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  • Kappelschnitzer in Mourning
  • Jacob M. Appel (bio)

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Photo by Thomas Leuthard

[End Page 10]

The trouble for Dr. Kappelschnitzer started with the obituary:

Shirley Kappelschnitzer, 67, beloved wife of Arnold. Life commemoration: Tuesday, April 9, 11 a.m., at Temple Beth Or. Interment private. In lieu of flowers, contributions to the New York Botanical Gardens. [End Page 11]

He’d read the obituary in the Times that morning—in his sixties, he’d started perusing the death notices, just as he’d once teased his own mother for doing—and the name had startled him, although Arnold Kappelschnitzer, MD, PhD, retired navy commander and chief of endocrinology at Mount Hebron Medical Center, was not a man easily startled. He’d believed himself to be the planet’s only living Kappelschnitzer, at least since his late sister had married. The peculiar name, whose origins were long lost, meant “hat carver” in Yiddish, although “carving hats” was obviously not an occupation. But Kappelschnitzer had never married. The only Shirley he had known was his third grade teacher, Mrs. Deutsch, and she’d be decades dead. He couldn’t recall having ever visited the New York Botanical Gardens or any other botanical gardens, for that matter, though when he was in his twenties, a fellow officer on the Valley Forge had once dragged him to see the cherry blossoms at Nagoya. So the whole morning long at the hospital, Kappelschnitzer found himself in the awkward position of receiving condolences from acquaintances—obituary-reading colleagues and patients of a certain age—for a loss that was not remotely his own.

Kappelschnitzer was a man of scrupulous instincts, and during the first few expressions of misplaced sympathy, he sought to set the record straight, correcting an elderly patient with Graves’ disease who expressed surprise to find him at the office and another who had survived a kidney transplant but couldn’t manage to keep her diabetes in check. But when the longtime desk clerk in the clinic, gum-snapping Gladys, asked how he was holding up—it took him a moment to realize that she meant on account of his “widowhood”—he merely replied, “As well as can be expected” and thanked her for her concern. The mistake was hers, after all. Not his. Same with the nursing supervisor from the osteoporosis center who sent him lots of “heartfelt” wishes over e-mail. Why did he have an obligation to proclaim his bachelorhood to the world?

On reflection, the entire experience struck Kappelschnitzer as rather alienating. These people weren’t lifelong friends, to be sure, but he’d always assumed (admittedly without evidence) that they were familiar with the basic contours of his life; it came as rather a shock to realize how little of him they actually knew. Of course, why should they know more? He didn’t carry a placard that proclaimed his bachelorhood. And the lack of knowledge ran both ways: He couldn’t speak to the nursing supervisor’s marital status, couldn’t say whether Gladys enjoyed a life of gum-snapping spinsterhood. Usually a cheerful soul, Kappelschnitzer [End Page 12] prided himself on his equanimity, his upbeat temperament; he now wandered the hospital sporting a hangdog look, one that attracted still more erroneous well-wishing.

On his lunch break—he didn’t often take a lunch break, but his one o’clock thyroid had canceled—he rode up to the sixteenth floor and asked the receptionist if Dr. Wainwright had a few minutes to chat. Fritz Wainwright had been his classmate at Yale. Eons ago, it seemed. Now he was executive vice chairman of the Department of Psychiatry. Kappelschnitzer discovered the headshrinker sprawled on a floor mat with one foot elevated on a throw pillow.

“Don’t mind me, Arnie.” Wainwright appeared to be wiggling his toes. “I’m doing rehab. Tracing the alphabet with my phalanges. You’ll be pleased to know I’ve already polished off the Latin twenty times, and now I’ve started on the Greek. Professor Havelock would be proud.” He motioned for Kappelschnitzer to seat himself on the leather couch. “Say, Arnie, I’m truly sorry...


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