Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mourning my brother

Larry was 6½ years old when I was born, and very disappointed. He really wanted a pony. And looking back, he probably would have been much happier growing up with a big four-legged pet – after all, he got blamed for nearly everything. He was the older brother.

We could not have been more unlike. I was the sickly kid, and always had my face buried in a book – the Freddy the Pig series in early elementary years, then sports books, finally science fiction. I could toss down three novels in a summer afternoon, sitting on the front porch of our rowhouse on Northwest Baltimore’s Royce Avenue.

My brother was gifted at sports, athletic and graceful. In high school, there was JV football and basketball, varsity swimming and track. He became a Baltimore public schools physical education teacher in 1962 – assigned that fall to his high school alma mater, Baltimore City College (Class of ’57). I was there, too, entering my senior year – and blessed with a doctor’s note that kept me out of the gym. I had my nose behind a book with an extra period of study hall.

Some days he’d pick me up and drive me to school -- charging 25 cents toward the gas. (“Times were a little tough back then,” he’d later explain, smiling.)

Larry – Jerome Lawrence Ettlin -- was born in June 1939, some 2½ years before Pearl Harbor. I came along in January 1946, at the leading edge of the post-war Baby Boomer era. Some of my friends were younger brothers of some of his friends. But we siblings really didn’t get along. And he stayed as far away from me as possible – and out of the line of fire of parental blame – as we grew up.

I fondly remember the year of the cranberry-carcinogen scare, the only Thanksgiving we didn’t squabble over the cranberry sauce. He urged me to eat all of it that I wanted.

I was about 15 when he married Natalie and moved out for good.

I didn’t miss him, not then. I was just beginning to figure out who I was – and teaching myself to type with two fingers down in the concrete-floor basement, on a metal table next to the oil-burner furnace, giving birth to eventual life as a writer. Four years later, I was marrying and moving out, finding my own way through myriad mistakes and misadventures.

Our paths crossed from time to time, like the day of a supposed race riot at one of my old schools, Pimlico Junior High. He was a teacher there, and I knew some of its other faculty members from my adolescent days. TV crews surrounded the school on the heels of an incorrect broadcast news report describing the “racial” fighting that broke out in Pimlico’s cafeteria. But it was, pure and simple, a food fight – one kid hit another with a dish of food, and it just erupted. And I was covering the melee in my relatively new gig as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.

His career as a teacher lasted 30 years, and included a stint at Baltimore’s William S. Baer School for the multiply disabled. The fact that he bore a strong resemblance to comic actor Jerry Lewis – and that some colleagues knew him as “Jerry” – served my brother well, as the school year opened after the annual Labor Day weekend Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon. And he truly loved the school, since the children he worked with looked forward to being there and the attention they received every day. Life doubtless looks different, growing up in a wheelchair. And even after retirement, he kept in touch as a volunteer at Special Olympics events in the city.

I can’t recall exactly how and when my brother and I began seeing each other as adults, and the gap between our differences began shrinking.

Maybe it was the open invitation in the summer months to spend time at the suburban swim club he managed – and where our daughters were getting to know each other. I spent time there through my three marriages, lounging poolside or playing a little tennis with him and then his older son, and watching my older daughter and then my younger daughter jumping off the diving board.

Maybe it was our shared genes -- particularly the bad one that ran on the male side of our family, manifesting itself as Crohn’s disease.

Then there was sharing the loss of parents – our father 20 years ago, at 78, and our mother in 2007 at the age of 92. And we’d meet up by chance now and then, visiting the nursing home where our Aunt Alice, at 102, has lived since losing a leg to a blood clot in her mid-90s.

For all the friction growing up, the bond of family was always biding its time.

I’ve learned about family through my nearly 45 years of marriage – and often joked that you have to divide by 3 to get the average. (I have learned from experience, however – as witness the current relationship with wife Bonnie nearing a 30th anniversary.)

My brother’s one marriage lasted 48 years, and if you count courtship, their relationship spanned more than half a century. You see relationships from a distance and maybe don’t appreciate their magnitude. They had two sons, Greg and Ross, and a daughter, Carol, and now a 14-year-old grandson, Jadon, but the real measure of their relationship… well, I witnessed that in recent weeks.

