Returning now to the less esoteric, I thought I’d revive some writing from a couple of years ago. This is adapted from a Facebook Note I wrote in the summer of 2016 while visiting my father in Germany.
I first met Dr. Martin E. Glasser (December 21, 1942 – July 26, 2015) — aka Marty — when I was a very young man of 13. My parents were in the middle of a shockingly vicious divorce. My sister (age 11 at the time), and I had become pawns in a battle of two vastly different philosophies of parenting. The Courts in Alameda County set out to try to ensure that Suzi and I both had someone who could be in our corner, a voice of reason to drown out the angry, and somewhat irrational, voices of our parents.
The divorce itself was a predictable surprise. In 1958, a New York Jewish woman sought to rescue a poor little oppressed German holocaust survivor she met on a Jewish singles weekend in Tilden Parl. Her goal was to help him grow into the man which his charming personality suggested might be a possibility. Fast Forward. 1980: My parents had been arguing for most of my young life – I hardly remember a time when it seemed they weren’t at each other. For my father, it was the incompatibility of being a free spirit that his inner child demanded of him, and the responsibility that comes with being in a committed marriage with children. For my mother, it was the frustration that she couldn’t succeed in rescuing him.
I would take the BART to San Francisco. I would climb on the N Judah and make my way to UCSF to Dr. Glasser’s office. There, I would arrive at my personal sanctuary. Almost 500 hours later, in a journey that had both of us wind up in San Diego, my regular visits would end. The time I spent with him was invaluable in shaping the person I am today.
Marty was so very special.
I knew this almost from the moment I met him. As a young man, I had this idea that I wanted to be a trauma surgeon. I connected with Marty on this topic, as I learned that he had at one time been a trauma surgeon.
Marty’s story went like this. It was the time of the Vietnam War and he wanted to go to medical school, but was worried about the draft. So, he chose to join the Navy as a doctor and they agreed to pay for his medical school in exchange for his service. He trained as a trauma surgeon and went off to what he had expected to be an 18 month stint on one of the haven class hospital ships.
Life has a funny way of getting in the way of our plans. Indeed, many Navy surgeons did work on hospital ships like the USS Repose (AH-16). However, this was not in the cards for Marty. He was assigned to a front line M*A*S*H unit near Khe Sanh.
Newly minted Lt. Cdr. Glasser was treated to a constant incoming mortar fire. He went out on more than one reconnaissance mission with the third Marine division. He served as a physician to many Vietnamese hospitals, clinics, and villages. Such assignments were also especially dangerous. Many of these villages were in enemy territory of the Viet-cong who took great pride in killing American soldiers who were doing good things for the local populace.
Marty gave me the gift of not only telling me these stories, but also, sharing with brutal honesty how these things had changed him.
They made him re-think what it was he wanted to heal. He went back to UCLA to obtain a new medical certification. He once told me that having seen enough trauma of the body to last him a lifetime, he had now chosen to work on the trauma of the mind. What better way to help humanity than to work with children and young adults on their experiences so they would not need to relive and drag out traumas of their minds for their entire lives. What a gift to humanity to help break the often repeating cycles of trauma that are perpetuated from generation to generation.
I know that he helped me. Our many conversations were at times comforting and at times challenging. He confronted me directly on topics that allowed me to square away my relationship with my parents. He directly asked why I had never sought out my birth parents? Wasn’t I disappointed with my adoptive mother and father? Did I have fantasies that my “real” parents were wealthy and happy and just waiting for me to find them?
We spent many hours on parents and parenting. What makes a parent? Is it genetic, or is it simply the intention to play that role? For a teenager, these are important things to discuss and think about. In the end, my sense of a parent is that person who chooses this responsibility and plays that role in your life. It clearly doesn’t need to be genetic.
How did I feel about my father’s cheating on my mother? What? He did that? Yes, as my father would confess to me later, he did. How did I feel about my mother’s hostility towards men in general?
How did I feel about my father’s drug use? How did I feel about my mother’s anger issues? How did I feel about all the secrets in my family? How could I make sure that I built a life for myself where I avoided creating hurt and bad feelings for the people I cared about.
He helped me develop a system of disclosure and mental tools that would help me avoid making the same kinds of mistakes my parents made. It allowed me to see, correctly, that teenagers need structure and rules -even if that is not comfortable. Most of all, it gave me the ability to forgive and place in the past those things that we humans tend to hang on to that destroy relationships.
Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.Attributed to Lily Tomlin (and others) but who cares really, it is so true …
Marty helped me appreciate the value of living one’s life as an open book. Secrets, he helped me see, eat and destroy us from the inside out. He helped me see the value in just trying to be honest in every moment and to try to avoid doing things that would require secrets be kept.
Marty was there to listen, to challenge, and to discuss. He was there to help me grow. He was a father to me in place of mine, who could not, for his own history of trauma, play the role I needed from him. Marty was the universe’s gift to me
In 2014, about a year before he died, I had a wonderful discussion with him. I had no idea it would be my last. You never really think your heroes are going to die. My discovery of his obituary in 2016 -as I thought to give him a call and thank him for the toolkit he gave me to deal with the events of that week- was an unexpected and profound loss. In a weird way, in the loss of Marty, I had lost the man who had most been like a father to me in my life.
In this essay, I’m hopeful that each of you who is reading this can take away the key lessons I took from Marty.
He taught me:
- Try your best to live in the moment.
- Try your best to avoid anxiety by dismissing worries about the future to focus on today.
- Try your best to avoid depression by letting go of the past and focussing on today.
- Try your best to accept your parents for who they are (or were)
- Try your best to expect from others only that which they are capable of giving, and no more.
- Try to forgive yourself when you are unable to do the above
- Love yourself as much as you love others and stick to this list when possible.
Marty: thanks for everything. Humanity: do your best, seek forgiveness from yourself and others when you don’t, and let it go. It is the best we can do.