I Should Have Borne Witness

 

NadineIMG_3178We arrived in Manhattan early yesterday morning for a two week stay in the city we love, hail from, and often miss, though we’ve lived in North Carolina for 23 years now. As is typical for us in our New York forays, we walk. I don’t mean a little walk, but I mean we often cover 10-15 or more miles a day in our constant fascination of and love for this city and its crazy excitement.

 

So on our first day here we basked in the beautiful path along the Hudson River near the apartment we are renting in Tribeca. We chuckled at the children in the playground and marveled at the segregation of nanny/baby/stroller groups and mommy/baby/stroller groups. I was unaware of this line of division, but now I know.

 

We spent a lot of time in Tribeca Whole Foods, both eating delicious items from the food bars and stocking up for the next day’s breakfast. As is typical for me, I also spend a lot of time staring. I do this unconsciously but I am so taken with some artsy look, or fashionista, cute kiddo, crazy hairdo, public political rant, street side music, acrobatic subway rider, etc. I am not subtle about this and I know it can be an obnoxious trait of mine as I sometimes stop dead and stare. People completely fascinate me in every way and I suppose it is also why friends and family feel I am always asking far to many questions. I really want to know. I really do care.

 

We’d arranged to meet my dearest and lifelong friend for dinner on our first night here. We ate decent Indian food and caught up on our kids, our travels and at our age – our latest minor injuries and recoveries as well. I have known Nadine since I was three years old, growing up in public housing in the East New York section of Brooklyn. We played dolls together for hours, sewed doll clothes, created families in my metal doll house, traded plastic charms, created and donned Halloween costumes, spent hours sledding in the abandoned lots of our neighborhood, spent days playing Monopoly, Careers, and Parcheesi, Skelly, Girls Are, Ringo Leevio, eating Mr. Softee ice cream, street food knishes, and Carvel on special days. We celebrated every birthday together and I glimpsed my first lights of Chanukah as she helped to trim my Christmas tree. I played “church” with her where I was the priest and she received “Necco wafer communion!” We knew each others’ siblings well and in my case, she knew my mother’s craziness like no other outsider.

 

I attended Nadine’s kid’s bar mitzvahs and weddings and she attended the one wedding in my family. On one fateful trip to New York many years ago, we made a point of stopping to visit her on our way out to Southampton with our four kids, the youngest of whom was two. We had a nice chicken dinner with Nadine and her family and my youngest, Gregory left handprints all over her mirrored dining room walls. We headed out east and dove into what would become the nightmare of our lives as our youngest child drowned the next day. Nadine was there at that awful funeral as well. A year later she gave us the money to build a memorial garden at our church where the ashes of my son remain today. Suffice to say, I have so much love for this sweet friend of mine that I was most grateful to spend last night with her and her dear husband.

 

We left each other at Grand Central and Shep and I decided to walk some more headed into an impromptu concert in Bryant Park and then the sheer, non-stop chaos of Times Square. It is such complete and utter overload there and I was most taken by the unbelievable amount of Selfie taking going on. We moved along into the subway to head to Chambers Street. Oddly, I was on the New Lots line (except it’s been changed from number two train to three??) and New Lots Ave. was my stop when I lived in the projects!

 

We got off at our stop and started our walk to the apartment. My feet were done now, really done so I was anxious to end walking when I noticed a small sofa under some scaffold on a corner in the dark. There lay a small black woman with pink glasses and it appeared that a standing young white woman carrying a canvas bag was holding her hand. On closer look, I felt that she was checking the pulse of the woman laying on sofa and it made me think of the stunning Netflix series, “Jackie” that I’d watched. Shep urged me to move on. I did not want to and I should have said, “No” and stopped to ask if I could help. He said, “What do you think you’re going to do?” I didn’t know, but I wanted to do something, call someone, say something. We crossed the wide street and as I crossed the street, I froze, refusing to walk another step. On a corner a block away I saw the flashing lights of an ambulance. “Why don’t they go and help?” I asked Shep. “They have their own emergency to take care of” he responded. A fire engine roared down the busy side street and I hoped it was to help this scene. They stopped their truck and slowly walked out. Four NYFD guys sauntering over in no rush. One appeared to have gloves on and checked for breathing by holding his hand at the mouth of the victim. No one offered oxygen. No one did CPR. No one did anything at all. The young woman still stood there and in time, she began walking away. One of the firefighters went to the truck, got out a big long piece of white plastic and laid it over the woman. She was dead and this was her tribute.

