Season of Iron
Toronto, November 1979
People look different in hospitals. Quite apart from the illness. Even the self-confident ones become
cowed in a hospital bed, frightened by their IVs, by the unequivocal nurses coming around to prod
them in intimate places, by the specialists and students who discuss the ailment as if it were a gnome
sitting on the patient’s chest, a third party, utterly separate and deaf.
Rebecca understood their distress at their loss of control and did her best to reassure them when they
went into hospital. Always felt duplicitous because she so keenly loved Mount Sinai. She had to
suppress a frisson of excitement whenever she walked through the doors. Magically, the tragic part of
her life fell away. The black moods, the sleeplessness. She had trained here, an eager sponge
absorbing knowledge, and now she was doing her part to make life better for people.
She stood near Mrs. Fiori’s bed. More than a year had passed since Rebecca had seen her patient.
She recalled the robust energy of the stout but handsome woman, her thick dark hair sprayed into
place. That person was hiding inside this pale rendition, the usual bloom of her skin now faded.
Gently, she turned Mrs. Fiori’s hand palm up and, holding her wrist between thumb and fingers, took
her pulse. No matter how she felt about a patient — not all were as pleasant as Mrs. Fiori — this
somehow intimate gesture never failed to rouse in her a protective affection. Maybe it was the
measure of their vulnerability, a reminder of her own, that struck her so tenderly. Mrs. Fiori smiled at
Rebecca, her eyes still sparkling. This was not the time to tell her again to stop smoking. That could
wait. She was fifty-three and had just suffered a stroke.
“How are you feeling?” Rebecca asked.
“Not so bad. Just tired. Can’t even do my hair.”
“It’ll take time.” Recovery depended on so many factors that she knew better than to promise anything.
“I’ll come by tonight to check on you on my way home.”
Mrs. Fiori smiled feebly and nodded.
Rebecca picked up her Jaguar coupe from the staff lot behind the hospital and drove back to her office
on Beverley Street. The rest of the day she spent dealing with the usual ear infections, stomach
upsets, and women who were terrified they might be pregnant.
After office hours she wasn’t in the same hurry and usually walked the four blocks back to Mount Sinai.
She could air her brain and get some exercise at the same time.
She realized later that she had barely given Mrs. Fiori a thought all day. Was that why it hit her so hard
when she walked to the nurses’ station that evening? She felt it as soon as the nurse looked up at her.
The eyes gave people away. Some unintentional message written on the underside. The way the
muscles of the face realigned themselves.
She wanted to be anywhere but here because she sensed the nightmare playing out in the room
down the hall. No, she heard the keening of the nightmare, a barely human voice. The wailing that
rose up from that part of you that lay quiet most of your life if you were lucky. That part of you that
understood the real world viscerally, the careless cruelty and unfairness of it, and only surfaced when
summoned by your own tragedy. Not others’, only your own. Otherwise how could you live?
Rebecca stopped in front of the nurse, trying to wrap herself in a layer of professionalism. A doctor
didn’t fall apart. A doctor helped others cope. A doctor …
“What happened?” Rebecca asked.
The nurse, a tall middle-aged woman, handed her Mrs. Fiori’s chart. “I tried to phone your office. She
just had another stroke.” Her cheeks sagged from effort.
Rebecca stared at the file, but the writing wavered before her eyes. When the words stopped moving,
she read that the internist had seen Mrs. Fiori within the last hour. Right in the hospital. Still nothing
they could do for her. Blood clot in the brain. Such a small thing to stop a life.
Still in her wool coat, she walked down the hall toward the frantic weeping. She hovered in the
doorway, hating her own cowardice. Mrs. Fiori lay facing the ceiling, her once lovely face white, dark
hair splayed on the pillow, mouth open.
David. A flashbulb went off and everything stood still in an instant. David lying in the hospital, the
same hospital. The same white. The same gone. Gone.
