The Untimely Death Of A New Father

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thecaptionI only met Paul once, at the wedding of my friend, Joanna. Paul was married to Lucy, Joanna’s twin sister.

Lucy and Paul met at the Yale School of Medicine, and eventually went on to do their residencies at Stanford University Medical Center, he as a neurosurgeon, she as an internist. Exceptionally smart, they also made an exceptionally handsome couple. They had a daughter last July 4th, named Elizabeth Acadia “Cady” Kalanithi.


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You Begin To Feel As If You Are Alice

When you see Julianne Moore in a typically witless L’Oreal commercial, it’s easy to forget she’s a marvelous actor, not just a beautiful redhead idiotically gushing about the latest magical skin cream you
can pick up in your corner drugstore.

Watch Ms. Moore for one minute in her new movie, Still Alice, and you actually forget she’s a brilliant actor, not really the 50-something victim of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. From the moment Alice Howland, a renowned linguistics professor at Columbia University, starts to forget words, you feel as if you are her, as her frustration progresses to fear and then to anguish. As she struggles to stay connected to her job, and to her husband (Alec Baldwin) and three grown children, you ask yourself if you’d be as resolute to take control over your hideous illness; as practical to assess its forward march through your brain, and as gracious to everyone around you.

When I read the 2007 book, by Lisa Genova, upon which the movie is based, it made an impression that has remained with me ever since. I can still see the words describing Alice as she takes her routine jog through Cambridge (she’s a Harvard professor in the novel), and stopping suddenly because she can’t remember where to turn next. The movie isn’t quite as powerful as the book (which spent over 40 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and garnered numerous prestigious awards), at least to me, but it’s a masterpiece nonetheless. Although I didn’t see all the movies starring women who received Best Actress nominations, it’s unlikely anyone’s performance rivaled Ms. Moore’s.

“Julianne could not only project the scintillating intelligence and complexity of a linguistics professor but also the vulnerability and simplicity of the later stages,” wrote director Wash Westmoreland in a press release.

“She’d be able to master every beat of the character’s deterioration. She is quite simply one of the finest actors on the planet.”

Preparing for the role, 53-year-old Ms. Moore met Alzheimer’s patients who are close in age to the 50-year-old portrayed in the film. “[Writer Lisa Genova] made the character 50, and not 80, because that way you’re able to talk about Alzheimer’s as an actual disease, not a condition of aging,” Julianne told Closer magazine in an interview. Praising those who were generous to share their stories with her, the actor said it was “devastating” to meet these victims. She remains friends with Sandy, a patient she met who was diagnosed at 45 and “had a hell of a time coping with the disease,” Julianne said. “One of the reasons I connected with her is that she has red hair—we look very similar.”

Accepting the Golden Globe Award, earlier this week, for best actress in a drama, Ms. Moore recalled author Lisa Genova telling her, “No one wants to see a movie about a middle-aged woman.” She praised Sony Pictures Classics for deciding to “celebrate who we are, what we value and who we love.”

Still Alice opens this week across the country. Even if you only see happy movies, make an exception. Still Alice is a far cry from Meet The Fockers, and although it won’t tickle your funny bone, it will touch your heart.

“She’s Not Good Enough For My Sonny Boy!”

How would you like a mother-in-law who didn’t think you were “good enough” for her sonny boy? Not so much, of course.

Well, mothers-in-law like this lurk in dark corners all over the world, and, as far as I’m concerned, they’re a repulsive lot. I recently heard about one woman I know, who commented to her best friend about her son’s fiancé: “He could do better.”

Mind you, the girlfriend is reportedly a lovely, educated woman, but she apparently doesn’t cut the mustard in the eyes of her future m-i-l, a woman who has always come across to me as unfriendly, impertinent, and hoity-toity. Apparently, she’s not pleasant to the young woman, either. If she was going to be my m-i-l, I’d be distressed, big time. Unless, of course, my future husband assured me that he knew his mother was trouble, with a capital T.

