He was a pathologist by training but a family doctor by practice—at least with us, the Wolfe Family. In that case, he was our trusted advisor, the one we went to first with all our questions, concerns, and mysteries.
Dr. Amenta the male, my father called him.
Joe, my mother said, simply.
She, who trusted no one, trusted him, and we followed suit.
When I developed a mysterious rash on the soft, white underside of my arms, I took this mystery to him. Other doctors had looked at the cracked bleeding fingers, the vivid red bumps, the spreading despair, with no good answers. Dr. Amenta calmly assessed the situation, as always, holding my arms outstretched to him, gently tuning them to and fro. Then, in his calm, easy, explaining voice, he proclaimed a bit of hydrocortisone cream would fix it, and promised to get some from work for me.
How did he do that?
The solution came in a white, screw top plastic jar with white cream inside, and I smoothed it on immediately, relieved at once. And though it couldn’t wipe away the nervous energy and anxious thoughts mixed with farm dirt and family pain, the clean white mixture soothed my child’s soul and stopped the pain.
We spent each weekend at the Amentas after Mom and Dad were divorced, their kitchen providing a safe harbor, a happy landing place for three girls and a single father. We came bearing gifts: Corned beef from Iz Cohen’s (1/4 pound, thinly sliced, well-trimmed), and bagels from Bageland on Murray Avenue. We gathered with Dr. Amenta the male and Dr. Amenta the female and their three kids: Nina, Tom, and Davi. The older two were not around a lot but Davi, who was my age, was still at home. We ate lunch at the kitchen table under the Italian poster they brought home after their year in Italy on his sabbatical. Dr. Amenta the female would occasionally read it to us in Italian, her voice and fist raised, her wide smile, white teeth, and red lipstick drawing us in. She was the heartbeat of every lunch hour.
But Dr. Amenta the male held forth in his way, quieter, but still laughing, teasing, calling me Little Aunt Edith. He sometimes listened to me practice the piano on the baby grand in the music room, sitting next to me on the bench. “I don’t see what he thinks is so great,” Davi mumbled to me later. I didn’t either, but I felt complimented.
When Ruth Anne started throwing up violently as we left the Squirrel Hill Library one weekend, we took our concerns to him; he was just a few blocks away. He listened carefully, calm as always, then diagnosed it: “Appendicitis. Get her to the emergency room, right away.”
The surgery was done before Mom even knew about it. Dad called her from the hospital. She was upset we had not called sooner, but the family doctor, Dr. Amenta, had been Dad’s first thought.
When Mom was diagnosed with cancer later, she called Dr. Amenta the male to explain this disease to her. He spoke in terms she could understand and she believed: She, who trusted no one, trusted him.
When she died, he sent us a note. It was a plain white card, addressed to “The Luminiello Girls,” closing a chapter in our lives with sincere words of comfort and mutual loss that only a doctor who was also an intimate friend could provide.
Then it was Dad who got sick. Again, the phone rang; it was Dr. Amenta, calling to check on him sooner after we got to the hospital. He asked about the symptoms, then explained patiently in words we could understand, reassuring us:
Yes, it’s excruciating pain.
Yes, it takes time for the pancreas to repair.
Yes, he’s in good hands and they are doing what they need to do.
We were in the very hospital system that Dr. Amenta once worked in, in the research labs. This was his territory, and he was confident in their services. We, who trusted no one just then, trusted him.
The last time I saw him he came to visit Dad in the rehabilitation facility, with Gisela, his second wife. We’d been talking to him over the past two weeks, and Dad was out of danger now, but we still had questions: How long? What next? He gently answered: Awhile. Wait. It will get better.
At 86, Dr. Amenta was more fragile now: a meaty man but a damaged heart and a bout with prostate cancer that weakened him, making it difficult for him to walk, to stand. He used a walker, but when I greeted heard Gisela just outside Dad’s rehab door, I saw him throw back his shoulders, push the walker away, and practically march into the room. He wanted to be a picture of health so encourage Dad, who sat in an easy chair, covered in blankets and in pain, but glad to see him.
Dad, who trusted no one in that moment, trusted him.
The last time Dr. Amenta and I spoke on the phone, I was standing on Dad’s deck, watching the green leaves of deep summer moving around me. We’d planned to visit him and Gisela later in the day for dinner. But he was calling to say he didn’t think he could do it. By then his prostate cancer had returned, and he was much weaker, spending most of his time in bed. I was aware of time slowing down for a moment, feeling the phone in my hand, hearing his voice explaining calmly, as always, the right thing to do. I accepted his answer.
Me, who trusted no one, trusted him.
“You should call him in the mornings,” Davi said a few weeks later. “He’s pretty alert then.” She’d just been by for a visit to Pittsburgh all the way from Wisconsin. I put that on my list but when I did call, perhaps a week or two later, I spoke to Gisela instead. He could not come to the phone. “You know how it is,” she said.
I was shocked when he died the next day.
He, the trusted one, trusted himself with his own final answers, and so must we.
Thank you, Dr. Amenta, for your good care all these years. I know I am not the only one who is grateful for it.
In the grief garden.