Sunday, March 06, 2011

Thoughts About My Uncle Bart

I just got the sad news earlier this year that my favorite uncle, Bart Bush, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He's in his eighties, so that was not entirely unexpected. I just found out, however, that he has just been diagnosed with cancer.

He's an amazing man - a skilled pediatrician who practiced for four decades in Manhattan Beach, California. He had his own practice and when his partners retired, my cousin Renee had to come in and straighten out the books. Bart never wanted to pressure patients who couldn’t pay.

After he “retired,” he continued caring for patients at LA County clinics in Watts. He dealt with desperately poor and often scared and lonely patients. He told me of one woman whose husband was leaving for seasonal work in Mexico. The man sewed shut the woman’s vagina so she wouldn’t cheat on him in his absence. Bart had to clean up the terrible infection caused by her husband’s crude surgery. This could have been my uncle’s golden retirement years, but my Uncle Bart spent a chunk of it dealing with such hard luck cases.

Bart Bush is conversant in nine languages, comfortably speaking in French, Italian, Spanish, German (and a wide smattering of Yiddish), Polish, Russian, Arabic and Hebrew. He started studying Cherokee in his late seventies.

He's an expert on classical music, and loves opera and the twentieth century composers like Shoernberg. He hated baroque composers like Bach – I think they were too tidy and predictable. Bart saw the messiness of the real world in his medical practice and I think atonality captured that reality in a more vivid way.

At the same time was a fan of slasher movies. His favorite film was a camp classic revenge thriller named "I Spit on Your Grave." That was Bart – equal parts sophisticated and hilariously vulgar.

He started a tradition where, when enough of the family and his friends got together, we'd play a no-holds-barred football game on the Pacific Beach. He named these games the “Emesis Bowl” – after the hardware hospital patients regurgitate into. My blind cousin Bob traditionally played center for both teams.

Bart had been a devout Catholic. He used to go to Mass every morning. My Aunt Lorraine was infertile and they adopted three children through the church. The children are as complex as Bart – one, my cousin Joe, is a brilliant psychiatrist who pioneered pain management techniques for small children. Renee is a highly successful businesswoman in the Bay Area. Philip, who struggled with a learning disability as a child, is literally an outdoorsman who as often as not hunts for his meals with his equally outdoorsy wife.

Bart and my aunt Lorraine, a nurse he met while attending medical school at Loyala University in New Orleans, pieced this family together in part because the Catholic adoption agencies knew my aunt and uncle were such faithful members of the church.

However, my uncle had a conscience. By the time I was a teenager, he had basically become an atheist. He couldn’t countenance the church’s position on abortion. In his practice, he had seen too often the dangerous physical trauma women suffered in pregnancy to accept the church’s glib “tough luck” attitude towards those pregnant facing lifetime complications or worse if they went to full term.

He was a big influence on my sense of humor. He had an encyclopedic memory for jokes and could rattle off ten in a row with flawless timing.

He's traveling to Texas basically to say goodbye to that wing of the family. We're getting together April 1. I'll probably never see him again. Few people have had such a deep impact on me. I am infinitely sad.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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