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Our Norwegian Saga: Bygdøy and the Museums

September 22, 2018

Today dawned clear and bright, a welcome contrast to yesterday’s alternating drizzles and downpours. A clear blue sky replaced the looming gray cloud cover; it was just the perfect day for us to journey out to Bygdøy and visit the museums we had penciled into our Nordic itinerary over a year before. We were going to visit the Vikingskipshuset (the Viking Ship Museum), the Norsk Folkemuseum (Norwegian Museum of Cultural History), and the Norsk Maritimt Museum (Norwegian Maritime Museum).

These three museums, and two others we did not visit, are on the Bygdøy peninsula. The peninsula, once a true island, as one can tell by the distinctive ending on its name, is filled with parks and forests and several small, but upscale, residential areas. In addition to five national museums, it also houses the summer residence of the King of Norway. The peninsula is most easily reached by taking the ferry from downtown Oslo—the harbor only a few steps from the Nobel Peace Center, the former Oslo West Railway Station.

The ferry ride was short and uneventful; most of the transit involved the checking or purchasing of ferry tickets. Soon we were on the peninsula navigating to our first stop, the Viking Ship museum, where, among other recovered Viking-era ships, the Osebergskipet (Oseberg ship) is on display.  The Oseberg ship is an extremely well-preserved clinker-built longship of a type called a karve. The longship was, by all accounts, a seaworthy, working vessel that was later promoted to use as a funerary ship for an important personage. The karve was recovered from a large burial mound at the Oseberg farm near Tønsberg in Vestfold county, Norway, complete with grave goods and the skeletons of two women.

The Oseberg Ship, 2018

This ship held a particular fascination for our little group of adventurers because of the possibility that one of the two women found in the burial was Queen Åsa of the Yngling clan, mother of Halfdan the Black and grandmother of Harald Fairhair. Why our particular interest? As it turns out, Joan had been able to trace her Norwegian ancestry back some twenty-six generations, using a combination of Norwegian church records, historical sources, and Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, directly to Queen Åsa. This connection, even if only possibly true, and mayhap only an exotic family story, added a particular thrill to the visit. Justin and Andrea had fully prepared for the visit, by reading William L. Sullivan’s The Ship in the Hill, a partly fictional recounting of the ship’s background story and 1904 excavation. Justin had finished the book, in fact, just hours before we stepped into the Vikingskipshuset and gazed up at the ship, with its elaborate, mesmerizing carvings at bow and stern. These carvings, in the so-called “gripping beast” style, featured fantastic creatures that intertwined as they grappled and snapped at one another.

One exhibit, amongst the displays of grave goods and carvings, had a disquieting effect on Joan and Justin. It showed the skeletal remains of two women, one older, and by the evidence, once important. The other, quite possibly a sacrifice, a handmaiden sent to accompany her companion across the last threshold. A set of skeletal teeth on one of them was starkly visible and a bit jarring. Joan felt a chill, eerily unsettled; she seemed momentarily distant.

Only later did she articulate her emotions, “it didn’t seem like the right place for them…it seemed inappropriate somehow. When I look at remains like these, I always imagine real people. I see them in my mind’s eye. I relate to them as what they once were, not the relicts that lie under the glass, under the gaze of thousands of strangers.”

Justin, terse and serious as he sometimes is, seemed similarly affected, but uttered only a single sentence, albeit one that said it all, “I read that they were buried….”

While he was referencing the book he had just hours before finished reading, his words expressed the essence of what he and Joan were feeling. The remains seemed displaced, in the wrong place, certainly not where this ancient pair had expected to be, on public view. The burial had been magnificent and intended by kin and community to bestow honor upon the deceased. Was this public display an honor?

It has to be said it was clear that, for both Joan and Justin, and maybe to some extent for Andrea and Greg, as affines to these Norwegians, there was something old and primeval unearthed in the presence of the longship. The curving prow, the fighting beasts, the swell and curve of the belly of the ship, brought up and to the surface, from somewhere deep within, a sense of great heritage, of a timeless legacy, and, yes, of kinship. There was an ineffable, inexorable feeling of attraction where past and present met, and we were balanced, if merely for moments, in a time between, when a long dead Queen reached out her hand and laid it proudly upon the brows of her children.

