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September 1966, Leaving Home
"I put in my diary what happened except the worst things which I left out. Then I went back and put them in."
My dad's full name was David John Adler. He was a short excitable man who slaved day and night and asked for calm when he trudged home. Fanny, my mom, worked with him behind the counter. We called dad DJ because he played LP's — Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin. DJ never talked about feelings except when he yelled at the Leafs or had car trouble with the Edsel or got held up at his drugstore or got angry with me. On the outside, he was the nicest druggist. He never lost his temper at work. He saved it up for us at home. DJ had been robbed, held up at gunpoint and thieves had stolen narcotics. Two months earlier he was pistol-whipped by a drug-crazed addict. He put steel doors at the back of the store. When I worked there I locked the back door. Sometimes he drove a few blocks home, stopped, and we went back to check the doors. DJ said stay clear of pharmacy — it was a cut-throat business. I finished undergrad and applied to med school. When I got acceptance, DJ was furious. What the bloody hell, do you mean you not sure? We had a terrible two-hour argument. You busted your ass studying and now you get goddamn cold feet for a chance of a lifetime? Schmuck. DJ called his big sister Lena and his two older brothers, Lou and Max. Lena ran a clothing store. Lou was a big-shot pediatrician and Max was head of family practice. My Ben is accepted into med school, DJ yelled in a fury. Now he is not sure. He is going to destroy his life. Uncle Max came over. I trusted Uncle Max more than anyone. Go and give medicine a try, Uncle Max said.
We never know anything until we are there.
I am not sure I want to be a doctor, I said. Suppose I make a mistake and kill somebody?CHAPTER 2
Saturday night, while I debated med school, my cousin Ziggie drove us to his house to celebrate. Ziggie belonged to Mensa, had no respect for rules, was doing at least fifty, popped a beer in Uncle Lou's Coupe de Ville, ran a curb, whacked a garbage can and slammed on the brakes. The Caddie screeched to a stop in front of Loùs Forest Hill house. Nathan and Avi killed themselves laughing in the back seat. "Ziggie, this is no joke," I yelled. "You're drinking and driving. If the cops see us we're in the slammer." Ziggie yapped about Uncle Lou and Aunt Helen being at some dumb medical meeting in Buffalo, then sat at their grand and sangFive Hundred Miles so sweet that I got sad about leaving Angie. I was twenty and never left home. Nathan and I put back four beers, Ziggie downed six beers, and little Avi drank a Coke and hummed along.
"What if I am not cut out to be a doctor?" I said. "Four years of med school is no joke."
"Don't act tragic." Ziggie kept playing piano. "What's the deal with you and Angie?"
"It was supposed to be a total secret," I said. "How did DJ and Fanny find out?"
Avi stopped humming and grew quiet. "Did you spill the beans, Avi?" Nathan said.
"Fanny has to know stuff." Avi sipped his Coke. "I didn't squeal. Honest."
That night we crawled home. Next morning, I almost puked in the back of the Edsel, with DJ swerving and yelling at me to stop seeing Angie and concentrate on med school. It was a scorching Labour Day Sunday, the longest trip our family ever made. DJ never relaxed in his drugstore. Fanny sold cosmetics. She looked pretty in her white uniform but she was no pushover. Fanny had her eagle eyes out for shoplifters and juvenile delinquents. DJ had this sick fear one day he would fill a prescription and boom one of his customers would drop dead — because of him. Or they would die because the prescription — illegible at best — never got dispensed in time. Once I heard DJ talking to a twelve year old. "Sonny, you want a jar of rubbing alcohol?"
"The doctor said for mom to rub alcohol over my brother for his fever to go down."
"Don't let anyone drink the alcohol. You can go blind. Don't let it near the stove. It can explode. Listen, sonny. See the sign — the skull and crossbones. Poison."
The kid left the store clutching the alcohol like nitroglycerin. DJ was a terrible worrier.CHAPTER 3
Avi and I perspired in the back of the hot airless Edsel cradling Uncle Max's bugle. We listened to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and news about Viet-Nam on the car radio.
"Is this the road to the medical school?" Fanny asked. "Why don't men ever get a map?"
"Honey, Kingston is ahead, don't worry." DJ pointed forward to the highway. "There."
Outside Trenton, DJ bought a map and passed it to me. We fell behind a hay truck. The yellow Edsel was years old but when you touched the gas the car shot out like a rocket. It was way ahead of its time with shifters in the steering wheel. DJ never pushed the Edsel over sixty. He stared ahead, smoking cigarette after cigarette. "If you know where to go, pass him," mom said.
"Fanny, if you feel better, read the map," DJ said. "Just don't tell me how to drive."
I passed Fanny the map. Two hay trucks passed us; we rolled down windows and smelled warm hay. Avi wore his Leaf cap. I played a bugle charge to break the monotony. "Don't blow that goddamn bugle," DJ said. I saw the approaching exit for Kingston and blew the bugle. A third hay truck came behind us. "Turn." Fanny checked the map and pointed. "Right here, turn on Division Street." DJ swerved right. The hay truck behind us braked and honked.
