It is time for my annual physical, but because I am typically male I delay it for as long as possible. But Karen is on to my game and using her most insistent, yet soothing, Montessori-like tones, she gently calls and reminds me to go to the lab and get my blood drawn. Surrendering to the inevitable, I schlep over to Cedars Sinai Hospital. Parking in the lot, I get hit with a wave of memories. For it is here that Karen and I spent — on and off — years of our lives with Ariel. This is where we sat in the Doctor’s office when she told us that, “There is a mass in the brain.” It is here that Ariel endured massive doses of chemotherapy and radiation. It is here that Ariel finally lapsed into unconsciousness. I am determined to do this without crumbling, and so, I gird myself with a deep breath and step into the lobby and —
–and run right into Susan, Ariel’s pulmonary therapist…
“Robert,” she cries, and before I know what’s happened, she propels herself into my arms and hugs me. I stand there, still as a pilaster, returning her genuine affection with an awkward pat on the shoulder. Abruptly, she breaks the clinch.
“I’m so sorry,” she pleads. “I forgot. Ariel taught me about negiya, but I was just…” Tears pool in her eyes.
“That’s okay, Susan, don’t worry about it.”
Susan is a no-nonsense, middle-aged black woman, a regular church-goer, her tough, drill-sargeant manner turned to vapor when she was around Ariel. The very first time they met, she moved to shake his hand.
“I don’t mean to offend you,” Ariel said, “but because of religious reasons I don’t shake hands with women.” I helped Ariel compose and rehearse this little speech at age fourteen when he became more observant and the women who were offering to shake his hand presented a thorny yet classical problem: the conflict between proper social conduct and deeply felt religious values.
It was in the last chapter of Ariel’s life that his relationship with Susan developed. Three times a week I took him to pulmonary therapy. Susan knew what she was doing. At our very first meeting, I broke down and wept in her office. Sobbing, I said, “I can’t believe this has happened to my son. I can’t believe you have to teach Ariel how to breathe.”
Susan got angry with me. “Listen,” she growled, “it will not help for Ariel to see you in this condition. You have to be strong for him. You have to be optimistic. Now, I’m going to do my part. I’m going to make him strong. Can I count on you to do the same?”
After a few sessions at pulmonary therapy, Ariel was clearly the favorite in the group. Jews, gentiles, Asians, blacks, rich and poor, they all loved his gentle manner; they plied him with endless questions about Judaism, basic and complex queries regarding history, belief and ritual. Ariel’s fellow patients asked questions they had always wanted to ask, but were never able to, because unlike most of us, Ariel had the correct answers at the tip of his tongue, yet was never glib, never condescending. He offered explanations without making the person feel diminished because of their ignorance.
Now Susan says to me,”I have to tell you that we still talk about Ariel up in the unit. A whole chunk of me got lost when he died.”
I thank Susan, thank her for everything. Ariel loved her; he knew that she was determined to give him life. And he smiled hugely when, at the end of his long three-hour sessions, Susan would hug the air between them and say, “See, I’m shomer negiya.”
It is painful, running into this reminder of the past, but I move on strangely elated. I am happy because Ariel is remembered by this ferociously good woman. Our son is not forgotten. And in the end, that is what all parents of children who have died so urgently desire. We want memory to speak; we want to hear of the lives of our children; we need these memorywhispers to echo and to nourish so that we can say: My child lived, my child was here, my child mattered.