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Conversations with Dr. Oakton
I am saying this to myself. I am writing this to myself. From the narrow beginnings of my childhood, and from the days of Dr. Oakton, I have that thread of our conversations sewn right into my very being. I know that I can’t remember the very words from over seventy years ago or longer, but the meaning of those conversations has always been in my memory.
I remember the rainy, icy day in March, sitting in Dr. Oakton’s office, when I was all of twenty-five, feeling like a hundred.
“Yes,” he said when I came out of the dressing room, “you’re pregnant. In six months a nurse will be putting a baby into your arms. They’re trained for that. They want mother and baby to be together right away.”
Patting my hand, he must have seen my fear, deafness, that reminder of the Spanish Influenza. “This time I will surely be deaf,” I said.
When I was little, I flew a kite into his drugstore window, into the wild colors of huge pictures, tearing my kite, my magic carpet patched together with paste that I dragged on the sidewalk on the way to the home I wanted to fly away from. Now, where do I fly away from his verdict?
With no money to buy another blanket, Dr. Oakton is telling me I’m going to have a second baby. Is this the once upon a time druggist who gave out pills that he made himself, put together like in cooking and bottled leeches to save lives? His patients never died. But I didn’t even have the kishka money to pay him as my mother would say. We ourselves were struggling with the defaulted two-flat on Lawndale Avenue that we bought with our dead gold bonds. Our rent a hundred a month, half of Mannie’s salary as bookkeeper and credit man in a high-class lumber yard, the tenant upstairs paying thirty-five to keep us afloat.
As I write this, as I think back, did Dr. Oakton say anything? As to what I would yet have to face, forceps again to tear me apart, the least of it, compared to those horror thoughts of being deaf, having only one ear to depend upon. That was uppermost in my mind. How would I adjust? And do they really take babies away from deaf mothers as they say? And this is what wars give us -- Spanish Influenza, and people dying all over the place? Superstitions had it that mustard gas must have blown over here. Besides, we had to be careful of the germs that might be planted, unbeknownst to us. What did I expect Dr. Oakton to say? By his listening, that by itself encouraged me to go on.
Dr. Oakton got up suddenly to the flapping birds at the window frightened by the clamor of the street cars and flying away from sudden spring showers. Then going over to open the sliding doors to the waiting room, empty. He walked back to sit on the window sill as if on top of the drugstore that was once his.
I turn from his staring eyes, afraid of his seeing my deepest thoughts, or maybe I’ve told him already my worry about money, my mother always talking poverty, it showed in her every word.
“I struggled through as a druggist, he said, putting myself through medical school, living at home with my mother and now she lives with us, the neighbors thinking she is my wife’s mother.
‘You're so busy with patients, Louis,' my mother saying from her bed, ‘is this a social call or a professional call? I was your first patient -- remember?’ And you too, Laura, a little girl," he continued, "were my first patient here when I moved up to this office.”
“Why am I taking up so much of your time?”
“That’s what I’m here for. Doctors are people like everyone else.” Swiveling around comfortably in his chair. If you can’t speak here, then where? Young, healthy patients like you, Laura, are expected to have normal deliveries. This makes the obstetrical part of my practice so important, so enjoyable.”
He said, “I’ll be giving you something to relax you. Don’t worry about that, Laura.”
I laughed. “And I suppose you’re going to fix the Depression too, all those people out of work,” I said.
“America will prosper again. You’ll see.”
“Sure, the Master of the Universe, as my father used to say, will provide.”
Another time at a checkup in his office, Dr. Oakton said, “Laura, strange that I should be telling you this now, but I’ve had one regret in my life. When coming home from the office one day, tired, worried, my daughter came running up to me, I didn’t know what she wanted or didn’t want, I just slapped her, and I’ve had this regret all my life. So you see you’re not the only one with a little bit of sorrow.”
I felt a pang of hurt. Did my father feel that deeply about me? What had been his sorrow: that I never had anything to say to him? But he never slapped me. What was his one regret?
About to leave, as usual he opened the sliding doors and this time saying, “Next patient” and “Laura, if you should need me before your next visit, remember, please call me,” and the usual “I make house calls too you know.” Making me feel more at ease now about my pregnancy.
