The Tardy Times

  In a British hospital, the medical staff
   includes all ethnicities – even English

'The margins are clear,' said the doctor... 'What?'

(Margo wrote this report when she went to London in December to help her cousin, Berta Freistadt, after her mastectomy. See also NOTES FROM MARGO.)

THE SHORT VERSION: I have arrived safely in London just in time for the countdown to Christmas. Cousin Berta's operation seems to have been a success, and she is recovering nicely. She is tired and rests quite a bit, but for the most part she is in good spirits.
   It's hard for me to tell how much of her unwellness is from the cancer, how much from the mastectomy, how much from the chemotherapy and how much is the Parkinson's Disease.
    She struggles with a lot of stuff. Her spirits are amazingly good, without being the least bit Pollyanna-ish. She has a few tears occasionally, but that seems well within what you might expect, given the circumstances.

THE LONGER VERSION:  We went Friday for the follow-up appointment to the surgeon, who seemed to be giving us good news. “The margins are clear,” he said, as if we would know what that meant. I asked him to explain, and he said it means that among the lymph nodes that were removed, the outermost ones were clear of cancer. So the doctor is fairly confident that they were able to remove the cancer.
   Berta will have to take radiation therapy in January and take an anti-recurrence drug for five years. But the doctor is optimistic.
For me, one of the most interesting bits of this whole trip is the inside view of the British health care system, which is sometimes touted as a model for what the U.S. system might be. I could live with this system. It is not particularly gleaming. Some of the clinics and hospitals are old, but they are well maintained.
   The staffing is abundant by American standards. Nurses seem able to chat a bit, and the personnel – doctors, nurses, cleaning folks – are not always rushing away to another patient.
   The fact that all Britons have the care they need, or at least some level of care, for free, seems to make everyone relax a bit. Also, there doesn't seem to be the big liability layer that is at the forefront in American health care, so there isn't that cloud of worry hanging in the office that we're going to sue. It seems to make everyone willing to talk more frankly.
   For drugs, retired people like Berta just get a scrip from the doctor, take it to any pharmacy on any street, and they issue  the drugs for free. (Berta says the drug system not like that for younger folks.) For care, you just appear and identify yourself, and you see the doctor. The appointments can take a long time to get, but there's no co-payment or issue about who is responsible for the debt.
We spent an entertaining hour or so scanning the catalog of post-mastectomy prosthetics – or as we say, falsies.  Berta got a standard issue temporary falsie from her favorite nurse, Vickie. After she heals up a bit, she'll get a standard issue falsie for longer term use. But there was a catalog for those who prefer a slightly classier edition of the prosthetic. There were cotton ones, and silicon ones. Some were OK for swimming. Some were outfitted with the nipple. Others were labeled “nipple not included.”  So strange – I would think if you paid for the prosthetic breast, you should get the nipple, too.
Most doctors seem to be Middle Eastern or East Indian, so it occurs to me that the native-born doctors may be working in the private hospitals and clinics rather than the public ones. I asked Berta about that, and she said she didn't know. She thought there were plenty of native-born doctors working in the public hospitals. It was just chance that her doctors were from the Middle East.
   The nurses and other employees are from every ethnic group imaginable: Plenty of native-born English folks, but lots of Jamaicans, Africans, East Indians, Czechs, Russians, Pakistanis, Romanians – you name it.
    We often think of San Francisco as being multicultural. We haven't seen anything yet.
   It's the same in the Kilburn High Road shopping area near Berta's house: Ladies with modest head scarves talking Arabic to each other; women with every inch of themselves covered with yards and yards of black fabric moving silently down the street with just a slit in the dark scarf for their eyes; folks of African extraction with their hair in elaborate braids talking with perfect British accents, others talking with Nigerian accents, South African accents, some Caribbean accents I don't recognize; Thai folks, Chinese folks, Persians arguing outside their rug shops, a Pakistani delicatessen supply store, halal butchers, Indian restaurants.
   This is as polyglot a place as I've ever seen. It seems relatively peaceful, although Berta says that the code word, when white people speak disapprovingly of non-Anglo-Saxons, is “these people.”  I haven't heard it yet, but Berta says it's used.
Anyway, we're preparing for Christmas and Boxing Day in a slow and sort of quiet way. When Berta felt strong enough today, she directed me to put up holiday lights in the living room and kitchen, and we wrapped up some presents – some she had bought, and some she had directed me to buy. With the Parkinson's, she's been functioning with diminished strength and energy for a long time, so she plans ahead. Each time I've gone up to the High Road shopping area, she's had something I should look for: scented candles or gel pens or cheesecakes, whatever. A little bit at a time, and we were ready.
  On this evening, we had a little drink after dinner and looked at some recipe books from 50 to 100 years ago. I know it sounds like a weird way to mark Christmas Eve, but it was very sweet.  Dozens of chutney recipes. A whole book of banana recipes: banana soup, banana pudding, banana fritters, banana salad – and a listing of the banana freighters that were running between the Caribbean and England. Unfortunately, no date on the book. There was a series of Aunt Kate's books: Aunt Kate's baking book, Aunt Kate's kitchen tips, Aunt Kate's cooking, etc.
   The plan tomorrow is to have a drink with the neighbors on one side, and have a big mid-day meal with the upstairs neighbors on the other side. So that'll be Christmas.                                                                       
BERTA’S next visitors were my sister Delisa and her friend Betty Burns, then our dear friend J.P. (Jack) Uhlrich. At last report, Berta was doing well.     
The Tardy Times
Photo: Carmen Klammer
 The Olympics
in 2012?
(oh, perfect joy!)

