Monday, November 28, 2005

Measurement … Memory

I am always astounded by how many folk haven’t the foggiest idea about feet and yards. The fact that “50 yards” equals “150 feet” simply eludes them. Now perhaps they were asleep that day in physical science when Mr. Brown explicated between feet and yards, yards and meters and that one inch equals “2.54” centimeters; or it just may be that all of us measure things differently, and that these differing modes of measurement reflect varying and diverse choices, attitudes and approaches to life.

Earlier today, just as I was leaving a local restaurant, I noticed upon the exit doorway that someone had scrawled a rather crude height chart. Customers could measure their height upon leaving; perhaps that amenity in addition to the quality of the food, I supposed, might motivate the more “height-conscious” customers to come back again. Once outside, Zac, my younger son, with whom I had just finished lunch (and who has helped me before with suggestions and remembrances) remarked that back home at his mom’s house, my old marital residence, there could still be seen the old pencil marks that his mom and I made just above Ben’s head when we would periodically measure his growth. I marveled at this recollection-not only with respect to its literal content-but with the realization that our minds store so many inactive memories which require no more than a simple “pinprick” of stimulation to recall them to living memory. Here was such an instance-a very real memory suddenly recalled to consciousness-that had lain dormant for at least fifteen years.

The very phenomenon of “memory” itself, I suppose, seems so utterly inexplicable: its chemistry, its mechanics baffling, but however unknowable or even mysterious the workings of human memory may seem, that alone should not deter us from being awestruck by what it allows us to do-to ‘re-collect’. Just imagine how regrettably one-dimensional life would be without ‘recollection’! Not unlike what the “replay” is to televised sports, ‘recollection’ permits us an opportunity to experience the moment again. To gather up anew, to pick up the scattered pieces, to be able to live an event “geometrically”, as it were, revolving the sphere of life around and again in one’s mind’s eye … that all of its angles might be examined.

I can by virtue of ‘recollection’ enjoy how it was that Ben, when but barely a toddler-dressed in but a diaper and one of those ‘snap on’ button undershirts- absconded with his grandpa’s, my dad’s unlit, empty pipe and scurried away to the front room. Some minutes later, having discovered that dad’s pipe was missing, we found Ben, pipe in mouth, comfortably situated within the mouth of the fake fireplace in our apartment! Attached to this recollection is yet another … I can still very clearly “see” the utter joy on my dad’s face when our little pipe thief’s whereabouts were discovered!

How does one measure the memory of an individual? Rabbi Louis answers the question …

"In spite of being afflicted with many illnesses and life threatening problems, he was always positive. I always saw him with a broad and handsome smile on his face and always saw hope and optimism in his eyes. He taught us to be able to continue in spite of adversity, a lesson we need to relearn even more every day now that we are apart from him."

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Everyday is a Thanksgiving: Balance and Order, November 22, 2005: Five Years to the Day that Ben Died (on the secular calendar)

As much as I do appreciate and celebrate Thanksgiving as an American, I am especially reminded by today that with each and every sunrise, we witness a Jewish “thanksgiving”-that begins with upon our awakening: “Modei ani lefanecha …” (I give thanks to You …)
What distinguishes “Jewish thanksgiving” from the fourth Thursday in November is not only that we give thanks *“yom yom”-each and every day, and this is, I really think, the essence of the matter, that Jewish prayer praises The One Above even and most importantly in the face of affliction, misfortune and tragedy. However, let’s be clear on this point! It isn’t because we welcome any of the above; rather should any of life’s dark clouds gather overhead, we are automatically faced with a challenge that we either overcome or notwithstanding face a very precipitous, personal decline.

Frankly, we haven’t really much latitude in these matters if we examine them closely. On the one hand, we are free to follow the path of bitterness, cynicism and anger-leading one eventually to misanthropy and self-loathing-both of which are merely reflections of hatred for God. Conversely and, as strange as it may seem to some, we can declare:
“Hodu la Adoshem ki tov, ki le’olam chasdo”-(“Praise The One Above because He is good-because His kindness is eternal.”)

Herein lies the key, I think … that I’ll illustrate with the following example. However, I’ll preface by saying that though things do invariably turn out for the best-even and especially when our outlook seems so bleak- they are often times at first not always so apparent and self-evident as how today turned out for me.

