Because of the discounts available to my mother while she worked at Saks Fifth Avenue, I was one of the better dressed teachers in the New York public school system. My children, when they were babies, were also rather well dressed, as my mother worked in the children’s department and disliked visiting us without bringing a gift of some sort. Eventually, however, my mother retired, and after her retirement, she brought us fancy cakes whenever she visited. To my children she became Grandma Cake. I didn’t know what prompted her retirement; possibly she had just reached the age at which people at Saks retired, or it could have been a result of the polycytemia from which she began to suffer.
Polycytemia is a disease of the bone marrow which produces an excess of red blood cells. Living in New York, as she did, she was being treated for the condition by one of the top oncologists in the world, a man regularly listed in New York Magazine as one of the best doctors in New York. I had met him a couple of times when I brought my mother to his office, and he seemed a reasonable human being.
In the evening of November 11th, 1979, Armistice Day (or Veterans Day, if you prefer) my mother phoned me, and in a terribly weak voice told me that she was feeling awful; she thought that she had passed out, but wasn’t sure. She had phoned her doctor earlier, but had been told that he wasn’t available, that he didn’t take calls when on vacation. I’m not making this up. It is real. I told my mother that I’d be at her apartment in about forty-five minutes, the time I estimated it would take to get from Ridgewood to Forest Hills this late in the evening. I threw on some clothes, and was on my way.
When I reached my mother’s apartment, she was in and out of consciousness. She looked terrible. I thought she needed immediate admission to a hospital, but the hospital with which her oncologist was associated wouldn’t admit her without his say-so. I then phoned my friend, Dr. Robin Motz, and asked him for advice. He told me that he would phone an ambulance service and have her admitted immediately to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, that he would be there when we arrived. By the time the ambulance arrived at the hospital my mother was unconscious. I tried following the ambulance in my car, but we got separated. When I reached the hospital at about 4 AM, Robin had met the ambulance, had her admitted, and made sure she got the best of care.
The diagnosis was a sudden onset of leukemia. Grandma Cake was in deep trouble. There was irony of the situation in that my mother’s oncologist was the one who had written the article in the medical encyclopedia on the sudden transformation of polycytemia into full-blown leukemia. Without Robin’s help, she would probably have died in her apartment.
The time my mother spent in the hospital was also somewhat strange for me, as every other day I visited the New York Blood Bank on East 63rd Street to give platelets, which at the time took about three hours. The medical technicians tried to make the platelet donors comfortable during those hours of inactivity. They turned on the TV, and introduced me to Luke and Laura, and their troubles on General Hospital. After leaving General Hospital, I visited my mother at a real hospital.