In the Beginning …

“You say you lost your faith, but that’s not where it’s at.
You had no faith to lose and you know it.”

Bob Dylan – Positively 4th Street

We have just come through the three weeks of what is called the High Holy Days. It begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New year. A time for reflection on the past year and the promise of a new year. We dip apples into honey and wish each other a good year, a sweet year, a year filled with happiness, health, prosperity, and progress. 11 days later comes Yom Kippur, a day where we fast all day, consider our shortcomings, beg forgiveness from those we may have wronged, and vow to do better in the coming year. After all the fasting and atoning comes the harvest festival, Sukkot. We build tempory sukkahs or ‘booths’ in our backyards and ‘dwell’ in them for a week. We take our meals in the simple structures leafed over with palm fronds or other natural materials. The marathon of holidays concludes with Simchat Torah, literally the happiness of the Torah, where we joyously dance with the scrolls, conclude reading the 5 books of Moses, and because Jews are eager to continue Torah study, we re-roll the entire thing and immediately begin reading from the beginning.

Those three weeks can be exhausting. Preparing elaborate dinners, the day of fasting and atoning, building the sukkah, receiving visitors for meals, interspersed with many mornings in shul praying, observing special services, and for me, the blessing of the Kohanim. I perform the blessing with love, as commanded, but the rest of the service is just words. What is most exhausting, is that I no longer get any spiritual recharge from these holidays. Most of the meaning has been lost for me. Perhaps it is sad to admit, but my appearances in shul are mostly perfunctory. This year I didn’t even go to the Simchat Torah celebration. I don’t really read the prayers, I go through the motions.

Those prayers ring so hollowly now. They speak of the Merciful God who protects his children, who answers prayers. Why couldn’t he protect my child? Why didn’t he answer my prayers? I know I have been over all this before, but sitting in shul, looking at the words in the book, it all comes rushing back. My prayers for Jake’s safety. Asking God to watch over him, to keep him safe. The only thing I ever asked for. The only thing I ever wanted. My entreaties fell upon deaf ears. So why bother asking for anything now? More questions for which there are no answers. If my faith was stronger, perhaps it might give me some comfort, but to paraphrase Bob Dylan, I had no faith to lose and I know it.

I did not grow up in an observant home. When I entered my teenage ‘existential’ years, I questioned everything. As far as I was concerned, there was no magic man in the sky who wrote everything down, who knew secret thoughts, had the future all pre-ordained. I was a consummate skeptic. Over the years my spiritual beliefs waxed and waned, but I never really bought into that omniscient being that controlled the universe. When Jake was born, we strove to bring him up in a Jewish home. Terry lit the candles every Shabbat, we celebrated all the holidays, built a sukkah, something I never did as a kid myself. As he grew and we found ourselves in a local Chabad for his bar mitzvah preparation, I began a journey back to a more observant place. The study of Torah was, for me, mostly an intellectual exercise, I liked the discussions, the way some of the writings applied to our daily lives. I went to shul every week, learned the Blessing of the Kohenim and in general, participated more fully in our community. I prayed, not fully ‘believing’ but rather to hedge my bets. What if it was all true?

Then came December 28 and all that carefully cultivated “faith” shattered. Where was the merciful God? Where was the god we prayed to that protected his children? If God was infinite and timeless, capable of such miracles, why in the hell did he take Jake? How could He need him more than we did? More like a selfish, indifferent, and capricious god as far as I was concerned. Or maybe there wasn’t a God who pulled the levers of our universe at all, as I suspected all along. Maybe we live in a random and unpredictable world where each one of us is responsible for his or her own lives. Where life can change forever in an instant. Where shit falls on us out of the sky for no reason, where senseless things happen daily – things for which there is no explanation, no understanding. This is the world I now inhabit.

