Four Chamber Opera | Dave Salanitro

Four Chamber Opera


Gina McEnany lives in yarns told and yarns remembered and in skeins of yarn cuddled in corners, in flecks of paint and dots of ink, among the clutter of memories that hang slack against the curious grains of the boiserie and the primrose walls. Now, in her gardens and among the slim white birches beyond; in the laughter of sun-crisp, trotting leaves; and farther still where daylight dances on ruffled lake waters blinking blue and gold in the high light; and then, during her last days, in the room in the bed that is pushed up snug against the window that frames this choice view, which she wished to etch somehow on her soul if she would not be allowed to leave her soul behind and look at this because she would look at this forever.

It was Gina McEnany’s practice to paint her front door red. It was her way of making her presence known. Before she placed her signature on their home on Lake Altoona, a dozen lifetimes had passed, marked by cascading house numbers in cities of different sizes and climates and cultures; by more friendships than a person had a right to—friendships fast and sure and unwilling to be forgotten; by experiences she could not have imagined in the first place—all made possible by what Gina came to think of as divinely dictated by her husband’s unparalleled medical career. Now, Eau Claire’s Mayo Clinic was courting her. She was given special consideration by a convened committee that escorted her from one site to another and spoke praise to no end of the town she had already decided was a lovely place to call home. And to see this courtship play out about town, you would think nothing odd about it, except that it was her husband’s expertise that Mayo sought to open their new cardiac surgery unit, but, as Terry McEnany explained, in consideration of his wife, who had trekked with him across the country where he practiced and taught at eleven institutions uninterrupted beginning the day he entered medical school in 1960, and as he and his wife expected that this would be their last stop, he had promised her the last word on the place they would call their permanent home, therefore, ultimately, the decision was not his to make.

Terry says that nothing much has changed in 10 years. The same bric-a-brac covers the walls and surfaces. Ink engravings found in the open-air markets of Europe, reproductions of exquisite maps, they all hang cockeyed, listing left and right; no one can say how they came to rest as they did or why. Among them hangs a Rembrandt and a Whistler, neither the masters nor the underclass seems to mind the other’s company. Another wall is filled with etchings of hospitals where Terry worked. On the side table below are centuries-old porcelain Chinese urns and another made of brass cast with a shining dove ascending. This too is where Gina lives; a dusting of her remains here, fine enough to rest on an eyelash, forever shifting slightly, like the house, settling into the faint rhythm of microcosmic background noise.

‘I had ten addresses before the age of 18,’ says Lizzie, the middle McEnany daughter. She pauses and then repeats herself for emphasis.

‘You and Mom met in Providence,’ she says. ‘You moved to Baltimore for medical school at Johns Hopkins. Lee [the eldest McEnany daughter] was born in Baltimore. You were in residence at Massachusetts General when I was born and [at the National Institutes of Health] in Bethesda when Abby [the youngest] was born, and then back to Massachusetts General as chief resident of cardiac surgery. Then Guy’s Hospital in London, Mass General again, Mount Auburn in Cambridge, and Brown as chief of cardiac surgery,’ says Lizzie. ‘In Providence my sisters and I went to the Lincoln School, and my mother enrolled in the MBA program at Simmons College and commuted to Boston from Providence.’

Terry’s appointments were always associated with teaching. At Mass General he joined the faculty of Harvard Medical School. Later he took adjunct faculty positions at both Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco.

Gina graduated from Simmons’s MBA program summa cum laude. Her academic achievements notwithstanding, the greater reward was her designation as the first female ever to graduate from Simmons’s MBA program with or without honors.

Terry’s career took him to Columbus, Ohio, and then to San Francisco, where he was recruited to start up Kaiser Permanente’s cardiac surgery program, which he nurtured to employ more than 1,200 staff, before moving to Altoona, where he would take his final position in medicine as chief of cardiac surgery at the Mayo Clinic.1 Gina rose through the ranks of banking in Ohio and then at Bank of America in San Francisco to become a senior vice president. When she retired in 1991, her fervor for gardening and birding flourished, both pursuits ill-suited to city life.2 Now came the time to settle into something, to paint one last door red.

