Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Chai Lifeline Retreat Part I

The compassionate psychologist looks around the circle of men, wishes us a good Shabbos and suggests that we introduce ourselves and then say whatever it is we want to say. He nods to the man on his right to begin. I sit directly to the left of the psychologist, which means that I will be last to speak.
Mr. White says: "Gam zu L'tova." Which means that in the end God has a plan and it is for the best. We cannot know this plan, we cannot understand it, but we must have emunah, faith. He continues, "My son died when I was in Israel. I feel guilty about this. Could I have done something if I was with him? No, of course not. But still I feel guilty."
Mr. White, in his mid-sixties, a Boro Park businessman, rambles for a good five minutes. He quotes one verse after another. He lectures the one Reform Jew in our group, as if we who are observant have this absolute right. It is condescending and I am embarrassed by this utterly inappropriate behavior. Yet I say nothing because this man's son died and we all go a bit crazy as we live out our lives as orphan fathers. To his credit, the young Reform man, next to speak, is exquisitely polite.
"My name is Mr. Black. My son died in my arms when he was four years old. I respect your religious beliefs. But your way of coping is not mine."
Mr. White rudely interrupts with another pasuk, another Talmudic quote, but the psychologist wisely and gently cuts him off.
Mr. Black finishes: "I don't know why I'm here. I was here last year. My wife wanted to come. We'll see."
I feel a lump forming; it's like a walnut in my throat.
Next to speak is Mr. Brown. He's a young man who wears a black hat; he's not in yeshiva anymore, but out in the world, earning a living, supporting a wife and child.
He says: "I lost my daughter after a long illness. She had a big heart. I mean that figuratively and literally. Her heart was too big. The doctors looked at the X-rays and they couldn't believe their eyes. She died from cardiac hypertension. Basically, her heart exploded in her chest..." Thick tears are running down his face. I realize that my eyes are misting over. He continues: "I have this basic conflict. I know she's in Gan Eden, heaven--a perfect place. But I ask myself: if I could, would I take her back if it was possible?"
To myself I say: I would move heaven and earth to get Ariel back. Ariel is in Gan Eden too, but I know that he wanted to live. He battled for life every inch of the way. Never for a moment did we discuss death. The possibility never arose. I trust you, Ariel repeatedly told us. For me there is no conflict. Am I selfish? Do I lack faith? It doesn't matter. I want my son back.
I like Mr. Brown. I admire his ability to come face to face with this basic theological conflict. I also like his tears. He is not afraid to cry in front of other men. This takes courage.
Mr. Gray is a Satmar Chassid. His caftan shines like sealskin. Yiddish is his first language and he has difficulty expressing his feelings in English. The words emerge haltingly. "My tochter, my daughter, I lost her several years ago. When she was in a coma I asked her doctor, a very nice colored woman, if it was possible for her to come out of it. Basically, I was asking fora miracle. The doctor, she told me that anything is possible, that I should have faith and pray. But the Eibeshte needed her more than my wife and me."
The Satmar Chassid's face is gaunt, like a face painted by Goya. He strokes his beard, shrugs his shoulders.
By now, tears are dripping from my eyes.
Next up is Dr. Green. "I lost my sixteen year old daughter two years ago to cancer. I'm here because I have not had a chance to mourn properly. My wife is divorcing me and I've been so involved in the divorce that my daughter... I wanted to talk about our daughter. My wife didn't. I need to talk, to grieve."
Another physician speaks: "My daughter had a rare form of cancer, melanoma in the eye, so rare that it only appears once every ten years. So there is no research into the disease and the treatment is basic and brutal. First they took out here eye -- and then it got worse and worse. She loved Camp Simcha. Right before she died she wanted to come, but the doctors said she was too sick. My wife and I spoke with Camp Simcha. We wanted to know if it would be okay for her to come to camp, and perhaps die here..."
I have to blow my nose. The walnut in my throat is the size of a melon and hot tears are cutting thick channels down my face.
"These wonderful people at Camp Simcha met among themselves and their doctors and decided to grant our request. They even had a helicopter on call, just in case. But she died before she could come."
The physician is weeping. He hunches over and holds his head in his hands as if to keep it from exploding.
A young Monsey kollel student says: "My wife and I lost two children... babies. We still don't know what happened. It wasn't SIDS. We have two more children now, but one of them, we're very, very worried about." He looks down into his lap. His hands are clenched tight. Fingers white as snowflakes.
This man has lost two children; and yet he still walks, still breathes. From where does he draw such strength?
The psychologist looks at me. It is my turn to speak. It is not just Ariel swimming before my eyes, filling my consciousness, now all these other children move into my heart.
It is Shabbos, the holiest time in the Jewish calendar and the pure souls of these children seem to hover over this group of broken men.
"My name is Robert Avrech..." I manage to whisper. "My son, Ariel..." My voice breaks. Tears explode from my eyes. I am sobbing loudly, my chest is heaving. I cannot breath much less speak. I rise, flee to the bathroom where I cry and shudder and heave for I don't know how long.
The moment I heard that the men and women would be in separate groups I felt vulnerable and fragile. Without Karen, I am lost.
It is Shabbos in Camp Simcha. Karen and I have flown three thousand miles to take part in a Shabbos for bereaved parents. I am not normally interested in group therapy, usually I mock support groups, putting them in the same category as crystals and red threads around the wrist. But everything is different now that my son Ariel is dead. Karen and I agreed that if we didn't come we would always wonder if we had made a mistake.
I am in the bathroom in Camp Simcha. I am crying uncontrollably. I have said just eight words and already I have slipped over the edge into a state of bottomless grief. How will I get through this Shabbos?

