Thursday, October 27, 2005


There are certain acts that are simply ... well, you know ... selfless! Acts that are done with no thought of payment or recognition! That in effect say ... 'I am doing this because it is the only decent and helpful thing I know to do'; it is at once a "kiddush Ha Shem" (sanctification of The Name) and a way of saying through one's actions that ... in doing this for you, I expect nothing and will accept nothing in return. It is the ultimate act of friendship.

I have such a friend.

Thursday, November 23, 2000 Thanksgiving Day, Ben's mom and I-together with a few family friends-met in the office of the funeral director to make the awful but painfully necessary arrangements to lay our son to final rest. The worst part of these arrangements was in having to purchase the casket. We chose one that was simply dignified-adorned with nothing more than a "magen David" a "star of David" (though it is better translated as "shield of David").

That Thanksgiving day was a dreadful one indeed. A quiet, calm and somber confusion. Countless things having to be accomplished. There was so little time before Friday. Many hands pitched in! A time when the angelic reflection of our souls brilliantly shone! A friend from shul prepared enough meals for me that lasted several days thereafter. A dear friend flew in from Canada. We were all so frenzied that I recall feeling emotionally suspended. An unreality that lasted until I heard the first shovelful of earth hitting the casket.

Each one comforting the next, quietly dreading the coming morning. No one was left alone. No one!

Ben was watched over by a "shomer"-literally a " watchman" who sat next to the casket all night while reading "Tehilim"-the Book of Psalms. The soul rising higher...

This particular shomer had known Ben, who he was, where he had lived, having on occasion conversed with him, seen him in shul next to me, discerned in Ben a fierce loyalty to family and friends, the kind of person for whom one prays that his soul have an "aliyah" -that it ascend to even greater heights.

Earlier that same day this shomer had sat by me whilst arrangements…

whose later act of selflessness that night comforted me-whose "tefilos"-prayers on behalf of my son, I am quite sure, reached the divine ear!

I have such a friend!
Thank you ... Harv!

*shomer ... watchman

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Like Father ... Like Son

My favorite time to reflect upon things is in the wee hours of the morning when all is still, when you can gaze out the window just close enough to touch a berry tree branch being gently tossed about in the dark breeze, when you can see a cloud passing before a brightly lit moon, see the "red-eye" flights making their way through the early morning sky, when ... it invariably happens-in these wonderfully serene moments-that my thoughts turn to Ben-and I recall how amazingly much he was like me ... for better or worse.

Ben was already in his late teens or very early twenties when he and I started spending time ... smoking cigars together! Yes ... smoking cigars! Allow me to explain ... as much as I knew that Ben needed cigar smoking like a 'loch in kup' (hole in the head) or I for that matter, I rationalized it away by saying: "Well, after all, it is time spent TOGETHER!" In those days, my primary objective was to pursue 'togetherness' with Ben. He was, after all, quite realistically way too old for me to change; the hour was late and somehow, someway I just knew that. It had always been thus but as a young adult, Ben was ... well, like the rest of us, pretty much set in his ways. There was yet another dimension to this phase of our relationship; something else that I did back then; in an attempt, I suppose, to involve myself in those very activities that Ben liked so much of which I so adamantly disapproved: smoking and hanging out in unsavory places, such as the local cigar den. Now, truth be told, I too had smoked as a boy and young man and-in fact-I even recall two incidents when I deliberately hid cigarettes and lied to my mother about smoking.

As a matter of fact, Ben had been smoking since his mid-teens and, as his mom and I discovered, there was simply no way that we could stop him. On one occasion when we found cigarettes in his room, it was out of sheer frustration and fatigue that we asked him from whom he had acquired them. Ironically numbing was his response that the cigarettes, packaged as a "gift pack", had been bought by a friend. When further probed from whom the "gift" had been purchased, we learned that the corner gas station was the culprit whereupon Ben's mom and I strode over, "gift" in hand! The hapless attendant behind the counter was aghast as I rather violently shoved the 'gift pack" under and through the little change space, scraping the skin off my knuckles in the process! Imagine! Here we were with a chronically sick son and my "neighbor" was selling cigarettes to kids under age!

Looking back though, I cannot honestly be angry with Ben for smoking as he was so frightfully a copy of me. Toward the end of Ben's twenty-two years, when I was pretty much reconciled with all that had befallen him, when- I guess one could truthfully say- I had given up the fight against an unalterable reality. Bottom line ... I wanted to be with Ben where he chose to be; I could then say-though I might have disapproved of his choice-it was done under my parental supervision-not unlike monitoring the tv programs that your children are watching or filtering the type of internet content that comes into your home. So that is where we ended up perhaps twice a week; he and I ... playing pocket billiards and smoking fine cigars in the local cigar den-the kind of place where one doesn't ever see any mothers but on occasion an errant but well-meaning father or two.

