Phoning Home by Jacob Appel

Reviewed by: Charlene Caruso

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Publisher: University of South Carolina Press
Language: English
ISBN-13: 978-1611173710

When read together, each of the thirteen pieces in Jacob Appel’s Phoning Home build upon the next, resulting in a multifaceted glimpse into the mind of Appel as he explores the ways in which identity can be consumed by illness and eroded by modern society’s response to approaching death. He is uniquely qualified to tackle these questions as he is both a physician and a bioethicist. Each essay is crafted to invite the reader into the author’s mind. The title essay introduces us to seven year old Jacob. His parents are being tormented by a crank caller who is never caught. Appel employs this experience to reflect on deceit, secrets and how little we know about ourselves or others. He manages to slip in and out of his past, admitting about his childhood self, “I still have no idea what made this creature tick,” peeling back the layers of time—as a grown man—sitting across from his aging parents wondering if he should confess the truth. He decides against it as he looks at them, “What they have gained in happiness, they have lost in joy.” He riffs on how confession reveals what strangers we are even to those close to us and that misbehavior is not always a predictor of pathology.

We follow him as he explores assumptions and beliefs about his own identity, those of his family members, and by extension each of us. He is a storyteller, a man full of important questions. In “The Man Who Was Not My Grandfather,” he reveals his grandmother Lillian’s refusal to marry a distant cousin, thereby denying her family their only opportunity to leave Latvia and come to America, a chance to escape the Nazis. This story is untold until an aunt tries to track down Lillian’s genealogy, finding an old photo of this handsome unnamed cousin with all his sisters. There is also a group portrait of three rows of the extended family taken at a wedding, rows of young children, many of them toddlers, unknown cousins, staring at the camera. They were among 16,000 Jews who lived in that region of Latvia before World War II. Less than one hundred survived. All the rest murdered, likely shot or starved, many before the end of 1942.

When asked about the man in the photo, Lillian admits he was the man her father wanted her to marry. “Why should I marry a man I’d never met?” This is a story Lillian doesn’t want to remember. She reminds Appel that if she had made the choice to marry that cousin, there would be no Jacob Appel to ask these questions. Instead, an entire branch of the family tree was destroyed. Who could predict such evil? Who can acknowledge its meaning, even now? A young girl’s decision, reflected back in time, can never answer these questions.

Another essay, “Caesura—Antwerp, 1938,” is a story about Grandpa Leo and a broken watch. Leo had emigrated with his parents from Belgium before the Nazi invasion. He met Lillian in the U.S. and they married. Decades later while in Spain on vacation, his prized watch stops working. The watch is old, and after asking around he is given the name of one man who possesses the skill to repair it. When Leo enters the shop he recognizes the man as a childhood friend from Antwerp. Their meeting is brief and they part without any promises to keep in touch. This man is one of the only survivors from their neighborhood. “Each had assumed the other was dead.”

Leo had told many stories about his life in New York but rarely discussed his early years in Antwerp or his boyhood friends. Appel finally realizes, “For my grandfather, time had stopped like a broken watch in 1938 Antwerp—and when it restarted in Manhattan, after a seven-day voyage across the Atlantic, it did so in a different continuum, its hours and minutes both identical to and, entirely unlike, the hours and minutes preceding his escape.”   Appel reads a letter written to his grandfather at the end of 1945, “Alas, the news from the East is not good. We have heard nothing from the following relatives, and we can only assume the worst.” The rest of the letter contains a handwritten list over two pages long of names of another branch of the family murdered in the Holocaust. Name after name, all memory of them erased. These two essays linger, acting as a refrain throughout the collection.

In “An Absence of Jell-O,” Appel draws us in by humorously describing a child’s anticipation of tasting his grandaunt’s Lime Jell-O, “a weapon of torture,” a forbidden treat secretly promised to him if he behaves himself while visiting his elderly great aunt. He uses humor to convey his overwhelming, childish disappointment as visit after visit, no matter how hard he tries to be good, he fails to secure any Jell-O. Looking back as an adult he realizes there never was any Jell-O. He sees her bizarre behavior and peculiar eccentricities as a form of dementia, often undiagnosed in those days. He concludes she may have suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Appel’s disarming use of humor nudges us past our fears and into examining the pros and cons of undergoing DNA testing to determine the presence of genes linked to Alzheimer’s disease. He presents facts in a conversational tone, and poses moral dilemmas in a personal framework. Appel makes the decision to get tested.

Appel’s voice is engaging and compassionate. We meet real people in his essays, people losing the battle with age and disease and losing the right to decide their fate, patients in hospitals and mental wards. We meet doctors who cannot heal them.  In “Dropping Dead—A Eulogy,” he makes a solid argument for dying with dignity instead of enduring the suffering a prolonged death imposes on us by advances in medicine. Many diseases which proved fatal not so long ago can now be managed and the mortality risk reduced. For Americans, sudden or swift death is now the exception rather than the rule.

Appel reminds us that the added years of life are not always a positive experience. Sometimes, surviving one illness leaves us vulnerable to developing other chronic diseases that rob us of our independence and prevent us from enjoying those extra years. It is an important discussion as technology and scientific discoveries rush far ahead in the ability to extend the length of our lives but often at the cost of significantly reducing its quality.  Whether discussing lost toys, lost loves, lost minds or lost lives he reminds us that our individual voice needs to be heard. It is rare when a collection of essays written and separately published over a span of almost a decade reads like cohesive chapters of a tightly constructed book. Phoning Home gives us that experience.