Meeting Dorothy Pierce

One sunny day, after a night of drenching rains, I saw a woman in a soggy yellow sweatshirt rolling her wheel chair backward down Richmond Avenue.  I parked and went over to meet her.
“Hi,” I said.  “My name is Tom Cole.  I’m spending some time talking  to folks on the streets and taking their pictures.  Do you mind if we talk a bit?  I’ll take some pictures and pay for your time.”
“My name is Dorothy," she said. "D-O-R-O-T-H-Y.  Pierce, P-I-E-R-C-E." She also told me her birthday and Social Security number.  
Dorothy eats one meal a day at the South Main Baptist Church.  She sleeps wherever she can find shelter, gets medication for schizophrenia and bipolar disease from MHMRA  (Mental Health Mental Retardation Association of Houston)
In this picture you can see hole and scar below her Adam’s Apple, where Emergency Room personnel once placed a plastic tube to keep her breathing.

Meeting Jarmel in Hermann Park

I spend my days at the Texas Medical Center (TMC) in Houston, where 106,000 people work and 3,300 patients get their health care every day.    Across the street from the TMC lies Hermann Park, where parents and children go to the zoo, ride the kiddie train, enjoy fountains, listen to music, go to the Museum of Natural Science, and walk in the Japanese Garden.  

Street people also live in the park.  Many of them are homeless, disabled, addicted, or mentally ill.  I spend a few hours each week talking with them, taking pictures, adding to their daily income from pan handling.  I never forget that I am on their turf.   While I look at them, they are looking at me, sizing me up.   Last weekend I talked with a 29-year-old man named Jarmel, who lost most of his right leg in a truck accident.   I took 20 pictures.  He gave me 20 looks. I gave him 20 dollars.    In this picture, he dropped his guard.      






As we parted, he turned his wheel chair around and rolled down a path toward a dozen other men, seated on a concrete circular bench.  He gave the money to one of them, perhaps to spare himself another black eye.   

A Family Secret and a Grief Resolved, Part One

In the summer of 1998, my mother’s sister Ruth  was dying of pancreatic cancer.  A friend had performed a surgical procedure that granted her two years of life, but now there was no way to stop the disease from spreading.  We all knew that she had perhaps six months to live.  As a historian and gerontologist, I was well-schooled in catching stories of the dying;  I knew that when an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.  As a nephew, I wanted to know more about my aunt’s life, to preserve her voice and her memories for our family.  But I had another motivation—I wanted to ask her about a death in 1954 whose family narrative had never quite satisfied me.  I had a hunch that Ruth knew more about it than she had ever let on.  

Born in 1932 in New Haven, Ct., Ruth was 7 years younger than my mother Jesse.  They were the only two children of Jacob and Helen Breslav, both born near the turn of the century, both children of immigrant Jewish parents. Jacob (who went by Jack) had graduated from Yale and Helen from Mt. Holyoke, setting intimidating expectations of success and assimilation for their daughters.  My mother followed her mother and graduated from Mt. Holyoke.  As a child, I ate many meals on Mt. Holyoke china plates, whose maroon images and offwhite background left an indelible and dour Holyoke President Mary Lyon imprinted on my memory.  

My aunt Ruth was the rebellious child.  She stole pennies from her mother’s purse to buy soda at the corner store on her way to grammar school, several blocks from their house on Edgewood Way.  As a teenager, Ruth liked to skip school and hang out with a questionable crowd at the downtown New Haven Arena.  On weekend nights, she lounged in parked cars on the hill  behind my grandparents’ house, necking with her Italian Catholic boyfriends.  At Vermont Jr. College and Syracuse, she  continued her fun-loving ways.  

