Monday, May 31, 2004

Women and Shoes and Blessings

Offspring Number Two, Lila, 19, is home from Stern College for Women. In New York City, Stern is one of the few campuses in the United States where the students do not organize "Take Back the Night" marches. They do not have to because the religious Jewish women in Stern have enough common sense not to: a)drink themselves insensible b)dress like Britney Spears, ie like sluts c) and then go back to a hormone driven boy's dorm room after a night of drinking, dancing and flirting, and expect the boy to be satisfied with a deep conversation about Kierkegaard's notions of sin and redemption.
In any case, on Shabbos several large boxes were delivered to the house. "It's my stuff," said Lila, "Books and some clothing." After Shabbos, I opened the boxes and found four books, and about twenty pair of shoes. Some clothing? Lila is a master of understatement. Living with three women I have learned an essential cosmic truth: women need shoes the way men need, well, sports programs. For women and shoes the relationship is even deeper. Women will buy shoes with absolutely no intention of wearing them. They realize that the last is too narrow, the heel so high that it induces a nose bleed, but the attraction is so powerful that to own the shoe becomes something of an obsession, a fetish. So, Lila brings home the loot from a year with a credit card in New York -- far more dangerous than a child and an Uzi -- and discovers that there is no place to keep them in her room in LA. Her room is not designed for a budding Imelda Marcos. Ever practical, Lila bought a shoe rack yesterday. "Daaaaaaddy, help me put it together. Pleeeeeease." I sat on the floor hammering together a six foot tower, a sculptural monument to display shoes. I hammered (my thumb all too often) and Lila read the instructions to me: "Insert part a into part b being extra careful that part c and part e are not parrallel to part f and g." Talmud is far easier. We were right outside Ariel's room. I looked up into his empty bedroom and I said to myself: If Ariel were here he would look at us and he would smile. No one could make Ariel smile and laugh like his two sisters. He loved the way they wrap me around their well manicured little fingers, once saying to me: "Dad, you should see your face when the girls ask you to do something for them." What do you mean?" I asked. "You're just so happy, so anxious to do anything for them, it shows on your face." "Well Ariel, that's what being a parent is, you want to give to your children. The more you give, the more you love. You'll find out when you're a father." "I can't wait," he said, "I want to have chidren" "How many?" I asked. "Many, many." He responded. Well, Ariel will not have children. He will not know the joy of hammering together a shoe rack for a shoe obsessed daughter. But when I do it, when I do anything for Lila or Chloe I remind myself that I am lucky. My heart may be broken, but I am still blessed with Lila and Chloe, and to forget this would be a sin. To neglect this would also mean giving less to the daughters I adore; and that I will not do. Not to them, not to me. Karen and I are broken vessels, but Hashem works with broken vessels and we must learn from Hashem.
I would like to thank those who have written to me over the past few days. Your generous words have given a beautiful gift to us; the gift of empathy, of shared experience and feelings. When I started this blog I worried that perhaps I was exhibiting an unattractive narcissistic element to my mourning, but now I know that my bottomless grief is all too common. To you who read and write to me: We are strangers in name only. A special thanks to Pup who linked me to his website: vintageknives.com

Friday, May 28, 2004

Burping Maidels

Ever since the children have been old enough to understand good table manners, I have drilled them on proper etiquette. I have taught them to fold their napkins in half and put them in their laps. I have drilled them in using the correct forks, spoons and knives; I have insisted that they hold their silverware properly. "Remember," I have said over and over again, "bad manners create a terrible impression." The kids, to their credit, have developed wonderful table manners over the years and I'm proud to see them eating in public. Where some of their friends hunch over their food like starving peasants, my children sit upright and wield silverware with a delicate touch. I once overheard Ariel say to one of his friends: "My father is really, really strict about table manners. He's sooooo rigid you wouldn't believe it."

Which brings me to Chloe's burping.