I received an email today from a dear friend who wrote:

Dear are in my thoughts and prayers today. I know what you are thinking about, and that you are missing Ben. I remembered that it was five years eternity, but as if only yesterday, for you. He was a beautiful boy, who wanted so much to be his own man...and he was. How else could he have endured so much, and yet still, was willing to give so much of himself? The true measure of a man, is to be able to love unconditionally...and he did...and you did, even though you may feel, in retrospect, that it took awhile for you to finally reach that stage. I said "may feel", and "finally", Alan, because I know that you ALWAYS loved Ben unconditionally. The times that you were embarrassed by some of the ways that Ben chose to express himself, were only embarrassment...not a failure on Ben's part, or yours. You only wanted what was best for Ben...what you thought was best. That kind of love is the greatest gift that anyone can ever give or receive...and you and Ben gave that gift to each other.

Now I do admit that I was somewhat befuddled by the timing of the note, but as I was busy at work I let it go for later. Well, “later” arrived and at Starbucks tonight a close friend asked me: “So, how was your today?” It was precisely then that it hit me, the timing of the email; today marked in fact the five year secular anniversary of my son’s passing on November 22, 2000 which fell out in the year 2000 as the day before Thanksgiving, and that is how I think of it-not so much that Ben left us on the 22nd of November but rather on the day before Thanksgiving!

In keeping with my theme that there is-as a general principle-balance and order in our world and lives although they may quite often seem so much at the mercy of random collisions of reality.

“What is your proof?” you may ask. Well, as I am no scientist whose proof’s reliability is dependent upon laboratory duplication, I can only offer up as “proof” what news I learned from my daughter Kimmy who called me today, the 22nd day of November, with an excitement and glee in her voice that struck the balance that was needed to complete this day, to round it out as it were, to make the circle whole.

“Daddy, I got a job as a lawyer in a downtown firm! I’ll have an office with a view from the 39th floor overlooking downtown. It’s just what I wanted!”

That I feel pretty much sums up what happened today-a day when divine balance and even-handedness manifested themselves very dramatically-when a bad day five years ago became a better day today!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

No More Pictures

There are moments when I feel at a complete loss for any more words. On the one hand, I certainly do not want to end up repeating myself; the search for the hidden memory is frequently elusive and always frustrating! On the other hand, there just has to be more! There just has to be! I suppose there will come a time when I’ll be finished-when what I have managed to recover and write by that point will have left me with a satisfactory sense of closure.
For the now, I've decided to recall a few of Ben's facial features that so
wonderfully defined him as ... himself:

a. Ben's earlobes were ... kind of ... angled out.
b. He had a slightly noticeable 'oriental' fold in the inner corner of each eye.
c. His blue eyes and naturally blonde hair naturally complemented each other-both of which he inherited from his mom.
d. His sparse growth of beard he inherited from me ... thankfully! (He often commented that he and I were so alike in that respect.)
e. His cheeks were full and soft and even with the appearance of whiskers, I never tired of kissing them. (I was just doing as my father did and still does to me ... having no compunction about kissing his adult son.)
f. He had slight dimples in both cheeks.
g. His nose had a slight rise in the middle.
h. He had a full lower lip, rather heavy eyebrows and very straight eyelashes angled downward

Ben was indeed a handsome lad but more important than the wonderful shape of his nose, his sparkling blue eyes or his dimples … was his gentle nature as a loving, kind and considerate son. His mom always rightly characterized him as a “peacemaker”, the kind of person for whom *“shalom bayit” was nothing less than an inherent extension of his personality.

Just a glance back to the summer of 1993- when Ben first attended Olin Sang Ruby Hebrew Union Institute just a few short weeks after having been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes- clearly demonstrates what a remarkable kid he really was! I, on the other hand, was a “basketcase” despite the assurances by the camp nurse that she would keep a close eye on him, as I know she did; Ben’s mom had things under much better control than I, but I dare say she was more than just a tiny bit nervous herself and Ben-with his usual aplomb-set about confidently reassuring mostly me that all would be just fine. Did it put me at ease? No! It did not, but was Ben right about how well things would turn out? Yes, he was and, as a matter of fact, he did not experience any diabetes–related difficulties during the whole of his month-long stay at camp.

