Memoir of My Father John Ernest Sarno, MD
June 28-29, 2017
Written at Mattituck, Long Island the week of his funeral
First memory, primal: the texture and weave of Dad’s tweed jacket. I was snuggled in Dad’s lap. Dad smoked cherry tobacco. The aroma was sweet when he smoked and when I opened the tin in Dad’s absence to sniff his unsmoked tobacco. I examined Dad’s corncob pipe and the carved wooden pipes Dad kept on a stand by his reading chair.
In 1957 the doorbell rang at our home in Fishkill, New York. Dad opened the door. Grandpa John Sarno stood on the stoop, saying, “I gotta nice piece-a fish!” Both were Italian fishermen who prized male rituals of hooking, cleaning and cooking fish. Dad and Grandpa John smoked cigars after family dinners, their cigar smoke pungent unlike Dad’s pipe smoke.
Dad loved to teach and learn. At a family dinner in Wicopee, Dad drew for me a diagram of the human eye on a paper napkin. That year, 1960, while we lived in Wicopee on the mountain, Dad moved away to further his medical training at NYU. The home and view were beautiful but Dad’s absence gave Mom ulcers, so Mom, David, Lauren and I joined Dad in New York City from 1961 to 1963.
While living in the city we visited Dad’s folks, traveling to Long Island for family vacations. On Long Island Sound beach, Dad found a flat purple rock about 1/2 inch thick, 6 inches across and round like a pancake. Dad was excited because it was a perfect skipping stone. All day he built up anticipation in us kids and at sunset he skipped that stone out onto the waters of Long Island Sound. It was a mighty skip and the stone bounced 7 times on the water before descending into the deep.
Cutchogue, Long Island, 1964. Mom and Dad rented a summer house with the Levitt family. We went clamming in the inlet and secured a bushel of clams. Dad said I could eat as many clams as I liked. He opened the clams with a special knife and I ate clams until Dad made me stop at 20.
While reading at the beach I left my glasses in the sun-warmed sand and the lenses fell out. Dad and Abe Levitt recalled that optometrists use hot sand to relax plastic frames sufficiently to put in lenses. Aiming to repair my glasses, Dad and Abe collected sand, heated it on the stove in a baking pan, and buried my glasses frame in the sand. Ooops! Too hot, too long! The plastic frame melted to an unusable blue shape. Abe Levitt, a renowned architect, told me, “Your father is the only man I loved with the passion I felt for a woman—not sexual love but passion for his mind.” Dad and Abe talked for hours; I listened.
Dad was an excellent musician who could play piano and guitar, harmonize by ear, and follow lead sheets. At many a Sarno family reunion in Ronkonkoma, Mattituck or Parkchester, we would sing after dinner. I loved to hear Dad’s voice drop into harmony on the baritone part. I recall Dad playing the Krakauer piano in our music room in Rockland County. He swept his fingers up the keys glissando and played an introduction with a bluesy feel, then swung into a danceable version of Deep Purple.
At a Rockland hootenanny, my cousin John Thomas Sarno sang “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Boys” and Dad came in on the last line, “So we tanned his ‘ide when he died, Clyde, and that’s it ‘anging in the shed!” But Dad got excited and muffed the line; he kicked himself about it afterwards.
When I showed an interest in stringed instruments as well as piano, Dad took me to New York City and purchased a beautiful little Martin guitar. I became a folk singer and songwriter with that guitar.
Dad accepted the lead role and sang, “The name’s LaGuardia! L-A-G-U-A-R-D-I-A!” in a Rockland musical. With no microphone, his voice rang throughout the auditorium; generations of Italian opera singers culminated in that performance.
Dad knew food is the best medicine. One morning I watched him make breakfast. He’d bought a string of hot red Italian dried peppers and hung them on the kitchen wall. He cooked up a pot of rice. He took a couple of those peppers, heated them in a skillet of olive oil until fragrant, and fried a couple of eggs in the hot pepper oil. He heaped rice on a plate, crowned the rice with fried eggs and crisp peppers, and ate with gusto. “In the morning, eat like a king, at noon eat like a prince, in the evening eat like a pauper,” said Dad.
Dad and I often talked after dinner. One day we were talking politics and I used the word “they.” Dad told me, “Never use the word they. Specify exactly who did or said what.”
Dad loved the outdoors. In the autumn, Dad and David and I raked leaves and mulched them. I still think of Dad when I pick up a rake. Winter mornings in Rockland, Dad bundled up in warm clothes to bicycle 6 miles to the hospital in Haverstraw. In good weather, Dad and I bicycled together. (I realized later that Dad spent time with me in part to avoid Mom.) In order to identify bird songs, Dad instructed me to pedal slowly on downhills so my bicycle wouldn’t click as we coasted.