Let’s say your ridiculously handsome son graduated from Harvard, got his law degree from Yale and earns $2.7 million a year at the most prestigious law firm in the country. Do you think all this makes him “better” than an average-looking woman who graduated, let’s say, from a state university, is finishing her masters at a state university, and is a public school teacher who will unlikely earn big bucks? Of course it doesn’t. But some people base their opinions of others on the schools they attended, the money they earn, the clothes they wear and the look of their faces.

All too often, families that consider themselves “blue bloods” aren’t terribly interested in welcoming anyone into their inner circles with blood of a different color, never mind skin.

What if the son I described above had a terrible accident which impaired him and rendered him unable to work? Would a judgmental m-i-l still consider her daughter-in-law unworthy of her son’s love, as she watched her tirelessly care for her offspring?

I’ve heard mothers over the years describe their daughters-in-law as “too demanding, too lazy, too selfish, too money hungry,” even “too hefty.” Of course, their sons all embodied perfection! I remember my usually mild-mannered, soft-spoken paternal grandmother repeatedly moaning how my uncle was “too good” for his wife, who the family dubbed “crazy.” I loved my uncle, but I assure you he was hardly “too good” for her.

Our sons are free to marry anyone they choose, and unless the women they choose are abusive, who are we to judge their worthiness? And what about those of us who have daughters? What do their mothers-in-laws say about them?

Why I’m a Lucky, Lucky Lady!

I got one of the best Chanukah/Christmas presents a woman can get, last Saturday (12.13.14):
A perfect daughter in law.

She’s beautiful, smart, independent, warm and caring and has a world of friends who love her. But that’s not why she’s perfect. She’s perfect because she adores my son, and seeing how happy he is around her makes me happy.

I am not a mother-in-law who has any intention of competing with my new daughter-in-law for my son’s attention. I’d lose, hands down, anyway! But I already know that she’d come to my side, in a flash, if I needed her.

I didn’t give a toast at the wedding last weekend (the two fathers gave the best toasts I’ve ever heard at any wedding), but if I had, I would have said that my new daughter-in-law truly gives credence to the adage: “You can tell a lot about a person by his (or her) friends.” Her close girlfriends I’ve met seem as genuine as my daughter-in-law. She is part of their families. She loves their little kids and they love her.

There doesn’t seem to be a bit of envy or competitiveness in the air when she and her friends are together. Only warmth and affection.

I can say the same thing about my son. Each one of his incredibly handsome and accomplished close friends is one-of-a-kind. I adore every single one of them. Their excitement about his happiness, at the wedding, was breathtaking. I’ve known these guys for years and they weren’t just making nice. They are thrilled he married this girl and to see him so happy. Almost the last of his friends to marry, my son seemed as if he’d be the “bachelor uncle,” forever.

Perhaps the best testament to my new daughter-in-law’s heart and soul is my own daughter, who counts her new sister-in-law as a friend and is thrilled her brother made such a wonderful choice and is so happy. BTW, my daughter speaks her mind like no one else I know, even me.

It’s a great comfort to see my children all grown up, with such fine partners. Of course, I’ll never stop worrying about them, but now I have a daughter and son-in-law to share the worrying.

What more can a Jewish mother (or any mother, for that matter) ask for?

How To Rewire Your Mind

How many times have we heard or read this advice from someone who is ill:

Stop and smell the roses,” tell our loved ones how much we care, appreciate every single day, no matter how much it tests your mental endurance? No doubt, we’ve all heard it many times. Yet, how many of us really take the advice to heart, beyond maybe a few hours, a day or even a week? We fall right back into our routines, often getting frustrated, disheartened, depressed, or even downright mad at someone or something. Here are a few scenarios to which we can all relate:

  • Our Time-Warner cable goes out at least once a week, and we are forced to do without the Internet for long periods. We call the customer service number, have to hold on and listen to irritating music for 33 minutes and then get someone who is absolutely useless to help us or explain the problem.
  • We take a few minutes from our hectic day to call a friend just to say “hi” and she moans, “Sorry, but I’m just too busy to talk right now!”
  • We read an article on the Internet about a really dumb subject, like whether Beyoncé and Jay-Z are divorcing, and we write an insulting comment about them.
  • We can’t wait to get back from a vacation or business trip. We get to the airport and the plane is delayed for hours.