DJ slapped the wheel and drove on. "I can't stop here. Do you know you almost killed us? Am I supposed to back up?" DJ took a breath, tried to calm down, slowed at Montreal Street and turned right. We passed old limestone and wood homes and the train station.
"Daddy is totally lost," Avi said. "Nobody knows where we are. Ben, play the bugle." I blew a huge bugle charge. We ended up near old warehouses and a baseball diamond with wooden bleachers. Everything needed a coat of paint. The air was hot and thick. Kids ran around shirtless. Avi shoved something in my pocket. "Ssh. It's for later, after we leave," Avi said softly, then louder: "Let me play the bugle. This place is ugly."
"Don't say ugly," Fanny said. "Ben is attending medical school here."
A woman in a housecoat and curlers hosed water on two glistening children. DJ asked her directions. The woman pointed south to the lake. We got lost three times that day. DJ drove too far west and too far east. After an hour of circling Kingston, the Edsel made growling noises in the heat. DJ stopped and looked under the hood. "Can I ask what you are looking for?" Fanny asked.
"I am looking for that noise." DJ got back into the steamy Edsel. He knew zip about cars. For the next ten minutes, we talked hockey — DJ was a die-hard Leaf fan. Horton had the best slapshot in the NHL and DJ bet that the Leafs with Mahovlich, Horton and Armstrong would win the Stanley Cup. Then Fanny told DJ to make a right turn. We ended up at the Kingston Pen with twenty foot walls by the lake. DJ snapped a photo.
"Is this the university?" said Fanny. "Tell me DJ, is this the university?"
"See the walls — this place is for psychopaths and murderers," DJ said. "If I see something interesting I take a photo. Your job, Fanny, is to read the map. You're getting me more lost." We crossed a bridge and ended up at some place where everyone wore uniforms.
"RMC, Royal Military College," Fanny said. "See, on the map." DJ drove past RMC and up a hill to a huge fort with cannons pointed over the water. "That is Fort Henry," Fanny said. "We are lost again." DJ parked at the summit, got out, wiped his sweaty forehead, lit a cigarette and took a picture. We got out of the hottest place on earth and went for a little walk. Avi asked me to pass him the old beat-up French bugle. Uncle Max had been in a field hospital and a German bomb almost fell on top of him. It was the same for the bugle, bent with pock marks like it had been shot and bayoneted. The bell was green and the rest was a dull coppery-shit colour. If you held it to your nose it smelled rank. DJ put his Brownie away. Avi said I was lucky to be a doctor. I told him I was happy we got lost and in no rush to go to med school. Avi blew six gurgly notes.
"That does it. Give me the bugle." Avi handed over the bugle. DJ put it under the Edsel's front tire. "I will flatten this cursed bugle if you blow it again. Understand?"
"Don't do that," I said. "That's Uncle Max's bugle. He gave it to me. It's precious."
"It's a goddamn pain in the ass," DJ said.
By mid-afternoon, DJ drove the car slow as a hearse through the city, pissed as hell. We came to Morris Hall. I climbed out of the stifling Edsel and knocked on the main door. The place looked like a deserted mausoleum where they kept dead people, limestone-grey like every building. One hundred years ago there must have been a special on limestone — I swear the entire campus, statues, walls, residences were carved from this dead-looking smoky shale. I pushed the buzzer. A stooped porter with a crinkly face arrived — Moriarity. He had a thick Irish accent. I gave him my papers. "Medical students come Tuesday," Moriarity said. "You are two days early."
"May I see my son's room, please," Fanny asked. Moriarity led us to the elevator. The elevator held five of us. It was one of those elevators that take a century to go anywhere. I had room 340. From the third-floor window I saw old wood houses on the street and the lake. A dot moved in the water: someone was swimming in the lake.
"Will the cafeteria be open tomorrow?" Fanny asked.
"There will be light meals."
"Will my son be here all by himself?"
"There is one student who arrived today. He's out right now."
"Please, let me stay here with Ben," Avi said. "I want to be a doctor too."
Fanny inspected my room, the desk and drawers, unpacked my clothes and placed a box of her home-made poppy-seed cookies on my desk. Avi put my baseball stuff and football in the closet. DJ handed me fifty dollars cash for my first month and gave me back Uncle Max's bugle. "Remember your dental checkup with Cousin Izzie next time in Toronto." Fanny gave me a peck on my cheek, showing my underwear and socks folded neatly in drawers. "See? Men get distracted and lose things," Fanny said. "Isn't that true, DJ?" DJ gave Fanny a long look. He took Avi and we played ball outside the residence. It felt good to play but six grounders later DJ was out of breath.
"D-Daddy's in lousy shape," Avi said. "Can I c-come with you?"
Avi had a stutter since childhood. If he was nervous it came out. I promised to take him to anatomy class. A tall slim fellow in sunglasses wearing swimming trunks and a towel around his neck appeared. "My name's Ryan, Ryan Callaghan." Water beaded on his curly carrot hair and freckled goose- bump skin. "We are the two guys in residence so far."
