[Aaron's Story - Part Six]
Aaron was gone.
For a brief moment, Debbie and I continued to sit by the hospital bed, gazing at our son's still form. We had been preparing for this - as best we could - during those past nightmarish two days, readying ourselves for a host of overpowering emotions: grief, guilt, panic, rage. But when the end finally came, it was unlike anything I anticipated. What I mostly recall of those first minutes is an icy numbness and a sense of utter unreality. Most of all, a bleak certainly that the life I had known was forever lost, broken beyond repair.
And then, as always for me when things are at their worst, I dragged myself into my doing mode, the cold functionalism that shields me against unbearable pain and despair. As unnatural and horribly inverted as it seemed, Debbie and I - in fact Ben, Shalom, and Shayna too, I realized with a shudder - were now in the first stage of the Jewish mourning process, known as aninus. There was a funeral to plan, people to inform. Things to do.
My focus on these duties was more than a sense of obligation, of carrying out what was expected of me. It was pure self-preservation. On a primal level, I sensed that the Jewish mourning rituals, the formality that our religion demanded, would be a kind of protection for me over the next few days. The customs, the "dos and donts", the structure, would provide emotional space for me to at least begin the grueling process of adjusting to my unimaginable new reality.
I stood. First things first. We called in the nurses to notify them of Aaron's death (will I ever be able to bear hearing that word?). Debbie stayed with them while I headed into the waiting room where we had left Debbie's mom, aunt, and my friend P., minutes and ages ago.
They looked into the pit behind my eyes... no words were needed. We embraced. More tears - did I really still have any left?
P. called our Rabbi on his cellphone. Within minutes, somehow, all the funeral arrangements were made. It would be at our synagogue, 1:30 the next afternoon. I called my mother, home with the kids, to let her know.
"The kids". Like every other tiny aspect of my life, I realized that that casual term would now be anything but casual. Not all our kids; our surviving kids. What a hideous thing to have to say, to have to even think deep in the recesses of my mind.
Back in the hospital room for the last time. Mechanically, I gathered up all our stuff - siddurim, Aaron's tefillin and clothes, Debbie's clothes. P. offered to stay with Aaron until the chevra kadisha got there. (Later, I learned that as a member of the chevra kadisha, he personally performed Aaron's tahara, the ritual purification of a body before burial. Could anyone do a greater kindness?) P. urged us to leave; he knew that Debbie and my place, now more than ever, was at home.
With a final look at back at Aaron - at the child who had been the focus of almost our entire lives together, until this night which shattered those simple lives forever - Debbie and I turned together and headed out into the night.
Walking back to the car, it was just the two of us again, for a few brief minutes. We were to have almost no such alone opportunities for the next week, except late at night when we were too exhausted to think, let alone talk. Yet we were both still trying to absorb the fact that Aaron was really gone, and our conversation felt awkward and forced. Lamely, with a sad, feeble smile, I asked "but who will program our cellphones for us now?" A meaningless, miserable jest; but what words at that moment would not have been meaningless and miserable?
Home at last, I dived deeper into my "do the job" mode. I explained the rules of aninus and aveilus to the children, told them what to expect during the levaya [funeral] and the kevura [burial]. Only one job did I give them: collect all of Aaron's shoes and other personal possessions from around the house, put them in his bedroom in the basement, and shut the door! It would be months before I felt ready to open that door again.
That evening, soon after Debbie and I got home, the chaos began.
People began to show up at our house - friends, neighbors, relatives, rabbeim from Aaron's school. From then until the end of shiva, it was rare for us to have fewer than ten visitors at any given time, and usually many times that number. As my environment, suddenly, became increasingly confused, so too my memories of those first post-Aaron days are much more fragmented and incomplete than of the previous days. In some cases I recall events, some the associated feelings, some a combination of both. But there are many images that still burn so very brightly, that made tremendously lasting impressions, for bad and for good.
At the top of that 'good' list, along with the incredible devotion and support of our friends E. and P., was the response of Aaron's classmates. They had already unanimously cancelled their much-awaited senior trip to Florida. The night Aaron passed away, his entire class, to a boy - or as I can honestly say about these remarkable 18-year-olds, to a man - stayed awake all night. But not, as they had no doubt anticipated just days earlier, shooting the breeze in a Disney World motel. No, these incredible youngsters - at least a quarter of whom had never sat in a classroom with Aaron and had scarcely known him - spent all night learning mishnayos on Aaron's behalf. The class divided up and learned through the entire six orders of mishnah during that night! In between learning, they took turns doing shmira for Aaron... watching over their friend's body. No words of mine can express my awe and appreciation.
As for me, I was wakeful that night too. As exhausted as my body was, sleep fled from me. Grief, memories, and anxiety about what awaited the next day all vied with each other in keeping me awake. About 5:00 am, I gave up the battle and headed downstairs. Another duty called; I had to write a hesped - a eulogy - for my son.