I always felt a special bond with Aunt Ruth, who was as sweet as the multicolored Lifesavers she always carried and as daffy as her phobias of leaving the house or vomiting.  My aunt and her first husband Joel stayed for three or four weeks with me and my younger twin brother and sister in September 1954, when my father died one week after an apparent car accident.  My mother sat at his side for a week and then took a cruise with some friends to help assuage her trauma and grief.  The official narrative of my father’s death—than his car ran into a bridge abutment while he was trying to light a cigarette—had never quite rung true for me.

As our taped phone conversations moved into Ruth’s young adulthood and her relationship with my parents, we both spoke more hesitantly.  I asked about her first husband Joel, who gambled away family money and  divorced her after their second child Laura was born.  One day, I gathered my courage and said, “Tell me everything you know about my father Burton, no matter what it is.”  Ruth began to cry.

    “I don’t want to hurt you,” she squeezed through the tears.
    “It’s okay,” I said. "I want to know everything.  Whatever you tell me will be better than being plagued by silences, fantasies, and not knowing.”
    “I can’t,” she sobbed.  “It will hurt too many people, and your mother will hate me.”

     “You have to,” I said.  “You owe it to me, to the family, and to yourself.  And besides, I already know what you’re going to say.”

    Ruth fell silent for a moment.  “What am I going to say?”

    “You’re going to tell me that my father committed suicide.”

A Family Secret and a Grief Resolved, Part Two

Read Part One here

* * *

“Oh Tommy,” my Aunt Ruth cried.  “I’m so sorry.  I should have said something many years ago, but I just couldn’t.  I was afraid it would hurt too many people.”

           I tried to console her.  “It’s okay,” I said.  “You’ve held this in for forty-five years and you’ve suffered for it yourself.  I think you’ve been terrified of throwing up because you were afraid that you’d cough up the secret if you vomited.  If the real truth comes out, we all have an opportunity for healing.  Just tell me what you remember.”

           Ruth hesitated again.

           “Just tell me,” I insisted.  “I have to know. And you’ll feel better for getting it out of your system.

For the next hour, Ruth recounted her memories of that week in September 1954,  between the time Burton’s car hit the bridge and he died in the Meriden hospital. 

           My father had been depressed for months – torn between his father and his father-in-law, who both wanted Burton to work in their family businesses.  Several months earlier, Burton had left his father Irving’s blueprint business (“Enterprise Blueprint”)  and gone to work for Jack’s industrial design and manufacturing business (“Mansaver Industries”), which made use of his engineering education at Lehigh University and offered a much more lucrative future.  More recently, Irving—a weak, controlling man—had prevailed on his only child to return to the Enterprise Blueprint.  Ruth remembers the day that both men stood at Burton’s bedside as Irving promised my comotase father Burton that he could go back to work for Jack as soon as he got better. 

           At the time my father died,  my mother must have been in the cafeteria or with her parents.  The attending nurse gave his belongings to Ruth and Joel.  Inside his wallet was a suicide note.  According to Ruth, it  read something like:

           “Honey, I’m sorry.  I just couldn’t go on this way.  My love to you and the kids,  Burt”

When they read the note (why my Aunt and Uncle went  through my father’s belongings instead of giving them to my mother is a mystery to me), they immediately tore up the note and flushed it down the toilet.  They spoke with our rabbi Bob Goldburg, who counseled them never to say a word about it.  Suicide was one of the many taboos of the 1950s.  It would also remove the possibility of a life insurance payout.  And according to tradition, a Jew who commits suicide cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetary.  

After telling me that crucial story, Ruth was worried about who else to tell and how.  I said that I’d tell my brother Peter and my sister Paula, and we’d decide how to talk to my mother about it.

When I called my siblings, neither one of them believed Ruth’s story.  After all,  Ruth was known to be histrionic and daffy.  And even if there was a note, it could have been an apology for something else. 

