Friday, July 30, 2004

Friends Regained

About forty years ago, Karen went to a little Jewish summer camp near Rhinebeck New York, called Camp Eton. Her father was the camp Rabbi. A group of friends from Karen's bunk called themselves The Three Musketeers. For several summers this little group of girls were the best of friends. At night, they would sit in their bunks and talk until sunrise. As little girls do, they talked of their dreams and their hopes and they solemnly vowed to be the best and most loyal friends forever. Camp Eton folded. And as it invariably happens, Karen and her little group of Jewish Musketeers lost contact with one another as they went their separate ways. Over the years, Karen often spoke of her idyllic summers and the wonderful girlfriends she made. "I wonder what happened to them?" she has mused out loud on more than one occasion. A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a Seraphic Secret reader. The author wondered if my wife was the former Karen Singer and if she once attended Camp Eton. Yes, I wrote back, that is my wife. I showed Karen the e-mail and when she saw the name of the person who wrote it, Joyce Motechin, Karen gasped, for this woman was one of the Musketeers back in Camp Eton. And why, we wondered, was Joyce (nee Siegel) reading Seraphic Secret? Our worst fears were confirmed when Karen learned that Joyce's daughter Deena died five years ago. In Joyce's descriptions of her beloved daughter Deena, we feel that we are hearing a description of Ariel. For Deena was a pious, spiritual young woman with a talent for imparting Torah; humbly and steadfastly she inspired and uplifted friends and students. She literally danced into everyone's hearts. She loved life, yet suffered horribly. Deena suffered without feeling the need to complain; she did not rage at Hashem, did not surrender to despair or hopelessness. In our cultural life, the word courage has been used so often that its true meaning has been lost and devalued. But for Deena, the word eloquently fits.
Ariel never married and this carries its own distinct sorrow. But Deena was married, for just a few short months, and though we can say: Oh, she knew the joys of marriage, there is an unbearable poignancy in losing one's life in the first blush of married life. As Joyce so eloquently writes: I've been reading your journal at Seraphic Secret and am in awe of the many incidents you tell regarding Ariel z"l and the way he faced his horrendous ordeal. Yes, I do see parallels in our children. This is where emunah, the belief and faith that we were steeped in throughout our lives, kicks in. I truly believe that Ariel and Deena are doing HaShem's work--who knows maybe even together.
Karen reads and rereads Joyce's e-mails, and we too marvel at the similarities Joyce brings to our attention.
"I can still remember Joyce's birthday," says Karen, "we were that close." It is eerie that Joyce and Karen have found each other after so many years. It is strange, and of course unbearably sad that these two childhood friends have reestablished contact, not to remember summers past, of camp and color war, and the icy chill of the lake, but to speak of beloved children who have entered the world of timelessness, the world of remembrance. What they have now binds them tighter than the warp of a carpet. Karen and Joyce were the best of childhood friends. Now, when Karen writes to Joyce, her feelings come in a flood; it seems to be the continuation of one long conversation; a narrative that was never interrupted; a loving dialogue that has been flourishing for over forty years. Karen and Joyce speak of children who are no longer flesh but spirit; these two beautiful women are once again Musketeers, best friends sitting up in their bunks, talking until the rising of the sun. The loyalty and love they vowed to each other so long ago has been honored.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Burning Granite

