Generations Unfolding

We are the last stop on the train. Our life, our presence, our hearts, is where you want to land when the last phase of your life may be happening. We love, pay attention, facilitate the particulars, meticulously coordinate, are kindly and patiently concerned, and always painstakingly vigilant. We gingerly and carefully make things happen, and when necessary, we move and shake.

Time swishes this way and that. Generations unfold and change, care is swapped, and roles are reversed. Hands on the clock have cycled at cartoonish speed and the time has come for us to care for those who lovingly raised us when we were small and helpless, the ones in need. What one does for the other comes echoing back back years later.

I admit that often it is simply too much. My days are full, my plate is overflowing, and some days, too many days, my energy is so depleted that I feel like I am drowning, losing it. I have been here before, I tell myself, in a place where someone’s needs are greater than mine, and can be intensely overwhelming. I have already journeyed through the end of someone’s life, the doctor visits, the compassionate but exhaustive care, the endless and unremitting details, the follow up and follow through, the tending to every need to ensure the quality of life, the quality of days. Yet somehow it’s our turn again, this time to tend to the wonderful women in the family, matriarchs who gently and lovingly took care of us. So I try to put forth the best of myself even when I feel short-tempered and impatient. It’s draining and frequently makes me feel invisible, but I listen to their stories and solve their problems, all the while navigating my way through a life that never should have turned out this way, bereft of spirit, stripped of my son.

I am at work, students knocking on my office door, documents open for revision, files layered on my desk. A call comes in that there’s a test result I must deal with, or an appointment that needs to be made. Or my mother-in-law just wants to chat or needs to give me her grocery list as she slowly checks the inventory in her pantry and fridge. My patience comes from an unknown source, the multi-tasking now second nature. “Do you have time for this now?” she sweetly asks. “Yes, Mom, no problem. Just tell me what you need.” Or she tells me about her dream or the drama in the dining room yesterday evening or the pain she has in her fingers, her hips, her life. Scenarios I never could have anticipated arise; the minute we crossed over the border to Canada for a few days rest was exactly when my husband’s mother was admitted to the hospital.

She often accuses us of treating her like a baby, but when I help her on with her clothes or strap the seat belt around her shoulder in the car, she does not complain. And now another parent – albeit active and healthy – will be moving here soon, living the last, and hopefully long, phase of her life close to us.  While my mother is fiercely independent, she believes she will help me more than I will support her, but I am the wiser. I have already rearranged my schedule to preview condos for her, to inquire, pave the way, make sure that her transition here after 50 years in one city will be a smooth one. My sister and I are helping her in new ways, explaining options, clarifying, simplifying, being there for her as she continues to live and age.

It takes an inordinate amount of patience to take care of my husband’s mother, and I know my mother will demand a part of me, too, a fragment of my broken self. I somehow draw from an unknown well that is deeper and wider than my life, the patience coming from an inexplicable source, likely something my sweet boy left me in the aftermath of his demise.

Life is not simply about the choices we make, but speaks to the power to handle the ones we are faced with. It’s all good and well to cautiously plan which path to take, but often the journey takes you to place where there are no forks in road, where the route is windy and unpleasant and tenacious. Sometimes the only alternatives are bad or worse, and we need to choose between what is least offensive or distressing.

How is it, I wonder, that this is what we are now good at? There are many ways to be successful in life, whether it’s the achievement of fame or attainment of wealth, or the realization of one’s hopes and dreams. Ambition is not only realized in manifestations of possessions or titles; sometimes it’s the ability to lovingly care for those who come into your life and stay until the end. This would not have been my choice, however. I did not need to be baptized by the fire of my son’s illness to teach me kindness and forbearance, but it is a welcome outcome that serves us well. I enter this stage of mothering the mothers already depleted, not from years of caring for children and then putting a career in order, but from a disillusionment of a higher order, my hopes dashed when I slogged backwards and buried the young before the old. This next phase of caretaking is indeed in the natural order of things, and I pray for the strength not only to endure, but to learn and gain from giving back to those who gave us life and breath.