Not long before, just several weeks prior to the start of camp, Ben’s mom and I first noticed the tell-tale signs of his diabetes, but at that time, we did not know or have any idea about what in fact would soon turn our lives completely upside down. One evening we were sitting in the front room when he came down from his room for no apparent reason. Perhaps it was just to sit with us or watch a movie when his mom first mentioned that she had noticed how thin and drawn he was looking of late but largely attributed it to the physical changes brought about by adolescence. I do remember the rather noticeable dark bags under Ben’s eyes and how thin he had become, but what really alarmed us was the frequency with which he was urinating. As it happened he was due at that time to receive his physical exam in advance of the start of the camping season.

The day of his physical … it was not even several minutes into the physical before Ben’s pediatrician diagnosed him with type 1 juvenile diabetes and ordered his immediate admission into Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Our timing was fortuitous if not almost dangerously late for-as it turned out-Ben’s blood sugars were so high that he was spilling sugar into his urine, a potentially life threatening situation.

Ben’s first endocrinologist was a staff member at Children’s whose bedside manner was as icy as Lake Michigan’s shoreline about December or so. All that we really sought were … naturally answers! Why? How? I mean … after all neither of us had any history of type 1 juvenile diabetes in our families, although there were several cousins on my side who in their later years had contracted adult onset type 2 diabetes, but that was hardly relevant to Ben’s case … so we were told. Then how was it that this had come to pass? Oh! How well I remember this one doctor’s response …


“What doctor?”

“Genetic predisposition,” he repeated clinically.

“And that is what?” we queried.

“Meaning that he is genetically predisposed to something like this.”


And then he mentioned something about the possibility of milk triggering a virus that attacks the pancreas … something like that?!

I just wish he had said, “You know something? Honestly, we just don’t know!”

Before Ben could leave the hospital, all three of us had to demonstrate that we knew how and were able to inject him with insulin. I can assure you that that is no easy thing … well, at least for me it wasn’t, but I did finally get it while Ben’s nurse stood by watching. Frankly, I think I closed my eyes. Ben and his mom … well, no problem.

*shalom bayit … peace in the home.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Reflections on Gordon Livingston’s Book On Spring …

Imagine if you can the trauma and turmoil that are wrought by the process of a six-year old child’s dying and death! Imagine if you can the failed effort of every medical treatment known at the time … leaving as a last resort only the power of both individual and communal prayer. Such was the dreadful dilemma faced by Dr. Gordon and Clare Livingston about which Gordon writes so very beautifully in his memoir/diary, a compelling tale of Lucas, a young boy's heroic but futile battle against leukemia as chronicled by his father.

Even with the most genuinely sincere of supplicants, prayer remains, at best, a risky business! Think of it … a sole human being pleading with the Master of the Universe to intervene mercifully, to reverse the evil decree that has befallen his life or that of his children. As so many of us tragically discover, His answer turns out NOT to be the one we sought; that the death of a child may well leave one’s tentative faith in shambles, capable of even turning an agnostic’s doubt into the cold, unfeeling cynicism of the atheist. It’s often wondered … just how it is that God works; does He respond to supplications as simply and directly as when we respond to a child’s request for a snack before dinner? In the latter case, it is either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ … it’s that simple! I suspect, however, that matters are far less simple with God; Dr. Livingston finally resolves the apparent conundrum of his son’s death with the faith and trust in Him that he so desperately seeks:

‘Why is it that God makes it so difficult to believe in Him? … it is when I face the despair of my loss … that, like Job, I am tempted to ‘curse God and die.’ … but in saying this, I acknowledge his existence ... "

I do wonder if there is any discernible difference between the experience of those bereaved parents who witnessed the process of their child’s death over a course of time as opposed to what I experienced in Ben’s case when the end came suddenly without any opportunity to assimilate the reality during the very short time-just several hours-while it sped along its irreversible course. In cases such as mine the assimilation comes after the fact if it comes at all though-as I have discussed previously-I had long had a premonition of what would eventually befall us.

I told Ben on many occasions that I would unhesitatingly trade places with him; I’d give of my own body anything that would heal him, and like me and, I strongly suspect, all parents in similar circumstances, in struggling to respond to the question of "why Lucas?"-when put to him by his young daughter Emily-Dr. Livingston responded simply that he just did not know-as did I to Ben on our walk home from Walgreens that one afternoon.