Karen adds: Yes, the women and men were separated. I guessed (correctly) that this is done for both religious reasons and to facilitate sharing. Previous experience has found that men are extremely hesitant to bare their souls when their wives are present. The professionals have found that men, (even in same sex groups) try to solve, explain, rationalize, and ultimately theologize in the bereavement discussions. The women's discussions are dynamic, spiralling from one topic to another, spinning webs of all types of feelings, associations, with tears, laughter and compassion. So it was Friday night too. When theological explanations were offered they were accepted, but alternate opinions were voiced, and there was not an ounce of condescension or preaching. We accepted our differences and embraced our common bonds. Yes, sisterhood is powerful.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Words and Pictures

I apologize for not posting for so long. To all of you who have written asking if I'm okay, I thank you for your concern. The interval of silence has nothing to do with my state of mind, it's just that there are a finite numbers of hours in a day. With the Chagim, the holidays, and my involvement in so many projects, I'm operating on hyper-speed. Currently, I'm writing two screenplays for cable TV. Normally, these two projects would keep me occupied 24/7. But Karen and I are also getting The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden ready for its January '05 publication date. We are mailing out review copies to Jewish newspapers, magazines and book clubs. We are also arranging through our distributor, Jonathan David Publishers, for showcasing in the big chain bookstores. However, Borders, Barnes & Noble and all the huge chains are reluctant to take a chance on ordering more than one or two copies from a new independent publisher with a book by an unknown author--no matter how well written it is. And they all agree that The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden is a delightful read. They are interested in the BIG promotions, and narrow their focus to the publishers who will spend a fortune on advertising and publicity. So our strategy is to concentrate our efforts in the Jewish community, our primary market. Still, it would be fantastic if the readers of Seraphic Secret would drop by their local bookstore, independent or chain, and ask for The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden ( ISBN: 0-9754382-1-2). If enough people order the book, they will start to pay attention. If any of my readers is a professional publisher, I would appreciate hearing from you with any advice you might have.
I'm also busy working with other authors on the next several Seraphic Press titles. Here's a quick run-down:

My Shrapnel is the true story of Gila Weiss, a young American immigrant to Israel who survived the Machane Yehuda bombing. Her book is amazing because Gila refuses to be a victim. This is an amazingly heroic and resilient woman who works hard to make the best of the terror that ripped into her life. On the first page of the book she writes: "... the bombing, in fact, was the best thing that ever happened to me." Naturally, Gila is not thankful that it happened, but since it did, she is determined to rebuild her life and make it better than ever.