Years ago, during one of my spiritual ‘quests’ I came to the conclusion that our purpose on Earth was to enjoy this magnificent planet as much as we can and to do as little damage to it and to one another as possible. I still think that is true. I also now know, that when Jake was born, my true purpose was revealed to me, and I reveled in that knowledge. Now, I struggle to find my purpose. To find the same complete fulfillment, or even a fraction of it, I experienced as Jake’s dad. It has been nearly four years now, and that struggle goes on every day. Who knows when or if I will ever find it. But I don’t have the luxury of giving up the search. As it is written in the Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, “You are not obligated to complete the work (of making the world a better place), but neither are you free to desist from it. 

 

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Posted in Ceremony, Coping, Grief, Jake Colman | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Perpetual State of Bewilderment

It seems unbelievable that exactly three years ago, I wrote a post for this blog titled “A New Stage”. It was a stage of grief that isn’t really discussed in the “grief literature”, one that I named the WTF stage. Back then, just four months into our surrealistic journey, I wondered what happened. How my life, our lives had come to this. I simply couldn’t believe it was all happening. That Jake was gone. How could this be? In other words: What. The. Fuck.

The other thing I couldn’t understand was how could the rest of the world continue without acknowledging my personal tragedy. My world had imploded, but during our daily walks, I’d see people going about their lives as normal. Didn’t they know the world had suddenly changed? Couldn’t they see it would never be the same?

Now, three years later, I am still wondering what happened. Not so much what, I know the what, the who, the when, the where, but I’ll never figure out the why. I lie awake some nights, (like tonight, for example) and roll those same baffling questions around and around in my head, questions for which there are no answers.

I have come to a different place than I was then. That indescribable agony of those first months has softened a little; the scab is thicker, rips off less frequently. But the pain and confusion still simmer along. Maybe not quite so close to the surface but it can come bubbling up at any time without warning. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. There wasn’t any indication that we would end up like this when Jake was growing up. All the promise, the joy, the excitement, the pleasures of his life, our happy family, the fulfillment of purpose I felt; that’s what I expected. Not the hollowness of days that followed his death and continues today.

Even when we were going through his battles with addiction, even when we didn’t know if he would make it, I always believed, with a father’s certainty, that he would. That he would survive. That we could carry him. The all the love of all the people who loved him would pull him through. I couldn’t imagine anything else. And we thought, during those last few months, he had finally turned the corner at last. He, we, had been through it all before and we thought, this time it would stick. He had his own apartment, he had a wonderful job prospect, had friends who stood by him, who loved him. He seemed genuinely excited about his job. Had his chef’s whites pressed and ready to go for the Saturday night shift he would never get to. That’s why his death was such a shock, was so mystifying, left so many unanswered questions. We thought we were out of the woods.

The code words we used describing his passing, “suddenly and unexpectedly”; people who knew what we were going through knew what they meant. Other parents who were fighting the same battles knew. Anyone who lost a loved one to the same disease knew. We called it an accident, and in fact, it was. Not an auto accident, or a boating accident, or a climbing accident, but a horrible accident of prescription pharmacology. An accident of muscle relaxants, and mood stabilizers, and pain killers. Such a waste. Such a tragic waste. My rant on the failure of the medical and “rehab” establishment will have to wait for another time, but it is coming. Perhaps a little late, but it is coming. Right now, I just don’t have the energy.

This is not something I have talked about here, thus far. I have avoided it because of the societal stigma of addiction and didn’t want to tar Jake with that brush. Most people view it as a moral failing or a weakness of will or some personality flaw. Jake had the strongest will of anyone I know, the most dynamic personality, a clear sense of morality, and yet, inexplicably, he succumbed to this dreaded disease. How that came to be is just another part of my confusion.

I will never fully grasp the why. Part of my frustration stems from the impossible exercise of “what if” or as some prefer, “if only”. What if we had gone to Palm Springs that weekend to celebrate New Years? If only I had done this or that the month, the week, the year before? How could I have “let” it happen like this? All the things we “should have done”. And of course, I couldn’t have changed the outcome no matter what we did or didn’t do. I say that, but I don’t really believe it. Goddammit, what if …?

