Life and Death
By Jack Cohen
Noise...a noise...the phone ringing in the middle of the night. “What, what's that?” Awakening to shrill blackness, senses confused.
“Who could be calling at this time?”
“I'll get it!” I struggled to get out of bed, becoming entangled in the blankets, urgently wanting to stop that noise! I tried to run, but slipped on the tiled floor and painfully struck my leg on the corner of the low bed. The jangling ringing continued intermittently. I scrambled on all fours across the floor, an animal answering its call.
Finally, I grabbed the receiver. A disembodied voice asked my name. In dread anticipation I confirmed my identity. Then I recognized my mother's trembling voice, and immediately I knew the truth, “Dad's dead.”
I tried to picture my father, but I was not sure if it really resembled him. My mother regained her composure and explained the circumstances, avoiding details over this impersonal distance. I tried to comfort her. We made the necessary arrangements. It was 1977. He would never get to visit Israel, the trip that they had planned for that summer.
Later on, after I had booked a flight to London, and when I had time before the taxi was due to arrive, I sat alone on the patio. Across the orange groves the sun was rising. All was still, tranquil, beautiful. I saw it with incredible clarity, the verdant groves spreading up the hill to the stucco buildings of Netzer Sereni, already shimmering in the gathering heat. I wept at the loss, the missed chances. We had never once talked about Julian, perhaps the most tragic event in my father's life. What could I have done? At least I could have offered comfort. Too late, too late. The dawn was cold. I shivered, and marveled at the sharp contrast, death and being, ever co-existing.
Words, hollow receptacles of reality which fail to convey the complexity of meaning. What was it he said to me? I could picture us, me tightly holding his hand as we wended our way through the crowd going to a soccer match at the Arsenal stadium. I had gone unwillingly, I disliked crowds, and at school avoided sports. The huge crowd crushed in around us. Were we there because my father thought that I wanted to go, or because he thought it right to take me? As we came closer to the stadium the huge green building destroyed the sky.
The intermittent ringing of an ambulance siren approached. It divided the crowd, and stopped just before us. A stretcher was carried out of the adjacent entrance of the stadium. Someone was lying on the stretcher, his face a strange, purple color. Two uniformed men maneuvered the stretcher into the ambulance. My father bent down and said something to me. What was it he said?
I could not remember. It was not important, yet somehow it had produced a moment of insight, an instant of self-awareness that still lingered in the fastnesses of my mind. I am me. I am standing holding my father's hand before a huge green stadium encompassed by a crowd of people. Someone has died.
----- o -----
“Had I made up for him, Julian, my brother, lost, dead? I tried, but I could not. If I had asked you about him, Dad, what would you have replied? Ineluctable words that delineate existence. I had blamed you, and had been aloof.” I slammed the car door. The engine purred into life and we sped away.
After the official mourning period of the Shiva was over I went to the East End to see the places where I had grown up. I took the tube to Old Street Station, and wandered around the completely rebuilt circle, until I found Cowper Street. From the outside the school looked unchanged, perhaps the bricks a bit grimier. A janitor was polishing the brass work on the door. It was vacation time and the school was officially closed, but when I told him I was an “old-boy” he allowed me in. The entranceway had been modernized, but the same old dark pictures of the school founders gazed down. I passed the door to the Head's office, resonant with memories. I looked into the Hall. It was smaller than I remembered it, remembered...
I walked down Rivington Street and past Shoreditch Church. Everything was shabbier than I expected. The school and Hospital still stood eyeing each other on Virginia Road, both looking more dilapidated. The Hospital did not have as much impact, it was just an old building. Where the bomb-sites had been on both sides of the road was a new housing estate. The old rusty gate had gone completely. As I walked along I noticed a Pakistani family walking parallel to me on the other side of the street. The man walked in front with an astrakhan hat on his head, behind him his wife wearing a coat with a sari under it, and behind her a girl, dressed in conventional western dress. The girl stared back at me and we caught each other's eye. What was she thinking, as we exchanged a glance, alien stare? How could she possibly comprehend the ambiguity of our juxtaposition. The family turned a corner and moved obliquely away. We made it possible for you, I thought, our suffering unrecognized.