By Berta Freistadt
(Updated in 2008)

LONDON – All has not been well in Paradise. First, the trellis over my back door collapsed, bringing down one rose, one jasmine, 10 large snails, innumerable little sods, some brickwork and, of course, the trellis itself. My good neighbor Will-Down-The-Road fixed it because I'm too old to be up a ladder (“Do be careful, Berta.” What do they think? I'm up ladders in stilettos?)  
    This is what I tell myself. What the good man couldn't fix was the six months of hell I endured from the noise, dust, disturbance etc., etc., when the house next to mine was being rebuilt.  The new couple next door are about 30, and rich. I can't imagine why they wanted buy a derelict mid-terrace house in Kilburn (the old gateway to Dublin). Unless it was just to upset me.  
   Which it did.  First off, stealing 4 feet of my daylight by extending their kitchen wall. Unbelievably, this was legal. Then I had to cut plants from a fence. Now there's the issue of their roof terrace & my privacy. I'm determined to remain civil. Mother would be proud of my restraint and, as of now, we're friendly..
   On a larger scale, too, building work dominates. Wembley Stadium is overdue & over budget.
    The new Arsenal football stadium next door to friends Cathy & Ed is bringing down the value of surrounding properties. And building for the 2012 Olympics, which we won (oh perfect joy), is going to double everyone's council tax – even that of killjoys who not only dislike sun but who hate sport as well.
    If you don't like it, should you pay for it?  A dangerous precedent.  Where might it stop?  Sport one day, war the next.
   And yes, I'm in a permanent bad humor these days – and it's not just that I now have Parkinson's Disease (pause for shock & sympathy, thanx very much), but I can't remember my damn pills. Mainly at lunchtime.  So by 4 p.m. I'm feeling like a zombie. (Does anyone really know what a zombie feels like?) And then I remember – curse, damn, etc., etc.
     In my fight against immobility & bumping into things I've joined a local health club. It's just where working-class Kilburn powders its nose & becomes middle-class Maida Vale. The thing is, walking, I am like a zombie; but in the water I recover much of my grace & a little of my old speed. A magical feeling – well worth the direct debit.

More news from London:
    I organized two concerts for my synagogue this year. We have several excellent semi-pro musicians in the congregation, but over the years I began to sniff out very insecure, “I'm really no good” amateurs. People who do classes & exams but who'd die rather than let anyone hear them.     
    But by dint of gentle bullying, arm twisting and outright lying I got together a crew of courageous men & women who were prepared to play in a programme called “Hidden Talents.” Piano, sax, guitar, solo singing and a choir – even bagpipes!  We've done four concerts now, and to witness my friends perform in public, sometimes for the first time in their lives, is tremendously moving and inspiring.

Good News (Very):
   In April '06 I won money as a prize and for publication of my book, “Mass Dreams of the Future.” Curious fans go to:  Click on the UA 2005 big mauve spot – upper LH corner. Go to regional winners.  Go to London & SE General Fiction winner.  Be warned. It's weird in parts.  

Orange Alert:
  You may know that here in the UK we're on Orange Alert. Nothing to do with the drinks industry. We're on Second Level Terror Alert. And we can sign up with the Ministry of Defence to have more bad news & advice e-mailed to us.  Like, “Stay near a radio; don't go out.”
    Reminds me of the good old days: “In the event of a nuclear attack, crouch with bottles of water under the stairs (or desk, if you're a child at school) and stick brown paper on your windows.”

The Tardy Times bureau chief, who wrote this dispatch at least two years ago and gave meaning to our nameplate, is a poet, playwright, author and teacher at London University. Her latest book, “Mass Dreams,” won the Undiscovered Authors 2006 General Fiction category for the Greater London & the South East Region. In 2004, “Flood Warning” (Five Leaves, Nottingham), a book of poetry both personal and political, was praised by a reviewer for “beauty and lyricism” in a “passionate voice to the struggles of a London Jew to understand the situation in Israel.”  


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