Monday, October 30, 2006

Comforting ...

Should it happen to befall us to see our children in pain, the frightening dilemma of how best to cope with that horrendous reality challenges and exhausts our parental reserves of common faith and shared strength all too quickly.

Notwithstanding the wellness of their marriages, parents can manage such a burden effectively by remaining exclusively focused on the well-being of their child while permitting the intrusion of no other issues.

Words oftentimes do not convey the depth of our feelings in every instance.

Nothing quite as empathic as a tender hug is as capable of transforming pain and suffering into a shared experience-and thereby making even the most painful of moments a bit more bearable.

The Accident …

Several weeks after nearly suffering a fatal traffic accident, Ben began to suffer severe shortness of breath, walking difficulty and chest pain.

The surgeon diagnosed Ben with pneumonia and advised us that she had no other choice but to recommend immediate lung surgery.

Her recommendation coincided with the time in my marriage to Ben’s mom after we had sunk to our lowest depth ever-having virtually no contact with each other for several months. Though we continued to live together under the same roof, the surgeon’s diagnosis and recommendation served to exascerbate an already dire situation.

Ben's mom used to say she no longer recognized me as the same man whom she had known. Had you seen my appearance at the time, you might have concurred with the reasons for which she felt the way she did.

Thinking it would be possible and appropriate to accelerate the pace of my religious growth by a mere change in my appearance, I dressed myself in the “uniform” of some, but not all, observant men, which included: a dark suit, white shirt, tie, kippah
[1] and black fedora.

All this while I was struggling simultaneously to adopt the stringencies of a kosher lifestyle.

I failed in the end.

Mr. Parker, Z’L.

Choosing to ignore an admonition given to me by a dear friend that I was spending too much time in the synagogue rather than at home with my family, I refused to heed his advice-no matter that it had come from an older and wiser man.

In recalling my special friend
[2] who among many acts of friendship took the time to teach me the fundamentals of “siddur, tallis and tefillin,”[3] I am most grateful to him for having shown me the path he thought best though I chose not to take it at the time

Mr. Irwin Parker, Issur ben Avrum, emigrated to America after the second world war in the early 1950s. Though he survived Mauthausen,
[4] his family did not, but a handful of souls among the incalculable “kedoshim”.[5]

Beginning his life over again once settled here in America, Mr. Parker soon remarried and raised a second family. A tougher yet kinder and gentler soul I don’t think I had ever met.
An Unbridgeable Distance

Standing by his bedside where he lay recovering after his surgery, Ben's mom and I bore witness to his wrenching pain. Although he fought back mightily, his cries were heart piercing.

"Ben ... be strong, son! Even stronger!" I implored.

How awkward it felt saying these words to Ben as if he were not already doing precisely that!

How awful it is to see one's child in pain!

Ben’s mom left the room. I found her in the family waiting lounge just steps away. Quietly weeping, she stood by the window just staring out. I wanted very much to comfort her, but I dare not! I did not think she would have wanted me to touch her, to hug her! As she often said back then, I was no longer the same man whom she had once known and loved.

So there we were, the two of us, Ben's mom and dad, not ten feet away from each other, but it might well have been hundreds of miles … tragically unable to offer each other even the slightest comfort for our son’s suffering, our suffering-common but not shared!

[1] skullcap worn by observant Jewish men.
[2] Mr. Parker bore an uncanny resemblance to my maternal grandfather, Harry Austin.
[3] Prayer book, prayer shawl and phylacteries
[4] Nazi concntration camp located in Austria.
[5] Holy martyrs

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Chapter 19


I have heard it said:

“Time heals all wounds.”

However, for parents who have lost a child, the great majority, if not all, would respond that the “wound” of losing a child is unhealable.

And that is the way it should be!

“But what if the reality of parental bereavement could simply be forgotten? If we could just put it behind us? You know … like the old expression: ‘Out of site, out of mind.’ "

Would it be better if the wound were healable?

The following story may answer that question …

Loved by those …

I dreamt of Ben one morning. I saw him wearing his knit cap in a style I had shown him.

It was part of the uniform worn by the guys at the car wash where Ben worked too for about a year. Frankly, I never understood why he liked it as much as he did, but of far greater importance than my personal disapproval of the carwash job was that Ben possessed a strong work ethic for which I was thankful.

