Monday, January 31, 2011

Three More Hebrew Poems: Relapse

I've just posted three more poems that Timora wrote in the first months after being diagnosed with relapsed leukemia. Translating them for my memoir was - like the poems themselves - difficult, but very meaningful to me.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hebrew Poems: Last of the Remission

I've added two more of Timora's poems to the page of original Hebrew poems that I translated for my memoir. She wrote them in the last months of her remission, when she'd discovered that re-entering the "healthy" world was much more complicated than she'd hoped and fantasized while she was in treatment.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Humor and Resilience

Today I’d like to share with you a wonderful example of resilience that I recently encountered.

Last week I sat in the crowded waiting room of Hadassah’s surgical crowded daycare unit while Daniel underwent a minor knee operation (it went fine, and he’s recovering well). A sea of sound surrounded me: Arabic spoken softly into phones and between other patiently seated relatives; a Hebrew conversation a bit further away; alternating chatter and music from the television fixed above and to the right of my head; and erratic bursts of “gunfire” from a computer game a child was playing on the other side of the room. Cellular ring tones and announcements over the intercom occasionally punctuated the loud but strangely lulling hum. The words of the newspaper article I was reading were beginning to swim, and my eyes were starting to close of their own accord, when a sudden commotion shook me awake and made me look up. Two women had run into the waiting room after a young man of indeterminable age.” Walking with jerky steps, and loudly articulating seemingly meaningless syllables, the young man rounded the bend, dropped down to the floor a few feet in front of me, and started spinning around. “We’re not at home, Simcha,” the younger woman said as she took firm hold of his arms and guided him into a seat.

I got a closer look as the three sat down. The older woman, whom I’ll call Malka, looked to be in her fifties. Her open, good-humored face was well-tanned, and her moderate décolletage, good-quality jeans, and longish, blond-streaked hair placed her in the comfortable working class. Yaffa, her thirty-something companion, was somewhat more formally dressed, with silver hoop earrings emerging from her short dark curls. Both wore tasteful makeup. No family resemblance was apparent between the women, but despite his distored eyes, cheekbones, and mouth I could see that Simcha’s face was a copy of Malka’s. A look at the sticks that were his legs and his tiny feet made me wonder how he managed to get around on his own.

As soon as they were seated, Malka’s phone rang. She handed Simcha the phone. “It’s Eliezer,” she said, smiling. “Say hello.”

“A-oh,” Simcha said, grinning at the phone.

“Tell him you’re in the hospital.”

“Ah-in oh-i-al!”

“Tell him to bring you balloons,” Malka went on, and paused for a second before adding, “Tell him to bring balloons for five hundred shekels!”

All three burst into uproarious laughter. “I-uhn-e-el!” Simcha gasped into the phone, before succumbing to another giggling fit.

After Malka closed the phone, sighing and wiping her eyes, Simcha went on shouting partial words, which his mother completed for him before responding, interspersed with hoots and howls. He also barked occasionally. As he spoke, he gesticulated in a sign language that both women seemed to understand fully.

From time to time he sang. “Ta-too-ta,” he trilled, “ta-too-ta.” At one point he stood up in the middle of the room and gave a full performance, complete with coordinated claps, steps, and arm movements. Malka and Yaffa clapped along and smiled at him encouragingly – and proudly. I later learned that he’d sung “The Honey and the Sting,” a popular Israeli song asking God to preserve each aspect of our lives, whether bitter or sweet.

After he’d finished, he went back to his frenetic activity. Every few seconds he’d touch his mother’s face or arms, and every couple of minutes he’d jump up again and wander about or out of the room, occasionally throwing himself to the floor. Once or twice he crumpled a piece of paper, threw it across the room, and began to stamp his foot rhythmically. Each time, Yaffa or Malka retrieved him gently but firmly, always with a smile and often with a laugh. When got overexcited, Malka distracted and calmed him. Once, when he started pulling her hair too hard, she took him by the shoulders and said, “Here, let’s talk about ta-too-ta.” He happily took up the refrain.

The room’s other occupants – even the man sitting cheek to jowl with Simcha, absorbing an occasional poke – took him in their stride. Most ignored him, but many smiled sympathetically. As for me, it exhausted me just to watch Malka jump up every couple of minutes to make sure her son didn’t get into any trouble, and spend all the time in between amusing him as they sat together. Where did she get the physical and emotional strength? It seemed almost superhuman. What really struck me, though, was that from her face and manner it was clear that she thoroughly enjoyed her son.

