Category Archives: Death

21st day of Lent. I know too many people who are grieving.

I know too many people who are grieving. Women who were in marriages they were committed to working on, enjoying, and seeing through when one spouse died too soon. Yesterday would have been the birthday of one. It was the anniversary of the passing of another. Two days ago I spoke on the phone with a third widow. Seven years ago today my friend Mary (not her real name), lost her husband to cancer.  In the last four months five friends have lost parents. Several more have celebrated the anniversary of a parent’s death.

A few weeks ago I took a “when will you die” quiz on Facebook. The result was ominous. According to the quiz, I’m going to die in six years. Yes. The how is the crazy part. I will die in childbirth. As a male, I could not believe the result. Then the answer came to me.  Of course: Science! I’d love to live to 100, and be as whole at that age. I know if I reach it, I’m going to want to keep going. But a lot of that is out of my control.

Oliver Sacks recently announced that he is terminally ill. With the time he has remaining he says, “I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

“I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight. This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well). I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future.”

Anthony DeMello would say Sacks is awake, and understands that the most important question isn’t whether there is life after death. It’s whether there is life before death (Awareness, p. 42). The women I know who are surviving spouses engage life, the way Sacks hopes to. They’re remarkable that way, though I can’t imagine any of them saying there is anything that isn’t ordinary about the way they’re living their lives.

This week David Malham writes in the New York Times about his mortality. He has ALS. A retired grief therapist, he describes the his response to his diagnosis as follows:

“I knew not to spend more than a few minutes with “No!” In that regard, as in many others, Buddhists have it exactly right: Getting enmeshed in a resisting “no” and in the unanswerable “why me?” is a recipe for self-inflicted suffering. I knew to focus instead on “what now”? What do I need to address — with myself and with others? How do I respond to the reality of a terminal illness? (A year later, “no” still makes infrequent appearances, but it remains unfed so the visits are brief.)”

“Why me?” is an unanswerable question that traps us in what’s happened. “What now?” is about possibility. Two short questions. One traps us, the other frees us. It presumes there is more. That the person grieving will make it to that more, that next.

Malham notes the way grief therapy has changed over time:

“Over the years an interesting change in grief therapy has been the emphasis on resilience; the awareness that people normally find healthy ways to adapt and live with loss. That’s not to say it’s a quick and easy task. It’s not that grieving suddenly ends and the person forgets and moves on. No, what happens is that a weight that initially feels unbearable becomes, in time, manageable. The grief becomes compact enough, with the hard edges removed, to be gently placed in one’s heart.”

Seven years later, that’s what I’m seeing happening with Mary. It’s magnificent.

We’re halfway through Lent. It is as good a time as any to think about the changes you’re trying to make. Which question are you asking? “Why me?” or “What’s next?” As anyone who’s experienced loss of any kind knows, when it happens you don’t know how you’re going to get through it. Mostly you just do. A lot of that is about finding your resilience. As you move through the rest of the Lenten season, don’t mourn who or what you aren’t. Find your resilience and lean into it. It’s the way through to the changes you want to make. Your way into the Kingdom of God that is always at hand, always now.

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Ten Lessons I Learned From My Other Dad.

I’ve always thought of myself as someone whose been lucky enough to have had two dads instead of one. Seventeen years ago today, I lost my other dad. What follows are a handful of the things I learned from knowing him.

1. Let your life be about abundance.

My example of this is a small one. Most Sundays, breakfast consists of two eggs fried sunny side up, with bacon, hash browns, toast, and a great cup of coffee. That is, unless I have something to celebrate. Then the hash browns turn into potato salad. The toast turns into an “everything” bagel, the butter a smear of cream cheese blended with, or topped with lox (and onion, and capers). Sometimes I’ll skip the lox, and substitute white fish salad. When this breakfast becomes lunch I keep the eggs, and add the white fish salad as a side. Just like that, lunch becomes a feast. I didn’t grow up on these breakfast foods. Bay and Annie shared them with me. What good is the richness of your bounty, if it isn’t shared?

2. Be welcoming.

When a friend comes to your door, greet them with a smile and a bear of a hug. Every time. It’s the way he welcomed me every time I visited. It’s the way I welcome people I love.

3. Laugh, and laugh again.

My dad gave me my love of everything Broadway, and did his best to teach me about Classical music. We saw good movies, and many of them had to do with music (funny that). Bay helped me discover my love for physical comedy. It was with him that I first watched–on television–the wonder that is “It’s a Mad Mad Mad World.” There’s a fabulous collection of moments from the film here. My dad is quieter than Bay was. Watching it, Bay laughed to the point of tears. More than anything, when I think of the way I know to laugh, and that it’s okay to simply let loose, and laugh myself to the point where I’m gasping for breath? That was one of his gifts to me.

