Tuesday, November 1, 2011

November 1: A Precious Gift

November 1 is a banner day for me, a day that has brought so much happiness to my life.

It marks the day 36 years ago that Bob and I first met. (The subject of a future post, for sure!)

It is the birthday of three very different but treasured friends: Barbara Ferrell, a longtime friend from acting days,  Pat Cosentino, a new friend here in Arizona and actress Mary Kate Schellhardt, the beautiful and talented daughter of my dear friend Tim Schellhardt.

But the gift of November 1st that I'm highlighting today is my brother Mike, who was born on this day 63 years ago, ending my reign as an only child and giving me a wonderful companion through the often horrifying, bizarre and occasionally darkly humorous passage of our childhood and beyond.

                                                James Michael McCoy in early 1949    

He was a sunny, cuddly, joyous baby. Aunt Molly used to joke that he had the face of an Irish politician.  Our mother adored him. I called him "My Precious Baby Brother" (after a brief period of confusion when I told my nursery school teacher that I had a new sister named Michelle). And when he could barely talk, he gave me a special name "TaTa" and his face shone when he said it. But our father, who had longed for a son, inexplicably rejected and abused him almost from the beginning.

But that didn't cloud Mike's loving nature as a child.  One particularly poignant memory stands out. One day, when Mike was about three, our father struck him hard, more or less in passing as he walked out the door to go to work. Mike, who had fallen from the blow, got up immediately and ran after Father, his arms outstretched. "Father!" he cried, reaching out to him. "Father! Wait!"

Father spun around, impatient and angry. "What???"

Mike raised his arms, tears streaking his cheeks and cried: "You forgot to kiss me goodbye."

His yearning face melted even Father's heart for a moment and he bent down to kiss him. Mike wrapped his arms around our father's neck and kissed him back. The look on his face was pure bliss. He never lost his heartbreaking hope for love and acceptance from our father.

                                                      Mike in early 1950                                                

But the abuse continued. One night, when Mike and I were talking and giggling after lights out, Father came in with a threat: "If you don't stop talking in here, I'm going to give Michael a shot that will make him sleep forever. He will die!"

Frightened, we conferred in whispers, wondering if he could possibly be serious.

In an instant, Father came raging into our bedroom with a hypodermic needle, plunging it into Michael's arm and screaming at me "Well, you couldn't shut up, could you? Now Michael is going to die and it will be all your fault!"

I took Mike in my arms and cuddled him tearfully, telling him over and over how sorry I was. We sat up all night sobbing and waiting for him to die. When dawn came and he was still alive, we got dressed and went to school. Once there, Mike was unusually jittery and upset. Sister Rita, his first grade teacher, noticed. Despite being only 23, a fairly recent arrival from Ireland and having 61 first graders in her class, she noticed. She summoned me from my fourth grade classroom for a conference. "What's going on at your home?" she asked quietly. "What's the matter?"

My face crumbled and I slid into her arms, telling her the story of the night before. She checked Michael's arm and found the needle mark. She looked for other marks and bruises on both of us. With angry tears in her eyes, she embraced and rocked both of us, whispering words of love and bits of prayer in her soft Irish brogue. Some years later, our mother told me that Sister Rita had phoned her that day, asking how she could allow this sort of abuse to happen, and threatening to call the police if she ever found another mark on Mike.

The abuse abated temporarily until our parents transferred Mike to the local public school for second grade. Then it continued -- and he continued to be a distracted, jittery student who was so focused on survival that studies went by the wayside.

                                                   Mike and Me - 1953          

Through our childhood, Mike and I (joined later by our much younger sister Tai) were co-conspirators, trying to inject fun and laughter into a childhood that was fairly grim unless Aunt Molly happened to be around. We tried to create safety in our bond with each other to combat the terrors of life with a mentally ill, alcoholic and prescription drug-abusing father and a terrified, sometimes child-like mother.

