OVERCOMING ADVERSITY – BY ELLIN CURLEY

The good news is that my son, David, now 37, is an amazing, well-adjusted adult. The bad news is that he had to overcome severe and consistent adversity to get there.

He started life as a preemie. He was born eight and a half weeks early, at 4 pounds 2 ounces, with Hyalin Membrane disease – his lungs weren’t working. At 36 hours old, his lung collapsed and had to be surgically re-inflated. He spent one week on oxygen and six weeks in an incubator before he could come home at 4 pounds 15 ounces. I got to watch his eyebrows and eyelashes grow in!

David and me in the Preemie unit. David is 6 weeks old and out of the incubator.

He had an amazing disposition as a child. He was happy, outgoing and friendly. But he was also hyperactive. He had behavior problems at school from day one. Teachers didn’t know what to do with this delightful kid who couldn’t sit still or keep his mouth shut and was often a distraction to the other kids.

At nine and a half years old, David had a tonsillectomy. The anesthesia didn’t work properly and he woke up during surgery. He was totally paralyzed but he could see and hear everything going on around him! This was a traumatic enough event to trigger PTSD. He was never the same after he came out of that surgery. One child went in and a different child came out. It was that dramatic!

David started getting sick all the time and missed a lot of school. His behavior problems got worse. The private schools in New York City didn’t have the resources, or the interest in dealing with children with ‘issues’. We moved to Connecticut and put the kids into a public school. This school had a Special Ed Department, a school psychologist and a Guidance Counselor , all of whom tried to help David as best they could.

David was diagnosed with ADHD. The only medication of the day for ADHD, Ritalin, had terrible side effects for him so he had to stop taking it. We tried numerous other drugs and therapies and some helped a little but not much.

David was also diagnosed with learning disabilities. And he had mood swings. He could function adequately for a while but then he would crash and not want to get out of bed or go to school. Everything was a struggle for him. His school years were a nightmare for the whole family.He somehow made it through High School, with the highest absentee record his school had ever seen. He went to a wonderful two-year college called Landmark, which is specifically for kids with various learning and behavior problems. For the first time, David was taught how to manage his ADHD and his learning disabilities. He was given the tools to help him handle his work and regulate his behavior. Landmark was a wonderful and transformative experience for David.

At 23, while finishing the remaining two years of college, his kidneys began to fail. He took a year off from school to recuperate. During this time, David taught himself about the stock market and switched his major from education to business. He graduated college and became a financial analyst, and is now also a portfolio manager.

At one point he had to be rushed to the hospital in kidney failure. He was told that his condition was chronic and that his kidneys would continue to fail until he needed a kidney transplant. His kidneys didn’t hit bottom till he was 32. But it was pretty rough on the way down. On April 12, 2012, I donated a kidney to him.

David at 27

Unfortunately, David is still not symptom free. He has side effects from the immune suppressants which all transplant recipients must take to avoid organ rejection. In addition, his kidney is not functioning at full capacity, so he has days when all he can do is sleep.

Fortunately, his attitude is amazingly positive. He is grateful to be alive. He uses every day to fight his demons and make a happy and productive life for himself and his loved ones. He is one of the most self-aware people I know. He had to fight to get here, but the fight itself is part of what has made him into the person he is – caring and empathetic, upbeat and funny, loyal and giving. I could go on and on.

David three years ago, at 34, with me and his sister

He says that he wouldn’t change anything in his life, however awful much of it was. Because that was the path he had to take to get him to the wonderful place he’s in now. I would love to be able to change his past, but I wouldn’t change a thing about who he is now and where he is in life.

LOVE IN THE I.C.U. – BY ELLIN CURLEY

On February 11, 1972, my 88-year-old grandfather was hit by a truck crossing a street in New York City. His left side was smashed and a broken rib punctured his lung. Within 24 hours he was in a coma. My mother, grandmother and I camped out in the waiting room of the I.C.U at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan.

My grandfather

Another family was also spending most of its time in the same waiting room – the Palmers, father mother and younger son, who had Tourette’s Syndrome. Their older son, Jeffrey, 18, had been hit by a car. He was a Julliard student training to become a concert pianist. His pelvis was broken and his leg was fractured in several places. He was also in a coma.

