

 “Okay, then. You can keep breathing, but DON’T MOVE.”

Talk about a contradiction. Then the radiation machine would let out a disturbing sound that alternated between a high-pitched squealing noise and a machine gun popping. In a minute or two it would be all over, only to be repeated several more times on other areas of my chest. Sounds pretty simple doesn’t it. They’d do their job by zapping me and I’d do mine by lying still and taking in the rays.

Each day was becoming harder than the next. I started to feel like I had nothing important to do.  In order to bring in some money and keep myself somewhat active and stimulated, I got myself a part-time job at the only place that would hire me, Tusquellas’ Fresh Fish Market. Can you imagine feeling nauseous and choosing to work in a FRESH FISH MARKET?  What was I thinking?  Talk about upsetting aromas!!! On the plus side, when I went into a huge hot flash, I’d just leave the customer in the middle of their order and jump into the walk-in freezer at the back to cool off.  Sometimes I’d come out with icicles hanging off my hair. I’m not kidding.

Every day like clockwork, while my spirits were plummeting, I’d leave work and go to my radiation sessions. The technicians would always ask me, “How are ya doing, Marla,” before we’d get started and no matter what I’d answer, they’d never say much back except for the expected platitudes.  I hate platitudes. On a regular basis I would challenge them.  “Don’t be so guarded with me or any of the other patients. We’re not going to hurt you, you know!”  I guess I made an impact because when I received my Certificate of Completion from the Comprehensive Cancer Center, there was a hand-written inscription on it saying, ‘Don’t be so guarded! All the best! Andrew and Judy.

That’s not the story I want to tell you either.

One day, while sitting on the cold slab in the radiation chamber, Andrew, my technician-du-jour, asked me how I was doing. Maybe he was expecting me to say the usual ‘I’m fine thanks and you?’ but I didn’t — not that day.

“To be quite honest Andrew, I’m awful. I work in a fish market, I smell like Tilapia, and I feel like I don’t have a purpose in my life anymore.” Then I started to cry and cry and kept crying as if I was making up for all the days that I hadn’t let myself cry. Andrew handed me a Kleenex and gently said,

“Marla, I think you do have a purpose. Maybe you just can’t see it right now.”

“What are you talking about Andrew? All I do is come in here every day stinking of fish, get zapped, glow in the dark and go home. Nothing more than that.”

"Well, I’ll tell you what I see, Marla. The other day we had a new patient. Remember? She came in with her husband, the one with the blue scarf on her head.  Well, as you know, we have to take a Polaroid picture of each new patient for our records, so that we can make sure we’re giving the right radiation to the right person.  Anyway, you and Peter were sitting together, chatting away as per usual.  Then we came into the waiting room to take that woman’s picture, but she refused to let us and started to cry.

‘No, you can’t take my picture. I’m ugly. I look terrible and I feel terrible, and I don’t want anyone to see me like this. No! You can’t take my picture.’

We explained to her that we couldn’t start her treatments until we had the Polaroid, regulations, you know.  Her husband tried to change her mind and another technician tried too, but she wouldn’t budge.  So, we left the room to re-think our strategy while she sat there still crying.  Then I saw you, Marla. You walked over to her, knelt down right in front of her, put your hands on her knees and said, ‘Hi, my name’s Marla. I couldn’t help but hear what you said about the picture, and the way you look.  I really understand some of what you feel — not all of it, because I’m not you, but I have to tell you something. Underneath my scarf, I look just like you.’ 

And Marla, you took off your red bandana and exposed your bald head to that woman, a total stranger.  Then you said, ‘You see?  I look just like you. And you know what else? I think you’re beautiful, and trust me, I know a beautiful woman when I see one and you…are beautiful.  I wish I had your looks. I let them take my picture and I’m nowhere near as beautiful as you. Now, if you don’t let them take your picture, then you won’t be able to start your radiation and the sooner you start it, the sooner it’ll be all over and you’ll start feeling better again.’ Well, Marla, the woman sat there for a minute, thought about what you said and blurted out, ‘OK… I’ll let you take my picture.’  As soon as she said that, we scrambled back in, snapped the shot, and got her into the radiation room.  Her husband was grateful and so were we. And now you come in here and tell me that you don’t have a purpose?  Well, all I can say is that what you did for that woman was a wonderful thing. You helped her get through a difficult time. What’s more important than that? I saw you take that banana for Peter and make him laugh. I saw you get that hot chocolate for Cheryl and get her to open up to you. Even though you feel terrible right now, you have to remind yourself that you help people…in more ways than you realize and, in my books, that’s having a purpose — a very important purpose.”