My wife Bonnie and I last sat down socially with Larry and Nat August 31, at the reception after attending the graveside funeral in Baltimore’s Rosedale suburb for our uncle Joseph Mignogna. We had driven our cars a short distance from the synagogue cemetery of that part of the family, to a neighboring cemetery where our parents and grandparents and half a dozen uncles rest. My brother could not recall the spot where our maternal grandmother was buried after dying of influenza in 1919. I took him to the weathered headstone of Jennie Kaplan, and then he showed me to the resting spot of Jennie’s husband David, who died in 1945 exactly a year before my birth and accounted for my name.

On Sept. 3, Bonnie and I flew to Germany to begin a monthlong visit to friends in Europe.

Two days later, I received the first of what became nearly daily emails sent by my niece – her father… my brother, emergency surgery, a strangulated bowel, blood circulation to heart and lungs affected, more surgery, unresponsive for more than a week, organs failing.

I didn’t expect to see him again. I’d close my eyes at night, in Germany, and think back to our uncle’s funeral, and Larry and I standing together as the rabbi explained the gift we offer at the burial, in each of us taking the shovel in hand and sprinkling earth gently down atop the wooden casket adorned only with a carved Star of David.

My brother turned the shovel’s blade sideways, and the clay earth spilled out and down. Then I added my offering. “It is a service you offer, something they cannot do for themselves,” the rabbi said.

Uncle Joe was family, the husband of our mother’s baby sister, a World War II combat veteran, the father of our cousins Diane and Marc, a guy who played saxophone, loved jazz, a Catholic from Philadelphia who became a Jew after marrying our youngest aunt. Funny to think that way. Our mother’s baby sister, Zelda, she’s 85 years old. The years spin past so quickly, you want to reach out and reverse the clock and remember their little Christmas tree around Hanukkah time, the little round backyard swimming pool, Wiffle ball on the tiny patch of lawn. In the end, his last months in a nursing home, Uncle Joe would remember little if any of this – Alzheimer’s having taken away the treasures that should accrue with age.

Then I’d see us standing at our parents’ shared headstone, and placing a small stone atop it – a tradition, a sign of remembrance, that you’ve visited. The stones eventually vanish. I bring more. I pick them carefully, bringing back a few from every trip, every beautiful place I find… from Japan, Australia, New Zealand, British Columbia, Germany’s Baltic coast….

We were back home Oct. 7, and the next day arrived at Sinai Hospital to find Larry awake and alert, but still gravely ill – and machines everywhere. Dialysis. Ventilator. Feeding. Draining. Pumping. There had been a long spell, nearly two weeks into our trip, when Larry had been pretty much unconscious. And pneumonia – repeatedly. Infections – repeatedly.

He saw us, and he smiled. I told him stories about our adventures in Europe, about visiting the London foundry that cast the Liberty Bell and Big Ben, and how our friend who works there gave us a rare tour, and how we saw bells cast in the 15th century that were back in the factory for new fittings. A bronze bell can last pretty much forever, but the fittings that hold it in the steeple eventually wear out, every 150 years or so – and we touched a bell resting on the foundry floor, awaiting fittings. The bell’s still-vivid inscription had the year of its casting: 1417.

Nearly six centuries, and the bell just needs new fittings and back in the steeple it goes.

If only we held up as well, I told him. And he smiled again.

I told him about a little feature I’d read on the British Air flight home, in the Times of London, in which notable authors related their “eureka” moments of discovery that opened the way for them to write. One account was of a scientist’s explanation that we are all made of stardust from cosmic explosions.

“Recycled stardust,” I said. “We’re recycled stardust.”

He smiled, and I added: “Next time around, I do not want to come back as a frog.”

We’ve been home two weeks now, and I’ve been back to the hospital as often as possible, seen a few good days but more that were mostly bad. And at every turn, up or down, Natalie is sitting at his bedside in the intensive care unit in a sterile-blue gown, her latex-gloved hand patting his wrist, her hand in his hand. “Squeeze my hand, sweetie,” she’d whisper, and sometimes there’d be a little pressure in response – and sometimes a little stronger.

Stroking his white hair, his forehead: “Be strong. Keep on being subborn.”

“I love you,” she’d whisper.

Breathing through a tracheotomy, Larry would move his lips in a silent reply: “I love you too.”

His eyebrows were expressive. “Do you want the TV turned on?” The eyebrows reply, “Doesn’t matter.”

A nurse brings a syringe and reaches for one of the incoming tubes. The eyebrows ask, “What?”