‘My father was a brilliant surgeon,’ says Lee McEnany Caraher. ‘Growing up we understood that he was good—at Christmastime gifts from patients would crowd out those to and from family members, bottles from Trefethen Winery, next to priceless Chinese lamps, so many things; what we didn’t know was how good he was and what was so unique about him that made him so admired. When my sisters and I came to understand what it meant to be a world-class cardiac surgeon, we could see how that was impressive. When I understood that his priority was to be a doctor first, that his broader concern was to take care of people in a very broad sense—he was one of the very few surgeons who would operate on HIV-positive patients in the early 1980s at the onslaught of the AIDS crisis—I remember looking at the gifts that blanketed the floor beneath our Christmas tree and being so proud that he was my dad.’

You might expect a man who has held more than 6,000 beating hearts in his hands to have something unsettling lingering about him, yet Terry exhibits no overtones of unpleasantness, ego, or omniscience. At 72 he is happiest on the slopes in Aspen. When he retired he took up skiing and was quickly recruited as a ski instructor, a position he held each winter at Steamboat Springs from 2000 until 2013. Skiing is bested only by being around his daughters, with each of whom he is demonstrably generous with his attention; he is an engaging narrator and, more to his credit, an engaged listener. You might wonder if this is the nature of the man who grew up well mannered in a small Iowa town or a man wishing to nurture the daughters he saw too little of as he worked his way from medical school to preeminent cardiovascular surgeon while they grew to be extraordinary women.

Lee and Lizzie sit lakeside on the deck at the bottom of a rickety length of stairs descending from the patio at the back of the house. Steam rises from the mugs of coffee they use to warm their hands on this damp morning, despite the calendar’s insistence that it is July.

After a year Lizzie and Abby left the Lincoln School to move to Ohio with their parents. Lee stayed on, intending to further her ambitions to become a musician. Lee is a talented lyric soprano3 with a degree in medieval history and what might seem to be a paradoxically practical head on her shoulders. But she is practical; like her mother, she was allowed choices, as were her sisters. Notable to their upbringing was the opportunity to explore, to roll around in their skin some and find out who and what they would become.

Lee will not stop laughing. She is of the kind who laughs with her entire body, which is now curled into a ball, her knees gathered up in her arms, her chin tucked in low; the shock of poppy-colored hair unkempt owing to the early-morning mist rising off the lake flops in syncopation with her efforts. She is also of the kind who laughs until she cries, which she often does to the effect of making her laugh even harder; she uses the backs of her hands like windshield wipers. Lee laughs multifariously. Even when she is necessarily and purposefully not laughing, there is a jitteriness in her eyes, a real or imagined variable vertical shift; this is what it means to have laughing eyes; laughing eyes appear to bounce. And at these moments when she is necessarily and purposefully not laughing, she is affable and open, redolent of a child whose expectations of trust have not yet been dampened.

‘When I was a teenager,’ she says, ‘I worked in my dad’s labs a lot. I was fully convinced I was going to be a doctor, so I worked in my father’s labs in Providence and Ohio, operating on dogs and pigs in full-on sterile environments.’

In her first trimester at Carlton College, Lee enrolled in chemistry, anatomy, Comp 101, and European history. Long before final exams, it was clear where her strengths and interests lay.

‘I loved school. I loved Carlton. I knew after completing my first trimester that I did not want to be a doctor, but I didn’t want to tell my dad because I thought his heart was set on my being a surgeon like him. I decided I wouldn’t tell him until I had to declare in my sophomore year. I went to him and sort of shuffled my feet and said that medicine was not my calling. He said, ‘Who told you to be a doctor? Thank God you’re not going to be a doctor! What were you thinking?’’

In the winter of 2002, Gina thought she had pulled a muscle skiing; she had been suffering back pain. An MRI revealed stage-four lung cancer with metastases in her spine, hips, and liver. Her doctor gave her six months to live.

‘I remember walking into her hospital room,’ says Lee. ‘I said, ‘Mom, how are you doing?’ It struck me immediately as an absurd thing to say. My face flushed, and I think I started hyperventilating because she said, ‘Probably better than you,’ and, ‘You understand that if we’re going to have any kind of conversation, you’re going to have to breathe.’’

Gina McEnany toed a thin line between demonstrative and blunt.

Gina found her passions for all things long-term renewed and none more so than knitting. Lizzie tells a story that recalls a time when they were growing up: Lee, Lizzie, and Abby always wear mittens while other kids have gloves. One day Abby tells Lizzie, ‘Mom loves us more than the other moms love their kids.’ Lizzie, wiser than Abby by 18 months, raises an eyebrow and asks what makes her think that. Abby explains that she asked their mother why they have mittens and the other children have gloves, and Gina replied that mittens are better because your fingers are together and help keep you warmer. Lizzie remembers this answer and reflects that it’s true that skin-against-skin will keep you warmer than skin-wool-skin-wool, but mittens are also faster and easier to knit. How many pair she must have knitted for their growing hands.