"Benjamin I. Adler." I shook hands with him. "Friends call me Ben. See you later."
Before DJ left he pulled me aside. "Listen, I got to talk to you man-to-man. Stick with med school. You have a better life as a doctor." DJ gave me a box of Trojans. "Here's advice — your problems are Angie. Don't screw up. She's not one of us." He hugged me.
"Suppose I change my mind about med school?"
* * *
Callaghan was nowhere so I went back to my room and checked under the bed for spiders. Besides dentists if there was anything in life I hated it was spiders — small spiders were bad enough but large spiders absolutely freaked me out. I don't know — the sight of them gave me the creeps. I took my pencils, sketch pad and diary, a map of the campus, Uncle Max's bugle and put on a sweater — it was turning cool. I scouted the residence, crossed King Street and walked to the lake where Callaghan had been. I climbed onto a huge rock, watched sunfish treading in the shallow clear water and sketched the shore. I opened the letter Avi had slipped quietly into my pocket.
* * *
This is my family story. Before the war, DJ said he wanted to be an MD like his two brothers. His big brother Lou became a pediatrician. Lou's wife, Helen, was a champion mahjong player and Lou's son Ziggie skipped twice in school, won music awards, did drugs and was a genius. "Guess why Lou became a pediatrician?" DJ said. "His twin died. I was a tiny pisher. My brother Max became a GP. Lena, my sister, had sons, Izzie, the dentist and Solly, the surgeon. At three they put you in an incubator with pneumonia. You almost died. Max and Lou saved your life. You have a better future than me," DJ said. "Try to remember that and study."
"How often do you tell me that dumb pneumonia story," I said. "Why repeat that crap?"
"Ben, you can work with Max's or Lou or Solly at their hospital. You have a choice."
"Give me a break for godssakes — I haven't started medical school."
I went to my room and stared at the family photos Lou took. We had black hair and dark features, DJ, Fanny, Nathan, Avi and me. Bubba Bella said our family had lived in Spain and fled the Inquisition to Odessa. Then the pogroms came and our family fled Odessa for Canada. Bubba Bella was my guardian angel. She spoke of Mother Russia and never wanted to leave a country again but when I was sixteen she left us for good.
I wandered through the sunlit campus, passed the women's residences and looked for a place to eat. I had my twenty-one dollars and the fifty dollars DJ gave me and that made seventy-one dollars, but nothing was open so I munched on Fanny's poppy-seed cookies and thought of little Avi sitting by himelf in the back of the Edsel. A half hour later I ended up at the anatomy building. The limestone flushed pink in the rosy sunset. I looked in a window but saw nothing. A while later I bumped into Callaghan. He was in first year meds, a year older than me. He had a partner, Natasha. Right away we hit it off. We went to his room. He read me a Playboy interview with Miles Davis, then played Smile on the common-room piano and we talked about jazz and women and if we had ever been in love.CHAPTER 4
Callaghan and I stood together that first day, waiting in our new white lab coats. To tell you the truth I felt like leaving right then and there — in the centre of anatomy were tables covered with linen shrouds. Underneath the shrouds were white mounds. Padre Moran in his robes marched to the front of the room flanked by Dean Witt and the anatomy prof. Behind them were lecturers, the anatomy fellow, and Tim, the assistant with a gimp foot. Dean Witt, the tallest in the troupe stepped forward in his dark suit, stretched to his full height and asked for quiet. "Witt doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground," someone joshed. "Dean Witt is a twit."
Today the anatomy doors open to your first day as a medical student. Medicine will test your intellect and compassion and confront you with our struggle against disease. You will be expected to uphold the dignity of patients and your profession. Never forget Hippocrates' words "primum non nocere" and our sacred goals to relieve the sick.
Dean Witt recited the Hippocratic Oath, encouraging us to study and work hard. A student whispered: "Don't get on the dean's team." The anatomy prof introduced the demonstrators, the anatomy fellow and Tim, the tech. "Let us bow our heads," Padre Moran said. Seventy novice medical students formed around the metal tables with cadavers.
May we pray for those who were God's children though their souls have departed; their bodies remain today, for they have been bequeathed to science. Let us remember they have been given to you in good trust in the name of medicine and learning ...
I looked up to hear a sob. Callaghan was crying. He wiped tears from his face. Padre Moran asked for silence. We recited the Lord's Prayer. Callaghan sobbed softly. We were ordered to unveil our body. I took a breath and unrolled the white shroud from cadaver # 166. A man lay stiff on the table, his skin darkened, thick, tight about his joints so his knees and elbows seemed unnaturally polished and large. His skin flaked in places and had the colour of rust. His feet were wrapped neatly in plastic bags tied over his ankles; his hands were similarly wrapped. The head, which we could see through the translucent plastic, revealed a face and shut eyes that appeared smoky, the jaw and brow sunken, the flesh ridged from lying on one side. The features were indistinct, smudged. My stomach twisted. "I don't think I can do this."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Confessions Of A Medical Student"
Copyright © 2018 Ronald Ruskin.
Excerpted by permission of Aeon Books Ltd.
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