A dimension of Ben that so defined him was the great enjoyment he took in being with his friends and reciprocally they with him. He was very well liked and, in many cases, loved by friends who had come to know him! Kind and unpretentious, Ben enriched the lives of whomever he met.

Our loss of Ben left an irreparable hole in many people’s hearts! Maybe it is this that is the answer.

Such a person was Stuart whom I had met in synagogue and who knew Ben from the carwash.

Following a long hiatus, Stuart, for the first time in a year, returned to morning prayer minyan.
As was his custom, he inquired innocently:

“So, how is Ben doing?”

Upon hearing Stuart’s uninformed but innocent words, David gasped so loudly that the resultant hush which blanketed us seemed to have lasted ten minutes rather than the ten seconds it did!

I glanced furtively at Rabbi Louis.

Appearing shaken and angry, he finally broke the silence:

“Ben passed away two weeks ago!”

Upon his hearing the pronouncement, Stuart, an emotionally passionate man, began weeping so sobbingly that I felt it incumbent upon myself to try to console him.

I had anticipated Stuart’s inquiry but regrettably failed to inform him about what had befallen us-an act of foresight that would have precluded this entire unfortunate incident.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Kindergarten Chairs

I recall how I used to marvel at the pole-vaulting pit on the athletic field behind my school in St. Louis awestruck by the height of the bar!

“Imagine someone my age possessing the focus, daring and strength to face such a formidable challenge.”

That memory has served me well throughout the years when I sought to inculcate its lesson in my parenting and teaching.

My first student was Ben to whom I often said:

"Raise up the bar, son! Never lower it!"

I was hopeful that that axiom would inspire him to overcome the obstacles life had placed before him. If by working hard and empowering himself to reach in, out and beyond, he would become his own master!

Though I imparted a sense of “derech eretz”
[1] by teaching Ben the principles of Jewish ethical behavior, I failed in my efforts to improve his academic performance.

He was an average student and even fell below average in high school where I believe kids like Ben who-for reasons at times inexplicable-just do not fit into the prefabricated mold of a “good” student and, all too commonly, fall between the cracks.

Reaching in ...

His physical strength was awesome. I discovered just how much so one Sunday afternoon.

Standing next to the entranceway to the ice rink, I stood watching as Ben skated toward me at full speed. Increasingly ominous in appearance with every passing moment, he feigned trying to avoid crashing into me by employing his ice-sheering hockey stop that brought him so much joy-being able to stop on a frozen dime, as it were, while shaving the surface of the ice into a snowy burst of frozen flakes.

Even though I was very much aware that he was teasing me, I left soon with a better sense of how it must feel to stand in front of an oncoming train!

A powerful and skilled ice-skater, Ben’s primary rolw as an “ice guard” was to enforce safety rules during hours of open skating. His favorite part consisted mostly of helping tiny skaters who had fallen while on the ice and setting them aright. I remember how much he enjoyed the job.

Ben had always worked so well with children.

HisStrength, His Strength, My Indecision …

Of a much different and greater importance than his impressive physical prowess was the inner-almost spiritual dimension of Ben’s strength, his strength of character.

He demonstrated the degree of its depth when-having to undergo a corrective surgery to repair an infected appendectomy-the surgeon left the second incision deliberately unsutchered as a means by which to insure its complete healing.

And Ben’s role in this …

He was required to reach inside the wound twice daily, packing it fully with gauze and tape it shut. Imagine the reaction of most teenagers if they were to be asked to assume such a grave responsibility for several weeks!

On one occasion while the two of us were talking together in his room, I watched as he performed this self-procedure. Awestruck by the calm of his courage and dumbstruck by the care with which he approached this matter, I did not need much time before becoming so overwhelmed I did not knew if I should laugh or cry. In the end, I compromised by crying tears of joy!

In addition to strength and technique, the pole-vaulter, as Ben, must possess an inner strength, a driving force that will enable him to overcome the most challenging of obstacles with ease and grace.

[1] respect; literally, way of the land

Friday, October 13, 2006

Chapter 6: A Glimpse Forward in Time

Dear Readers ...

This chapter as with the whole of my book about Ben, Z'L I lovingly dedicate to his memory. It is nearly the completion of the sixth year of his absence. Though it may strike you as excessively"schmaltzdik" hug your children each day as if it were the last, God Forbid!

