My Silences in Response to Personal Loss
God slew Aaron’s two oldest sons for an infraction they made in carrying out a sacrifice in the holy of holies. Moses responded by reinforcing the importance of following God’s commandments precisely. Aaron responded in silence.
That silence is interpreted in many ways, with interpretations reinforced by linguistic analysis, literary textual probing, authoritative statements by eminent rabbinic scholars to name but a few of the hermeneutic techniques. However, the meaning and relevance of Aaron’s silence in response to the loss of a loved one – in this case, two – is but one part of the inquiry. The other and perhaps more important part is the assessment of the appropriateness of silence by a mourner and to a mourner. While I regard all the above methods of analysis as important, I also refer to my own life experience to get some insight into the appropriateness of silence as a response to death.
About sixty years ago, my mother’s oldest sibling, my Uncle Irv, died of cancer. He was a relatively young man, still in his forties. I used to spend almost every weekend sleeping over at his family’s house on Rostrevor Rd. in Toronto just south of Eglington Ave. W. and just two blocks west of Bathurst St. I babysat his three children, then four when my cousins’ youngest sister was born. Sometimes on Sundays, my uncle would take me to the toy factory that he managed to help him or to just give me some rejected toys from the assembly line.
At other times, I would go with him to pick up my Uncle Jack who was blind and crippled and had been institutionalized his whole life; Jack would have a reprieve from the “hospital” where he lived and spend the day at my uncle and aunt’s house. At still other times, Uncle Irv would take me to the food terminal where he would buy cases of fruit and other produce and send me home with some to share with my mother. I regarded him as a surrogate father as my own father had left our home. On Sunday mornings at breakfast, my aunt and uncle would tell me about the play they had seen, the concert they had heard or the movie they had watched the evening before. For me, they were a romantic couple.
When my uncle died, I was devastated. I attended his shiva. Rabbi David Monson, who only died about ten years ago, had given the eulogy at Beth Shalom Synagogue of which he was the founding rabbi. He had been a chaplain in the army during the war. I had wished his talk had been more personal since he was famous for knowing his congregants’ intimate lives. His sermon had certainly been filled with adjectives of praise. Monson was highly regarded as a pulpit orator and the family generally heaped praise upon him. They thought he had a great heart.
When we returned to my aunt’s house for the shiva, for some reason, as I recall, I either did not seek out anyone or could not find anyone to speak about my feelings for my uncle in what was a large extended family gathering on both sides. In fact, this account is the first time I have written about my uncle’s death.
Rabbi Monson arrived. He began to talk to the men gathered after Kiddush and everyone was eating their food. I loved bagels, but I distinctly remember that I could not eat anything. Then, I overheard Rabbi Monson talking to some of the men about how he had scored on the stock market and was fishing for more tips from these businessmen.
I wanted to strangle him. I was burning with an inner rage that has never left me. It is not that Monson was scurrilous or said anything defamatory about my uncle. Quite the contrary. The rabbi clearly highly respected him. But I found his talking about making money at my uncle’s shiva, especially since he was a rabbi, scandalous, insulting and deeply offensive. I thought that he should have been silent or discussed another topic, something more relevant to the death of my uncle and the devastation to his wife and four children. I was very self-righteous and judgmental. I never took the time to see him and express my feelings.
I thought his silence would have been more appropriate than his loquaciousness. But I said nothing. I suffered in silence. It was the silence of resentment.
Resentment is destructive. It is the source of hatred. Monson’s words rankled in me for years and I generalized to a suspicion of most rabbis. The mixture of bitterness and rage, disappointment and high and mighty moral judgement as well as disappointment and deep disgust infected my young life and could be correlated with my suspicion of individuals who occupied any high and respected office. The silence of resentment is itself a cancer.