Strange. His door is closed at my next visit. And at our appointed time. The doctor across the hall came over and said, “Dr. Oakton had a heart attack. I wanted to get him a wheelchair,” shaking his head sadly, “but he’ll be back in six weeks, hopefully.”
“My God. How terrible. What’s happening? I’m expecting my baby in a week or two.”
“I have the name of another doctor for you,” he said.
Not listening. Tearfully, carefully, heavily holding on to the railing, I walk down that long flight of stairs into the warmth of an October day; not quite sure of what I was doing. Troubled as I was I managed this obstacle. I had to believe that there was an energy up there helping me. I finally found a Dr. Priest at the Presbyterian Hospital. He said, “Now don’t you worry about the money. I don’t want any of my patients, not any of them, to worry about the money.”
“You’ll have a normal delivery – you’ll see. Maybe a baby girl this time in your arms just as soon as they get her into a fresh new blanket.” And what mother doesn’t want a daughter?
Several months later, there I was in his office with my children. “This was quite a trip,” I say to Dr. Oakton, “with them all bundled up, streetcars crowded with Christmas shoppers. Ah, but glad to see you again, and meet my baby daughter, Sydelle,” putting her on the table when he took over.
“We all missed you,” I said, “our whole family depends on you . . .”
“The best baby I ever saw,” giving her back to me, “and Mayo getting so big, three and a half already.”
“I remember so many years ago when you came up here to get a certificate to return to school in the fall after a summer epidemic of infantile paralysis, my wife saying to you, ‘He’s asleep back there, up all night with patients. Can you come back later?’ But I wanted to see you.”
A knock at the door, someone needing him. I take the new formula for the baby, get myself together with the children, and leave.
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When I was in to see Dr. Oakton for a check-up, very talkative like my Aunt Bessie, I said “Why don’t they stop this barbaric practice of wars? The Greek women ages ago rebelled against
having children in order to protest war.”
He said, “Laura, there are holy wars, religious wars, and yes, even necessary wars, and wars fought just because of money. Life is not that simple. Laura.” Then he added, “Laura, what use
would anything in this world be without children?”
My Aunt Bessie’s philosophy tapping into my head. “Maybe people are not meant to live all their lives together. Maybe there is no right or wrong. Maybe it is only in our thinking. It’s wrong for him but it is right for me. Maybe marriage is not always right for one another. That when you fall in love it is for both of you together always. It could be that the myths we hear about do us a lot of harm while we go about believing in them.”
My stepfather was sick. Silverberg was upright in bed, breathing heavily, my mother wringing her hands, Aunt Bessie already with us, the house shaking with her God Almighty sobbing. “How we going to pay the second mortgage from Silverberg’s estate, the newspaper stand and Ikel's pay -- if I get there first before the gamblers.” Dr. Oakton ready to push her out, waiting for her God Almighty to stop.
My mother sadly, “He runs to every car to sell a newspaper, to every corner for the pennies, in the rain, in the snow,” crying. Aunt Bessie helping, “and sits all day long with the coffee pot.”
Silverberg has a spasm of coughing. We all had to leave the bedroom. Afterwards, as I walk him to his car, the doctor said, “He has emphysema. I told your mother.”
In the evening, I found a woman to take care of the children after Aunt Bessie’s telephone call. “Your mother is all alone, Silverberg is in the hospital, he’s your stepfather thank God, the Chinese say too much joy isn’t good for you anyway” crying bitterly at her own remark. Wishing me and my children “a hundred and twenty years and then we’ll ask for more,” suddenly coughing up, “and Mannie, too, one hundred and twenty.” Crying, “Let’s hope for the best, Silverberg’s got a private room, a bad sign.”
Silverberg did not awaken from his deep sleep. All we could do was to stand there, my mother and I at his bedside, trying to console each other.
There was no appeasing Aunt Bessie. She was going to lose the two flat on account of Silverberg dying and me being married which started her on a cooking spree, making gefilte fish for Ikel, special soup for her third dog Peaches who loved her more than ever and didn't complain about too much pepper.