I was shocked by what Andrew had told me. I was more shocked by his total recall.

“How the hell did you know about that Andrew?” I asked. “Do you have hidden cameras everywhere?”

“Actually, yes, we do, in every room, with intercom systems. We watch and listen to everything that goes on around here.”

“Geez…if I knew that, I would’ve put on some lipstick.”

After Andrew left the room, I sat there absorbing all that he had said. He made me feel better.  He gave me a new perspective on things. You see…he took the time for me, to point out that I took the time for someone else.  It was only one moment out of our lives, one moment in time, but it gave so much and sometimes that’s all it takes to help each other get through to the next day and the day after that. Sometimes, it’s just that simple.

That’s the story I want to tell you.

Previously published in the International Journal of User-Driven Healthcare and Cell2Soul.

'Small Talk' - A child's story of social anxiety

Cindy loved parties and why wouldn’t she. She looked like Elizabeth Taylor from the film classic, National Velvet. Cindy was as cute as cute could be, petite with shoulder-length straight black hair and sparkling brown eyes. She had a wonderful little nose, complete with brown freckles that would soon fade with age, and a smile that would melt your heart if given the chance.

To me, Cindy was above average- she had an energy about her, a joie-de-vivre if you will, that was much more exciting than mine, and a keen sense of humor. I always thought that Cindy’s family was above average as well, perhaps more wealthy than the rest of us. After all, her family was the first on the block to get a colored television set, unheard of way back in the 1960’s. For all I knew, Cindy was the only person in the world who had a color TV. And she graciously invited her friends over to watch ‘The Flintstones’, in living color on Saturday mornings...a cartoon extravaganza. I never knew Fred’s toga was orange up until then.

Cindy had two older sisters, just like I did. We were all friends. The sisters were paired up according to age. Gayle, Cindy’s eldest, was matched up with my eldest sister Fernie. Karen, her middle sister was hooked up with my middle sister Elaine, and the leftovers, were Cindy and myself. Even though she and I were three years apart in age, we were the same height back then standing about 4’9”, pretty average for everyone that age. For me 4’9” felt like it was about the tallest I would ever get to be... that is, without standing on a chair. I did end up reaching a respectable 5’ even. Whoopee! Gosh, we had so many things in common. Our sisters...our height... Cindy was my best friend... that month.

Back then, I had a thick black head of hair that, for my mother’s sake, was conveniently styled in a pageboy cut. No fuss, no muss I guess. My eyes were large and almond shaped with a bronze hue and my eyelashes were so long that when I got close to a person, they could give butterfly kisses. These eyes became my signature piece. I wasn’t particularly thin nor was I fat. Just an average looking little tomboy, in an average family setting, living in an average middle class neighborhood in the suburbs of Toronto. There was only one problem, one little quirk that set me outside the bounds of normalcy. I hated parties.

I must have been nine or ten years old when my buddy, comrade, and co-conspirator, Cindy, was having her 7th birthday party. When I say co-conspirator, I mean it. After all, we had our first cigarette together, we got our hands caught in the new electric garage door that was installed at my house, and we both got stuck in the laundry dryer after satisfying our curiosity as to which would be a better ride, the washer or the dryer. Just for the record…it was the dryer. The agitator can be a bitch.

It was decided, certainly not by me, that my father would accompany me to Cindy’s party, not that it was strange or odd for a parent to accompany their child to parties but most parents were there for the chaperone effect. Mine was there because my parents gave birth to a backward-socialized, fear-ridden daughter, who had a habit of becoming paralyzed at the mere thought of being amongst groups of unsolicited humans. Why was I like that? Where did this come from? What psychological traumatic event took place to form such an adverse social reaction? Who cares. It just was. That’s why life was so much easier playing by myself in the family garage, building multiple story Popsicle stick complexes that Frank Lloyd Wright would have salivated over. I actually had fantasies that Mr. Wright would call me up one day because he heard about this 10-year-old girl who would be a great contribution to the world of architecture and ask me to become his associate. I could just see it, painted neatly and precisely in Times font lettering on the distinguished plate glass door. WRIGHT, WRIGHT, & LUKOFSKY.

