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The Plagues Come All Year Round—And There Are Way More Than Four Questions

For World AIDS Day, a doctor, her daughters, their late dad, and his work in Africa

Marjorie S. Rosenthal
December 01, 2014
Jordi Play/Flickr
Jordi Play/Flickr
Jordi Play/Flickr
Jordi Play/Flickr
This article is part of AIDS and the Jewish Community.
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It was Passover and, like our ancestors before us, we were traveling. We would arrive at my mother’s apartment late on Friday night, in time to help with Saturday’s set up. My mother has her big family Seder on whichever Saturday night falls within the eight days of Passover. She started this not when she had school-age children and we had to wake up early for school the next day, but when she had school-age grandchildren who—with the new tradition—do not have to wake up early for school the next day. I got out of work later than I had hoped, so it was dark. Headlights were glaring into my middle-aged eyes. As soon as we got in the car, I was ready to be at my mother’s—to have her care for us in all the ways she does—including, undoubtedly, with leftovers from the meal we missed.

To pass the time, 13-year-old Maya suggested we listen to a RadioLab podcast called “Blood.” She and I have a symbiotic relationship around podcasts in the car. She, the digital native, can set up my phone so podcasts are played through the car’s speakers, and I, the digital immigrant, pay the phone bill and keep the car trudging. She read the description of “Blood,” and she and her 10-year-old sister agreed to listen to it. My eyes focused on the road, I agreed as well.

At first, it escaped me that we were about to hear a podcast named for one of the plagues.

First we heard about theatrical blood. We learned that Shakespeare used a lot of blood—it was his metaphor for humanity. On stage, they used real animal blood, picked up at the slaughterhouse on the way to the theater. We learned about blood experiments in 1600s England—where scientists tried to figure out if transfusing blood would also transfuse character traits.

Then there came a chapter in the podcast—and in hindsight I should’ve been ready for it—about the blood-related plague of the 20th century, HIV. Maya, in the front seat, kept hitting the pause button (who knew we had a pause button in the car?), and both girls peppered me with questions.

“What is HIV?”

“Who gets it?”

“Can you get it from kissing someone? Hugging? Sharing a soda?”

No. No. No. You have to have sex with someone or somehow share their blood.

I know people who swear by the in-car intense conversations with their tween-age or teenage children. All the parties facing forward, there is no risk of misinterpreting someone’s facial expressions or body language. The embarrassing can be discussed. But this is not what we usually do. Maya and Elina know where babies come from. I am a pediatrician. I taught them all the real words for their body parts. We had discussed sex, miscarriage, abortion, rape, and prostitution. But for all of those conversations, I was facing them, the lights were on, and I had embodied my most-understanding-self for the occasion.

“Can you be born with HIV?”


And then in a small part of my brain, I remembered that I knew someone—knew someone very well—who studied how to reduce transmission of HIV from mother to fetus. And in that split second, with truck headlights staring me down, the GPS telling me I had to bear right in three-tenths of a mile—even though the highway appeared to be the same road for 30 more miles—in that split second I wondered if my daughters also knew this person I was thinking about. This person who did this research. I shifted lanes, I passed the three-tenths of a mile marker—which, in fact, was no marker at all but quieted down the GPS—and with clarity—I remembered that it was their father, who had died 10 years before, who did the research, who planned to dedicate his career to improving the lives of very sick children.

I was struck by that small blip in my brain that could not remember who had done this research—is that what happens after 10 years of grief? Is it somehow protective? Is it related to that part of my brain that still sometimes forgets he is dead? Where I still—though less and less—have an experience and think, “I need to tell Amal about that.” Things like: Elina looks like you with her glasses on. Maya’s got your sense of humor. I know why you adored your friend Amanda. You were right, the home-run heroes were on steroids.

I kept my eyes on the road but my heart was both far, far away and filled in this car.

What I said: Yes, you can be born with HIV. Daddy was trying to figure out how to decrease the number of babies who are born with it. He was in Uganda, taking care of mommies and babies and working in a lab. He and the team he worked with were trying to make sure that if a pregnant woman had HIV, she could take medicine so her baby would not have HIV.

And then what I didn’t say: He would be so proud of you and your inquisitive minds. He wanted to make the world a better place for you and all children.

And then, as in so many moments in 10 years of grieving for Amal, the grief was mine and not the girls’. They moved on. The podcast moved on. They wanted more information on HIV. They wanted to know about intravenous drugs. But I was still thinking about Amal.

I wanted to tell them that he went to Kampala to make children’s lives better, but for other reasons as well. He wanted to leave Western medicine for a while. He wanted an adventure. His parents emigrated from New Delhi to Minneapolis and could not imagine why anyone, especially one of their sons, would choose to live among less-reliable electricity and water supply. I wanted to tell them so much.

For 10 years I had been telling Amal stories to the girls. Age-appropriate, Common Sense Media-approved stories about his ability to make people feel welcome, or how excited he was when each of them was born. Or stories straight out of some madcap sitcom that start: “When your dad decided to re-do the electricity in our bedroom the day I went into labor…” They loved the stories and would re-tell them.

We got off the highway and away from the glaring headlights. The more diffuse lights of the city were warm and embracing. I could feel the tension decrease in my arms and legs.

For 10 years I had been hoping there would be people regaling the girls with Amal stories. The stories did come, little by little. At a lull in a family event. In a birthday email. But I wanted more.

In the car that night, I wondered if what I want is for the girls to hear more stories about him as a nuanced adult. Maybe I have shared too much of a PBS version of him. My mind wandered to the night that juxtaposes my Liz Lemon-like dating skills with how different a white, Jewish girl and a brown, Hindu guy interpreted their meeting. When we were introduced at a party, I thought it was the second time we met, and Amal thought it was the first. Amal said, “Nice to meet you,” and I said, “Nice to see you again.” Amal raised one eyebrow at me (which I cannot do but both our daughters can) and I followed with, “We have met. You got new glasses.” The old glasses were large, maroon, and round; these were 1960s United Nations. He flushed, acknowledged the new glasses, and we started talking. Months later Amal confessed that he had assumed I was just another white girl confusing him for some other brown guy. My memory of the new glasses probably won me a conversation that night. But when Amal described growing up aware that every interaction could be a racial interaction, I realized that when I thought I was being assertive and cute, he saw insensitivity. His honesty about my comment—and so many others I had yet to make—started the process of my learning what it might be like to raise our Hin-Jew daughters.

And then I realized that to show Amal as an imperfect adult was to show myself as one as well.

We were getting close to my mother’s apartment, and the podcast was winding down. I caught the last few minutes of it. The question the podcast was posing had nothing to do with blood as a plague. The podcast seemed to be asking if blood is the true essence of who we are. Determining our character and our spirit. Or is blood just biology—red cells, white cells, and platelets? Which might mean that who we are—and who we are remembered as—is a process determined by our actions and those with whom we intimately interact.

As we pulled into the parking lot, I remembered that, for many Jews, the Seder was over, while for us the matzo-ball soup was still cold and the afikomen was yet to be hidden. My mother’s changing the Seder to the weekend for the grandchildren—but never for her children—reminded me that there is always a chance to do better.

It was late. I was hungry. We parked, and I took our baggage out of the car. The three of us walked toward my mother’s apartment building, and I wondered if I was ready to start sharing stories with my daughters about my imperfect self.

Marjorie S. Rosenthal is pediatrician living with her daughters and dog in the New Haven neighborhood of Westville, where many people who never met her deceased husband, know a story or two about him.

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