But companionship wasn't enough when Mike was singled out for ridicule and abuse. Father said he was worthless, that he would never amount to anything. Mother kept insisting that she knew he was bright and that he did have potential. His early school record was undistinguished. He couldn't sit still to complete a test. His elementary school teachers doubted that he could read. When it came time to plan for high school, an educational counselor tested him and declared him "not college material" and recommended that he be tracked into a manual arts high school to train for a trade. He was signed up for offset printing.

                          Mike and me as teenagers before he moved to Kansas        

But fate intervened. After a beating so severe that he was unconscious for a time, our mother called her recently widowed mother in Kansas. Grandma needed help on the farm. Michael needed a loving and supportive home.  The arrangement worked wonderfully for both. With our grandmother's firm guidance and unconditional love, Mike began to shine. Suddenly, he was an "A" student, excelling in high school and at Kansas State as a math and physics major.

Mike graduated from college with highest honors and a horrendously low number in the draft lottery. He became an Air Force fighter pilot, flying F-4 Phantom jets in combat over North Vietnam.  Somewhere in the air over Hanoi, he made a promise to himself that if he survived, he would make a positive contribution to the lives of others.

That promise eventually took him to medical school at Stanford, where, using his computer skills and his natural frugality, he got through on his own, debt-free.  Our parents did not live to see him graduate at the top of his class as an M.D. or to see him treat patients, develop a specialty in medical informatics and to become CIO at UCLA Medical Center.

But through all the years of achievements, his heart was a world away. He had fallen in love with Thailand -- the people, the language and the land -- when he was stationed there during his years of combat in Vietnam. Many years later, after retiring from UCLA and becoming CIO of Bumrungrad International Medical Center in Bangkok, he met and fell in love with Jinjuta, whose nickname is Amp.  They were married in July, 2007.

                                             Mike and Amp in wedding attire - 2007    

Still scarred by childhood pain and by our father's admonitions "Enjoy women, but if they start to talk marriage, disappear like the morning mist!" and "Marriage and children are the complete life catastrophe. A wife and children absolutely ruin a man's life", Mike had avoided commitment to some wonderful women over the years. But Amp was different. With her keen intelligence, her gentle nature and her frugality -- even more pronounced than his own -- she touched his heart more than anyone else ever had.  Despite their age and cultural differences, they were simply meant to be together.

                                              Mike and Amp - Every day a celebration!

After he accepted research and teaching positions at both Harvard Medical School and USC, Mike returned to the U.S. with Amp and, in 2009, they were blessed with a daughter they named Grace Elizabeth, nicknamed Maggie.

And he is finding that marriage and parenthood is not a catastrophe but an incredible joy, that the pains of childhood can be stilled by the presence of true love and the unabated joy and laughter of his own child who is growing up knowing only love and kindness and the warmth of extended family as they split their time between their homes in Los Angeles and Bangkok.

                                          Mike and daughter Maggie in a playful moment                      

Amp and Maggie are the greatest gifts of his life, bringing him happiness, a sense of security and a love he never thought possible. Mike has enjoyed a myriad of accomplishments in his adult life -- his awards as a pilot, and international recognition as a physician, and as a pioneer in medical informatics. These professional achievements have helped to silence those hurtful pronouncements from our father that Mike was a worthless, hopeless human being. But he has achieved so much more within his accomplishments. He has been a physician who cares deeply about patients. As an administrator, he has always made the people who have worked for him a top priority. Wanda Hardin, his long-time assistant at UCLA Medical Center, recently wrote to me that "Dr. McCoy is the kindest person I have ever met. For the rest of my life,  I will love and respect him and be so glad to have worked for him."

 Beyond all these achievements, however,  the life event, the accomplishment, that matters most to Mike is the blessing of his own family that is a world apart in so many ways from his family of origin.

                                        Mike and me in May 2011  
And yet, he reaches out warmly to me, and to Tai, and welcomes us into his life. He is generous with praise of our accomplishments, of our talents and is supportive of our dreams. All the hardship of his early life could not destroy the loving, sweet spirit of that little boy so quick to hug, to forgive, and to reach out with love.

                                 Mike, Amp, Maggie, Bob and me - January 2011      

So Happy Birthday, my Precious Baby Brother, and may you have many more! With love, TaTa.


