Join us to discuss life after loss. Essayist and PBS NewsHour commentator Roger Rosenblatt recounts the struggle to help his son-in-law and three young grandchildren cope with the sudden death of his 38-year-old daughter.
- Roger Rosenblatt Author, journalist and commentator.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The death of Roger Rosenblatt's 38-year-old daughter, Amy, in the prime of her life as doctor, wife and mother devastated her family. Faced with incomprehensible loss, they struggled to bring some order into their daily lives. In a new memoir, Roger Rosenblatt details their lives as they move through the birthdays and Christmas of the first year without Amy. The new book is titled, "Making Toast." Roger Rosenblatt joins me in the studio to talk about his daughter, Amy, and what he's learned about life since her death. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com. You can join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning, Roger. It's good to see you.
MR. ROGER ROSENBLATTIt's good to see you, Diane.
REHMI'm so sorry about Amy.
REHMI know there must be so many of your readers and people who've seen you on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer who were just absolutely stunned to hear this news.
ROSENBLATTYes. They were stunned, and it was -- in its painful way -- gratifying to see how many share the feelings that go with this sort of devastation. One of the odd consequences of Amy's death was that we learned of the deaths of children of friends that we had not known before -- people we'd known all our lives. And I was wondering whether I had heard it and known it and been careless or callous and not paid attention to it...
REHMAmy's death came as such a shock. She was on the treadmill.
ROSENBLATTIt was an asymptomatic heart condition from...
REHMNo indication, whatsoever?
ROSENBLATTNever. And -- which meant, of course, that she might have died at any point in her life. So if there is anything to rescue from this deep sadness, it is that she had a wonderful husband, three wonderful children and was into a wonderful life as a doctor and a useful life -- usefulness being a standard for a life, I think. So at least she went that far, that the -- what happens from now on is -- depends on Harris, the children and Ginny and me.
REHMHow did you learn of her death? One of her children was right there with her.
ROSENBLATTYes. Actually, both children were with her in the basement, in the lower part of the house where she had her treadmill. And the -- as much as I can reconstruct it, she couldn't get her breath. She stumbled off the treadmill and died pretty much immediately once the blood flow was cut off from the heart.
REHMWhat did the doctors say about that?
ROSENBLATTIt's hard to be precise about it. They -- the anomaly was that in most -- in -- with the great majority of hearts, the arteries run on both sides of the heart so that if one fails for any reason, the other can pick it up. In this case -- in Amy's case -- both arteries ran on the same side of the heart so that if anything happened in that area to cut off the blood flow, she would die, which is what happened. Children were with her. We were in Quogue, in our home on the south side of Long Island.
ROSENBLATTAnd you know how these things bisect you? Actually, Ginny and I had returned from an afternoon of seeing a play and just sitting in the living room at about 4:30. And then we saw that there had been many calls from either Carl or from -- our oldest son, Carl, or from Harris, Amy's husband. And I knew something had been wrong. I had no idea it would be this wrong. And so I called back, and I spoke to Carl. Carl told me what happened. Ginny and I got in the car, picked up our youngest son, John, in New York, in the city, and drove down late that night.
REHMYou mentioned in the book that one of your first reactions was anger.
ROSENBLATTIt's my first, middle and lasting anger, Diane. I'm trying to minimize it, and it does abate after a while. You can't sustain anger this long. But the anger of the unfairness of it, the -- it would -- a great many of our friends, if not most, don't believe in God. So for them, actually, as -- when something like this happens, they say, well, this is the way the world is. And I would accept that. For me, it was a little more difficult because I do believe in God. The God in whom I believe is the God of James Joyce, the God who stands back paring his fingernails, who set us in motion and said good luck.
ROSENBLATTWhen, of course, the bad luck strikes you, hits you in the solar plexus, then you become a kind of different person as I did. And I started, and I said, well, why us? Why particularly Amy? Why would you strike down this wonderful young woman who had everything in her life? And, of course, then you learn, you know, lots of -- it happens to lots of people.
REHMIt sure does.
ROSENBLATTAnd the -- it is the way the world turns. It's just that when it turns against you, then it brings you to your knees.
REHMYou found yourself experiencing that anger even as you were driving a car, in your interactions with store clerks.