I was stunned by their reaction, which I thought was clearly the denial of an awful and unacceptable truth.  I called my older cousin Ron—our pediatrician until we went to college—and asked what he thought.  Ron had always believed it was a suicide: He said that the accident took place on a bright, clear morning.  No other vehicles were involved.  And the car struck the cement and stone abutment directly at high speed.  My sister tracked down my aunt's former husband Joel somewhere in Florida.  He confirmed the story.  Paula asked if he thought it was possible that the apology referred to something else, such as Burton’s going back to work for his own father.  Joel said yes, it could possibly have referred to something else.

I wasn’t buying it.  I respected my siblings’ right to their opinion, but why would Burton need a note in his wallet to apologize for working in his father’s business?  Why wouldn’t he just apologize directly?  On reflection, I realized that Peter and Paula already possessed a convincing narrative of Burton’s death, and they clearly preferred it to a story of suicide.

I felt that I had an obligation to let my mother know what Ruth had told me.  On a visit back to New Haven late that summer, I took my mother out to lunch and recounted Ruth’s story.  She was angry and shaken.

“That cannot be true,” she said.  “I would have known if he’d been that unhappy, and he would never have abandoned me with three children under five years old.”  My mother stuck to her own version of Burton’s death—and I was not about to insist that she accept the “real truth” as I saw it.

In spite of this narrative bombshell which clearly enraged her (whether she believed it or not),  my mother and her sister mended their fences and became closer in the last months of Ruth’s life.  Although I was unable to visit her in Florida before she died, my cousin held the phone to her ear one night in March as she was dying.  II said goodbye and told Ruth that I loved her.  Though her eyes were closed and she couldn’t speak, Ruth’s eyebrows scrunched upward in recognition as I spoke to her.  Fifteen minutes later she was dead.

A Family Secret and A Grief Observed, Part Three

read Part Two here

When Aunt Ruth divulged her ancient family secret to me,  I took it as a crucial, missing piece in the narrative of my father’s death.  My family coped by retaining the official story.  I hoped this more honest and convincing version would help to resolve my lifelong grief.  But Ruth’s story by itself didn’t erase the pain and rage in my heart.  The day she told me about the suicide note, I thanked her for telling me the truth and said I thought we’d all be better off for it.  But the following day, the news slipped past my body armour and quietly slit the throat of my narrating ego.  I was enraged:  you asshole, what did you think would happen to us? Next I felt relief: Oh, it’s not my fault after all.  I didn’t kill you (my four-year old self imagining his omnipotent anger), you killed yourself.  Then more injury and grief: How could you possibly do this do us?

Shortly after Ruth’s death, I attended a Palliative Care conference at which the novelist Gail Storey (wife of Porter Storey who at the time directed the Texas Medical Center Hospice) conducted a writing workshop.  Holding a magic wand, and wearing a princess’s tiara on her head, Gail first asked us to write our own obituaries.  I wrote a humorous, self-mocking piece.  Then she gave a few tricks of the writer’s craft (character, conflict, dialogue, sensory detail) and asked us to write a scene of death.  Here is what I wrote:

The ambulance arrived just as the 1952 Dodge, wrinkled up like an
    Accordion against the bridge, burst into flames.  Burton was lying on the
    Ground, burned over 90% of his body, fully conscious and regretting that
    He was still alive.  

        “Three men pulled me out of the car,” he told the ambulance driver.
    “I told them to get lost—I wanted to be left alone to die.  They must have
    called you.  Well, just turn around and radio for a hearse.”
    “Sorry Mister.  We’ve got to take you to the Meriden hospital and give
    you a chance to live.”
    “I don’t want to live,” Burton replied.  “If I wanted to live, I wouldn’t have
    driven into this goddam bridge at 60 miles an hour.”
    The driver and an attendant lifted him gently onto a stretcher, strapped
    Him down and loaded him into the ambulance.  
    One attendant sat beside him as the siren blared.
    “Do you have a family?” he asked.
    “A wife and three kids.”
    “I’ll call your wife.  She’ll come right away and we’ll
    get you on the road to recovery.”
    Burton lost consciousness as the pain of broken bones and burnt
    Flesh overtook him.
    The attendant inserted an IV line and checked Burton’s pulse and BP.
    “Listen mister,” said the EMT starting to panic, “wake up.  How old
    are your kids?  What is your wife going to do if you die?”
    Burton heard these questions dimly and roused himself.  “My
    baby twins are 18 months and my older son is 4 and ½.  They’ll
    find their way in life.  Do me a favor.  Give my wife this note that’s
    in my wallet."  The EMT pulled out the note and read it.

