Saturday, April 26, 2014


Mark and I have spent the last few nights watching the German miniseries Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter ("Our Mothers, Our Fathers") which will air (or has aired) in the U.S. as "Generation War." It tells the story of WWII from the point of view of five twenty-something friends in Germany, one of them Jewish, and their experiences 1941-1945. One of the characters was a nurse on the Russian front; I couldn't even imagine being in her shoes. It was anxiety-inducing to watch this miniseries, to say the least; why not be consistent with the tone of the week? 

I know I missed many subtleties watching it in German with no subtitles, although Mark helped significantly. I am waiting for it to come out on DVD with English subtitles on May 6th, and then maybe I will have the courage to watch it again. I have to concentrate so very hard to catch what is said, and I know I missed a great deal. My German is not fabulous. The boys watched some of it with us and had excellent questions. They, of course, understood nearly all of the dialogue. I am completely envious of their German skills.

Apparently Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter was both popular and controversial in Germany. The war generation is almost all gone; people still argue much about complicity in war crimes. Who did anything; could they do anything? What did they feel about it? This is another attempt in the culture to come to terms with what happened. 

Mark's father fought on the Russian front and is going to be 90 this year, and he has only recently opened up about what he went through. He survived in the end because he was shot in the arm, was still fit enough to leave Russia, beat the Russians on their push westward, and was taken prisoner by the British. It is strange to think that my husband and sons are here because of the actions of a Russian soldier, 69 years ago. If that soldier had had a more accurate shot, Mark, Callum, and Tobey wouldn't be here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


I have been working my two jobs: teaching and being on the unit as my regular RN self. I am exhausted. It's been rewarding but extremely tiring. I have allowed my students to start IVs on me: brave or masochistic? At one point, they couldn't get the IV in, so I helped. Maybe not a skill I want to advertise too widely. "Look! I can start IVs on myself!"

I was pushed emotionally to the limit by an adoption on the unit that I cannot discuss, of course. Suffice it to say that it felt unbearably traumatic on many levels. I avoid taking patients who are relinquishing because I know that I cannot be unbiased, but my student had the patient and I ended up in the room to supervise. I cried. Copiously. And afterward at home for days. I felt like I was a cog in the cruel wheel, and I kept thinking, "Sorry, sorry, sorry..."

The San Francisco International Film Festival opens this week, and I have plans to go see Belle, about a mixed-race woman raised in 18th-century Britain by her white relatives: fitting in, and not. On my birthday, with my partner in crime, Nalini.

A friend told me that his aunt has published his grandmother's diary from the war years in Bath. She was an ophthalmologist, and her husband a GP. I have been reading it joyfully; the English of that generation, and with that education, are generally a delight when they open up their worlds to you. I appreciate her forthrightness and pugnacity in getting petrol for the nurse, for example. She describes events and foods and outings with such skill: Churchill's speeches; the wisteria; her practice; the annoyance of the dust everywhere after the blitz. I know from my friend's stories that she was a character, to put it mildly; the diary helps to round out that picture in a brilliant way. My friend paid me a great compliment when once he said that my accounts of the unit sometimes remind him of his grandmother's diary. If you have any interest in diaries or England or WWII, I wholeheartedly recommend getting your hands on Carry on Coping: Diary of a Doctor 1942-1945, by Joan F. Hickson.

Otherwise, I have been pulling myself along. Slowly. Wondering what is the value of relationships carried on in single syllables? Not even poetic syllables. Again, back to that. What is offered, and why? Most of the time I don't care. This week, somehow, of course, I care. Why is it always on me? Why is it my job to reach out more, and more, and be met with another single syllable? I know I can choose to walk away. The burden is immense. What is it that makes other people so laconic? I have done my best to meet halfway, to make amends. To say my piece. If the best I can get in return is one syllable, is that a relationship? I would say that it isn't. It's a web-thin thread. Is that enough for *now*? What a sad situation.

I am more or less content. I have had to find contentment with what is available. It is better than running after what isn't there, or what is false. The best I can do is shove it under the rug, as they do. Which is also sad.

But as I am not an avoider, the lack is painful.

Monday, April 14, 2014


My friend's father died a little more than a month ago, and I went to his memorial service on Saturday. His death had not been unexpected, but he was young, only 70. He had been ravaged by an unusually brutal form of Parkinson's--Parkinson's Plus--that left him a shell of who he had been in less than two years. Death in some ways was true relief.

I only had the pleasure of meeting him a few times when he was still vibrant; I sat by his side several times in the nursing home in the weeks before he died. He enjoyed having you hold his hand and talk to him.

He as a man of great intellect and, it would appear, of the Old World in many ways.

I first met my friend in 2007, and she said that she was half-Turkish. She, like so many others, wondered if I were part Middle Eastern or Jewish. This was, of course, before I had found my family. Her father had immigrated to the United States from Istanbul, she said, and was a polymath. Was quirky. Spoke three languages fluently. He sounded fascinating to me.

