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BOSTON, JANUARY 29, 1996: THE CALL FROM DAVID CAME AT 2:45 that Monday afternoon. Stammering in his panic, he blurted out that Nomi had collapsed, perhaps on account of cardiac arrest, and had been taken to a hospital in Natick, a distant suburb. I called Jessie, youngest at twenty-seven of my three daughters, told her that her sister was in trouble and that I'd pick her up in five minutesshe worked just a few blocks awaythen called my friend Sharon with whom I'd been speaking just a minute earlier, told her what had happened, and called the hospital for directions.
Jessie and I stopped for gas before getting on the highway to Natick. I remember thinking as I was pumping the gas that I probably ought to stop after four gallons: If I filled the tank all the way I might be late to the hospital. But the thought was diffuse, reflecting the kind of dark fantasy that parents have and to which I refused to succumb; I filled it all the way. Jessie was trying to calm both of us, thinking out loud that perhaps Nomi had only faintedshe'd done that once or twice beforehand we even talked, during the forty-minute trip, about other things. Nomi, after all, had not been sick, not at all; we'd both spoken with her earlier in the day, and there was no premonition of danger. And, improbably, neither of us knew the meaning of cardiac arrest.
We parked in the regular lot rather than the emergency lot and made our waywalking quickly, not runningto the emergency room. I asked after Nomi Fein; the people at the desk asked who I was; I told them I was herfather, Jessie her sister, and they took us into a very small room and said the doctor would be with us momentarily. I did not quite "know" yet, although it was plain that something terribly serious was happening; this was not the conventional emergency room response. I asked about Nomi's husband, Davidhimself a physicianand was told that he, too, would be there very soon. And, in a matter of seconds, before the ominous sense of things had crystallized, David appeared, shuffling, bowed. I looked at him quizzically, and he shook his head in misery. Jessie still didn't fully grasp what had happened, and as she rose from her chair I embraced both her and David and said to her, "She's gone," and the look of stricken terror on her face I shall never forget.
When she was six or seven, I began to think her among the most interesting people I'd ever known. "People," not "kids." There was a spiritual depth to her even then, a way she had of dropping back and reflecting that I've never encountered in young children, before or since. "If Jews had nuns," I used to tell my friends, "Nomi would become one."
We don't; she didn't. Instead, she attended the Solomon Schechter Day School, a then-fledgling institution that met in those days in the somewhat ramshackle basement of a synagogue in Newton, a near suburb of Boston. There she flourished, her teachers regularly singing her praises: "Most of us have our `bad days,'" her fifth-grade teacher wrote, "but it is certainly difficult to think of a day when Nomi has not attended carefully to her academic work, participated sensitively in class discussions, and helped organize her classmates into constructive work and play activities. She has a beautiful spirit that is contagious." This, just a year after her mother and I were divorced.
Academic distinctiona distinction she maintained with very nearly straight A's through college and graduate schoolwas the lesser part of Nomi's uncommon combination of dazzle and gravity. On April 29, 1978, four months shy of her thirteenth birthday, during the Sabbath service when she became a bat mitzvah, she offered the following commentary on Isaiah 11, the text of the week:
I feel very lucky to have the haftorah portion I have, because within it is one of the most important sentences throughout Jewish history: V'gar z'ev im keves v'namer im g'di yirbatz, v'egel u'chfir u'mri yachdav v'na'ar katan noheg bahm"and the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them."
This passage represents a great hope of the Jewish people from the time we were enslaved in Egypt, continuing through today. Yet as I read this sentence, I cannot help but wonder how the Jews could believe that one day there might be peace when we have seen so much bitterness in our history. Just two weeks ago, many of us watched a recreation of the Holocaust [the 1978 TV miniseries starring Meryl Streep] on television. Watching that, how can we hold on to the hope of peace expressed by Isaiah?