Our two families got very friendly over the next few weeks. My grandfather was declared brain-dead. Jeffrey regained consciousness but was in traction and had a cast up to his thigh. I started visiting him and hanging out in his room.

It’s hard to describe what life is like when you’re living it in a hospital. Your day revolves around doctor’s visits and reports. Every little change in the patient becomes major news. And now we were monitoring two patients, Grandpa and Jeffrey. It is all-encompassing and totally consuming.

Me, my mom and my grandmother

Me, my mother and my grandmother

The good news was that Jeffrey and I hit it off. He was smart and funny and we had a great time talking. He was a bright spot for me at a horribly depressing time. My grandfather was gone but still alive. Our family was in a horrifying limbo. We tried to talk the hospital into letting us disconnect my grandfather from life support.

Jeffrey left the hospital after about four weeks. I stayed in touch with him and his family, who lived on Long Island.

The hospital finally disconnected my grandfather from all life support – and he survived on his own. Everything had healed and he was breathing on his own! The stress caused my mom to go into heart failure. She was hospitalized for a few days in a different hospital.

After six weeks (and withholding of food and water), my grandfather finally died on March 26, 1972. My mother recovered. Shortly after, Jeffrey moved into the city and went back to school, still in a huge cast and on crutches. We began dating.

I was 22 and taking time off before going to law school. When I wasn’t with Jeffrey, I spent most of my time helping my mother sort out my grandfather’s finances. He had left his estate in total chaos. It took at least a year to track down all his assets and get my grandmother settled financially.

Jeffrey and I were together and very much in love for a year and a half. His family loved me and I loved them. I went on a vacation with his whole family to Bermuda. Jeffrey spent time with me and my family at our summer-house in Connecticut. It was a good and happy relationship.

I don’t remember exactly why we broke up. Jeffrey had decided to quit Julliard and was starting college at N.Y.U as a pre-med student. I was leaving soon to go to law school in Washington D.C. The age difference was an issue. But I think the breakup had more to do with Jeffrey’s new found infatuation with Scientology.

We met under strange and dark circumstances. But I have only fond memories of Jeffrey. He got me through a very tough time in my life and he was my first real love. Everyone should have such a wonderful experience with their first love. I was very lucky! And how we met makes such a great story!

MY LASSIE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My first dog was a magnificent collie who looked just like Lassie. Her name was Bitsy and I was four when we got her as a puppy. Everyone thinks their dog is extraordinary, but this dog did some amazing things.

Bitsy as a puppy and me at four

She understood language commands. For example, she was a herding dog so she would chase me around and nip at my heels. All my socks had holes in the back. I think this foot nipping is part of how dogs herd sheep.

Anyway, if I was outside playing, my mother would tell Bitsy to “Go get Ellin” and “Bring her home”. Bitsy would then find me and herd me home, right to my mother. Sometimes I protested and begged Mom to “Tell Bitsy I can stay out a little longer!” Mom would tell Bitsy it was okay and she’d run off or start to play with me.

We also had a cat, named Beauty. Bitsy and Beauty were good buddies, but my mom was terrified of cats. When Mom went outside to visit her mother’s cottage on the property, she was afraid she’d run into the cat. She’d tell Bitsy to “Go find Beauty”. Bitsy would herd the cat to where Mom was standing and ‘hold’ her in place with her long snout. That way Mom knew it was safe to walk across the grounds.

Me at around 5 with Beauty as a kitten

One night, Bitsy performed a very Lassie like rescue. A small fire broke out in the cottage where the caretakers and Bitsy lived. Bitsy kept barking and scratching on the door until someone came and found the growing fire. Bitsy saved two humans, two dogs and a cat.

Bitsy and me when I was 7 or 8

Once in all the years we had her, my father yelled at Bitsy. Dad was her favorite human and she took it badly. She slunk off and lay down on her bed. She went into a deep depression and wouldn’t move or eat for two days. My Dad was getting frantic. Finally he lay down on the floor with her and kept telling her he loved her. Only then did Bitsy get up. She got so excited, she jumped around Dad and did their characteristic ‘dance’ together – she put her paws up on Dad’s shoulders and he danced her around. Dad never forgot that incredible bonding experience. He also never stopped feeling guilty about yelling at her and he never stopped missing her when she was gone.