Chloe is offspring number three; she is sixteen, beautiful beyond words, and she has a killer drive and three-point shot. She also burps louder than, well, louder than anyone I have ever heard. At the Shabbos table, when all is mystical light and the holiness of Shabbos spreads her wings over the family, nothing can break the mood like one of Chloe's machine-gun bursts. I used to give her a long, dark look, which would silence her for the rest of the meal. But soon I noticed that Ariel laughed when his baby sister burped. Ariel who was so upright; Ariel who was so formal at the Shabbos table; Ariel who was so proper. Ariel laughed when Chloe burped and the more he laughed the louder did Chloe burp. Karen and I exchanged looks. What was going on here? Ariel laughed and covered his mouth like a Japanese Geisha, embarrassed by his own amusement. But there was no doubt about it, Chloe's fog-horn burps put Ariel into convulsions of laughter. Soon enough, Lila joined in and the girls created a duet of burps. Which made Ariel laugh even harder. I guess there's something incongruous about two lovely, innocent looking eidel-maidel's making our Shabbos table sound like a truck-stop on the 405. The past two days have been difficult. Last Shavuos, Ariel took a turn for the worse. He was so weak, so frail, so starved for air that he was on the oxygen mask all the time. He could barely daven. His best friend Avi, came in from Baltimore to be with him. Avi and I sat by Ariel's bed and talked to him. Avi read letters from all the boys from Yeshiva. He read Megillat Ruth to Ariel. I knew that Ariel was going to die. I knew that he would not live to see another Shavuos. And so, the other night, at the Shavuos table, after I came home from shul, walking past all the fathers with their sons--Robert, that used to be you--I sat down at the table, and we quietly ate. All of us remembering past Shavuot, when this family was whole and complete and truly happy. And then I heard it. Chloe's burp. I looked up at her. Her eyes searched mine. I smiled. I smiled and remembered how Ariel laughed. And Chloe burped again and again and I understood that bad manners are sometimes very good.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

The Heart Nailed

When Ariel died, I discovered that I no longer speak the same language as everyone else. When I speak there is a feeling that no matter what I say, the other person cannot possibly understand what I mean. Every word, every thought is infused with a sense of what is not. "Good morning, how're you doing?" Says the nice young girl (with far too many tattoos) in Starbucks. I answer, "Hi, fine, how are you?" But what I mean is: My son is dead. How is that you are still serving coffee? As a matter of fact, how is it the earth has not fallen off its axis? Consider the thick slabs of bullet-proof glass to protect bank tellers. That's how Karen and I live, encased in such a cube. We can see the world, but we can't touch it. We can hear, but everything is muffled. Forever we will remain separate. The only people who speak our language are other parents with dead children. Karen and I recently met the parents of a girl who was murdered by Arab terrorists in Jerusalem. We sat togther at a Sheva B'rachos. Our eyes met and there was a moment of recognition so deep, so thorough that I literally felt dizzy. We did not make small talk; immediately we spoke of loss, of how much we missed our children. To be the parent of a child who has died is to be dropped into an alien landscape; it is a world so foreign that the English language does not even have a word to describe it. Think about it: when your spouse dies you are a widow; parents die and you become an orphan; if your marriage collapes you graduate to a divorcee. But lose a child and you become... unnameable. It is a territory so horrible that language collapses, imagination fails. Interesting to note that Hebrew, a language with far fewer words than English, gives the gift of such a word: shikulim. Is it any wonder that when Karen and I meet someone who has heard about Ariel they hesitate for a moment, then awkwardly say something like: "I ah, heard about your... loss..." Their voices trail off. So many people are afraid to say his name. "Do you have other children?" others ask hopefully, stupidly, as if one child can be replaced by another like interchangable Legos. There are the "friends" who are too scared or too self-absorbed to say anything. I was with a large powerful talent agency for over twelve years. After Ariel died there was not one phone call from them, not one word of consolation, as if their narcisistic silence somehow erased his very existence, thus freeing these people of any moral responsibility. Ponder the blood relatives who in a frenzy told us that "things are crazy" in their lives and so they can't possibly pay a shiva call. And then there are the generous, fine people who flew clear across the country because they could not stay away; they sat by our side and held us and said: "There are no words." And we were so grateful for those are the right wordas. The only words. Ariel's death made clear who friends are and aren't. Nothing in life clarifies individual values as visiting the sick and then the rituals of death. Finally, and perhaps most moving are strangers who have touched me with their e-mails, nailed my heart with their kindness and understanding: the book editor in Seattle, the young Christian woman in England, the radio executive in Texas, the blogging high school student and her single mother in Silver Lake; all feeling a connection with Ariel and expressing the inexpressible, courageously trying to make themselves speak my languege because instinctively they know that what once was understood is no longer comprehensible. How I love and cherish these people who are old fashioned enough to to be acquainted with the habits of mourning, like knowing embroidery or the waltz. In Ariels death I glimpse the world he might have had in the unexpected goodness that comes my way in honor of his soul. Tonight begins the holiday of Shavuos, so there will be no posts until probably after the weekend. Thank you all for making the first week of my blog so rewarding. May God bless you and keep you, may He shine his countenance upon you and bring you peace.