Abby’s version is less introspective. ‘I asked my mom why we had mittens, and she said that mittens are better because your fingers are together and help keep you warmer,’ says Abby. ‘Well, I went right out to play with the other kids with gloves, and said, ‘My mom loves me more than your mom loves you,’ and then proceeded to tell them just how that was.’

Gina’s oncologist was last on a long list of knitting projects begun as soon as her diagnoses, and prognosis, were pronounced. At checkups Gina would repeat her sincere intention of never knitting him a blanket because even though he is on her list, he is last on her list and would remain so even as she adds others, which she intends to do so that he will forever remain at the bottom of her infinite list. He would nod with understanding. Her prolific needling activity yielded no less than 50 entirely unique friendship blankets among various sweaters, caps, and scarves for family members and close friends in town. And mittens, many pairs of mittens.

‘She kept on hand six 60-gallon hampers overflowing with worsted wool and cashmere. Her obsession with wool in its unwoven form bordered on the obscene,’ says Terry. ‘She was certain she would not die so long as there was wool in the house, waiting to be knitted. We joke now that she had played a significant role in the success of two Eau Claire knitting mercantile startups at the time.’ Terry laughs. His heart is in it; it’s how she would have wanted it.

There is a frog pond at the front of the house, reminiscent of the pond on the family estate on Martha’s Vineyard, where Gina had spent her summers growing up, and the effigies that have accumulated. At first a dozen, maybe, gifts from those who knew about the pond at the house on the Vineyard, then nearly 1,000. They had talked about this. First, they had said 600; they had all agreed to 600 frogs amassed in 42 months. Then it was 1,000. Someone said 1,000 and no one bothered to dispute the figure. One thousand tokens of affection and sorrow and hope made of jade and stone and bottle glass, some made of plastic and made in Taiwan. She would return the frogs to her mourners. This is planned for; this is something they discussed; this is how she will live on.4

On September 5, 2005, three and a half years, not six months, since various doors slammed and the heirloom plates in the china cabinet raged, as did she at the indecency of her prognosis, Gina, at home with her husband and daughters at her side, closed her eyes and died.

Six weeks later a memorial service was held at the Lake Altoona home. Six hundred new and lifelong friends, birders, colleagues, and acquaintances gathered to remember Gina. Each brief word describing her generosity, wit, and will solicited knowing nods from all who attended, who recognized their memories in those spoken by others.5 Each person was invited to select a frog to take as a talisman that would keep Gina’s spirit with them.

At no point in her life had Gina’s will been so evident than in the last three and a half years of her life. She sustained radiation therapy, seven rounds of chemotherapy, and the side effects that accompany life-extending treatments. Three times she cleaned out her wardrobe in preparation for the inevitable and then had to buy a new one. Though the days were often painful, Gina stoically endured, reminding her daughters that each day is a gift, not just to her but also to all of them, and each comes around to understand what a blessing each day was.6 Though they never knew when the days would dim or what to expect when they finally did, those heroic moments when their mother defied the inevitable, this three times, gave them time to prepare, gave them the opportunity to get to know each other even better, and gave them time to say all there was to say again, and again, and again.

Lee’s youngest son, Liam, has been casting flies diligently with single-minded determination for going on an hour. When he feels the tug, his eyes widen and his glasses fall to the crook of his nose. He swings his head left to right, clearly uncertain about what to do with the fish at the end of his line and perplexed by the added disadvantage of temporary blindness. Lee wraps her arms around him and steadies his grip on the rod while pushing his glasses back to the bridge of his nose. The tug of the fish is not unsubstantial but still manageable. Lee sits back and shouts out encouragements. Liam has started to find the situation somehow funny, not sporting, or challenging, not even fun per say, though it clearly is fun, but funny in the sense that he should be caught in such a strange predicament, standing on a dock with a fish on a hook at the end of his line, and he starts to laugh. His first inclination is to look to Lee, to look for some acknowledgment that she too sees the humor in all this. But Lee is an easy target. It seems that Liam cannot laugh and bring in the fish, and yet the laughter is in his favor; his grip tightens and loosens on the pole, he reels in the fish, then gives him some lead, reels and gives lead, inadvertently tiring the fish until reeling him in is a possible feat. Lee is laughing for Liam now, laughing because he is amusing and because even his smallest accomplishments fill her with pride.

