Making Toast, page 1
A Family Story
About the Author
Other Books by Roger Rosenblatt
About the Publisher
The trick when foraging for a tooth lost in coffee grounds is not to be misled by the clumps. The only way to be sure is to rub each clump between your thumb and index finger, which makes a mess of your hands. For some twenty minutes this morning, Ginny and I have been hunting in the kitchen trash can for the top front left tooth of our seven-year-old granddaughter, Jessica. Loose for days but not yet dislodged, the tooth finally dropped into a bowl of Apple Jacks. I wrapped it for safekeeping in a paper napkin and put it on the kitchen counter, but it was mistaken for trash by Ligaya, Bubbies’s nanny. Bubbies (James) is twenty months and the youngest of our daughter Amy’s three children. Sammy, who is five, is uninterested in the tooth search, and Jessie is unaware of it. We hope to find the tooth so that Jessie won’t worry about the Tooth Fairy not showing up.
This sort of activity has constituted our life since Amy died, on December 8, 2007, at 2:30 p.m., six months ago. Today is June 9, 2008. The day of her death, Ginny and I drove from our home in Quogue, on the south shore of Long Island, to Bethesda, Maryland, where Amy and her husband, Harris, lived. With Harris’s encouragement, we have been there ever since. “How long are you staying?” Jessie asked the next morning. “Forever,” I said.
Amy Elizabeth Rosenblatt Solomon, thirty-eight years old, pediatrician, wife of hand surgeon Harrison Solomon, and mother of three, collapsed on her treadmill in the downstairs playroom at home. “Jessie and Sammy discovered her,” our oldest son, Carl, told us on the phone. Carl lives in Fairfax, Virginia, not far from Amy and Harris, with his wife, Wendy, and their two boys, Andrew and Ryan. Jessie had run upstairs to Harris. “Mommy isn’t talking,” she said. Harris got to Amy within seconds, and tried CPR, but her heart had stopped and she could not be revived.
Amy’s was ruled a “sudden death due to an anomalous right coronary artery”—meaning that her two coronary arteries fed her heart from the same side. Normally, the arteries are located on both sides of the heart so that if one fails, the other can do the work. In Amy’s heart, they ran alongside each other. They could have been squeezed between the aorta and the pulmonary artery, which can expand during physical exercise. The blood flow was cut off. Her condition, affecting less than two thousandths of one percent of the population, was asymptomatic; she might have died at any time in her life.
She would have appreciated the clarity of the verdict. Amy was a very clear person, even as a small child, knowing intuitively what plain good sense a particular situation required. She had a broad expanse of forehead, dark, nearly black hair, and hazel eyes. Both self confident and selfless, when she faced you there could be no doubt you were the only thing on her mind.
Her clarity could make her severe with her family, especially her two brothers. Carl and John, our youngest, withered when she excoriated them for such offenses as invading her room. She could also poke you gently with her wit. When she was about to graduate from the NYU School of Medicine, her class had asked me to be the speaker. A tradition of the school allows a past graduate to place the hood of the gown on a current graduate. Harris, who had graduated the previous year, was set to “hood” Amy. At dinner the night before the ceremony, a friend remarked, “Amy, isn’t it great? Your dad is giving the graduation speech, and your fiancé is doing the hood.” Amy said, “It is. And it’s also pretty great that I’m graduating.”
Yet her clarity also contributed to her kindness. When she was six, I was driving her and three friends to a birthday party. One of the girls got carsick. The other two backed away, understandably, with cries of “Ooh!” and “Yuck!” Amy drew closer to the stricken child, to comfort her.
Ginny and I moved from a five-bedroom house, with a den and a large kitchen, to a bedroom with a connected bath—the in-law apartment in an alcove off the downstairs playroom that we used to occupy whenever we visited. We put in a dresser and a desk, and Harris added a TV and a rug. It may have appeared that we were reducing our comforts, but the older one gets the less space one needs, and the less one wants. And we still have our house in Quogue.