The moment passed. Rebecca saw a nurse in the room, speaking in a low voice to the husband and
teenage son. Rebecca had met the family when Mrs. Fiori had been admitted four days ago. It was the
daughter, maybe twenty, who keened shrilly, slumped over her mother’s body. The daughter, who
resembled her mother so much, with her dark hair and wide cheekbones, she might have been
mourning for herself.
Rebecca watched the nurse approach her, gently but firmly lift her from the bed, murmuring words of
comfort that slid right past the face swollen with tears.
“Nobody said she would die!” cried the young woman. “She can’t die!”
The nurse looked up and saw Rebecca in the doorway. Now she had to go in. Try to console a family
who would be inconsolable. As was their right. She had been through it all herself. She understood
only too well. People try to comfort, but there’s really nothing anyone can say. Nobody found the
magic words when she was inconsolable.
She stepped into the room. It was airless. She could barely breathe, but she placed her hand on Mr.
Fiori’s arm. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t expect it.”
He shifted damp brown eyes to her and nodded. The boy had his arm around his father’s shoulder
and seemed to be protecting him from her.
The daughter noticed her entrance. “I don’t understand! She wasn’t supposed to die! I don’t
“I’m so sorry,” Rebecca said. “There’s always a risk, but she seemed to be doing so well …”
“You didn’t say she might die!” cried the daughter. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
The words hit Rebecca in the stomach. She blinked from the pain.
“She threw off a clot that blocked the artery to her brain. That’s the danger with stroke.”
The daughter stopped wailing and stared at Rebecca as if she had said something offensive. It wasn’t
the physical cause of death she didn’t understand. That wasn’t the answer she wanted. Rebecca
didn’t have that answer. Would never have it.
“I’m so sorry,” she mumbled and flew from the room toward the elevators.
Don’t think. Just go! Don’t let it break your heart. She stared at the floor numbers descending. Darted
out onto the main floor, past the life-sized portraits of the Mount Sinai benefactors hanging on the
travertine marble. How many years had she been hurrying down this hall? Past some elderly lady
volunteer posted next to a table of used books outside the hospital gift shop. The never-ending lineup
of visitors and staff at the coffee stand, impatient for that jolt of caffeine that would hold them to dinner.
How many years had she sprinted by it daily?
She didn’t know what was happening to her. It was just over a year since David had died. She’d
thought the despondency would subside. That her body would adjust to his absence at the table, in
her bed. That she would be able to wake up in the morning without remembering, before anything
else, that he was dead. But she became weepy at unexpected moments and sometimes had to
excuse herself from company.
She had been a happy person before fate turned her into a widow at thirty-three. Fate? She didn’t
believe in fate. Just blind rotten luck. Bad genes and circumstance. If only he hadn’t developed
diabetes. If only he hadn’t been so goddamed funny. If only his red hair hadn’t glowed like that above
the milky complexion.
His death had robbed her of her optimism. Had she really been an optimistic doctor? Didn’t that just
make her stupid — ignoring everything they taught her in medical school about the vulnerability of the
human body? Stupid and ready for a fall. After that first big fall, she just seemed to keep falling. She
couldn’t have helped Mrs. Fiori. Nobody could. Her daughter probably understood that now. Maybe
she had been an optimist too, but the ground had opened up beneath her and swallowed her mother.
Maybe the weeping had been for herself.
No point hurrying today. Other Friday evenings she would head out to her parents’ house for dinner.
But they were in Santa Barbara for the month. No one was waiting for her to come home. Her mother-
in-law had invited her for dinner, but Rebecca had declined. She couldn’t enter that house without
finding David everywhere, and all the sadness she was barely keeping at bay threatened to break the
delicate barriers she had built around herself, ready to engulf her.
She walked along Elm Street, buttoning her coat against the November chill. Barely glanced up at the
grey brick residence for married interns where she had spent the happiest year of her life. David had
been healthy then, busy with his painting. They had both been immortal, the way the unthinking young
are. She saw death and disease often during that year in the hospital, yet never dreamt it would seize
her own life so soon. They had been buoyant with hope then, innocently looking forward to a life
together. But the universe hadn’t unfolded as it should. David had lived for only seven more years. He
had taken her hope with him to the grave.