‘I think of her every time I see my children laugh,’ Lee says. ‘She loved being a grandmother.’

The last light fades, rendering the north shore of the lake shapeless. Maybe six, maybe seven docks sway by lantern light; the near shore is black, but you can hear the water gently lapping at docks’ pilings. The water moves in concert with low, imperceptible breezes skimming the water’s surface or molecular pockets of air released from the lakebed, both constant reminders that everything is very much alive, that nothing, not even the elements, is ever completely at rest. And there is comfort in this, the tenacity of life. The ground is breathing.

Terry McEnany of Davenport, Iowa, 19-year-old sophomore at Brown University and Phi Gamma Delta pledge, achievements of which he is silently proud, along with the fact that he has been accepted as equal to and one with the company he keeps,7 eyes his fraternal brothers scattered among the dry leaves on the house lawn and enjoying the unseasonably warm November night. All are fisting beers, kept cold in a bucket of ice at the head—not at the foot, which would be sensible—of the stairs so that they can each and all for their common amusement ski down the banister under the pretense of conveying fresh provisions.

Terry fearlessly executes the preferred mode of descent, riding the worn, gently sloping rail. His scuffed leather-soled shoes create only a breeze of friction against the bald wood; they make a sound like a steam iron being pulled over a starched dress shirt. He impressively, albeit foolishly, wears eight full beer bottles on four of the five digits of both hands like tentacles; he is showboating his dexterity, his octopodexterousness, and looks back toward his departure rather than forward to his arrival. This evening he is playing to the balcony and hoping to impress an unaccompanied and attractive olive-skinned girl who is swaying to some private rhythm when he makes the very fortunate mistake of executing a blind dismount and crashing airborne directly into Miss Georgina Stevenson of Haverford, Pennsylvania, also 19 years old and a sophomore at Pembroke.8 Miss Stevenson has somehow remained standing amid the debris field of wet books and broken beer bottles.

This is how they met: oddly. She poised and he conciliatory and noting an unfamiliar, dull, persistent though not entirely unpleasant murmur below the ventricles.

Terry stands and brushes beads of beer from the front of his shirt. Gina removes her glasses and tilts her head to the right. There is something in her gaze that immediately takes Terry to task on his manners. He sits back on his calves and gathers the books, shaking the beaded beer off each, drying them further on the front of his shirt. Together they circumnavigate the puddled brew and broken glass before Terry returns the light stack to Gina, which he does grudgingly not ready for her to go, and then shakes his head as though he were shaking off water from a swim in an attempt to realign his senses.

There are low whistles and catcalls from the gallery. He sensibly offers his hand and his name in his unmistakable midwestern accent; the voice and the damp plaid shirt betray his humble beginnings. Gina responds in kind. His demeanor is warm, and she seems to take no notice of his unraveling. The smalltalk that follows is clipped and efficient, not unfriendly, maybe merciful. Yes, she lives on campus; he is familiar with the Wayland House dorm and again offers his sincere apologies; and surely he must be taking up too much of her time; and she gave him grace and says she does, in fact, have to go; and they smile, which is nice and warm, even from a distance, and then she walks away. And he is again aware of the murmur in his chest and climbs back to the head of the stairs, where he sits quietly with a fresh bottle, trying to put his thoughts in order and devise some actionable plan.

Those who study such things will tell you that on days when something eventful happens we are likely to more readily remember the events of the day that surround the event at its center.

Thundering footsteps outside Terry’s dorm room force open his eyes before his mind can register wakefulness, wafts of stale beer from the corduroys clumped on the floor briefly obscuring the olfactory memory. These are the mere fractional seconds before he lifts his head from the pillow, and his clarity of purpose for the day becomes clear. On this particular day, he takes his time washing and dressing; this makes him tardy to chemistry, but he is already far ahead in the coursework and is, therefore, unconcerned with his tardiness and lack of concentration for the hour remainder of the lecture. Midwestern practicality counting high among his traits, he recognizes that his deficit of attention will undermine any academic pursuit planned for the day, so he opts instead to attend an early matinée. To Catch a Thief is playing at the Odeon Cinema; he walks the five blocks and takes a seat dead center in the empty theater. Following the film he stops at the Brown Club, guzzles a Stewart’s root beer, and trades his evening shift for a Sunday brunch the following week. By two o’clock he is pacing the blocks near his frat house, hoping for, but not believing in, a chance second meeting. At three-fifteen he was back on George Street at the florist, puzzling the selections, and by four o’clock he is standing in the anteroom of Wayland House, watching Gina descend the stairs, letting her smile lead him outside onto the lawn, where he handed her the spray of carnations, mums, and marigolds. They stood awkwardly, exchanging mostly silent white vapors. The first cold snap of winter had arrived, it was early, and in the still light sky you could see the moon.

