Several days ago, Karen and I went to The Grove, a lovely outdoor shopping mall here in Los Angeles. We needed some dairy dishes and Crate and Barrel had what we were looking for. What sets The Grove apart from all other shopping malls is its quintessential art direction. Hollywood would be proud of this village-like set. The stores are set on a curving cobblestoned Main Street. There is an old fashioned trolley that choo-choos along, a central pond, and the whole area has a Frank Capra, It’s A Wonderful Life kind of feel. It also does not hurt that there is a beautiful Apple store in the Grove where I can browse happily for hours at a time, or stand in line at the Genius bar waiting for my Powerbook — a most tempermental beauty — to be diagnosed and fixed.
In any hour of any day, the death of my son Ariel is first and foremost on my mind. No matter what I’m doing, no matter who I’m with, the memorywhispers of Ariel, my beautiful and pious son, are echoing.
Karen carries a backpack wherever she goes. It is a magical pack. Need a tissue, a Band Aid, some Neosporin, my wife has only to reach inside and wham, she produces whatever is needed. I kid you not, if we were to get a flat tire on the LA Freeway, I am sure that Karen would just reach inside her pack and pull out a healthy new Firestone. The backpack is not a small, diminutive female carrying case. Although fashionable (Tumi), it is a piece of gear that would serve well in the Hundu Kush. Which is why, in Crate and Barrel, I found myself nervously following behind Karen, certain that her pack was going to topple one of the elegant and painfully constructed towers of kitchenware displays that were strategically placed all over the store: champagne glasses in the form of a pyramid, crystal goblets that towered to the ceiling. All of these lovingly complex but fragile structures seemed like the perfect target for Karen’s backpack. I asked a friendly saleperson if it ever happened, that a customer knocked over one of these glass towers. He nodded grimly and told me that whoever destroys owns the shattered fragments. As the old saying goes, “You break it, you bought it.”
I broke into a slick sweat.
Then he laughed. “Be cool, dude, we just make you sweep it up.”
“No, that’s my job,” he winked.
After about half an hour, Karen and I settled on some milk white dishes that looked vaguely Japanese. We laughed at how hard it was for us to make a simple decision about a few plates and soup bowls. And as we exited the store, we both realized at the same moment that we had not gone shopping together since, well, since Ariel died.
I also realized that I had not thought about Ariel for the time we were in the store. For a brief moment I felt guilty. I felt sad. I was not sure what I was feeling.
I told Karen how nice it was to spend time with her doing something normal. How lovely it was to shop with her like any ordinary couple. I also admitted to my conflicted feelings about “forgetting” Ariel for those brief moments.
Karen responded thus: “All is distraction, and the less activity has any affinity to Ariel the easier it is to do. Unfortunately, most of these activities are tied in with hedonism or “bitul z’man,” a waste of time, and by definition are guilty pleasures. But I guess that is part of life and we can’t be spiritual or altruistic all the time. I think people who shop perpetually are probably escaping something in their lives. Are we escaping? Where do you draw the line between spending your life grieving and remembering and honoring Ariel’s memory, and business as usual?”
There are no easy answers. All I know is that for the rest of my life I will treasure the image, the comical image, of trailing Karen between rows of sparkling glass columns, anticipating some great shattering, but coming away whole and unbroken, a silly grin on my face.