The Shidduch Diaries is a funny and touching look at the current shidduch dating scene. Our intrepid heroine, Rachel Ginzburg, asks the central question: "Is it against halacha for Jewish men to be normal?" This novel is affectionate and romantic, Frum-Chick-lit, if you will.

Many of you have written to me asking if I will be publishing the entries of my blog as a book. Karen and I have discussed this at length. We agreed that we did not want to publish a bereavement self-help book. We want to do something... different. We want our feelings about Ariel to be conveyed in a unique form. I am a big fan of graphic novels. Seraphic Secret will be our first graphic novel. What is a graphic novel? These are books that use the conventions of comic books to tell their stories. But the art work and stories involve serious, mature themes. Some graphic novels I have read are as powerful, and in certain cases even more powerful than conventional novels. Art Spiegel's Maus won the Pulitzer prize several years ago. In this groundbreaking book, Spiegel tells the story of his father, a Shoah survivor, using highly stylized drawings that depicts Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats. It's a powerful two-volume work. For the art work of my book, I have asked Judith Margolis to collaborate with me. Karen and I met Judith and her writer husband David, when we first moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago. Judith is a brilliant artist who has had shows all over the world. Besides being supremely talented, Judith knew Ariel. Her daughter Hodya used to play with Ariel when they were children. Judith was also one of Ariel's most loyal and frequent visitors. Though she lives in Israel now, whenever Judith came to LA, she would make time to visit Ariel. A few months before Ariel died, Judith gave him a drawing. It's a beautiful rendering of a moment in creation -- the separation of the waters, and Ariel treasured this exquisite work, keeping it on his night table till the end. We realize that telling the Seraphic Secret story as a graphic novel is highly unusual, but Karen and I believe that a synthesis of our words and Judith's artwork is the most powerful and appropriate way of remembering our son. Words alone simply cannot convey all we feel.