I think that it was important that people watch the show for a second reason also. We have to remember and learn what has happened to us. When one character says to another that the problem of the Jews is that we always remember the past, it is said as an insult. But I think it is a compliment. Yes, the Jews do remember the past. We remember it so that we can be sure never to make the same mistakes twice. But remembering the past is one thing, being enslaved by the past is something else. We remember the past to use it, not to be trapped by it. We cannot be afraid to live fully and happily simply because our past includes so much tragedy. That is how hope can be kept alive alongside of history.
Still, I do not understand the strength of people who know what we know and still can read this sentence from Isaiah and believe in it wholeheartedly. I am not sure that I can read my haftorah portion and really believe what I am saying. Perhaps one day I will be able to. Perhaps not only the wolves and the lambs will lie down together, but the hawks and the doves will fly together. Perhaps we will all be able to hope again. Perhaps, even, our hopes for peace will be fulfilled. Perhaps.
We'd watched Holocaust together, and talked together about its relationship to her upcoming bat mitzvah and to Isaiah 11. But I wasn't prepared for the impact of these words of a twelve-and-a-half-year-old on a sunny spring day, not for the precocity they indicated nor for the loss of innocence they reflected. (Reading them now, I am struck also by Nomi's easy incorporation of herself into Jewish history: "We were enslaved." "We have seen." "We remember.")
Her bat mitzvah speech speaks to who she was, as years later did her ritual, during her early morning walk to Starbucks with her infant daughter, Liatin what would turn out to be the last months of Nomi's lifeof sitting and chatting for a bit with the homeless schizophrenic man who, most mornings, was parked on a nearby bench.
Back when she was sixteen, and her school gave her a choice of volunteer projectstutoring new immigrants in English, visiting the elderly, a dozen moreshe chose to work at the Ronald McDonald House in Boston, where the parents of kids with cancer stay while their children are being treated at nearby hospitals. The job started out as housekeeping; within a couple of weeks, she was counseling newly arrived parents, was often called to be on hand when they arrived. She didn't talk about it at home; she just did it. And I came to think, and still do, that what seemed at age six or seven to be an unusual spiritual orientation was in fact an uncommon empathic capacity, as if empathy were not merely a trait but a sense, as central as the other five.
So many of the letters of condolence from those who knew her speak to this and related qualities: "There was a special aura about her. Her questions, her sensitive relationship to others...." "I have written hundreds of letters of recommendation for students over the years ... only a handful were thoughtful enough to respond. I consider myself blessed to have briefly touched her life." "Nomi was not only one of my all-time favorite students and one of the best graduate students I ever had, but she was also one my favorite people. She brought something special to each of us lucky enough to have known her." "She was so interesting and interested." At the end of a handwritten note from Jon-o (long-since become Jon), her close friend in the early years, "I apologize for my spelling but I felt it would be best to be in my natural form without spell check. For many years, Nomi was my spell check. She helped me to cope with my learning disabilities." And so on and so forth, each reminiscence a bittersweet reminder.
It is an easy temptation to embroider the lives of the dead, to portray them as flawless, saintly. I think myself free of that temptation, but even so, I must now and then remind myself that Nomi was, as are we all, imperfect, that she'd take her sister Jessie's clothes without asking and then deny having taken them, that her laugh could be derisive, that she was defensive to a fault. (And yes, it does feel treasonous to write these things now.) Or, less critically, that she also (according to her gym teacher of long ago) "always gave the boys a run for their money.... She never let any kind of challenge pass her." But the larger and more glorious truth is that she could feel and write as she did, and elicit from others the reactions she did, that she invested so much in her friendships that there were half a dozen women who thought themselves her best friend, that she could so often (but not always) cause those around her to reach for the better parts of their own nature.
