“There were two ways to be happy: improve your reality, or lower your expectations.” ~ Jodi Picoult, Nineteen Minutes
Recently, within a span of 5 years, I found myself in the homes of two of the administrators from the local Jewish day school–and not for social visits.
Rather I was there trying to offer what comfort there was to be had as they and their wives sat on low stools, in torn clothes, and tried to process the almost-unbearable: The deaths of their children.
Judaism is a religion rich in rituals, one of which is its well-known, healing shiva (Hebrew for ‘seven’)– the collection of practices followed for seven days after the death of a close relative. The mourners do not leave the house. They do not deal with work matters. Their physical needs are attended to by the community, so the mourners will not cook, or clean house, or arrange for carpools or childcare. Their sole task is to sit on low, mourners’ stools, with those who come to pay their respects, to talk about the deceased, and, if they can, to process their loss, and, hopefully, find some modicum of comfort as the days go on.
One of the most painful shivas I have ever attended was for the Goldbergs, who were mourning their 12-year-old son, who had–unexpectedly, tragically, seemingly impossibly–dropped dead of an aneurysm while playing a game of after-school baseball at the school.
Josh had been painted with the brush of the golden child–he was attractive, intelligent, somewhat of a comedian, as polite as a junior high child could be expected to be –and his parents’ eldest. Although he was just finishing 7th grade, his parents were already looking into high schools that would challenge him and allow his social exuberance to go untapped. And then, suddenly, the lively, alive Josh was. . .gone.
And with Josh, of course, died the hopes and dreams, the fantasies–the expectations nurtured since infancy. His death emptied out wide compartments in his parents’ visions of the future, and in the place of that lack was unremitting pain.
This was the most silent shiva I’ve ever attended, in many decades of shiva visitation. The two parents sat, as is customary, in the front of the room, and the visitors entered silently, shoulders hunched, and sat in semicircular rows around them. But where usually there is talk of the deceased–sometimes memories that call forth tears, sometimes stories that prompt a chuckle–here there was just that dead quiet, with only the sounds of crying to serve as reminders to the parents that they were not alone.
Josh’s mother seemed shrunken in her chair, and she cried ceaselessly, quietly, with her hands over her face. Her husband had his hand on her shoulder, but he looked away, past the rows of people who had come to offer him comfort. And the visitors, rather than telling stories about Josh, rather than trying to distract the grief-stricken parents, rather than telling Mr. Goldberg how much he was missed at work, simply sat–and many of them cried, too.
We were there for 35 minutes; the only sound was sniffling. .
Unfortunately, there was a shiva for another child a few months later.
Rylie had been the second of four, and had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) at the age of 3. She would fight and survive until just past her 9th birthday, but the outlines of her brief life were sketched at 38 months, as her father Rick and mother Rochelle clearly understood.
But together, as they learned about the disease and prepared for treatments, the three decided that they’d make this fight about something other than just survival: It would be a fight to make Rylie’s life as normal as possible, to make sure she was just “one of the kids.”
So in between hospitalizations and treatments out-of-town, Rylie returned to school, bald-headed and thin, and teachers knew they were to treat her ‘just like the other kids.’ And when a very ill Rylie and her older brother had a pillow fight, while their babysitter believed they were sleeping, ultimately ripping open the pillows and throwing fistfuls of feathers all over the room–she was punished, just like her brother was, although it hurt her parents to do it.
And when she’d been weakened from her bone marrow transplant and only got around in a wheelchair, when her siblings decided they wanted to flood the backyard for a skating rink, and flood the inside while doing so, well, shouldn’t she get to play, too, just like the other kids?..
The parents laughed to tell the story–how soon the entire family was slip-sliding around, and not just in the yard. How the dog rolled around in the mud and shook herself off on her favorite–Rylie.
And all of us at the shiva laughed–it was an endearing story, and an innocent one–and a sign of the great success of Rick and Rochelle’s raising of Rylie. She wasn’t any different; she was just one of the kids. Just a kid who clearly got a lucky shake when she was born into her family.
In fact, the shiva was full of laughter (it’s a given that my daughter cried, but she got her own box of kleenex, as she was the only one), as the parents told story after story about Rylie and her escapades and her big plans–and her complete self-assurance that she, although bald-headed and tiny and hooked up to an IV, was just like the other kids.
So what made the week at the Silvers’ one of comfort and love and fondly-told stories of a child’s antics, and the one at the Goldbergs’ one of unrelieved suffering?
I believe the tale of two shivas is really a tale of two different sets of expectations.
Josh’s death ripped from the Goldbergs a wide swath from the fabric of their lives. With him died his 8th grade graduation, his acceptance to high school, his playing basketball for the school team, his SATs, his college experience, his marriage, his children, his career, his grandchildren–all which his parents fully believed they would see and experience. His high school applications lay half-completed on his desk, his college fund earned its interest in the bank, his school baseball team was short a shortstop. . .his parents’ plans were missing the main player.
From the loss of a hopeful, planned-out future for a child, it is so very very hard to re-group, slowly dismantling the dream as each would-be milestone occurs.
But–when Rylie died, her parents had been saying goodbye to her in one way or another, for six years. They expected her death, they had prepared for it since her 3rd birthday–they were even relieved that it came without further suffering and pain, after all Rylie had endured.
In an odd way, the Silvers had raised Rylie to die. Her premature death was an inextricable part of her life–and now she had reached another milestone in the course of her illness, albeit a final one.
They were quite ready to be “comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” They had been getting ready to comfort themselves all these years. In the landscape of a world of diminished expectations, all had gone just as planned.