Elie's Expositions

A bereaved father blogging for catharsis... and for distraction. Accordingly, you'll see a diverse set of topics and posts here, from the affecting to the analytical to the absurd. Something for everyone, but all, at the core, meeting a personal need.

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Friday, December 09, 2005

Saying Goodbye

[Aaron's Story - Part Five]

The sun was setting as Debbie and I drove up to the hospital that May 16th evening. Setting on our day of agonized waiting, setting on the 7th of Iyar in the Jewish calendar, a date I will forever after remember as Aaron's last full day in this world. Most of all, the sun was setting on every aspect of the life our family had known until just three days earlier. Aaron's deathwatch was winding down, and the only thing we could do, our sole remaining parental duty to our oldest son, was to be by his side one last time.

As we entered the hospital, I was hit with a sudden sensation of being trapped, of virtual will-lessness. It felt like I had stepped into a world where events were predetermined, with all of us - the doctors, Debbie and I, even Aaron - merely playing our assigned parts. Was this my mind's way of protecting me from what was to come, psychological anesthesia to deaden the pain of a trauma that no unprotected soul could endure?

In this somewhat numb state, I arrived with Debbie on the Pediatric ICU floor, where we found Debbie's mom and aunt sitting in the glass-walled waiting room just outside the elevators. They had been visiting Aaron when the doctors came to run his final set of brain function tests, which were still underway. Glad for the additional company - and for this temporary reprieve from the inescapable - we joined them.

The four of us made conversation, trying to find some way to dispel the darkness within, even as the darkness outside began to deepen. We talked about Aaron, wondered how we would all get by without him. I kept trying - uselessly - not to stare at the closed hospital ward doors, watching for a sign that the tests were complete and the doctors were ready to see us.

My friend P. arrived to provide some added strength. As if on cue (how unreal and scripted everything felt!), just as he entered, the doctors called for us. The moment had arrived. Leaving the others behind, Debbie and I turned and walked together into the hospital ward.

In yet another small office - yet another antechamber before we could enter the theater where the final act of our horror show would play out - the doctors shared the results we had feared and expected. The second set of tests had demonstrated no change from the earlier run. Brain death had now been verified according to legal standards, as well as those of our halachik advisor. As per our instructions, the nurses were prepared to discontinue the IV medications and other artificial provisions. All they needed was a final authorization from us.

There are no words, there are no concepts within human comprehension, to describe my torment and misery at that moment. The only lucid thought I could hold onto, was the blind faith that we had made the most right choice possible, in the most horribly wrong situation conceivable.

The preliminaries were over. Together, Debbie and I entered the hospital room where Aaron's peaceful, unconscious form lay. He seemed to be in a deep sleep, untroubled by the pain and grief of those he was leaving behind.

Debbie's mom and aunt came in to say their tearful goodbyes to Aaron. Then, without a word from us, they turned back towards the waiting room where P. was already holding vigil. By unspoken accord, Debbie and I alone were to be with Aaron for his final journey.

Full night had fallen. It was time for maariv, the evening service. I took one of the siddurim [prayerbooks] which Aaron and I had used on that final Shabbos together (could it have been just two days ago??) and began to pray aloud.

Before I reached the opening words of the Shema prayer, I was openly sobbing, oblivious to all around me, crying harder than I had at any time during our brief, tragic ordeal. Never before had I prayed with such kavanna, such intensity of emotion. Not on the best Yom Kippur of my life, not even close. Never ever.
"Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeynu, Hashem Echad!"
These words poured from my lips, coming directly from the deepest part of my heart. I was saying them not just for myself, but for Aaron, speaking the words that, from time immemorial, have been on the lips on Jews as they lay on their deathbeds.

As I proceeded through the brief service, certain phrases - words I had mouthed literally tens of thousands of times in the past without giving them much thought - seemed to be fully meaningful for the very first time.
"vishinantum livanecha" - "and you shall teach them to your children". How much of what made Aaron unique and special had he learned from his parents? And how many opportunities for instruction or example had we squandered or blundered, busy with foolishness or distracted by the stressors of everyday life?