Humbled—yet stirred—by the great antiquity of what we had seen, we headed to the Norsk Folkemuseum to pick up the thread of Norway’s cultural history and follow it for just some centuries further. The Folk Museum is actually a fairly large complex consisting of indoor exhibit galleries and an “open air” museum similar to the one we had visited in Trondheim in 2003. The gallery exhibits focus on Norwegian folk art traditions, Norwegian folk dress, Saami culture, and even the history of Norwegian knitting!

The traditional carvings, regional folk painting styles, and complex textile patterns we saw in the exhibits brought home to us the significance of the traditional and decorative arts in Norwegian life—arts that are even to this day honored, preserved, and practiced. Our small collection of Swedish and Norwegian crafts at home certainly seemed unimportant and miniscule in the context of the museum. But both collections, the large and the small, signify a reverence for Norwegian folk tradition, in Norway today and among Norway’s scattered descendants in America.

Folk Arts of Norway, 2018

The outdoor exhibition was extensive, with relocated and restored farm buildings of all types: homes, granaries, outbuildings, and barns. There was a reconstructed “old town” with a collection of shops and dwellings from the cities and towns of bygone times in Oslo. There was a striking stavkirke (stave church), and also some examples of buildings from summer dairy farms called seters.  Many of Joan and Justin’s female ancestors from the Sogn og Fjordane region had been summer dairy milkmaids, or seterbudeia, residing the entire season temporarily in cottages on the seter. Our cameras were busy, recording rooflines, steeples, lintels and doorways, chronicling the everyday constructions that must have been home and hearth and neighborhood to generations of Joan and Justin’s ancestors.

Justin and Greg at the outdoor museum on Bygdøy, 2018

We could have spent longer on these extensive grounds, but a tourist’s day is finite, and there was one museum left on our itinerary. A little bit of a walk took us to the Maritime Museum. While Joan’s maternal grandmother’s ancestors had emigrated from the small farms along the Nordjord, her maternal grandfather’s people had come from islands off the Western coast, Vikna and Leka—the islands we had passed earlier in the week. They had farmed, but also extensively fished, living as they did, in constant contact with the sea. They had been skippers, mates, and crewmen on a myriad ships and pursued the Norwegian cod in the Lofoten Islands for generations. Many of her ancestors paid for their unspoken contract with the Norwegian sea using the only currency that mattered, their lives.

The Maritime Museum captured quite effectively the long and entangled history of Norway and the sea. A history of fjord sailing, coastal navigation, and transatlantic crossing. A history of fighting, fishing, and freight; a history of the transportation of a great portion of an entire people to America via emigration, and, now, lately, of luxury cruises and tourist amenities. One exhibit, quite striking, allowed visitors to imagine themselves on a vintage cruise ship, perhaps an early iteration of the vessels that first began to take passengers on tours along the Western coast to the North Cape. We could climb the wooden staircase up and down from panoramic lounge to dining room, and to the first- and second-class cabins. We had a clearer visual sense of how Casper and Gjertine’s 1932 journey must have been. Later, we stumbled upon a large-scale replica of the MS Stavangerfjord, the very ship that had transported her great-grandparents from Oslo, to Bergen, to Trondheim and finally up the coast to the northernmost tip of Norway, the eighty-six-year-old journey that we had, to some great degree, just replicated a few days before.

A Scale Model of the SS Stavangerfjord, 2018

However, as exciting as our discovery of the Stavangerfjord was, one of the most affecting exhibits was not this large model, but a very small painting by Christian Krohg in the maritime art gallery, entitled, simply, “The Herring Are In” [Silda kommer]. It depicts Norwegian fishermen in the street of a small town, putting on slickers and running for their boats. Two women are leaning out of windows, watching them hurry away to the sea. Their postures express a mix of hope for a bountiful catch and of unspoken fear. Joan and Greg remember the fiskerbondekona statue in the Rørvik town square we saw fifteen years ago—a fisherman’s wife looking out to sea with an expression of both expectancy and dread. The Norwegian sea is the source of life and health and wealth, but also of unexpected violence, death, and sorrow.

Silda kommer by Christian Krohg, Oslo Maritime Museum

Thoughtful, we returned to the ferry, navigating our own way back home by water and then by land. We turned in, after a cobbled together dinner of sandwiches, thinking already of our last full day in Oslo tomorrow.

The Good Doctor

 

Dr, Andrew Novick Photo

Dr. Andrew Novick

On October 10 Greg had a strange and singular experience. All of a sudden, after doing nothing more difficult and remarkable than getting out of the bathtub, Greg began to experience severe double vision—dysplopia for those inclined to medical terminology. He was seeing two perfect images side-by-side, images that would easily resolve into one if he just closed one of his eyes.