I found I could not write and didn’t want to. I could teach, however, and it helped me feel useful. I drive from Bethesda to Quogue on Sundays, and meet my English literature classes and MFA writing workshops at Stony Brook University early in the week, then back to Bethesda. The drive takes about five hours and a tank of gas each way. But it is easier and faster than flying or taking a train.
Road rage was a danger those early weeks. I picked fights with store clerks for no reason. I lost my temper with a student who phoned me too frequently about her work. I seethed at those who spoke of Amy’s death in the clichés of modern usage, such as “passing” and “closure.” I cursed God. In a way, believing in God made Amy’s death more, not less, comprehensible, since the God I believe in is not beneficent. He doesn’t care. A friend was visiting Jerusalem when he got the news about Amy. He kicked the Wailing Wall, and said, “Fuck you, God!” My sentiments exactly.
What’s Jessie’s favorite winter jacket? The blue not the pink, though pink is her favorite color. Sammy prefers whole milk in his Froot Loops or MultiGrain Cheerios. He calls it “cow milk.” Jessie drinks only Silk soy milk. She likes a glass of it at breakfast. Sammy prefers water. Such information had to be absorbed quickly. Sammy sees himself as the silver Power Ranger, Jessie is the pink. Sammy’s friends are Nico, Carlos, and Kipper. Jessie’s are Ally, Danielle, and Kristie. There were play-dates to arrange, birthday-party invitations to respond to, school forms to fill out. Sammy goes to a private preschool, the Geneva Day School; Jessie to Burning Tree, the local public school. We had to master their schedules.
I reaccustomed myself to things about small children I’d forgotten. Talking toys came back into my life. I will be walking with the family through an airport, and the voice of a ventriloquist’s dummy in a horror movie will seep through the suitcase. Buzz Lightyear says, “To infinity and beyond!” A talking phone says, “Help me!” Another toy says, “I’m a pig. Can we stop?”
In all this, two things were of immeasurable use to us. First, Leslie Adelman, a friend of Amy’s and Harris’s, and the mother of friends of the children, created a Web site inviting others to prepare dinners for our family. Emails were sent by Leslie, our daughter-in-law Wendy, Laura Gwyn, another friend and school mother, and Betsy Mencher, who had gone to college with Amy. Soon one hundred people—school families, friends and colleagues of Amy’s and Harris’s, neighbors—comprised the list. Participants deposited dinners in a blue cooler outside our front door. Food was provided every other evening, with enough for the nights in between, from mid-December to the beginning of June.
The second was a piece of straightforward wisdom that Bubbies’s nanny gave Harris. Ligaya is a small, lithe woman in her early fifties. I know little of her life except that she is from the Philippines, with a daughter there and a grown son here who is a supervisor in a restaurant, and that she has a work ethic of steel and the flexibility to deal with any contingency. She also shows a sense of practical formality by calling Bubbies James, and not by the nickname Amy had coined, to ensure the more respectable name for his future. Ligaya altered her schedule to be with us twelve hours a day, five days a week—an indispensable gift, especially to her small charge, who giggles with delight when he hears her key in the front door. No one outside the family could have felt Amy’s death more acutely. Yet what she said to Harris, and to the rest of us, was dispassionate: “
Bubbies looks around for Amy, says “Mama” when he sees her pictures, and clings to his father. Bubbies has blond hair and a face usually occupied by observant silences. When I am alone with him, he plays happily enough. I’ve taught him to give a high five, and when he does, I stagger across the room to show him how strong he is. He likes to take a pot from one kitchen cabinet and Zone bars from another, deposit the bars in the pot, and put back the lid. He’ll do this contentedly for quite a while. When Harris enters the kitchen, Bubbies drops everything, runs to him, and holds him tight at the knees.