"mechaye hameysim" - "who resurrects the dead". My faith in the afterlife had never seemed so concrete, so functional. Without it, without a deep conviction that Aaron's essence would continue in a higher plane of existence, I would have been completely finished, utterly without hope of consolation.

"refa'eynu Hashem vi'neyrafe" - "heal us God, and we will be healed". Was it still possible to think in terms of "healing" for Aaron, to look for impossible miracles even now? Or was it the broken hearts of those he was leaving behind, that now needed God's mending touch?
I completed the Amidah, said the aleynu prayer - also, I realized, associated with Jewish martyrdom. It was time to count the omer, a special numbering of the days between Pesach and Shavous. "Today is 23 days, which are three weeks and two days in the omer." I was acutely aware that Aaron's own omer count - so symbolic of his lifespan itself - would be halted far short of completion.

While I had prayed, the nurses had apparently done their work. For the first time since Friday, Aaron lay without an IV, and without the other tubes that had invaded his body since that dreadful Saturday night, 48 hours and an eternity ago.

The only machine that was still attached to him was a heart monitor. Aaron's heart rate was still at about a normal pace, but as the doctors had told us, without the IV medications it would, little by little, begin to slow.

Debbie and I sat down near the head of Aaron's bed, one on each side. The heart monitor was behind me, and I kept turning to glance at the readout. His heartbeats appeared to be even and steady, with the number representing the rate dropping very gradually.

We talked to fill the void, reminiscing about Aaron's life; his little habits and quirks, his jokes, his characteristic sayings, cute things he had done as a baby. By tacit agreement, we avoided any discussion of what would come after tonight. Now was our last possible opportunity, our final time to focus solely on Aaron as he was, on the treasure that had been, rather than the loss that was to come.

Intermittently, we also spoke to Aaron. We said goodbye, told him how much we loved him, how we'd miss his being in our lives, how proud we had always been of him. I recited the viduy, the traditional deathbed confession, on his behalf. It felt meaningful in its own way, and yet so woefully inadequate. How I ached to be able to talk with Aaron instead of to him, to make our parting mutual! How I wanted a sign that, on some level, he was saying farewell to us as well.

All the while, the numbers on the heart rate monitor continued to drop, slowly but relentlessly. As they reached the 20 mark, our conversation began to falter, as we sensed that the end was drawing near.

And now I beg you, dear reader, to suppress your disbelief and skepticism regarding the account that I now will share, for the first time, outside of my inner circle. I freely admit that I myself, had I heard such a story a mere seven months ago, would have politely smiled and summarily dismissed it from consideration. I cannot expect more from you; I can only assure you that to the best of my ability to perceive and recall reality, the following did truly happen.

I became aware - abruptly, yet without an exact impression of when it began - of an odd internal sensation. The closest word I could use to describe it would be a thrill. It was somewhat akin to the feeling of moving forward on a swing, or of a mild electrical shock. Yet not quite the same as either. It was unanticipated, and just strong enough, just definite enough, for me to be sure that it wasn't merely in my mind.

In amazement, I looked up at Debbie and asked, "Do you feel that?"

"Feel what?"

She had no idea what I was talking about. The experience, for whatever reason, was given to me alone. To this day, I can't tell you why. Perhaps it was simply that I was on the side of the bed towards the room's entrance, and thus sat between Aaron and the door. Or perhaps it was I that had the greatest need for closure, having missed being with Aaron when he lost consciousness for the last time.

Whatever the explanation, I fervently and resolutely believe that what I sensed that night was Aaron's spirit leaving this world behind, and taking a last opportunity to say goodbye to his father, to reassure me that he really was on his way to bigger and better things.

The strange sensation continued for about a minute, then faded away. With an indescribable mix of apprehension and fascinated expectation, I turned to face the heart monitor.

The number on the screen read: 0.

