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Guestwords: Rheba Tries Pot

By Richard Rosenthal

At age 87, with stage four breast cancer and a survival prognosis of three months, Rheba recaptured her revolutionary soul.

“I’m going to try marijuana for the pain,” she told me on the phone from her continuing-care retirement community in Seattle. “Some of my old colleagues are shocked. It’s legal here, but they think the only thing that works are M.D.-written prescriptions.”

“The last time we discussed it,” I reminded her, “you called marijuana ‘habit-forming and evil.’”

“I know I did, Dick, and I’m ashamed. I did some research and found I was wrong. My M.D. knew nothing about it, so I got it from James, an emergency room nurse. I’ll be taking it in prescribed dosages as liquid drops. If it works, I’ll ask him to hold a workshop for the retirees here.”

“I’ll push my walker all the way from East Hampton to Seattle to see that one,” I told her.

“We haven’t the time, my dear,” she said. “I’d love to see you again, but we haven’t the time.”

Rheba is Rheba Fradkin De Tornyay, dean emeritus at the University of Washington School of Nursing, past president of the American Academy of Nursing, first female trustee of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and my high school sweetheart. We met 71 years ago in Petaluma, Calif., now an exurb of San Francisco, then a grimy small town claiming to be “America’s egg basket.”

We were 16. Our Jewish worlds could not have been farther apart. I was a descendant of German Jews who in the 1850s journeyed by sea around the tip of South America to San Francisco, a precocious city exploding with commercial possibilities. Their offspring tended to be prosperous and conservative. During the Great Depression, my parents voted for Hoover against Roosevelt and with the “drys” against the repeal of Prohibition.

Rheba’s family came from Ukraine in 1920 and acquired eight acres in a budding community of atheist, Marxist chicken farmers. They chose to settle in Petaluma because of its proximity to the Valley of the Moon, which was also the title of a novel written by Jack London, their American socialist hero.

Chicken farming suited them. They needn’t become capitalist bosses and exploit workers. A small family could handle the work, and the predawn to early afternoon workday allowed them daytime to hang out and parse, usually vociferously, their various shades of Marxism.

Rheba and I met precisely because of our different backgrounds. The Petaluma community contained a founder population of Infantile Tay-Sachs, a horrific genetic mutation. If both parents carry it, one in four pregnancies will produce a Tay-Sachs child who will go deaf, blind, and be unable to swallow during its first year and die before it is 5. Marriage within the community was discouraged. The Petaluma Jewish Center called the San Francisco B’nai B’rith and in so many words said, “Send us some of your boys.”

So it was on a summer Friday in 1942 that I along with 30 or so other male teenagers were bused to Petaluma for a weekend of baseball, bowling, Ping-Pong, and on Sunday night a dance in a high school gym, where Rheba and I met, two wallflowers avoiding the dance floor, while others, more suave and nimble, jitterbugged to the drums, saxophone, piano, and trumpet of a very energetic four-piece band.

She was tall, with rosy skin, earnest eyes, no makeup, and wearing a pleated skirt. I wore corduroy trousers and a red sweater tied around my neck and hanging down my back. As we started to talk, the trumpeter went into a Harry James routine — loud, long, harsh high notes. So, we went outside, down a path between a cluster of trees, and found ourselves walking in the valley of the moon. And, truly, it was the valley of the moon, the biggest, roundest, richest orange moon I have seen before or since. Google has found the date for me, July 27, 1942.

We chatted. We both enjoyed our high school history classes. I said I was glad our Navy had beaten the Japanese at Midway Island. She agreed and said, “But isn’t it horrible our government is interning Japanese-Americans?” I said it was sad, but necessary. She stopped walking, turned to confront me, face flushed, and said it was unjust. German-American Nazi sympathizers in Petaluma weren’t being hauled off to live in tents on racetracks.

I replied that it was an “exigency of war.” I actually said those words, as if I were H.V. Kaltenborn, the news commentator who was on the air 15 minutes every afternoon. She scoffed, I went into a slow burn, we kept walking, farther apart and not speaking.

When we got back to the dance, her face softened. She asked me when I would be going into the service. I told her I would enlist next year when I graduated from high school. She wrote her address on a paper napkin and asked me to write to her. I shrugged, trying to be cool, and said I’d try.

I went home and woke up at dawn the next morning wanting to be with her again. I left my parents a note, drove my 1929 Graham-Paige to Petaluma, and found her house. It was 7 a.m. Her mother opened the door, said, “You must be Dick,” and smiled me toward the kitchen. She had black hair and high cheekbones.