We wait all week for Shabbos. For the observant Jew, the Sabbath is a taste of heaven. When Ariel was alive, we would walk together to shul. There we would pray and say, "Good Shabbos, Good Shabbos" to all the others in the Young Israel of Century City. Then, at the Shabbos table, we would eat and sing and talk. Lila and Chloe would make Ariel laugh with their hysterical tales of life in their yeshiva high schools. Stories of wacky teachers, and dress codes that seemed to change from week to week. When Ariel laughed, he held his stomach because he was laughing so hard. Shabbos is different now. Karen and I look forward to Shabbos, but it's tinged with uneasiness. I walk to shul alone. Fathers and sons sit together, the way Ariel and I used to.  I try not to watch them because each loving interaction is like a blow to the heart.  In a shul filled with dozens of people, I am more alone than ever before. Often, I walk home with my friend Benny. His son Moshe is one of Ariel's best friends.  Benny recognizes the commotion in my heart.  I think he knows that when he walks home with me, he's walking in Ariel's place.  Last Shabbos, I explained to Benny and Moshe that Ariel and I once counted the steps from our front door to shul. "There were exactly 613," I said. Benny and Moshe grinned, and Benny asked: Full steps, baby steps, any adjustments? "Weeell," I admitted, "Ariel and I did hop and skip a bit to make it fit, but not too much." We all laughed.  We are observant, but try not to induldge in too much mysticism. There are six hundred and thirteen positive and negative commandments in the Torah.  And so, if Ariel and I take 613 steps to shul it must mean...what? It means that Ariel and I had fun.  And now, I only want to share that lightness of being with others.  It's a way of sharing our remarkable relationship.  But here's what I want to know: Will I be telling of the 613 steps in twenty years?  Will people whisper that Robert Avrech is a sad eccentric, repeating the same anecdotes day after day to anyone who will listen?  Now that I think about it, there's a pretty good possibility.  But for now, Benny and Moshe chuckle and fondly remember Ariel.  When Ariel was first admitted to the hospital for the fibrosis that was devouring his lungs, Benny and his wife Audrey were the first of our friends to visit.  I said to them: "I just don't want him to keep suffering."  They said very little.  These are people who know the value of silence.  I was fixated on Ariel's suffering. There is nothing more painful for a parent than to be helpless in the face of a child's pain. I used to make deals with God: Give me the pain, anything, just don't let Ariel suffer anymore. But of course, these deals with God are no deals at all. They are merely exercises in a futile and childish theology.  A kind of magical thinking that we are supposed to leave behind as we grow up.  This Shabbos, after an unusually quiet meal, I brought my dishes into the kitchen.  There, I found Karen putting away the silverware and weeping.  I did not have to ask, What's wrong, what are you thinking about?  Our days are filled with sudden bursts of tears.  But as I held Karen in my arms, she murmured something that she never before said.  "I can bear not seeing him," she said, "what I can't bear is what happened to him." Yes, yes, I thought, the memory of how many years he spent in pain is what rips us apart.  There are children who die suddenly: car accident, heart attack, aneurysm, murder by terror.  The shock parents suffer is unimaginable. There is no preparation.  There is no warning.  Abruptly, the perfection of their lives (they did not know that their lives were perfect, did they?) is exploded; it is like the death of a star, leaving behind only a black hole.  Some would argue that in the calculus of grief, Karen and I are lucky; we should have been prepared. After all, Ariel had his first brain tumor when he was fourteen years old.  There were years of illness, recovery, illness.  Hospital procedures, and the icy language of medicine had become second nature to us.  The Angel of Death took up residence in our home.  Every morning, I nodded to the dark angel and told him: We will defy you.  Ariel is different.  Ariel is special.  This is one battle you will lose. When I think of Ariel now, I try and remember him when he was healthy.  I try and imagine him as the smiling and glowing yeshiva student who looked forward to a full life.  But something in me keeps my memory fixed on how gaunt he was because of the massive doses of chemotherapy.  I can still see his skin turned yellow from jaundice.  I can still hear the rasping oxygen machine, heaving in and out of his lungs.  Ariel never complained.  But I wish he had.  I wish he would have said, "Daddy, I'm in so much pain, help me." But he didn't.  And because he was so strong, I also had to be.  It is the parents' job to support the child.  But I think that it was Ariel who supported me.  Maybe Ariel sensed that I wasn't very strong.  Maybe he knew that if he fell apart, I would dissolve into an ocean of atoms.  Once in a while, I would say to Ariel, "I'm sorry that things are so hard for you." Ariel would casually shrug, as if we were talking about a pimple or a hang nail. "It's okay, Dad.  It's not so bad," he replied.  But it was bad.  It was awful.  It was cruel.  And now, standing in our kitchen, Karen and I hold on to one another; we miss him, but more than anything, we want to go back in time and take away his pain.  But there is no remedy, and we are left with a family that is no longer the same family.  We are left with lives that have forever mutated into an endless series of wishes that can never be fulfilled.  And finally, and perhaps saddest of all,  we are left with a Shabbos that is no longer a real Shabbos.  Right after Shabbos, Karen turned to me and said: "It's time to go to Ariel's kever." I nodded in agreement. I was just about to say the same thing. 
On Sunday, Karen and I drive to the cemetery. We recite Psalms at Ariel's grave.  Karen kneels and touches the granite headstone. Shocked, she yanks her hand away: "It's so hot." she sobs. For some reason this makes me cry too. I think to myself, Ariel needs shade. He's not a strong boy, the sun is too strong. Karen says: "I want to see him. I want to dig away and see him--no matter what."  I shake my head and tell her, "No, no you don't."  But Karen is his mother and mothers will always want to embrace their children. Right before we tear ourselves away, I say: "I can't believe our lives have come to this. It's as if everything leads up to this place, this point in time." We drive back to Los Angeles and work on The Book of Ariel.  Karen once asked me what we would do when we finished the book. There was real anxiety in her voice, a genuine fear that once finished, we would be left adrift.  I tell Karen: It's just Volume One.
As I go to sleep, my fingers throb.  Right before we left Ariel, I placed my hand on his headstone, the burning granite, and kept it there for as long as I could bear it.  The pain is good; it reminds me that I am still alive.


Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Do Not Ask Why

When Ariel was in the Intensive Care Unit, in the last few weeks of his life, his Rebbe from Ner Yisroel flew in from Baltimore to be by his side. The relationship between a Rebbe and his pupil is special. In some ways Rebbe (teacher) and talmid( student) forge bonds of love and friendship that rival the intensity between father and son. If a father and rebbe are drowning, proposes the Talmud, who does the son save if he can save only one? Some opinions hold that the son saves the Rebbe because the Rebbe imparts Torah. But what happens if the father is also a scholar and teaches Torah to his son? Well, some opinions hold that the son saves the father.
I have always been proud of the love that Ariel and his Rebbeim have felt for one another. When Ariel was in Yeshiva Gedolah High School, he always spent the holiday of Shavuos with Rabbi Gross, the Rosh Yeshiva, and his family. Rebbitzen Gross would smile hugely when I delivered Ariel to their front door. "I'm sorry to steal Ariel," she said with a twinkle in her eye, "but you know we just love him so much." And these were not just words. In the hospital, Mrs. Gross would send Ariel meal after meal. She sat by his bedside and recited Tehillim, Psalms. At Ariel's unveiling, Mrs. Gross was there, once again reciting Tehillim. I tried to talk to her, but she could not talk. She was too overcome with emotion.
Ariel was also beloved by Rabbi Dovid Gruman. Every Friday, no matter how crowded his schedule, Rabbi Gruman, Ariel's 10th grade Rebbe, would come to the house and visit with Ariel. Ariel told me, "I love my Rebbe, Dad. I'm so lucky." I agreed, Ariel was lucky to be loved by such fine people. But in the back of my mind, always, was one simple word: why?
Why is Ariel sick?
Why is Ariel suffering?
And now, why did Ariel die.
And so, Ariel's Rebbe from Baltimore sat by Ariel's side. He held Ariel's hand. Real conversation, the give and take which is the human lifeblood, was impossible because Ariel was trapped in that hideous oxygen mask. We could talk to Ariel, but in response, all he could do, was make gestures with his head or hands. However, Ariel was weak as a kitten and even simple gestures were beyond his physical abilities. Rabbi Eisemann held Ariel's hand and spoke to him. He gave d'var Torah's, commentaries on Torah and Talmud. I sat in a chair and listened. But at a certain point I had to leave the room. I needed a break. An ICU should be quiet and soothing. But modern ICU's are a travesty, an assault in every physical sense. The rise and fall of TV laugh tracks comes in like a never ending tide. The beep of machines drills into the brain. The squeak of rubber soled shoes makes their way into your dreams. There is a condition called, ICU psychosis. It afflicts patients. I think I was suffering from it for several weeks. In any case, I left Ariel with Rabbi Eisemann. I think I went into the lobby and had a cup of coffee. Coming back to Ariel's room, just as I was about to enter, I heard Ariel talking. He must have removed the mask for a moment, just to speak. His voice was weak, hesitant.
"Rebbe, why is this happening to me?"
I hung back. I continued to listen.
There was a long pause, finally, Rabbi Eisemann answered:
"Ariel, my son, this is the ultimate question. I can only answer like this: We Jews, we do not ask why, rather we ask, how. In other words, there is no way we can know why HaShem does what he does. If we did, we would be HaShem. So, what do we do? We ask, how should we respond? How do we act under such circumstances? What actions do we take when we are afflicted with illness? And the answer is to act as a Torah Jew; to be dignified, to continue to trust and believe in HaShem. To increase our Torah learning, to multiply our davening..."
I walked away. I was sobbing so hard that I knew that they would hear me and realize that I was eavesdropping.
Years and years ago, when I was a confused and unhappy high school student, I told one of my Rebbeim that I wasn't sure if I believed in God anymore. Typical teenage problems were overwhelming me. I was caught in a vortex of sadness and rebellion, typical adolescent drama that spilled over into my Judaism. My Rebbe, a kindly if unsophisticated, (I thought) Holocaust survivor, smiled. He seemed amused by my crisis of faith.
"What should I do?" I demanded.
"Put on your tefillin in the morning," he said. "Continue to daven three times a day. Continue to observe the Shabbos. Make an added effort to observe the mitzvahs."
"But Rebbe," I protested with typical teenage fervor, "that's sooooo hypocritical. I just told you, I'm not sure I even believe in HaShem anymore."
"Don't you worry about that," he said. "You just keep the mitzvahs and belief will come."
At the time, I thought my Rebbe was, well, loony. Now, it's clear that he was a wise and extremely sophisticated man. He understood that what goes on in the heart and mind is almost impossible to make sense of. Doubts, fears and theological uncertainties are notoriously difficult to reconcile. But what we do, our behavior, we can master. My Rebbe was so right.
Ariel never spoke to me of his conversation with Rabbi Eisemann. But that night, Ariel davened with even more fervor--which is hard to imagine since Ariel already prayed like a tzaddik. Never did Ariel express a single note of despair over his condition. Right up to the end he maintained an optimistic belief that he would recover.
One of the last things he said to me was:
"I'm lucky, Daddy."
"Why is that Ariel?"
"I have met so many wonderful people because of my illness. I have seen the best, the most generous impulses that people have to offer."
The day after Ariel died, Rabbi Eisemann wrote a letter to me and Karen. He told us of his conversation with Ariel.
"I think that in a way Ariel accepted my answer and perhaps it gave him some measure of comfort in his suffering. I will tell you what, in different circumstances, I might have told him. It is my experience that occasionally individuals show up whose destiny is different from that of most other people. It is clear from everything that happens to them that HaShem has something special in mind for them. They are the embodiment of the lesson which Chazal, the Sages, draw from the pasuk in Shir HaShirim, "Dodi yorad ligano lilkat shoshanim." Ocassionally, HaShem will go down into His garden of roses to pick one which is particularly beautiful. Perhaps Ariel needed to come here for his short life in order to teach us some profound lessons about decency, honesty, kindness and caring. Perhaps we needed an example of how to act in the face of suffering. Certainly all who were ever touched by Ariel will never forget the experience."
After Rabbi Eisemann left, Ariel said to me: "I'm blessed to have Rebbe visit me."
Yes, I agreed. Blessed.
But what I didn't say was: Why should Rabbi Eisemann have to visit you?
You see, Ariel found comfort in not asking why but how. But I do not. I still ask why. And I am still met with a solid wall of indifferent silence.