Most often, we have absolutely no control to change the situations or people that
are driving us wild.

Still, we can continue to let them raise our blood pressure, elicit our ill will and anger and divert our positive energy from doing something productive—not to mention cause us to waste massive amounts of time—or we can figure out how and where to seek another path.

But how, you ask? You swear you don’t want to think all these unpleasant, jealous, maddening thoughts, but you can’t seem to turn them off. A online community called rewireme.com says you can, and aims to do precisely what its name says: Help us to disconnect the ‘faulty wires’ in our brains that short-circuit to obstruct, inhibit and hinder us, and to connect the wires that can turn on our power to happily move ahead in our lives.

Launched in 2013 by Rose Caiola, a New York City real estate businesswoman, the rewireme.com mission statement says it wants to help us “learn, grow, and transform into our best selves by understanding emotions; making conscious decisions to acknowledge and experience rather than bury our feelings; expressing what we feel and communicating our understanding with one another; sharing our stories and receiving wisdom from one another.”

When we listen to what other people are going through, we can empathize and often see in them what we usually have a hard time seeing in ourselves,
the website says.

“The more we share, the deeper we’ll be able to go—to embrace growth. As we push the boundaries of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves, we’ll find ways to move from like to love, from status quo to passion. It’s exhilarating to conquer our fear of change together.”

I confess that I’m not typically inclined to be a fan of any single person who ‘preaches’ to the masses how he or she will help us to “be healthier, happier, wiser, more balanced” etc., if we will just listen to their expert advice, on anything from aging to eating; intimacy to motherhood. Yet, what I like about rewire.me is how it makes its community part of the whole learning process. Visitors are encouraged to share their stories of “discovery and change”; advice on the site often is based on scientific fact, such as the 11-minute, clever and entertaining video that explores the causes and cures for stress; and engaging activities promise to give us enjoyment while we learn.

So please take a few minutes to tool around rewireme.com and next time the cable company puts you on hold, your plane is endlessly delayed, or the Internet goes down, you’ll let it roll right off your back and move on.

Why I Decided To End The Life of My 14-Year-Old Cat

We euthanized Remy, our 14-year-old cat, this past weekend.

I met Remy in late 2001, maybe a few weeks after 9/11. Lauren (my first employee when I launched my own business in 1998, and still a dear friend) and I were walking near our office on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, when we passed a young woman cuddling a cute kitten in her arms (are kittens ever anything but cute?) We stopped to ooh and aah, and learned the kitty was up for adoption since her owner discovered she had a cat allergy.

A few hours later, I went to pick up “Remy” at the dance studio run by her now-allergic owner. That was the name I was going to give my first child, if I had a girl. I had a boy, but still loved the name. Remy was about a year old, her unofficial-looking papers reported.

She was a wonderful cat from that day forward. I remember hearing her cute faint meows for months after I brought her home, as she pitter-pattered next to my bed in the middle of the night. She eventually slept most of the night, but usually made her way to the pillows of houseguests at some point before morning. Whenever she decided to sleep between me and David, on a pillow, her purring was more soothing than any sound machine in Brookstone.

When the vet first examined Remy, he said she must have had an accident because her jaw was misshapen. It didn’t affect her ability to eat. As a matter of fact, she weighed in at 12 pounds as an adult, and Dr. Johnson advised me to put her a diet (she took after me, I guess.)

Aside from two pelvic fractures (one, the result of getting tangled up with a lightweight metal sculpture, which came crashing to the floor with her when she tried to extricate herself from it; the other, from a totally mysterious cause), Remy was healthy, content and extremely independent. She’d go about her business without fussing, and she only meowed when she wanted something she couldn’t get by herself (e.g. jumping over the high bathtub, in later years, to drink from the faucet, or opening up the door to our tiny outdoor space, where she’d bask in the sun and intently survey everything around her, as cats do so well.)

Not a cat who demanded or gave much affection, Remy would sidle up to certain people when she was in the rare mood to be held, stroked or kissed. She loved my nephew, Brian; his mother, my sister Shelley; my aunt Sylvia, and Douglas, my former husband.

Interesting, she appealed most to people who were not cat lovers.

“She was a wonderful cat, the first animal I ever cared about,” Shelley emailed me Sunday, when I told her Remy was gone. And David, who had disliked cats, bonded with Remy as soon as he met her, around 12 years ago. He couldn’t leave the apartment without knowing where she was and that she was safe and sound. Remy was a champ at bringing out his caring side.

We brought five-month-old Rigby, a Norfolk terrier, home when Remy was about 6 years old. When he wanted to be her friend, he’d gingerly approach her to nuzzle, but Remy was not in the least bit interested. She’d hiss at him to get away. Other times, Rigby would quietly watch her approaching from the other end of the hallway, and, as she got closer, he’d suddenly turn to chase her. He’d bark loudly as he began his pursuit, and Remy would let out a wild scream and head for the hills. Rigby always backed off.

Remy stopped looking and acting like herself about two months ago, when she suddenly started to meow a great deal, first mainly at night and then quite a bit throughout the day, and lost the sparkle in her pretty green eyes. At one point, I decided she was once my father, who had similarly colored eyes, but I changed my mind and thought she was a kinder, gentler Edgar, because she had the same piercing look. For those of you who don’t “know” Edgar, he was the Mississippi (snake) charmer with whom I spent 12 years.

When we took Remy to the vet for an exam, she was down to 8 pounds, from around 11 last year. Weight loss and excessive meowing are often symptoms of hypertension and diabetes in older cats, the vet told us. Her blood workup ruled those out, but did reveal a UTI (urinary tract infection). The doctor put her on meds. The infection cleared up and the meowing subsided, but Remy’s appetite was diminishing.

Subsequent blood tests showed she most likely had a type of leukemia that, fortunately, is treatable. Although the diagnosis wasn’t fully confirmed, Dr. Cavanaugh started treatment anyway and prescribed an appetite stimulant. He also noticed that Remy had a loose tooth, which looked like it was infected, so he injected antibiotics and told us to return in 10 days to have it removed.

But something more was wrong, I thought last week, as I noticed Remy’s mouth looking more and more misshapen every day. She’d start eating but would stop within a minute. She’d approach the water bowl, but turned away. Her meowing intensified again. Perhaps the antibiotics didn’t work and the infection had worsened. At least she’d have the tooth removed on Sunday.

The moment Dr. Cavanaugh looked at Remy’s mouth Sunday morning, he knew something more was indeed wrong. Turning to me and David, he told us that Remy had an “aggressive malignant tumor” on her jawbone and began to explain our options. He’d recommend an oncologist, who would probably take xrays and a biopsy. Depending on the results, part of her jawbone could be removed, along with the tumor. However, it was likely the tumor would return in short order. “Is she in pain?” I asked, of course knowing the answer because she was trying to tell us she was in distress ever since she started meowing a couple of months ago. “Yes,” Dr. Cavanaugh answered. “But we could give her pain medication.”

At that moment, my decision was made. We needed to stop Remy’s pain, but not
with pain drugs.

David would have prefered to take her home to prepare himself, but I couldn’t deal with that so I emailed my son, who also has a 14-year-old cat, and asked his advice. He agreed with my decision, and David also came to terms with it.

Dr. Cavanaugh gave Remy a sedative around 10:45 am Sunday, then inserted a catheter into her leg that carried the drugs to peacefully end her life. I couldn’t bear to be in the room. David told me she looked liked she was asleep. He cried, something that I’ve seen him do only once since we met, when Remy was around 2 years old.