Bitsy with Dad and me

But we did not do right by Bitsy. My parents didn’t know much about dogs. So they had Bitsy live at our summer-house in Connecticut with the property’s year round caretakers. She was not allowed in our house. On top of that, we were only there for three months in the summer. So Bitsy had my parents, me and my grandparents in her life for one-quarter of the year. The rest of the year she stayed with the caretakers who were paid to take care of her when we weren’t there. They didn’t mistreat her, but they weren’t real pet parents taking care of a beloved pet. She missed us terribly.

Bitsy was justifiably very neurotic. She was a chronic car chaser. Despite two minor accidents with cars, we could not get her to stop. She was eventually killed by a school bus when she was only five years old.

As a dog savvy dog lover now, I’m horrified that my parents would treat an animal that way, especially one who they supposedly loved. But to them, it was ‘inconvenient’ to have a dog in a New York City apartment. Mom didn’t want a dog shedding all over the house. So why didn’t she get a low shedding dog? So this was how we did things.

Bitsy with me, my parents and my grandparents, her whole family

I’ve never stopped feeling guilty about Bitsy, even though I was just a kid at the time. I was nine when she died. To add to the trauma of Bitsy’s death, my parents were afraid to tell me she was dead, so they waited eight months and only told me when we were due to go back to Connecticut for the summer. They lied to me for eight months when I asked about Bitsy throughout the year — which made me feel even worse!

I have to give Bitsy major credit for making me into the good, conscientious, sensitive and knowledgeable pet parent I am today. So all the dogs I’ve had since Bitsy owe her a debt of gratitude. I never want to feel guilty about how I treated a pet ever again!

MY DAD AND HIS MUSIC – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My father, Abram Kardiner, was a well-known, well-respected psychoanalyst and anthropologist. He wrote many books, founded professional training programs and taught as a professor. But his real love was music. Listening to it, playing it, studying it.

My dad loved opera and classical music above all else. Opera blared throughout the house on his stereo every weekend. (P.S. I hate opera and always have!). He went to the opera and to concerts often and knew all the scores by heart. His favorite composer was Richard Wagner. He had a running debate with a friend over who was a greater composer, Wagner or Mozart.

But he was not a music snob. He listened to all kinds of music. He admired Broadway and popular music and he saw something in every musical style (rap had not been invented yet). He particularly liked the Beatles. He thought Paul McCartney was a genius and compared some of his melodies to Mozart’s.

In addition to listening to music, my father could also play musical instruments. He played the piano well and the violin adequately. But he had perfect pitch. He had the unusual ability to hear something and then be able to play it. He could go to an opera or a Broadway musical and come home and play most of the score on the piano. Without sheet music. Just from memory. It was awesome. I could play him anything and he could reproduce it for me on the piano!

But Dad could definitely read music. He was also well versed in music theory and had thought about becoming a conductor. One night I saw him in bed with a very large book. I asked him what he was reading. He turned the book around to show me and he was sight-reading the musical score of Tristan and Isolde. He was conducting along with his right hand as he held the book with his left.

Dad developed a relationship with some people from Julliard, the primo music school in New York City. We would regularly have musicales in our home. Dad would invite people over to listen to a private concert given by a Julliard student on our Steinway baby grand piano. He nurtured several pianists over the years.

Dad accomplished another extraordinary musical feat. When he was young, he actually MADE two violins. He taught himself how, he got the wood and the tools and created two violins from scratch! Good ones too.

Violins need to be played to keep their tone. So Dad loaned his violins to Julliard violinists to play. The violins had to be pretty good for Julliard students to play them. Often the violinists would come over and play with the pianist at one of our musical evenings. On one of Dad’s violins!

One of the things my dad regretted most in his life had to do with one of his violins. He felt it needed a minor adjustment in sound. So he took it to a violin maker and asked him to shave off just a sliver of wood from the center. The man shaved too much and, in my father’s eyes, ruined the tonal quality of the violin. It was still good, but no longer special. Dad never stopped obsessing over that mistake.

I took piano lessons as a child. I was good and I had my father’s great ear. But this was the area where I decided to rebel against my parents. The more they wanted me to play, the more I didn’t. I rejected music and eventually refused to practice the piano. My parents gave up on me when I was about nine. I later took clarinet briefly in school and took a year or two of guitar lessons as a teenager. But basically, I’m a musical dolt. I can’t play anything and I can’t read music.