Karen reads Robert's blog and adds: I do not ask why, for then I would question everything. Why was Ariel chosen to become a Talmid Chochem? Why was he endowed with voracious curiosity and far-reaching intelligence? Why could he remember the name of every person he met, every medication he ever received? Why was I blessed with a son who honored me and thanked me for every meal (good or bad) that I ever prepared?
But, here are the questions that I do ask: How do I keep Ariel close? What is Ariel thinking? How is he feeling? Does he miss us?
And finally, the ultimate question: When will I experience his presence once again?




Thursday, July 15, 2004

Seraphic Secret in the Press

Several weeks ago, Jason Maoz, Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Press wrote me an e-mail. He told me that reading Seraphic Secret, my diary of grief and loss and love, has had a profound impact on him. Jason asked my permission to publish excerpts from this blog as a front page story in The Jewish Press, the newspaper with the largest circulation in the Jewish community. Naturally, I hesitated. Wouldn't it look like I was becoming an opportunistic grief monger? Would it not be better to keep a low profile and confine myself to my own blog? Luckily, I'm smart enough to talk to Karen before making any decision. Karen looked at me as if I were smart as, say, a doorknob, and said: "Of course you should do it. We want people to know about Ariel, don't we?" Jason did a sensitive and seamless job editing my blogs, and I wish to express my deepest appreciation for his hard work.

My very good friend, Jackie D was fascinated with Ariel's thoughts on Halacha, Jewish law, and the right to bear arms. I explained that Ariel had thought long and hard about the issue, all within the framework of Torah. Ariel passed away before he could write the essay he wanted to, but I have managed to gather some of Ariel's ideas based on his notes, and on our many lively conversations about the Second Amendment. Jackie D was so taken with the essay, that she sent it to the superb political website Samizdata. This fine blog receives tens of thousands of visitors a week. The good folks at Samizdata also liked what Ariel had to say and they have printed the essay, "Jewish Law and the Right to Bear Arms" in today's issue. I'd like to add that any mistakes are mine and mine alone. Ariel would have produced a far more thorough and coherent essay. I hope he will forgive my feeble attempt. But, as I wrote to Jackie D, Ariel would have been thrilled and proud to be in the company of such distinguished thinkers. Thank you Jackie D, thank you Samizdata.

