Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Is/Was

The phone rings. Karen and I pick it up at the same time. Normally, we let the phone ring until Chloe or Lila gets it. We do this because: a) most phone calls are for the girlses, and b)Karen and I hate the phone, we hate talking on it, we hate spending time on it, and when we are on the phone, we are desperately searching for an exit strategy, the lull in conversation in which to insert: "I have to get off now." It's a complete mystery to Karen that when people call, it is clear that they would like nothing better than to linger and talk and talk and talk. Karen, ever practical, ever aware that most talk is a waste of time, just wants to get the necessary information and hang up. So, we pick up the phone at the exact same moment. The voice on the other end identifies herself as from the Yeshiva of Flatbush Alumni Association. She is calling to confirm our information for the upcoming guide. We verify the spelling of our name. Avrech has been mangled in so many ways that I keep a list of all the alternate spellings. Birthdays are correct, our address and professions are also right. I am holding my breath, and then it comes:
"How many children do you have?"
Karen and I hesitate. We exchange glances. Though we are in separate rooms, I can actually feel Karen's eyes boring into mine.
"Three," we reply in unison.
"What are their names?"
"Ariel, Lila, Chloe."
"And their ages?"
"Twenty-two, nineteen, sixteen."
Karen and I are both thinking the same thing: Should we mention that our twenty-two year old is dead? Do we give her the date he passed away? No. We remain silent as she efficiently clicks away at her keyboard.
It often happens that people ask us how many children we have. Always we always reply, three. Sometimes, depending on the circumstances, we will add, "But we lost one." But this time we want Ariel's name to go into the alumni guide. It is one way of keeping Ariel alive. Preserving the present tense affords us a thin sheet of comfort.
It is an intensely human way of keeping our child alive. It is also a traditional Jewish strategy.
During the last year of Ariel's life, when he and I learned together, we once fell into a discussion about a point that Rashi, the greatest of all biblical commentators, was making. Ariel said: "Rashi says, and Rashi means, and Rashi and the Malbim are not in agreement." I pointed out to Ariel that we discuss Rashi as if he were still alive, as if he and the other medieval commentators are not separated from us by centuries, much less by death. Isn't it wonderful how the mesorah, the transmission of Torah knowledge from generation to generation, ignores incovenient facts like death? The holy commentators are always discussed in the present tense, as if they are here in Pico Robertson, or maybe far away, in the holy city of Monsey, NY.
Ariel frowned. "Well, of course," he said, "it goes without saying. Rashi is alive, the Ralbag is alive, they are all alive. Only their bodies are gone."
And so it is for us. In central ways, Ariel is still alive. I open his Torah notebooks, study his commentary, and my breath is knocked from my body. Ariel's notebooks, dating from his first year in high school, to his last year at Ner Yisroel, are a spiritual diary. These are no ordinary teenage musings, for Ariel was never a typical American teenager. Always, he was a little man, innocent in the ways of the world, but wise in his Torah learning. By the way, the source of our name is the Torah. Parshat Mikeitz, Genesis: 41, 41-43.
Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, See I have placed you in charge of all the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh removed his ring from his hand and put it on Joseph's hand. He then had him dressed in garments of fine linen and he placed a gold chain upon his neck. He also had him ride in his second royal chariot and they proclaimed before him: Avrech. Thus, he appointed him over all the land of Egypt.
Rashi comments: Avrech: Av b'chachma v'rach b'shanim. A father in wisdom, but tender in years.
This terse commentary is engraved on Ariel's headstone. Naturally, it is written in the present tense. And for as long as Karen and I are alive we will speak of Ariel using this comforting grammatical form. It seems a small matter, but for grieving parents it embraces a universe of implications.
We are the parents of a child who has died. Partially, we express and endure our loss through a grammatical structure. The choice of present tense has an integrity that lavishes love, respect and dignity, on the soul of our beloved child.
Ariel is.
Ariel was.
Ariel will be.
Until the day Karen and I die.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

True Emotion

Here is what Karen did not say at Ariel's unveiling:

A year has passed. This has been a year of reflection and yearning, but most signifigantly, of dissolving defenses. The protective layers are wearing away. The very impulse that propelled me to speak at Ariel's funeral is now countered by an opposing force. For when I eulogize, I tend to objectify and distance Ariel, and I do not want to lose the immediacy and intimacy that are finally returning. Yes, the dissolution of my armor increases the pain. But at least I feel the restoration of the integrity of my relationship to Ariel as a mother, rather than a eulogist.
The realization of the horror of Ariel's death has taken a visceral form. I know that I have touched the target synapse, the final feeling, when my body literally convulses with shock. When I shudder, I know I have reached the true emotion. I do not want to cushion that connection because as painful as it is, at least I know it is real. I do not want to relate to Ariel by talking about his values, his incredible knowledge and humility. I want to remain in my central role as his mother. I do not want to express a mother's love through memorials and tributes. Now that I have finally connected with what feels "true" I will not speak, for the tremors of pain are wordless. The primal sighs of keening defy language. The loss is ineffable.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Shadow Anniversary

