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.

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