And occasionally, the eyebrows show frustration at being helpless, at losing nearly all control of one’s life. The eyebrows are easier to read than lips.

The news from the medical team was never good. With every short upswing in being alert and communicative came deeper downswings. There was a morning one week ago when his heartbeat became erratic, and they almost lost him. And there were unanswerable questions – if his heart stops, resuscitate? Crack his chest? Use the electric paddles? Let him go?

And what about treatment – how long to fight every worsening complication? When do you, when does he, say, “Enough!” When does anyone lose the will to go on? When do you surrender? Can you surrender? Should you surrender?

Natalie sat at his bedside, fighting for every moment – and encouraging him at every turn to be strong.

“I want to go home,” he would say, and so long as there was the slightest of chances of that happening, even if it meant a year or two years of sitting at his bedside and sharing her amazing strength and love, she would not yield. “I’m taking you home. We’re going to get you home. Be stubborn. Keep fighting, Lar.”

They managed a few days ago to play an hour of poker, his hobby.

“Who won?” I asked Nat.

“He did,” she said.

“That’s good,” I smiled.

“I threw away a pair of aces. If I had a pair, I threw it away.”

She needed him to win, willed him to win.

And I tried not to cry. Two aces. A simple moment of truth, of clarity, at this small, loving sacrifice.

Natalie was beyond heroic. If there is a height of bravery, she was looking down on it… with Larry at her side.

The surgeon talked with us earlier this week, about the options: escalating treatment should more complications arise; maintaining full life support and current levels of care in hoping for a turnaround in his condition; or focusing on medication to control pain while basically de-escalating the fight.

Late Tuesday afternoon, an endoscopic examination indicated deterioration of what little remained of the intestines, but Wednesday the surgeon offered a last option – one more longshot against giving up hope – to attempt surgery that would remove the damaged section and maybe the root of the infection process. There was also the possibility he would not survive the operation.

Larry was weak, but alert – and was asked whether he wanted and would agree to the risky surgery, and told that the alternative was also very bleak. He wasn’t rushed. We waited another hour for all the pain medication to wear off, and asked if he had thought about it, if he could say whether to go ahead and try it. The reply was a weak affirmative nod to going ahead and, later, his raised thumb and forefinger formed a little circle, an “OK.”

For a few minutes, as Natalie left the room, I sat in her chair and looked into my brother’s eyes that were open just a slit.

“There’s that other operation,” I said. “How about a whole-body transplant?”

He smiled back and nodded.

With Natalie and son Greg at his side, Larry motioned that he wanted to write something, and was handed a pen – then could not control it enough to make it do his bidding on a clipboard-held sheet of paper. He pointed the pen instead to a sheet of large printed letters of the alphabet, and circled the letter J, and drew a line to the next, A. Then he pointed it to the others… D, O, N.

The anesthesiologist and a team of nurses came a few minutes past 7 p.m., and Natalie gently kissed his forehead. The entourage rolled his bed out of the room, past me at the doorway, and I could see his eyes were open. Then he was rolling down the long hallway of the hospital’s ICU wing. I saw only the white hair on the top of his head, and then he was gone.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Sprechen zie English? Road Trip Part 3

A familiar slogan appears on the gate at Sachsenhausen. Below, Ernst Strnad. (Photos by Bonnie Schupp)

This place of
horror speaks
against those
who would
deny history

From Oranienburg, Germany

Among the German concentration camps of World War II, the name Sachsenhausen was unknown to me before a recent visit to the town of Oranienburg, a bit more than 20 miles northeast of Berlin.

Here, architects of the Nazi regime and the prison officers and commandants who would build, open and run the better-known places like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald worked out and practiced the best ways to dehumanize and murder their victims.

Some were Jewish, but far more were prisoners of war, opponents of the regime, gypsies, intellectuals -- all undesirable to the Hitler regime that grew in power and terror several years before the German invasion of Poland and an explosion of war that would consume more than 50 million lives.

The death toll includes soldiers and civilians alike, but those who were tortured and killed in the camps -- also in the millions -- are the numbers that people looking back on this darkest of ages more often recite.

Tens of thousands were murdered at Sachsenhausen, where more than 200,000 people were imprisoned between its opening in 1936 and the war's end in 1945. They were shot or hung in groups or individually, gassed, starved, frozen, beaten.