4. Don’t forget to laugh at yourself.

He owned an unusual looking car. A brand I’d never heard of. An Avanti. A what? Exactly. What I remember most about it was that it often didn’t run. One time, would-be thieves tried to steal it from a repair shop, and failed. They started it, rolled it into the side of the shop, and left it there. The car didn’t have any brakes. Or was it, no steering? It may well have been both! Whenever he told the story, he laughed.

Once while in high school I was out driving with a group of friends. I was in my car, a Dodge. JBR, Bay’s son–and my best friend–was driving his dad’s Avanti. We were driving aimlessly as teens can, happy to have friends in both cars. More importantly, some of these friends were girls we hoped to impress. We needed a destination. I tried to flag him down and was unsuccessful. Knowing that he’d boasted the Avanti had a Corvette engine, and knowing that mine had a powerful engine of its own, I decided on a manly approach. I would pass him. We were driving in an empty county park after dusk. What could happen? 

I stunned JBR with the attempt, and was successful. As soon as I passed him, I saw blue lights in my rear view. A county police officer ticketed me for speeding. I was driving a grand 40 mph in a 25 mph zone. “Officer,” I said, “we weren’t racing. I was trying to get him to stop.” I actually said those words. “License and registration” was all I heard in reply. A speeding ticket for driving forty miles per hour? Yes, I was foolish to speed, even at that rate. Reasoning with the officer? That was pure folly. Later that night, I was too stunned to laugh. Too afraid of what my dad would say. When he heard the story? Bay laughed out loud, and out of love. My dad? I think he laughed too. Me? It took a while.

5. Some choices are simple and make perfect sense. When they do, make them.

What else stays? When I joined Bay’s family for trips to dinner, or to see a movie, we always took their Civic. It was new, and tiny. What did I notice most? It ran and ran, and ran. After the folly of the Avanti, it was the perfect car.

I purchased the first car I owned from his eldest daughter. It was five years old, a diesel, and got fifty miles on a gallon of fuel. I asked a mechanic about it. He told me that diesel engines “ran forever.” The car was immaculate. She had every receipt for every repair and oil change the car had ever had. That choice was simple. Seven years later, and with over 170,000 miles on the odometer, I gave it away and replaced it with an Acura. I’d planned on buying a Civic, longed for an Accord, and ended up with an Acura for a price in between a Civic and an Accord. That was also a simple choice. It is also as close as I’ve come to an Avanti moment. Fortunately the Acura ran well, and long. By the time I gave it away, I’d replaced everything on it except the engine block. Now I drive a Civic. It too, runs and runs, and runs.

6. Life is about taking care of others.

My folks raised me with a strong sense of Catholic tradition. In practice, my understanding about what’s most important, revolves around what people do, not what they say they believe. That’s orthopraxis trumping orthodoxy. I remember many conversations over dinner, and after dinner, having to do with healthcare, and the emergence of HIV. What mattered most to Bay–as I remember–was doing whatever could be done to help those who had HIV, and to protect those at risk for contracting the virus. Even now, his passion for justice, informs both my faith, and my life.

7. Share your stories.

It doesn’t matter how many times you tell your stories. Tell them again. Stories are one of the ways we help each other remember that we share a human experience. That matters. Bay loved to look over the top of his glasses when he wanted to reinforce a point he was making, or deliver a punch line to a great story. With a gleam in his eye, and a smile on his face, I wanted to listen, even when I’d heard the story before (sometimes especially then). 

In 1947 Bay founded the Atlantic Chemical Corporation with his brother Rubin. Rubin is also a storyteller. Here are a few comments about Bay that are part of a larger, and very funny rendering of Rubin’s career in the dyestuffs industry. If you can imagine this story punctuated with laughter, along with hand gestures assuring you that the best is yet to come? Well, you’ll have a sense of the way Bay told stories.

“The most dynamic guy I know is my brother Bay. He is also the only man I know who could have built the Great Pyramids without stones. He could have done it on enthusiasm alone. Bay, my sons Jon and Josh, and I were the sole owners of Atlantic.

I remember once a frantic call from Bay at the Nutley factory to me at our headquarters office. He needed some money immediately. Without a second thought, I quickly dispatched a messenger to Nutley with $200.00. I figured a “collect” freight must have arrived or something equally urgent. I called Bay to tell him that $200.00 was rushing on its way. Would it be enough? There was a prolonged silence…”I only needed money for a haircut,” said he.

Bay’s penchant for surplus machinery at bargain prices was legendary. Nothing compares to his purchase of one million dollars worth of Univac equipment from Army surplus for $5,000.00. Atlantic may have had the first computerized inventory system in the dye business.