June nineteenth was our twenty-seventh wedding anniversary. Ariel's Yahrzeit was the next day. To wake up in the morning, gaze across the bed and say, "Happy anniversary," is not our first impulse. In fact, more than anything, Karen and I wanted to quietly acknowledge our years together, and then quickly move on. You cannot be happy when your child is dead.
Quick digression: several wonderful parents who read these pages and write touching letters to me, have said that in their house, there is a single word that is never used: dead. They do not ever say that their child has died. They say, My child is gone, my child is with Hashem, my child is away. They tell me to use this tactic. They insist that it is not a word game. They suggest that death does not exist.
I wish I could get with their program. These parents seem to have achieved some measure of peace that, I am quite certain, will never be part of my life.
If I say that death is not real, then I must also say that birth is not real, and, well, you see the problem.
So: It is our anniversary, and by all measures we are a happy couple. I have loved Karen since the fourth grade. Essentially I have loved a child, a girl, a teenager, and finally loved a woman -- loved one person for most of my life. (A friend suggested that I am the world's most patient and successful stalker.)
We cannot exchange gifts. To do this would be to make Ariel's death a side show, an unfortunate occurence in an otherwise happy life. In fact, Ariel's death has ruptured our world. From the moment we wake in the morning and hope that it is all a dream, that maybe he's downstairs, safely in his bed, in his room, safe, safe, alive and breathing. From that twilight moment until the night, when we desperately try to sleep without crying sheer floods, every moment of our lives is in variance with what has come before. A veil of distortion has been drawn over every action we engage in. The most simple task is invested with Ariel's presence, with his absence. It takes a great deal of energy to remember how happy we used to be. Even when Ariel was sick, tortured by cancer and cruel theapies, we felt chosen for a unique kind of joy. Ariel may be sick, we told ourselves, but, he will recover. He will lead the life he desires. He will continue to study Torah. And we were grateful. We are Jews who have studied Torah. Thus, we do not take happiness for granted, for Torah teaches you, right from the beginning, that life is unfair; there is much cruelty in this world, and man has to work hard to achieve goodness.
But we are prisoners of ritual, Karen and I. Our lives are defined by one religious observance after another. And so, we improvise an appropriate way of marking these years together. Karen gives me a wonderful new book about grammar. It is something of a joke in this house that I, a professional writer, have only a passing notion of where a comma belongs. My passion for the semicolon is unnatural; my ignorance of the mysterious hyphen is sad - my misplaced apostrophe's are a scandal. Tucked inside the pages of the book is a note. In truth, the book is merely a prop to convey the real gift: Karen's words.
Karen writes a letter to me before every Shabbos. After I recite the kiddush, the blessing over the wine, I reach under the challah tray for The Note. As the girls wash their hands, I read Karen's note. It is the highlight of my week. Each letter is a gem, a clear and ardent precis of whatever we have been through that week. I have several thick volumes of these notes; they examine the emotional architecture of our lives. And so this note, this anniversary jotting, is about Ariel; it is about us; it is about our core.
To Karen I give a shadow box. In it are Ariel's glasses and two pictures. In the first photo, Ariel looks at us and smiles. It is a glorious and open smile. It is how we like best to remember him. The other picture was taken on the day we delivered Ariel to Ner Israel Rabbinic College, in Baltimore. To leave him there was one of the hardest things we have ever done. You can see the tension in Karen's body as she hugs Ariel, saying goodbye. She does not want to let go. She wants to hold on to him... forever. But she cannot.
But here in the shadow box, Karen's wish is finally achieved. Here, mother and son embrace for all time. In the shadow box, Karen does not have to let go. They are melded together for eternity.
Our anniversary is not a happy one, but it is ours, and it is what we have left, and it has a light that does not seem to be unnaturally luminous.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

A Grave Problem

Besides Ariel's unveiling this past weekend, we also hosted the first Ariel Avrech Yahrtzeit Lecture. With money that has been donated by generous friends and relatives, we brought Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky from Jerusalem to Los Angeles. After the speech, there was a brunch. Ariel always enjoyed a hearty meal. The caterer who did the brunch also catered Ariel's bar mitzvah. Karen and I did not have a moment to sit and eat. We went round the room, thanking all those who attended. I was deeply moved that two readers of these pages, Evy and John Nelson, attended the lecture and introduced themselves to me. Evy wrote the very first letter to this blog.
Relatives and friends flew in from all points. Karen and I thought that this Shabbos would make a deep impression on everybody. Unfortunately, when there is a death in the family, especially a death as tragic as Ariel's, other issues invariably come into play. I have discovered that no matter what we do for our child, it's never quite enought, never quite right in the eyes of others.
We decided to bury Ariel in Simi Valley so we could be close to him; so we could have a place to visit. Others in the family insisted that Israel was the right place for Ariel's kever. Karen and I agonized. We know that there is a certain z'chus in being buried in Eretz Yisroel, but Ariel never asked for it and we have no idea if this is what he would have wanted. I suspect that Ariel would want us to be able to visit his grave as often as possible. But I will not play that game, that awful strategy of assigning a particular desire to the dead, simply as a means of fulfilling what you want. This is a horrible tactic and when I stumble into it -- "Ariel would have wanted..." I catch myself, and quickly short-circuit that awful conductor of selfishness.
Karen and I have visited Ariel's grave often, and I am grateful that it is near. Each time I visit, I know that I have made the right decision. I even consulted with several Rebbeim, and each one told me that our decision was correct, and they added, we should not feel bullied by others who claim the religious high ground.
And yet, this past weekend, after the deeply moving unveiling, after the passionate lecture, after the brunch that brought us close to so many who loved Ariel, and yet after all that, there they were, scolding me once again for denying Ariel burial in Eretz Yisroel. My first reaction was shock. Was this still an issue almost a year later? I thought they understood... And then I realized that this will always be an issue for them. I am naive. I thought that the weekend would show how desperately I need to be near Ariel. Even if it is only a place. Even if he is not really there. Even if hallowed ground is more idea than form. It is still where I can go with Karen and feel his presence. I need this ground. I need it as much as oxygen.
Alive, I clung to him.
Dead, I cannot let go.
I thought they would see that moving Ariel to Israel would be a sure way of crushing my spirit. But I was foolish. I miscalculated their desire for the grave they want Ariel to have.
Ariel never had the opportunity to visit Israel. The one time we actually planned a trip, got him a passport, rented an apartment, bought plane tickets... he developed a second tumor.
Should I send Ariel to Israel now?
Does his soul require the holy soil of Israel?
Or is it my soul that needs it?
Who will be judged for this decision?
Me?
The others?
Karen tells me to ignore them; that they are simply bent on exerting control. They also, she adds, lack empathy.
There are things in this world that are just too big for me.
I know that Karen is right. But more important than who is selfish and who is not, is this: I must be able to get in the car and drive to Ariel's grave. For without this drive, I am too small for this world.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Silence

The unveiling for my son Ariel took place on Friday, June eighteen. Karen and I drove with the girls to the cemetery in Simi Valley. In the back seat, the girls shared the i-Pod earphones and sang along with Avril Lavigne. Karen and I looked at one another and smiled. If it were not for the girls Karen and I would be plunged into a permanent gloom.
There were about forty-five to fifty people attending. I was amazed that so many were able to show up when you consider that it was a morning work day. But Ariel was loved by his community and people continue to do everything they can to show their feelings for Ariel.
Rabbi Muskin spoke of his loving relationship with Ariel. My father, Rabbi Avrech, spoke movingly of all the meanings of Ariel's name. Karen's father, Rabbi Singer spoke of the wrenching pain that we all feel. I have to confess that I have not paid enough attention to the pain that my parents and Karen's parents are experiencing. I realize that the serenity of their old age has been shattered by the death of this favorite grandson. But I have been too caught up in my own grief to feel their pain. Grief is a selfish thing. It refers only to itself and excludes all others. That is why it is a sin to grieve excessively. A rav I know worries that I might visit Ariel's grave too often. Do not make it a shrine, he warns me. That is why the mountain where Moshe Rabbeinu is buried remains a mystery. Yes, the older generation has lost its future. Ariel was the one who would carry on the traditions of the family. He was the chosen; everyone knew it.
Finally, I spoke:

What is the proper response to the death of a child? This has been the question that haunts us. Aside from the rituals that halacha dictates we yearn for more. As parents we want to do as much for our child who is gone as we did when Ariel was alive. Karen and I have instituted an annual lecture in Ariel's memory. We will be publishing The Book of Ariel in several months. I learn with study partners in Ariel's memory and Karen goes to Tehillim. And yet, no matter what we do, it does not seem to be enough. Perhaps it's the fear that if we don't carry out as many memorials as possible his memory will fade. And so we conceive commemorative gestures, anything that will keep his beloved spirit alive.
But perhaps the most fitting response is the most difficult of all.
Perhaps the most fitting response is silence.
Why silence? How can this be an appropriate expression of love?
In the story of the Akedah, Avraham's sacrifice of Isaac, Isaac says to Avraham: Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?
Avraham replies: God will see the lamb for Himself for the offering, my son.
The Torah gently narrates: The two of them walked on together.
In other words, father and son walked on in silence; perhaps the most poignant silence in all history.
Why the silence? Don't father and son want to discuss what is about to happen? Don't they want to articulate some final thoughts, perhaps a last goodbye?
In truth, there are times when words are superfluous; there are times when words become a prison, locking people into specific utterances that are far too concrete, miserably restricted in meaning and emotional depth.
The reason words are superfluous in the Akedah is because father and son love one another.
This is love that is so profound, a love that is so pure that to verbalize it would only corrupt the integrity of the feeling.
In the most subtle manner, the Torah is illustrating that under the most profound circumstances words can only convey a poverty of expression.
It is necessary to recognize that the Torah's first use of the verb to love occurs in the story of the Akedah, in God's command that Avraham offer: Your son, your only son, whom you love. When the Torah uses a word for the first time it does so with the purpose of defining that word in all its purity. Thus, the essence of true love is captured in the relationship between Avraham and Isaac. The Torah demonstrates that the ultimate expression of love transcends spoken language; in fact love finds its greatest fulfillment in silence.
We are not on this lofty spiritual level. We lack the ability, maybe even the courage to rely on silence to convey our love for Ariel. But in the absence of that faculty, the least we can do is take note of it and hope that sometime in the future this endless love we feel for Ariel will find its proper expression.

After I spoke, we recited Tehillim. I said the Kaddish. People lined up to place small stones on the headstone. Karen and I waited for everyone to leave and then we lingered at the grave. We touched the granite. We wept and embraced. On the way back to the car Karen and I halted in our tracks and went back to Ariel's grave because we felt that we did not say a proper goodbye. Again we touched the granite, again we lingered and wept. Again, for the hundreth time we said, this can't be real. How did this happen? Is this really our life? We exist within the embrace of cruel questions: Why, how, what if? Endless permuations of what could have been, what should have been. But in the end we are left with this awful reality and I wonder: how much longer can I go on without surrendering to nothingness?

Thursday, June 17, 2004

A Stubborn Grief

The first time Karen and I visited Ariel's grave was right after shloshim. I was so filled with dread that I asked Karen's best friend, Audrey, to drive us to the cemetery. Little was said during the forty-five minute drive. Most vividly, I remember exchanging a long glance with Karen and in that split second we were both thinking the same thing: this cannot be happening.
Ariel is buried in Simi Valley. The views are lovely and pastoral, with blurry, distant mountains burned ochre. There is always a brisk wind whipping down the passes. We chanted the prayers, and we sobbed; we were all struck with a sense of unreality. Was Ariel really here? Was his body under our feet? I kneeled and touched the ground, his eternal blanket. Karen said, "Maybe he's cold, maybe he needs a sweater." I said nothing. Karen is his mother and she wants to shield her child from all harm. The wind picked up and Audrey, a loyal friend, moved to Karen's side, she seemed to float in a motion that was part wind, part liquid, and in an instant they were joined together at the foot of Ariel's grave. They stood like this for a long moment, staring out at the mountains, weeping and sobbing and shivering.
I remembered Rav's warning from the Talmud: He who mourns for his dead too stubbornly weeps for some other dead.
I recognize Rav's peerless wisdom. The temptation to bury yourself in the garb of endless grief is powerful. But with all due respect to Rav, I have lost others that I have loved: my mother who nurtured me, my mother's mother who heroically loved me, Jamie, my college friend who was gunned down by an evil junkie, two close friends from Israel who were killed in the Yom Kippur War. I grieved for them too. It was a grief that rose and fell. But the death of a son, the death of a child, this is a grief that cannot be confused with others. Which is what Rav was afraid of. Don't mix griefs. Like milk and meat, it is to be avoided. For Judaism loves order. Halacha is attached to the exacting particulars of our lives. But Ariel's death is singular. It maintains a steady pitch. The needle is always in the red zone. Nothing in life has prepared me for this hammer-blow. No one has written a manual explaining how to keep breathing after the heart has been unhinged from its cavity.
A friend from the film business calls to tell me that she can't come to the unveiling, but that she will be with me in spirit.
A friend from shul calls to tell me that he cannot come to the unveiling, but that he will give charity in Ariel's memory.
My friend from the film business asks how I'm doing on the eve of the unveiling. "It's hard." I reply. This has become my standard response. Not terribly poetic, but honest and utilitarian and true, like a piece of Shaker furniture.
When my friend from shul asks me the same question and I give the same answer he shoots back, "It's supposed to be hard."
My Hollywood friend suggests that the unveiling will provide "some closure." She is well meaning, but deeply schooled in the superficial language that infects the business that I have chosen as my profession. Film people want reality to ape the paradigm of the movies they manufacture. They yearn for clean cut resolutions. Happy endings. There is no pain that cannot be rewritten. There is no hurt than cannot be overcome by a third act rescue, preferably at the hands of a love that neatly balances the loss. Hollywood people, though ruthless in the extreme, are, in fact, incurable romantics. They want me to join support groups, attend grief counseling sessions run by aging hippies with ponytails. They want to believe that anything, everything, no matter how terrible, can be washed away in the shallow waters of New Age therapies. They want to believe in something -- just as long as it does not involve God.
My friend from shul will give charity and daven. He knows that it is hard, that it will always be be hard, and he understands this is the way it is supposed to be.
He recognizes the ultimate truth that all parents of children who have died live with: all we can do is endure.
Tomorrow is Ariel's unveiling.
I'm trying to hold back time.
But it will come.
Tomorrow will come.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

City of Angels

No one ever warned me that a central part of mourning is the mundane task of making endless arrangements. Ariel's unveiling takes place this coming Friday, and we have family and friends flying into Los Angeles. They must all have places to sleep, and they must all be fed. We are Jews and so cucumber sandwiches and Martinis will not suffice. The Jewish people require heaps and heaps of politically incorrect food in this land of sculpted bodies. And so, Karen has been on the phone with a caterer arranging for Shabbos meals, and asking friends from shul to lend a bedroom for our out-of-town visitors. On Sunday, we will also be presenting the first Ariel Avrech Yahrtzeit Lecture. For this, Karen and I and the girls composed tributes to Ariel. Lila designed a beautiful cover using photos of Ariel and then created a lovely collage in Photoshop. A close friend, also a grieving mother and an accomplished graphic artist, polished Lila's work. Years ago, this same woman did the graphics for Ariel's Bar Mitzvah. Karen and I went to Kinkos to have the program printed and that's when our arrangements, so finely tuned, started to go awry. Our order was lost. Finally, when it was located, the print used was too small, the font all but invisible. Once again, the order was lost.
"We don't lose orders," barked a huge Kinko's employee, "we just displace 'em."
"You mean misplace?"
"Whatever, man."
We have paid countless visits to Kinkos in the past three days. They all end in the same way for me: a huge migraine. Finally, late last night, I appealed to a young woman with a startling Kinkos name-tag, ie: Jewish.
"Look, my son died. My wife and I are having a memorial in his memory. I need to get this right. Can you help me?"
I know that this is unfair, appealing so nakedly, using Ariel's death as an emotional hammer. Call me crass, call me vulgar, but I saw no other way.
The young woman, Ilana, looked at the program and asked how Ariel died.
"Cancer," I said for the sake of simplicity.
"My best friend died of a brain tumor a year ago," she said, voice cracking. "Let me handle it." And she did.

Last night, I was invited to present the Ariel Avrech Scholarship at Yeshiva Gedolah, his high school. His friends, Ari Miller, Avi Stewart and Avrami Gross founded and raised the funds for the scholarship.
Ari told me that, "I approached every guy from our class for a donation and every single one of them agreed. Not one turned us down. As soon as they heard that it was for Ariel, they chipped in. Even two boys who were asked to leave the Yeshiva in our sophomore year wrote checks. We have enough money for the next four years."
"I didn't know that boys were asked to leave," I said. "Ariel never told me."
"No," said Ari, "Ariel wouldn't talk about something like that."
I sat in the graduation and gazed at the wonderful boys and their proud, beaming families. I remembered Ariel's graduation. At the time, he was healthy. He had recovered from two bouts of cancer, massive doses of chemotherapy and radiation. And though he spent a majority of his high school career in the hospital, Ariel was still the valedictorian. It was not awarded out of pity. Ariel worked hard, never made excuses, never said that he couldn't keep up. Ariel endured, and he did his schoolwork with a sense of purpose that I have never witnessed in anyone.
As I made the presentation, I had to choke back a sob.
I said, "You who have attended Yeshiva Gedolah are lucky people. You have made friendships that will flourish for the rest of your lives. This memorial is proof of it. I want you all to look around and realize that this momemt is sacred and should never be forgotten."
My speech was halting. It is hard to speak your heart when it is broken. As Ari and I walked back to our cars, I struggled to express my appreciation for all that he and the other boys had done.
Ari said, "Mr. Avrech, we all miss Ariel too, you know."
And I realized at that moment that I was not the only one grappling with a proper way to remember Ariel. I was not the only one who missed him so ferociously that it is a permanent ache in the pit of your gut. There on the street, in Los Angeles, this City of Angels, among street traffic of hasidim and hipsters, I hugged Ari the way I used to hug Ariel. I went home and told Karen about the ceremony. And when we went to bed and her tears hit my chest as they do most every night, for one brief moment I was able to break away from my fury, let go of the dread. I was able to lean on my wife. I was able to be comforted by the kindness of Ariel's friends. For the first time in a long time, I was able to break away from the pain of burying the one I love and -- accept the love of those who are still alive. The living and the dead: my duty is to both of them.

Monday, June 14, 2004

The Last Kaddish

The Kaddish has been called an echo of the Book of Job. Job said: "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in him." The Kaddish is an expression of faith on the part of the mourner that although he is grief-stricken, he still believes in God, still trusts in the meaning of life. It is the ultimate anti-existentialist statement. Karen and I will mourn forever. We are riven as day follows night. Our son will always be dead, and a central portion of our lives died with him.

This Shabbos I recite the last Kaddish of the eleven months for Ariel.

I stand in shul, eyes closed, swaying back and forth, chanting the words with (I hope) perfect diction and true feeling. I want the b'racha to go on forever. I want to stretch the words like a giant rubber band and make them reach from earth to heaven. There are at least another dozen mourners in shul, all with much louder voices than mine, but I hear only one sound. Is this my voice? I see Ariel as he used to be: sitting in shul beside me. Is this my voice? I study the delicate architecture of his face. I melt as Ariel's lips move, savoring each syllable, whispering the sacred Hebrew text. Is this me? I study his long tapering fingers as they turn the pages of the siddur. I lean over and bury my lips in the plush groove of his neck. It is my voice. I am close to the end. It is my son. I take three steps back and three steps forward. I finish the Kaddish. I open my eyes and I see a dozen men in shul gazing at me. Some have tears in their eyes. Several nod, tacitly acknowledging the finality of the moment. I open my eyes and I see light. I open my eyes and I am swimming through layers of memory. I open my eyes and I see splendor. I open my eyes and I see my son, my son, Ariel.

Friday, June 11, 2004

The Only Club I Have Ever Joined

Seven years ago, a young child in our community died. Karen and I did not know the parents well, but we paid a shiva call to their home. As we sat in the house, I talked with the parents at length. At the time, Ariel was in the midst of his first round of chemotherapy and the parents were incredibly generous in their concern for Ariel. I remember looking at the grief-stricken mother and father, thinking to myself: Thank God that's not me. I knew in my gut that if my child ever died I would never be able to handle it. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would simply curl up and died. I also knew that Ariel would never die. That could not, would not happen. Not to him. Not to us.
But it has happened.
And that father who I paid a shiva call to is now one of my closest friends. We daven in shul together. We learn together as a Chavrusah in memory of our dead sons. When we learn we often digress and talk about our sons. It is a sad truth that he and I belong to a small club, an exclusive club. The only club I have ever joined. We speak the same language. Often, we don't even need to speak; silence has an alphabet all its own. It's a mysterious communication that contains volumes. This man and I are so different that our friendship is almost like a pairing from a Neil Simon play, Felix and Oscar. I write Hollywood movies, he's in math, a subject that has given me grief my whole life. He always wears a suit and tie. I wear the same LL Bean khakis and pink shirt every day (not the same ones, I'm clean, obsessively so, no, I have a dozen of each.) When we learn Torah, my friend is precise and organized. My so-called mind flies off in so many directions at once that I can see the impatience in his eyes. But our sons have died and so we have more in common than I have with most members of my own family.
There's also something else. Guilt. Big shock, right? I have always hated myself for thinking: Thank God it didn't happen to me, when Karen and I attended his son's funeral.
But now I see that thought in the eyes of my friends when they approach. I used to think that they were merely uncomfortable in my presence. Afterall, I'm not exactly a fun man to be with. (Was I ever?) Now I know why they are uncomfortable, so utterly embarrassed that they gaze down at the ground, averting their eyes from mine. It is because they are saying to themselves: Thank God that it didn't happen to me. And so when I see this expression wash over the faces of my friends in shul, I understand. And there is no anger in me, no resentment at all. I say to myself: Please don't let it happen to them.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Ariel in Love

She first came to our house for a Shabbos meal, a lovely young girl and her mother. They are not particularly observant, but the daughter is interested in learning as much as she can about Judaism. Brought up in a proudly Jewish household and affiliated with the Reform movement, the daughter, incredibly bright, ferociously independent in her conservative political opinions, and hungry for spiritual knowledge, feels the tug of ritual, hears the voice of the shtetl that her grandparents fled; she yearns for the warm embrace of tradition, hungers for an authentic religious experience. Ariel is typically quiet and shy. The only women he has had anything to do with are his lively and funny sisters, Lila and Chloe, and of course Karen, the mother he cherishes. He is not ignorant of what women are, of their inner voices and cycles, for his grounding in Talmud has made him conversant with the most intimate details of femalehood. But he is, by nature shy, and flirting is as far off his radar as, well, the furthest galaxy. Charmingly, the girl gradually draws Ariel out. She has read him well. She poses provocative questions and Ariel is never more in his element than when expounding on Torah. He dazzles with his thoughtful, precise answers, with his utter sincerity. I can see it in the girl's eyes: she has never met anyone like my son. The boys she knows are crude and think nothing of drawing explicit graffiti on her notebook. They are not bad kids, just typical products of a secular culture that has taught its children that men and women are no different and so the normal etiquette between the sexes has all but disappeared. And naturally, it is the women who suffer the consequences. In contrast to their crudeness Ariel seems like an awkward, but adorable prince, a young man who knows who he is and cares nothing for the currents of popular culture. She wants Ariel to teach her Torah. But Ariel tells her that it wouldn't be proper. That she should have a female teacher. She pouts, sullen. What could be improper? Maybe Ariel just doesn't like her. But Karen takes her aside and explains the concepts of tznius, modesty, of the protective gates the observant construct on order to avoid placing themselves in compromising situations. "You mean, Ariel won't ever just sit and talk to me, alone?" She asks in dismay. "Not unless you're going out on a shidduch date," my wife explains. The girl is baffled. She lives in a world where boys and girls interact "normally." This separation seems so... medieval. She shrugs and goes her way. Perhaps this is just too weird. But she signs up for classes at a Jewish outreach program. As she does everything else in her life, she immerses herself in study, flings herself into the sea of Torah and oh my, but aren't the currents powerful. There are more Shabbos meals at our home. Her pants give way to long skirts. Her t-shirts surrender to long sleeved blouses. Her sentences are peppered with phrases like: "Baruch Ha-shem," and "Epes," and "Yeshivish." She speaks like a native.
Ariel comes to speak to us one night. He stutters as he tells us that he's ready. "Ready for what?" Karen and I ask. Ariel smiles: "Shidduch date, I'm ready."
Ariel and the girl, a genuine Baal Teshuva now, go to Starbucks. They sit in hotel lobbies. They talk for hours and hours. And before I know it, Karen and I are purchasing a sheitl for Ariel's bride and we are dancing at his chuppah. I dance with Ariel. Karen dances with the girl and her mother. Ariel is hoisted on a chair at the same time as his kallah and they wave to one another over the mechitzah. We all go round and round in the circle, dizzy with joy, cries of "Mazal Tov, Mazal Tov" echoing everywhere.
All this passed through my head the other day when I sat in Farmer's Market with my friend Cathy and her daughter Cecile. More than anything, Ariel wanted to marry and have many, many children. And though he is gone, I can't help but play out fantasies of his marriage in my head. Cecile is a unique young girl: she's smart and funny and curious and her love for Judaism is powerful and aunthentic. Cathy, an amazing woman has raised an amazing girl. Ariel and I used to read Cathy's social and political articles together. We admired her uncompromising chutzpah. And so, as we sit and chat in this unique market that has not changed since the 30's, I build the elaborate fantasy in my head. I give Ariel this gift of love, this remarkable romance with a radiant young girl and for a few seconds Ariel lives the life he yearned for.
Cecile smiles, she crosses my vision like a moon and I have to hold myself back from saying: Thank you, thank you for making Ariel so happy.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

A Blockbuster J'accuse!

A few weeks ago I was in a Blockbuster, desperate for a film, something, anything to give me some relief from the unrelenting hollow feeling that is called grieving. A Mom and her son were in the same aisle. He was a hyper little ten year old, grabbing videos off the shelves and chattering away: "This one, Mommy? This one? Mommy, what about this one? Mommy, Mommy, Moooooomy!" Mommy was talking on her cell phone. Her son was the furthest thing from her mind. He wanted a video, he wanted Mommy's attention. Mommy just wanted to talk on the phone. The little boy sat on the floor and made a house out of the videos. Mom wandered down another aisle, deep in conversation. I overheard this: "No, no, please don't say that... hon, that's not what I meant..." I looked at the little boy and he gave me a curious look. Somebody had told him not to talk to strangers. But the temptation was too much. "House, I'm building a house," he told me. "It's beautiful," I said. When Ariel was this age he too loved to build. There were cities of Legos in his room, a universe of red and yellow and blue where Ariel ruled his own kingdom of Transformers and Popples. For hours Ariel would sit on the floor and ferociously concentrate on the task at hand. He always had this ability: the patience to apply himself totally and completely to whatever he cared about. In Yiddish it's called, zitz fleish, sitting flesh. I crouched by the video house and again told the little boy that his house was reallly great and he should be proud of himself. That's when Mom showed up and suspiciously spat out: "Excuse me?" I told Mom. "I was just admiring his building." She squinted at me, not saying a word. "Your lucky to have such a wonderful son," I added. "Uh-huh," she replied, giving me a long, dark suspicious look. Abruptly, I became aware that she might, God forbid, think of me as some kind of a pervert. And so I desperately, stupidly stuttering all the while, added. "I have children. Three children. Two girls and a boy. A son. Actually, I had a son... but he died." She was appalled. I don't blame her. What the heck was I doing? Is this what a nervous breakdown looks like? "Really?" she probed. "Really," I said. "He died a few months ago." "I'm sorry, really really sorry. What happened?" "Cancer," I said. And then she said something that to this day sends a chill up my spine. "Nobody deserves that, no parent, no matter what they've done." And she walked away. I wanted to run after her and ask her what she meant. No matter what they've done? Did she see something in my face, some incriminating evidence that led her to this horrible accusation, that allowed her to conclude that Ariel's death was the result of something I had done? Was there a mark on my forhead that labeled me a man of such twisted DNA that for my sins my son was taken? From what dark theology did this creature emerge?
I felt sick and I still do when I see the words spilling from her mouth. It's an image in slow motion: her words break from the confines of their comic book bubbles, tumble from her frosted lips in a jagged bloody font, red and laquered as a Chinese vase. How could she say such a thing to a perfect stranger? To anyone? And of course, being the guilty Jew that I am I pondered the countless averas of my life and imagined the unimaginable.
Later that night, without telling Karen about the incident in Blockbuster, I asked her:
"Do you ever think that we're being punished?"
"No," she said without a second's hesitation. "Never."
"But maybe, just maybe..."
"Ariel was innocent and Hashem does not punish the innocent for the sins of others. It's just wrong," she said.
Is the thought wrong, I said to myself, or simply unbearable?
I cannot and do no accept the dreadful inference made by that awful woman. But what does torture me is the feeling that I am a failure as a parent. I'm a failure because my son is dead. Ariel trusted me; he believed me when I told him that everything would be all right. Never for a moment did he imagine that I would let him down.
But-
-I did let him down.
-I did not save him.
And no matter how irrational the thought, nothing can shake loose the dreadful notion that as a parent I failed my child.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Crouching Jew, Hidden Tears

Here's my Friday, pre-Shabbos schedule. I get up early and go to shul for minyan where I say Kaddish for Ariel. Most people, including Jews, mistakenly refer to the Kaddish as The Prayer for the Dead. In fact, the Kaddish never mentions death, nor guilt, or memory. Rather it is a declaration of faith in our national purpose, of loyalty to God, of confidence in the ultimate triumph of the ideals for which heaven and earth were created. Adding to it's power, mystery and majesty is that we recite The Kaddish in the original Aramaic, the common everyday language of ancient Judaism. May His great name be exalted and sanctified in the world He created according to His will...
At home, I eat breakfast while reading the newspaper. We live in Los Angeles, but stubbornly subscribe to the excruciatingly Wahabist Liberal New York Times, mostly because Karen likes to do the crossword puzzle. She can even do most of their Friday's brain melter. And may He establish His kingship during your lifetime and during your days and during the lifetime of the entire Family of Israel, swiftly and soon. I take Lila to work at the architectural firm where she is interning, and then ferry Chloe to school. I write five pages of whatever script I'm working on and then take a twenty minute run around the neighborhood. Pico-Robertson is a warm and intimate shtetl surrounded by strip malls. I set the table for Shabbos; white table cloth, individual salt shakers, crisp linen napkins big as a poster when unfolded, good (well, at least not bad) silverware, and a special knife to cut the challah. I do the dishes and clean up the house in honor of the Seraphim who will dwell in our home during the holy Shabbos. But I do not vacuum nor do I do windows. I am afterall heterosexual. May His great name be blessed forever and ever. Blessed, lauded, glorified, extolled, upraised, honored, elevated, and praised be the Name of the Holy One, Blessed be He... I still set Ariel's place at the table. Nobody sits in his chair. He's still a presence as far as we are concerned, and when I give the girls their Shabbos B'rachos I silently whisper Ariel's B'racha. I dash over to the local library to pick up books for our Shabbos reading. The librarians know me well. My best friend there is James, tall, slim, with suffering Renaissance eyes. A very religious Christian, James davens in the AME, Los Angeles' oldest black church. James knew Ariel, always greeted us with a wide and welcoming smile. James remembers my son's delight in checking out books by Avi, Jane Yolen, and Bruce Coville. When Ariel was in serious decline, James prayed for his recovery. Beyond all blessings, songs, praises, and consolations that are uttered on earth. Now respond: Amen.
This Friday at the library, prowling the book shelves, I was slapped by a wave of grief, a surge so mighty that I froze, I simply could not stir. I don't know exactly what brought on this particular convulsion, but it happens so frequently that I'm no longer surprised. Through my tears, I glimpsed a man checking books out at the front desk; he was a bit goofy-looking, wearing ill-fitting shorts, badly furrowed t-shirt and clod-hopper shoes. Unkindly thought to myself: "Oh no, another schizophrenic haunting the library." However, I quickly realized that it was the infamous blogger Luke Ford. I wanted to go over and greet him with: Hello, how are you? Good Shabbos; thank him again for linking me to his website. But my face was bright with tears and mucous was dripping down my nose so I just crouched between the high metal shelves, Fiction: A - D, and waited for the grief to pass. A tiny, doe-eyed Iranian child saw me and pointed, saying: "Mommy, mommy look, why is that man crying?" Mom looked at me in horror, quickly yanked her child away. Obviously she thought I was a mental patient taking refuge in the library. May the prayers and supplications of the entire Family of Israel be accepted by their Father who is in heaven, now respond: Amen. I huddled there and sobbed and thought of all the times Ariel and I had been in the library together. He loved the children's section above all others because so many adult books are, well, too adult and not appropriate for an observant Jew. He loved books and he loved the library and I suppose that here was as good a place as any to dissolve, grieve and remember. May there be abundant peace from heaven, and good life upon ull Israel. Now respond: Amen.
Finally, I managed to collect myself and drive home. Luckily, the Pico- Robertson branch is just two minutes from where I live. I prepared to go to shul. I didn't tell Karen, Lila or Chloe about the emotional onslaught in the library; to what end? After shul, after the Shabbos meal, when we all sat in the living room reading our library books, I gazed at my family -- I affectionately refer to them as The Girlses -- and I said to myself: this is real, this is fact, Ariel is gone, Ariel is gone, and next Shabbos will be exactly the same. He who makes peace in His heights may He in His mercy make peace upon us and upon all Israel. Now respond: Amen.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Ariel Recaptured

In the last year of Ariel's life he lived at home. Being a screenwriter, I make my own hours and so arranged my schedule around Ariel's needs. My office is in back of the house and so Ariel was able to call me if he needed something. Still, I spent most of my time in the house, close to my son. I learned to cook a very limited menu just for Ariel. I drove him to medical appointments. And when he was able I took him for short walks down our block. When he couldn't walk, I pushed him in the wheelchair. Karen and I had to find solutions for all sorts of problems that crop up when your child is ill and dying.

Ariel was having trouble sleeping. He told us that he was anxious, that his mind simply would not stop whirring away. Karen suggested that he shouldn't try and sleep, trying only makes things worse. "Get up," she advised, "turn on the light and read something." Ariel tried this several times but he compalined that the books he chose to read, usually some commentary on Torah or Talmud, was so engrossing that it would keep him awake all night. "Try reading something really boring," Karen said. But Ariel could not imagine picking up a book with the purpose of inducing boredom. It went against his every impulse. When it became clear that the lack of sleep was taking a toll on his frail body, I handed him a Walkman and a box of tapes. "When you find yourself tossing and turning," I said, "just put on the headphones and listen to the tape." "What is it, Dad?" "A novel on tape. It should help."

The next morning Ariel smiled hugely as I stepped into his room. "Dad, that's an amazing book," he exclaimed. "You liked it?" I cried, incredulous. "I fell asleep before I knew what I was listening to," he said. "What is it?" "It's a book called In Search of Lost Time. It's written by Marcel Proust, and it's seven volumes, over 3,000 pages, and by the way, the first forty pages are all about a child trying to fall asleep and failing." "Dad, have you actually read this book?" he asked in mild horror. "Um, yes." I confessed. "But Dad, you hate the French, you hate everything French!" "I know, I know," I whimpered. "What can I say, it was a challenge to read, and truth is after a while I kinda liked it. Please don't tell anybody, Ariel. Please. Please. I still hate the French -- well, not French Jews. But, please. Let this be our little secret." "B'le Neder," he said with a sly smile.

Ariel was endlessly amused by my affection for this impossible and plotless and meandering French novel. He chuckled in disbelief when I showed him one sentence that, "I kid you not, Ariel, runs on for three pages, 958 words." But Ariel did continue to use Proust as a sleep aid for several weeks. Now that he's gone, now that he's memory, my respect for Proust and his massive tome has only increased. I now understand what Proust was after because it's a central human urge: to recapture the past, to corral the moments that made us who and what we are. If we can accomplish this, we tell ourselves, then we will find some measure of peace. If I can recall with perfect exactitude the moments I most cherish with Ariel then perhaps his death will not be so final. In this manner Ariel will gain another life, a shadow life perhaps, but anything is preferable to a terrible oblivion.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Within a Budding Schoolyard

I was ten-years old when I fell in love with Karen. It happened in fourth grade. The students buzzed with the news that a new kid had transferred from Ohel Moshe, a yeshiva in Bensonhurst. I was playing punchball in the yard when I saw the new girl standing in the schooolyard. Karen was alone, poised by the gate. She was gazing out past the yard, past all the active, tumbling children, past the girls who were skipping rope. Karen was staring off into space in the most splendid isolation. To me she looked like the princess of a lost tribe. I was smitten. What struck me about Karen aside from her devastating beauty was the fierce intelligence that flashed in her eyes. And oh, how desperately did I want to know what this little girl was thinking about? So, in the Yeshiva of Flatbush schoolyard, I stood frozen at home plate gazing fixedly at Karen Singer, knowing deep in my heart that my life had just changed; that I would never ever be the same person. Oh, I continued to be a gawky and awkward and painfully dopey kid with a paralyzing math disability, (in those days we were just called dumb) but I was different for I carried a secret in my heart, a secret that I shared with no one.

The secret was this: some day I would marry Karen Singer.

Karen and I barely spoke in all the years we were together in elementary school. It did not take long for Karen to be recognized as not only the prettiest girl in Yeshiva, but the brightest.

Years passed. Karen and I went to separate high schools. I would see her at basketball games, sometimes in the local pizza shop. But we never spoke; she had no idea who I was. Certainly, she did not know that I was still in love with her.

During college years, every once in a while I would ask my parents if they'd heard anything about Rabbi Singer's daughter. "Oh, she's in Barnard," they would tell me. "Is she married yet?" "Not yet, but that girl won't be single long." I agreed. Some smart Columbia pre-med student was bound to win her heart.

After college, I was living on the upper west side in New York. One day in shul, the Lincoln Square Synagogue, I looked up from my siddur and my heart stopped for there she was. Karen was sitting in the women's section.

And she was not wearing a hat.
Which meant that she was not married.

The very next day I saw her on the street at a Jewish Street Festival. She was alone, standing in almost the exact same posture as when I first saw her in the school yard. I walked over and introduced myself. Baffled she looked at me; she had no idea who I was. No idea that my heart was beating in my chest like a trapped bird.

Less than a year later, we were married.

Ariel was our first born. Karen's labor was difficult and finally a c-section was performed. I was there when Ariel was born. All births are miraculous, but this more so for that little girl I had loved so deeply, so passionately was now mother to our child. I felt blessed by Hashem and I was appropriately grateful.

Twenty-two years later Karen and I were with Ariel when his soul departed his body. As Ariel died, as our son became pure spirit, Karen and I clung to one another and I stood in the schoolyard and watched the new girl in her majestic isolation, and I gazed across the mechitza and saw Karen davening, sans hat, and then I saw Ariel emerge from her belly bright and glistening like a skinned rabbit and now that little girl I have loved almost every minute of my life is a sad and grieving woman. Every once in a while I look up and catch sight of Karen in that identical posture -- it has become my madeleine. Karen gazes off into space, that sense of fine isolation still clings to her. She remains that spellbinding girl I loved with the perfect love of a child. However, now I know exactly what she's thinking for it is all I think about. Ariel, Ariel, our son is dead. Someone, please please please tell us how it is possible that we have moved from the schoolyard to the graveyard in one short lifetime?

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The Whiteness of the Blog

Ariel attended a rigorously orthodox high school here in Los Angeles. The boys studied a vast amount of Talmud, leaving just enough time for the secular subjects. Ariel thrived in this academic envoronment for he loved Talmud and Torah and took great joy in the complex arguments that make up the Oral Law. I, however, worried that he was missing out on some of the great works of literature. And so Karen and I hired a private tutor for Ariel. Once a week, in the evening, after night-seder Ariel would get together with the tutor for a two hour session -- a deep immersion in the great works of the western canon. I worked out the readng list with the tutor and accompanied Ariel to the first class, reasoning that I would stay with him for the first few minutes then slip away once I felt all was under control. But I discovered that I was enjoying the class immensely and asked Ariel if I could take it with him. He smiled, delighted and said: "Welcome to high school, Dad." Initially, Ariel was puzzled by our first choice: Antigone, but soon the central drama clicked in his mind and he found himself admiring the brave, the loyal, the stubborn doomed heroine. He enjoyed Edgar A Poe, especially the spooky, haunted tales. Stephen Crane was a washout. The great revelation was Jane Austen. The frenzied shidduch making among the English gentry amused Ariel no end and from then on I think Ariel read Pride and Prejudice at least once a year. When Ariel was sick we often watched one of the BBC productions, and I even treated him to a viewing of the old MGM adaptration with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. Ariel laughed at the insistent, chirpy score and the unbelievable hats, some looking like alien plants, worn by the actresses. We were reading out of order and we next found ourselves in the dark and Catholic world of James Joyce and his incomparable Dubliners. Ariel was moved, deeply moved by The Dead, but as we were about to move on to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ariel asked if we coul skip more Joyce. Why? "The Catholic imagery, it makes me uncomfortable, Daddy." We moved on. Our next book was, for Ariel, the most baffling and yet the most rewarding: Moby Dick. We read it together, out loud to one another on many evenings. I had never seen Ariel so disturbed, so confused, by well, by anything. On the one hand, he was intrigued by the great white whale and what it meant. Yet a part of him desperately wanted to push the whole thing aside, relegate it to the file that reads: "unnecessary knowledge." But Ariel was, like his mother, a tenacious intellect. No matter how he tried, he could not convince himself that Melville's tale of good and evil was just a huge academic hoax. Deep in his heart Ariel knew that something important was going on; between the pages of Moby Dick vital questions were being debated. In our last discussion of the book Ariel read his final report; he had come up with some compelling notions: "Imagine," he said, "that you are in a large room with Moby Dick. You try to get a look at the beast, but you can't. He's simply too big, too white. No matter how far back you step, you will not be able to see the whale as a whole. You will only see pieces. Some pieces will look beautiful, whereas other views will present as sinister, evil. This is the essence of the whale. No man has the vision, the ability to comprehend the meaning of the whale and its dazzling whiteness. The only point of view that has any chance of making any coherent sense is from on high. From God's perspective. Just as we wrestle with questions of good and evil, we can never understand God's plan. So too are we confounded by Moby Dick. His whiteness suggests benevolence, but the whiteness dazzles; it hurts our eyes with its majesty. And though Moby Dick leaves death and chaos in its wake, we feel deep affection for the great white whale, we love the leviathan for its unique magnificence. We respect its strength. We believe," concluded Ariel, "that the whale can bring justice along with destruction." The tutor gave Ariel an A plus for his essay. Looking back, I don't think Ariel read Moby Dick ever again.

My grief is like the whale. It is so vast, so infused with Hashem's light that I can barely see even one corner of my pain, much less make sense of it. I step back, I try and look at myself, at my limitless mourning but all I see is a tiny smudge, a dot of no great signifigance. No matter how hard I try I cannot view my grief with any clarity. This blog is, perhaps my desperate attempt at making sense of a life that has been plunged into a space that exists beyond the boundaries of language and imagination. I remember. I write. I try and understand the past. I try to recapture my beloved son, but for every word written, a hundred, a thousand, a million are abandoned. And I fear that for every memory unearthed, dozens are lost in the funereal gray folds of my brain. Sometimes I fear that I will not be able to see the most simple elements of who Ariel was, of what our relationship was made of. And last night my fear was realized. Karen sat down and read this blog - for the very first time. She sat in our bedroom and read. I waited, tense and fearing that she would despise what I have written. Karen has always been my harshest and most honest critic. When I give her a completed screenplay, I melt with the terror of a bad review. I was afraid that she would find this blog false and vain and self-absorbed; an insult to Ariel's holy neshama; an exercise in new age narcissism. Karen read and soon she was sobbing. "Oh, Robert" she said, "you need Ariel's love so badly." And it hit me, this simple truth that I had never seen before: Ariel is dead and a central portion of my soul is dying; for each and every day I am withering away for lack of his love.

Several of my readers have manged to get hold of my e-mail; they want to write to me privately, avoiding the too public "comments" section of the blog. I understand perfectly. So, anyone who wishes, please write to me at: seraphicpress@aol.com.

Special thanks to Luke Ford.net for linking me to his compelling site. Luke knew Ariel, even learned Pirkei Avot with him. Ariel was fond of Luke. That said, I must, however, add a warning to my readers that some of Luke's material is simply not appropriate for Torah Jews or for my Christian friends.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Women and Shoes and Blessings Part II

An hour after I posted the last entry, I left my office, walked twelve paces into my house and heard the dangerous sound of someone reciting the numbers to my credit card. I knocked on the door to Chloe's room and entered. There, Offspring Number Three was pacing the floor with portable phone in one hand and credit card in the other. "What're you doing?" I asked, as if I didn't know. "Ordering," she responded, "Size six... yes... in gold..." she said into the receiver. "Ordering what?" I asked. Chloe kicked up her heel, a Jewish Ginger Rogers, displaying sandals that glittered in the late afternoon sun: "Ordering these, Daddy. Aren't they cool?" "Cool beyond words. But you have them already, " I protested lamely. Chloe looked at me as if looking at a slow child, tolerantly but with affection. "These are Lila's, Daddy, can't you tell?" "Uh, no." "So I need my own pair." "Can't you just borrow?" I asked weakly. "Daddy, that's soooooo gross, eeuuuu!" Offspring Number Two, Lila, stepped into the room and began to braid Chloe's hair. I stood there and watched them for a long moment. They reminded me of happy little gorillas grooming each other with ferocious attention to detail. I watched them and I smiled happily. "Daddy, are you laughing at us?" said Lila. "No, no, I'm just glad Chloe ordered the shoes." "You are!?" They looked at me suspiciously. "Yes, absolutely. A woman can't have too many shoes, right?" They exchanged baffled glances. "Right, sure," they assented. I closed the door, went into Ariel's room and sat at his desk. I looked at one of his Torah notebooks, opened it to an intricate discussion of the laws redeeming the victim of a kidnapping. I read Ariel's notes, but soon enough I was lost. The arguments across the centuries by the various sages were far too complicated for me. I touched the notebook. I looked at Ariel's beautiful handwriting. He only used fine fountain pens. I listened to the girls giggling in the other room and soon thick tears were cutting channels down my face. I cried in Ariel's room because I so badly wanted to tell him about the girls. I wanted to celebrate their beauty with him, I wanted to share their moments of glorious frivolity with Ariel. But I couldn't. And I have to get used to it. For if I don't I will become bitter and angry. No, I must sculpt a new housing for my joy.

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