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 will be.
Until the day Karen and I die.