Jessie is tall, also blond, with an expression forever on the brink of enthusiasm. Amy used to say she was the most optimistic person she’d ever known. She is excited about her hip-hop dance class; about a concert her school is giving in Amy’s name, to raise money for a memorial scholarship set up at the NYU School of Medicine; about going to the Nutcracker. “Do your Nutcracker dance, Boppo,” Jessie says. (Ginny is Mimi, I am Boppo.) I swing into my improvised ballet, the high point of which is when I wiggle my ass like the dancing mice. Jessie is also excited about our trip to Disney World in January, the adventure that Amy and Harris had planned for themselves and the three children months before Amy died. We speak of distant summer plans in Quogue. Jessie is excited.
Sammy is tall, too, with dark hair and wide-set, ruminative eyes. He brings me a book to read, about a caterpillar. He brings another, which just happened to be in the house, called Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children. The book says, “There’s a beginning and an end for everything that is alive. In between is living.” The book illustrates its lessons with pictures of birds, fish, plants, and people. I lean back on the couch with Sammy tucked in the crook of my arm, and read to him about the beauty of death.
Like other nonreligious families, ours tends to cherry-pick among the holidays, adopting those features that most appeal to children—eggs and the Bunny at Easter, the tree and Santa at Christmas. Characteristically, Amy had prepared for Christmas long in advance. Unwrapped gifts for Jessie, Sammy, and Bubbies lay hidden in the house. Traditional ornaments and ones she made herself had been taken out of their annual storage. There were little painted claylike figures representing a family standing in a row and singing carols, and pictures of her own family as it had grown every year, along with older ornaments that Ginny and I had given her. Amy and Harris had picked out their tree the morning of the day she died. It remained on the deck during our first days of mourning, leaning against a post at a forty-degree angle, the trunk soaking in a bucket of water. Eventually we brought it indoors, and concentrated on making the holiday appear as normal as possible.
On Christmas Eve, Ginny cooked a turkey for Harris, me, and John, who was down from New York for a few days. I read Jessie and Sammy The Night Before Christmas as I had done with our own three children, adding nonsense exigeses and pretending to take issue with words such as “coursers” in an effort to hold their attention. Last year they had become restive by the time I got to “…and all through the house.” This year they listened to the whole thing. When the children were asleep, Ginny, Harris, and I opened some of the toys that Santa was about to bring. Jessie still believes, because she wants to. She got an American Girl doll; Sammy, Power Ranger outfits and DVDs; Bubbies, a remote control dog like a beagle puppy, that walked, sat, and yipped. Harris set up the some-assembly-required toys. It took him half an hour to put together an electric race track that would have taken me half a day when I was a young father. And his structure did not collapse. He and the children had decorated the tree as well. He strung the white lights.
Carl and Wendy and their boys usually spend Christmas with Wendy’s family in Pittsburgh, so they came over the day before Christmas Eve to exchange presents. Carl and I gave Harris tickets to the Masters golf tournament coming up in April. He had always wanted to go. We got him two tickets so that he could take a friend. As we later learned, he had planned to go with Amy the following year to celebrate his fortieth birthday. Because it was a last-minute thought, we were not able to get the actual tickets, which we’d reserved, so Carl made up an elegant presentation of the gift, worded like the announcement of a prize. The lettering stood out against a background of the Masters course in Augusta. We wanted to hide the gift in a bright green sports jacket like the ones Masters winners are awarded, but we couldn’t find one. We had to settle for an olive-green windbreaker. When we presented it to Harris, he thought the windbreaker was his gift and was happy with it. We told him to look in the inside pocket. He held the piece of paper in his hands, stood, and burst into tears.
Getting the Masters tickets was Carl’s idea. He does things like that. In a way, he is a fusion of Amy’s characteristics, and of Harris’s as well—always looking out for others, yet smoothly capable in all that he does. He has the honest, supple face of the guy who makes you feel welcome in strange places, who calls out your name in the crowd and beckons. After college he started out as a sports writer, but hit a dead end. He fell into business and immediately rose to high executive positions, without the benefit of an MBA. He makes those under him feel useful and appreciated. He is a gentleman. He thrives as a father. And he is the fastest learner I have ever seen. As a three-year-old, he picked up fractions by studying the odometer in our car as it advanced one tenth of a mile at a time. When making his computations, he looked entranced, as he does today if I ask him to figure out what is to me a math problem. He seems to recollect every minute of his childhood. Most of his memories are good, fortunately for Ginny and me, who tend mainly to recall our mistakes. His recollections of Amy—a moment of petulance or of exasperation at him—are very funny. His hair is graying.