The bomb-site on the corner was now a park, and the old flats had been replaced with a modern high-rise. They were actually in the process of demolishing the houses on my side of Brick Lane, so that it was almost impossible to locate the actual house where I had lived. The alley that had been opposite was no longer there. I found an old, wooden gate, twisted and darkened by years of neglect. Next to it had been the confectioner's shop. There was still an old faded sign reading “Tizer, the appetizer.” It should have been three houses before that. I counted over, and looked up. There was a chimney stack poking up from the half-demolished house into the gray, cloudy sky. Suddenly a surge of emotion hit me. It constricted my throat and caught my chest in mid-breath. I recognized the pattern of the kitchen wall-paper flapping in the cold, sharp breeze. I walked over and lovingly ran my fingers along the familiar row of mortar between the rough bricks. Had it all been a dream?
I walked down Brick Lane, across Bethnal Green Road and under the railway tunnel. It was even more grimy and dank now, with people walking zigzag paths to avoid the dripping water. Beyond the tunnel loomed the chimney of the Truman brewery. I turned left into the narrow alley and found the entrance of the Shoreditch Underground station. The trains from here only run in the rush hour, but they had already started at 3 pm. The place was practically deserted. The train ran through the old brick tunnels, still preserving their Victorian origins under layers of accumulated dirt. I got off at Stepney Green, and came out onto the High Road. As I walked I looked for the Cinema where my parents had met. My mother had told me how my father had asked her for a light for his cigarette as the lights went on during the interval between the two films. They had started talking, and he had asked for her address (that was long before people like us had telephones). From such threads our lives hang.
As I crossed the road towards my Uncle Izzy's store I saw the movie theater still there. His old store had stood on the corner, a huge building, surrounded by bomb-sites. But, in order to widen the road it had been taken over by the Council, and he had been given a smaller modern store below a block of flats. I saw it now, the sign above the store 'I. Cohen.' I ascended the stairs on the side to where I knew I would find Uncle Izzy and Aunt Dora in their little flat above the store.
“Let me make you a cup of tea,” was the usual greeting. After they had told me about their plans to sell the store and retire, and we had a cup of tea, Aunt Dora returned to her vacuuming. I wanted to ask Izzy about my dad. Who else was there to ask, he was the youngest brother, perhaps his memory could be trusted. But, it was difficult broaching the subject. As we talked and reminisced the years between us slipped away. The formality to which I had been brought up was dropped. I was now, after all, a grown man. My father was dead. Some questions must finally be asked.
On the way back home, on the Underground, in the car to the airport, in the plane, I tried to make sense of what I had learnt. It was the fuel that had propelled my life.
----- o -----
Hazily at first I imagined my father, younger, shabbily dressed, standing with cloth cap in hand, in the hallway of the Shoreditch Mission Hospital in Bethnal Green. The walls were a dark, depressing green. The air was cold and damp. My father's breath formed a spike, vanishing and reappearing as his harsh breathing disturbed the calm surroundings. There was a strong smell of carbolic. Ahead of him wide stairs lead upwards and then divided to left and right. Between the stairs on the wall a large clock ticked insistently. Upstairs were the wards.
It was very quiet on Sunday morning. Occasionally nurses walked briskly by. Doors opened to reveal distant conversations and then banged closed. My father waited. He was unshaven and looked tired, even grim. A Staff Nurse entered the hallway from the door to the right and marched over to him. She wore a uniform a shade darker blue than that of the ordinary nurses. She stopped before him,
“I'm sorry Mr. Cohen, but we cannot disturb the doctor.” For an instant he did not reply, the silence was oppressive. Then a twisted smile crossed his face.
“Sister, my wife is dying upstairs, my baby is dead, and you stand there and tell me the doctor has no time to see me.”
“Well, Mr. Cohen, I'm sorry, but it is early Sunday morning.”
“But, the other nurse told me that Dr. Connor is on duty this morning.”
“That's true, but we have orders not to disturb her.”
“What do you mean, not disturb her?“ growing angry now. “If you don't call her I will,” and he walked forward to the stairs shouting upwards, “Dr. Connor, Dr. Connor!”
“Really, Mr. Cohen, this is a hospital!”
“Is it? Fine hospital where doctors are too busy to be disturbed,” and he continued to shout her name.
“Very well Mr. Cohen, if you insist on being difficult I will try to locate Dr. Connor and see if she will see you,” and she marched briskly back to the door from whence she had come.
Once more silence prevailed. After a delay of about ten minutes the Staff Nurse returned, “I was able to locate Dr. Connor, and she has kindly agreed to see you. She will be down shortly.” Once again she turned abruptly and retraced her steps. After a further delay the door opened and the Doctor appeared, followed closely by the Staff Nurse.
Dr. Connor was a young woman, in her early thirties. Her face had a well-scrubbed, ruddy appearance, and she was wearing a stiffly starched white coat.
”Mr. Cohen, your wife had a good night. I think she will survive.”
“Thank God, that's what the nurse also told me.”
“Then,” sharply, “why did you insist on seeing me, why have you been creating a disturbance?”
“I wanted to know what the sex of the child,” his voice catching, “was?”
“It was a boy.” “Julian,” the name crossed his mind, “dead.”
“Surely you could have asked the nurse that too.”
“I also wanted to know why you didn't do a Cesarean operation earlier?”
“I don't have to answer that question, or any other questions,” her face growing redder.”
“I wanted to know why my wife was left in labor for nearly a week! If she needed a Cesarean why did you delay so long, so that the baby died and she almost did?”
“Are you questioning my competence? You Jews are all alike, you always know better.”
“Whaddya mean, 'you Jews,' what has that got to do wiv it?” He was shouting now, his face contorted in anguish, while Dr. Connor stared fixedly at him in blind fury, and suddenly blurted out,
“The Jews are an accursed people!”
“Was that why you let my wife suffer, was that why you killed my son? “ He was overpowered by emotion, his body shook uncontrollably. Dr. Connor observed the unkempt, trembling man with disgust.
“I don't have to stand here wasting my time with you.”
The Staff Nurse tried to interrupt, “Please, please, this is not the place for such goings on, please you must stop!“ They glared at each other with mutual hatred, then the Doctor smiled to herself, turned her back and walked away.
After a few minutes my father broke the heavy silence and spoke to the Staff Nurse, “You 'eard what she said, you're a witness. I want to see the chief doctor, I don't know oo 'e is, but I wanna see 'im.”
“Now really Mr. Cohen, this has gone far enough, you cannot possibly see the Chief Surgeon today.”
“Then tell me 'is name an make an appointment for me. I wanna see 'im termorrer, I wanna make a complaint.”
“Alright Mr. Cohen, his name is Mr. Adair. I will inform his office that you will be contacting them tomorrow.“ For a moment they continued to eye each other hesitantly.
“Tell me something Sister, would you agree to tell the Surgeon what you 'eard the Doctor say before?”
“Mr. Cohen, I must remind you that this is a hospital, and people die here all the time. Why don't you see the Surgeon tomorrow and I'm sure that he will explain things to your satisfaction.” With that she too left.
My father stood alone in the quiet lobby. He looked up through the stairwell to the fanlight above, and gazed unseeingly for a moment. Then he groaned, “Oh God,” and slowly turned and trudged from the building.
----- o -----
The Chief Surgeon agreed with my father that it was unusual to allow labor to proceed for five days before carrying out a Cesarean delivery. However, he also explained that each case is different, and that there was a formal complaint procedure to be followed, so that he alone would not be responsible for judging every case. He agreed to look into the incident and since my father expressed his intention to lodge a formal complaint he was taken to the Administration Office. There, since he was functionally illiterate, he was helped to fill out the complaint form. It was not easy for him to dictate to the patient clerk a charge of murder by virtue of incompetence or prejudice.
Eventually the matter came before a Disciplinary Committee. Each of the protagonists gave testimony. Fortunately the Staff Nurse confirmed, albeit reluctantly, the remarks that Dr. Connor had made. The Committee found that Dr. Connor had been negligent in allowing labor to proceed for an extended period, particularly since it was clear from the outset from the medical evidence that Mrs. Cohen had a narrow pelvic opening, and should have been delivered by Cesarean section. Dr. Connor was dismissed from the Hospital. The question of prejudice as a motivation for Dr. Connor's negligence was not addressed.
My mother had to remain in the Hospital for some time. The night that they heard she might still be able to have children they were feeling better for the first time in a long while. As they were sitting quietly together in the ward they suddenly heard a commotion, someone shouted, “'ere come and see this, wot a fire!” Everyone rushed to the windows, and from the darkened ward they saw in the distance a huge conflagration. Exclamations of “cor blimey,” and “what's burning?” were heard. The distant sky blazed with a disturbing intensity. Someone shouted that it was the Crystal Palace that was burning, the great glass construction that had been built for the Great Exhibition many years earlier, and which stood on a height in north-west London. Gradually silence descended over them. They stood, lost in thought, staring at that fascinating, terrifying sight. The distant flames reflected coldly off their careworn faces.
This is an excerpt from my book "Amanuensis" that has been been published in "All of our lives" edited by Sarah Shapiro and published byTargum Press (2009). The book can be purchased from Amazon.com (search "Amanuensis Jack Cohen") and/ from the author's website: www.jackcohenart.com.
from the April 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine