THE TRICK IN 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 20 minutes on this morning in the summer of 2008, Ginny and I have been hunting in the kitchen trash can for the top left front tooth of our 7-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’ nanny. Bubbies (James) is 20 months old and the youngest of our daughter Amy’s three children. Sammy, who is 5, 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 Dec. 8, 2007. The day of her death, Ginny and I drove from our home in Quogue, on the south shore of Long Island, N.Y., to Bethesda, Md., where Amy and her husband, Harris, lived. With Harris’ encouragement, we have been there ever since. “How long are you staying?” Jessie asked the next morning. “Forever,” I said.
AMY ELIZABETH ROSENBLATT Solomon, 38 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, Va., not far from Amy and Harris.) Jessie had run upstairs to Harris and told him, “Mommy isn’t talking.” Harris got to Amy within seconds, and tried CPR, but her heart had stopped and she could not be revived.
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Amy’s was ruled a “sudden death due to an anomalous right coronary artery”—meaning that both her coronary arteries fed her heart from the same side. Her arteries 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 1 percent of the population, was asymptomatic; she might have died at any time in her life.
Amy 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 harsh 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 poke you gently with her wit. When she was about to graduate from 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 6, 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 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 my MFA writing workshops at Stony Brook University early in the week, then back to Bethesda. The drive takes about five hours.
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, “F--- 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, Jessie to 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 those early months, two things were of immeasurable use to us. First, a friend of Amy’s and Harris’ created a website inviting other friends to prepare dinners for our family. 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’ nanny gave Harris. Ligaya is a small, lithe woman in her early 50s. 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, to ensure the more respectable name for his future. Ligaya altered her schedule to be with us 12 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: “You are not the first to go through such a thing, and you are better able to handle it than most.”
IT IS LATE December, just weeks after our arrival. Bubbies looks around for his mother, 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 me 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, drop 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, the 7-year-old, is tall, also blond, with an expression forever on the brink of enthusiasm. Amy used to say that 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 behind like the dancing mice. Jessie is also excited about our trip to Disney World in January, the adventure that Amy and Harris had planned months before Amy died. We speak of distant summer plans in Quogue. Jessie is excited.
Sammy, even at 5, 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 happens 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.
I WAKE UP earlier than the others, usually around 5 a.m., to perform the one household duty I have mastered. After emptying the dishwasher, setting the table for the children’s breakfast, and pouring the MultiGrain Cheerios or Froot Loops or Apple Jacks or Special K, 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.
Harris usually spends half the night in Bubbies’ little bed. When I go upstairs, around 6 a.m., Bubbies hesitates, but I give him a knowing look and he opens his arms to me. “Toast?” he says. I take him from his father, change him, and carry him downstairs.
WHILE LIGAYA AND Ginny look after Bubbies and Sam, I take Jessie to the bus stop. On a gray, damp morning, we stand together at the corner of our street. One by one, down the hill come the mothers of the neighborhood, their kids running beside them. An impromptu soccer game develops. Jessie joins in. The scene passes for pleasant and ordinary, unless one notes the odd presence of the lone grandfather.
With luck, Ginny and I will live to see all three children grow into adults, and Jessie will become a teenager and throw fits about boyfriends and stamp her feet and yell that we don’t understand a thing, not a thing. But today I help her with her pink backpack and her little umbrella before she boards the school bus. And I stand looking as the bus drives off, and tell the mothers to have a good day.
From the book Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt. ©2010 by Roger Rosenblatt. Reprinted by arrangement with Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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