Reverberations and Aberrations: Tefillin Laying Fallow

During a year when the land lays fallow, as it rests from owners planting, threshing, and sowing, there are religious items that are gathering dust in observant families’ homes. For generations, age-old and sage-scribed religious objects, natural parchment encased in leather boxes embossed with shiny letters and images, have been donned each morning as a gateway to the spiritual realm. Thought to imbibe us with the ability to transcend the physical world, the tefillin  are bound to the head and arm, long straps are wound in a specific method and pattern, hopefully intertwining our hearts and minds with something, with Someone.

Yet, I know of too many families whose sons’ and husbands’ tefillin now lay dormant. The excitement of the pre-Bar Mitzvah gift has long worn off, the thrill of the bo bayom first official day of wearing phylacteries is only present in photographs of the smiling young, hopeful man. And then life happened.

I think of the concentration camp inmates who yearned for any religious object to connect to their tradition in the face of irrational existence, in a culture devoid of the natural order of the word. But upon liberation, although many survivors embraced their faith, wrapped themselves in familiar, worn tallitot, and donned tefillin, others spit on God and religion, and never reclaimed their tefillin.

A month of holidays are behind us on the last corner of the calendar, and my husband’s voice leading the congregation on Yom Kippur reverberates in my ears.I picture him as a young boy, restless in the back of shul or with his friends playing in the hallway, half-listening to but absorbing his father’s melodies and tunes. Known in liturgical terms as nusach, the traditional melodic prayers passed from one generation to the next, my husband carries his father’s repertoire with him and presents it to us as a gift at the close of Yom Kippur. But how my husband, the father of our most precious and valuable souls – including the boy we lost and buried together  – still manages to pray to God and lead others boggles my mind and rips at my heart. His father survived the camps and chose to continue to believe, as did mine, so maybe we are genetically programmed to hold tightly to faith, and to keep those straps and boxes close by.

The year is supposed to start anew, but it has begun with a vengeance. It’s not unusual to have a flood of deaths after a month of holidays, and we can often accept the graceful end of life of a great-grandparent, however painful and life-altering. But it’s the tragic accidents, new diagnoses, and disquiet in Israel that are senseless and cause suffering and pain and torment. How do we rationalize a healthy fun-loving 20-year-old who slips and hits his head on Shmini Atzeret and is gone a few days later? How do we understand a 3-month old baby in a stroller who is thrown from her precious parents and sweet life?  What do we possibly do when our core beliefs are shaken by a community leader who falls from grace, shrinking from the pedestal of ethics he created for himself (and possibly we bowed to), whose personal demise is inextricably linked to the status of conversions which drowned in the mikveh waters along with his ego. All of this on the heels of a summer of fresh-faced boys EyalGiladNaftali ripped from their lives in a stolen car on the side of a road that could have been ours. These are more than just the simple stresses of life and I am honestly not sure I can bear it. Yom Kippur echoes in our psyche, and our modern day sukkah huts may still be standing in our yards, but the days are already awash with tears.

Several years ago, the community prayed along with us for the health of our son. I watched and cried as he was chosen to open the Aron, the Ark of the Torah, so that in the merit of that holy deed his scans the following day would be deemed good. It was the culmination of the annual audit of the Book of Life, with its tally of deeds and a glimpse into the future. The congregation was with us, we were a single but communal voice praying, pleading, beseeching, and how could the outcome be anything but good? My husband was at the helm, my son at the sidelines, and the congregation was alongside and behind us shaking the heavens. But the scans the following day showed the cancer had spread. Say what? What, then, was Yom Kippur all about? What does any Yom Kippur or holiday or religious observance mean?

Somehow my husband continues to lead and pray, and my hair remains covered. We welcome Shabbat, keep a kosher home, observe to the best of our ability, but sometimes we are hanging to our beliefs by our fingernails. The tefillin no longer speak to all of us, the chain that bound us to them is loose, and that saddens me deeply. They are lost in luggage and unclaimed, forgotten in the washing machine, or simply sitting on a shelf in the closet. I walk over to my son’s tefillin knowing he is gone from his world and can no longer wear them. But my heart knows that he stopped donning them when he was still alive. I am wise enough to know that each person’s religious observance is not and should not be the same, but I childishly want everyone to hold on as desperately as I do. I am afraid that if enough people dismiss the traditions that have bound us as tightly as the tefillin on our men’s arms, then I too, will unwind.

Rosh Hashana: And His Name Shall Be Called

The weighty and lofty days High Holidays are upon us. The beginning of the Jewish New Year heralds us to pause from the mundane, from our ordinary daily lives, to take stock. Are we doing okay?

Our pockets may be full, but what about our souls? Goals from last year may have been reached, but were some downgraded in importance or did anything slip through the cracks of convenience? Are we self-aware enough to to honestly assess, and more importantly, to look towards the future with prayer and hope? Do we need to dig down to find the conviction to make the most and the best of life while conforming to the standards carefully and skillfully handed down for generations?

When one’s life has been interrupted, however, when life’s dreams and hopes have been shattered, these critical holy days take on other meaning. How can we pray to the Entity who partnered with us to create the spirit of our child, but who then turned around and snatched him back? A fistful of our future died along with Gilad, always our child, but in reality no longer counted among our offspring. Our legacy was supposed to be in the form of the children we assumed would outlive us.

So we adjust, and we deflect. Occasionally we step out during the prayers that speak of life and death, especially the one that reels off unnecessarily, and in gruesome detail, ways one may exit this world. Other times we find books to read that speak to our broken spirit and our spiritual challenges. The machzor is full of praise to Gd, and while we don’t always agree with the liturgy, we pronounce those that are innocuous. And sometimes we take a step back, albeit away from the prayer book, and look around the synagogue at the larger picture of community, the remaining thriving family, the health we certainly don’t take for granted, the bills we are able to pay. Through tears and frustrated emotions, and – dare I say – with envy towards those around us who seem satisfied, we check our disappointment at the door and focus on the good that is present in our life. Our survival plan is the kit bag we carry everywhere.

We are but infinitesimal cogs in the great wheel of life. Earlier generations were unaware of their future in us, and, in turn, we’ll be unknown in the centuries to come. But the key is to live our life so that we can leave a piece of ourselves behind, so that we can be remembered. In that way life becomes an amalgam of all the souls who have ever treaded, lightly or with great commotion, upon this earth.

Our sweet precious Gilad Hillel left us before he was fully able to make his mark on the world. Or did he? Gilad did not receive a university degree, yet he learned more than others do in a longer lifetime. He did not have the opportunity to reach professional or financial success, but he certainly possessed a remarkable self-assuredness and was surrounded by a constellation of friends who utterly loved him. And now we have entered the era of his peers naming their children in his honor and memory. Even in one’s absence, there are ways to distinguish a life.

Eli Langbaum was one of Gilad’s dear friends, and a few days before Gilad passed away, I was sitting next to Gilad as he was saying yet another goodbye to a friend. It was heartbreaking to witness him telling Eli that he loved him and asked Eli not to forget him. (Sigh. Breathe.) In July, just a few months ago, Eli and his wife Elianna named their newborn son Yehoshua Raniel. I instinctively knew that Eli would remember Gilad with his son. Eli told me that they were looking for a name derived from the meaning of either Gilad or Hillel, and found that in Raniel, which comes from the hebrew shoresh (root) reish-nun, or Ran, primarily meaning joy or happiness, similar to Gil in Gilad. Ran also has a secondary meaning, to sing, which fits nicely with the name Hillel. Eli would have gotten one of Gilad’s infamous half-smiles for the notable deed of producing a child, and for the kindness of remembering Gilad.

And this morning, another one of Gilad’s close friends, Shaya Katz, along with his wife Rikki, named their baby son David Menashe. I was crying when Shaya told me that last week, on the 16 of Elul, he received a text from from his wife informing him that her labor was starting. He was in the exact same place at precisely the same time 4 years earlier when Adam Neuman texted him early in the morning, also the 16 of Elul, that Gilad was gone. It’s not only the cycle of life; it’s what you choose to with your journey of opportunities.

Shaya shared with me that long before our Gilad was born, Gilad was a geographical location in Israel, given to the 2 ½ tribes, Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe. Apparently 2 of the brothers, but not Menashe, requested this particular plot of land. Gd assented, but also gave Gilad to Menashe to to fill a void that Gd perceived among the people, in order to sustain the other 2 tribes. Incredibly, thousands of years later, a new Menashe was named to fill the empty space that has been echoing with what used to be Gilad’s existence. These are Shaya’s words at the bris of his son: “Menashe was filling the void of Gilad, the essence, the soul of the region. They inhabited the void of Gilad. So too, our hope is that our Menashe will join Yehoshua Roniel Langbaum in filling the void of our own spiritual landscape, one which has been lacking in our lives for the past four years.” Shaya would have gotten more than just props from Gilad.

As a way for Sarit Rothschild to bring Gilad’s spirit into her wedding last summer, she chose to use Gilad’s kiddush cup under her chuppah, drinking sips of wine from the same vessel Gilad used since his Bar Mitzvah. Sarah Kraut, one of Gilad’s friends of his heart since preschool, recently married. Her favorite movie may still be The Lion King, and when she was young, she spent quite a bit of time with Gilad watching the movie, singing the songs, and playing with the action figures. What strikes me is how years later we are enacting the cycle of life with the weddings and babies of Gilad’s friends. He may not here to experience or enjoy or be a living part of it, but his friends are taking Gilad along with them. They are living their lives remembering him, thinking of him on their wedding days, and naming their children as a legacy and tribute to Gilad. It is priceless; it is heartwarming; it is what I add to my survival kit.

Rosh Hashana is waiting for us just around the corner. This year when we think about who we are and what we want to be, please remember a sweet boy whose legacy is us. Gilad left all of us behind, and it’s our responsibility to live well, and to do what is right and good in Gilad Hillel’s honor. I may answer to Gd, but I am accountable to my son Gilad to unequivocally ensure his legacy. Shana Tova.


Marking Time

16 Elul 5774

We have arrived, emotional baggage and cloaked hearts in tow, at Gilad’s fourth yahrtzeit. It’s beyond my human ability to comprehend that 4 entire years, 1460 days, have passed since Gilad has breathed air in this universe, more days than that since we’ve heard his voice. Everyone else is growing up, moving on; they are graduating from college, going to grad school or work, getting married, and the next generation has begun to arrive. Gilad is missing all of that, gone at 19, no longer present, not part of our daily lives anymore.

Time is confounding, an invention which measures a continuum between one event and the next. Based on the lunar counting of 354.37 days per year, however, it is only 1417 days (less than 1460 days) since Gilad left us. We endeavor to live our life in harmony, yet these numbers are anything but synchronous. Instead it gives credence to my belief that the earthly world we live in is inexplicable and baffling. How can we can mark time in 2 different – and possibly equal – ways and days?

Time moves on whether we are mindful or fail to take notice, sometimes imperceptibly, often whizzing past. The concept of past, present, and future directs and moves us, and we are inextricably bound and perplexed by it here on earth. I imagine we are like mice running an intricate, puzzling, endless maze.

Each year Gilad’s yahrtzeit precedes the approach of Rosh HaShana. We mentally review our year, are thankful or less than satisfied, and we look towards the next one with hope and prayer. But bereaved parents are more than frustrated; we are disappointed in what we thought our life could and should be. We have lost a critical piece of our future, and it is extremely challenging to pull ourselves up and regain the standard of hope and promise we once possessed.

I used to think that the meaning of life lay in the seeds we plant here in the form of our children, the next generation. They are our legacy and purpose. But I am disheartened and am no longer sure that is true. It is challenging to celebrate the holidays when I am not certain of myself or what my purpose is, and whether I am grounded to a shaky or stable terra firma. The yamim noraim, the High Holidays, are difficult to face. Yes, bereaved parents are aware – intensely so – of life’s joys and blessings. We have experienced the deepest of all losses, and our wishes and hopes and prayers for the future are tempered and less lofty, truly reflecting our imperfect reality.

As I write this, I realize it’s more about me than Gilad. Hah – Gilad would have smirked at that! “Oh, Ima,” I can hear him say, “This should be about me.” Gilad would be right, but sadly, I have no news or updates to share. But I can leave you with a few sweet memories of our special boy. Hold onto these stories, and continue to remember Gilad Hillel ben Eliyahu Mordechai and Bracha Mirel.

From the time he was a baby, Gilad had an iconic smile. As a little boy he’d smile at everyone; as a teenager his smile wooed the girls and warmed new friends. Gilad was headstrong and passionate; sensitive and funny; caring yet sassy at times. When Gilad played guitar his stance was so cool and nonchalant, and his fingers flew effortlessly across the strings while the rest of his body didn’t flinch. 

Gilad moved past Target and Macys clothes, favoring Gap, J Crew, Abercrombie. I think we saw hints of that when he refused to wear the shoes I bought him as a toddler, preferring the more expensive pair, or the time getting dressed in the morning for school was an issue until I bought him new tops (only 2!) from Nordstrom.

He did his best in school, and sometimes it seemed too easy for him. Gilad had a head for Gemara and Calculus and more, and it’s such a loss for the world that he was unable to contribute to any discipline or profession as an adult. Gilad wanted to live, to become an engineer or a philosopher; he hoped to fall in love and get married.

Gilad was warm and sweet and good and made us crazy and happy and life was real and good when he was part of it. He fought the fight well, he did complain, but really not much, and we all know that he should have survived and lived a long life, long enough to bury us. But that is not what happened, not what G-d wanted, and so here we are. 

I am not sure if it’s 4 years or 1460 or 1417 days, but it feels like a thousand days and a million miles since I’ve held him, breathed him, heard his voice in my ear, felt his spirit in my soul. Yehi zichro baruch.


Fall Semester

Spoiler Alert: Contains emotions which may cause heartache. Written August 19, 2014

Another semester begins for me at work, yet I am counting the days. Eight, then seven days to go until August 26 . My mind and heart alternately remember the days; if one is remiss, the other reminds with a flash and a bang.

Gilad – I remember too well your last days: no longer moving around the house, no longer eating meals with us; your mind along with your body transitioning to an unknown place, the inevitable last stop on life’s journey. We wished you would be able to begin your sophomore year at University of Maryland, and you were registered and ready to go, but we somehow knew it would never come to be. You understood it as well, and it was heartbreaking to watch your acceptance of the inevitable, to see the result of years’ battle with disease fade into reluctance and acquiescence.  But our hope remained, even until your last breath. Miracles can always happen while the heart still beats.

At the end of each summer, the point in time when you left us, I begin another semester anew, always thinking of you, forever taking you with me on an academic journey with other students. I guide them instead of you, I see their progress and graduation in place of yours. I observe their frustrations and successes as they make their way through a 4-year collegiate experience that you never had. Your picture is in my office, a locket with your smiling face is over my heart, and my passwords contain your name. I take you with me forever and always, a poor substitute for your own life, but it provides solace to me nonetheless,and helps me maintain the yin-yang balance of life which my grief therapists have encouraged me to find.

Another year begins, another year gone.


Should I Wear Mascara?

It’s the anniversary of my son’s passing and I am standing in the bathroom, my hands mindlessly reaching for this and that to get ready for my workday. I glance at myself in the mirror with the wand of mascara at the ready, and I think, seriously? Mascara? How can I possibly wear mascara and lipstick if my son is dead?? 

I continue with my morning routine as if it’s any other day, rearranging my face to make it presentable to the world, to myself. I continue with the mundane, making the bed, taking down laundry, fixing a sandwich for lunch. I deviate only by treating myself to the largest latte at Starbucks, tears dripping from my eyes unnoticed. Should I tell the barista about my special day and ask for a free drink as if it’s a birthday? 

For 4 years we’ve continued with our life, just as we promised Gilad we’d do. We had a mutual lie-fest before he left us, and we assured him, as he did us, that we were ok and that we would be ok later. He insisted on honesty about his disease, but I admit that we completely and utterly lied to each other just to make it easier for all of us to let go. Our son slipped from us, dispatched with the knowledge – albeit falsified – that we could survive his death. It was a glaringly obvious lie yet at the same time hopefully true. 

Life will not stop in its tracks today as it did 4 years ago. Nobody official is coming to our door to declare or sign or take away anything. No one will rush from their day’s plans, from their places in all corners of the earth to help us say goodbye to someone who never should have died. The house will be empty; the hugs and wishes will be virtual this time. 

I am known to sleep late, even on workdays, and I warn others to keep their distance earlier than 7:00 am because it’s not pretty. But today I awoke naturally at 6:25 am without an alarm, as I do each year on August 26, because my body knows before my heart does. There’s some unconscious and mysterious process at work here, allowing me to sleep through the exact moment of Gilad’s last breath, but waking me just minutes after. I’d like to think it’s a wake-up call from my boy, but I know that it’s simply restlessness and the physicality of grief. 

But mascara and a latte? Why should I make myself look and feel better if my son is dead, if he remains dead day after day, year after year? What gives me the right to look pretty and feel good and act normal? 

Our minds and emotions whirl, back and forth, up and down, and sometimes we need to grab onto what comes our way or pull what we need towards us. If mascara and a latte is what must be summoned to help me with the pretense that today is just another day on the planet, then so be it. But to get through the rest of my life, I may need a massage. Or more grandchildren to love and and inhale and teach about pampering oneself with coffee and makeup.


…And I’m Back

After the rain falls and the tears fall, way after the sinking feeling has settled and claimed residence, somehow the fog slowly begins to clear. It’s just a sliver at first, but it’s palpable, real, and it’s a breath of air intruding upon a space that has been suffocatingly sad and grievously mad and worthy of hibernation. Just like that, a crumb, a snippet, a fleeting something appears on the horizon of my heart. This is my passage: I return from rock bottom and float back up to the surface, ready to inhale and accept life again.

It’s natural, it’s normal, it’s the cycle of life, but the return comes as such a jolt and surprise each time. I am ok, I say aloud to myself, feeling as though I’ve come back from the jungle, because that is where I have been. I can go to work today and I will wear that new skirt. Simple, daily, auto tasks unfold with no forethought for others, but not for us. If breathing weren’t involuntary, some days that would not happen, either. Each one of those thoughts register for us, click-click goes the brain. It is okay to feel good, it’s acceptable to put on lipstick, it is alright to go exercise. I will meet my friend for coffee and invite people over. Yes, I will. And it is perfectly fine to indulge in something wondrously marvelous even though my son will never know that thrill.

And I’m back. The clouds in the sky look lovely this time, and maybe today’s formation is a message. The song on the radio doesn’t bring tears but sounds good, even though my boy would roll his eyes at my choice of music. I see the rolling green hills and want to go hiking, go to the park one Sunday, plan that day at the glass blowing factory. Oh, the things that I could accomplish if I felt this way every day. I breathe and am grateful for the good days, following the same mantra we did when he was alive.

Sometimes I try to force the better days – talk to a friend, visit the grandgirls on video chat, eat forbidden chocolate. It works only if they are at my disposal, snap-snap of the fingers, but makes things worse when they are not available, for which they always apologize later. If they had known I was in a funk, would they really leave work to come hug me or drive down the turnpike to make me smile? Or do they just want me to know that they love me still, even if they cannot be by my side right then, right away, right when I need them? Chunks of cocoa with nuts and stuff have to do, or sometimes not. Sometimes the TV chatters on while the laundry sits, supper isn’t made. And that suffices, too, to get through.

But coming back is a glorious thing, when it happens. As a young girl, I used to experience monthly cramps that were larger than my life. My mother doted, the doctor prescribed. And when the fog of pain cleared, there was nothing like it in the world, feeling good, feeling untethered, feeling free.

Now I am wise, and I know what even when I’m back, I will fall again into that abyss of grief, over and over. But I also know that I will climb out and rejoice my life. I have learned that there is hell here on earth, threaded through our life for no apparent reason. But on a much deeper, visceral level, I understand that there are layers of hell, some softer, others biting. We descended with diagnosis, but ascended with scans; dropped lower still with recurrence and this crap and that, yet ultimately, finally we rise to breathe air again and again.

I understand that there is always hope, no matter how small, how inconsequential. There is even hope on a deathbed, trust me. If I can accept my starting point of teetering on the age of heaven and earth, heaven and hell, there is a way to lift myself, grasping and gasping, from that well, a hole so frighteningly deep. The existence I knew is gone; the life I hoped for has been replaced. But with the double edges of all the swords I have borne, I’ve learned a magnificent thing: We can come back. We can live in the face of loss. I can go on without my son in spite of the fight with life and G-d I wage still. I can live and love and smile and be happy, sometimes. And I’m back.

Happy Mother’s Day To Us

I am busy, distracted, and busy again.
Be engaged and present, I am told.
I clean and shop, back to work, stay busy.
I function, I’m busy, it’s good.