Dad and me

Now I regret this deeply. I love music (though not opera) and listen all the time. It’s just frustrating to think that I could really play the piano if I hadn’t been such a child, when I was a child!

LIFE WITH FATHER – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I had a very strange and strained relationship with my father. In his defense, he was 59 when I was born and newly married, for the first time. He had been a confirmed bachelor, living alone, for a long, long time.

Then suddenly he had a young wife of 33 and a child. Culture shock on all fronts. To his discredit, he never really tried to become more child-oriented and he never reached out to me at the various stages of my life. My Dad and Mom adored each other and had a wonderful relationship. But Mom could never get him to change his ways with me.

Dad played the piano for me a lot through my childhood.

Dad was a practicing psychoanalyst, a teacher and a published writer in his field. He lived in an intellectual ivory tower and was totally absorbed in his intellectual pursuits. That left little room for me. He would often walk by me in the hallway and not see me or acknowledge me. On other days, the only thing he would say to me was, “Where’s your mother?”

He also yelled a lot. He yelled out of anxiety rather than anger and was never mean or demeaning to anyone. Nevertheless, because of his aloofness combined with his yelling, I was scared of him. I usually didn’t want to be alone with him so my Mom had to be an intermediary between us. This made Dad feel hurt and rejected by me and created a vicious circle.

Me and my parents when I was 11

When I was about nine, my mom finally decided that we had to confront one another. She insisted that I tell my dad, to his face, that I didn’t like it when he yelled. I was frightened, but I did it. I’ll never forget my dad’s response: “Do I yell?” Dad then proposed that whenever he yelled, I should tell him he was yelling and then tell him to stop. It didn’t really reduce the yelling, but it reduced the tension between us and banished my fear of him. After that, whenever he yelled, I just yelled back.

Our relationship was epitomized by our dinnertime ritual. Both parents worked at home, as therapists. Dad always got out of work for dinner before my mom did. So we would sit at the dinner table, each at opposite ends, waiting for my mom. In silence. As soon as Mom arrived, we would all begin talking. Our conversations were lively, interesting and often filled with laughter. Both parents were interested in what I was doing and what I thought about whatever we were discussing. But the conversation was rarely between just me and my dad.

Me and Dad when I was around 22

When I got old enough to have serious intellectual conversations about history, current events, anthropology, etc., my dad and I had many on-on-one exchanges. One summer during high school, I read books on ancient Egypt and Dad and I shared many conversations on that topic. In high school, I started helping my Mom edit Dad’s writing. That provoked some heated discussions,

When I moved away from home, our phone conversations were short and stilted. We’d say, “Hello. How are you?” and then usually Dad would say “Here’s your mother” and turn the phone over to her.

Mom and Dad when Dad was in his late 70’s

My dad cared about me and worried about me a lot. He just shared all this with my mother, not with me directly. Mom would report to me about what my father thought about what was going on in my life. We would have three-way conversations when I had serious issues and Dad would be attentive and insightful. This only made it more painful to me that we could only have these conversations when my mother was present.

I realize now that in many ways, my dad was more in tune with me than my mom was. He was also usually more likely to say, “Let her do it her way. Don’t push her.” My mom was more controlling and had a fixed idea of what my life should be.

My favorite picture of Dad in his prime

The last thing my dad said to me before he died, was, “What did I do to deserve a daughter like you? I didn’t deserve you.” I replied, “You’re right. But I love you anyway.” I guess for us, that was a form of closure.

LONG DISTANCE FRIENDSHIP – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I have been close friends with Christine for 46 years. We met in 1971. What is unusual about this friendship is that we live 3000 miles apart – she in London and me in New York City, then Connecticut. It hasn’t been easy maintaining our friendship through all those miles and all those years. But it has been one of my most cherished and long-lived relationships.

We met when I was in London in 1971. I was 22. We spent a few days together and just hit it off. We wrote to each other regularly when I returned home. We even planned a six-month bus trip across the U.S. starting in April of 1972.