As the wind lashed her down McCaul, she pulled up the collar of her wool coat, wrapped the silk scarf
tighter around her neck. Winter was coming. Would she keep walking the four blocks back to her office
every day in the freezing cold? She needed the exercise.
Baldwin Street. She barely peered sideways at the restaurants and shops, the couples, the groups of
university students scouting out places for dinner. She made her way to D’Arcy, the next street south,
empty in comparison, soothing with its old semi-detached houses sitting quietly in the dusky light. Only
her own steps echoed softly on the pavement.
Even the wind was calmer as she approached Beverley Street. Then an agitated voice broke the
silence. Or maybe it was Rebecca’s silence and the woman had been speaking all along, only
Rebecca had to get close enough to hear. An accent of some kind.
“… never were any good … You’re spoiled! You’re stupid! You don’t understand anything … and
Rebecca slowed down. The voice seemed to be coming from a backyard enclosed by a six-foot-high
hedge that smelled musty with autumn. Its leaves had fallen, but the gnarled old branches twisted
upon one another in a complicated pattern that hid the yard from the street.
“You don’t deserve to live. You’re stupid, you’re fat, you’re ugly. You should be punished for what you
did. You’re a monster! You should’ve died like the rest of them.”
Rebecca stopped. Was it a mother speaking to a child? The voice sounded older than that. Should
“Why don’t you wash yourself? Look at your face — anyone can see what you had for lunch. Join the
human race. Try at least to look human because you aren’t human, you’re an animal. Even animals
clean themselves. You should end it all now — it would be better for you and everyone else.”
Even if it weren’t a child, the threat of violence … Though the voice was not shouting, rather it droned
on. More chilling for that. Rebecca stepped with hesitation toward the back door of the house where
the hedge began. If she could only see them, she might gauge the danger.
“Get a knife — that’s not so hard — and push it in there, you know, where your heart is supposed to
be. I can get you a knife right now and you can do it — save everyone a lot of trouble.”
That was enough for Rebecca. She strode through the opening of the hedge and looked around the
yard. Where were they?
“Excuse me!” Rebecca called out.
Inside the hedge now, Rebecca squinted in the dimming light. In front of a wooden shed in the back
corner a small old woman sat straight up, alarmed, in a vinyl kitchen chair. A green woollen hat was
pulled down over her head, grey hair straggling beneath. Her shoulders shook with terror in an
oversized men’s coat. Was she the victim? Rebecca looked around the yard. A child’s wagon sat piled
with bulging bags near the woman. Rebecca saw no one else.
“Do you need help?” Rebecca asked, still looking into the shadows of the yard.
The woman stared at her with large dark eyes but said nothing. Her body continued to shiver.
“Is someone trying to hurt you?”
The woman’s face was blank. Her delicate features must have been pretty long ago. Maybe she was
“I can’t help if you don’t tell me what’s wrong.”
At a loss, Rebecca turned to go.
“She has no heart,” the woman said.
The same voice Rebecca had heard before. She had been talking to herself.
“Everyone has a heart,” Rebecca said.
The woman looked down at her feet. “They come at night. Steal the tips off her shoelaces. Look, the
plastic tips, they’re gone.”
She was speaking about herself in the third person. Okay. The woman’s running shoes were so dirty,
Rebecca couldn’t tell if the tips were there or not. “Why would someone do that?”
The woman looked at her as if she ought to know. “So her shoelaces will come undone. And she’ll trip
and fall. And get dirty. They want her to be dirty so she’ll get sick. And die.”
The woman looked away and pointed half-heartedly to a tree. Rebecca wondered if the people who
lived in the house knew they had a squatter in their yard. It would be hard not to notice her. All they
had to do was look out their windows.
“My name’s Rebecca. What’s your name?”
“She’s going to sleep now.”
The woman looked around herself as if for the first time.
“It’s too cold to sleep outside,” Rebecca said. “Would you like me to find you a warm place to sleep?”
“Here!” the woman shouted, agitated. “Stay here! She turns it on.”