Monday, May 24, 2004

With Shuddering Fall

It is the nights that are the most difficult. Our routine is fixed. Karen continues to work until ten or eleven at night. It is her only escape; the only way she can block the pain from colonizing her mind. As a psychologist, she evaluates tests, writes up reports, makes recommendations. She does this with a remarkable attention to detail. Her patients are lucky; she is attentive, compassionate, realistic. She works with children and their parents. She listens to harrowing tales of domestic conflict, helps them cope with all sorts of conflict and anger. Yet it is Karen who endures more pain than any of her patients. But Karen never lets on. She has never even hinted that all she really wants to do is lie down on her son's grave and stay there until her bones mulch with his. And so, Karen works until exhaustion takes over. I read. I learn. I write. Sometimes I'll go into Ariel's room--unchanged since the day he died--lie down on his bed and smell his pillow, the sheets, feel his imprint in the mattress. I gaze at the room: there are the Transformers he loved as a little boy. There are the pictures of his Rebbeim from High School and Rabbinical College. And, oh look at that, there is his huge Snoopy poster. Ariel loved Charlie Brown. He always said that there was a great deal of Torah to learn from Snoopy and his friends. I leaf through his notebooks and marvel at the clarity of his thoughts on particularly difficult tractates in the Talmud. I head upstairs to our bedroom. I sit in the dark and listen to Karen breathing. Invariably, she begins to violently shudder. She cries out in her sleep, makes strangling, yelping noises like a frightened animal. I slip into bed and hold her. "What is it?" I ask. "Ariel, Ariel," she sobs. "Where is he? He must miss us," she says. "We were so close." I have no answer. All I can do is soothe this brilliant and beautiful woman who I fell in love with when we were ten years old, students together in the Yeshiva of Flatbush. Soon, Karen will drift off again, but the terrible moans and shuddering always accompanies sleep. It is a tornado of grief. A woman's body remembering the child that grew inside and is no longer. It is her body reacting to the hatchet-drop of tragedy. Karen's womb is suffering a loss all its own, a phantom limb crying out and insisting on remembrance. The female body is remorseless in its ability ot recall what it has nourished, remembering Ariel's lips the first week of his birth, smooth as boiled candy. It is night and Ariel is dead and he will always be dead. It is night and Karen convulses and all I can do is hold on, for if I let go I will fall off the bed and never stop falling.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Remembrance of a Shabbos Past

The arrival of Shabbos is a time of awe and delight for observant Jews. The Kabbalists in Safed used to dress in white and singing with joy they would greet the Sabbath Bride in the mountains. Here in Pico Robertson, we too greet the Sabbath albeit with a less romantic gesture. The Sabbath is a time when the ordinary burdens of the work week are left behind and time becomes consecrated. Every man becomes a king in his home and every woman a queen. When Ariel was alive he would spend a great deal of time preparing for Shabbos. He put on his best suit and hat saying: Would you meet with a president or a king dressed as a schlump? It was something of a running joke in the house that Ariel, no matter how early he started, was almost always late. By the time I was ready to go to shul, Ariel was still awkwardly struggling with his cuff links, or wrestling with his tie, trying to get the knot just right. Ariel moved slowly. His weakened lungs made it so, but it was also the pace at which he moved through life. Slow, deliberate, thoughtful. Ariel moved like a man from another century. None of the frenzied 21st century movements for Ariel. He was like a man from a slower time; no doubt he would have been entirely comfortable in medieval Europe, in the Yeshivas of Provence, studying in the house of Rashi. That was his temperment. Ariel and I walked to shul together, three short blocks that are as familiar to me as the architecture of my wife's lovely face. We waved to the other men on their way to the various shuls. We said hello to strangers walking their dogs. Sometimes we talked, but often there was a companionable silence. Ariel was preparing to pray, adjusting his state of mind for a holy dialogue. In shul, Ariel was often asked to daven for the minyan. He had a beautiful voice and his pronunciation of the Hebrew was perfect. Often, Ariel was the last to finish davening. Here too, he took his time. He spoke to God: a true I and Thou relationship. Frequently, I had to wait for him to finish davening. Everyone else was already gone, on their way home, but Ariel was still shuckling, eyes closed, totally unaware that we were the only two left in shul. I sat and watched him daven and said to myself: How did this saintly young man spring from my loins? How did this happen for I am less than good, far from pious, never close to God; just another struggling schlemiel. I watched Ariel daven in the empty shul and I remembered when I was a child in Brooklyn, in shul with my father. I gazed in awe as he davened. I felt that here was a man in touch with something I could not even glimpse. And so, I am watching Ariel, I am watching my father, past and present merging and I say to myself: Let this moment never end Let this moment never end Let this moment never end...

