Thursday, April 28, 2011

Irrepressible Hope

One of the things I’ve written about more than once is the irrepressibility of hope - both mine and Timora's; I believe that resilience is hope's natural corollary. While she was ill, hope burned in me throughout her first year of intensive treatment and through her remission, as it would in anyone. When the cancer returned and we learned that to date no one had survived a relapse following a bone marrow transplant, I managed to push the knowledge out of my mind, and concentrated on hoping it wouldn’t apply to my daughter.

A friend whose wife died of breast cancer a few years ago once told me that he and she had, at one point, “decided to live in a Fool’s Paradise.” I know just what he meant, and remember lingering until the very end in that false Eden. Even as Timora was being rushed to her last sickroom, I was still there. As I wrote in my memoir:

“When I came back to the pediatric ward to get her things after accompanying her to the ICU, one of the nurses came up to me and asked how I was doing. ‘I’m fine,’ I said. ‘I understand that Timora’s in the ICU because she needs to be on a respirator for a few days until we get her lung infection cleared up. It’s good she’s being sedated, because it would be terrible for her to be awake while she’s on a respirator.’

‘It’s really good you’re taking it that way,’ the nurse said.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, most parents get very upset when their child is taken to intensive care, because of what that so often means.’

What that means? Oh my God, could she be saying –

‘No, I don’t think about it that way,’ I said to the nurse quickly, and went out the door.”

Ten days ago, I wrote about my trip to Athens with my high school friend Laurette to visit our friend Danae, who three weeks before had started chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer. I’d been feeling quite desperate about her situation; try as I might, I could see no hope. The prognosis for her type of cancer is truly awful. Worse, she’s been a widow and a single mother for eight years now. What will be with her boys?

But the visit cheered me up, because we found Danae in much better shape – with more energy and fewer chemo side effects – than I’d feared. It was especially encouraging to see the resilience I’d always admired in her. She's staying far from the depression into which someone in her position could so easily sink, but rather calmly going about doing all she can to optimize her medical treatment, get her affairs in order for her children, and enjoy as much of her life as she is able. She also has loyal Athenian friends who want nothing more than to help her any way they can, some of whom are very close with her sons.

Being with Danae kicked me back into my hopeful mode. Now I look at the situation differently: Even though I lost my daughter, I can say that if Timora could be on the bad side of good statistics, Danae can be on the good side of bad statistics. As long as there is still something to try, there’s no reason to assume the worst will happen. Despite bereavement, despite lasting grief, hope’s embers were still present in my heart after all, and my visit with Danae stirred them back to life.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

No Words

I’ve just come back from pretty much the last place in the world I wanted to be today, or any day – Mt. Herzl, Israel’s military cemetery. My dear friends Haim and Ilana Watzman just buried their twenty-year-old son Niot, who died yesterday after a diving accident while on leave from his compulsory military service.

I of all people know that this happens, that children leave this world before their parents. But my shock at hearing the news was no less than if it were the first time I’d ever encountered this affront against nature. All I could think was, My God, it’s happened to them; what happened to me has now happened to them. I’ve been alternating between intense distress and stubborn disbelief ever since; it’s amazing how the disbelief lingers, even now, after my heart was torn out watching the family put their son and brother into the ground.

A mutual friend told me that she’s glad the Watzmans have me as a friend – someone who knows what they’re going through. But as I said back in January in my post Grieving and Sharing, my fervent wish has been all along that I would have no occasion to use the special knowledge and ability to help other bereaved parents. Especially if they’re friends.

I hope very much that I really will know what to say to help them on their journey through the pain of bereavement and, ultimately, towards healing. But for the moment, I can’t think of anything.

There really are no words.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Gratitude and Grownups

As I’ve written more than once in my Grief and Gratitude series, I believe that one of the main things that’s made me resilient in the face of my life’s many traumatic experiences, most recently and my daughter’s death, is having learned to nurture a sense of thankfulness. I had a special opportunity to do just that at our family’s Passover seder this past Monday evening.
People often ask me before Passover where we will be for seder, and I always reply, “Where we are every year – at home.” One of my happiest times of the year comes when Daniel and I sit at the seder table with our children. The more children who come the better, as far as I’m concerned. When all seven lived with us, of course, they filled all the seats. But in recent years their number at the table has diminished. As they got older, some went abroad for a time, some got married, and some have started building lives as parents. And one stopped coming forever, just as she reached adulthood.
This year, we had our smallest seder yet, with only A., S. and her husband G. (with their sweet daughter, four-month-old Arielle, as a bonus) representing the younger generation of adult Avitzours; our friend Steve joined us as well. (D. went to visit E. and her spouse O. in London, where she’s studying, and El. and T. flew with grandson Imri to Nice, to visit a friend who’s studying art there. Ash. and husband Er. mad the seder at his parents' home this year.)
At first I was a bit upset that only a third of the children we have in this world would be with us for this most family-oriented night. But then I realized that this is just the price I pay for having adult children. And I certainly love having adult children - partly because they are so much fun to be with, but also because the alternative, after all, would be for them not to have grown up.
In the event, the seder was lovely. The six of us read the Hagaddah together, pausing whenever anyone had a question or a comment. We sang the series of songs at the seder’s end energetically, acting some of them out and laughing harder and harder as we progressed. We deeply enjoyed each other’s company; although I missed my other children (and grandson!), those present reminded me of their siblings’ continued presence in our lives. They reminded me, too, that in future years the others will also claim their places at our Passover table, which will always await them.
And for that, I am extremely grateful.

Monday, April 18, 2011

You Always Think There's Time

One of the lessons I’ve learned from losing my daughter is that we should never put off spending time with people we love because we assume there will be plenty of time. We can always, we think, cultivate our relationships after we’ve finished written this important report, after we’ve studied for that exam, after we’ve cleaned the house, after we’ve earned and saved enough to buy a new house…. You know just what I mean. That’s what modern life is about, most of the time. I’d thought I was pretty good at putting this lesson into practice – as I've written in my memoir, I try my best to make time to see my children, my grandchildren, and my friends, and have even arranged my work schedule to facilitate this. But as it turns out, in some important ways I’ve been no wiser in this regard than anybody else.

This past week, I spent three days in Athens. Normally, I wouldn’t go to the effort and expense of flying abroad to stay for only three days. I wouldn’t choose the week before Passover to leave the country. I wouldn’t go without Daniel. But this was far from a normal trip; I went to Athens to visit one of my two best friends from high school, who very probably has no more than a few months to live.

Danae (at her request, I’ve changed her name to protect her privacy) and I met in seventh grade, on our first day at Hunter. Her parents had immigrated from Greece when she was six years old and, despite having had to master a completely new language, she’d passed the entrance exam to New York City’s highly selective public high school for girls. We immediately became close, even though – perhaps because?– we were so different in so many ways. She was deliberate, methodical, and thorough, while I was the ADHD queen – impulsive, disorganized, and never, ever on time. Whereas I’d sit down to write my papers, well, not even at the last minute, but sometimes months after the deadline had passed, she always handed in her work on time, with each “t” crossed and every “i” dotted. Her tales of the Greek immigrant community fascinated me, and I in turn introduced her to my family’s (admittedly untypical) version of the Jewish American experience.

Together, Danae and I weathered the normal turbulence of adolescence – and not-so-normal times, as when my father died suddenly when I was fourteen. Like most teenage girls, we kept nothing from each other – we shared our frustrations with parents and teachers, our crushes, our strong opinions about the issues of the day, and our dreams for the future. Hard as it is to believe, we never had a single fight during our five-plus years together.

In eleventh grade, she introduced me to her new friend Laurette, and we very quickly became a trio. Amazingly, again, we didn’t suffer from the jealousy and competition that so often plagues young girls’ threesomes. But after high school we dispersed, in keeping with contemporary American custom, to our respective higher studies and careers. Interestingly, none of us ended up living in the United States – Danae returned to Athens shortly after graduating in our school's accelerated program, I moved to Israel after law school, and Laurette settled in France, where her mother had been born and grown up, after her post-graduate studies.

Until last week, I’d seen Danae only twice since graduating high school – once in 1974, when I crossed Europe by train to visit her in Athens, and once in 1986 when she and Laurette visited me and my family in Israel. At first we were in touch only once every year or two (or three) - Danae defines herself as the "world's worst correspondent" - but with the advent of inexpensive international calling, we began to speak more often. Athens is only two hours from Israel, and I thought many times of going to visit. But the years went by and she got married, had two children, and built a whole life for herself, and the visit never happened; I never met her husband (who, sadly, died of cancer eight years ago) or her children. There was always some reason not to go, and it just didn’t seem urgent. There would always be time next year.

Then, two months ago, she was diagnosed with the nastiest form of pancreatic cancer – the one with a prognosis of a few months at most in ninety-eight cases out of a hundred. (If she’s in the lucky two percent, up to two years remain for her.) Suddenly, there may not be a next year. So Laurette and I decided, more or less on the spur of the moment, to surprise her for her birthday, which fell last Tuesday. (We knew there was no point in trying to arrange it with her, as she never wants anyone to take trouble for her, and also because she – like so many of us – chronically puts things off, especially enjoyable things.)

The visit, such as it was (three days after twenty-four years!), succeeded beyond our expectations. Danae was utterly, and very happily, surprised when we showed up at her apartment Tuesday late morning. Everyone she spoke with on the phone heard all about it; at least I thought I could make out the Greek words philae (friends) and gymnasium (high school) in each of her conversations. We found her in much better shape than we'd feared – she had enough energy so that we could organize a birthday dinner-party for her that evening, and she could organize an outing for all of us the next day to a cafĂ© by the sea. She even had enough energy to worry that she wasn’t being a sufficiently good hostess, and kept saying, “If I’d known you were coming, I would have arranged more for you to do.” We kept replying, “If you’d known we were coming, you would have said no and we wouldn’t be here!”

We also had the kind of frank conversations that we used to excel at when we were teenagers. This time, though, the subjects were radically different; we spoke with her about getting her affairs in order, and her plans for her sons, who are eighteen and seventeen years old.