The hospital people were most attentive and solicitous. They cleared a somewhat larger room for us, and I called Rachel, eldest of my three daughters. There was no subtle or gradual way to break the awful news, the news that came without any context. She was on another line when I reached her and said she'd call me right back. I told her no, I needed her now, and when she'd dumped the other call I spoke the words: "Rachel, RachelNomi's dead." (Writing now, I want to remember that what I said then was the gentler euphemism, "Nomi's gone." But that would have been pointless, would not have been understood.) And Rachel, of course, broke down immediately, handed the phone to her secretary, who arranged for a car to bring her from downtown Boston, where she works, out to the hospital in Natick, a good twenty miles distant. And then there was Nomi's mother to call, except that she'd lost her husband just a couple of months earlier and we couldn't simply call her. Someone had to go to tell her the news, and none of her close friends was at home, and that left Ruth, my sister-in-law, who is more than adequate for virtually any challenge, even though this one would be especially rough since she and my brother, Rashi, had lost their own thirty-four-year-old daughter, Bena, just the preceding May. And so it was.
The hospital chaplain, in the meanwhile, asked whether we wanted a rabbi, and we did, and water, too, for my throat was so dry I could barely swallow. But no, no tears, not yet, and when Jessie and the nurses and the chaplain and later the rabbi proposed I sit down, meaning that they wanted me to let go, that my apparent stoicism made them nervous, I told them that thisthe calls and checking the parking lot for Rachel to arrive and hugging Jessie and the determined not sitting downwas the way I was coping. And the way I wanted to.
Though it had been so sudden, though there had been no warning, no premonition, I felt no shock. Gaping loss, but not shock. Death itself, even untimely death, even the death of a childthese are not, after all, strangers, not to anyone in our century, surely not to a Jew who has internalized the history of his people, who has mourned the distant deaths of children killed by terrorists in Israel, who has, as I did in 1973, stood, crumpled, at Auschwitz. And nothing I had ever learned or believed had led me to believe that I was, that we were, immune. Sure, this is America, my AmericaI, too young to recall the Great Depression, too young for World War II and Korea, too old for Vietnamand yes, I'd often thought how charmed we of my family, of this generation, were in specific historical terms, as if we'd slipped into a protected niche where the calamities that have afflicted most generations since the beginning of time, even nature's calamities, happen to others, at a distance. Tornadoes? Trailer parks in Florida and West Virginia. Earthquakes and mudslides? California. Monsoons and tidal waves, plagues and famines, terrorist attacks? All far, very far, away.
Take care to get your kids their shots on schedule, and the boosters; make sure they've had driver ed, that they know about drugs and about drinking and driving; live if you're able where there are no drive-by shootings; and, look around, the odds aren't bad, they're surely in your favor; and yes, here a friend's son is killed by a hit-and-run driver and there someone you know has died in a hotel fire, here a maniac has come after a distant relative with an axe and there a former colleague has died of AIDS; but so far you've been lucky and you're well aware of your good fortune.
Until Bena, last May, my niece who died of an ailment called myelofibrosis, more proximately of a bone marrow transplant that should have worked but didn't, and I said to my kids that's the end of the myth of our family's protected niche, of our insulation from disaster.
So no shock. And, given the circumstancesout of nowhere, Nomi's heart stopped beatingno one to rail against, nor any wisdom to glean. A death with no social significance, with no meaning. I can't take off after drunken drivers, or sue for malpractice, or curse the crime rate. No one killed her; she died, instead, by fluke. The only consolation, then as now, is that Nomi herself did not, does not know, was spared the terror of imminent death, so quickly did she pass from life to death.
All this still in the hospital, with people gatheringmy friend Sharon, who'd left for the hospital the moment I called her and arrived only moments after I did; Mark and Eileen, Nomi and David's close friends; and finally Rachel; and then Zelda, Nomi's mom, with my sister-in-law Ruth, who'd brought Zelda; and others, friends of Nomi and David whom I did not know. And decisions, strange decisions for which nothing you've ever done has prepared you: David'sno postmortem; yes, the organs would be donated; yes, Rabbi Elkin, headmaster at the Schechter school, would be asked to officiate at the funeral. And minemy first conversation with the funeral home: How's Wednesday at one?; yes, a notice in the Globe; yes, in keeping with the tradition, a shomer, someone to sit with Nomi, reciting psalms, until the funeral. And all the while, the hospital staff hovering. And Jessie trembling, trembling.
Life without Nomi?