ROSENBLATTI'm not a real pleasant person to be around these days. The -- if everything is fine, I'm okay. If something crosses me -- and I mean the smallest thing -- I can see me to see that welling up again. It's -- you know, I think you feel this way, too. If you were to ask most of the people whom we know, what is the thing that really gets you, really, the thing that really you hate in the world? It's injustice. And you find in -- if you find injustice, whether it's in civil rights or in an individual situation, you'd like to remedy it.
ROSENBLATTI regarded this as a massive injustice, my daughter's death. And so the anger, I think, is attached to both an abstract and a particular event. But, as I say, you can't -- you -- it doesn't do you any good, and it doesn't do the people around you any good to sustain it. And it -- certainly, it can't accomplish anything. And, obviously, it's an anger that I quell and keep down when I'm with our grandchildren.
REHMTell us about your grandchildren. There's an absolutely charming photograph of you with your youngest grandchild.
ROSENBLATTWell, James, as he's now known -- then he was Bubbies.
ROSENBLATTBut, now, he's 3 years old and, therefore, man of the world. So he cannot be called by the nickname that Amy gave him, Bubbies. But there in that picture in the flyleaf of the book, we're in Disneyworld. And Harris had the two older children, and Ginny and I had Bubbies. And Ginny took that picture of Bubbies pulling the back of my hair on the bench. And it was -- it's -- I'm glad, very glad that the publisher used it because it's a picture of our feeling.
ROSENBLATTThere, it isn't just a picture of a face.
REHMIt's a picture of the feeling that developed, or was already present, between you and the grandchildren before Amy's death? Or how did it develop afterward?
ROSENBLATTWell, the feeling was there, but you're quite right. It developed the -- first of all, we became quasi-parents again.
ROSENBLATTAnd we had forgotten a lot about what it is to rear children.
REHMI can't imagine.
ROSENBLATTWell, Diane, everything's there but the reflexes.
ROSENBLATTThe -- you can do most -- you remember everything. It's just you're a lot slower getting to it.
ROSENBLATTAnd the idea of my chasing Bubbies anywhere is absurd. For one thing, he's not only faster than I am, but, since he's considerably lower, by the time I bend down, he's gone -- which is his design, too. The other thing you forget about children -- I mention this in the book -- talking toys. Talking toys, which I remember from our kids, but I didn't remember them being so baffling or so irritating or potentially troublemaking. In the airport, you are carrying a talking toy in a suitcase and suddenly from your suitcase emits the sound, help. There is one that is both confounding and dangerous. One says, I'm a pig, stop. So the -- there was that. There was the business of -- you forget that children have no respect for sequential thought.
ROSENBLATTYou and I like to pursue a conversation so that we go from A to B to C to D, and we're very satisfied with ourselves. They couldn't care less about that kind of order. So they'll ask me, what's a solar eclipse? Okay. So I start to try to remember what a solar eclipse is, right? Is it the moon that goes in front of the sun...
ROSENBLATT...or the sun -- or the Earth and something?
REHMYeah, uh huh.
ROSENBLATTAs I'm stumbling through the answer, they have already moved on.
ROSENBLATTJessie will say, how tall will I be? Sammy, the middle child will say, do marlins have lips? And by the time I get to my explanation of the solar eclipse, they say what are you talking about, Boppo? Boppo, it's my nickname.
REHMOh, Boppo. So there is Jessie, who is the oldest.
ROSENBLATTJessie is the oldest.
REHMAnd then there is Sam.
ROSENBLATTJessie is about to turn 9, Sam, 7, Bubbies -- now James -- forgive me -- is 3.
REHMIs 3. So that, when Amy died, this was really quite remarkable for you and your wife to step in as quasi-parents.
ROSENBLATTThe morning after Amy died -- Harris, by the way, is always -- has always been very good with the kids in terms of saying what the facts are, that the dead don't come back, that mommy is dead. And as incomprehensible as this is to you and me, imagine how it is to children. As a matter of fact, the children's psychotherapist -- a wonderful woman here in Washington -- Katherine Andrews, said, one of the things that children really don't get is why the parent doesn't come back and begins almost to resent the parent who didn't come back since -- why don't you do it? Why aren't you coming home?
ROSENBLATTBubbies -- you know, there's a thought about children that they learn language to tell the stories that are already in them. And Bubbies was 14 months. He hardly had any words at all when Amy died. Six to eight months later, he said to Harris, when is mommy coming back? And that kind of thing indicates the work that was ahead of us.
ROSENBLATTRoger Rosenblatt, his family's story is titled, "Making Toast." Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail. Join us on Facebook. Send us a tweet.