After a while I went over to speak with her. She motioned to the seat next to her, which Yaffa had vacated when she took Simcha to the bathroom. I expressed my admiration for her upbeat attitude, and she replied, “Well, it’s hard, but we do what we can.” At my question, she explained that Simcha suffers from an extremely rare genetic condition resulting from a duplication of the twenty-second chromosome. “It’s so rare that no one can tell us what will be with him – how long he’ll live, what medical conditions he might come down with, how he’ll develop….” She smiled. “He’s still developing, you know.”

We spoke about her sense of humor. “That’s what our family’s like,” she said. “Whatever there is to laugh about, we find it. Simcha, too,” she added as he and Yaffa made their way back. He was singing again, giggling between lyrics that only he – and the select few – could understand. “I can see that,” I said quietly as I got up to give them their places back.

I spent the rest of the time until the nurse called me to the recovery room thinking about Timora, and how things would strike her as funny that others wouldn’t dare smile at. I write in my memoir, for example, that a classmate once warned her against eating a popsicle containing bright yellow food coloring. “What will happen?” her friend later told me she said. “I’ll get cancer?” Timora didn’t develop her sense of the absurd in a vacuum; our family, like Malka’s, places a high value on a good laugh, especially, I might add, as an alternative – and antidote – to despair.

I think that one “secret” that resilient people know is that laughing really is a lot more fun than crying – and healing to boot. If we can laugh at the sting together with the honey, at the bitter with the sweet – well, we can enjoy our own small lives, whatever Life (with a capital L) throws at us.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Three More Hebrew Poems: Disappointed Love

I've just posted three more of Timora's original Hebrew poems, which express a real, and normal, adolescent experience - unrequited love. But as I write in my memoir:

"All teens take disappointment in love, especially their first, to heart. But in some ways the experience was harder for Timora than most. This brief relationship, whatever it had been in real life, had represented so much more for her than first love. Her glimpse of what life could be like was turning out to be a glimpse and no more."

As sad as they are, though, I love reading these poems. They are part of her legacy which, like all bereaved parents, I'm very, very grateful she left behind.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hebrew Poems: Timora in Love

Many Hebrew speakers who've read my memoir have asked to see the poems that I translated for And Twice the Marrow of Her Bones, in the original Hebrew. So I've just started a new page, on which I'll post the original poems. I've put up the first three - with more to come. You're welcome to take a look.

Timora wrote the first four of these poems during her remission from leukemia, when she fell in love for the first, and only, time of her life.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Grieving and Sharing

In my first post, Grief and Resilience, I described how I wrote my memoir, and what writing it did for me. Today I’d like to talk about sharing my story of love and loss, and what that sharing means to me.

In both my original blog and in And Twice the Marrow of Her Bones, I wrote about the dilemma I find myself in when I come across parents whose children are being (or were in the past) treated for cancer. While Timora was ill, I was always hungry to share with anyone who knew what our family was going through. To this day, when I meet such parents I want to tell them I’m one of them, to speak and listen to them from a place of profound identification. But I can no longer do this, because they’d inevitably ask how Timora is doing. My answer would be the last thing they need to hear; my story is their worst nightmare.

I have no such problem when I meet bereaved parents; our worst nightmares have already come true.

When I meet someone who’s lost a child, our eyes instantly tell each other, Yes, I know. And so do you. All it takes is that mutual glance for us to feel as if we’ve known each other for years. There is no need for explanation, for words. But, paradoxically, because we silently know what we know, when we do speak our words bring us together, bridge the chasm that we sometimes feel separate ourselves from the rest of the human race.

My deepest sharing outside my family is with friends who’ve lost children; I’m sorry to say that I have more than one such friend. But I feel a connection with any bereaved parent, and am always ready to speak about what we have in common. A few times I’ve even reached out over cyberspace and corresponded with parents I’ve never met.

I wrote my book partly in order to reach out in this way to people in my position, to let them know they are not alone in the seemingly endless tunnel their lives so often feels like. I hope very much to show them that it is possible to pass through that tunnel and emerge into the light of a life that will never be the same, but a real one nonetheless.

