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.


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