But there is also a silence of confusion. About twenty years later, my own father died. He was not old – only 62. There was no burial; he had donated his body to science. There was no shiva. My older and younger brother immediately after his death left for a canoe trip after my brother, then a doctor, at my father’s request, facilitated his death by cutting him off from the machines providing life support. I was left to arrange for the body to be transferred to the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. I could not stand the idea of medical students treating my father’s body the way I had treated the cadaver I worked on when I was a first-year medical student.
But why should I have cared? I had been estranged from my father for years. I had not seen him for four or five years before his death. The last time he had dropped in to visit my family and our four children, he, as usual, brought a dozen bagels and some cream cheese. It had been at least a year since his last visit. He really came to ask to borrow $350. He needed to repair his car. I informed him that this time I would loan him the money. He could have the funds, not just for a month that he requested as he solemnly promised to pay the monies back and with interest. I gave him up to three months to repay the loan. It would be interest free. But if he did not repay it within that time, I did not want to see him ever again.
I never did see him again. I did not visit him when he was in the hospital after suffering a heart attack and renal failure. It was not the longest time that I had not seen him. When I was twelve, I remember packing his bags with all his belongings when he dropped in to see us after an absence of three weeks. I put the suitcases on the porch. He had not brought my mother a cent. For the previous four to five years he was increasingly absent for extended periods. I was by then contributing more to the family from my casual work than he was.
The next time I saw him, I was in university. I was walking along Bloor St. on the south side just east of Brunswick Avenue. I passed a man that looked strikingly like my father. But my father had not been going bald. He had a full head of dark not grey hair and was generally regarded as a handsome man. But now he was paunchy. I ran back to check. I confronted him and said, “Dad.” He did not recognize me. I had been about five feet tall when I had last seen him. I was then 6’3”, a skinny tall beanpole.
He gave me his phone number and address. He was living in an apartment above a bar on Yonge St. I visited him once, but my older brother kept somewhat in touch. I tended to avoid him. When he came to look me up, ostensibly to see his grandchildren, it was always the same – a gift of bagels and a request for a loan, which I persistently refused, but this never deterred him from dropping by a year or so later to make the same request.
When he died, I had no reason to cry or mourn for my father. Yet, after I had made the arrangements for the transfer of his body, I walked the streets of Toronto until dawn. I was devastated, even more devastated than when my uncle died. And I could not fathom why. Only in retrospect do I know that I was triply mourning. I was mourning the death of my father, for however irresponsible he had been, he was still my father. Second, I was mourning for the father I never had. Third, I was mourning because I had no opportunity to mourn. There was no funeral. There was no burial. There was no shiva. But then I mourned with the solipsistic silence of confusion.
Less than ten years or so later, I greeted the death of a friend in his early forties once again in silence. It was not the silence of resentment. It was not the silence of inner turmoil and confusion. It was the silence of shock, frustration and anger at the injustice of life and death. David Berger was then a psychiatrist who had studied at the famous Menninger Clinic.
He had sat in the same row as I throughout high school with one seat separating us because another student named Gerry Bain, who also became a doctor, sat between us. We had been arranged to sit in alphabetical order. We belonged to the same Y basketball club, but he was a much better athlete. He was also a powerful swimmer. When we were in medical school together, he was a champion water polo player. He had also been brought up in a labour bundist (secular Jewish and social democratic) family and knew a lot about politics. He was also more brilliant that I was even though I earned higher marks in the grade thirteen province-wide exams.
I left medical school in my fourth year at university in second year meds. A year later, David followed my example and we would hang out reading books in Hart House. During the six weeks he was absent from classes, I convinced him to return. He had decided that he wanted to teach. I investigated and showed him that if he wanted to teach high school, he would have to go back and complete an Arts degree and then do a year of teacher training. If he went back to medical school, he could earn a degree in just another year and, as a doctor, would much more easily get any teaching job he wanted.
He returned to medical school, but had to do some catch up work in the summer. He passed with reasonable marks even though he had missed six weeks of classes and clinic experience. He would only practice for about twenty years when he died in the shower at the Y of a massive heart attack following his usual heavy regimen of swimming which he had always kept up.