Toward the end of our sojourn in Rockland, Mother did something quite inappropriate; she violated doctor-patient confidentiality by calling author Carson McCullers, one of Dad’s patients, and had tea with her in Nyack. When Mom told Dad, “I had tea with Carson McCullers today,” Dad “blew his stack,” as Mom termed it. “I could lose my medical license!” he stormed. During that same period Dad yelled at Mother because she’d let a stack of newspapers build up in the living room. “Why can’t you just enjoy your family?” asked Mom. It turned out Dad had exact answers to that question.
Summer of 1965: Dad took violinist Jon Kass and me to hike Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks. Dad had a fever when we set out but he wouldn’t cancel the hike, saying, “This hike will either kill me or cure me.” We carried sleeping bags and food on pack frames and slept overnight on the mountain. Dad spent hours looking into the fire that night while Jon and I slept, lulled by the sound of a rushing stream. We summited the next day and then plunged down the mountainside. Shortly afterwards Mom and Dad announced to David and Lauren and I that they were divorcing. Dad told me privately, that night on Mount Marcy I was agonizing over my decision to divorce Mom and leave you kids.
After the divorce Lauren and David and I rode the bus from Rockland County into New York City to spend weekends with Dad and his wife and colleague Martha Lamarque. I realized Dad and Martha loved each other very much, and I was glad that Dad no longer blew his stack. On these visits Dad explained to us that many patients reported acute pain, but the pain had no observable physical cause. Dr. John Sarno, MD had discovered TMS, tension myositis syndrome, and he was pioneering a program to teach his patients to heal their own pain using psychological insight.
In 1972 biochemist David Kurtz (Princeton ’73) and I visited Dad and Martha. Dad said of David, “He’s the genuine article.” Dad continued to communicate his medical discoveries: he told me and David, if you take 100 random people off the street, spinal x-rays reveal a percentage of herniated discs; there’s no statistical correlation between herniated discs and back pain. Dad shook his head as he described neurosurgeons who would conduct 4 or 5 lumbar laminectomies on a single back pain patient, then send the patient to my father when the back pain persisted.
In 1974 I visited Dad to ask for help with college tuition. He offered me free tuition at New York University where he was a professor in the medical school, but I chose to take out loans and continue my studies at Princeton. Dad said, “You have a passive dependent personality. Go away and don’t come back until you are independent.”
After that command, I did not visit Dad and Martha for 20 years. Just before I left New York City for the west coast I was running in Central Park and saw a fellow jogging towards me who looked like Grandpa John. It was Dad! His hair had gone all pepper and salt. We embraced and talked for a few minutes before we continued to run in opposite directions.
My great-aunt Barbara Calabrese passed away in the old DeVoe Street neighborhood and I attended the funeral of this great and kind soul. When I came out of the subway up onto the Brooklyn street where I last visited as a toddler, an old woman dressed in black came up to me on the sidewalk, looked me in the face, and said, “You’re John Sarno’s daughter.” The cultural distance from the close-knit DeVoe Street neighborhood to “go away” is vast and somehow encapsulates the tragedy of the American family in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
When my daughter Sara Teresa was a toddler in Oregon, Dad called to say he had a medical conference in the Northwest; he would to fly to Eugene to see me and meet Sara Teresa. But Sara’s father Jason refused to let Sara Teresa go with me to meet Dad. I drove to the airport alone. Dad said, “Where’s your little sidekick?” Dad and I drove to Florence and had dinner overlooking the Pacific Ocean, but my heart ached because Dad didn’t get to meet Sara Teresa. They did meet later when Sara Teresa was an adult.
In 1994 I was working hard, managing a sustainable farm and organic bakery in Cave Junction with Ecuadorean scientist/agriculturist Amando Barzola-Hidalgo. That year I suffered from chronic headache. I realized, for months I’ve been writing a letter to Dad in my head. I noticed that where the letter ended in my mind, the headache began. I wrote to Dad, told him I’d become independent, and the chronic headache stopped. Later (on the telephone) I told Dad how I vanquished that headache and how years earlier I’d healed a uterine tumor using psychological insight. Dad said, “You’re a chip off the old block.”
Dad and I corresponded for years. Recalling how we enjoyed raking leaves, hiking, biking outdoors, and cooking healthful foods, I reported the crops I grew each summer in the Music Garden. I confided how, using diet, insight and exercise I healed tumors in colon, ovaries, breast, and uterus.
In 2003 Dad was sitting on his living room couch at his and Martha’s Fifth Avenue apartment listening to my CD Greensleeves. Dad’s eyes were closed, he had a smile on his face, and his hands were conducting the music. I was passing through New York City on my way back from researching my book Greensleeves in Ireland.
