Last Thursday my closest and dearest friend Harold was having a triple bypass operation at the Royal Victoria Hospital. I first met Harold on our first day at McGill University nearly half a century ago.
I was so anxious and so nervous about the outcome of such serious surgery that I spent the entire day at the hospital in the ICU waiting room to make sure he would be okay.
After seven hours that seemed like an eternity, Dr. Kevin Lachapelle, an amazingly gifted surgeon, came out of the operating room to tell me and Harold’s daughters that the surgery had been a success.
I went home exhausted but relieved. Before hitting the sack, I arranged for a ride back to the hospital the following morning at 7.
When I woke up the following morning, there was a message on the phone. I thought it was probably a confirmation from the driver who was coming to pick me up.
I was wrong. The message was not from the driver. The message was from the group home where my sweet kid sister Cindy had lived for many years.
I tapped the phone to play the message and heard the distraught voice of the woman who runs the place.
“Tommy, you have to come immediately. Cindy has passed away.”
The world stopped. My heart stopped. It must be some mistake. I played the message again. It said the same thing.
“Tommy, you have to come over immediately. Cindy has passed away.
When I arrived at her place, I had a tough time getting to see her. I was told I could not see her right away. Police said there were papers that had to be filled out. They told me some people prefer to remember loved ones as they were at happier times.
She was my sister. I had to see her. And I did. As she lay on the bed, she looked beautiful and very much at peace. She had died in her sleep and never come down for breakfast.
I just stood there at the side of her bed sobbing silently asking her forgiveness for anything I might have ever said or done that might have upset her in any way.
Cindy looked like she would wake up at any minute. There was no breeze, Nothing moved but I felt something. Nothing physical. It was just a sense that some part of her, one billionth of a billionth of a part of her knew that I was there.
And that meant the world to me.
It was not easy for me to see Cindy the day she died and I recalled that it was not easy for me see her the day she was born on a bitter cold November morning in 1964.
My mother had been pregnant with Cindy at my Bar-Mitzvah although we did not know it at the time.
Cindy, you see, was a surprise. My mother had been in hospital for a goiter operation on her neck when a resident came in to say that her operation would have to be postponed because she was pregnant.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I am not pregnant. I vant to see a real doctor and not a child like you,”
It took Mom’s gynecologist Dr. Morrie Gelfand who was the head of the department to convince her that she was indeed with child.
When she heard him say it, she fainted.
A few months later back in our apartment building, she screamed for my dad to call an ambulance quickly because her water had broken. The entire mattress was soaked with blood.
I was worried about my mom, She was worried that the ambulance attendants had dented the wall of the bedroom.
Cindy was born via caesarean section at the Jewish General Hospital. The operation took several hours. We were later told that people had rarely seen Dr Gelfand in such a sweat during a delivery.
Apparently whoever had delivered me via caesarean section back in Budapest had not put some of the parts back where Dr. Gelfand had expected them to be.
While all this was going on, my father was upstairs pacing back and forth worried about his wife. I was left to my own devices in the lobby because at the time children under 16 were not allowed to visit.
My father finally came downstairs at 3:40 in the morning to say that I had a beautiful baby sister. I did not believe him for a minute. I wanted to see for myself.
I went upstairs to the maternity floor.
“My mother just had a baby. Can I please see my sister?”
“Sorry. No visitors under 16.”
The very same afternoon, just before visiting hours I concocted a plan.
I went into my parents’ bedroom and looked around. One of the first things I noticed was a wig stand.
I put on the wig and looked in the mirror. Hmmm. I looked like Mom but not as pretty. I would need makeup. I had seen Mom applying her makeup many times. It did not look all that difficult to do. A little foundation, some blush, a set of sticky false eyelashes and some red lipstick that she had bought the previous week at Eaton’s.
Now I needed a dress. I chose a yellow one hanging in the closet. There was a black purse on the bureau. I took that as well.
Not bad I thought, but there was still something missing. Of course. Accessories. A string of pearls and some clip-on earrings et voila – I was ready to visit that lovely Mrs. Schnurmacher in the maternity ward.
I tried several pairs of shoes before I finally found a pair of black high heels that fit although they were a bit too tight.
I teetered down the hallway to the kitchen to tell Dad about my plan.
“Have you gone completely out of your mind? What are you doing?
“Do I look like a 14-year-old boy?
“No. You look like a 28-year-old hooker.”
“Exactly. I look 28 so now I can visit Mom and I can get to see my sister.’
“You are out of your mind. I will not be seen walking down the street with you looking like that.”
“You don’t have to be seen with me. I will walk behind you. It’s not easy walking in these heels but I want to see my sister.”
We lived exactly two and half blocks from the hospital and my hapless Dad reluctantly went along with my plan.
I walked into the lobby of the JGH. Not a second glance from anybody except the burly driver of a delivery van parked outside.
I caught up with Dad at the elevators. We rode up together not exchanging a word.
The nurse who had told me that no one under 16 was allowed to visit did not bat an eyelash as I elegantly sauntered past the nurses’ station.
We walked into Mom’s room together. Speaking in Hungarian, she said hello to my father and then she turned to me.
“Miss, I am so sorry but I don’t recognize you. Who do I have the honor of meeti…?
A split second of silence. Then all of sudden, a flash of recognition. and a wide smile..
The patient in the next bed said, “That lady looks like you. Are you related in some way?”
“Oh yes,” said Mom. “We are definitely related. She is my younger sister.”
And that is how I got to see Cindy on the day she was born.
When Mom came home from hospital, Dad helped her upstairs to our third floor apartment but I was the one entrusted with the important task of bringing the baby upstairs.
I would often take Cindy for a walk in the park. I would take her to the Jewish Public Library when it was on the second floor of a building on Decarie Blvd. She would look up at me for reassurance and grab my hand very tightly when the elevator started to move.
I was there when she took her first step. I was there when she called me Toto because she could not say Tommy.
I was there when she was almost 3 years old and rode on my hip to visit Expo 67. Often I was the one who could cheer her up when she was crying.
I was there when she was hospitalized at age 18 with the worst case of manic depression that the emergency room doctor had ever seen. I was there in that same emergency room a few years ago when she was found after having gone missing for 36 hours.
Back in 1984, I was working on a humor book called the Golddiggers: Guide; How to Marry Rich. I was reading her some of my first draft which included some material that was in bad taste. She was the one who was wise enough to tell me to leave it out. I am grateful to her that I did.
Looking through the book this week, on the acknowledgements page, I found this: “A hearty thank you to my stunning kid sister Cynthia, whose sparkling sense of humor kept me in stitches while she patiently relinquished many of our fun times together to give me time to write this book.”
I wish she had not been so patient. I wish she had not relinquished those times together.
I remember when we would go to a bookstore and she would suddenly turn to me and say she was worried.
“Why are you worried, Cindy? “
“I am worried about getting arrested for not looking good in the 90s.”
I was there when they gave her the diagnosis of schizophrenia. I was there when she would hallucinate after refusing to take her many medications.
I was there when she told me that her name was not Cindy and that her new name was Crystal Nacht.
I was there last year when she told me she was going to marry Bill Clinton and that she had 27 children. When I asked her to name them, she did. When I suggested I was upset that none of the 27 ever came to see their uncle, she laughed.
I was there a couple of weeks ago when we went for a walk and she bought me a bracelet for 25 cents.
Whatever time we spent together, it was certainly not enough. Not nearly enough.
I tried to take care of her as best I could. I fervently believe that her sweet innocent soul is now in a place where she will do whatever she can to take care of me.