The burial was in Mount Pleasant cemetery rather than in a Jewish one. His estranged wife, who was not Jewish, arranged the funeral. The speeches by friends and his son at the funeral were heartwarming. But there was a missing gravitas. The funeral procession ended up in disarray as most cars became detached and lost in the ride from the funeral parlour on Steeles Avenue to the cemetery seventeen kilometres away on Mount Pleasant Blvd. just north of St. Clair. When the stragglers arrived at the cemetery, they could not find the burial site, for Mt. Pleasant cemetery is huge. In any case, the burial was quickly over and observed by only a small group.
We went to his ex-wife’s apartment afterwards for tea and some sandwiches. There was no shiva. I do not even remember offering his sister or his ex-wife or especially his son my condolences. Perhaps I did, but I most remember my silent frustration with the inability to mourn with others who had shared in David Berger’s life.
Dealing with these and other deaths did not prepare me in any way for the death of my brother, Al, on 11 May 1999. He was fifteen months older than I. He was only 62 when he died. We had been in the same year of school since grade eight and sometimes in the same classroom. We had been in the newspaper delivery business together, shared the excitement of scalping tickets at football and hockey games and ran a very successful ribbon selling operation before professional and university football games. By the time I was sixteen, with our savings, we were finally able to buy my mother a house on Ranee Avenue.
I filled out his application for medical school, even though he wanted to be an engineer. I convinced him to sign. I wanted to be in the same university class together. But although we always remained very close, he took a very different path in financing his way through university. He became a sub-lieutenant in the Canadian naval reserves and the government paid his way through college.
When we were in the same clinical group in the hospital, it became obvious that he would be the far better doctor than I, even though I always had higher marks. I would try to arrive at a diagnosis strictly through logic and that left too many options. He would quickly arrive at one and, in every case, it would be proven to be correct. He went on to become a well-known cardiologist, one who introduced angioplasty as a technique for cleaning out arteries into Canadian medical practice. He always insisted that he was just a sophisticated plumber, but he was appropriately revered by his patients.
He was a researcher and professor as well. We actually collaborated on the publication of two scholarly papers on the logic of discovery published in two different philosophical journals on medicine. When I organized Operation Lifeline for the Indochinese refugees in 1979, Al organized a volunteer cohort of doctors to provide health services for the new arrivals to Toronto.
It was his research and his practice that ostensibly killed him. As we were later told, the machines that they were using in performing the angioplasties had not been replaced during the 1989-1994 deep recession in Canada. They were evidently leaking radiation. He, another doctor and a nurse who used those machines all died of blastoma, a fatal cancer that attacked precursor cells and usually mostly attacks children.
I had spent a month with him in Arizona where he had gone to participate in a medical trial to treat his condition. Needless to say, the treatment was an utter failure. His death was excruciatingly painful and prolonged as he gradually lost his mental faculties and then his physical ones. I think he must have been in a coma for 4-5 months before he died. His second wife kept him alive on a hospital bed in her converted dining room in Wychwood Park.
She would allow my mother to visit him occasionally, but I stopped going over. I found the situation too macabre. Al had four children with his first wife and none with his second. At the funeral service, his oldest son, now a law professor in Austin Texas and as sweet an individual as one could ever wish to meet, literally got on bended knee and begged Al’s second wife for permission to say a few words. She refused.
We had a separate shiva at our home. But I never confronted his second wife for the treatment of my mother, the insensitivity to my nephews and nieces and her exploitation of her dying husband. When he was very sick, she managed to have the will changed so that his children were cut out and she was the sole beneficiary.
That was truly, for me, the suffering of silence. Sometimes silence is appropriate following the death of a loved one. But my silences in their various forms still haunt me and I consider that in each case the silence was inappropriate. However, I suspect the noises that I might have made at the time would likely have been even more inappropriate.
The appropriateness of silence as a response to the death of a loved one depends on the context and the person. It is a case of situational ethics and etiquette. No generalization is adequate.