I’ve recently begun sharing my story in another way as well. Twice now I’ve spoken to classes of social work students about my own experience and about my book, from my standpoint as both a parent and a professional. Each time, the students told their teachers that my talk gave them insights which will help them work more effectively with bereaved families. And each time a student approached me after class to share her story with me. The first, a young Jewish woman who had lost her husband (also to cancer), was very eager to let me know me she identified with almost everything I’d said. “No one in the class knows about this,” she said. “It’s a relief to be able to tell you about it.” The other, a young Arab woman whose lovely and gentle face was framed by a soft pink hidjab, told me that many years ago she’d lost a two-year-old brother. “Now I realize that I never understood what my mother went through when he died,” she told me, her eyes shining. “Your talk has made me understand.”

I can’t really say I’m glad to be reaching out in this way; I wish I didn’t have the occasion to do so, both for myself and for the other members of the “club no one wants to join.” But there’s no running away from the fact that I am a bereaved mother. So, as long as there are other parents out there grieving for their lost child, I see it as a privilege to be able to lighten their burden, if only a tiny bit, by telling them - in person, by correspondence, or through my book - Yes, I know. And so do you.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

There's No Comparing Pain

One phrase bereaved parents often hear is that we’ve suffered “the worst loss.” There is no denying, of course, that the loss of a child is one of life’s greatest tragedies. But although words such as these felt validating in the early years of my grief for Timora, I’m no longer sure what, exactly, they mean.

When my friend Jeff Green spoke at his son Asher's memorial service last Thursday, he touched on people's tendency to rate difficult and traumatic experiences in a hierarchy, as if A is always worse than B, which is always easier than C. There are even one or more official studies out there somewhere assigning each experience of grief a kind of trauma-rank – how bad is this variety of bereavement, compared to that kind? Some maintain that bereaved parents suffer the most; others declare that bereaved spouses and life-partners "outrank" parents – as if it were a competition of some kind. (There are also sub-ranks within categories; for example, parents who've lost an adult son or daughter supposedly suffer more than those who've lost babies or young children.)

Jeff said he believes there's no point in comparing between different kinds of pain. I completely agree with him.

I would be the last person to claim that all traumatic experiences hurt to the same degree. And Twice the Marrow of Her Bones chronicles my process of healing from the emotional agony that my daughter’s death caused me; nothing in my life had prepared me for such pain – even my father's sudden death when I was only fourteen. But I can weigh my inner experiences against each other, because I know what goes on in my own head, my own heart, and my own body. In contrast, another person might try to explain to me what she is experiencing, but all the words in the world won't put me in her place. So how can I presume to “compete” with others over whose losses are more devastating?

As a psychotherapist, and generally as someone who takes a keen interest in other people's lives, I hear a great many painful stories. What is one to make, for example, of this? A forty-four-year-old woman who finally found her life partner just a couple of years ago, is now pregnant – miraculously, to her – after having longed for a child for the better part of her life. But recently she’s learned that her unborn baby may suffer from a serious birth defect. The tests are inconclusive; still, her doctors have recommended that she terminate the pregnancy. She must now decide whether to follow their advice without ever knowing whether her baby would have been born healthy – and thus give up what might be her last chance to be a biological mother. If she decides not to have the baby, will her loss be easier for her than mine is for me? I, after all, have six wonderful children and two incredible grandchildren. Am I better or worse off than someone like her?

Closer to home, my sister Ruth’s wonderful, wonderful husband Jerry died of cancer almost eight years ago. She’s sometimes said to me that it would have been worse to lose her son. But Daniel and I have gone together through our mourning; Ruth, by definition, has had no one to share her bereavement. Can anyone say that one of our losses is harder than the other’s?

I believe that going through our own inferno should help us better understand the private hell of others; it can even bring us closer to them. When we begin comparing and contrasting, we only increase our alienation.

In my original blog, as well as in my memoir, I described a support group I attended for people who lost loved ones to cancer. I started off thinking I’d be able to connect only with the group’s other bereaved parents. Only they would be able to understand me, I thought, because our loss was so much worse than anyone else’s. Twelve meetings later, I came away having received an incredible gift – the discovery that I’d been wrong. As I wrote then, “however unnatural it is to lose a child as opposed to a wife, a parent or a sister, I can [now] give support to – and receive support from – people who aren’t in exactly the same position that I am. It may sound like an exaggeration, but I am completely sincere when I say that, at least in this small way, I feel as if I’m rejoining the human race.”