So I have to live with my decisions, his decisions, our decisions, as agonizing as that is. Perhaps as the years slide by, I will be less concerned with trying to figure out the why and the how, but I will never have the answers. So I live in this perpetual state of bewilderment. As I posted three years ago, I will be in the WTF stage for the rest of my life.

 

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Loving My Son, After His Death

I came across this again today, and thought it worth sharing. She lost her son around the time we lost Jake and he was almost the same age. Different circumstances, same emotions.

Posted in Healing, Jake Colman, Jake's Spirit, Memory, Other Media, Print Article | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Where are My Simchas?

In Hebrew, ‘simcha’ means gladness or joy. It is often used as a noun to denote any celebration because a celebration is always a cause for happiness. Simchas are usually connected with one’s children: births, Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, weddings. It is a blessing to share in other’s simchas, and of course, we invite our friends and families to share in ours.

Lately, we have been attending weddings of friends of Jake, children of friends of ours, our Rabbi’s son, whom we have known since he was a boy, and most recently a member of our shul, a young woman who has become the adopted daughter of the congregation. While we want to celebrate other’s happiness, it can be brutal for us. Especially when it’s a friend of Jake’s. Last year, I sat at a table in the back of the room at one of these gatherings and wondered where is my happiness? What will I get to celebrate with such unbridled joy as I was watching? It is all well and good to participate in other’s blessings, to wish them well on their journey to a new chapter in their lives, but I won’t have any of my own. There won’t be a wedding, a birth of a grandchild, a brit milah to revel in. There won’t be any more Colmans or Smilens to carry on our families names. What, exactly will we celebrate in the coming years?

At the wedding last week, held on the outside patio at our little shul, our rabbi asked for any Kohanim present to give the couple the three-fold Priestly Blessing. I already wanted to do it for them, and here was my chance. Not that I have any special power to confer blessings, I am merely the conduit. I stepped forward, raised my hands and suddenly it hit me, again. This was the blessing I gave Jake every time we parted those last few years. It all came rushing back and nearly overwhelmed me. Ambushed again. I paused and slowly, haltingly spoke the words in Hebrew: “May the lord bless you and protect you.” “May the lord make His face shine light upon you and be gracious unto you” “May the lord lift up His face unto you and grant you peace.” As I began the third one, my voice caught, and I could barely speak. Somehow, I managed to contain my emotions long enough to finish and turned away, tears flowing. Not exactly what you want at a wedding.

And this is my life now. Every celebration tinged with sadness. No longer able to rejoice completely in other’s simchas, searching for my own. And I have come to realize, I won’t really have any real simchas from now on. I can enjoy the moment, have a laugh with friends, appreciate beauty in art and nature, but the deep fulfillment that comes from the celebration of true joy, of watching your children make their way through life, which is a joy and a blessing unlike any other, is now denied to me.

Passover is in a couple of days. It is the holiday that commemorates the Exodus from Egypt and the creation of the Jewish People. It is one of the most solemn and at once the most joyous holidays on the calendar. It is a holiday on which I am commanded to relate the story to my children, so we never forget we were once slaves. One of my great pleasures was leading our family seder. Friends and families gathered around our table from when Jake was born up to a few years ago. It was always a lively affair with discussion, laughter, finger puppets, and Jake’s interactive 10 plagues. I relished in my duty to relate the tale to my son. It was one of my simchas.

We haven’t had a seder here for the past three years. I simply can’t bear it. We will go to some friends homes both nights, people who knew and loved Jake. They helped us get through those first horrific days, and continue to be there for us, people who are both firefighters and builders. We will sit at their tables and help tell the Passover story to their children, our surrogate sons and daughters. We will share in their simchas as they come. But for us, we will have to be content with basking in the reflected warmth of their joy.