For the first hour and a half, I sat staring at a pad of paper, and then a computer screen, my hesped consisting of one line:
"I'm not supposed to be here."Eventually, other words came, though I still have no idea from what untapped depth I somehow drew the capacity to compose them.
Later that morning, by sheer force of will, Debbie and I dragged our haggard and shell-shocked selves over to the funeral home. The arrangements were made quickly. Aaron would be buried in a plot close to Debbie's father, his beloved Zaideh Norman. This plot was given to us, gratis, by a family member who wishes anonymity - another incredible kindness to cherish amidst our sorrow.
The morning passed, grindingly slow. My sister and family arrived from Baltimore. My brother was en route from Israel; unable to make it in time for the levaya, he stayed with us for most of the shiva week.
Finally, it was time. A limousine drove up in front of our house. Debbie, Ben, Shalom, Shayna and I - Aaron's mourners - were driven to the shul [synagogue] for his levaya.
Many dozens of people were already there ahead of us, including Aaron's entire class, sobbing endless verses of tehillim before his casket. More and more people continued to arrive, in numbers that seemed inconceivable. Friends later estimated that at least a thousand had attended the levaya, packed into the shul sanctuary, or listening over loudspeakers in the equally packed social hall, corridor, and the parking lot outside. Later, hundreds of them would go on to the kevura, so many that the procession of cars from the shul to the cemetery actually had a police escort, with all the side streets along the route closed to other traffic.
[What would Aaron think of all this fuss, I remember wondering? He'd probably find it tremendously uncomfortable. Sigh.]
The levaya began. The five of us tore our upper garments in the ritual of keriya, the boys and I assisted by the Rabbi, Debbie and Shayna by - who else - our friend E. Together, wearily, we plodded into the synagogue sanctuary where Aaron's casket lay, where his hespedim would be held.
There would probably have been a dozen or more willing eulogists, but we chose only those who were emotionally able and whose words meant the most to us - and would have to Aaron. First our shul Rabbi, then Aaron's Rebbe. Next, my sister and Debbie's brother, who were not only Aaron's aunt and uncle, but the godparents at his bris. Finally, Debbie and I.
(Here are links to my hesped, Debbie's (written that morning with E's help) and my sister's).
Aaron's friends were not asked - nor were they in any condition - to speak, but I chose them for another singular honor. Along with Aaron's two uncles who were present, six of his closest friends served as pallbearers, carrying him to the hearse, and then to his final resting place - to the kevura.
The kevura. Nearly everyone took turns helping shovel dirt, considered a great mitzvah. As this was going on, I was riveted by the sound of one of Aaron's classmates sobbing uncontrollably. This was a boy who had not been one of Aaron's closest friends, who in fact had often been the target of teasing and mockery by the class as a whole. What moved him to mourn Aaron so intensely? Had Aaron perhaps been kinder to him than many others were? Like so many other things about Aaron, I would probably never know. Though there was at least one question I intended to have answered, sometime before the week was out.
As these thoughts ran through my mind, the kevura finally came to completion. The special kaddish for funerals was recited by me, Ben, and Shalom in unison - which chilled me to the bone. (Thankfully, a day or so later our Rabbi told me that the children should not say kaddish for Aaron. I was glad to free them of this, and take that duty solely on myself for the next eleven months. In this case, pain shared would have been pain intensely multiplied.)
The funeral was over. Many people continued to linger by the gravesite, reciting tehillim, saying their personal farewells to Aaron, or simply standing silently. But we were not among them. I had a sudden, almost violently intense feeling that I had reached my absolute limit.
"Can we just get away from here, please??" I nearly screamed. The limo was waiting; the five of us piled in once again for the ride home.
When we arrived, the house was all set up for shiva, but strangely empty. We had beat everyone back from the funeral! Limitless food had been left out for us. With hungry children, and not knowing how long we'd have to wait, we started to serve each other the seudas havraah, the traditional first meal of the mourners.
Before long, other cars began pulling up at the house. "It's time," I said to Debbie and the children. We each chose one of the five special low mourners chairs that had been set out for us. As I began to ease myself into mine, this is what came sharply and vividly into my mind:
One week ago, at that same day and hour, I had stood in that same spot and yelled downstairs to Aaron because he was late for his dental appointment. Now I was preparing to receive my first visitor for his shiva.
Surely this can't be real.
The rest of shiva is one big blur in my mind. By the second morning, I literally lost count of what day of the week it was. There were constant streams of visitors, usually two or three dozen at a time. I wouldn't be much exaggerating if I said that just about everyone Debbie and I had ever known either paid us a shiva call, or at least phoned.