Christine and me in 1974, ages 25 and 27

On February 11, 1972, my 88-year-old grandfather was hit by a truck in New York City. Within twenty-four hours, he was brain-dead. But he stayed alive, technically, for six more weeks. He died on March 26, 1972. My mom went into heart failure from the stress. In addition, my grandfather had left his considerable estate in a state of total chaos. I decided to stay home to help my Mom and Grandma recover and put grandpa’s financial and legal affairs in order.

Christine went on the planned trip without me. She stayed with me for a week at the beginning and a week at the end of her travels. That solidified our connection. We stayed in touch by mail after she returned to England.

In 1974, my fiancée, Larry, and I went to England and France on our pre-wedding honeymoon (it’s a long story). We spent time in Bath, England, with Christine and her fiancée, Jeremy, or Jay. Larry and I were married in September of 1974 and Christine and Jay were married in December. We became a foursome until Larry and I separated in 1998.

Christine and Jay had their first child in 1979 and I had mine in 1980. As our families expanded, each adding a daughter, we saw each other every year or year and a half, either in England or in the U.S. Our kids grew up together and view each other, to this day, as extended family.

Christine and me with my second child in 1985

When our kids were two, six, seven, and eight, all of us rented a large canal boat (which is like a narrow, steel houseboat), and drove around the countryside of England for a week. It was a memorable vacation, one of many trips we’ve taken together as couples and with our children, throughout the years.

Our four kids on the canal boat trip, ages 2, 6, 7 & 8

In some ways, I feel closer to Christine and her family than I do to my local friends. That’s because when we do spend time together, it’s long, consolidated periods of time, usually spent in each other’s homes. I know what her kids like for breakfast (dry cereal, no milk for her son). She knows where everything is in my kitchen. Living together is a bonding experience, especially with young children. It secures emotional ties on a different level than having dinner with neighborhood friends.

My daughter, 9 and Christine’s kids, 13 & 14

My mother also doted on Christine and her children. She became a part of their lives too and the kids called her their ‘American Grandmother’.

We have been to each others’ big family events, on both sides of the Atlantic; a Bat Mitzvah and two weddings in the states, including mine to Tom in 2002, and two weddings in London. I’m Facebook friends with Christine’s daughter-in-law and see photos of her grandchildren all the time. Christine and I still talk on the phone and via email regularly these days. I’m sure that will continue forever.

My family with Christine and Jay at Sarah’s Bat Mitzvah in 1998

We don’t share day-to-day memories through the years. We didn’t regularly pick up kids at school together or have girls’ night every month. Yet the memories we share and the ties we’ve forged have been strong, deep, and lasting. Also enriching and rewarding. Christine is the closest thing to a sister I’ve ever had and I’m forever grateful she is in my life, even long-distance.

Christine and me at my wedding to Tom in 2002

TOM AND REMY , A MAN AND HIS DOG – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My husband has a new woman in his life. She is our new puppy, Remy. She is fast becoming a Daddy’s Girl.

She gets into bed at night and has a ritual snuggle with Tom. This involves lots of licks and cuddles. It continues until Remy stops swatting Tom with her paw, which is whenever he stops petting her.

Remy’s morning routine involves greeting Tom like he’s been away for days. She licks him, jumps around excitedly, making sure he pets and scratches every part of her. Ears – Check! Belly – Check! Butt – Check!

As we progress through the day, Remy will reach a point when she starts to whine at Tom. It’s a kind of high-pitched screech that sounds like a sick bird. At first Tom didn’t know what she wanted from him. She only whines at Tom, almost never at me. At first, he took her outside. That didn’t seem to satisfy her. He tried all sorts of things until he hit upon a game she loves.

It’s called “Run Around The House.” Tom first runs around the sofa in the family room, with both dogs in hot pursuit. Then he runs around the island in the kitchen, occasionally switching directions to spice things up. By now the dogs are yelping and barking and skidding on the wood floors trying to keep up with Tom. Then Tom runs from room to room.

After a few minutes of this, everyone is exhausted (mostly Tom) and happy (all of them). So now Tom knows what to do when Remy gets bored. It works every time!

Our other dog, Lexi, is my shadow. She loves Tom, but follows me everywhere. Tom was hoping that Remy would be a little more his dog. He’s got his wish.

He’s putty in her paws.