I think it’s probably true that those afflicted by either chronic and/or especially life threatening illness and-who have already come to terms with their imminent mortality-take on a new role-that of comforter of those who are just beginning to enter the pre-death phase of mourning/grief-when realistically speaking it is no longer a question of ‘if’, only of ‘when’. Dr. Livingston cites an example of this when a very sick Lucas tried to comfort his mom who-in trying to have blood drawn for a possible transplant-was stuck repeatedly by the venipuncture technician who was having trouble finding an adequate vein. In like manner, I learned from my daughter that Ben did this very same kindness for her as well; having, I believe, fully acknowledged his mortality, he sought to comfort her, an act that assured me that his mom and I had succeeded in raising a *“ba’al chesed”.

*an individual who by his very nature bestows acts of loving-kindness upon others.

With Whom I Never Grieved

“Almost as gut retching as watching Ben leave forever was that now his mom had to be told. She had just arrived from work, having had to drive a far greater distance than I. I was led to a room opposite the emergency room where she sat awaiting news. Accompanied by my dad and Rabbi Louis, I approached her. My younger son Zac sat off to his mom's right. Several of Ben's buddies were there too. It was they whom I later learned had brought Zac to the hospital.

"Ben is gone!" I cried out placing my forehead upon the top of her head.

Only from a bereaved mother can there be heard such a primal moan, a ghastly utterance of pain! I shall never forget its sound!” (excerpted from my chapter "The Last Time")

Such was the only moment, the one singular experience that I’ve ever had of genuinely, whole-heartedly grieving with Ben’s mom … just a few minutes after Ben’s death. It took place on Wednesday, November 22, 2000 at about 2:00 p.m. in a waiting room just opposite the ER in Cook County Hospital and was witnessed but by a few family members and friends: my dad, my younger son Zac, several of Ben’s closest buddies, and Rabbi Louis. Unlike the subsequent funeral arrangements, the memorial service, at the graveside and ‘shiva’ at Ben’s mom’s house-which were all public events and, as such, marked by the presence of countless other mourners-that one brief, very nearly private, but shared outpouring with Ben’s mom was and remains to this day, nearly five years later, the only instance when-but for a fleeting moment-we, Ben’s mom and I, suffered the crushing pain of co-bereavement.

Mention of this has been on my mind for some while now, but it only took real shape upon reading a passage in Dr. Gordon Livingston’s book Only Spring in which the author comments upon the differences between how it was that he and his wife Clare grieved upon the death of their son Lucas from leukemia:

‘I need to be more tolerant of these differences between us. We have lost our son; we must not lose each other.’

Just as there are many experiential differences between the bereavement following a child’s long-term illness as opposed to that of sudden death, … so there must be parallel differences between married parents’ bereavement and that of those lone parents who have divorced. Unlike the myriad stories of post-bereavement marital dysfunction due in large measure, I think, to how differently men and women grieve, I have never really known how Ben’s mom has coped; naturally I have wished her well all along, but we have each borne this burden alone from the other. However, it just may be that the situation of divorced parents is the less difficult of the two; while so many married couples find their marriage foundering upon the reef of a child’s death, divorced parents-often in the process of both redefining and reshaping their lives-may be able to cope more productively and directly with the enormity of their grief without the additional challenge of saving a troubled marriage.

Five Years Ago …

The Jewish month of Cheshvan is said to be ‘bitter’ because it has no “yamim tovim”-no holidays except the weekly celebrations of the Sabbath, and consequently Cheshvan is often called *Mar Cheshvan.

My experience is that it is even more so, bitterer … because it happens that its 24th day marks the anniversary of Ben’s death, and when we arrive at that day this year, we will look back upon five years and wonder how well-if at all-we’ll still be able to glimpse his countenance.

I’ve been looking back for some time now and recall how often I would remind Ben that he keep an eye to the future, to look beyond the moment, so as to be able to peer down the road and see ‘whither he was tending.’ I don’t really know if Ben ever acted upon my advice beyond his oft-repeated reassurances that he did understand and would keep it in mind. Truthfully, whether or not he even knew this about himself, but Ben lived his life by and for the moment; his life was supremely of the present tense-a person whose wristwatch read ‘is’ rather than either ‘was’ or ‘will be’.