Karen has just walked into the room and she says, "Robert, I'm really worried." When Karen has that tight look on her face, I pay attention. That taut expression combined with cautionary words sends a beam of fear from stomach to spine.
"What--what's wrong?" I stammer.
"Your blog, Robert. People are going to read Seraphic Secret in the Press and they are going to be disappointed. There is no secret here, and nothing Seraphic. It's just, well, links."
"Karen, didn't you read Camellia?
Karen looks at me, baffled.
I explain: "Camellia is today's Seraphic Secret posting. It comes directly after this posting."
Karen ponders this for a moment, then says. "You have to fix it, Robert. Let people know that there's more after this entry. Or they will just read this and turn off their computers and not read further down."
So: this is to let everyone know that if you just hit your Page Down button, or use the wheel on your mouse, and gently move the Page Down function, you will find Camellia today's Seraphic Secret. It also, I believe, has the best title of any post I've ever done. Which, by the way, is something I'd like to talk about.
Titles: I spend an sinful amount of time trying to find the proper title for each posting. It's not easy. Titles are an art form. They should, ideally, add another layer of poetry to the blog. It has to be organic; true to the spirit of the blog, yet at the same time it should be evocative; evocative without being precious, or even worse, obscure.  I am not good with titles. My Hollywood scripts give me stomach aches when it comes to naming them. I walk around for months with "Untitled" under my arm. I find naming my blog entries a bit easier. But still, I can spend as much time working on the title as I do on the blog itself. Is this normal? For a writer, there is no normal. It's just comes down to varying levels of looniness.
I'm rambling; that means I'm tired. It also means that I am not exactly sure how to end this long digression. Endings are hard. Almost as hard as titles. And so, to end this, let me just, well, stop.
Wait, listen to Karen; Page Down, read Camellia. And oh yes, let me know if you like the title as much as I do. 