  1. This amazing story made me cry aching tears for the two of you and especially Mike as this was his story. How you both accomplished so much inspite of the childhood you suffered, is such a testiment to the strength you both share. That he broke the cycle of abuse is incredible. Thank God for Grandma.
    A very touching post.
    Arkansas Patti

  2. I was greatly moved by this loving and beautiful birthday tribute to your brother. Anything in life is possible with just an ounce of love and encouragement. I'm so glad your aunt and grandma were there to support you all.

  3. What a beautiful story, Kathy! Surely, this is survival at its best. Both he and you have chosen to be givers in your chosen fields.

  4. Wow. Happy Birthday, Mike.

    And congratulations to both of you, for living through -- and thriving after! -- a horrendous childhood. My heart goes out to you.


  5. Wonderful story of what love and support can do to a wounded spirit. Happy birthday, Mike!

  6. Happy Birthday to Mike. I guess it´s a day of great men. My dad has his birthday today too. :)

  7. This story just plain warms my heart and gives me so much hope when I think of others who are abused and trying to overcome damage to the soul. I think you were very much a contributor to his ability to be resilient. You gave him a sense of stability early in life that he found nowhere else. I tremble to think where he would be without the three women who gave him love and support in his childhood: you, Aunt Molly, and Grandmother.

    His wife is beautiful. They are a beautiful couple.

    One other thing, I hear forgiveness toward your father in this story. I think you must have forgiven him, even though he didn't deserve it, because you have both become such giving people.

  8. Dr Kathy, I don't think I have ever read a more heartbreaking and heartwarming story as this one about your special brother.
    Love your Blogs.

  9. How sweet of you to say this. It is now a wonderful birthday for me. I'm tearing up right now. Love you. Barbara

  10. PS: I'm sure I'd love your brother, who is probably a great guy ;-) as well as your other 11/1 friends. Mike and I are the same year too. LUV You.

  11. You're very welcome, Barbara! I hope you had a wonderful birthday today! And I did remember that you and Mike were born on exactly the same day, same year, but wasn't sure if you'd be O.K. with the age disclosure. I had a feeling you would be though someone I wrote about recently, mentioning her age, was a little unhappy about that detail.

    Thanks so much, Patti, Shelly, Pearl, Rosaria, Linda, Betty, Sally and BJ for your very kind comments. It was an easy post to write in the sense that I so adore and admire my brother, but very hard to write, too, because of the pain of his childhood in particular.

    Patti, I'm so thrilled that Mike has managed to break the cycle of abuse. He was very afraid of having children because of his past, but the minute he saw and held Maggie, he felt incredible love and tenderness and has absolutely amazing patience with her as she hits the "Terrible Two's"

    Shelly and Linda, it is, indeed, a story of how even a little love and positive attention can go such a long way. Mike was very blessed to have Grandma and Aunt Molly in his life. And also Sister Rita who tried to keep him safe as long as she could and who never forgot him. She and I have been lifelong friends -- she's now 81 -- and she still remembers little details she enjoyed about him when he was a first grader. She, too, thought he was very bright and that the home situation was getting in the way of his learning. I will be featuring her in a blog sometime soon.

    Rosaria, it IS interesting, as you noted, that we're all in giving professions. My sister, too. Tai is a labor and delivery nurse at a hospital in the Seattle area. We all naturally gravitated toward the helping professions as, I suspect, many people with less than perfect childhoods do.

    Pearl, thanks so much for your birthday greetings and also for your heartfelt congratulations! You know, when we were kids, this was really all we knew. We knew that relatives like Aunt Molly and our two other aunts -- Evelyn and Ruth -- as well as Grandma were kind and we loved spending time in Kansas with Grandma, Evelyn and Ruth and summers and weekends with Aunt Molly, who absolutely played a huge role in our survival. (Interestingly enough, she was our father's sister -- but a completely different personality.)

    Happy Birthday to your wonderful Dad, too, Betty!

