Chapter 5–The Doppelganger

¨Ed and I worked hard. We had no options. Our major medical had maxed out at $20,000—that was gone in an eye’s blink—and the slew of doctor and hospital bills on the corner of Ed’s desk showed no signs of diminishing. Besides that, there was the need to eat.

Our new company, E & S Sales, Inc., sold kitchen cabinets, bathroom vanities, builders’ hardware and anything else Ed could get his hands on. The company’s business began in our home and had one full-time employee. That was Ed: president, chief salesman and business mastermind. The vice-president and bookkeeper, secretary and daytime answering service was me. I was efficient, did what was expected and dealt with the books and secretarial chores after the kids were in bed.

My salary came in the form of praise for a job well done. When I brought up the issue of payment, my husband told me, “You’re paid but you just don’t pocket it in the conventional way. You get lots of love, a great home, and, most of the time, you can have whatever you need or want.” Sure, honey. Of course. But the truth is, I resent it. I want to be a full-time mother of healthy children. Instead, I’m a mother who has a sick child and another child who needs my attention and doesn’t get enough of it. So at least give me a little income of my own. Some money that’s all mine!

“Listen,” I said. “I have no idea what you pay yourself. You don’t tell me what you pocket. You keep secrets from me!” My face was hot, my anger now full-blown. “My friend Patti gets a salary from her husband. She works in his office and she gets paid. Why not me?”

Back and forth it went until Ed said, “You can have almost anything you want. Why do you need a weekly check from the business?” I threw up my hands and walked away.

In all honesty, I didn’t need or want anything except healthy children and a happy family. I also knew that we were struggling under the weight of all those medical bills but the martyr role seemed, at the moment, to suit me. I didn’t talk to him again for the rest of the night. Ed apologized before getting into bed and I accepted it but I never did get that weekly check.

Ed and His Competition

I thought about it only occasionally and then, I would erupt with anger, but we were both busy and salary issues generally left my mind. From early morning till nighttime, Ed immersed himself in the business selling his wares. It was a jungle out there, but swinging through the treetops each day meeting and cajoling the builders was exhilarating, if exhausting.

He came home at night worn out but then, so was I. During the day, Ed went to work and there were people he met who didn’t know what went on in our home. How lucky for him! At times, it seemed as if we were living in separate families. But I understood that working hard to build the company was his way to keep from thinking too much about cancer and Valerie. It was his way to cope.

My way was non-existent.

I was newly isolated from my usual routine. Child-related happenings like car pools and after-school interests continued when possible but adult social activities such as tennis games, long and gossipy conversations with friends and the occasional fun trips to New York were eliminated. Instead, I occupied a round-the-clock world bounded by one neglected child, one sick child, pediatric oncologists and chemotherapeutic reactions. I never said, ‘poor me’. I just didn’t have the time.  I do seem to be whining a bit, though. Please, Sue, stop it!

Understanding that evil had entered our lives was another matter. I was unwilling to accept the enormity of Valerie’s illness although I knew I appeared level-headed and well-informed. I couldn’t talk to Ed about it. He refused to speak of his anxieties and I seemed powerless to articulate my thoughts. I did not recognize that his reticence and my bewilderment in the face of our daughter’s cancer demonstrated fear.

My husband was on the road daily, selling his various items throughout New Jersey. He was naturally gregarious with others, though not with me; funny, huh? and seemed to like the give and take of the business world. I was left to fend for myself in a household that was no longer typical. It reminded me of my younger days after I lost my mother; that household was not typical either.

I needed something. And so, an at-home method to skim the treetops surfaced for me as well. Enter the doppelganger named Suzann. Unknown to me, she had become my closest ally.

I was not aware of any shifts in my mental processes. Maybe Suzann was always there, invisible and weightless since my days without a mother or, maybe, she was created on the spot because I needed her.

When my father held sway over the Bresler household I was often called Sue, Suzy Q or pain in the neck, that last mostly in a joking fashion. But when Daddy had something serious to talk to me about, he would call me by a different name. He’d say, “Suzann, please come here. I want to talk to you.” It wasn’t often but I would go to him with a bit of trepidation. What had I done wrong?

“Suzann,” Daddy would say, “I got a call at the store this afternoon from your teacher. She tells me that you’re talking in class when you shouldn’t be.”

“Oh, Daddy, I was just asking Billy for a piece of paper!”