Camellia

Two years ago, with Ariel, Karen and I went to Seattle to consult with a specialist about the fibrosis that had crept like a thief into Ariel's lungs. Because of his condition, Ariel was not allowed to fly. We traveled by train. It was not easy. We had to schlep oxygen cylinders in addition to our regular baggage. By rail, the trip is over twenty-four hours long. There were far too many marginal people on this trip. Ariel, always with his nose in one book or another, was able to tune out the general weirdness. But I do not have this gift. There was a large and loud woman who, with frightening regularity, announced her trips to the washroom. There was a broken down cowboy who told his tale of bad women and good liquor to anyone foolish enough to listen. There was the speed freak who said to me: "Oh man I really really really think that beanie you're wearing is just awesome and like I think my dad was Jewish but I can't be sure cause he split when I was like seven years old and I once had this Jewish girlfriend man she was screwed up but hothothot and like you folks don't believe in Jesus do you which means dude like wow you are gonna burn in hell forever!" Imagine listening to this for more than five minutes. Now imagine twenty-four hours of it.
See what I mean?
After the consultation, we went back to our hotel room so Ariel could nap. Karen and I took a walk. In a tiny park I broke down and wept. "Our son is dying," I said. Karen held me and soothed me and spoke optimistically of all that could and would happen to save Ariel's life. I have always counted on Karen's good sense, her ability to analyze the battlefield of life with startling clarity. I told myself to believe Karen. I told myself that to surrender to despair would be a greivous sin. And worse, Ariel would pick it up. Ariel's antenna for my moods was so finely tuned that he knew what I felt even before I did. And so, I dried my tears and went back to the room. That evening, we went out to dinner and we had a wonderful time. Ariel tried a new dish in a funky kosher Seattle restaurant, Panini. We took pictures. We smiled. We laughed. We even joked about the train trip that still faced us, back to Los Angeles. But that night, before going to bed, I sat by the window, looked out at the swollen moon, white as a Camellia, and I have to confess that I knew that Ariel would die. I knew it in my gut.
Now, Karen and I are back in Seattle. We are here because the graphics team who are working for Seraphic Press all live in Seattle and we are here to finalize details of our first book, The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden.
The cover of the book is paramount. Contrary to what you have been told, most people do judge a book by its cover. There are several designs and we have to decide which one best reflects the content of the book and which one will sell best. I hope one design will fulfiull both requirements. What font should we use for the text? Goudy, Baskerville, Minion, Janson? Which paper is most appropriate for this novel? Should we use italics to indicate prayers that are said in Hebrew?
There are dozens upon dozens of details that must be addressed. Putting together a book is much like making a movie. God, as they say, is in the details. And my design team are an extraordinary group of people.
Obadinah Heavner, our chief illustrator, radiates calm and goodness. The beauty of her illustrations absolutely overwhelmed me the first time I saw them several months ago. And now, as Karen and I step into her stuidio, I have to catch my breath for the first thing I see is Ariel. In lovely shades of blue and teal is a sketch of The Hebrew Kid, the main character in my novel. Several weeks ago, Obadinah and I discussed what this young boy should look like. I completely forgot that I sent her pictures of Ariel. Seeing him now, on the mock cover of the book, well, I am simply not prepared. I stand in the light drenched studio and gaze at the drawing of Ariel. Obadinah has captured his intelligence, his profound curiosity about the world and the cosmos, but what's most surprising and wonderful is how she's managed to capture his sly sense of humor. I tell myself that it is not appropriate for a publisher to weep the first time he meets his design team. I must be a professional. And so I make believe that I am wiping perspiration from my forehead as I take out my handkerchief and dab at my face. But I am fooling no one. These people are artists; they are acutely attuned to the emotional temperature of their surroundings. That is the curse of the artist. The normal filters are not in place. An artist feels things on a different level; it is a deeper more textured experience; it can be a blessing, it can be a curse. The trick is learning to live without these filters and not be overwhelmed.
Robert Lanphear is the book designer. An eleventh generation American, Robert's ancestors were French Heugonots who fled the shores of the most vile country on earth, France, for the wild freedoms of the New World, America. From the beginning, Robert has thrown himself into the work of Seraphic Press with startling generosity and the kind of obsessive perfectionism that book design, great book design, demands. His greatest fear, he told me in our very first conversation, was that "the parts would not fit together as a unified whole." Robert's job is to make sure that The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden comes together as an organic unit. The text should reflect the content; the binding should feel the way a book that takes place in 1870 should feel. The spaces between the words should help the reader experience the story as the writer intends. It is a daunting task, and most of us take for granted the books that we read. We are not aware of all the work it takes to produce a fine book. In a sense, that is the best design; the design that is invisible.
Iskra is a calligrapher. Words and individual letters are her canvas. The title, The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden, is long. It takes up a good deal of real estate on the cover. Therefore, I am acutely aware that the letters must have a life of their own. As a Jewish sofer, scribe, works on the holy letters of the Torah, Iskra devotes herself to the artistry of making words come alive with the precise gestures of a pen through her wrist. She has worked for movie studios and Fortune 500 companies, and of course, the big New York publishers.
My design team are all accomplished artists, well known in their individual fields, much sought after. How is it that they have agreed to work for this impoverished, start-up publishing company. I have spoken with all of them privately and the answer is always the same: they love the book, they admire the idea of a press devoted to fine fiction for observant Jews, but most of all, they have learned about Ariel and they are doing it to honor his memory. These talented people have been touched by Ariel's too short life, and in their own ways, they are helping us perpetuate his memory. Being with these fine and generous people is a humbling experience. Their work is so sophisticated, so on-target, that Karen and I are only making choices among great and beautiful ideas. Not one single notion is wrong. Though they are not Jewish, they are all deeply religious in their own ways, and they have the ability to comprehend the lives of the observant characters in the novel and translate this understanding into fully realized art. A friend, not too long ago, suggested that I should probably only hire observant Jews to design the book. Only an observant Jew would, as he put it, "get it." I beg to differ with my friend. Great art and great artists have the ability to transcend ordinary cultural and religious boundaries. I am grateful that Obadinah, Robert and Iskra, creative and beneficient people, have agreed to work with Seraphic Press.
Karen and I return to our hotel room. It is the same hotel we stayed in two years ago with Ariel. It has been a long and wonderful day. Obadinah took us for a walk after we finished work. In a clearing in the forest we told her about Ariel. Not for one moment did we feel as if we were talking to a stranger. Her empathy reached across space and caressed our wounded hearts.
At last, Karen and I are able to cry. We are alone in our room. We have accomplished one more step in our mission to keep Ariel's memory alive.
Ask any parent. All they want for the lives of their children is a perfect story. Three acts that end in happiness. But that is not possible. Somewhere in act one something goes wrong. Act two brings tragedy. And for some children, there is no third act.
Perhaps all this is nothing but sound and fury, a pathetic diversion, a way of denying the solidity of Ariel's death.
I am so deep in denial that I am even denying denial.
But it is all I have. And for now, it will just have to do.
Karen goes to sleep.
I sit by the window and look out at the night and there it is, once again, the moon is white as a Camellia.