I had a visit from a college roommate I had not seen or spoken with in nineteen years - longer than Aaron's entire lifetime, I realized ironically. Debbie was visited by a teacher she had had in high school, and not seen since then. Busloads of students came to see Ben, Shalom, and Shayna (luckily not all their classes at once!)
One couple, friends of ours whose son had been one of Aaron's best preschool friends, but who had moved to Canada when he was about four, drove twelve hours nonstop to pay us a one hour shiva call - and then turned around and drove right back up North that evening.
Individually, each visitor, in his or her own way, was sincerely appreciated, a comfort and consolation - some in unique ways, some more perfunctorily.
Collectively, the experience was completely and utterly overwhelming.
My cynical side, at some point during that week, made the peculiar analogy that the way shiva is conducted has something in common with pathology of "cutters" - people who deliberately inflict physical pain on themselves to take their mind off their mental anguish. In certain ways, the shiva experience is like that - and not only because of the uncomfortable chairs. Like I said earlier, the very taxing nature of the process is, to a degree, a way to protect oneself from the deeper emotions that may otherwise be unbearable.
The sheer volume of visitors, the endless repetition, the same statements, the same stories, over and over again, all day long. "Aaron was a great student, a real talmid chacham I hear, a wonderful boy, no?" "At least he didn't suffer long, you have your memories of him, how are the other kids doing?" "I remember his bar mitzvah, I remember his nursery school graduation, I remember his bris, I never really knew him but I heard that..." "Hamakom yenacham eschem b'soch..." Fifteen or sixteen hours a day, nonstop, without any break whatsoever except for minyanim.
Our mothers and our close friends kept telling us that we were mourners, not hosts - that we didn't have to "entertain the visitors". We could go upstairs and take a nap for two hours in the middle of the day, if we wanted to, and the heck with anyone that would "miss" us. But we were both too well trained for that. We couldn't have people coming to see us - maybe from 12 hours away, right? - and not be there to be seen.
In one regard, I did break the rules. When I had been sitting shiva for my father, fifteen months earlier, I was very conscientious about focusing entirely on the mourning process - for example, not reading anything, even after "visiting hours", other than books on the halachos of mourning. But with Aaron, I lay in bed each night, too worn down and depleted to even fall asleep, and I read my old comic books. I needed that small vice, that distraction. The very thought of it was a significant help in getting me through the day.
Among all the thousands of visitors, there are three episodes that stand out in my mind; one good, one bad, and one... my question that I mentioned earlier.
The good: A prominent rosh yeshiva in town, someone far from our usual socio-religious circle, sat down right in front of me, and instead of the expected "what a talmid chacham he was..." he told me about his losing a sibling when he was a child, and what it feels like when a child dies. The personal connection I felt was palpable and intense.
The bad: A parent in Aaron's school, with a bitter and beaten look on her face, shared the following "consoling" thought: "You're lucky - if it were my kid the school would never make this big a deal about it!" I just sat there, too stunned to reply.
The question: After (I hope!) a day and a night's sleep, Aaron's classmates began to show up on Thursday morning. I waited all that day and the next for a moment that I could talk to Aaron's best friend and chavusa [learning partner] one-on-one, with some semblance of privacy. No luck. Finally, Sunday night, the last evening of shiva, I got my chance.
"Ari, could you please tell me just one thing? Aaron was so private, so cool... I don't think so, but I just don't know, and maybe he shared something with you? Can I ask?"
"Of course, Mr. Rosenfeld. What do you want to know?"
"Did Aaron have a girlfriend?"
"No. We went to some group things a few times [I had known this] but there wasn't any girl that was ever 'his'."
It was the answer I expected, but you know how teenagers are. The parents are always the last to know.
And how did the answer make me feel? A mixture of emotions that, I fear, are entirely beyond description.
The final morning of shiva came at last, Monday, May 23, 2005. As I write these words, it was exactly one year ago today. The shiva morning minyan was held, the final visitor said his "hamakom" and left the house.
Just the five of us again. I would have to get used to that number, somehow. Together, and accompanied by our dog Sandy (did she mourn Aaron too, I wondered?), we took our walk around the block, marking the formal end of shiva.
When I got back in the house, I took a shower, changed, and opened a week's worth of mail. The next day, I went back to work. Life had to go on, right? As someone once said, human beings have two choices; get busy living, or get busy dying.
And so, I conclude this tragic, heartbreaking story with a final, hopeful wish. As we ask for Aaron's remembrance to be for a blessing, so too may the rest of us, those who endure and are left so much the poorer for Aaron's absence, be remembered too.
May we be granted life, health, consolation, and healing. Most of all, may God provide that our memories of Aaron - of his life, and even of his passing - have the capacity to bring us not just sadness, but comfort and solace.
I know that would have made him happy.