We were met on the visitors' parking lot by Ernst Strnad, an 81-year-old Czech-born writer and translator who checks on our nationalities (Bonnie and I from the U.S., and German friends Beate and Ellen) and engages us in a little conversation in English about his late father -- a survivor whose various camp confinements as a political prisoner included Sachsenhausen.

Strnad could recall the day his father was arrested by the Nazi invaders of Czechoslovakia – a trade unionist, he had openly spoken out against the rising tide of facism and had nowhere to hide after his country fell to the Germans.

From the inner pocket of his sportjacket, Strnad plucks a thin and worn leather wallet of papers, including the text in German of President Barack Obama's speech in his June visit to Buchenwald – and Strnad’s own Who's Who in the World biography.

And he offers to guide us through the place, for a donation of 5 euros that supports publication of his books. It was a modest sum (a tad under $7.50 at the current exchange rate), given the expertise of our guide.

He begins the walking tour along a tree-shaded lane that seemed close to a quarter-mile length of a block-and-concrete wall topped with what once was electrified wires.

We stop periodically, Strnad pointing out features like the wiring and the guard tower, with each fact of his litany preceded by the words, “You must know this….”

At first I thought he assumed we already knew what he was about to tell us, but then I realized the emphasis was on the word must – the importance that we know this and that about Sachsenhausen, which was built by prisoners on the edge of Oranienburg and was a successor to a smaller concentration camp that had stood in a more visible center-of-town location from 1933 to 1934.

At the end of the lane, we reach the entrance and see the chilling words ornamentally crafted into the metal gate: ARBEIT MACHT FREI.

The approximate translation: Work makes you free.

That same message was placed later above the gateway to the better-known Auschwitz concentration camp that opened in 1940 in Poland, and where mass killings were vastly expanded – with extermination of targeted populations the object.

The gas chamber for killing and crematorium for victim disposal had already been experimented with at Sachsenhausen, where the sign on the gate was contradicted by this grim reality for many: The only way out was “through the chimney.”

Still, many prisoners left Sachsenhausen – transferred to other camps for various purposes, probably most to eventually die or be murdered in the Nazi camps.

The Roma (gypsies) and Russian prisoners of war by the thousands may have fared the worst at Sachsenhausen, where evidence remains of their deaths – gallows, a firing squad trench, even a measuring device where prisoners were told to stand for height examination and a fatal bullet was fired into the neck through a hole in a wall.

For awhile, the Nazis produced documentation aimed at showing more legitimate causes of deaths, particularly for the Roma, who were subjected to medical experimments. The supposed proof of natural causes of death was charted in autopsy reports after cursory post-mortem examinations. The autopsy room is still there.

Strnad, our guide, points out a prison building within the prison Рan oddity but not a redundancy. This little prison building was run by the Gestapo, for special guests and torment. Among them was the Rev. Martin Niem̦ller, a religious leader whose crime against Adolf Hitler was preaching resistance to the barbarism overtaking Germany.

On the eastern side of the border, Sachsenhauser was used by the Russians for five years after the war – housing over that time an estimated 60,000 prisoners in an odd turnabout for a place where its soldiers had been systematically lined up and shot. About a fifth of the Russians’ prisoners died, mostly of malnutrition and disease, according to a history pamphlet on the concentration camp.

Of the dozens of large barracks-style buildings that housed prisoners, only two remain – despite an arson attack by neo-Nazis in an attempt to erase even them a few years after the 1989 dismantling of the wall that had divided East and West Germany.

One is now a museum, with an unexpectedly large display space under the barracks where you could spend hours looking at every bit of documentation on the killers of Sachsenhausen and their victims. We had perhaps half an hour there, and came out to find Strnad waiting for us.

There were a few more things that “you must know,” like how prisoners were used to test boots and shoes by walking around a track, carrying heavy packs until they dropped in exhaustion. Or how an occasional prisoner would be singled out at roll call for a public beating or fatal torture. Or design features like the path inside the perimeter wall that was, in essence, a death zone for anyone foolhardy enough to attempt an escape.

Sachsenhausen was, in essence, a model prison… at least for the Nazis. It became the headquarters for the entire network of an unimaginably vast killing machine.

The visit left me wondering how, seven decades after the Nazi invasion of Poland officially ignited World War II, anyone – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinijad comes to mind – could deny the horror.

Coming attractions: East meets West, and a close-up look at remains of the Iron Curtain.