Rebecca followed the woman’s eyes and saw a portable heater close to her feet. The filament was
starting to turn red and she could feel the warmth from where she stood. An extension cord snaked
from inside the shed.
“Okay,” Rebecca said. “Look’s like you’re all set.”
Mind your own business next time, Rebecca thought, as she continued back to her office. Even if she
called social services, there weren’t a lot of places for homeless women in the city. The old lady would
end up in a psychiatric ward overnight, terror-stricken. Leave it alone. Bad end to a bad day.
Driving home later after her office hours, she felt her stomach grumble, anticipating the matzo ball
soup, Greek salad, and potato skins with
cheese and bacon that she would pick up from Yitz’s delicatessen on Eglinton Avenue. Her favourites
even if they didn’t cover all the food groups. Why shouldn’t she indulge herself now and then? She ate
at the kitchen table while reading the Globe and Mail that had come that morning.
At nine o’clock her phone rang.
“Hi, sweetie, what’s up?”
Her mother’s voice always cheered her. “Just loafing in front of the TV.”
“You know,” said her father on the extension, “you lose IQ points for every hour you watch. Your
mother’s IQ is down to thirty-eight. She’s addicted to The Young and the Restless.”
Rebecca smiled. Her mother hated soap operas.
“I love her anyway,” her father said.
“Pshaw. How are you feeling?” Her mother always treaded softly around Rebecca’s depression.
“I’m a little down. One of my patients died in hospital today. Just fifty-three.”
“I’m so sorry. What from?”
“She had a stroke. I thought she’d pull through. I wasn’t there when it happened.”
“Shouldn’t blame yourself, dear. You’re not God.”
Rebecca smiled. Her mother was trying to make her feel better, but inadvertently underscored a
doctor’s arrogance. “You still believe in God?”
A moment of hesitation. “Most of the time.”
“If anyone cares, I still believe in God.” Her father. “He’s got a long white beard and lives on a
mountain in Israel. He looks like Charlton Heston.”
“Ignore him. He’s in one of his silly moods.”
Rebecca didn’t remember when he wasn’t. Which was fine by her.
“I want to make my brilliant girl smile.”
“Did you have dinner?” her mother asked.
“Yitz’s matzo balls aren’t as good as yours.”
“Now you’re making me feel guilty.”
“You should be proud, Flo, you passed on a Jewish skill: how to make your family feel guilty.”
“I don’t want you to feel guilty,” Rebecca said. “I want you to have fun.” It was partly true. She wanted
them to enjoy themselves, but she missed them. “You only have another two weeks.”
“Did you speak to Susan?” Her mother’s voice took on an edge.
“I’m worried about her.”
“Oh, Flo, you worry too much. She’ll be fine.”
“I told you, Mitch. I haven’t seen her like this before. She’s been pregnant three times and she’s never
been like this. What d’you think, Rebecca? Should we worry about your sister?”
Rebecca wondered: did they bring up touchy subjects when they were actually in the same room
together, or only on the extension when they called her long-distance?
“Susan’s pretty resilient,” Rebecca said. “Her pregnancy’s progressing normally. She just has to
accept that she’s having a fourth child. And she must be tired. Who wouldn’t be?”
When Susan had discovered she was pregnant again, she’d called Rebecca from Montreal and wept
into the phone. Her husband was an observant Jew; there was no question of an abortion.
“I was looking forward to saying ‘my daughter the doctor and my daughter the lawyer,’” her father
quipped for the hundredth time.
“Don’t ever say that to Susan, Mitch. She’s upset as it is.”
Susan had finally applied for law school after years of waiting, and would have started that fall, but
had to ask for a deferral to have the baby. How was she going to have the energy to start the next fall?
The baby would be less than a year old and the three boys all under nine.
“I’ll call her tomorrow and see how she is,” Rebecca said.
“Good girl,” said her father.
“Only wait until sundown,” said her mother. “You know they don’t pick up the phone on Saturday.”