I’m not quite sure what it is about the number ‘five’ that seems to have brought about these feelings which I’ll characterize as melancholic … feelings that are becoming more acute as the anniversary of that dreadful day approaches. For the first time since Ben’s death, I have chosen to remain unshaven during the whole of this bitter month-as a visible reminder of this difficult time of the year … as if to magnify the sadness I feel … not so much that I am getting older as that Ben isn’t. He remains forever young.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Last Time (revised) ...

I believe it was an act of Divine Kindness that I last saw my son Benjamin Wednesday morning, November 22, 2000. Having just left *shul to drop off my dry cleaning, I turned around to leave and saw Ben standing just behind me. He had woken up late for work, saw my car parked outside the dry cleaners, and asked me to drive him to the train. It was pretty much like any other morning but with two significant differences: I was pleasantly surprised to see Ben that morning. Why so unusual? First, Ben lived in his mom's house. I had moved out the previous summer. So seeing Ben that morning was a special treat, and secondly ... this was to be our last few moments together.

Off we drove to the train but five minutes away. Our last conversation as I recall went something like this:

"How are you, Ben?"
"Fine, Dad. You?"
"Okay. How are you?"
"You feeling good?"
(by this time we were right in front of the train station. I pulled over.)
"Do you have money on you?"
"Yes, Dad. See ya later!"
"Be safe!"

and off he went ... I got to work a few minutes later. Seemed like just another day until about 1:30 or so ... when I received a phone call from a man who identified himself as an ER doctor at Cook County Hospital. He told me that Ben had been in a very serious traffic accident, and that I should come down immediately!

Upon arriving, I was rushed into the ER whereupon I saw Ben. They placed me behind a glass partition with a full view of a frenzied team of doctors, nurses and technicians struggling mightily to save my son. Having called my dad on the way down, he arrived soon by my side, choking back the tears and pleading with Ben that he hold on! I subsequently learned that the attending trauma surgeon later testified in a deposition I read that he was worried about my dad witnessing what proved to be futile efforts lest something befall him.

Open heart massage ... failed! Oxygen mask ... failed! Electric shock ... failed!

Moments later, the lead surgeon turned to me and sadly shook his head. Ben was gone! He asked me if I wanted to be with him. My dad was taken aside. A curtain was drawn. Whether it be in life or death, and at that particular moment, the transition from one to the other was almost entirely seamless-the dividing line being so thin-that I stood over Ben's face, placed a **kippah upon his head, kissed his handsome nose and repeatedly sang the 23rd Psalm, thanking him for having been such a good son! It was all I knew to do at that moment! Ben and I spent about half an hour together that final afternoon.

Soon thereafter, the body had to be moved. My friend Rabbi Louis had arrived just minutes before. Almost as gut retching as watching Ben leave forever was that now Ben's mom had to be told. She had just arrived from work, having had to drive a far greater distance than I. I was led to a room opposite the emergency room where she sat awaiting news. Accompanied by my dad and Rabbi Louis, I approached her. My younger son Zac sat off to his mom's right. Several of Ben's buddies were there too. It was they whom I later learned had brought Zac to the hospital.

"Ben is gone!" I cried out placing my forehead upon the top of her head.

Only from a bereaved mother can there be heard such a primal utterance of pain! I shall never forget its sound! Between that horrific moment and my hallway conversation with the lead doctor, I do not know what subsequently happened in that waiting room. I soon thereafter informed the doctor that Ben was a Jew and that I forbad any autopsy. He assured me that he understood. After several hours, only Rabbi Louis and I were left. When there was nothing more that we could do, we left the hospital. We walked together to my truck. I was to drive him home as he had taken a cab to the hospital. Therein we sat. Rabbi Louis called Rabbi Moshe, a chaplain with the Chicago Police Department, to see if he could expedite the transfer of Ben's body from the morgue to the funeral home. When the truck was warm, I drove Rabbi Louis home just a mile or so from my apartment. After that, I remember nothing more of that Wednesday, November 22, the day before Thanksgiving. I think I fell asleep that night in my apartment!

*shul ... synagogue morning services
Kippah ... a skullcap signifying God's presence overhead.