It is January, 2008. In the late afternoon in our hotel room in Disney World, Ginny sits on the bed with Bubbies in her arms. He is asleep at last, after a couple of hours of running on a lawn and away from us every time we tried to get him back in the stroller. When I was alone with him yesterday, he took a header on a pathway, cried lustily for a couple of minutes, then insisted I put him down so that he could continue running in the wintry air. This is the coldest it has been in central Florida in many years.
While Harris took Jessie and Sammy to Space Mountain, we stayed with Bubs, who launched into another round of perpetual motion. Amy used to say, “James, you’re out of control.” Eventually he tired, and I carried him up to our room, where he got a second wind and ran around some more. I fed him pieces of apple, which were hard, so I chewed them a little first. Finally, he fell asleep.
Jessie had been so worked up about this trip, she had told her classmates the dates they were planning to go. Amy happened to be volunteering in her class that day. The school principal was also visiting the class. When Jessie blurted out the dates of the forthcoming trip, the principal looked aghast. “Oh, you can’t go on those days, Jessie,” she said. “They’re school days.” Amy, trying to hide behind one of the children’s desks, gave a meek and friendly wave.
The light from the window is pale and cold. The TV is off. No sounds emit from the hotel corridor. All is still in Disney World. Ginny sits at the end of the bed with her back to me. I see the back of her head and the top of Bubbies’s just above her left shoulder.
We begin to fit in to Amy’s and Harris’s house. We knew the house only as visiting family, having stayed for a few days at a time, perhaps a week. Now it is ours without belonging to us, familiar and strange. We learn how to lock the glass door between the kitchen and the deck. We learn how to operate the dishwasher, the thermostat. We learn where the tools, the extension cords, the Scotch tape, and the light bulbs are kept. We note the different dresser drawers for the children’s clothing, the location of favored books and games, such as Balloon Lagoon, Cariboo, The Uncle Wiggily Game, and Perfection. Since one of Bubbies’s many occupations is to reach into the games cabinet and spill the contents on the floor, often losing
Ginny handles most of the essentials. She lays out the children’s outfits for the day, supervises the brushing of teeth, braids Jessie’s hair, and checks the backpacks. There is hardly a moment when she is not on call. Harris gave her Amy’s cell phone, for which Ginny recorded her own greeting. Whoever gets the answering machine hears, “Hi. You have reached 301…” and then, “Mimi!”—Jessie needing something in the middle of Ginny’s recording.
I do odd jobs, such as driving the kids to appointments, and food shopping at Whole Foods or Giant. Occasionally I contribute an idea. Shortly after Amy died, I instituted the “Word for the Morning.” At the start of the day, I write a word on a yellow Post-it, which I stick to the side of a wooden napkin holder on the kitchen table. Usually I make a game of the word, asking Jessie and Sammy to find other words in it, or I include a drawing. When the morning’s word was “equestrian,” I drew a horse that looked a lot like a horse. I try to hit upon a word that is a stretch for Sammy but not too easy for Jessie, and when I can think of one, a word with an interesting element, such as a silent letter. The first Word for the Morning was “answer.” Sammy said, “Tomorrow, give us a silly word, Boppo.” The word for the following morning was “poopies.”
I wake up earlier than the others, usually around 5 a.m., to perform the one household duty I have mastered. After posting the morning’s word, emptying the dishwasher, setting the table for the children’s breakfasts, and pouring the MultiGrain Cheerios or Froot Loops or Apple Jacks or Special K or Fruity Pebbles, I prepare toast. I take out the butter to allow it to soften, and put three slices of Pepperidge Farm Hearty White in the toaster oven. Bubbies and I like plain buttered toast; Sammy prefers it with cinnamon, with the crusts cut off. When the bell rings, I shift the slices from the toaster to plates, and butter them.
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