Excerpt from Anatomy of Betrayal—A Memoir
A Man of the People (San Francisco. 1971)
My father was a family doctor in San Francisco’s Mission District. He liked to tell us that his job was to bring life into the world and then help alleviate the pain of it leaving. His eyes shone clear when he talked about being a doctor and he loved to tell me and my brother stories about when he first came to America for his medical internship and residency without speaking a word of English, with only a hundred borrowed dollars in his pocket. We never tired of hearing how he lived on nuts and cheese and worked day and night to “make it” as a doctor.
Immigrating by boat, my father arrived in New York Harbor in the spring of 1957. He was a self-described “ladies man” and on his trip across the Atlantic he met a wealthy woman who invited him to her house in Connecticut before he traveled to San Francisco for the start of his fellowship. As they arrived at her estate and pulled through the grand iron fence a bronze plaque screamed, “Jews, Blacks, Dagos Need Not Come Here.” Feeling his eyes, the woman apologized, “But what excuse could she give me that I would be stupid enough to believe,” my dad said.
“What did you do, Daddy? Did you leave?” I asked. “Of course not. She was blonde, blue-eyed, and rich,” he said. “Of course, I stayed. Do you think your Dad is stupid?” he laughed.
The story I pleaded for most was the story of his first American Christmas party. As my dad told it, it was the end of the month. His Fulbright stipend all spent, he tried to fill up on tiny hors d’oeuvres and alcohol. “I wasn’t a drinker back then,” he said, “and the powerful Martinis went straight to my head.”
Feeling nauseous, my dad went into the host’s guest bathroom to splash cold water on his face. His dark reflection stared back at him from the gleaming white tile. Holding on to the hard edge of the porcelain sink, he blinked hard and tried to stop the room from spinning. “I woke up on the tile floor in a pool of my own vomit and blood,” he said. When he passed out, he fell and cracked his nose on the toilet seat, breaking it. Putting my fingertips on the bridge of his nose, he ran my hand over the edge of the break.
“Does it still hurt, Daddy?” I asked.
“Everything about this country hurts,” he said.
° ° °
When my dad first started his family practice, he worked out of a small office on Mission Street in a seedy sad neighborhood. One summer day, my mom and I stepped over trash, needles, and homeless people to get to my dad’s office so he could give me the vaccines I needed to start school. We walked through the empty waiting room and opened the door to the inner office. My dad sat playing Solitaire at a large metal desk. The late afternoon light streamed through the sooty office window and illuminated his face—reflecting the card spread in his glasses. Hearing us, I watched as my dad flung open the drawer of his desk, and, with one swift movement, swept the card spread in and stood up.
“I didn’t hear you knock,” he said.
“How many patients have you seen today?” my mom asked.
My dad stared at her for a hard second and said, “Enough… enough.”
My eyes flew away from my dad’s face and came to rest on the safe perch of the “Mario Mormorunni M.D.” embroidered in royal blue cursive on his crisp white doctor’s coat. My eyes followed the lettering over and over, avoiding his eyes, as he gave me my shots. With a thick-tipped pen, he drew a big smiley face around the point of the polio injection. “This way we’ll know if you have a reaction,” he said, tilting my chin up with his big, warm hand to kiss my forehead.
When the practice grew big enough, he moved it to St. Luke’s Hospital. The medical building was tall and bright and new, with sweeping views of the city from the sixth floor. Alda, my dad’s secretary, let us in through the private side door. Dressed in a tight white nylon uniform with thick, flesh-colored, panty-hosed legs stuffed into white orthopedic shoes, her ash-blonde bouffant head cooed, “Look how big and beautiful you’ve gotten. I bet your Daddy is so proud.”
My dad hired Alda early in his practice and she worked for him well into her 70s. To Alda, my dad was a saint—actually, he was more than that; he was a god. Years later I realized his divinity probably had more to do with the fact that he safely pulled Alda’s son out of bars and brought him home. Or the fact that when Arturo, her husband, was arrested for flashing young children, my dad bailed him out, put him on medication, and got the charges dropped.
Every time she saw me, Alda reminded me how lucky I was to have my dad for a dad. “Try and be good girl for your Daddy,” she said, crouching down, searching for my eyes, and getting so close I could see individual grains of the blue-bird colored eye-shadow caked in the thick creases of her eyelids. Her face powder curved in uneven streaks around her nostrils. I blushed and fidgeted, and was unable to hold the intensity of her stare.
Every chair in the waiting room was full. Old men and women leaned against the walls and lined up out the door. Little Italian kids dressed in their best, sucked on the Dum-Dums Alda had stuffed in their pockets, looked us up and down with brazen eyes. I wondered, Who are all these people? And why, why are they willing to wait for my dad?
Every day at 1:00 p.m. my dad took what he called “a proper Italian lunch.” Alda closed the office down, apologizing to the overflowing waiting room as she slid the reception window shut. “It won’t be long. The Doctor works so hard. He needs to eat his lunch and rest a little,” she said, more to the frosted glass than the waiting patients.
We watched my dad as he pulled the brown lunch bag my mom packed for him every day from amongst the vials, syringes, and metal instruments in a small fridge. Silent shadows, we trailed him down the gleaming linoleum to his office where he laid tea towels on the desk and unpacked the bag. We never ate with him. Instead, we arranged ourselves on the furniture and listened as he told us stories about the diagnostic brilliance that had saved yet another life.
As he finished lunch, Alda fluttered back into the room and delivered fruit and a hunk of parmesan cheese wrapped in paper towel. Hands quaking, she placed a sharp, wood-handled cheese knife and a bowl of water on the desk, so my dad could wash his fruit. And then it was time for his sonnellino. Standing under the hum of the fluorescent lights in one of the exam rooms, we waited while he lay down on a brown leather exam table, pulled a thin blanket up to his chin and put on a black silk eye mask. We kissed his right cheek and then his left and were ushered out under Alda’s protective wing.
Visits to my dad’s office left no doubt his patients worshipped him. It was no surprise that Christmas at our house was a bonanza of homemade Italian love: cakes, cookies, and cannelloni; pasta, porcini, and prosciutto. Festively wrapped bottles of booze lined up in rows like bowling pins under the Christmas tree. When my dad and I fought, he often said, “I wish you loved me as much as my patients do.” Or in a voice that sounded an awful lot like a child’s, he said, “Only my patients really love me,” and let out an aching sigh from the seat of his belly.
Once, I snuck back into my dad’s office during his nap. I wanted to leave him a love note to read after he woke up. “Your patients are sooooooo lucky to have you as a doctor,” I wrote. I drew a cloud of red hearts around my words with arrows through them. I misspelled “patient.” The next time I was in the office he held up the note between two thick fingers. “A doctor’s daughter can’t misspell ‘patient,’” he barked. He made me sit down at his big desk and write “patient” correctly over and over on his prescription pads until he decided my penance was paid and released me, red and sweaty, into my mother’s apprehensive arms.
When my dad retired some thirty years later, I helped him pack up his office. As I reached to the back of the desk drawer to make sure it was empty, my fingers brushed something rectangular and hard, wrapped in soft cloth. Knowing what it was, my hand hesitated. I pulled out the bundle and unwrapped my dad’s handkerchief from the old deck of cards—the cards now the color of dried blood after years of nervous handling.
My dad walked into the office. “What are you doing?” he demanded. I cradled the cards in the palm of my hand like a butterfly. “I am just packing up your desk. Why do you still have these, Dad?”
His eyes hooded and his words oozed out, coated in a thick bitter paste. “To remind myself. To remind myself of where I come from and what it felt like to wait, to wait for the patients to come, certain they wouldn’t.”
° ° °
Some Saturdays my dad took my brother and I to the hospital with him for his rounds. We always entered through the ER. My dad moved big and fast, his white coat trembling behind him. We scurried to keep up with him, only to be left staring at our feet amongst disembodied moans and groans emerging from behind thin curtains the color of robin’s eggs, as my dad flirted with the ER nurses.
Certain Saturdays my dad had us follow him. “I have some patients I want you to meet,” he said, voice heavy. We stalled. “But… but… Daddy, we were going to play Crazy Eights in the Doctors’ Lounge. How about we go with you next Saturday?” Standing in the elevator, we watched the floors light up one by one, our stomachs dropped and squirmed as we rose.
“Don’t worry,” he said looking at our serious faces, “you can’t catch what these patients have.”
“Flora, come stai?” my dad boomed as he strode into the patient’s room. “Are you feeling better? Look who I brought to see you,” he said, pushing my brother and me in front of him.
Grabbing me by the elbow, he pulled me towards the hospital bed—towards the small mound of an old woman covered by tissue-thin hospital sheets. Tubes filled with tawny yellow, pale-pink, and dark-red liquids slithered out from under the covers tethered to the clear plastic bags hanging on the side of her bed, filling drip by drip. Small hands, bruised by the hard jabs of IV needles clutched the edges of a hospital blanket the color of Easter eggs, hands that made me think of bird’s feet. Body stiff, I stayed silent and still at the edge of the hospital bed. I was certain any word or movement would break her.
My dad’s big hand firm at my back pushed me closer to the bed. “Dai Flora un bacinno.”
Give her a little kiss, he demanded, his voice sweet, his voice a voice I didn’t know. I leaned over Flora’s ethereal body and kissed her lightly—once on each cheek like I’d been taught, and then a third kiss for good measure. Her breath was sour. I sucked mine in and held it to avoid having to breathe. If I could have gotten away with it, I would have pinched my nose closed.
She kissed me, first on my right cheek and then my left; the hard little hairs on her upper lip pricked me. She didn’t seem to notice me brace and pull back despite myself. Grasping my arms with surprising strength, she held me out from her so she could get a good look at me. I forced myself to meet her eyes and watched the smile bloom on her face, a smile so big it dwarfed the skeletal remains of her body.
Years later, tears streaming down his face, my dad confessed he only took us to kiss the “ones that were dying.”
Cristina Mormorunni was born in San Francisco during the heyday of the Summer of Love to an Italian family doctor and a Canadian rodeo queen. Marked at birth and raised in a petri dish of passion and spitfire, it should come as no surprise that she’s spent the better part of her adult life working as a provocateur, an agent of change, and a rebel. For more than 20 years, Cristina has devoted herself to conserving wild nature and transforming the world into a more just, beautiful, artful, compassionate, and healing place (check out the TERRAMAR consulting group). Cristina recently received her MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She currently is working on a memoir—The Anatomy of Betrayal—about what it means to aspire to change the world and how the work changes you in the process.