1    To sum up: At the time of Terry’s retirement in 1998, he had served 11 appointments, resident to chief of cardiac surgery, at eight hospitals, including Massachusetts General, Kaiser Permanente, and the Mayo Clinic, and had taken on faculty positions at five universities; established cardiovascular units, ground-up in three hospitals; bettered mortality rates at two institutions by 88 percent on average; and performed more than 6,000 open-heart surgeries. His mortality rate was 3 percent.

2    In 1987 Gina took a bird-watching course at Fort Mason, San Francisco’s community education center. Not long after identifying her first gold-breasted finch, she signed up for an Audubon Society Central American bird-watching trip, the first of many such travels. Soon she emerged as a great adventurer, traveling to places like Belize, the Amazon, Brazil, Alaska, all parts of Europe, and the Galapagos. In addition to adding new birds to her notebook on each trip, she added names to her address book. She would stay in touch with her birding friends to the end of her life.

3    A lyric soprano is a type of operatic soprano who has a warm quality with a bright, full timbre that can be heard over an orchestra. The lyric soprano voice has a higher range than a mezzo-soprano, and usually plays ingénues and other sympathetic characters in opera. Lyric sopranos have a range from approximately middle C to high D. Lee had only the B and, albeit beautifully intoned, she was one among many. She could recount the sociopolitical struggles that plagued the Byzantine Empire, but when asked why, she had no good answer. Her early explorations had left her somewhat rudderless but nonetheless smart. Her well-rounded, über-liberal arts education paid off, giving her knowledge of many fields and the skills to, as Lee said, ‘determine what you believe, write down what you believe, and defend what you believe, which has been very useful to what I do for a living’—a public relations consultant and expert. Lee was suited to public relations also because she is not good at doing one thing at a time but better at doing at least two things at a time.

In recent years it has been said that a painkiller 200 times more effective than morphine is to be found in the skin of a frog (rana spp.). For now the relief remains the property of the amphibian, an urban legend, or of little interest to medical science. To Gina, had she known of such a thing, not only would she demand answers, but frogs would attain even higher status on her list of muses. As it was, their soothing calls from the pond at night and the fact that frogs symbolize resurrection in the Episcopalian Church, of which Gina was a lifelong member, brought some comfort.

5    Eulogizing her mother in 2005, Abby recalled an occasion a few years prior, when one bright Saturday Chicago morning upon entering her nearby Starbucks, she stepped aside to allow a woman holding two coffees and a bag of pastries to pass. Abby said, ‘Well, someone’s going to be very happy to see you.’ She said it reflexively, and it struck her quite suddenly that she was very much her mother’s daughter, recognizing the good in people and pointing it out to them.

6    These are Lee’s words: ‘When our mother first got sick, she often said, —Well, it’s better than getting hit by a truck. At the time I wasn’t so sure. But l am so thankful that our mom fought her illness like she did. What a huge gift of time and life she gave us all. She was able to take this experience and make great things happen with it for herself, her family, and her friends — she made a difference in our lives. We all had ample time to make sure she knew that.

‘Even in heaven, God must need someone like our mom. And I know that she lives on in all of us, influencing our lives in small and big ways that help spread around more good stuff in the world.’

7    And were he just a little bit imperious in this company, which he is not, you might excuse it, given his slim wallet, his working-class status, and his hard-earned path from Davenport to Providence, which might as well be halfway around the globe or on another globe altogether. He manages by maintaining a 4.0 GPA, which provides for the partial scholarship that pays his tuition, which he supplements with a job on campus at the Brown Club, where he takes his meals gratis.

8    Terry’s presumed Ivy League type was the combined assumption of a cadre of teenage Iowan boys. While he was gathering books from among the dry leaves and setting them neatly aside, he took careful measure and revised his expectations to reflect what he presumed to be the authentic artifact. Miss Stevenson’s dark hair was pulled back into a hurried ponytail, and she wore no makeup. She, however, was not of the Ivy League. Her unrelenting resistance proved impervious to sway or demand, and, therefore, she is the first Stevenson not to attend Vassar.

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