Close your eyes, breathe in deeply, now exhale slowly… That was easy, wasn’t it? Not for everyone…
I’ve been a screenwriter in Hollywood for over twenty years. But the focus of my life is my family: my radiant wife, Karen, whom I have been in love with since I was ten years old, and my two daughters, who, thankfully, look like Karen.
Not too long ago, we had three children. But our son, Ariel, died last year at the age of 22 from pulmonary fibrosis. I miss him terribly. I think about him practically every minute of every day.
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 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 with tears pouring down my face.
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, everyday struggles that rule our lives? How could he deal with the truly unethical and vile people who are all around us? 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.
On Shabbos Ariel and I walked to shul together. 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.
Ariel was often asked to daven for the minyan. He had a beautiful voice and his pronunciation of the Hebrew was perfect. Ariel usually was the last to finish davening. He spoke to G-d: a true I and Thou relationship. Everyone else was already gone, 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 asked myself: How did this saintly young man spring from my loins?
The nights are the most difficult. Our routine is fixed. Karen continues to work until ten or eleven. 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. 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.
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 Ner Yisroel Rabbinical College. And there is his huge Snoopy poster. Ariel loved Charlie Brown. He always said 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 shudder. She cries out in her sleep, makes strangling, yelping noises like a frightened animal. I hold her. “What is it?” I ask. “Ariel, Ariel,” she sobs. “Where is he? He must miss us. We were so close.”
I have no answer. All I can do is soothe this brilliant and beautiful woman. Soon, Karen will drift off again, but the terrible moans and shuddering always accompany 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 to recall what it has nourished.
It is night and Ariel is 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.
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 children.”
“?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 two daughters and to forget this would be a sin. Karen and I are broken vessels, but Hashem works with broken vessels and we must learn from Hashem.
No matter how hard I try I cannot view my grief with any clarity. I remember. I write. I started this Internet blog to try to recapture my beloved son, but for every word written, a hundred, a thousand, a million are abandoned. And I fear that for every memory unearthed, dozens are lost in the funereal gray folds of my brain.
Sometimes I fear I will not be able to see the most simple elements of who Ariel was, of what our relationship was made of. And last night my fear was realized. Karen sat down and read my blog for the very first time. I waited, tense and fearing that she would despise what I have written. Karen has always been my harshest and most honest critic. When I give her a completed screenplay, I melt with the terror of a bad review. I was afraid that she would find this blog false and vain and self-absorbed; an insult to Ariel’s holy neshama; an exercise in new age narcissism.
Karen read and soon she was sobbing. “Oh, Robert,” she said, “you need Ariel’s love so badly.”
I was ten years old when I fell in love with Karen. It happened in fourth grade. The students buzzed with the news that a new kid had transferred from Ohel Moshe, a yeshiva in Bensonhurst.
I was playing punchball in the yard when I saw the new girl. I was smitten. What struck me about her, aside from her devastating beauty, was the fierce intelligence that flashed in her eyes. So, in the Yeshivah of Flatbush schoolyard, I stood frozen at home plate gazing fixedly at her, knowing deep in my heart that my life had just changed, that I would never be the same person.
Oh, I continued to be a gawky and awkward and painfully dopey kid with a paralyzing math disability (in those days we were just called dumb) but I was different, for I carried a secret in my heart, a secret that I shared with no one.
The secret was this: some day I would marry Karen Singer.
Karen and I barely spoke in all the years we were together in elementary school. We went to separate high schools. I would see her at basketball games, sometimes in the local pizza shop. But we never spoke; she had no idea who I was. Certainly, she did not know that I was still in love with her.
During my college years, every once in a while I would ask my parents if they’d heard anything about Rabbi Singer’s daughter. “Oh, she’s in Barnard,” they would tell me. “Is she married yet?” “Not yet, but that girl won’t be single long.” I agreed. Some smart Columbia pre-med student was bound to win her heart.
After college, I was living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. One day in shul I looked up from my siddur and my heart stopped. There she was. Karen was sitting in the women’s section.
And she was not wearing a hat.
Which meant that she was not married.
The very next day I saw her on the street at a Jewish street festival. I walked over and introduced myself. Baffled, she looked at me; she had no idea who I was. No idea that my heart was beating in my chest like a trapped bird.
Less than a year later, we were married.
Ariel was our first-born. Karen’s labor was difficult and finally a C-section was performed. I was there when Ariel was born. All births are miraculous, but this more so. The little girl I had loved so deeply from that first moment in the schoolyard was now mother to our child.
Twenty-two years later, Karen and I were with Ariel when his soul departed his body. Someone, please — please – tell us how it is possible that we have moved from the schoolyard to the graveyard in one short lifetime.
The first time Karen and I visited Ariel’s grave was right after shloshim. I was so filled with dread that I asked Karen’s best friend, Audrey, to drive us to the cemetery.
Ariel is buried in Simi Valley. The views are lovely and pastoral, and there is always a brisk wind whipping down the passes. We chanted the prayers, and we sobbed; we were all struck with a sense of unreality. Was Ariel really here? Was his body under our feet?
I kneeled and touched the ground, his eternal blanket. Karen said, “Maybe he’s cold, maybe he needs a sweater.” I said nothing. Karen is his mother and she wants to shield her child from all harm. The wind picked up and Audrey, a loyal friend, moved to Karen’s side. They stood like this for a long moment, staring out at the mountains, weeping and sobbing and shivering.
The death of a child is a grief that cannot be confused with others. Nothing in life has prepared me for this hammer-blow. No one has written a manual explaining how to keep breathing after the heart has been unhinged from its cavity.
I stand in shul, eyes closed, swaying back and forth, chanting the words with (I hope) perfect diction and true feeling as I recite the last Kaddish of the eleven months for Ariel.
There are at least another dozen mourners in shul, all with much louder voices than mine, but I hear only one sound. Is this my voice? I see Ariel as he used to be: sitting in shul beside me. I melt as Ariel’s lips move, savoring each syllable, whispering the sacred Hebrew text. I study his long tapering fingers as they turn the pages of the siddur. I lean over and bury my lips in the plush groove of his neck.
I am close to the end. I take three steps back and three steps forward. I finish the Kaddish. I open my eyes and I see light. I open my eyes and I am swimming through layers of memory. I open my eyes and I see splendor. I open my eyes and I see my son.
The unveiling took place on June 18. Rabbi Muskin spoke of his loving relationship with Ariel. My father, Rabbi Avrech, spoke movingly of all the meanings of Ariel’s name. Karen’s father, Rabbi Singer, spoke of the wrenching pain we all feel.
After I spoke, we recited Tehillim. I said Kaddish. People lined up to place small stones on the headstone. Karen and I waited for everyone to leave and then we lingered at the grave. We touched the granite. We wept and embraced.
On the way back to the car Karen and I halted in our tracks and went back to Ariel’s grave because we felt that we did not say a proper goodbye. Again we touched the granite, again we lingered and wept. Again, for the hundredth time, we said this can’t be real. How did this happen? Is this really our life?
We exist within the embrace of cruel questions: why, how, what if? Endless permutations of what could have been, what should have been. But in the end we are left with this awful reality and I wonder: How much longer can I go on without surrendering to nothingness?
Robert J. Avrech’s movie and television writing credits include “A Stranger Among Us” and “The Devil’s Arithmetic.” To honor their son’s memory, the Avrechs have founded Seraphic Press to publish high-quality fiction suitable for children with Torah values. The idea was Ariel’s.
The first book from Seraphic Press, “The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden,” written by Mr. Avrech, will be published in January 2005. A tale of grand adventure, the story is set just after the Civil War and features as its main character a young boy determined to celebrate his bar mitzvah despite Apaches on the warpath, marauding bands of scalp-hunters, and a father on a mission to find the Lamed-Vovniks in the wild American frontier. Mr. Avrech has named the novel’s main character…Ariel.
To read Mr. Avrech’s blog, go to seraphicpress.blogspot.com
About the Author: Robert J. Avrech is an Emmy Award-winning Hollywood screenwriter and producer. Among his numerous credits are "A Stranger Among Us” and "The Devil's Arithmetic.” His novel "The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden" won the 2006 Ben Franklin Award for Best First Novel and the Association of Jewish Libraries Award for Notable Children's Book of Jewish Content. His most recent book is a memoir, “How I Married Karen,” an eBook available at Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble, which Avrech is now developing as a major motion picture. His website is Seraphic Secret (seraphicpress.com).
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