Sunday, October 03, 2004


Every Succos, Ariel and I went together to the Young Israel of Century City to pick up our arba minim, the four species. For Ariel, I always ordered, Mehudar, the most expensive, for myself
the moderately priced lulav and esrog sufficed.
This year, I drove to shul, and stood in line. Ahead of me was a father and his son. The boy, maybe eight years old, was excited that his father was buying him his very own lulav and esrog. "Daddy, Daddy, can I shake the lulav?" cried the little boy. Smiling inwardly at the child's enthusiasm, I tried not to feel the emptiness of being without Ariel. I wanted to concentrate on the happiness that others were experiencing. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are over and now is the season of happiness. Rabbi Muskin even reminded us that it's a mitzvah to be happy. To fulfill a mitzvah you must do something: sing, dance, sit in the Succah and talk with your guests; there must be an effort. Faith and feeling are simply not enough. Judaism is a religion of behavior. And so, all through Succos I tried my best to act happy. But in all honesty, I failed. Decorating the Succah is usually a family affair filled with laughter and good natured jokes.
We all worked hard at decorating the Succah.
Karen's eye for hanging the fruit
this year was better than ever. I put up the logo for Seraphic Press, a drawing of The Hebrew Kid that is based on a photo of Ariel. But always in the back of my mind was the awful fact of Ariel's absence.
The Succah
is a symbol of our faith in HaShem, our way of demonstrating that even in this flimsy structure God protects and watches over us.
But God did not protect Ariel.
And so, sitting and eating in the Succah did not provide me with the comfortable metaphor that has existed for years past. I know I'm supposed to put all that aside. I know that I am obligated to see beyond death, but I miss Ariel too much.
A few days ago, I told Ariel's Rebbe, Rabbi Gruman, that when Ariel died, a holiness that had permeated our lives simply vanished. Rabbi Gruman responded: "Maybe there's even more holiness in your life now." I considered this, wanting it to be true. Perhaps I'm just a weak vessel unable to see, hear, feel, sense this holiness that Rabbi Gruman is so certain of.
Several years ago, when Ariel was recovering from cancer and chemotherapy, he dragged his sleeping bag into the Succah.
"Ariel, you can't sleep in there," I said.
"Why not?"
"You're still sick. You're too weak."
"Dad, I'll feel even worse if I can't perform this mitzvah."
Of course, I relented. But all through the night I woke up every hour on the hour, trudged downstairs, and peeked into the Succah to make sure that Ariel was okay. For a few hours, Ariel learned. Then he nodded off to sleep, his Talmud still open on his chest. I remember standing in the doorway, watching him and wondering: How can he endure so much suffering and yet subject himself to even more discomfort by sleeping in the Succah? The answer, of course, is that sleeping in the Succah was a comfort for Ariel. His belief was total. In spite of the cancer, in spite of all the pain and a life lived so frequently under the shadow of illness, the walls of the Succah stood between Ariel and despair. For Ariel, observance of mitzvahs was the only rational response to an unjust world. For me, Ariel's devotion to performing the mitzvahs was the only true heroism I have ever witnessed. And I know that if ever I articulated this thought to Ariel, he would have rejected this as romantic nonsense. Which I would have interpreted as even more heroic.
I want to be comforted by the thin walls of the Succah. I want to feel and take joy in the sheltering shadows of the Succah and s'chach. But in this season where the death of our son resonates more powerfully than anything else, the words of Koheles (Ecclesiastes) echo with an awesome power: A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth endures forever... Sometimes a righteous man perishes for all his righteousness... Sometimes there are righteous men who are treated as if they had done according to the deeds of the wicked...Once more I saw under the sun that the race is not won by the swift.
For the first time in my life, the reading of Koheles is the central experience of my holiday. In years past, I would silently endure this long and perplexing text. But this time, I listened to every word and understood King Solomon's rage at the indifference of the world. I too rage at indifference. Ariel was here and now inexplicably he is gone.
I sit in our Succah and remember September 2002, Ariel's last Succos, when Ariel's friends came to visit, bringing pizza and soda. They sang and told stories until Ariel was too tired to continue. He was cold and and had to bundle up in his down jacket. His body was bloated from the medication he was taking. I helped him inside with his oxygen cannister.
"I'm lucky," he said.
"How's that?"
"To have such good friends."
"Yes, Ariel, you're very lucky," I managed to agree.
I know that I have to stanch this helpless anger. To mourn excessively is a sin and Ariel would not approve. I sit in the Succah, I remember his face, his smile. A breeze blows and the walls shiver.
Karen comments: Succos was very hard, each holiday that goes by only increases my longing for Ariel. As time passes the realization that I will not see Ariel ever again become more palpable, the ache sharpens. We were blessed this year by invitations from dear friends. Their warmth, bountiful food and stimulating conversation made us feel privileged. I actually asked Robert, "What did we do to merit such sterling friends?" They welcomed us to share the joy of the holiday, and I don't think we let them down. But the emptiness felt even more bottomless once we returned home. The convivial joy, sharing of ideas and good food was a welcome respite, but also increased the contrast of what our lives used to be like--and the irrefutable truth that our relief was only a temporary distraction. The loss deepens. But I do conjure up some comfort. I like to think that Ariel embellished our "noi succah" the beautification of the succah. For indeed, the hanging fruit, the leaf garlands, the light fixture, even the table cloth seemed sharper and more glistening this year. Ariel's spirit was hovering there, I tell myself. I glanced at his picture on the wall of the succah and his smile reassured me that this was so. This was my joy, my Simchat Chag.

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