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.
-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.


Blogger LukeFord said...

When one says, "Nobody deserves that," it is the same as saying, "I would not wish that on my worst enemy." She was saying that what happened to you was horrible. She was not saying that you or any parent could cause such a thing. You completely misunderstood her words. She was saying she was very sorry about your loss. Nobody should have to endure such a thing.

June 8, 2004 at 4:28 PM  
Blogger Yehupitzer said...


Luke's right over here. But that doesn't matter. It hurt anyway.

I wish I had the courage to fly from Yehupitz to LA right now and give you a hug.

Keep writing.


June 8, 2004 at 7:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Bud! Ease up on yourself! Listen, you're telling your Blockbuster experience, and you get to the part "Nobody deserves that, no parent, no matter what they've done," and I'm thinking, the lady's talking about herself! Deep down inside she's knows she could be doing better by this little boy that she three-quarters ignores. The way you've laid it out, it's clear to me that she was confessing, "Even I, crummy mother that I am, don't deserve that." Think about it. Granted, I wasn't there, but I think you've inferred wrongly and are causing needless injury to your heart.

June 8, 2004 at 11:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the other people on this one. I don't think the woman meant that you had done anything to deserve such pain. To be standing face to face with someone who has lost a child is, perhaps, the most awkward, unnerving experience one can face. I cannot even fathom what I would say to a person who told me they had recently lost a child. To even imagine the kind of pain that someone such as yourself must be feeling might make me say things as cliched as "no one deserves....no matter what they've done". If I had to put money on it, I'd bet she doesn't even remember what she said to you. She probably wanted to run away from shame.

June 9, 2004 at 6:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the other comments. When someone is being short with their child, when they feel annoyed, when they can't give their child all their attention, and in the next moment they receive a reminder that they might live to see their child die, they become sober-- they realise the depths that we sometimes ignore for all the little things. And they feel petty about that previous moment, they feel bad.

June 10, 2004 at 8:21 AM  
Blogger Hawkins Hamilton said...

They're right. It does sound like it was just an expression and not aimed at your religion. I sort of know how you feel. After my mother died I over interpreted everything.

June 10, 2004 at 1:30 PM  

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