    And, Sally, thanks so much for your comments. I never thought of myself as contributing to Mike's ability to survive. Certainly, we did help each other and look out for each other. But, oh, if he hadn't had Grandma to take him in and Aunt Molly to love him, I do tremble to think, too.
    Regarding forgiveness, you're right. One may not forget, which we haven't, but some amount of forgiveness is necessary to move on with one's life. I think I expressed some of that in a blog post last June on Father's Day, when I told our father's life story and the horrendous abuse he faced growing up -- from an alcoholic, mentally ill mother after the death of his beloved father when he was still a young child.

    It was interesting, by the way, that Mike grew up with a strong resemblance to this beloved father our own father lost far too soon. I don't know if our father ever realized the striking similarities physically as well as emotionally. Mike did confront him about the abuse when he was in medical school. Father never apologized or admitted wrong-doing. But he seemed to seek out and enjoy Mike's company at the very end of his life, so I think they came to some sort of peace or, I'm hoping, Mike felt a sense of peace.

  12. BJ, thanks so much for your kind comments about this post and my blog in general. That means a lot!

  13. The strength of the human spirit is amazing! I am glad your brother has found such happiness.

  14. Kathy, i finished reading this with tears in my eyes and yet a smile on my face. Your brother sounds like a truly wonderful person. Thank you for making him real to us.

    As well as feeling horrified by the abuse Mike suffered, I find it sad to think of what your father lost by not being able to love and appreciate the boy he had fathered. A wasted life.

  15. Dear Kathy, your posting leaves me breathless. Out of dark tragedy came glorious triumph. Thank you for sharing this story of your brother's resilience.

    Why your father's mental illness did not destroy your brother's innate joy in living is caught up in Mystery. Like Sally, I believe that you and your aunt and your grandmother were the foundation on which your brother could build such a rewarding and inspiring life.

    This story was so poignant. And yet such a great tribute to your brother and his wife and child and to all those who somehow find a way to embrace the goodness of life. He is, and I mean this sincerely, what "hero" really means--someone with noble qualities who triumphs over adversity.

  16. This is incredibly touching. Happy birthday to your brother! You and your siblings have done so well to put the past behind you and create joy in the present.

  17. Oh my what a heartbreaking story. Praise God it has a Happy Ending. Happy Birthday to a very amazing brother and happy anniversary to you for meeting the man of your life.
    I cried reading this post. I too lived an abusive childhood but nothing compared you yours.
    Will come back later I am just overwhelmed right now with this story.
    You both are amazing to have accomplished so much in life especially considering your child hood horrors.

  18. It's hard to imagine a father being that cruel to his children, or a child triumphing so completely over that kind of pain. Inspiring story.

  19. Kathy, I can't even begin to count the number of emotions and feeling that went through my heart as I read your tribute to Mike, a story both enchanting, horrifying, heartwarming, disturbing and ultimately, affirming. I am so grateful that through all the pain he experienced as a child, he was able to triumph to become a kind, loving man who has let love into his life. I know you are a gift to him. It's clear, he is one to you.

  20. Just as I thought the beautiful girl, Amp is an Asian Citizen. most of Asian are really beautiful. My father is also born on november 1 and still he jokes alot that during his birthday the world celebrate for him. :)

    Can you share this or make a reblog for me? Its about 5 Cheap Gift Ideas for Doctors and Nurses on Thanksgiving Day. Thanks.

  21. This beautiful post has touched me very deeply -- it seems appropriate your brother's birthday should be on All Saints Day. The bond between you and your brother and sister is, I am sure, why you have been able to transcend the abuse and cruelty of your childhood for through it all you knew love and that sustained you. I did have to smile when you described him as having the face of an Irish politician as a baby -- he did, didn't he?

  22. Kathy, thank you for sharing your story of Mike. He and I were close friends at UCLA as we had similar backgrounds. I did health work in Thailand for several years and speak Thai. Mike had such a good heart. I am so glad--really relieved--to learn that Mike has married Amp and is a dad. How wonderful for him to come out of the dark tunnel and be in the light! My life has turned out well, too.

    In addition to your writing about Mike, I find the rest of your blog quite engaging. I retired this week, so now I have time to read something other than work-related articles.

    Thank you!