I wish everyone a happy and meaningful Passover. May you find freedom from your own personal Egypt, whatever limitations they may be, and may you have many simchas of your own in the days and years to come.

Posted in Ceremony, Coping, Friends and Family, Grief, Jake Colman, Sadness | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Silent Grief – The “Aloneness” of Grief

Thoughts on the ‘aloneness’ of grief. Thank you, Rebecca for sharing this. I can only echo her sentiments. There are those of our friends who have not remained silent and continue to stand by us. The silence of others can be deafening. It is not always their ‘fault’ most people simply cannot deal with grief, their own, let alone someone else’s.

Grief: One Woman's Perspective

Our Western culture has inadvertently conditioned us to avoid death and grief. Our society tends to isolate those who are struggling with illness, pain, death and grief — hoping that if we don’t see their pain and struggles, the pain doesn’t exist, and won’t alter our tidy and predictable lives.  We tend to behave as if death and pain are contagious diseases, ones that if we stay away from, we can avoid contracting ourselves.

I don’t believe this insensitivity is intentional. Society has not prepared us for how to deal with pain and loss. We are brought up to believe that life will remain predictable and under our control. Then when the unexpected, death or illness, does happen in our lives, we are ill-equipped to deal with the emotional pain, and upheaval, that it brings. Society subliminally sends us the message that we are expected to quietly bear our pain…

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Into the New Year

January is almost over, so if I am going to write a post on the New Year and the past Holiday season, I’d better get on it before it is next year already.

We made it through the Holidays basically unscathed. It seemed at every turn, I set out to write something about whichever holiday was nearing. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve, and yet, when I sat down at the computer and stared at the blank screen, nothing really significant came forth. So maybe that is what I can talk about.

It has been three years since Jake died and took so much of our lives with him. Each year, I have taken stock of what progress, if any, I made that year, and what, if anything, new things I learned about myself or my progress on this journey, or the people around me, or anything, really. And as I think about the past year, and where we are, I realize I have no new brilliant insights to share. No revelations on how to deal with the crushing sadness I carry around with me daily. Oh, I can laugh, have a ‘good time’, smile, crack a joke, the mask fits pretty good now, but the melancholy is so close to the surface it doesn’t take much to have it bubble up in the most unlooked for places.

Humans can get “used to” nearly anything, and this year I have gotten more used to not having Jake in our lives, if only by the most minute of increments. We are “people who have lost a child”, and I am settling into that label more and more. I know many such people both personally and virtually, some farther along, some newly minted. Frankly, I hate it. I hate not having my son in this world anymore. I may have “accepted” it, resigned to it is more like it, I may be a bit more “used to it”, but I still can’t quite believe it. I will be in the WTF stage for the rest of my life.

What we are doing is getting by. Just getting by, day to day. Perhaps that is the most significant thing I can share. I’m getting by. Doing the best I can. Some days I still want to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head. Some days I am exhausted from the moment I wake up. I heard a proverb somewhere that I paraphrase: When the soul is exhausted, sleep does no good. And my soul is exhausted. Some days are better. I can be somewhat productive, I can even fool myself into thinking I’m happy for the moment. I wish I could take that with me for the days when I feel like shit. But it really is day by day.

What does help is activity. We were up north last week for a trade show and to visit some friends. One of whom will be helping us plan our estate. After all, I’m not getting any younger. The difficult part is that we have no heir. Our family tree has had its branches lopped off. No one to watch out for us as we get older. No one to take care of our affairs, no one to whom we will bequeath our family heirlooms. So what do we do? I guess we’ll figure that out as we go.

So that’s it. My observations of the new year. Not much here, I know. The days crawl by, the weeks flit by, the months rush by. Three years. Soon it will be five, ten, twenty. What new insights will reveal themselves in the coming years? I’ll let you know when I find out. For now, I’m just getting by.

Posted in Coping, Jake Colman, Observations, Progress | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

A New Year, Nothing New

I have  been kicking ideas for a post around for the previous few weeks, but couldn’t quite coalesce them into a coherent form. I am still looking for something to bring these random and disparate thoughts and ideas together. So in lieu of that, I may just ramble on and let them sort themselves out.

Monday was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, literally the “head of the year”.Many of the things I wrote 2 years ago still hold true. The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are supposed to be a time for self-reflection, of stock-taking, of teshuva, a Hebrew word that is usually translated as ‘repentance’ but literally means ‘return’. To what do we strive to return? If I could, I would return to the days when Jake was still alive, those days where our family was whole and happy. Or at least whole. Of course, that isn’t possible. The ideal is to return to a purer self, to repent for our transgressions, to strive to be better. We are to ask forgiveness from those who we may have hurt or offended during the previous year, and so, if I have hurt or offended anyone who may read this during this past year, slicha, forgive me.

It has been months since I have written anything here. At some level, it feels as if this blog is winding down. But the story hasn’t an end yet. Whether it will end with a bang or a whimper remains to be seen. Grief has stabilized somewhat, the ambushes happen far less frequently, and I can usually see them coming. It feels as if my journey through the labyrinth has stalled, I am becalmed on this Ocean of Heartbreak. I have no new insights to share with my fellow grievers. The scab over the wound has thickened, the scar tissue deepened, but the pain persists although well masked, usually. I struggle with my memory to recall what it was actually like having Jake in the world. What he felt like when I lay my hand on his head to bless him, the sound of his voice, the sparkle in his eye as he made some sarcastic comment or clever turn of words. What conversations with him were like. My conversations are all one-sided these days.

I look at the photographs of him and see the boy, the teenager, the young man, but that person no longer exists. Even if he were alive, the person in the photos would no longer exist. He would have turned 27 this August, and I strain to see what he would be like, who he would become, what his life might be like today. Yes, it is a futile exercise, and one that can only lead to sorrow, but nonetheless, I imagine what he might be doing tonight, where he might be living. I can imagine many scenarios beyond the one I could have never imagined, the one that came true.

Life goes on. We move through the days, weeks, months, and suddenly it has been nearly three years. Three years. I think back to what we were doing three years ago, and it is inconceivable we could have known what our lives would be like three years hence. We had a very different plan. So where does that leave me? Still looking for my lost purpose, a new direction to go. I saw a movie the other day, and there is a line where one of the characters is talking to another about having children. He says, “Yes, that is why we are here”. That was exactly the way I felt when Jake was born, that my true mission on Earth was finally fulfilled. Now I look for something as noble but nothing can really replace that lost purpose. So I strive to do whatever good I can, to perhaps inspire one of the young people I teach, maybe to brighten a stranger’s day with a compliment, or a helpful gesture. But in a way, it is just marking time. What lies ahead I cannot see clearly. The road ahead is still swathed in fog. I have nought to do but to keep walking and hope the fog lifts, or at least thins out a bit. I look back at some of what I wrote 2 years ago, and see I have come some distance from those terrible days, and yet, not so far.

I have been told I should publish this blog as a book. Those suggestions began when I first began writing about my journey. I have thought much about that, and kind of wanted to have a meaningful stopping point. Maybe the three year anniversary, coming soon, will be it. It will need much judicious editing to transform this series of random posts into a coherent narrative. Perhaps the immediacy of the writing could be the whole point of such an endeavor. I don’t know. I just wish I had something more to offer than my own emotions and observations. Something that could help others find their way through this worst of all possible tragedies. A guide book for the Lonesome Highway. But as we have observed, this is such a personal journey that we must find our own way. Everyone will have a different experience, mine might or might not be relevant.

In any case, there it is, another installment. Stream of consciousness indeed. Sometimes it feels like stream of unconsciousness. Maybe it won’t be three months before I can write another. I’ll let you know when I find out.

 

Posted in Daily Ramblings, Jake Colman, Observations, Progress | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments