Archive for April, 2011

29 Again and Again

April 11, 2011

As part of the From Left To Write Book Club I read 29: A Novel by Adena Halpern about a grandmother who gets her birthday wish to be 29 again for one day.

Yesterday my grandmother celebrated her 93rd birthday with an intimate gathering of friends. My siblings and I bought her an iPad so she would not be restricted using her computer at her desk. As for the friend who suggested the gift and offered to participate, I made her promise to teach my grandma how to use the device.

My grandmother and I have always been close; she’s felt a special kinship for me for years and has even admitted to me being her favorite granddaughter. This also translates to more responsibilities for me, like visiting her and calling her more frequently than my siblings, and helping her navigate everything from technology (she still has not learned how to use the cell phones I’ve purchased her), shopping and more. She’s still a heck of a lot better than most of her friends who she complains are aging poorly. She’s lived an amazing life as a performer and business woman, and at times is more coherent than my dad.

It’s sad to think that she has a finite amount of time left on earth and when she goes a little bit more of my mom will disappear as my grandma has a lifetime of memories of her only daughter. But as I remind myself, nobody gets out alive.

My mom never indulged this line of discussion, but my grandma admits to regrets, mostly surrounding her relationship with her husband. “If he didn’t die, I would have left him,” she’s said. I do not encourage this line of speaking too much as there is nothing to gain and for someone eternally optimistic, Grams does not need recall painful memories. She’s expressed remorse at only having one child, but after a miscarriage and breast cancer diagnosis, the doctors told her she could not have more.

My mother always said life is not a dress rehearsal. While I will ask Grandma what she would do differently if she could revisit 29, I’ll continue to live as if this is my one shot

An Immortal Cell Lives On

April 5, 2011

I recently read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot about cells taken from a black woman in 1950s. The cells, unlike any other, had an immortal quality where they kept multiplying and even infesting other sterilized scientific studies. The sample, as was practiced at the time, was taken without consent. As the cells grew, spawning an entirely new industry the family was never made aware. They have yet to be compensated by any of companies profiting from the cells and cannot even afford basic health care.

The story has stuck with me on several fronts.

The first was that horrible childhood of Henrietta, her children and even some of the grandchildren. Henrietta had, besides cancer, syphilis and HPV likely gifts from her philandering husband. One child was abused so, and I only know from the two antidotes in the story so I must fathom it was worse than what I read in a few pages, that the reader can almost forgive his unpleasant disposition. Another daughter was repeatedly raped by the husband of her father’s girlfriend, while the father turned a blind eye. All left school early.

Perhaps its a testament to my sheltered life, but it’s so hard to imagine such abuse existing even though I know it does. I have had my fair share of trauma and drama throughout my childhood. While I was raised in a privileged home with two siblings, I remember feeling extremely alone and often a burden to my parents. By the time I went away for high school most of my misery subsided. I have survived without physical abuse, sexual abuse or rape which must put me ahead of many, and light years ahead of the Lack’s family.

The other part of this book that I struggle to comprehend is that Ms. Lacks’ cells are still circulated and used for countless research including a cure for polio. I’m sure the family must grapple with part of their mother not being at rest. From a Jewish perspective, the immortal cells would cause many discomfort. Some rabbis collect all of the stray hair and fingernails of the deceased so the soul can rest without concern of the body.

When going through my mother’s bathroom shortly after she passed I found her hairbrush filled with stray hairs. Holding that brush, longing for my mom I briefly contemplated what to do. Without consulting my sister, as I had been doing for many decisions, I threw the hairs away. Now I cannot imagine my internal debate, but then it had been a big decision. Imagine if each of those hairs where in someone else’s hands, or laboratory, out of my control. Like the Lack’s I’d be happy they were being used for good, but I’d feel violated for not being consulted on their secondary life.

The final thing that I love about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is that it took the author ten years to write it! Sure she has a much better excuse than I have offered (The Lacks family initial reluctance to talk to her, and all of that scientific research) but it’s comforting to know that even talented writers have their obstacles.

I left the book at my hotel on vacation with the hopes that someone will find it and enjoy it as much as I did.