Likelihood of Success

Ron Coleman’s pretty good blog

Picking up the threads

Posted by Ron Coleman on March 10, 2008


We drove up to New England yesterday morning to take home what was left in the house of my wife’s departed parents before it is cleaned out for the new people.

She had an accident, I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, and is unable to get around hardly at all. So the drive was hard on her, and when we got there, and got her into the place, and fired up the heat, it was left to me mainly to rummage around per her instructions and those of her brother — he and his wife had already had ample opportunity to make their rounds, but he had seen certain things that he thought his sister would want to at least consider — and to make too many of the evaluations about what to take, what to leave, what is best forgotten.

Maybe this made it easier for both of us, though, tiring as it was for me.

Her parents were older, and in fact her father, who was old enough to be her grandfather, was himself the youngest of many siblings, so my middle-aged wife has first cousins who have long passed on from old age, an odd concept to me. The family contours are odd for other reasons; her father, Mauricio Golberg, a brilliant surgeon, emigrated from Argentina in the 1950’s and married a New England girl, and a boy who grow up speaking Yiddish and Spanish, like my Cuban-born Polish Jewish mother, made Rhode Island his home.

So, as among the papers of my grandparents of which I have become a custodian, there were all sorts of odd-shaped passports in Spanish, though unlike my tailor grandfather my father-in-law was a learned professional, so there were diplomas, certificates. Both of them had been Masons, though only my grandfather continued his membership in America. But Dr. Golberg was even written up in newspaper articles, having done pioneering work in heart transplantation and having built the first heart-lung machine in Argentina. He had fellowships at Hopkins, and in Denver, benefiting not only from his outstanding skills but from emigrating in a period when the Korean War had sent many U.S. doctors overseas.

The basement and the library were full of now obsolete medical texts across a broad range of specialties. Dr. Golberg was among the last of the generalists, a surgeon who had an extensive thoracic surgery practice but also maintained a local general practice — birthing babies, lancing warts, holding hands of the healthy, the sick and the dying. He made a good living, but he was clearly a man not motivated by money; those with whom he worked performing the first heart transplant in a dog leveraged this into continued advances in fame, fortune and wealth. But academic and superstar medicine were not for my father-in-law. He was a healer, and his huge and skilled hands radiated tremendous warm and gentleness. There was never a more humble surgeon. He did all the sewing at home, because who can sew better than a surgeon?

And now his house, that he shared with his down to earth wife, was weighed down by all the texts betraying his broad professional expertise — so vast that he won every doctors’ lounge game of “guess the diagnosis” against the younger, modern- and American-trained colleagues who were in awe of him. It was not only because he read the books, though, and had an old-fashioned generalist education. Dr. Golberg used all his senses to diagnose disease. He used to tell us that, with terminal cancer patients, he could smell their impending death just talking to them. But he never believed in telling patients how long “they had” to live. That was not, he believed, for him to say.

The medical books, and all the other books, the doctor’s bag and one each of an extra stethoscope and an otoscope. What could we do with them, two lawyers? My wife never forgave me for being unable to prescribe, which is what the man of the house is supposed to be able to do.

But in our house I do something that her father did, and that my grandfather did in his house, too.

I sew the buttons.


8 Responses to “Picking up the threads”

  1. Ara Rubyan said

    Very nice.

    P.S. Me: “So?” My grandmother: “Sew buttons.”

  2. What could we do with them, two lawyers?

    You could keep them and pass them along to the next generation.
    Whittling down a man’s life to fading memories and a few odd mementos. Death: It seems such a waste to me, yet it is the natural way of things.

  3. My mother used to make the same joke, Ara!

    Scott, they’re obsolete, his doctor equipment. And only getting more so.

  4. A very nice article Ron. I too loved your father-in-law and mother-in-law. They were the nicest people to us. Your parents represent yesterday, you represent today and your children represent the future. I’d like to think we’ve done a good job through all the generations. I’m proud of the outcome….not bad for a greenhorn Jewban……and I’m proud of what my parents did with our lives…they gave us all they had in their power, we tried the best we could and you are doing the same with your family.

  5. Thank you, Mom. I thought you would like this piece. Going through all those pictures we naturally found some of them with you, too.

    You have certainly done a fine job with my brother and me — I mean, regarding me, there’s only so much a parent can do!

  6. Dad said

    Ron, Mom and I are proud of you and your brother and we certainly appreciate the sense of sentimentality you have shown in this article. Love you kid and Happy Birthday tomorrow.


  7. Scott, they’re obsolete, his doctor equipment. And only getting more so.

    Ron, they are the man’s tools – objects he used in his craft and touched with his hands. They aren’t meant to be used again or sold; they are kept as mementos of a long and productive life.

  8. Oh, Scott, sorry, I kind of wondered what you were thinking.

    Yeah, well, but as you can imagine, there was a ton of that sort of stuff, so you have to draw the line at some point, and ask yourself why this certificate and not that one, why this device, that picture…

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