Karen and I have learned to keep busy. Work, projects, errands, anything to keep the mind busy, to keep our thoughts racing along so we don’t have time to obsess over Ariel’s absence. I write my scripts in the morning. The afternoon is devoted to Seraphic Press, our new publishing company, established as a memorial to Ariel and his desire for fine literature appropriate for observant Jewish teens. Memories of Ariel are inevitable whenever I’m in a medical setting. A few months ago, I was in for a routine cardiac evaluation. A dozen wires were hooked up to my body. I thought about Ariel. In the last weeks of his life there were so many wires and tubes running in and out of his poor body that just turning over in bed was a major move that required the assistance of two nurses. I would help Ariel shift positions and marvel at his patience. I’m sorry this is such a pain, I said to him as we tried to maneuver through the chaos of wires. Ariel merely smiled his adorable half smile and said, No problem, it’s a challenge. As the cardiac nurse ran tests on me, the tears started sliding down my face. I tried to hold them back, but once you start crying for a dead child, well, it’s almost impossible to stop. The nurse looked at me and asked if I was in pain. No, I sobbed. She bolted out of the examination room, certain I was having a cardiac episode. The doctor entered. My doctor is also my friend and goes to synagogue with me. He and his wife visited Ariel a few times a week. They are close friends. The most decent and fine people I have ever known. And so as I lay there crying, he tried to comfort me, but soon he too was weeping. Ariel was a tzaddik, he sobbed, he was a tzaddik. The machines beeped. My heart pumped. The odor of disinfectant, that sickly hospital smell, made me vaguely nauseated. My friend, my doctor, gently removed the connections and sent me home. Why was I crying? I asked Karen when I got home. Was I crying over all that Ariel endured? Yes, but I was also crying because we did not save him. He suffered so much and our job as parents is to protect our children. We tried. We did everything humanly possible to save our son. We got second opinions, third opinions; Karen is probably the world’s leading expert on germinoma tumors. The rational part of my brain understands all this. I know that ultimately we can only do so much. But don’t you think that after a child suffers so much, endures so much agony that his life will be spared? I keep seeing Ariel’s face. Looking at us, I knew that he trusted us. When a decision had to be made, a difficult medical decision–and there were dozens and dozens, Ariel would look at the doctor with his effortless smile and say, I trust my parents. They know what’s best for me. I hear his voice a hundred times a day. And I worry that somewhere along the way we made the wrong decision. Karen says that we did all we could. She reminds me that just the other night I assured her that Ariel wouldn’t have lived as long as he did, eight years post tumor, if we hadn’t done our research, investigated all the options and consulted with multiple specialists. We always opted for the cutting edge treatment, the one that would give him a better chance, even when it meant more cycles of chemo, more radiation. She says she still feels defeated, but does not doubt our efforts. I think she is able to say this because, whenever she felt that Ariel was vulnerable, that the nurses not up to speed, she chose to sleep at the hospital, keeping her vigil. She tells me that Ariel appreciated us, he did trust us, and with good reason. It’s just that G-d had a different plan.
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.