 

I insisted that we cross over and catch up with the young woman who was running and talking on her phone. I asked, “Are you okay? You did something wonderful, so sweet, so caring. What a good thing you did.” She was crying, “They were so gross. Those men. She was naked, had no pants on. They did nothing. They flapped her hands around. They did nothing. They were gross, just gross.” She cried on and walked on, wanting no comfort from me or anything else. I suppose the thing she needed most was to go home and be held by someone, anyone.

 

I am unforgiving of myself this morning. I could not sleep well thinking about this over and over. I did not do right. I should have held the hand of the hand helping the poor, dead woman. I should have knelt and prayed. I should have said kind words to the dying or already dead woman reminding her that she had once been someone’s beautiful newborn and that in her life she had made a difference somehow, sometime in some way. Maybe she was someone’s mother or sister or wife and certainly, she was someone’s child and always a child of God and my sister.

 

We behaved like the classic, stereotypical New Yorkers and walked on by a scene that looked like one from the bible. We are called upon to care and to love in the most wretched, dirty, likely drug filled moments. Still we are called upon to care.

 

 

 

 

 

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Miriam Labbok

Miriam Labbok mch_cgbi10th_labbok-912x608

Some women, some people can fight anything. They are big, strong, brilliant souls, probably raised by parents who infused them with self- confidence and a belief that they were “good enough” no matter what and in most cases, “better than.” Nothing seems to stop them and on they go as the rest of us mortals watch in awe and embarrassment for not being nearly as strong. The one thing that does seem to stop most mortal beings in this time we live in however, is cancer. This unstoppable, despicable disease is thwarted by no one, no matter how brilliant, courageous, strong, wealthy, or beautiful.

 

I remember the first time I met Miriam Labbok. She’d relocated from New York to North Carolina to join the Global Institute for Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill and begin a breastfeeding initiative. She moved from an apartment near the United Nations on the Upper East Side in New York, a location I’d coveted for years.

 

At first glance I saw the credentials this woman held that looked more or less like this:

Miriam H Labbok, MD, MPH, IBCLC, FACPM, FABM, FILCA

Founding Professor, Emeritus Professor and Emeritus Director, Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute (CGBI)

           Founder, Past President and Board Member, Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine

           Board Member, World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action

           WHO Collaborating Centre on Sexual and Reproductive Health

           WHO BFHI External Working Group

           Co-Host, Breastfeeding and Feminism International

Department of Maternal and Child Health, Gillings School of Global Public Health

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

 

Next, I listened to her conference presentation on the status of global breastfeeding and the implications of low breastfeeding rates. I was completely star-struck. There was a celebrity in my midst, one who had been scooped from New York and her work with the United Nations to turn the state of North Carolina into a leader in lactation. This costly investment was made possible by an “anonymous donor,” and included hiring Mary Rose Tully as Miriam’s colleague. The Dream Team.

 

Before I ever digested her credentials, I knew she was brilliant not only in my own field but in her knowledge of worldwide children’s nutrition beginning with breastfeeding. I ran up to her after her talk and introduced myself followed by, “I want to work for you. I will do anything. I will clean your floors if need be. Anything to be around you and learn from you.” Miriam laughed that flattery off. But then I went on, “However, I’m wondering how you could leave such a fabulous New York neighborhood for Chapel Hill, North Carolina?” She laughed again and said she liked it here. She thought North Carolina was a wonderful place to live and in many ways it is, but it is NOT the Upper East Side of New York.