One day I received this phone call: “Mr. Rabinowitz, this is the US Naval Base in New London, CT. We are pleased to inform you that yours was the successful bid on Lot #543A, one surplus, slightly used submarine. Please tell us where you would like this delivered.” I was absolutely and totally speechless. I couldn’t even stammer. The thought of a submarine parked in our yard next to micro-motors, Irish shillelaghs, lead-lined tanks and tons of hopcolite my dear brother had bought for “future” use was too much to absorb. All I could manage were some strangled sounds. Suddenly, I detected a giggle on the telephone wire. Who the *@#x* is this, I demanded? The laughter broke out in full force. It was Bill Hoffman, P.A. of Burlington Industries, surrounded by a bunch of other low-life friends of ours just having some fun at my expense.

To this day, very few people, except for Max Birnbaum, know that surplus beams from the second layer construction of the [George] Washington Bridge support much of Nutley’s equipment, Bay may have been given to overdesign since these beams could have supported the Empire State Building!”

8. How Love Works.

This piece of wisdom is the way he described his romance with his wife, Annie. I think it’s the only way love, for me, has ever worked:

I chased her, and chased her, and chased her. Finally, she caught me!

9. Words matter. People matter more.

Sometimes Bay would join JBR and I as we watched a baseball or football game on TV. I learned to look forward to the comments he made during the game. Invariably a certain moment would repeat. A play would end and he’d turn around. Looking at us over the top of his glasses, he’d shake his head and say, “Would you believe that? They did it again. He made a catch, not a ketch. A ketch is a boat for christ sake!” Words matter.

At the same time, he never corrected my usage of words. I’m sure I gave him many opportunities. For a time, I had a girl friend for who loved to correct every mistake in usage I ever made. He never did. They both helped me pay attention to the words I use. The people who use them? He continues to help me remember that they matter more.

10. Celebrate, and give honor where it is due.

Bay’s and Annie’s New Years parties were legendary. Their house would fill wall to wall with people. I’d see family, friends, neighbors, teachers, and more folks I didn’t know. To me, it seemed like they’d invited everyone in our town. At Hanukkah, Bay’d light the menorah, and the window facing the front of the living room would become quiet sacred space. “Blessed are you O Lord our God, King of the universe…”

When I was accepted to college. When I graduated. When I landed my first job. When I was engaged to be married (both times). When I married. What ever event was taking place in either family, they joined in or included me. We celebrated. Even moves. I helped with a number of moves. Wait a minute!

Bay passed away around the time “Bud” was conceived. When he was born, choosing his middle name was easy. Its Bay, and as his mom and I have always hoped, he’s becoming a man with a passion for life, and a love for people.

With appreciation, honor, and a lot of love for Bay Rabinowitz, born November 24, 1922 (a guesstimate), and who died on August 5, 1996. Thank you for all the lessons you keep teaching me.

What Matters: Living After Sandy Hook.

On Thursday, I did some last minute shopping at Target. At Sweets’ school, today is Pajama dress down day. The kids can wear pajamas to school in place of their regular uniforms. In preparation–after deciding she didn’t have anything suitable to wear at home–Sweets poured through racks of fleece and cotton sleepwear. Finding two different sets with potential, she asked, “Dad, where are the dressing rooms again?” “Walk from here to that corner over there” I said, while pointing to a wall on the other side of the store. “That’s where they are.” “Okay. I’m going to try these on. Will you be here when I get back?” “Yes” I said. She walked the fifty yards to the dressing rooms alone. I remained where I was, chatting with a friend. Target is a place where Sweets feels safe. I do, too.

While we were there, we ran into six other students, their parents, and one of the school’s First Grade teachers. Everyone was shopping for pajamas. I walked over to the teacher to say hello. It was the first time I’d had a moment with her since last Friday’s shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary. This teacher is a marvelous person, and such a good teacher that parents with children in her class, often request that she teach their next child as well. I’ve had that conversation. I’ve encouraged other parents to have that conversation. She’s that good. While we were talking, I swallowed hard. If my daughter’s school was Sandy Hook, she might have been one of the victims. It was a sobering moment.

Last Friday, when the news about the shootings broke, I was stunned. “Not again,” I thought. I spent much of the day driving. I was spending the weekend with my parents. My dad had heart bypass surgery just before Thanksgiving. He was coming home. I wanted to be available to help with any transition issues that might arise. I’d also planned to meet with a friend. We were going to organize Christmas cards. Mine never seem to make it into the mail (I say “maybe this year,” every year).

In the car, I moved in and out of the range of a given radio station’s signal. As I did I invariably ran into the tragedy as “breaking” news. It was disorienting. I didn’t want the drive to become an extended meditation on what had just happened. I turned off the radio and traded it for un-listened podcasts on my iPod.

