In Memoriam: Irene Gutson, MD (1952-2010)

My mom was born in Paris on April 11, 1952. Born to Rita and Gershon Gutelzon, both Holocaust survivors, Irene Gutson (changed when they immigrated to the US) began the all too short journey that was her life. Raised on a chicken farm in Chino, California, my mother had an ox’s work ethic. She graduated from UC Riverside on the Dean’s List and Drexel University School of Medicine, then went on to become the top-notch anesthesiologist who raised me. I don’t want to go so far to say that it is a real, “rags-to-riches” story, but I am extremely proud of what she accomplished with what she was given. Truly admirable, something I only hope to match.

Irene was a garden enthusiast with a strong affection for depressing films. Irene loved to wake up in bed with the dog by her side, feeling a fresh breeze, and look out French doors to watch the hummingbirds feed on her secret garden. But most of all, Irene loved me. Loved me to the moon and back.

At the age of 58, Irene Gutson died of metastatic breast cancer. Cancer she had been fighting for 14 years. We had started the devastating journey when I was only 8 years old, which never got easier as the years passed.

My mom was a single mother, and I am an only child, making us the Pierrot and Pierrette, the Bonnie and Clyde, the matzoth ball and soup of each other’s lives. When I was up, she was up, and when she was down, I was down—we were connected.

My mother made fabulous female friends who became family. She was the type of person who could be extremely close with a Republican Catholic, a Jewish yogi, a Chilean economist, and a WASPy interior designer. Not only did she befriend these women, she also bound them together for a common purpose: to ensure the health and happiness of my life. I now have my very own pack of eight mothers I turn to to guide me through this thing called life. She fostered a present-day version of the Biblical Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah sitting in that red tent.

When my mother died two years ago, my world stopped for an uncertain amount of time. There is a of haze around that entire chapter of my life. What I can say is it was a chapter of absolute despair, utter aloneness, and complete panic…. A really great time; I recommend it highly.

I was entering my senior year at University of California, Berkeley, when I got the call to come home. I flew 110 miles per hour down the I-5, wearing pajamas and tears, and praying to God that she not die before I got home. I met Rabbi Carla when I pulled up to my very front door. A godsend, an angel… well at that time she was more a wonderful shoulder to cry on. We sat on the swing outside my house and she just let me cry. My whole body had been flexed in tension during the drive, and on that bench my muscles numbly quivered and I just cried. In the two days I had been away my mom had shifted from “it could be a month or three” to “it is happening now,” and by the time I arrived she could no longer speak, and rarely opened her eyes. Rabbi Carla explained to me that she met my mother in the hospital when she was signing up for hospice, and that she was here to offer relief emotionally, spiritually and tactically. The Rabbi helped me mediate strained familial ties, deal with letting go, and shortly thereafter, plan what I had always been planning secretly in my mind, my mother’s funeral.

She digested my unqualified anguish and depression, over time helped coax my eternal optimist to come back to life. And I am not saying I am totally in the clear, but every day Rabbi Carla’s got my back. I must sound like a hoodlum, but trust me when I say she will support you come hell or high water. She is the most useful “therapy” I have grown from (and I’ve been going for most of my life as my mother was a doctor). I consider her my internal advocate, and my channel to reality. She allows me to see all my life’s puzzle pieces, and explain why I feel and act the way that I do. Rabbi Carla taught me how to heal.

My name is Rachel Gutson, and I was born on May 29th, 1989. I am the only child of a breast cancer fighter, and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and Partisan fighters. When people tell me “You are so strong”, I would always say “What choice do I have?” When you lose your only parent at the age of 21, people don’t know what to say.

Rabbi Carla knew what to say….

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