My mother-in-law’s life now threaded into ours.
My mother’s will be soon, too.
Love for my children and husband, so lovely.
Not the life it could or it should.

I carry him still, my 19-year old son.
Once in my womb, now in my heart.
Braided into my soul, inhaled into my essence.
And I keep busy, always moving.

A mother is a forever thing we say.
But how can I mother to him?
Yes, a mother to others, a grandmother, too
But –
There’s an empty room and unworn clothes.
Guitars unplayed, books laying fallow.
Courses not completed, a degree unfinished.
A never-to-be marriage and children, a life unlived.

I keep it at bay, underneath a busy life.
But it rises like bile at will.
Wraps a film around me, nothing is clear.
So I keep busy and busier still.

The outside belies the inside, nothing is neat.
The organs weep, the heart quickly tires.
The blood pulses green, the mind jealous of others.
So we stay busy and busy again.

From conception onward we hold keys to souls.
We diaper, we feed; we nurture and cherish and love.
When they slip and fall, we catch them.
We dry their tears, we hold them tight.
They are vulnerable and we are wise.
Life is good.

At each age and stage, we form and shape them.
We hope to love them enough.
We correct them and shout.
We teach them and speech them.
Remember to kiss them goodnite.

Endless days, rules and schedules.
Be gracious and courteous, polite and kind.
We pray for their future; we expect no less.
And believe we’ll see it all with age.

Days pass, time flies.
Our boy is no longer here.
Yet I am still his mother.
I miss him and love him.
And I told him we’d be okay.

I know I’m not at fault, but a voice inside says yes.
I should not have let him go unknown alone.
I wish I could have taken better care.
But I told him I’d be okay.

I hoped, I prayed, I loved him enough.
But the key and womb are gone.
And now it is he who is wise beyond his years.
Me, I’m now susceptible to life.

I keep busy, stay busy.
My boy forever in my heart.
The roles reversed, he’ll welcome me one day.
Happy Mother’s Day to us.


Thanks For Happening To Us

OCTOBER 15, 1990:  After the kids went to school that morning (did I drive carpool?), I went to KMart to buy siblings gifts for Yocheved and Ariel. As a prepared, pregnant mom, I’d have treats ready for them when they’d come visit me in the hospital with our new baby. Walking too slowly down the aisles of the store, I realized that labor had begun. With Eddie at my side, I went to the doctor soon after, and she sent us to walk around the neighborhood to get things moving. I remember walking from her office near Belvedere Square (in Baltimore) and stopping at the gas station on the corner….Gilad’s life was starting.


Sometime that afternoon we went to the hospital, and at 6:18pm a beautiful baby boy emerged, peeing on the doctor first (how characteristic was that?) and weighing 6 lbs, 11 oz. He was 9 days early, and my in-laws insisted I wasn’t due yet, even after he was born. My father was glad it was a pre-shkiah baby so that the bris would be early Mon morning and he could get back to his store to work. We were grateful to have another healthy child, and no one knew our secrets of fertility and whatnot, that it hadn’t come easy for us like the older two. The 5-year gap was significant and we’d waited years for this one to come along. Little did we know that early and late means nothing at all. 


We discussed his name: I wanted Ra’anan and Eddie preferred Noach, but somehow we settled on Gilad. His name came to me early one morning and I called Eddie and we agreed that it fit. But it was such an unusual name that I had to whisper to myself that it wasn’t Gideon and it wasn’t Yigal, but it was Gilad! Gilad was our family’s baby and the kids loved playing with him and making him laugh. He was the smiley-est baby ever and people – even strangers – commented on that all the time. That was just the beginning of his charm.


And so it went…he turned 1, 2, 3, a toddler, and then we welcomed Ezra. Gilad was the age for school, starting at the JCC with his buddies-for-life:  Ari,  Adam,  Ben, Eli,  Eitan,  Ariella, Sarah, Atara, Tzvi,  Alex…. and the years passed so quickly, didn’t they? Before we knew it he graduated 8th grade, was playing guitar with the stance and talent of a rock star, and soon came high school and SATs and college prep.