I remember meeting him at one of her daughters' birthday parties and talking a little bit about old Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk, and Byzantine art; I spent the better part of a week in Istanbul once and had a wonderful time becoming lost in it, just wandering. I wished I could have spoken to my friend's father more about his family and growing up in Istanbul of the 1940's and 1950's. He was a rather shy man, though: an engineer, more at home with ideas than expressions of private concerns. He would much rather launch into excursions on Saint Augustine than talk about his feelings. My friend almost never spoke with him about his family or her family history.

That said, he was amazing about showing that he cared for her, even if he didn't say it explicitly. She always felt his unconditional love. He was the parent who went to every single sporting event without fail. He was the parent who helped her raise her daughter when she decided to have a child at 19 and never said a single word in judgment. He made a place for his granddaughter in his office so that he could help his daughter continue her studies. He took his granddaughter proudly to Rotary Club meetings. He was the parent, as my friend said at the memorial service, whom she would call if she had one phone call in jail. Because she knew he would support her always, 100%, without question.

Then there were the surprises. A letter from my friend's aunt revealed that he had been an actor in college; that he had lived in Italy after attaining his credentials. His ex-wife, my friend's mother, had not even known these things.

We saw images of a gloriously handsome young man on the screen, with Ray Bans and tousled black hair. He was educated by French Jesuits. As a young engineer, he helped build the first bridge to span the Bosporus. He came from an illustrious Ottoman family that had served the Sultan as physicians. He came to the United States on a lark and never returned "home" because he loved his children and knew that they were Americans.

His many friends at the service used the word "cussed" to describe him. Apparently he would offer up unsolicited criticism of the priest's words each week, saying, "I read something recently that would have strengthened your argument..." He loved to play Devil's advocate. He filled roles that no one else would fill; he taught Sunday School. He found a home in Christianity although raised in Islam because he said that it was the same God, after all. He brought a gift to every single event. Why? Because he was raised in Islam, although no one seemed to register this.

I recounted what I had learned of the remarkable life of my friend's father to Thomenon yesterday, and how his loss weighed so heavily on me. He responded, "Muppie, that's because the Old World is gone. This man came from the Old World. People like that don't exist anymore. Horribly sad."

My pain became more personal as I sat at a table with my friend and her family, and her in-laws. As the photographs would flash by on the screen, people would say, "Look! There's A! There's B! There's so-and-so!" All in different family faces, or in the baby pictures of my friend's father. As it should be. But of course this struck me all the more because belonging is foreign. We adoptees are relegated to another place where we do not fit, or if we fit it's too late; or it's too much; or it's too bothersome; or we must navigate the narrows with great care and skill. We miss out on history, on shared experiences, on so much. We have likenesses, but what else? What tests must we pass? There is incredible loss.

I was honored that I was able to share the memories of Ilhami Karaca, and I am all the more distraught that I missed out knowing my own father. The nearly 20 years since his death are so long ago, a wide gulf.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014


I was thinking this morning about never learning Spanish properly, and how that is an immense shame. I simply never felt drawn to it in the way I did to French, German, Russian, and the Celtic and Classical languages. Not that it isn't beautiful, and I have felt enormous pleasure in Spain; I also acknowledge the great disadvantage in not speaking the language.

Twenty-four years ago at this time in April, I was in Málaga, staying with family friends. They took me to explore the coast: to visit Granada and the impressive lacy palace of the Alhambra; to Gibraltar, that mighty British outpost at the edge of the Mediterranean with red post boxes and Marks & Spencer. I ate paella and drank lots of wine. I read, I swam in their pool. I remember staying up late and watching The Terminator on their VCR. I was on Easter break from Cambridge, having first spent a week with my cousin in Paris.

I was enchanted by Spain, although I didn't know much about it. I hadn't focused on it in history, except in the broadest of strokes; Ferdinand and Isabella; the Spanish Armada being defeated by Elizabeth's navy in 1588; the Holy Roman Emperor and Charles V; the Hapsburgs. When I was 20, I don't even think I could have identified a Velazquez. Maybe an El Greco, maybe. I do remember watching the state funeral of Picasso on television as a very tiny child.

The following year I was introduced to Federico García Lorca when I was back at Bryn Mawr. The senior Drama majors put on a remarkable conceptual play that somehow involved both Lorca and Andy Warhol. I was immediately fascinated by Lorca and read his poetry in English. Through him, I discovered the Surrealists: how can you understand Lorca without going deeper to see Dali and Buñuel?

April is also my birthday month, and it is a difficult time for me. I always feel acutely lonely, no matter how beautiful a physical place I may be inhabiting. Surroundings don't help; my companions usually don't, either. I feel as though I am living in a separate place, looking in from far away.

That said, this particular poem of Lorca's has been rattling around my head today:

It Is True

Oh, what an effort it is
to love you as I do!

For love of you, the air,
my heart
and my hat hurt me.

Who will buy of me
this ribbon I have
and this grief of white
linen to make handkerchiefs?

Oh, what an effort it is 
to love you as I do!

trans. Harriet de Onis