I found an almost unbelievable example of this empathic gift in my friend Charlotte’s mother, whom I had the privilege of meeting a couple of years ago just before Charlotte got married. Iboya (“Ibi” to the many who know and love her), who is now ninety, survived the concentration camps; no more need be said, I think, about the intensity of her personal traumas. Despite her many serious physical challenges, she vigorously encouraged her daughter to move to Israel in order to marry (she herself has perforce remained in Canada, where Charlotte travels to be with her every few months). I connected immediately with this open, loving and caring woman.

During the course of our conversation, she elicited from me the fact that I’d lost a daughter. Her already gentle face and manner softened even more as she said, “Oh, my dear. That’s the worst thing that could happen to a person.”

I drew back, stunned. “How can you say that?” I stammered. “You…but you were in Auschwitz!”

“Yes,” she said, waving one hand dismissively, as if shooing away the thought, “but that doesn’t take away even a little bit from what you’ve been through.”

I believe that Ibi’s capacity to truly see others is a central component of her resilience; it has played a great part in enabling her build a life full of strength and love despite the truly incomparable horrors she went through.

When we, like Ibi, can leave contrast, comparison, and competition aside, and relate to every individual’s bereavement, trauma, or tragedy purely on its own terms, we are one step closer to healing from our own.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Tapas and Tribute

One thing all bereaved parents have in common is a need to memorialize the child we've lost. In both my original blog and my memoir, I tried to commemorate the Timora who lived for eighteen short but full years, and who left so much of herself behind. This past Thursday evening I had the opportunity, together with many others, to join my close friends Judith and Jeff Green in doing this for their son Asher, who was killed three years ago in a tragic hiking accident in Peru, at the age of twenty-eight. I found the evening a deeply meaningful way to celebrate Asher’s life while at the same time mourning his passing.

Asher was an extremely lively, inventive, and curious young man with an artist’s soul and more than his share of talent. He painted and drew, spent time in film school, and earned a certificate in theater design before settling on culinary arts as his calling. Like Timora, he left – in addition to memories of his unique self – an artistic and creative legacy.

The evening started with one of the gastronomic delights that Asher most enjoyed, a tapas bar – a wide assortment of light foods – which the guests sampled while circulating and socializing. (It was, I believe, no accident that Asher was attracted to tapas; the dishes’ variety reflects the multiplicity of his own interests and gifts.) The Greens served dishes Asher loved to make, in the warm and friendly atmosphere he'd dreamed of creating in the restaurant he hoped to open.

After we filled up on the twenty or so different offerings, we retired to the living room, where we watched several clips and short films relating to Asher, including a television interview in which he participated when he was sixteen; a film he made about Miriam Render, a friend of his who hasn’t let cerebral palsy prevent her from living a full and creative life; and his chef school presentation of his planned restaurant. We enjoyed his sharp intelligence, wit, and self-assurance, which made us laugh at more than one point during the viewing.

Our mood turned somber, though, as we watched the evening’s last film, which was made by Asher’s brother-in-law Ofer. It documented the several days that he and Asher’s brother Boaz spent searching for him, to no avail, together with a team from the Peruvian police’s high-mountain rescue unit (a villager later found Asher’s body, several weeks after he’d disappeared). One of the ways the Greens later memorialized their son was by returning to the village to present the rescue unit, whose members had risked their lives to retrieve Asher’s body, with modern climbing equipment. They also thanked the villagers, who'd been open, caring, and forthcoming with whatever assistance they could provide, by purchasing equipment for the village children’s schools. Like the evening itself, the Greens’ generous gifts were a singularly appropriate tribute to their openhearted son.

I was left thinking how the evening reflected the two faces of mourning. We keenly felt Asher’s absence even as we enjoyed the tapas that he so loved to make and serve. And, later, sadness overcame us when Ofer’s film showed us the wrapped bundle that had been Asher, as the rescue team pulled it up the mountainside. But at the same time, we took comfort in feeling the echo of his full-to-brimming vitality in his art, his films, his food, and – most of all – the love of his family and friends.

