Today is 40 years since what happened to my father - and the beginning of what happened next (including what happened to my mother), some of it still happening - all of it The Thing That Cannot Be Discussed.
The Hebrew sages declared 40 as the minimum age for wisdom and spiritual maturity. The Hebrew word for soul is comprised of the letters that also form the number 40. Noah and his ark withstood trial by flood for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses' followers wandered in the desert for 40 years while he took up residence on Mount Sinai for that same length of time - all inspiration that perhaps today's sad anniversary might finally merit a step from the deep shadow to honor the memory of my parents.
But doing so would dirty the clean slate of silence I cultivated decades ago in response to the discomfort, pity, and rejection I often experienced upon baring my background - natural reactions, really, as what happened to both my parents is so off the charts that it almost seems unkind to unload that sort of information on someone so unsuspecting.
But after all these years, I'm sad/mad that saying Sam or Char can still suck the air out of a room, their names still an instant reminder only of how they died. And it's outrageous that after 40 years, what's left of my siblings and I continue to be victimized by the criminal justice system (we'll be in court again four days from now).
But I'd be aghast for anyone to think that this is what defines me. And wouldn't a better investment of my time be finishing my bathroom ceiling, the key to finishing my condo and to getting on with whatever career comes next?
Michael Hainey, author of the extraordinary new book, After Visiting Friends, would understand my apprehension, fears, guilt, shame, and doubts. Although most of the details of our fathers' untimely demise differ, we share so much of the same aftermath; it's no stretch to say he wrote the book I would have if I had a fraction of his courage and talent. We're parallel in passages beginning on page 40 (there's that number again - no coincidence). Reading his book may answer those questions you so naggingly couldn't quite figure out to ask me, but be grateful After Visiting Friends is remarkable in a way you are most likely lucky to never fully comprehend.
Mr. Hainey needed to tell his story to be free of it. Last Thursday, after three frustrating months attempting the same feat, feeling for sure that doing nothing was, by far, the best option, I sat down for my afternoon guilty pleasure, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, when the perfect episode appeared, wherein heartthrob Sully counseled, "When you don't talk, it's worse than anything you can ever say." Oh, Sully. OK.
But you'll pardon me if you find what follows self-indulgent or too much information. Know that I don't normally dwell on this stuff and that getting here has been a gradual process, albeit one accelerated by today's self-imposed deadline to put up or shut up.
So here it is, however opaque; use your darkest imagination to fill in the blanks:
For my family, for which just one photo of the seven of us was ever snapped, late spring 1973 should have promised a plethora of photo opps at lifecycle events for four of my parents' five children. But the death of my father's father, my zayde, in March 1973, on my parents anniversary, foreshadowed the madness in May that so violently claimed my 43 year old daddy - a crime so sensational it commanded headlines for weeks. Jewish weddings can't be cancelled, so we rose during shiva for my oldest brother and made the best of the most modest of ceremonies. And then, still within the month of mourning, my other brother graduated from high school and my younger sister and I got bat mitzvahed, black ribbons pinned to our fancy white dresses that would never see what should have been a backyard bash in our honor.
Eighth grade ended/high school began and as winter closed in, my mother got cancer. Completing my annus horribilis, my mother's mother - my grandma, my savior, my absolute everything - died in March 1974; how could I not know she had been so sick? In May 1974, another month-long media circus ensued around the trial, at which my mother sat stoically everyday.
So it's not surprising that my mother's simple skin cancer would soon leave her a Cyclops - only far worse. I'm not sure from where she found the grace to face the day with what little was left of hers. Twice a year, dermatologists-in-training at Hopkins tell me medical literature has only a handful of humans to whom this has happened, that I need not fear such a statistical blip.
Make that blips. But the law of averages just has to be on my side now.
Other silver linings? Still searching, though I suppose resilience, resourcefulness, perspective, empathy, and gratitude count for a lot. So does the ability to tell you this:
Sam Shapiro was renowned for his perennial mayoral and congressional campaigns, highly publicized capers and hijinks, and the compulsion to express himself; there's no doubt I am my father's daughter and I am grateful for all that DNA. He taught me how to sew by machine and by hand when I was six; that wearing a hat will get you noticed; to see the world through an entrepreneurial lens; the importance or reading the Baltimore Sun every day (I haven't missed a morning, evening - RIP, or Sunday edition since kindergarten - no kidding); to be self-sufficient in case something happened to him (oy, did it); to promote a cause (or myself) with humor and style; to be a Renaissance woman (otherwise known as giving in to your ADHD); and (inadvertently) that life is short, so have as much fun as possible. And did he ever know how to have fun and to corral others into having fun watching him; we sure could use more of that levity today.
Charlotte Shapiro was a perfectionist (it's a good thing) and a pragmatist, so I come by all this naturally. She knit like a machine and insisted on casting on my stitches and knitting the first row. She best loved clicking her needles watching/listening to the Orioles game on TV and radio simultaneously, as she enjoyed Chuck Thompson and Bill O'Donnell equally. Her favourite hue was turquoise (mine's a greener version) and so I can only assume she bought that crazy dangerous 1972 Gremlin for colour, not comfort. "Please," "thank you," and especially, "excuse me," were non-negotiable. She gave great advice: "It's not for me to count someone else's money," "That's why they make chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry," and "Have exactly what you want or you'll never be satisfied." I was her major caregiver and at times it was all too much and I was convinced she gave up and died because she knew it. It haunted me all of my days, until the early evening of Saturday 8 May 2004 (9 May cruelly being Mother's Day), when, as I cried inconsolably in my Rehoboth house, she somehow appeared before me and in that instant it was OK and I was free of it.
And now, somehow, I feel free of ALL of it. Excuse me while I go tackle that bathroom ceiling and get on with the rest of my life.