Dr. Oakton’s Co-op
This time Mannie was saying, “and take a look at the co-op Dr. Oakton is talking about. I like the arrangements. I think we can handle it. He wants us in the building, he said, only four
apartments, making it congenial, we all knowing each other. To get away from the icy winters, and his office part time, always aware of that heart attack he had years back, and now that his wife hasdied…I’ll join you as soon as I can get away from the office, and if you like the co-op we’ll gotogether to see it. The time to buy it is now, Laura, in our forties. The reservations are all made, sowhy wait here? I already told Dr. Oakton that you may want to see that co-op.”
My first day in Miami Beach, I took to the ocean. Toward evening, Dr. Oakton called and took me to see the co-op, and I liked it very much. From there he took me to dinner, and since one of his friends in the co-op invited me to a reception the next evening, he picked me up to go to that party. Afterwards dropping me off at my hotel, getting a casual invitation to meet him in the cafeteria in the morning for breakfast that led to a ride up to Boca Raton to see the area of the co-op.
On the way back in passing his hotel, he said, “Laura, I bought some things in the Bahamas that I’d like you to see,” asking me to wait in the lobby, soon opening a jewel box. “It’s jade. Do you like it?”
“Jade? Who doesn’t like jade?” Trying to laugh the whole matter away. His expression is very serious. “I’d like you to wear this, Laura, a token of my affection.” I knew he got attached to his patients – he always said so – but not like this.
“It does happen sometimes that a doctor falls in love with a patient and I’ve known you now just about thirty-two years since you were 8 years old – from my druggist days.”
A flashback in my mind, thinking how he was with his patients. I say to him, “I always thought you were all doctor. There is only one ‘all’ Mannie for me.”
Dr. Oakton answers, “You were right. Nobody can take his place with you.”
“Oh,” laughing, “it’s love your neighbor as you do yourself, is it? But I didn’t move into the co-op yet.” Holding the necklace up high to the light, “Your daughter will just love this, Dr. Oakton, it is so beautiful,” into the jewel box.
“I just hope I haven’t lost you as a patient, Laura.” Holding me at my shoulders with a kiss on my cheek gently. I was hoping my eyes didn’t give me away. A moment I always treasured.
Now remembering that jade pendant when dusting that picture of me sitting on the grass, all smiles, wearing a jade and gold silk print dress, the circular skirt all spread out around me, that’s how he saw me then when snapping my picture. Whatever we were thinking was left unsaid.
“Just so I don’t lose you, as a patient, Laura,” and here I am in a yellow silk dress walking the promenade, Mannie coming in the distance, my steps quicken, running up to greet him.
“I finally got away,” he said, giving me a hug. “Did you get to see the co-op?”
“It’s not for us, Mannie, it’s just too high-tone. We’d be out of place!”
“Now, now, Laura, you’re so naïve – so naïve, I don’t know why I love you,” kissing the palm of my hand as we walked. “But don’t ever lose that quality because that’s what I love in you.”
About to ask him, “What quality? What naivety?”
As if reading my thoughts, “You just are – there’s no reason. I don’t know --- you just are.” In all of our fifty-three years of marriage that was all I could ever get out of him. Even in an argument.
“What’s the difference,” he’d say, “I love you.”
Dr. Oakton's Funeral
When Dr. Oakton died, years later, at his funeral I sat next to a typical Picasso’s Weeping Woman, the handkerchief never left her face.
“Dr. Oakton saved my son’s life,” she said. “Something growing inside of him that he found. He wrote a letter. The army allowed Dr. Oakton to treat him.”
Standing Kaddish and following the old men’s prayers around his coffin, I had my remembrances.
He once said, “I always learn something from my patients, so that I can pass on their gathered experience to others, from patient to patient, not that I pick and choose the patient I learn from most. One patient I had, I always knew that I would have an attachment to him. He suffered a heart attack and I suffered with him. I sent him to a specialist, and am not ashamed to tell you I sobbed openly when I learned that he was gone.”
And now I was sobbing openly for him.
Again, I’m back in Dr. Oakton’s office. I feel locked in, poverty and inferiority are tied with heavy twine to these bars. I can’t get out. “I feel like I’m in a prison,” I say.
“You’re doing that all on your own,” he said, “Give yourself permission to get out. A prisoner in a 5x7 cell doesn’t have the keys. They can’t get out, but you can."
I hear crying at his coffin up front.