Rebecca spent the next hour tackling the clutter in her kitchen. Too many publications arrived
automatically on her doorstep because of her obligatory membership in medical organizations: the
Canadian Medical Association Journal, the journal of the Royal Society for Physicians and Surgeons,
the Ontario Medical Association Review, the Medical Post, and on and on. It was one way to keep up
with the constant flow of medical developments, but her house was filled with paper. All she could do
was stack the journals on the bookshelf until they became outdated.
In fact, she had signed up for a day of lectures on Saturday, an update for general practitioners
sponsored by a few drug companies. She unfolded the brochure and read off the list of titles: a new
maintenance treatment in asthma; new procedures in obstetrics and gynecology; updates for
treatment of depression and anxiety; new medications in pain management; developments in
In the middle of the centre page was a black and white photo of a man with intelligent eyes and a hint
of a smile, his strong chin thrust forward. Dr. Mustafa Salim, Chairman of Hassan Pharmaceuticals. He
was a special guest visiting from Egypt, apparently, where the founder of his company was a medical
advisor to the government. A few days ago she had picked up the University of Toronto Bulletin near
the coffee wagon in the hospital and found the same picture of Dr. Salim. He was giving several more
lectures next week on pain medication research, one in the pharmacy building, one at the U of T
bookstore: “New Investment in Egypt after the Peace Accord.”
Then the phone rang. Nesha. Her heart lifted. He would be the only one calling after ten in the
evening. San Francisco was three hours behind. He called on the weekends that he didn’t fly in. She
picked up the receiver.
She smiled at the lilting sound of her name in his mouth. It suggested so many things: his lips on her
neck, her legs wrapped around his, their bodies arching toward each other.
“Rebecca, is that you?”
“Sorry, I was preoccupied.” She couldn’t tell him his voice had transported her to the bedroom.
“Preoccupied with what?”
She looked down at the brochure. “Oh. Um, I’m going to some lectures tomorrow and they’ve snagged
an interesting guest speaker for the luncheon. He’s Egyptian. You follow Middle East affairs more than
I do. He seems to be doing a lecture circuit. Something about promoting investment in Egypt after the
peace accord with Israel.”
“Investment in Egypt! That’s a laugh. Sadat may be working on peace, but the radical elements in his
country won’t just sit by. Ever heard of the Muslim Brotherhood?”
He paused. “Never mind. How are you?”
“Fine.” Could he tell she was barely fine? “Who’re the Muslim Brotherhood?”
“You sure you want to know this? They’re a grassroots organization that puts out the equivalent of
soup kitchens in Egypt. Sort of like the Salvation Army here. Except that the Salvation Army wants you
to believe in Jesus and love your neighbour, while the Muslim Brotherhood wants you to kill your
neighbour. They assassinated the Egyptian prime minister in the fifties because he was too tight with
“Why do you know so much about Egypt?”
“The Middle East interests me. So much potential and so little progress. Long ago, Muslims were an
advanced civilization. Inventive, tolerant. But they’ve been going backwards for centuries. When Jews
were dying in pogroms in Poland and Russia in the 1800s, they realized they needed a homeland like
everybody else. They wanted the tiny part of the desert that was theirs nearly two thousand years ago.
But the Arabs didn’t want them taking even a fraction of their desert, like there wasn’t enough of it.
Nothing’s changed. They’ve taken over from the Nazis.”
Nesha had seen his family murdered by the Nazis. He was sensitive about Jewish survival.
“None of the Arab countries are stable enough for investment,” he said. “I wouldn’t give them a penny.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not looking to invest. I’m just trying to learn some new medicine.”
“Didn’t mean to bend your ear. You’re a conscientious doctor, keeping up like that. My hat’s off to you.”
“You don’t wear a hat.”
“I wore a baseball hat the first time we met.”
“An aberration. I’ve never seen you in one since.”
“I’m wearing one right now.”
“No, you’re not. What colour is it?”
“You don’t know everything about me, you know.”
“Well, I’d like to know everything about you.”
“Well, I’d like to be there holding you in my arms right now.”
“So what’s stopping you?” she said, picturing his bow-shaped mouth close to the phone.