Greg had so-called “binocular double vision,” which often appears as a symptom of a number of serious conditions ranging from brain tumors and aneurysms to multiple sclerosis and myasthenia gravis. This, quite understandably, triggered urgent phone calls, a flurry of medical office visits, and an emergency MRI of the brain and brain stem. It was certainly a series of strange and discomfiting days.

But, it was the MRI that really brought the memories rushing back—dredged up from sixteen years ago—memories of other strange days and other anxious visits to hospitals—and memories of a most extraordinary doctor. This wasn’t the first time that Greg had to lay, still and quiet, mind racing with morbid scenarios, inside a clanking, claustrophobic tube. It wasn’t the first time that Greg (and Joan) would have to wait for results—both trying their best to balance precariously on a knife edge of fear—listening for a single phone call that could bring with it greatest joy (you’re cancer-free!) or deepest sorrow (I’m sorry, we found a shadow, a lump).

Every time Greg has to have a CAT scan or MRI, the experience is tinged with dread. Every whine of the tube, every mechanical clank of the whirling magnets is an awful counterpoint to his racing thoughts. Am I already dying as I lay here, arms flat to my sides, in awful semblance of a corpse? Am I just killing time until I get the bad news? Or will this machine, a marvel of medical science, tell me I have years to go before I must close my eyes for good? Lying supine in these machines brings one’s thoughts very close to the possibility of death, the metal and plastic tube a premonition of a tomb.

As it turns out, Greg would be fine. Death was not imminent. The machine delivered the much desired good news. There was no tumor, no cancer, just a simple “insufficiency” of blood to the sixth cranial nerve. Cause unknown—nothing to see here—move on. In six weeks it will be as if nothing had ever happened. But it did happen; and we were afraid, again, after all these years, of all those bad things that can befall a long-married couple.

This was all dwelling on our minds when, just a few weeks later, on an otherwise routine November morning, while filling out a medical form necessary for seeing a specialist about Greg’s double vision, Joan googled the name of the doctor who had removed Greg’s kidney after a diagnosis of cancer.  Sadly, her innocent search uncovered the dark news that Greg’s surgeon, Dr. Andrew Novick, a world-renowned urologist at the Cleveland Clinic, had, unbeknownst to us, passed away, some eight years previously.

Deeply saddened by the unexpected news, we found our thoughts turning back to one of the darkest times in our life together. Fortunately for us, Greg’s brush with renal carcinoma had a happy ending—and we know all too well this is not the case for everyone. What we knew, for a certainty, was that sixteen years ago this extraordinary man, this most excellent physician, had saved Greg’s life.

In the summer of 1999 after a long and excruciating night in pain, Greg discovered a massive amount of blood in his urine—there is nothing like a toilet bowl full of scarlet to inspire immediate terror. An urgent visit to the doctor resulted in a “probable” kidney stone diagnosis.  Greg was advised to watch for the stone to pass—but when no stone appeared, our then family physician, Dr. James Waugh of Kent, Ohio, following medical protocol, ordered an intravenous pyelogram.  We both remember with utter clarity the call that came from him just the next day. Greg wasn’t home. Joan, unaware of what the test results were to show, gave the doctor’s office Greg’s cell number. Although something, perhaps a faint tremor of emotion in Dr. Waugh’s voice, told her that the news wasn’t good, she had to patiently wait to hear from Greg himself:  “They found a shadow on my kidney.”

Appointments followed. Greg, we need to discuss treatment options. Greg, we need to schedule a CAT scan. Greg, the CAT scan shows a 10cm tumor. Greg—it’s renal carcinoma. Greg, you need surgery. Greg, I think you should go to the Cleveland Clinic. Greg, I think you should meet with Dr. Andrew Novick. Greg, he’s the best there is.

There are many things about that time in our lives to blog about: depression; sleepless nights; regrets. All the deeds left undone and words left unsaid. Above all one could write about how one day life is, well, normal, quite unremarkable. You wake up in the morning, get coffee, send the kids off to school, put in a day’s work. And then suddenly, a two-minute phone call changes your world—irrevocably. In the hours and days that followed, we were both consumed by an almost overwhelming fear of what might lie ahead of us.