 

Over the years, Miriam Labbok teamed with Mary Rose Tully were a powerful force in lactation. I’d known Mary for a long time as my friend and my mentor and held her in high esteem. Miriam and Mary were movers and shakers that included human milk banking, baby friendly hospital initiative, Ban the Bags campaign, cultural and racial disparities in lactation, natural birth control methods, promoting and protecting breastfeeding, and dozens of other presentations, well researched studies and articles and more.

 

When Mary Rose discovered she had pancreatic cancer, all were devastated and I recall being in a session with Miriam when Mary called her from the hospital. “What’s happening to Mary?” I asked. “I’m so concerned.” Miriam responded with disgust, “they don’t know what the hell their doing.” I asked her to explain and she being a doctor herself said, “these damned doctors haven’t a clue.”

 

Shortly after, I found myself in The Cathedral in downtown Raleigh at Mary Rose’s funeral. It was a heartbreaking event for the community, her friends, and her family. Miriam sat next to me. “The Bread of Life” hymn completely undoes me. It was the hymn at both funerals (in NY and in NC) for my two-year old son in 1995. At Mary’s funeral I began to shake uncontrollably hearing that hymn. Miriam held me tightly and asked, “What is it?” I told her and she kept on holding me throughout the music. What a gift of compassion that I will always remember.

 

Several years ago, Miriam decided to launch a conference called, “Breastfeeding and Feminism,” held in Greensboro, NC. I went to the very first one and though it was a smallish crowd, it was an intriguing concept and subject. I was impressed enough to attend for many years, sometimes thinking that these conferences were more academic than boots on the ground, but always enlightening, nonetheless and offered plenty of inspiration for thought and action.

 

When my small Episcopal Church launched a campaign to end world hunger, I boldly invited Miriam to come and speak to the congregation. In hindsight, that was a pretty gutsy move but I don’t think I fully realized the extent of her notoriety. It was an awkward morning as I remember where she spoke of breastfeeding and its impact along with describing “the sweet taste of breastmilk,” etc. I remember thinking, ”Oh boy, this talk might be way more than this group needs. What have I done?” I wondered if Miriam felt the same, but nevertheless it was a generous gift of her time and knowledge that she gave to me and to others on a summer Sunday and I was grateful.

 

At another Breastfeeding and Feminism conference in Chapel Hill, I arrived early and met a woman named Agustina in the lobby. We chatted and she mentioned that she would be speaking later on. When I asked about her name, she shared with me that she was from Argentina. I did not realize she was the speaker when I chose to attend a session on Mother-to-Mother Milk Sharing. Miriam walked into the room, noticed I was sitting in the front row (which I tend to do) and sat next to me giving me a big hug and kiss. Miriam and I were both stunned with Agustina teaching us about casual milk sharing. However, when the session ended and Agustina adjusted the baby on her back I remember Miriam went up to her and began encouraging her to pursue further education. That concerned me in a way because I felt she was so perfect as is! I sometimes felt that Miriam placed great importance on the number of letters and designations that follows one’s name, so this left me wondering. However, I now come to find out that this young woman was in fact so inspired by that comment, she has pursued her masters degree! It worked for her, though it would have been crushing for me! However, in a recent essay, this woman goes on to say she still feels much racial disparity and wondered why on that day and on all days, she was not invited to “sit at the same table as Miriam and all of her white colleagues.” I wonder too as I am sure that Miriam would never have intended any racial disparity.

 

Once at a Christmas party at Mary Tully’s home Miriam had a date with her and he was a good-looking, nice guy. I was excited about her being in a relationship but when we spoke a few months later, she said, “Nah, didn’t work out. Not my type.” “Too bad,” I thought. We saw her almost every year at the magnificent Cary Christmas party that we looked forward. No dates then either. She didn’t marry or have children but worked non-stop most of her life, changing and saving other children’s lives worldwide. It seems to work that way so much of the time.

 

Over the years Miriam’s greetings to me ran hot and cold. I never knew when I would see her at a conference if she’d be happy to see me or not and at times, she was slightly dismissive if she was engaged in conversation when I walked by. Sometimes, I gave up offering robust and warm greetings, fearing I’d be disappointed and yet I know that is my own insecurity, my own misread cues of others immersed in another conversation and not ready to greet me. It seemed though that when I paid less attention to Miriam, she then paid more to me, so I thought I had it figured out! I never was a big enough name or fame for the caliber Miriam mostly hung with. But, that’s okay because I’m out in the field doing the real hands on work with one mom, one baby (sometimes two!) at a time. Oddly, just last summer at the hotel in D.C. she asked me to join her at the bar with recent grads of the Mary Rose Tully Training Initiative to discuss their experiences as newbie lactation consultants. I just never knew.

 

Today is a different day though. Today I head to Miriam’s memorial service in a synagogue in Durham, NC. Today there will be no Miriam hugs, no brilliant conversation, or new piece of research. Miriam is silenced, having suffered through months of agony for sure. She leaves behind hundreds, possibly thousands of us who each take a part of what she taught us and we carry on with Miriam in our hearts and our souls and in the babies who will benefit from her research and power forever.

 

 

Hours later…. I have returned from a deeply touching memorial service for Miriam. Yes, lots of colleagues were there and yes, there were babies nursing and cooing. There were mentees galore, all so grateful for the guidance they’d gotten from Miriam that set them on the course they’re on.

 

But it was much more than that. The rabbi was eloquent and sensitive in this beautiful temple of curved pews and blue mosaic glass that looked like the sea. The soft music before the service began included “Imagine” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Yesterday,” all of which caused tears to flow. But here’s the thing, no one stood up to share Miriam’s accomplishments or research or professional impact. We’d all lived and read about that. Instead, her five closest friends from college who’d shared their lives for 50 years, her sister, and her cousins all came forward to share who Miriam was and that was the part I did not know. I learned more about who she was during this hour-long memorial and that was what I needed to learn. She was kind and sweet, she was funny and extremely committed to relationships she had with those who loved her and who she loved deeply. I needed to know that she and her sister had traveled everywhere together. I needed to know, ponder, and picture Miriam and her small friend having had an audience with the Pope in the Vatican (described as two little Jewish women meeting with the Pope!) As her end drew near, her brain could not find words and these women were so close for so long that they could help her find the words to express the thought she needed to! Imagine that, just imagine how wonderful a gift that it. She wanted to say, “I love you.” She worried that others would forget her but was reassured that that would never happen. Her older sister said that for most of their lives, Miriam acted in the role of older sister until these last few months when Dottie took back her role of older sister and directed Miriam through her final weeks. Over the years my sister and I have adjusted our roles that way as well.

 

I barely held it together, touched so deeply by the love in the room until the rabbi strummed and sang, “Hallelujah,” That is the song that reduces the best of us to a puddle and so it did, so it did. But Miriam was not there this time to hold me tight.

 

I chatted with old friends and colleagues in the lobby afterwards, hugging and being hugged. We are all older and we’ve been around for awhile now and time is passing. I walked out into the blazing heat of North Carolina but I stood for a moment feeling the heat, looking at the sun in the Carolina blue sky, trying to be as alive as possible for this moment in this day because life is racing by me and I can hardly keep up, always so afraid to lose anyone I love, as well as meet my own end of life. Travails, suffering, love, joy, carpe diem, work, impact, making a difference, being humble, offering gratitude, holding those we love close. It is all we can do and all we can hope for. Fairwell to one of the smartest, gutsiest women I ever knew, Dr. Miriam Labbok.