Life & Culture

Dreaming of retirement in the Shtetl-by-the-Sea

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Karen Skinazi's grandmother Miriam Shuman in her peak Miami years

Growing up, we went to Miami every Christmas. It was always the same: First, my dad would say, “no way, not this year.” Business wasn’t great; we couldn’t afford it. Then my sister and I would moan about how all our friends were going to have an amazing time while we were forced to languish in cold, snowy Toronto, and worse, when we got back to school in January, they would all shove their sun-filled vacations in our faces with their perfect tans, shown off, invariably, with highly unseasonable white outfits.

Without fail, the day school let out for winter break, my dad would come home from work early – my sister and I would be sulking in our bedrooms—and he’d say, “Are you packed yet? Come on! Let’s go!” An hour later, like magic, the four of us were stuffed into his car, driving south. Ear-splitting Arabic music would be blaring, my dad would be chain-smoking (windows up), and my mother would be handing us tangerine upon tangerine, reminding us we’d have to finish them all before we hit the border.

Some 26-32 hours later (my dad always tried to beat his previous record by speeding and denying us bathroom breaks), missing half the hair on our heads (my sister and I had little to do but fight in the backseat), we would arrive at the Marco Polo Hotel. Today it’s a Ramada Plaza dwarfed by the surrounding steel-and-glass skyscrapers; back then, at a dozen or so storeys high, the Marco Polo was the tallest building on the Sunny Isles strip. It was no 5* hotel; there were faux leather headboards, stained floral bedspreads, and dizzyingly patterned carpets hiding decades of dirt. But it was our idea of PARADISE. Perched on a bed of white sand, it had a gleaming blue swimming pool with high and low diving boards, a kiddie pool, a cinema, a disco, a crafting room, a hair salon, an arcade, a pizzeria, and all our Florida friends. For two weeks, we were set free—to feed endless quarters into Centipede and Ms Pacman and Frogger (much time was spent checking the Coke machine to see if anyone had left change behind), to try smoking a cigarette (stolen from a parent) in the staircase, or to buy soft serve ice cream at the pool bar and curl up on a deck chair with the latest Sweet Valley High (they always came out in the US about a month before we got them in Canada).


When I retired, one day, whatever it was I was going to do between childhood and retirement (this bit always seemed fuzzier and less interesting), I was going to winter in Miami Beach. I would buy an ocean-facing apartment, and I would do what the alter kaker snowbirds have been doing in Miami for generations—take walks on the beach, play canasta and mah-jongg, bet on the horses and jai alai, and go to dinner at 5pm (early bird specials are a *big thing* in Miami). I would have sun-leathered skin and wear coral lipstick, and I’d shop at Loehmann’s and eat at The Rascal House and kvell about whatever it was my no-doubt-very-successful children did for a living (the classic Miami Jewish joke: “Help! Help! My son, the doctor, is drowning!”).

Somehow, I never reckoned on being diagnosed with breast cancer at 48.

“That’s fine,” you say, “Breast cancer is highly treatable these days.” Yes, yes. “It’s not your grandmother’s breast cancer!” you add, referring to the days when it was considered a death sentence. You’re right. As my breast surgeon and oncologist have made clear, my chance of surviving the next five years is fantastic, something like 95%. Under the NHS, I’ve been given the gold standard in modern medicine: I had a double mastectomy followed by radiation therapy; I attend a monthly appointment for an injection of menopause-inducing Zoladex so that my ovaries won’t produce the oestrogen that feeds the cancer; and every morning I take a hormone inhibitor called Anastrozole. As a result, I’m not on death’s door at all. In fact, I’m currently visiting my retired mother and parents-in-law in Miami Beach and writing this column with the salt of the ocean in my hair, last night’s early-bird special still warm in my belly!

But while here, I’m also re-visiting my childhood dream, one that, despite all the places I’ve visited around the world, I’m not sure I ever gave up. Maybe it’s time to do so. Although doctors tend to talk 5-year survival rates, I’ve read the studies, and the stats on surviving twenty years are far less rosy. For those diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma (the most common breast cancer), it’s 50%. And for those of us diagnosed with invasive lobular carcinoma, it’s only 40%, meaning there’s a better than even chance of my never making it to retirement—in the shtetl-by-the-sea or anywhere else.

Then again, maybe it’s not time to give up on my sun-filled future. Maybe—who knows?—I’ll live to 100 and be able to afford a little condo with an ocean view. And maybe I’ll be visited by my great-and great-great-grandchildren, and we’ll go for a long walk on the shore after I teach them how to play mah-jongg, and I’ll point out the Marco Polo and tell them how every year my dad said there was no way we could go, but we did anyway.

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