Dad and I had just taken a walk in Central Park. During our walk Dad told me about his latest book, his magnum opus, he called it, correlating information about many psychosomatic ailment—including allergies—that could be healed through insight. Dad excused himself for a moment and chinned himself five times on a piece of park equipment, remarkable for a man of 80 years!
I last saw Dad in 2015. I had come east for Princeton’s Alumni Day to hear classmate Sonia Sotomayor ’76 speak. After Alumni Day I called Dad from a friend’s home. Dad couldn’t come to the phone but Martha invited me to visit. Dad’s memory was gone. He did not remember that he had a pacemaker installed in his heart. He could not recall what he said one minute ago. I asked him, “What do you think about?” and he said, “That’s a good question.”
Dad and I talked on the phone throughout 2016 and early 2017. Although his memory was gone, we had genuine conversations. “How are you?” he asked. I told him, “I’m 64 years old, everything works and nothing hurts.” “What more could you ask?” said Dad. I said, “I’ve been playing romantic dinner music at a family restaurant in Homer, Alaska.” Dad said, “You’re a chip off the old block; I was in demand to play piano for dancers at Kalamazoo College.”
The last words I heard from Dad, on a phone call about a month before he passed away: “I love you, baby.”
I am thrilled by Michael Galinsky’s documentary about Dad, “All the Rage (Saved by Sarno).” Friends who watched the trailer said, “You look just like your father!” The old Italian lady on DeVoe Street would have agreed.
Cousin John Thomas Sarno called me on June 22, 2017, one day before Dad’s 94th birthday. John said Martha had been trying to reach me. “Martha asked me to let you know that your father passed away this morning.” John and I cried on the phone together. After John’s call I crumpled over the table at my friend’s home in Anchorage.
I am almost 65 years old at Dad’s passing. Dad’s influence on my life was profound. Dad taught me to think as a scientist: Observe. Reason from facts. Make no assumptions. He played great music on piano and guitar and put beautiful musical instruments in my hands. He taught me, speak the truth and damn the consequences. He taught me to cook and eat for health.
Dad taught me not to care what others think about me, especially people in cliques. Adam Connor-Simons quoted Eric Sherman in Dad’s New York Times obituary: Dr. Sarno was “notoriously indifferent to others’ opinions of him.” (Sunday, June 25, 2017, Obituaries) The American Medical Association “blackballed” (Dad’s word) my father and refused to publish his scientific papers; Dad regarded the AMA as a narrow-minded clique and proceeded to publish his work in Europe.
Dad wanted to compose music, but he chose financial security and went into medicine. “Under no circumstances should you go into music as a profession,” he warned. I tried other lines of work, but never made a decent living until I started to teach music and compose scores for documentary films. I am living one of my father’s dreams.
As Dad’s youthful confidant, I understood why Dad abandoned our family. Dad’s idea of heaven was a quiet place to write. Mom’s idea of heaven was to invite two families with their kids and pets to visit for the weekend. Dad was a serious man driven by a deep sense of purpose. Mom was ethical, had a great heart and loved books, but Mom was not a musician, writer or creative. She was a loving mother who opened our home to waifs and strays; when friends ran away from home they came to our house. Mom was somewhat childish and would ask foolish questions. Dad said about Mother, “I have three and a half children.”
In contrast, Martha suited Dad very well, and their lifelong collaboration produced several books beginning with Stroke, which they wrote together as a primer for families with a relative recovering from stroke.
After Dad left our family I suffered a seven year depression. Although I understood Dad’s reasons for leaving I felt betrayed and abandoned. Dad said, “Depression is displaced anger; you can overcome depression by figuring out what you’re angry about.” Eventually I did overcome that depression. Experience of depression developed my compassion and prepared the way for my current advocacy for people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Absent Dad’s counsel and protection I made many mistakes and had several failed marriages. I tended to idealize my mate and discover too late that I could not live with his (pick one) anger, violence, inflexibility, or emotional indifference. Like Dad, I have an inner sense of purpose. I would not be confined in a marriage that violated my sense of purpose.
Unlike Dad, I eschewed academic honors for entrepreneurial independence. I emigrated from New York to the west coast and became a country woman, then to Tucson to care for our aging beloved mother. At the age of 58 I traveled by bicycle, train and ferry to Alaska to start over again. I gained ten pounds of muscle and rich experience on that journey.
Experience and our evolving immortal soul are all we take with us on our posthumous universe journey. Dad infused my life with useful principles and beautiful experiences. My debt to John Ernest Sarno, MD is vast. I embrace my responsibility to build on and pass forward his legacy.
Like Dad, I hoped for a mate who would encompass, understand, and support my creative work as a thinker, writer, composer, gardener and musician, to whom I could confide every thought, and whose work I in turn would encourage and support. That mate has indeed found me, but that is another story.