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.

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