To me, Jeff and Judith’s ability to create such an evening expresses our human capacity for resilience even in the face of unfathomable grief. Without denying the emotional devastation that the death of their child has brought them, they have chosen to embrace his life. I believe that in doing so, they are also embracing their own.

Dedicated to Asher Green: May His Memory Be a Blessing

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Grief and Resilience

It’s hard to believe, but Timora died ten years ago today. My bereavement is ten years old. Ten years. How can I wrap my head around that number?

So much has happened in that decade that it feels like a lifetime. I’ve gone through and come out of the depression that gripped me for more than a year after my daughter died. I’ve turned my professional life around a hundred-and-eighty degrees by going back to school for a Master’s degree in clinical social work; I’m now officially an ex-attorney (I like to call myself a lapsed lawyer) with a flourishing career as a psychotherapist. Four of my daughters – all my children of marriageable age – are now married. My baby boy is now doing his compulsory military service (as a sergeant, no less). My second daughter has just presented Daniel and me with our second grandchild – a girl named Arielle, who’s joined her cousin Imri in his previously solo role as family darling. And I myself have produced – not another child, that’s no longer possible, but my first book, a memoir. And Twice the Marrow of Her Bones will become available online and in U.S. bookstores in mid-March 2011.

As far in the past as Timora’s death may feel, her life is so fresh in my mind that it also seems, if you’ll forgive the cliché, like yesterday. I’m sure this is partly because I spent six years writing about her. I started out with this blog, which I kept for a year and a half and ended on the fifth anniversary of her death. (The blog was then called “Five Years Later,” so it’s serendipitously appropriate that I’m taking up my virtual pen again today, almost exactly five years after publishing what I thought of at the time as my final post.) Writing my blog helped me process my grief in all kinds of ways. It gave me occasion to sit down and spend time remembering my daughter; to let the world know who she was; to look inside myself and face what I found there; to reflect on how what happened to Timora and to our family has colored the way I see the world; and to share my insights.

“Five Years Later,” baring as it did so much of my soul, became the first foundation of my memoir. As I wrote, though, I found myself turning from my own story to Timora’s, having realized that there was no way I could write what it was like to lose her without relating who she was, and what she went through. So as hard as it was to go back to that time so intensively, I made myself sit down and write, from start to finish and in chronological order, the narrative of her life as she struggled with her illness. In order to get it as right as I could, I read her diary, which I’d been unable to touch since she died. Like the survivors of battle, terror attacks, and terrible accidents whom I sometimes treat in my practice, I was avoiding fully confronting those long, wrong years. Reading the diary forced me to finally face Timora’s suffering, squarely and without illusion. And as it so often does for those trauma survivors, that confrontation opened me to further healing, but at a price – I had to allow myself to touch some of my deepest pain.

Yet my daughter’s diary also revealed something wonderful, in the literal sense of the word – just how amazingly resilient she was. One day she’d be in pain, depressed, lonely, and bored. Then – often the very next day – she’d write how a friend called, or one of her sisters invited her to a movie, or we began planning a family trip, and how wonderful life could be. This optimism, this ability to take even the smallest drop of hope and allow it to expand, to fill her whole being, floored me. A girl whose entire adolescence was devoured by cancer; a girl who underwent endless courses of chemo, a lifetime’s worth of radiation, and two bone marrow transplants; a girl whose body betrayed her in every possible way – that girl was able to find joy wherever she could, all the way to the end of her brief, brief life.

That resilience became the theme of Twice the Marrow, which combines Timora’s narrative with a journal based on my blog, painting a fifteen-year picture of our lives from Timora’s first symptoms up to the ninth anniversary of her death. The story I’ve written is not as much about the hardship she suffered, or about what life did to her, as about her determination to take what she could from life despite that hardship. And it depicts not only our family’s bereavement, but also – even more so – how we loved her, how we lost her, and how we’ve gone on living.

And so it is with this, my renewed journal. I hope to share here what I’ve learned about resilience – that stubborn refusal to let adversity get the best of us – both from Timora herself and from my own and my family’s experience mourning her. From my perspective now, beginning ten years after losing my child, I hope to reach out to other bereaved parents and families, to people who are facing the other, myriad challenges and trials that life inevitably throws at us all, and to anyone else who cares to share my continued journey.