Thursday, July 08, 2004

Words of Fire

It happens now when I least expect it. Before, it was a chord of music, the page of a book, a prayer chanted in shul that would bring Ariel before my eyes. No, not an hallucination. But something more tangible. His presence would suddenly fill my body, and I would be frozen. My heart would thump in my head and everything solid would fade away, as if an engineer had gradually turned down the volume on reality. But now it happens at moments when I am simply not prepared. These are moments when I am defenseless, totally vulnerable.
This afternoon, Karen and I meet with a financial advisor. He is a lovely, soft spoken man, an Israeli who proudly tells us that his daughter-in-law is a Rabbi, and the mother of a new-born baby. Mazal Tov, we say to him. As he leans over his yellow pad and scrawls out the figures that represent our net worth, our taxable income, the expenses we pay out for the yeshiva education our children are receiving, as he drones on about retirement, as he projects the eventual marriages of our daughters Lila and Chloe, as he spins financial tales of the future -- I freeze. Everything stops. His voice disappears and all I can hear is the blood churning in my body. My heart slaps away, goes boom, boom, boom. And abruptly my eyes are filled with the image of Ariel. My son, who has no future, fills my vision. I cannot plan anything beyond Ariel's next Yahrtzeit, and the Yahrtzeit after that one. And suddenly, I am between my heart beats. I am saying to myself: this is not right. It is not the way it should be. Karen and I should be talking about Ariel as chassan. He should be telling me, with a sly smile, that I have to buy his bride a fine and elegant shaitel, wig, for that is the way things are done, and he knows that I am, in all probability, entirely ignorant of these finer points. Ariel loved to catch me in my numerous gaps of the proper etiquette within the yeshivish world. For I was brought up in the vanilla universe of modern orthodoxy, which, as some like to point out, is not quite modern and perhaps not really orthodox. But that's subject matter for someone else. Perhaps my friend Levi would like to enter into this mine field of Jewish debate.
I hear Karen's voice: Robert, are you all right? I snap out of my reverie, look at Karen and nod my head. She knows exactly what has happened, and her concern for me, her love, is deeply set in her Elizabeth Taylor--of National Velvet--eyes; and it is comforting. I am, in spite of everything, a lucky man to be loved by this beautiful and level-headed woman. I give her a little nod, letting her know that I really am fine, I'm not about to fall apart.
A few hours later, I receive a phone call from an old friend who is going through a terrible time in his life. He has read Seraphic Secret for the first time and he asks me:
"Why are you doing this?"
"What do you mean?"
"It's so...so...intimate, Robert. It's just not like you." I can hear it in my friend's voice; he dissapproves of this blog; he is intensely uncomfortable.
"Well, I'm not me, anymore."
"It's so, so, so horribly revealing; and painful."
"Yup."
"Do you find that it's healing for you?"
I turn this over in my mind. I wince at the new-age terminology. I have to admit: I hate it. Yet, I know that he is a good and fine man who is going through the gates of hell at this very moment. And he means well. Healing? Well, I am not drinking Kabbalah water from some loony Hollywood cult populated by brain dead actors. I am not "sharing" with a group of pony-tailed hipsters. I am not knee deep in the "Grief" book shelves at Barnes & Noble. That is not who I am. Not who I ever was. I pour words into a computer, I dump the contents of my heart into cybersphere. Or, as my friend Jackie patiently explains to me: I am having a non-hierarchical conversation. In plain English: I am speaking to anyone and everyone. You can be a plumber or a poet, a Rabbi or an engineer, Jew or Christian, and my words go out to you with no intermediary, no social filter. As Martin Buber would say, it is Ich un Du, the I and Thou relationship. But judging by the mail I receive, the unexpected long distance phone calls, I am crying out to and with, other grief-stricken parents. I am in dialogue with exceptionally fine and authentic people who also experience Ariel's loss though they never met him. They sense that the world has been irrevocably damaged. They too are sorely confused by the heavenly calculas of life and death.
But the question remains: What am I doing?I think I know. I think I understand. I think it is this simple: writing this blog, this website, this diary of love and grief, I am...
I am trying to bring Ariel back to life.
HaShem created the universe with words; Hebrew letters written in black fire on sheets of white fire. Judiasm believes in the power of words. It is what I have left. My only weapon. My only shield. Words. One after the other. Floating out to you and you and you...

