It’s common practice for doctors to document a family history of medical problems. This can be useful information to diagnose presenting symptoms and to identify health issues to which we could be genetically predisposed. So, with this theme in mind, I’m sharing an excerpt from a short story titled “Michagas,” which I wrote many years ago. For those who are unfamiliar with the meaning of the word, it describes a certain ‘craziness’ that is indigenous to Jews.
“Is there a history of digestive orders in your family?” the doctor asked.
I told him my father’s adage. “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all. In my next life I want to come back as a more honest person.” He and I have known a moment of truth in this life.
We were seated at the dining room table, he at his place and I at mine. The empty chair between us belonged to my sister. To the right of me was my brother’s chair, uninhabited. To the right of my brother’s place at the table was my mother’s chair, also vacant. I looked around the table. It was just my father and I.
I said, “It must be hard to be a parent and have children—who by the mere fact that they’re your offspring– means you have to love them.” It was not a direct route in search of the truth. He was a man who did not go straight to the facts or, for that matter, drive the same route twice. He took side streets so he knew what I was asking. How could a parent not love a child?
“My father has a duodenal ulcer,” I told the doctor.
My mother’s place at the table, between my father and brother, is nearest to the kitchen. In her place, she gets up and down without disturbing anyone. My mother said, “You never regret what you don’t say.” A long sigh usually followed her words, which I interpreted to mean she longed for another chance. What was it she that regretted not saying—and to whom?
I tell the doctor, “My mother is being treated for a peptic ulcer.”
My brother has a way with words– it translates into dollars. I believe he counts his money every day. He’s often told me, “I tell people what they want to hear to get what I want. It’s business, not personal.”
I wonder, what does he want?
He admits that a cup of coffee and a roll of Tums helps to fuel his drive.
My sister, without fail, prefaces what she has to say with “the truth is.” I ask myself if all first born feel the pressure to achieve with such exactitude
I tell the doctor, “My sister has a hiatal hernia.”
I don’t say what I want to say. So, what is it lurking beneath? I want to say that whether or not it’s true is not the issue. It’s not a matter of right or wrong. What’s most important is that you tell your truth from your lived experience.
The doctor places pen to paper. He draws a rendering of a stomach. I see a shape that bears an ever so slight resemblance to a Brancusi. Or, is it an Arp sculpture? I think— labeled– it no longer passes for art. What does he think?
He says, “I’d say there is a history of digestive disorders in your family.”
I say there is a lot of Mishagas.
The truth is hard to swallow.