Friday, May 21, 2004

Lila Comes Home

Last night, Karen and I drove to the Long Beach Airport. Our daughter Lila was arriving from New York where she is attending Stern College for Women, the female branch of Yeshiva University. As we drove along the LA Freeway, Karen and I talked about Lila's plans for the summer. She is interning at an architectural firm. Like me, she's an art major in college. But unlike me, she has the blessings and support of both her parents. When I told my father that I was majoring in Art History, he looked at me, frowned and said: Is that a serious field of study for an Orthodox Jewish boy? There was no answer, for it was a rhetorical question. When Lila shows me her art work, I have to stop myself from smothering her with hugs and kisses. She has so much talent and yet, she's so casual about it. In any case, as we drove to the airport Karen and I were both thinking about all the times we picked up Ariel when he came home from Ner Yisroel, his Rabbinical College in Baltimore. We were always so excited to see him, for he had a special hold on us. From the very beginning Ariel was a magical child. Endowed with an amazing intellect, he was also gentle and so very kind that we often worried that he was not made for this world. How could he fight through the normal, every day struggles that rule our lives? How could he deal with the truly unethical and vile people who are all around us? And as it turned out, he does not have to. He is spirit now and Karen and I are left to struggle and fight our way through the long days and nights. A few nights ago, in bed, in my arms, Karen said to me: We've become such sad people, Robert. And all I could do was nod and silently cry and hold on to Karen. When Leda came off the plane, Karen ran forward and hugged her. There I stood, watching my wife and my daughter, both so so beautiful that I forgot to breathe for a long second. And in that second I experienced a moment of happiness. It was fleeting, but it was real.

Crying on the 405

Ever since Ariel died, I find myself crying in the most unexpected of places. I remember the last year of Ariel's life. I drove him to pulmonary therapy three times a week. I drove him to his medical appointments twice a week. If he was strong enough, I would drive him to shul or to a Torah class. Sometimes we would listen to Jewish music--The Miami Boys Choir, Shalsheles, Mordechai Ben Dovid--and Ariel would tap his hand against his thigh. I remember at one point thinking that Ariel might not make it and the song I'm listening to will always be associated with that unbearable thought. And now, in the car, I don't have to put the music on. I hear it in my head. I see Ariel out of the corner of my eye. And I drive on the 405 with tears pouring down my face

Thursday, May 20, 2004

What to do?

When Ariel died, I sat shiva. I said Kaddish. I'm still saying Kaddish, just about a month left. Gosh, how I dread not saying the Kaddish for Ariel. It will be a gaping abyss in my davening. I arranged to learn Torah with several Chavrusahs in Ariel's memory. But nothing seems to be enough. Several months before Ariel died, he and I had a long conversation about books. Most of all Ariel loved to learn Torah. But he also liked to read novels. He adored Jane Austen. The mad shidduch making in Pride and Prejudice brought a big smile to his face. Ariel also loved the Harry Potter series. A triumph of good writing, beautiful plotting and traditional values over the cynical, degraded trends of much in children's publishing. On Ariel's bookshelves rest about forty novels written by Avi. The problem, said Ariel, was that there were not enough novels written specifically for observant Jewish kids. Dad, he said, you should start a publishing company. Publish fiction that is of the highest quality, yet is also suitable for kids who hold Torah values. And so, to honor Ariel and his wonderful idea Karen and I have founded Seraphic Press. Already we have four superb novels in various stages of development. We expect to publish our first book, The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden in January 2005. It is the story of an observant Jewish boy in the old West, his determination to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah, his friendship with the notorious gunfighter Doc Holliday, and his touching relationship with Lozen, a legendary Apache warrior girl. The book is a wonderful reimagining of the wild west. To pay tribute to Ariel, The Hebrew Kid's name is... Ariel.

Thinking of Ariel...

Several months ago, my beloved son Ariel Chaim passed away. I am forever changed. I will write about him, about loss and memory for as long as I can.

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