“It was more than that, Suzann, and you know it. Let’s not go any further with this. Just stop it.”

And I stopped it. My father made it known, by calling me Suzann! that I had to stand tall and straight, no fooling around, no way.

Sue and Her Doppelganger

Many years later, the doppelganger Suzann, the name given to her through some unfamiliar psychic development, also allowed me to stand tall and straight. That was the plan . . . tall and straight . . . .  My father’s voice coming from the past along with the freshly minted Suzann enabled an illness-defined world to exist separately from the normal, more commonplace one.

Without any knowledge of doing so, I easily shifted gears moving back and forth between a range of responses. Free from overt calculation, I locked the medical facts away in shadowy Suzann’s gray matter, ready to burst forth when required, to intellectualize the facts and detach them from my emotions.

Suzann helped me to absorb what the doctors said as well as to grasp what I read. She enabled me to recognize most of the risks inherent in cancer. I was able to think and talk logically. I became adept at taking care of my sick child, my healthy child, my husband, and the household chores. I lived as if nothing much were wrong though my family was in great jeopardy.

It was my way, a new way. It was a useful, neurotic split.

I could not reconcile the everyday image of my daughter Valerie kneeling on the floor of her room—toys strewn around, baby-talking to Raggedy Ann and Snoopy, scolding them, cuddling them—with the notion that she might be taken from me. That nature’s well-known ranking order, a straightforward requirement of ‘parents first’ could be disregarded.

As I retreated from this conflict Suzann advanced to the front. For example, during one office visit after Valerie’s diagnosis, the three of us, Suzann, Sue and Dr. Wolff, discussed medical issues. Dr. Wolff said, “Mrs. Goldstein, chemotherapeutic agents, as you know, have side effects. For example, Vincristin, one of the drugs Valerie is on, creates nausea.” Suzann asked, “What about the rest of the chemicals, Doctor. Tell me again what their side effects may be.”  The other self, the terrified mother, Sue, zoned out while watching the gray rain slap against the doctor’s office window.

Suzann sometimes failed. The senior oncologists, mostly men, weren’t interested in me without Ed by my side. “I’ll wait till Mr. Goldstein comes to the hospital tonight, Mrs. Goldstein. The three of us will discuss the results of the tests we took this morning. I’ll see you later,” said one oncologist. It wasn’t his fault. Perhaps it was the times. Perhaps. Somehow, I just didn’t have the spunk to argue with him, to ask why he wouldn’t talk to me without my husband, to insist he talk to me whether or not my husband was there. Suzann didn’t debate the issue either. Where was she? She’s left me high and dry.

But, in most cases, Suzann was with me. I want you to understand what happened, what enabled me to function.

Several years later, when I was finally allowed to stay overnight at Babies, the young residents, my temporary friends both male and female, would walk into Val’s room and sit at our sleeping daughter’s bedside. These new M.D.’s would talk calmly to me about the dangers of immune suppression, children who were near death and statistics related to different cancers. They told me that Ewing’s sarcoma had a ten percent survival rate.  As if Valerie had the chicken pox and all she needed was an oatmeal bath! I asked questions, listened to the answers and asked more questions.

Suzann made it easy for me to talk candidly. She knew I had to have the facts even if I didn’t want to face them. I learned a lot that way.

Ed, my friends and the family weren’t aware of the differences between Sue and Suzann. Even I, sensing that something about me had changed, wasn’t aware of the finer points but the strategy was in place and seemed to work. I look so grounded, so capable all the time. Or so hard. Because when others cry, I’m dry-eyed. Now, is that normal? Would my mother have acted that way?

Hovering perhaps a little too much, I tended to both my girls while Suzann watched and took over the repository of all my facts and fears. Is Dr. Wolff the best pediatric oncologist around? Will the chemo destroy all the bad cells in Val’s leg? Will it destroy the good cells, too? Will Stacy be okay? How will she react to the inadvertent neglect, the time away from me? Will she hate me? Will my kids’ friends desert them? Will my friends desert me?

Suzann protected me from those alarming concerns. Sort of.  Suzann wasn’t foolproof, as I had learned. Mostly, though, I carried out my roles as mother, wife, daughter and friend with confidence. From time to time a whisper of reality escaped and infused me with dread. But I was strong. I tamped the fear down.

I was able to hug my children, give them wet, icky kisses, play with them and generally forget that I wasn’t like my next-door neighbor or my best friend across town.


Editor: Edwin C. Goldstein