The things we do for our children: some right, others wrong, often ineffectual and misguided, but always done with good intentions, reaffirm the truism that we parents do the “darndest” things at times.

Such "primeval behavior" or, as some call it, "nesting instinct" keeps our children far from harm when still very young and even too after having done some growing up.

So it was when I tried to interest Ben in playing hockey with a group of Jewish men, one of whom I knew from my synagogue. More a social club than a team, it was comprised of a group of young men who just so happened to enjoy the rough and tumble of ice hockey.

“Perfect! Skating at which he had always excelled, hard checking against the boards, slap shots ... what could be better?"

The problem with this group was that it practiced twice a week at 10:00 p.m., but for a short while, we went. Ben played and I watched- occasionally falling asleep in the stands. Unhappily, his interest waned after about two months.

“How was this an example of my nesting instinct?"

Ben had been very athletically oriented ever since the time of his early boyhood. What I was trying to do was to show him ways by which to maximize his strengths and, as a bonus, be able to benefit from a regular exercise regimen necessary for diabetics. Secondly, I was trying to guide him toward a “better” choice of friends whom I thought more wholesome than his!

You may ask:

“What was the outcome of all of this ‘'parental engineering?"

Stated simply, it failed.

Whenever I tried to make choices for Ben or lead him toward my own-no matter how pure my parental motive-he would revert invariably to his choices. Ben's mom had always characterized our son as a very cautious child whose nature it was to survey any new situation, looking it over carefully, scrutinizing it to determine if all seemed right.

All well and good, one might think! Deliberate, cautious in his moves, like ...

"playing chess with life itself."

However much we encourage and applaud self-reliance, it is heartrending when our children make poor choices and we are powerless to prevent them from doing so. Despite the fact
we do know better, life having taught us, our children remain determined to make their choices even those we know to be wrong.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Chapter 13: Rachomim [1]

When the poor come to you and tell you that they do not have food for Shabbos, and you deign yourself in faith and tell them to trust in G-d-that is true heresy.

(Rebbe Dov of Liaba)

Although The One Above commanded that B’nai Yisrael,[2] dwell in sukkot[3], the very weather conditions He creates at this time of the year occasionally force us to return to the sukkat shlomenu[4] of our homes.

Whereas its roof affords a view of the stars,[5] the sukkah does not measure up very well as an umbrella nor do its flimsy walls insulate us very well against the chilling effects of the autumn breezes.

We dwell in these temporal tabernacles the eight days of Sukkot[6] to approximate the experience of our ancestors’ travail during the forty years of their desert sojourn and to remind ourselves of the on-going miracle of Jewish survival despite the fact a new pharoah rises to power to destroy us in every generation.

The Coat

A homeless man would spend his nights under a heap of blankets tucked away in the corner of a local business entranceway but had left by the time of dawn each day..

It occurred to me while Ben and I were fulfilling the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah[7] that there was no better time than the present to teach him the invaluable lessons of both tzedaka and chesed[8] in a way I hoped he would never forget. To do so, however, would require that we return home for a few minutes.

Taking a coat from my closet I had never worn nor liked, we hurriedly returned to my car, coat in hand and drove a short distance. Along the way, I explained that in the past several weeks I had noticed the plight of a certain homeless man who was living at night, as it were, tucked away in the corner of a local storefront.

“Ben, I know of someone who can use this coat!”

We pulled up in front of the store and placed the coat atop his “dwelling”. Hearing his snoring, we turned and left.

With that we were done!

That day, we learned two vitally important lessons:

Sukkot is indeed a z’man simchasenu.[9] How gratifying it felt to be able to teach my son by example! I know I had always learned better that way too.

Secondly, my mostly unspoken emphasis was that the essence of tzedaka[10] lies in acts of anonymous charity so as to spare its recipient any shame.


[1] mercy
[2] children of Israel
[3] the fragile shelters, booths, tabernacles erected just prior to Sukkot
[4] the shelter of our peace
[5] to remind us of The One Above
[6] Jewish holiday recalling the 40-year desert sojourn
[7] for which we recite the blessing “l’shev b’ sukkah.”
[8] tzedaka: righteousness though commonly translated as ‘chaity’; chesd: kindness
[9] season of our joy
[10] righteousness, often understood to mean ‘charity’