    Burton closed his eyes.  Finally, he’d have some peace from the
    Father who never let him live his own life.  The only way to exert
    Control over his life was to take it.  He slipped into the nether world and
    Silently became a ghost, yearning to be understood by a family who never


The final step in coming to terms with my father’s death took place in the summer and fall of 1999, at a time when my own adolescent son needed all the love and firmness I could muster.  Encouraged by my psychotherapist, I began writing my father a series of letters.  The more I took the risk of addressing him directly, the more real he became to me.  On Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement) which coincided with the anniversary of his death, I came home after a day of fasting and finally confronted him.  “You are the one who has some atoning to do,” I wrote.  “You caused more suffering than you could possibly know.  You abandoned me and you owe me an accounting of what happened and why.” My father wrote back immediately.  He apologized.  He explained things from his own point of view and asked for forgiveness.  Taking an ancient rabbinic perspective on the fate of his soul, Burton wrote: “My fate in the world of eternity depends on you, your brother, and your sister—on how well you live your own lives, on how much happiness and fullness each of you can achieve for yourselves and those you love.”

And my father had some advice:  “I’ve ached watching you retreat into an emotional castle and borrow the reality of others to spare yourself the recurrent, terrifying absence you felt after my death.  I am with you always.  Open your heart and transform your fear, your anxiety, your black emptiness into the experience of your own glorious presence in the world, so that you can enhance your service to others.  You’ve already begun to do this spiritual work—it is your fate, your gift, your burden.  It is the source of your deepest love, compassion, and understanding.  Remember: keeping faith with those who sleep in the dust does not mean identifying with me (as dead or depressed) or seeking me everywhere for guidance and support.  It means living your own full life with joy and commitment—and remembering to write once in a while."

After forty-five years, I finished grieving for my father.  I could finally let him go because I had found him in faith, in therapy, and in narrative imagination.  No longer a haunting and hunted ghost, my father lives inside me quietly as an ancestor.  His presence allows me to feel more deeply alive, to embrace my place in the cycle of generations, to accept my own death—to appreciate the sheer unlikelihood of being alive at all.  Finally I can say what traditional Jews recite on hearing that a loved one has died:  Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet.  “Blessed be God, the judge of truth.”   


A Country for Old Men

Recently I’ve been stalled out on a book project that’s occupied me off and on for five years.  Entitled A Country for Old Men, it’s an autobiographical field report: a series of conversations with old men I admire and want others to learn from.  The project is stalled.  There is no wind in its sails, no gas in the tank.  To see what I could learn from earlier versions of my self, I began reading old diaries, letters, journal entries, commentaries.  It was interesting to see how much  hasn’t changed.

One diary entry tells the story of my going to gathering  in Philadelphia to take part in a Jewish renewal event lead by Rabbi Zalman Schacter Shalomi.  I had just published a book—The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America.  Zalman and others were interested in what I had to say.  But instead of feeling proud of the accomplishment and of the great reviews my book  was getting, I felt depressed and out of sorts.  While I was there, I spent some time with a lovely woman named Anna Bodnar, who looked at me after a while and said: 

“Something just came to me, and I’m not sure whether to share it with you or not.”

“Of course, I want to hear what you  have to say,” I responded.

“Hold the world more lightly,” she said, "and let it come to you.”  

Anna, wherever you are, thank you for those words of wisdom.  I think I am just beginning to understand what you meant.  Maybe I can live it too.