My father walked me or shall I say, dragged me unwillingly to Cindy’s birthday party, which was across the street and around the corner on Lois Avenue. We lived on Wenderly Drive, not three minutes away by tricycle. If one would look back retracing our steps, you would have seen a double rutted trail through the lawn left by my stubborn heels, which had been firmly planted in the ground.

We finally arrived at the dreaded destination and walked into Cindy’s house from the side door, as did everyone back then. You see, her parents rarely let anyone including their own family members use the front door. That was only used for special occasions like funerals. That may sound flippant, and I don’t mean it to, but the fact remains that the only time I got to walk through that front door was years later when Cindy’s mother died of spinal cancer at much too young an age, but isn’t it always too young for anyone to die before they are ready to. I remember quite vividly on that funeral day, walking through their front door with my sisters Elaine and Fernie by my side for the condolence visit, and thinking to myself, ’So this is what the foyer looks like’.

As I was saying, it was Cindy’s birthday party. We walked into her modestly styled little three-bedroom bungalow through the side door with my father trailing close behind me. We immediately but cautiously headed downstairs to the basement because that was where the party for Cindy was being held.

I was dressed in a ‘monkey suit’, which is a ‘party dress’ to most of the human population, complete with stiff and itchy crinoline, and well-worn school shoes on my feet. I didn’t have party shoes like my party-going sister Elaine, because my refusal to go to parties didn’t warrant purchasing such extravagant things, according to my mother.

My father, who was still right behind me, kept reassuring me that the party would be ‘loads and loads of fun’ and he would be with me at all times so not to worry. In my mind, my father stood six feet tall and had a body like Superman, the looks of Tyrone Power and a dashing tan like Cary Grant. If my Daddy said there was nothing to worry about then I wanted to believe him. I didn’t believe him, but I wanted to believe him, so we continued downstairs towards the basement.

The noise that came from the basement or recreation room as some liked to call it, was very intimidating. My heart started to pound, my stomach started to churn and my palms became sweaty. I could smell the food in the distance. (Sniff, sniff.) Not just any food. Cake. (Sniff, sniff.) Not just any cake but Angel Food cake with the multi-colored sparkles, (Sniff, sniff) and bowls of potato chips… the rippled kind. (Sniff, sniff), and party sandwiches, the ones with no crust and the olive in the center. I particularly loved the tuna ones and still do. (Sniff, sniff)... and those wonderful little vanilla ice cream cups. You know… the ones that came with it’s own little wooden spoons. You may have noticed... I have a very good sense of smell. And that’s when it really hit me. Right then. Boom. Reality set in. THIS WAS A PARTY and there was no turning back.

I remember taking each step as if it was my last, as if I was headed towards the lynch man’s noose. I got to the last stair and was overcome by the sight of all those little creatures running around in circles, laughing, squealing, and chattering, dressed in their monkey suits and shiny black patent party shoes with their parents dutifully by their sides. After all, it was the thing to do then, to escort children to parties.

When I entered the large recreation room, I was amazed at how this usually dull, mildew-smelling space could be transformed into something quite different. In fact, it was unrecognizable. This surely was not the same room that Cindy and I were sent down to play in every Saturday afternoon, where we would frolic, make noise and plan our next juvenile criminal act without the fear of reprimand. This basement was now appropriately decorated with a colorful array of red, white, blue and yellow balloons, strategically placed to induce joy and celebration wherever one would look. Let me tell ya, it didn’t fool me for a second.

I walked with dread into this party room and all of the people or should I say parents and children alike, turned towards me and responded to my arrival as if I was royalty. You could cut the tension with a knife.
“ Look who’s here? I can’t believe it... it’s the girl who never goes to parties... Well, it’s about time stranger... Welcome Marla... You’ll have a great time... You’re gonna have so much fun, fun, fun.”