Rheba was standing over an iron pan of glorious-smelling bacon strips and fried eggs with yolks the color of ripe peaches. (No dietary laws for atheist Marxists.) Butter that her mother churned, bread she baked, and jam she made from wild berries the family picked waited in unmatched bowls on a round table, where Rheba’s father sat, a short man bent over a ledger. He had leathery skin from too much sun. Rheba put down a spatula, took my hand, and led me to the table.

We dated regularly and in the way of the time didn’t kiss until the night before I reported for duty. She wrote me every day for the two and a half years I was away — newsy, upbeat reports about the home front’s commitment to the war and her frequent and friendly visits with my parents.

I wrote her when I could, about the older men in my squad who took me under their wing and our growing closeness with German civilians, with whom we shared a sense of war’s futility. And we argued, especially when I wrote her that the United Mine Workers had no right to strike when we were at war, and she responded curtly that the right to strike was what the war was all about.

We assumed we’d marry, but there was to be more separation than we could manage. I went to college in England, on the G.I. Bill of Rights. She entered nursing school at a hospital in San Francisco, where she went to war with the hospital authorities. She gave unauthorized morphine to a patient who was dying painfully. She was severely reprimanded. She then tried to organize the nurses into a union. The hospital locked her in her room for three days. When freed, she wrote the head of the state nursing board that nurses’ long working hours were barbaric and a threat to patient safety.

Weeks later, she found the official seated beside her at an annual dinner attended by nursing students. “I asked to be next to you,” the official said, putting her hand on Rheba’s. “You have a great future in nursing, but change your ways or there’s nothing we can do for you.”

Within 20 years, Rheba was dean of the School of Nursing at UCLA, 10 years later, in the ’70s, dean at the University of Washington. I moved in the opposite direction — a department store buyer in the ’50s, a reporter in the ’60s, a street vendor of handbags and belts my then-wife and I made in the ’70s and ’80s. By the ’80s, Rheba was in the middle of a long and happy marriage to Rudy De Tornyay that lasted 55 years until his death in 2008. I was in the middle of my fourth marriage, which, like my first three, was to end in divorce.

The few meetings Rheba and I had were brief and belligerent. In the ’70s, she called me a hippie. “You have weird friends,” she said, “and a big, scraggly beard.” In the ’80s, she remarked how she loved staying in five-star hotels when she traveled with other R.W. Johnson Foundation trustees to inspect their programs in poor urban neighborhoods. It was gross, she conceded, to eat a chic breakfast and then go off to observe the poor, but she felt she’d earned it. I told her I choked on pillow chocolates and got asthma from cellophane-wrapped fruit. She harrumphed. I then boasted I must be the only Oxford graduate ever to earn a living selling in the street. She departed. We were through.

For the next 25 years, we were. But on my 81st birthday, I woke up wanting to be with her, just as I had 64 years before. I forgot we had become disappointed sweethearts with conflicting lifestyles. All I remembered was how I had counted on her during the war. When my best friend was killed, when I cowered in a ditch as a German ME 262 strafed me, when I had to challenge my company’s first sergeant to a fight for calling me a kike, when I awoke from nights spent amid corpses and desperate children, I knew that day or the next there would be a letter from Rheba and, if only briefly, I would feel whole again.

Entering my ninth decade, with friends dying and my body losing force, I knew the letters would still come, if I let them. We could never be incompatible. We were a Baroque concerto — a rush of beats and melodies bouncing every which way, but cohesive and beautiful.

I found her on the Internet. Soon we were exchanging e-mails much as we had exchanged v-mails during the war. She had become a member of the medical establishment, devoted to its dictums; I the radical, eager to savage them. She was appalled I entrusted my back to a chiropractor and that I preferred dandelion drops to prescription medicine to ward off edema and support my declining kidney function. Worst of all, I hoped to find a cannabis prescription to control my asthma. She had never heard a respected doctor or academic discussing marijuana, even as a palliative. She would never use it.

Or so it had seemed.

Her cancer pain unremitting, Rheba started taking her cannabis drops. Six pain-free weeks later, she placed Canny, her potted cannabis plant, on a table before her and introduced James to a rapt audience of over 400 retirement home residents, almost its entire population. “The response was so favorable,” she told me afterward, “that James plans to open a dispensary in the neighborhood.”

She was thrilled. I was proud of her. “I’m not going to die in an opiate stupor,” she added, “I’m going to be alive until I’m not.”

“I hear the government is funding research on the benefits of LSD for terminal cancer patients,” I replied. “How about it?”


Richard Rosenthal is the author of “The Dandelion War,” a humorous novel about class warfare in the Hamptons.


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