Aaron was gone.

to be concluded

Link to Aaron's Story: Part Six


At 12/9/05, 11:32 AM, Blogger Eliyahu said...

thanks very much for sharing your heart-breaking story with us. i can only say that the ways of the creator are indeed a mystery. may your memorys of Aaron be a comfort to you.

At 12/9/05, 12:02 PM, Blogger torontopearl said...

I can only begin to imagine how difficult it is for you, Elie, to replay all the sad details in your mind and capture them for us in Aaron's Story. Thank you for sharing your words, and allowing us, your readers (mostly strangers to you), to offer up some kind of nechama/comfort to your family. May Aaron's memory be for a blessing.

At 12/9/05, 12:35 PM, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

You write so beautifully for something so painful. After reading the postings about your son Aaron, I sit here in silence.

At 12/10/05, 6:11 PM, Blogger Alan aka Avrum ben Avrum said...

Dear Reb Elie,

I too was chosen to be my son's (Benjamin Z"L) last l(i)oving contact in this life. It was I who drove him to the train in the morning, and I who both witnessed his passing from behind a glass partition three feet away from the operating table and hovered over him after he left. The words that came to me in the first moment after were those of the 23rd Psalm that I sang to Ben for about the next half hour before I was told that his body needed to be moved. During that time period at the hospital I wept only upon having to inform Ben's mom that he was gone. She arrived after the fact ... having had to drive a much greater distance than I to reach the hospital. If I needs choose a word or two to characterize my state of mind in those several hours, they might well be "relief" and "acceptance". I tell you all of these things ... not in any fashion to detract from the enormity of your tragedy but to let you know that beyond the familiar words of nechuma ... I do both fully understand and empathize. My very best wishes to you and yours. I remain ...

Very Sincerely yours,

Alan D. Busch c/o TheBookofBen.blogspot.com

At 12/11/05, 3:25 AM, Blogger Jack Steiner said...

I am stunned.

At 12/12/05, 3:00 AM, Blogger Batya said...

so sad
thanks for sharing
I hope it helps you

At 12/14/05, 11:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The tears are streaming down my face. Your courage and ability to transcribe these moments is unbelievable to me. I hope it has been therapeutic for you. Your complete faith that Aaron has gone on to bigger and better things is inspiring. May G-d comfort you. Thank you for sharing.

At 12/15/05, 10:34 PM, Blogger benros52589 said...

always will miss him

At 12/21/05, 11:20 PM, Blogger MC Aryeh said...

I am sitting in front of this screen, the tears are threatening, and I am just staring in silence, numb at what you have gone through, grateful for that fleeting feeling you had at the end. I hope in some small way writing this has been cathartic for you. May Aaron's memory be for a blessing....

At 2/1/06, 11:39 PM, Blogger M. Beatty said...

Thank you for sharing you and your son's very sad story with the world. I am very sorry for your loss.

At 3/1/06, 4:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel so sorry for your loss. I just went through half a box of tissues reading this...
Reading this makes me think about MY life and the relationship i have with my own children. From today on I can promise my family life will be better.... Your son has a big zchus to have changed so many lives.
I hope your family has the strength to move on and may you have only simchos!

Chazak U'Baruch! Be Strong!!

At 9/27/06, 9:18 PM, Blogger benning said...

Bless you! The Spirit must go somewhere, and it must move to get there. Yes, I'd bet you were embraced.

Thanks for writing this, Elie.

At 2/18/07, 8:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sitting here reading through the chapters of Aaron's story sobbing and feeling sorry for your loss, may he his soul rest in peace, and may he be a melitz yosher for you.

I can't imagine how u got through this, it;s only hashem's strength!!

At 5/17/07, 11:10 PM, Blogger Erachet said...

I only just came across your blog (I'm kind of new in the JBlogosphere in general) and I just want to say that this story has really moved me. I don't know if it's any consolation, but I think that even if Aaron is no longer physically here, you have brought him alive to so many people who never knew him through your telling of his story, and in that way, he, via you, is still today having an impact on whoever comes across this blog. I know he's had an impact on me.


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