Ben so very much liked wearing an English style cap as he chalked up his cue, looking for that next shot, whilst both he and I puffed away contentedly. When I looked at him, I saw a young man to whom life had not been so kind! Might he have been dealt a worse hand? Yes! Of course! So noteworthy is what I believe to have been Ben's most admirable quality ... the sheer depth of zeal with which he lived his life, as only he chose-by which I mean ... much like my feelings about him- Ben had come to terms with himself, and just maybe it was that acceptance, that shared acceptance which knit us so closely together

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Of Late ...

Of late-I guess pretty much since Ben's passing-I am very conscious of a mood swing that I experience within the framework of the "Yomim Noraim"-the Days of Awe ... from the hopeful expectation of Rosh Ha Shanah to the more somber reality check of Yom Kippur. What really troubles me though is that we simply do not and cannot know who has been inscribed and who not in the Book of Life for the coming year! We do, however, know with complete certainty that-by day's end with the final closing of the "aron kodesh"-the holy ark-signifying the closing of the Temple gates- there will be those whose names will not have been inscribed-for whom the question of being sealed in the Book of Life becomes quite moot-though we pray through the very end of Neilah-the concluding service of Yom Kippur- that we somehow have been included. Furthermore, not only has the Book been closed, but sealed tight-though we say as a measure of comfort and hopeful expectation that with heightened prayer, tzedaka: the combination of righteousness with charity-and teshuva: re-turning to a Godly life path ... the evil decree can be averted-which may, I suppose, explain what I'll call 'near misses' with death.

Deep down though I feel in my heart that all of these matters are simply unfathomable- beyond what my friend Rabbi Louis likes to call 'the inquisitive grasp of man'. Characterize 'near misses' by whatever name you like; rationalize them away if you so choose. A miracle? Are we not constantly surrounded by them on a daily basis? Unlike the "nissim"-miracles of the Torah- which were inversions of the laws of nature-as part of the works of creation, so-called daily miracles: the birth of a baby, the sunrise, the sunset (the list is interminable) are what we euphemistically refer to as "nature"-if only we could see that "nature" is really His creation! What about "blind luck"-as some might claim? Well, ... live with that if you so choose, but a belief that the universe, our world as we both perceive and feebly attempt to comprehend it-though seemingly in a continuum of random chaos is, in fact, not: rather I suggest the very opposite approach is far closer to the ultimate truth-that there is more order than disorder, that there is more law than lawlessness, that the heart may be a better barometer in these matters than the head!

How awful it must feel to live life without the "nechuma"-comfort that an unshakeable belief in The One Above affords! Now this is not to say that everything always turns out as we would like! However, there are occasions when things turn out so 'miraculously well' that one's dumbfoundedness can only be exceeded by an even stronger resolve in the belief that The One Above does rule the world-albeit with outcomes that at times favor us-at other times not. So here's my story ... when it happened just a bit more than a year ago, it shook me so fundamentally to the core that I find myself reflecting upon it today-just one day prior to the Eve of Yom Kippur ...

I received a call one afternoon from a complete stranger who-as it happened-had stopped to assist my daughter Kimberly at the scene of an almost calamitous accident. Kimmy, as I call her, had been involved in a near fatal accident from which she emerged completely unscathed, as did the occupants of the other vehicle, I am told-though Kimmy's car was absolutely totaled, and having seen it, I mean totaled! I sat in my office literally quaking! I called Kimmy's mom, let her know what had happened and assured her that I'd leave immediately and bring our daughter home. I left moments thereafter on a route very familiar to me about an hour and a half from Chicago. While driving I was able to speak with the Illinois State trooper who was there at the scene and who reassured me that Kimmy was indeed unhurt.

Long story short as the eve of Yom Kippur approaches, but I found my beautiful and quite wonderous daughter-as I said before-without so much as a scratch, but her car was "accordioned" which is to say that the front of the car could be found just inches away from where the dashboard used to be. The airbags deployed successfully, but the impact had been at a high speed typical of interstate highway driving.

Might it have turned out differently? GOD FORBID!! ... but yes it could have. Why was Kimmy saved? Again-as with "why did Ben die?"-the wrong question, but once there with Kimmy and having seen the car, I can only thank Him for having bestowed this kindness upon me.