But that dark time really isn’t the only subject of today’s blog. It is also about a man named Andrew Novick and our brief but life-affirming connection.  By 1999 Dr. Novick had already been Chairman of the Department of Urology for fourteen years. During his tenure in the Department he led the urology program to the top of the national rankings (according to an annual survey conducted by the U.S. News & World Report). He had authored hundreds of research publications and held visiting professorships at academic centers around the world. Greg’s best chance of survival, we decided, would be to get treatment from the best.

The many trips we made to the Cleveland Clinic for testing that summer of 1999 are now mostly a murky blur to us, but the day we met with Dr. Novick—that day is crystal clear. It could have happened yesterday. His handshake was warm and genuine; his voice was confident and soothing. He explained the entire surgical procedure Greg would endure and what we could expect. Due to the size of the tumor, he said it was possible that the cancer had spread to Greg’s spleen and that the spleen might also have to be removed. As he spoke about the upcoming surgery, tears welled up in Joan’s eyes.  Dr. Novick gently took her hand and reassured her, “Don’t worry; we’ll get him back to health.” That moment and those words were a turning point for Joan.  Dr. Novick was not the kind of man to give false hope. If he felt confident of success, so did she.

When he had finished talking with us in his office, Dr. Novick suggested we go out to the main office and check the surgery schedule. August 9th was the first available date.

“Our first date was on August 9th,” remarked Joan.

“That was the day I met my wife,” Dr. Novick added.

We three decided that this was a good omen.

The day of the surgery, Greg had to be at the Cleveland Clinic at 7 am to be prepped for his radical nephrectomy at 9 am. It wasn’t until after 4:00 pm that Dr. Novick called Joan on the waiting-room phone with the news that the surgery had been successful. He felt confident that all the cancer had been removed. The tumor was self-contained, encapsulated on the kidney; “it was just sitting there,” he said. It hadn’t spread to the spleen. Greg had every hope of living many more years. And here we both still are, sixteen years later. Yet, sadly, Dr. Novick himself is not.

It is no small accomplishment to have the expertise and skill to perform a surgery like the one that saved Greg’s life. It takes years of study, hard work, and dedication. Such uncanny expertise mixed with personal warmth and extreme compassion; only one word comes to mind, extraordinary. What Dr. Novick did for us was no mean thing. It wasn’t just the surgery and the gift of his sure and capable hands; he also gave us a spark of hope, the courage to move forward into the darkness of an uncertain future. As it turns out, we could have many more years together.   Greg would be able to see his children grow and thrive.  For all these things we are deeply grateful.

In the years that followed we saw Dr. Novick just a few more times when Greg needed to go to the Clinic for his six-month check-ups. There were more CAT scans, all clanking and whirling, and more anxious waiting for results. After a while Greg’s cancer checkups and his CAT scans were done less frequently and more locally; we ceased making trips up to the Cleveland Clinic. Then, after a while, no more CAT scans were called for at all. Greg was cancer-free. We never saw Dr. Novick again after that.

During the nine years that followed the surgery, Dr. Novick helped create one of the most prestigious medical facilities in the world, the Glickman Urological and Kidney Institute. His urology program would continue to be ranked among the top two in the country. He championed the partial nephrectomy, a procedure which removes only diseased tissue and saves as much healthy tissue as possible. Always the innovator, Dr. Novick also pioneered a technique that used ice baths to spare kidney function. In recognition of his many accomplishments, he received the Ramon Guiteras Award, the American Urological Association’s highest honor, in May 2008.

On October 19, 2008, just two weeks before the Glickman Urological and Kidney Institute was to open its doors to its first patients, Dr. Andrew Novick passed away from complications of lymphoma. He was only 60 years old. It is impossible to determine how many lives he had already saved, how many more lives he could have saved—would have saved— had he lived. It is all so unspeakably sad and unfair—as life itself often is.

With his strong, capable hands Dr. Novick healed Greg—lifted him up as he lay dying. With his warm, compassionate voice, he gave Joan courage and hope when she needed it most desperately.

But he could not, in the end—all his skill and knowledge not withstanding—heal himself. His own cancer he could not cast out. We survived, and he did not.

Dr. Novick, Andrew, had touched us so closely; a relationship at once both unimaginably intimate and so clinically distant.  Yet, we did not even know that he was gone—had been gone for eight years already. Something seems very wrong about that. There is a debt owed, but it is one that can never be repaid except in remembrance and gratitude. For the man who was there, the man who reached out his hand to help and heal: farewell good doctor, farewell.


Photo courtesy of Cleveland Plain Dealer

http://blog.cleveland.com/metro/2008/10/dr_andrew_novick_dies_was_reno.html