Karen writes in her Shabbos note: I feel like I’ve been in a protective bubble all year. More recently, perhaps because I’m less distracted by work, or perhaps I’ve been protected because I needed to be gradually eased into the pain. But I am actually beginning to miss Ariel. Before, I felt his presence as an abstraction, now I miss every physical part of him, his voice, his look, his steps. Will the shudder that overtakes my body diminish when I make contact with the pain? Will the physical manifestation of grief fade as the barrier dissolves? I don’t know. I just feel that Ariel’s death is finally being incorporated into my reality, a bridge is being formed between my old life and my new life. I guess that’s what’s called “working through” or “integration.” Again, the real feeling approaches. Our Shabbos table is very quiet. Karen and I are alone. Our girls are both away. Karen and I chat. Karen shows me the latest kashrus guide from Trader Joes. We analyze the various kashrus logos. I’m fixated on the graphic element; what works and what doesn’t? Karen wonders which hechsher our community accepts. The politics of kosher certification is Byzantine. Sometimes, downright ugly. We clear off the table. In the living room, Karen and I sit in our chairs and read. I’m in the middle of eight or nine different books. I read a chapter in one book, put it down, move on to the next. ADD, anyone? Actually, I prefer to think of myself as a restless intellect. My high school rebbeim had another word for it: undisciplined. My reading on Shabbos night is never productive. My body is set to go to sleep as quickly as possible. So I sit in the chair and read the same sentences over and over again. My head droops like a flower after the sun goes down. Shabbos is hard. It is Shabbos without my son, Ariel. The quiet penetrates. I feel Ariel’s absence as a physical ache that never lets up. The reality of his non-being becomes more real with each passing day. I keep asking: Where has all his learning gone? All that Torah, all that knowledge? I know, I know, he’s in yeshiva shel ma’alah; he’s learning with the gedolim. But I’m sorry. That does not make me feel much better. I want him here. I want his flesh, warm against me as I hug him. I want him, not the idea of him, not the memory of him, not his spirit. No words of consolation can fill the void. No abstract angelic images convince. Perhaps I’m not religious enough. One of my best friends in the community is an alcoholic. He’s observant, with wife and children, but if he did not go to AA, he would sink into a life of alcoholic debauchery. A few weeks ago I told him that if I could I think I’d like to become an alcoholic, just to drown myself and forget everything. What’s stopping you? he said with a smile. I’m allergic to alcohol, I explained sheepishly. I get migraines just smelling liquor. My friend laughed and told me that a real alcoholic drinks no matter what. Maybe a drug addict, I suggested. Anything to get away from this awful reality. My friend, let’s call him, Gabriel, took me with him to an AA meeting. It was an astonishing cross section of men: no women at this meeting; this was a AA shteibl. There were business executives, blue collar workers, one genuine rock star, a famous actor. I sat and listened as one after the other they described all the awful things they did because of their addictions. The tales were harrowing. Lies to spouses. Adulteries. Theft. One man, a Russian Jew with the delivery of Henny Youngman, spoke of taking his infant child to a crack house. Buying drugs instead of formula. These men all rely on the support of their fellow AA members. It is touching to see the genuine care and love extended to the most fallen of the group. Several men introduce themselves to me. They assume that I’m another alcoholic. I feel like saying: I’m actually the father of a dead child. But can I stay anyway? IN AA they keep referring to a Higher Power. Higher Power? It’s like something from a science fiction movie: Higher Power Battles Godzilla. What the heck is that? Soon, I realized that they were talking about HaShem. I thought to myself, why don’t they say, God? That is His name. And after the meeting is over, the men rise, join hands and intone a prayer. Some have tears in their eyes. Others smile with the release of a burden too heavy to bear. Gabriel explained that calling HaShem the Higher Power is AA’s way of including everybody, even atheists. Okay, I get it. And I realized that these men have are just another break-a-way minyan. The shul they were going to failed them. The medical establishment, the psychologists, clergy, all failed to understand them. And so, they built their shul. But certain truths follow; and it becomes increasingly clear to me that no matter where you go, no matter what the society, it always comes back to HaShem. Man eventually has to come to grips with his finitude. The world, it is too large. The world, it is too dangerous. The world, it is too overwhelming for us to cope with no other reference outside of ourselves. So, my plans for addiction (never serious, merely the ravings of a bereaved father who has never even tasted beer) are dashed, and I’m back where I started. The AA people speak of a Higher Power. Karen and I believe in HaShem and so we must extend that belief into the final realm. The place where Ariel’s spirit now resides. I must go on without him. I can’t. I will go on. I don’t want to. I write one word after another. Take one breath and then another. I see him. I can touch him. But he is not what he was. And somehow I have to live with that.
It is the middle of the night. I don’t know why, but suddenly I’m awake. Something has pulled me out of a deep slumber. I hear someone crying. Am I dreaming? No, no, it’s in my right ear. Sobbing. “Karen?” “Yes?” “What are you remembering about Ariel?” “I can’t remember what his running shoes looked like,” she sniffles. “The blue ones?” I ask. “No, they are black,” she says. Ariel went to pulmonary therapy a few times a week in the last months of his life, when he was still strong enough. The idea was that he had to be in the best shape possible to endure the lung transplant. “He has to learn how to breathe in a more efficient way,” his nurse explained to me. Karen bought him running shoes. For several sessions he was on the treadmill and the rowing machine in his yeshivish black shoes. Susan Clark, his loving pulmonary therapist insisted that Ariel had to have proper shoes. Karen went out and bought the right shoes for him. I can still see Ariel’s face when he finished his exercises: flushed with a healthy pink and a thin sheen of sweat he would smile hugely and say, “I did forty-five minutes today, Dad.” Ariel loved going to the pulmonary therapy sessions. It did not take too long for the nurses, deeply religious Christians, to cleave to Ariel. Susan Clark, the director of the unit took me aside and said,”That boy of yours, Ariel, he’s special.” It is not going too far to say that Ariel loved Susan. He spoke of her with a profound tenderness and respect. It was hard, so hard for Susan to hold herself back from hugging Ariel. He explained the halachas to her, and she was perfectly appropriate, but she told me, “I really want to hug Ariel. It’s just killing me that I can’t even shake his hand.” The other patients peppered Ariel with questions about Torah and belief. Ariel, in his patient and gentle manner, educated these people in a way that was entirely new to them. Here was a whole new universe that Ariel had entered and reshaped through sheer force of goodness. Karen holds me and sobs.”I can’t believe that it’s taken me this long to feel his absence,” she says. “I ‘ve gone for so long not letting myself face the truth. How could I have done that?” We stay locked together for the rest of the night. In the morning, I go down and daven, then enter Ariel’s room, open his closet and take out his sneakers. They are black. I got it wrong. How could I have forgotten what color they are? What else have I forgotten? What else will I forget? The shoes still hold the imprint of his foot. It is a poignant indentation. More personal than any other article of clothing. I press a shoe to my chest, and I hold my breath. I hold it for as long as I can. My head swims, my heart races, my face aches. Is this what he was feeling? Is this what the fibrosis did to him? I explode and gasp for breathe. I hold Ariel’s running shoe to my chest. I gasp for breath and just sit there trying to remember everything.
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.
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.
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?