Postscript: While preparing this post, I read a fabulous Torah lesson posting on one of my favorite blogs whose owner I e-mailed from whom I received permission to include this LINK.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

" ... In a Better Place ..."

Haven't we all heard that platitude uttered by a friend or relative intended to quiet the struggle and the rage that a parent experiences upon the death of a child? Though I believe that more hugs and fewer trite-though admittedly well-intended-words would most assuredly provide greater comfort, there should come a time for every grieving parent when the calm acceptance of finality takes over-which is NOT to say that time heals all wounds-only that continuing to fight the irreversible wears one down.

Meanwhile, should we not stand atop the highest mountain and cry out to the heavens above that the death of my child or yours is immeasureably unfair?! Every grieving parent needs to know that s/he is not alone-that living life and surviving death is easier when shared. What might even be more terrible than suffering the death of a child? ... To do so alone!

Harold Kushner in his When Bad Things Happen to Good People argues persuasively that God neither causes anyone to fall ill and die in retribution for sin - a belief commonly held by many religious people- nor does He or can He take measures to prevent such tragedies from occuring. Whether unexpectedly ending a young life or predictably that of an elderly person, death is and remains as much a part of 'maasei bereshit'-the works of creation- as is birth itself and all that happens between those two points in our lives. After all, the same god who set the planets in motion, who renews our lives with each and every sunrise, whom we praise and thank each time we arise from our slumbers, who brings forth flowers, causes the winds to blow and the falling rains ... just how could it ever be thought-no less believed-that such a sublime being would select even one child, young adult, woman or man or six million for that matter?

"Where was God during the Holocaust? Why did He not stop the murder of 1.5 million children? Maybe you have heard it said that there are no stupid questions- as many reticent school children are often told- but there are most assuredly at times wrong questions! And why not? Are there not wrong answers? The wrong question for me to ask would be ... "Why did Ben die?" Rabbi Kushner wisely remarks that "The dead depend on us for their redemption and their immortality." It is for us the living to make of our children's memory a blessing. We can do so-not by blaming a capricious god or oneself for past sins-but by the performance of good deeds and acts of loving kindness.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

My Other Children ...
(Unsolicited but Good Advice from a Reader!)

I'll call her 'Kathy'. At first, I was offended! I thought to myself: 'Who is she to advise me of such things?' Oh! I was so angry that I even blocked her from sending me any more "instant messages". 'That'll fix her,' I thought rather self-contentedly! So ... what had she said? What button pushed? What raw nerve touched?

It all began like this: I was in a chatroom for diabetes sufferers when 'Kathy' "instant messaged" me to ask if I were diabetic to which I answered "no"-though Ben, I informed her, had been since ten and a half years of age. Then she said it! Having just read The Book of Ben and "instant messaging" me on and off for only a few weeks, 'Kathy'-very boldly I thought-asked me if I was "obsessive" about my late son's life and death, adding that she hoped and prayed that I paid as much attention to my two other living children: Kimberly and Zac as I did to Ben! Good counsel? Right? Sage advice? No? Well, truth be told, though bristling with the sting of this accusation, it got me to thinking. Now ... mind you, I had previously anticipated this potential danger and written about it in "In Memory of Ben", but 'Kathy' had indeed touched a raw nerve! What if-in fact-she were right? Was I guilty of not attending to my other children?

Truthfully, I do not think so, but I did make a special call to Zac that very same night when he is ordinarily at his mom's house-a call which I make almost daily in any case whether he's there or with me. And Kimberly? Having just moved back to Chicago after graduating law school, I have been calling her ... oh, maybe two to three times a week and making every effort to keep her close: coffee together, dinner invitations, but in such a way that I not violate the privacy of a twenty-five year old woman though I admit having felt very happy when she accepted my invitation to come by for dinner on the eve of Rosh Ha Shanah. Zac was there too! So what then was the difference between these two calls and those which I would make ordinarily? Simply that the former were in direct response to what 'Kathy' had said ... try as I might to deny it to myself.

Does it happen that grieving parent(s) may unwittingly ignore their other surviving children which, should that occur, results in an already tragic situation becoming worse? I suppose it happens often enough and is something about which grieving parents need be mindful.
I was indeed taken aback when my own protagonist uttered her well-meaning words of caution. Comparable to a "wake-up" call which-though necessary-is often unwelcome at the moment, I am reminded of the wisdom-in coping with death as with the whole of life, that honesty-beginning with oneself-remains the best policy.

Postscript: This evening my daughter called me with the good news that she had passed the Illinois Bar Exam! So if you will forgive me, I am just so busy "schepping nachas" (roughly translated as: deriving great pleasure from the accomplishments of one's children!)