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Rochelly's Kitchen

From the death of my son Ariel, these pages are born. I write amost exclusively about Ariel, of who he was, of how much we miss him. But there are other children who have made their way into my consciousness. As I once wrote, parents of children who have died belong to an exclusive club; a dreadful club that no one wants to join. Nevertheless, here we are.
A few days after my very first posting, Surie Lazar, of Brooklyn, New York, wrote me a detailed and moving letter about her seventeen year-old daughter, Rochelly, niftar eleven years ago. Over the weeks, Surie and I continued our correspondence, trading stories, sharing memories. And so, I was delighted when the phone rang this past Thursday afternoon and on the other end was Surie. "I am here in Los Angeles," she informed me, "I'd love to come over and visit." "That's wonderful," I replied. "Let me tell you how to get here." Surie called out to her husband: "Joe, come here and get the directions." Dimly, I heard Joe respond: "I don't want to visit, I want to go into the jacuzzi!"
Twenty minutes later, Surie and Joe cruised into a parking spot in front of our house, cruised into our lives. They are a handsome couple who have just celebrated their thirty-third anniversary. They have a married daughter who lives around the corner from them in Brooklyn, and twin sons. One son is soon to be married. Mazel Tov.
We sat and talked about our families, our lives. Surie explained, tears puckering in her beautiful blue eyes, that more than anything in the world, she wants to make sure that her beloved Rochelly is never forgotten. She admits that she feels the need to talk about Rochelly. "It's my way of keeping her memory alive," she said dabbing at her eyes. Joe said, "I'm different. I keep it all in. I don't feel the need to talk and talk." And then, naturally, Joe talked and talked about Rochelly. He recalled when the twins were having their bar mitzvah, two years after Rochelly died. It was Parshas Yitro and Joe was searching for a d'var Torah to deliver. He wanted to talk about Aseret Ha-dibrot, the Ten Commandments. In the middle of the night, Joe got up and opened one of his Torah files. He found a d'var Torah on the revelation at Sinai. "I read it and it was so beautiful, so vivid, you felt as if you were standing at Sinai. But I had not written it. It was far too beautiful. All of a sudden, I remembered that Rochelly's class was given an assignment to do a major Torah project. She was assigned Parshas Yitro. In effect, she wrote my speech for me. I read her speech at the bar mitzvah on Friday night. There wasn't a dry eye in the audience. Everyone was mesmerized." Joe could say no more.
Surie went on to explain that for the past eleven years they have operated a foundation called Rochelly's Kitchen. Twice a week, Surie cooks gallons of chicken soup. Volunteers deliver it to patients in Brooklyn hospitals. All the cooking is done by Surie in her kitchen. I have it on good authority that Surie's chicken soup is like a little taste of heaven. Why am I not surprised when Surie tells me that she does all this, in addition to working at a full-time job outside the home?
We sit and talk companionably for about two hours. We compare notes on the truly dumb things people say to you when you are sitting shiva. Things like: Well, at least you have other children, and He/she is in a better place, and Ha-Shem is testing you. We confess that we are angry when people do not mention our child who has died. At the same time, we are angry when they do mention them. We agree that no one else knows how we feel, and thank God, that is exactly how it should be.
As Joe and Surie leave, Joe grabs my hand. I apologize for taking him from the jacuzzi. Joe smiles and chuckles. It is the self-effacing laugh of a man who knows himself well. "Don't you worry," he confides, "I can go to the jacuzzi anytime, but coming here, well..." His voice fades. No more needs to be said.
It is ironic. Karen and I have lived intensely private lives. We do not thrive in social situations.
In life, Ariel gently led us, by example, into a more observant existence; in death he leads us into relationships that never would have been possible before.
There is a Kabbalistic notion that out of every evil action, some measure of good can emerge. I never really believed this. It was too abstract; it left room for too much bad behavior. And though I am not a mystic, I do recognize the possibilities in this notion. Now, I detect a subtle shift in our lives, a willingness to open up to people in a way that I never considered.
Perhaps, I am becoming a kinder, more generous person.
And perhaps, as Karen and I sat with Surie and Joe and traded sweet memories of our children, perhaps, in heaven, these two pure souls observed us in all their perfect radiance.

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