But somewhere along the way something was brewing inside our dear, sweet boy, unbeknownst to us. He rode his bike to school one day, then davened as a ba’al tefillah, and almost collapsed. Who knew? He would do the Katz-boys-exercises at nite to prepare for basketball and he would be out of breath too soon for a kid his age. I took him for a chest-xray (nothing!) and then to the doctor for the unusual bags under his eyes. We talked about eating right (vegetables!) and sleeping more. Sure. Who knew? And the rest, well the rest we all know…


So he came into our lives feisty, adorable, sweet, stubborn, always knew what he wanted. He had music in his soul and a joke or tale to tell; he’d often be surrounded by friends, a noticeable presence in any room. And before we could turn around and enjoy the adult he was slowly becoming, he was gone, vanished. If matter can neither be created nor destroyed, how did he get here and where did he go?


Today, October 15, Gilad would have turned 23. But “would have” is pretend; they are fantasy words that don’t mean anything in this solid, rule-filled, often-cruel and painful world we live in. He was 19, and even today, he is still only 19 years old, while all his former playmates are now grown men and women, with stubble on their faces and paychecks in their pockets, or high-heels as they impress at work, or still in jeans and hoodies getting Masters degrees, becoming doctors, lawyers, business folk. They are getting married, and soon the babies will come. And Gilad will forever be 19.


As I carried Gilad 23 years ago until 6:18pm, I carry him today inside of my heart and my soul. I cannot hold the physicality as I did then, a small babe warming in my womb, but there is a heaviness in my chest that is Gilad, and he is with me forever and ever, until I meet him in the ground or sky one day.


I don’t know how it happened, the arrival or the exit, but I’m glad he was ours for a while. Gilad, Giladi, we miss you, we love you. Happy would-be Birthday? I don’t know. But Happy-that-you-spent-19-almost-20-years-with-us-Day. I loved being your mom, because being a mom is just the best, sweetest, most gratifying job in the world. Thanks for that, Gilad. Thanks for happening to us.

Help us Honor Gilad’s Memory

As Gilad’s yahrtzeit approaches this week (another blog post will be forthcoming), we would like to share with you ways that we continue to honor Gilad’s memory. Giving tzedakah (charity) in memory of someone who has passed is a traditional way to commemorate that person. In addition, at the start of the Jewish New Year, charity is a form of prayer and supplication for a good year. We thank you in advance for any donations you make in our dear, sweet son’s memory.

ARIEL RUNNING BOSTON MARATHON in memory of Gilad – October 2013
On October 13th, Ariel will be running the 2013 Boston Half Marathon in memory and in honor of Gilad. The race raises money for cancer research and care at the Jimmy Fund and for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

In running, Ariel has pledged to raise $500 for these causes. If there’s any little bit you can donate to help Ariel achieve his goal, that would be amazing. Please see (personal page) OR  (team page).

Ariel thanks you for your generosity and for helping him support these two great causes.

As bereaved parents, we have gotten to know other families who have lost children. Chai Lifeline holds an annual retreat for parents to meet, share, and find kinship among others who understand the loss of a child. Pinny and Karen Gildin lost their 9-month old daughter, Alyssa (Elisheva Leora), two years ago. Soon after their loss, Pinny took up running, and last year ran his first marathon for Chai Lifeline, single-handedly raising over $20,000. Pinny was the top individual fundraiser with the most single contributions from any single runner of past years.

This year, Pinny has offered to have Gilad in mind as he runs for his daughter, and this has evolved into a joint effort. I may not be putting on my sneakers or running and sweating for miles, but our family will be there in spirit, and we’d like to help Pinny reach his (starting) goal of $10,000 this year.

We appreciate any contributions you can make towards this worthwhile cause.

Each year Rosh Hashana falls after Gilad’s yahrtzeit and before Gilad’s birthday. For the past few years, our family has been donating to Gevuras Yarden/The Jewish Caring Network, the Baltimore organization that provides support services to families facing life-threatening, lifelong, or serious illnesses. 

Given Gilad’s sweet disposition, we chose to sponsor the honey sticks that are included in the Rosh Hashana packages delivered to families in need. The note on the card reads:  “As we approach Rosh Hashana with hope for good, joyful days and pray for a good, sweet new year, we remember Gilad Hillel Schwartz who embraced his life with sweetness in his smile and soul.” 

For more information about Gevuras Yarden/The Jewish Caring Network, please visit