I was quickly whisked off against my will and shown to the elaborately designed birthday cake, party sandwiches and the latest games that Mattel had to offer. Too bad I had lost my appetite because I LOVED party sandwiches and they're so expensive to buy. When I kept hearing those adults, guaranteeing my enjoyment with their 'fun fun fun' mantra, I said to myself, ‘Yeah right. You think this is fun? Well this ain’t for me folks. I’m busting out of here as soon as I can, or at least as soon as my Daddy lets me.’ So I turned and looked up, up, up, way up to my father's face for comfort while these claustrophobic feelings started to engulf me, but oddly I couldn’t find him. I was horrified. Where was he? Suddenly I heard an abrupt sound and my eyes quickly shifted towards it, to the image of the back of my father’s black haired head and the soles of his shoes leaving the doorway of the side door of Cindy’s home while the metal screen door snapped shut behind him. Next thing I knew, someone started screaming. It wasn’t just anyone. It was me.
“ No Daddy, no! No! Where are you going? Don’t leave me here...”
All of the remaining parents started to stalk towards me like a crazed mob, like the Body Snatchers with their arms stretched out, a brainwashed glaze in their eyes and uttering a mindless chant--, “It’s o.k. Marla. Everything will be all right. Calm down Marla.”-- trying to distract me as if I was a simple-minded creature that could be so easily swayed by something else other than the terror that I felt at being left behind, with these strangers, these aliens, while watching my parent and my protector leave me behind... alone.

I screamed and shouted and kicked and shoved and confirmed to the onlookers that my reputation of being a very odd partygoer wasn’t too far from the truth. I ran towards the stairs to escape this intrusion of terror and suddenly felt all of these arms around me, holding me back, with their continuous chanting, “It’s o.k. Marla. We are going to have a ‘fun’ time, just relax.” What was this obsession about FUN? Now I was SURE they were the Body Snatchers. I pushed and pulled and got out of their grasp, ran up to the top of the stairs, flung open that screen door with all my might, and ran down the grassy knoll to Lois Avenue as fast as I could, shouting “ Wait Daddy, wait, wait, wait for me, don’t leave me here.”

Shockingly, I saw my family’s station wagon turning the corner from Lois onto Wenderly Drive with my father in the driver’s seat. I noticed the silhouettes of my mother and two sisters in the car as well. ‘Oh my God!’ I thought to myself. ‘Are they all in on this cruel deception? How could they be? Sure, my sisters just do what they are told but how could my mother do this to me? She has too much social pain herself. She would understand my torment. Her empathy would take over, wouldn’t it?’

The family station wagon drove off down Wenderly Drive and I chased that car while running down the middle of the street as fast as my little pudgy legs could take me --monkey suit and all. I probably would have made much better time if I were wearing my beloved blue jeans and P.F. Flyer running shoes with secret decoder. I chased that car and chased that car for what seemed like miles. I could see my mother’s eyes in the rearview mirror with a look of disbelief or shame, I don’t know which, realizing that her little tyke wasn’t at Cindy's party anymore and obviously wasn’t going to stop chasing their car, no matter what until...SCREEEEEEEECH!!!!!
There was a big screeching sound. The family station wagon slammed on its brakes with the red backlights ablaze.

Now that the car was at a dead stop, I finally caught up to it. The left rear door swung open and I breathlessly jumped into the backseat and slid over beside my sister Elaine for comfort. The car door slammed shut.
‘Free at last, free at last, thank god all mighty I’m free at last’ were my inner thoughts.
A pregnant pause ensued and the car drove off in continuation to its original destination which was unknown to me. Silence filled the space. My mother’s head began to move ever so slightly to and fro, left to right, while murmuring the following words under her breath as she does to this very day...“ Marla, Marla, Marla.”

I felt so safe and relieved to be in their car, away from those people, those strangers at the party. However, if I had my wish, I wished I had been left alone at home, without my family, with only my solitude, so I could fantasize and daydream in peace. My parents often felt uncomfortable leaving me alone in the house... too young I suppose for them. Not for me.

After that incident, I thought that I could never trust my father again. Of course those were just a child’s thoughts. As an adult, I do trust my father, but I have often wondered ‘how could he have done that to me?’ Maybe he thought it was the right thing to do, getting me acclimatized to parties and not being reliant on him. I suppose he didn’t know me very well back then. I think at times, he still doesn’t.

By Marla Lukofsky