I finished the drive, and met my friend. The first thing that came up in conversation? Sandy Hook. After a few minutes, we let the topic go. Like me, she was struggling to understand how something like this could have happened. A while later, I noticed her two year old trying to climb onto an office chair using the space under the arm rest as his entry point. Concerned that he might get stuck, or fall, I picked him up and held him high, so that he could touch the ceiling. I set him down and he bent his legs. He was ready to leap again. We repeated the play again and again. Enough times that he was able to hit the ceiling with his right hand, with his left, and with the two of them together in multiple combinations. We repeated this until my arms tired. For me, the moment of play became a symbolic action of a future filled with hope. One where he would break through whatever ceiling was before him. One, where the sky would be his limit.

In Target, the teacher asked me, “Has Sweets started making snowflakes?” Her daughter, who is seven looked up and said, “Mom, who’s making snowflakes?” “I think you will. Maybe tomorrow” she replied. “What for?” “A lot of schools are making snowflakes for other children, so that when they come to school it will look like a Winter wonderland. Isn’t that wonderful?” “Yes!” Her daughter clearly liked the idea. “Can we make snowflakes too Mom?” “Of course.” The teacher looked at me. I wanted to ask how she was. She beat me to the punch. “How is Sweets doing?” “I think she’s okay,” I said. “I asked her if she’d heard about what happened, which she had. I asked if she wanted to talk about it. She didn’t. I let her know that if she wants to, we can, but we don’t have to. She told me there was a moment of silence on Monday “which is what we always do when something bad happens.”” Sweets’ teacher chuckled, and added, “I think that’s a good approach. There’s no need to take her anywhere she’s not ready to go. All it will do is scare her.”

During the past week, I’ve been thinking about how a person is supposed to respond, how we’re supposed to live, after an event like this. There are obvious things. Gun control. Everywhere else in the world, when something like this has happened limiting access to guns has dramatically curtailed further incidents of gun related violence. This is not a Second Amendment issue. This is common sense. The politics of gun control may be difficult. The logic is clear.

We need to do more to support the Mental health of our citizens. Stories like this one are heartbreaking. Collectively, taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves, is a responsibility we share.

The most important thing we can do? That’s easy. It’s this: show up. Stress, anxiety and shock shut us down. They keep us from feeling comfortable walking across a department store where most days we are safe. It keeps parents from finding friendship with each other over time, in the places where they gather. The way I do, at Target, and my children’s schools.

As she disappeared from view I didn’t worry that Sweets wasn’t in my line of sight. She knows how to behave around strangers, and she’d checked to make sure she knew where to find me when she returned. Those gestures, and her simple walk, are small unconscious ways we all have of showing that violence doesn’t win. It’s a way we have of putting the evil that happened at Sandy Hook, in its place. During the past week, people have been bringing stuffed animals, candles, and flowers to makeshift memorials throughout Newtown, CT. These acts do the same thing. They convey our mourning, yes. They speak to the reality of our shared pain. Most important, they are a way of saying to the families of the victims: You are not alone. We are with you.

For me, one of the wonders of the presence of newborn children is the way babies re-orient a parent’s life. Everything a parent does, has the child’s well-being at the center. Nothing else is important. New parents know this, and feel the weight of responsibility, as they leave the hospital, or their birth center. The stakes are high, a new life is in your hands, and there’s no manual. Newborns and young children are often overwhelming. They eat at all hours. They sleep and wake when they want to. They pee and poop without asking if you have a diaper handy, or a change of clothing nearby. Sometimes, five minutes after they finish, they do it again. Still, most new parents learn to successfully shift their attention from what I want to do, to what the baby needs.

Last Friday, after dinner, my friend said, “I don’t think I can work on Christmas cards tonight.” I sighed in relief. I couldn’t think about bringing glad tidings. Not that night. Instead, we watched a movie with her nine year old daughter. I sat on one side of her child, my friend on the other. The movie, “Henry Poole Is Here” is a quirky tale of redemption. I needed something to redeem the day. As the DVD played, I realized I didn’t like the film. Neither did my friend. In the end, our sense of it wasn’t important. We looked to the child sitting in our midst. If she wanted to watch it, we would. If not, we’d find something else. We checked with her multiple times. Every time, she said that she wanted to keep watching. That’s what happened. That night, like many people, we were out of sorts. I was reeling. Without thinking we knew one thing: nothing was more important than meeting her needs.

A week later, that remains true. I think the way to think about what to do, how to respond, and how to live after Sandy Hook, must begin by thinking as differently as the parent of a newborn does. We need to re-orient our sense of what we want and need. We have to keep showing up, and live as if the needs of our children trump any of our own. We must do this, today, tomorrow and every day after, because they really do. Our children aren’t simply our future. They are our precious present. Nothing else matters.

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