“I’m coming with you,” I said. Dr. Kravitz was Mim’s family doctor, and mine, too. Bertha Kravitz. Someone who, I imagine, had fought her way to get into medical school and to stay there, and to establish a highly respected practice in a male-dominated world. If Bertha had been our doctor then, Sidney would have gotten better care instead of nearly dying of whooping cough.
So I was there, you see, on December 29, 1947, to hear Mim tell Bertha about her symptoms: bloody discharge, bloating, general fatigue. I was there to read Bertha’s face, which belied her reassuring words. I was there when Bertha wrote down the name of a specialist on her prescription pad and told her assistant to make an immediate appointment for Mim.
“I’m busy all this week and next,” Mim stated, as if she were arranging to go to the beauty parlor. “Any time after January 11th.”
The assistant was about to object, but Bertha whispered, “That’s fine.”
There you have it. That’s when I knewand I’m sure Mim did, toothat the specialist could at most delay the inevitable. His specialty was in oncology, and whatever was devouring Mim’s insides could not be stopped. We didn’t use the c-word then. Cancer.
I started to tell Mim how devastated I was, but she cut me off. “Not one word about this to anyone until ” She looked at the appointment card. “Until Tuesday, January 13. Florrie, I need you to help me get through the big birthdays.”
Sidney was turning 21 on January 2nd, and Ephraim was going to be 60 on January 8th. Mim and I had talked about having a big family celebration on the 10th. I told Mim that she should tell her family right away and not wait. She needed their support. Why pretend there was nothing wrong?
She was adamant. “I’m doing this my way. I’m not lying to them, because I don’t have a diagnosis yet. I positively refuse to throw away this chance to see them all happy.”
This one last chance, I thought, but of course I didn’t say anything. I put my old Pontiac in gear and headed for the clock tower. I said not one word while we went to the observation deck and looked out at the Berkeley campus and the Bay. Mim retreated into herself, going to a place not even I could enter. I stood next to her and held her hand.
Then she said, “It’s Joshua’s birthday today. I told Rachel I’d pick up the cake while I was out.” Nothing profound. Just Mim being her practical self.
We went to Andronico’s Park and Shop for the birthday goodies, and then to the bookstore to pick out something for Joshua. That’s when it hit her.
I had made the mistake of leaving Mim in the children’s section while I found a copy of Marcia Davenport’s The Valley of Decision. By the time I got back, she was folding and unfolding her handkerchief with shaking hands.
“The New House in the Forest or The Taxi that Hurried? Or maybe I should get Aesop’s Fables. He’s too young for that, don’t you think? Have you read Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel?”
“Any of those books will do,” I told her. “You look tired, my dear. Let’s get you home.”
“No. I want this to be a book that Joshua will treasure. And that little Dagmar will like when she gets old enough. And then the baby.”
Part of me wanted to say, what difference does it make? It’s just a book. But that’s not what Mim wanted to hear. So I said, “Get Mike Mulligan,” even though I hadn’t read it. “I’ll give him The Taxi that Hurried. I bet both of them will be classics.”
She barely nodded. Her hands were still shaking when we got to Rachel’s, so I helped her freshen her lipstick. She took a deep breath, slapped what passed for a smile on her face, and asked me how she looked.
“You look fine,” I lied. “Absolutely fine.”