All I could think of Sunday was Remy’s meowing during the last two months, as she tried to tell us she was in pain a great deal worse than any of us suspected. I am upset at the thought that we weren’t doing anything to help her, despite the antibiotics, appetite stimulant, leukemia drug. Although her mouth didn’t show any outward signs of cancer until last week (except, in hindsight, the loose tooth), the tumor obviously was causing her great suffering. I now realize that when she’d sit completely still, on the top of the sofa back, facing the wall, it was probably the only time she felt less pain.

My heart aches picturing her in that position and imagining what she was feeling.

Rigby, in the meantime, seems a bit lost since David and I returned to the apartment Sunday, absent Remy. He sniffed around her carrier and watched me empty the litter box and gather up her belongings. Crazy as it sounds, I think Rigby and Remy must have derived some comfort from one another, even when they fought like cats and dogs, and that they probably socialized when we weren’t home.

I wish Rigby and I could tell each other how we feel.

Do You Keep Your Vulnerabilities To Yourself?

If you openly admit that it’s impossible for you to get through a day without a glass (or three or four) of wine, do you think everyone will suspect you’re an alcoholic?

If you tell your boss that you don’t understand her instructions about executing a project, do you suppose she’ll think you’re stupid?

If you acknowledge to your sister that your husband often flies off the handle and slaps you, but you don’t react, do you expect she’ll tell you to leave him immediately?

Why do many of us think that the act of admitting we feel defenseless makes us look weak, when, in fact, it can be a sign of strength?

If you seek advice and guidance from a friend, a therapist, your husband—rather than letting a problem eat at you and possibly destroy your sense of wellbeing—aren’t you actually respecting yourself? I say it’s smarter to solve a problem than to pretend it doesn’t exist , or to anxiously mull it over and over, with no resolution in sight.

When I first went to a psychiatrist, at 17, my parents didn’t tell a soul. My father and I would surreptitiously leave the house when my mother was playing mahjong with her friends. I wonder where the ladies thought my dad and I were going at 8 PM on a Tuesday night. My parents couldn’t have the neighbors think they had a crazy daughter. How did that make them look?

Thank goodness, many more people today seek help, whether from therapists, their church, support groups like AA, their family or their friends. Yes, help often fails. It’s consistently reported, for example, that over 85 percent of those who go through drug or alcohol rehab fail and return to their addictions. But, without help, where would the 15 percent be?

Even when our vulnerabilities involve issues other than drugs or alcohol, say intense insecurity about our relationships or career, there’s really no shame in discussing it. I know someone who privately thinks he’s a failure because his girlfriend earns a great deal more than he does, and he’s developed a bitter attitude about almost everything and towards almost everyone. If only he’d recognize that his feelings of defeat have nothing to do with his girlfriend’s earnings and try to move on. His girlfriend, in the meantime, constantly coddles him because she can’t stand to see him depressed.

This begs the questions: What is our role when we see someone we love being consumed
by his or her own vulnerability?

Do we start by quietly offering advice? Do we stage an intervention? Do we walk away from her because she is harming, not only herself, but her friends and family? Do we ignore it completely?

When I heard about the death of Robin Williams, I couldn’t help but ask myself why those physically and emotionally closest to him—his wife and manager, for example—couldn’t see impending disaster. And, if they did, why did they leave him alone for even a minute? But I know these questions are naïve. Although Robin Williams admitted his vulnerabilities, for years, to millions of us, and sought treatment on more than one occasion, his brilliant, crazy, funny, distracted mind apparently spun completely out of whack. The only way he could control it was to permanently turn it off. No one could stop him.

The Power of Love When Tragedy Strikes

I heard three things this past weekend that unnerved me, yet again made me understand the power of love in families.

The 38-year-old son of a former colleague died after fighting metastasized colon cancer for almost three years. I never met the young man, Chris Budd, but I worked closely with his father, Mike, who was an executive at Norelco, the company where I was public relations director when I was 26 to 33. I remember Mike as a man of great integrity, patience and understanding. I had lost contact with him but his wife, Linda, and I started playing Words With Friends earlier this year. Although we IM’d a number of times during games, Linda never once brought up her sick son. I didn’t know Linda well, but I remember meeting her when she was pregnant with Chris, and thinking she was a beautiful and classy woman.

It wasn’t until Linda’s posts recently started appearing on my Facebook newsfeed that I learned about the extent of her son’s illness and about the depth of love that surrounded him during his grueling treatment. “Mike and I were very fortunate to have been able to spend the last 10 days with Chris.

“There were many tears, but as many of you know Chris, there was laughter, too. Oh, how we will miss him! Thank you for all your prayers.” Linda touchingly wrote.

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For Anyone Who Ever Said Or Heard, “I’m Disappointed In You!”

Have you ever compared your grown son or daughter to a friend’s and secretly thought “how disappointed” you were in your child?

Your friend’s son graduated from one of the most prestigious universities in the country.

Your son attended three colleges and never graduated.

Your friend’s son earned his Masters Degree from the same prestigious university he attended as an undergrad. He’s had a number of super smart, but neurotic, girlfriends.

Your son started drinking heavily, couldn’t keep a job and lived with a heavily tattooed young woman who didn’t speak in full sentences.

Your friend’s son got a high-paying job at one of the most celebrated companies in Silicon Valley.

Your son couldn’t remember what he had for dinner last night.

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Are You A ‘Kissing Cousin’?

My maternal grandparents were first cousins. Ever since I learned this bit of notable family history, when I was a kid, I’ve heard the relationship defined as ‘incestuous’ and ‘illegal,’ and that it could have produced genetic disorders in my grandparents’ children (my mother, May, and her brother, Norman).

Fortunately, there were no genetic disorders, but my mother and her brother, along with their spouses (namely, my dad and my aunt through marriage) consciously decided to become neighbors when they bought their first houses in 1950. Called semi-detached homes, these modest structures had separate entrances, backyards and side yards, but shared a center wall. So my sisters and I grew up right next door to our one girl and two boy cousins. There is a 10-year gap between my youngest sister (now 61) and my oldest cousin (now 71).

Physical and chronological proximity aside, we were anything but “kissing cousins.” Our families never shared meals in one another’s homes, not even holiday repasts; we never vacationed together; we never went to the movies together, dined out together or celebrated graduations together. Except for attending my cousins’ weddings, and they ours, we might as well have grown up on different planets. We’d come a long way from our marrying cousins, a.k.a. our grandparents. We didn’t dislike our cousins, but our parents didn’t promote camaraderie and we didn’t take the initiative to get together on our own.

Whenever I heard about my friends’ “cousins club” get-togethers, I’d be secretly overjoyed I never had to attend one.

These “clubs” were big in the 50s and 60s, offshoots of clubs originally formed in the early part of the 18th century to serve large European immigrant families struggling to make it in America while trying to care for those in the ‘old country’ who hadn’t made the trip. Cousins clubs transcended ethnicity. Poles, Italians and Jews all benefitted from family closeness and generosity.

No wonder my grandparents’ generation was so cousin-centric. But even though my parents and uncles and aunts didn’t have to rely on extended family to support them in any way, why would so many of them not even lift a finger to promote friendship among their children? Especially when we lived practically cheek-to-jowl.

My two children have only four first cousins, but none of them are close either. Like our parents, my sisters and I haven’t done much to promote friendship between our children. We can throw around excuses, such as not living near one another, different lifestyles and vastly different demands on our time. But those are empty excuses. We just didn’t do it.

Besides, just because you grew up under the same roof as your siblings, doesn’t mean you’re all going to be best friends, or even friends at all. So who says your kids have to even recognize each other when they pass in the street?

Your thoughts?

P.S. Nine well-known people who married their first cousins: Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, HG Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, Andre Gide, Igor Stravinsky, Jesse James, Rachmaninoff, and Wernher von Braun.