I hope very much that there will, indeed, be time for me to return to Athens, and that this past week’s trip will not have turned out to be my last. But I am certainly grateful to have had the chance to see my dear friend - and the chance to say goodbye, if our goodbyes when I left for the airport were really our last.

My relationships with those I love have comforted me more than anything else in my grief for my daughter. I think it’s a sign of my resilience that I’ve put a very high priority on nurturing those connections. But, I now see, I can do better; I hope very much that I will.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Wildflowers, Gratitude, and Process

About two weeks ago, I wrote about wildflowers, in my first post in a planned series on "Grief and Gratitude." Last week, Daniel and I went north for three days on what we like to call a "flower trip." Our trip strengthened my belief that one of the most effective ways of strengthening our “thankfulness muscle” is to appreciate not only the places we get to, but how we get there and what we find along the way.

Our destination was the Galilee, one of Israel’s most popular areas for vacations and certainly its most beloved for nature trips. Armed with our trusty Wildflowers of Israel book, we hoped to see as many as possible of the hundreds of species of wildflowers that bloom there in early spring, but especially the rare kinds we'd never managed too see in the past. I couldn’t wait to get there and taste the relaxation I inevitably experience in the North – by now a conditioned reflex that kicks in as soon as we enter those rolling green hills.

But we didn’t let our haste to “get there” prevent us from going a longer way around in order to stop at some other places that were likely to be just as lovely in this season. So we made a detour to the coast, to the Sharon Park near Hadera, part of which is a nature reserve and a larger part of which is blessedly undeveloped, at least for the moment.

As always, we found a riot of color every direction we looked, and more varieties of blooms than we could count. Our eyes were treated to lovely sights whether they looked closely at a small patch of ground:

Or further off toward the horizon:

We left the park elated, and drove straight to the guest house where we'd reserved a room, in the Druze town of Beit Jann on one of the peaks of the Meron mountain complex. There we were surprised to find the rooms located in a partially unfinished house, over a supermarket. Not the most romantic of spots, but the room was clean and well-furnished, if not quite warm enough (the residents are used to the high-altitude temperatures), and the view beautiful. Our hosts were also lovely, and we got to know a bit about the lives of Israel’s Druze citizens, so what our accommodations lacked in luxury was more than made up for by a novel and interesting experience.

We dedicated our first excursion to orchids, of which there are several wild types blooming right now in Israel. This is some of what we found on the way to the orchids:

And when we got there:

Encouraged by our success, we decided to go to the Nicha Ruin, a hill that not only contains the remains of a Byzantine church but, according to the good book, should be covered in late March with wild tulips. (We’d gone there a few years ago earlier in the season, and had found only the first few blooms.) By now, surely there’d be tulips as far as the eyes could see!

Well, this year the rains came late, and not so much as a single tulip was budding. But what we found on the way up and on the way down was so gorgeous that it was easy to forgive Mother Earth for withholding her tulips.

The uncommonly lovely sight of patches of “common” irises:

And others:

We finished at Nicha in the late afternoon – the best time, we’re told, to watch for birds, which descend from the skies just before sunset to fill the trees near bodies of water. So we headed over to a nearby spot next to the Jordan River. Well, no birds, but we did get to spend a contemplative hour next to the incomparable sight and sound of burbling water:

The next day we went off in search of the legendary Forest Admonit, which grows only one place in the world – right next to Beit Jann. As you’ve probably guessed by now, these flowers were also waiting for the warm, dry spell that hadn’t yet arrived, so we made do with the less rare but no less beautiful flowers that graced the sides of Mt. Meron:

The next day we didn’t have time to stop on the way home, but enjoyed the drive thanks to Vivaldi, Mozart, Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, and many others. I arrived home relaxed and happy, and ready once again to tackle the pressures of my non-vacation routine.

It's easy to miss out on life's most precious experiences if we’re so concentrated on our objectives that we don’t allow ourselves to notice and savor the process of reaching them. I’m sure that to the extent I remember to be mindful of, and thankful for, what I find on the route to my goals, I strengthen my resilience – and multiply my happiness.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

More Kind Words About My Memoir

Writers I know, especially authors of books, have told me that one reason they write is to start a conversation with people who read their work. I feel the same. I definitely see my writing as a way of reaching out; in particular, when I write I hope to initiate emotionally meaningful communcation with my readers. And so I'm always very gratified when (and this has happened many times), people tell me that my memoir (or, for that matter, anything else I've written, including posts for this blog) spoke to them personally and deeply.

Further to my recent post about Haim Watzman's reactions to my book, which he posted in the blog "South Jerusalem," Linda Gradstein, a former correspondent and current contributor to NPR (National Public Radio, for those of you who are unfamiliar), has also written very kind words about my memoir, and consented to have them publicized:

“In clear, moving prose, Susan teaches us all how to handle a burden that seems more than one person can bear. I couldn't put the book down. Sometimes it made me cry, sometimes laugh, and always it made me think. It is one of those books that you want to pass on to a friend as soon as you finish it.”

I'm grateful to Linda and to everyone else who has taken the time and effort to review Twice the Marrow publicly, or to express their reactions to me privately.