REHMRoger Rosenblatt's new book about the death of his daughter Amy is titled, "Making Toast." He's here in the studio. We are going to open the phones in a moment. Roger, would you read for us that portion about making toast?
ROSENBLATTCertainly. Just one reference in it refers to the word for the morning, which I give the kids. This was the only thing that I've really added to the household, the -- besides making toast, which is, every morning, on a Post-it, I put a different word so that they learn a different word. And James, of course, being James, who is, in his own quiet way, preparing to be a Latin American dictator -- James said to me, well, I want my own word, Boppo. So James gets his own word for the morning. So that's the reference in this short passage.
ROSENBLATT"I wake up earlier than the others, usually around 5:00 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 breakfast 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.
ROSENBLATT"Harris usually spends half the night in Bubbies' little bed. When I go upstairs, around 6:00 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 to allow Harris another 20 minutes' sleep."
REHMRoger Rosenblatt, reading from his new book titled, "Making Toast." Roger, did you and Ginny have any hesitation whatsoever about moving in? Did you discuss it?
ROSENBLATTThat's the interesting thing. We never conferred from the moment it happened. That same morning I mentioned earlier, the morning after Amy died, Jessie said to me, as she would have on a normal occasion, how long are you staying? But there was an urgency, obviously, in her eyes. And I said, forever. I never looked at Ginny. Ginny and I have never talked about it, as a matter of fact. It was not only the thing to do for Amy. It certainly was the thing to do for Amy. It was the thing to do for us. I cannot imagine, Diane -- I cannot imagine what life would have been like if we had returned to our home and just stared at each other in dark silences.
REHMSo what you did was move into a room that was already yours.
ROSENBLATTIt was already our little room where we had spent a lot of time before. Now, it's become a universe. The -- and I would say an overstocked universe. The kids bring in everything. They go piling in. The kids' toys, being as large as they are, crowd us out of the room. Nonetheless, we make it. And the -- you know, what's funny about life, the older you get, the more you realize you only need what you need to use to function. And...
REHMLess and less and less.
ROSENBLATTLess and less. Or, as George Carlin taught us, we don't need stuff.
ROSENBLATTAnd so Ginny and I are as content in our one room as we would be content in a house of 20. More than that, it allows us to concentrate on the task at hand, which is not for ourselves, but for these three really quite wonderful, remarkable children and to try to help them enter the world as youthfully and as effectively and as happily as possible.
REHMAs happily as possible, having lost their mother. Do you think -- well, does one ever adjust to losing one's mother, especially at such an early age?
ROSENBLATTI don't know that. I don't know the answer to that. I know we can do as much as we can to shore up the walls so that they don't come tumbling down on the children. Harris is wonderful at that. We really follow his lead. But the -- I mentioned Katherine Andrews, the children's psychotherapist before, a remarkable woman. And she told us that boys respond differently from girls. Sammy talks quite freely about Amy's death, asks questions, says, do you remember I tried to open her eyes, and things like that that you think would be extraordinarily, excruciatingly painful. But what he's doing is, in a way, getting it out of his system. Jessie, on the other hand, the older girl, doesn't talk about Amy at all, very much...
ROSENBLATT...you know. Or she'll only talk when we bring up a funny memory or a happy memory of mommy. She wants to husband these thoughts very carefully and probably to let her father and perhaps Katherine, too, know them when she chooses. But when it feels safe, she will talk about Amy. But I think for the present, she is -- she's holding it in. I was talking about this with Ginny the other day. And Ginny said something interesting which strikes me as possible if not true. Maybe she doesn't want to talk about it because talking about it would open the floodgates, and she fears she'd never stop crying. And I think that's possible.
REHMI wonder whether she's headed for a career in writing, following her grandfather.
ROSENBLATTShe can write.
ROSENBLATTShe can write. She -- it is -- it's wonderful to see, you know.
REHMYou talked about creating a playhouse. Tell us about that playhouse.
ROSENBLATTThis, luckily, Amy was still alive, and we had talked about converting this mess of a garage that we have in Quogue into something for the children. So we had planned on taking out the old cement floor and redoing the walls, redoing the windows, just making it a big place to play. And then -- I don't know whose idea it was -- but we thought we'd put on a -- put a little stage. Really, it's not a stage, just a raised platform there, if the kids want to put on plays, which they always seem to.
ROSENBLATTAnd so, after Amy had died, that became a very important project for all of us, especially for me, I think, because there's not much I really could do to feel as if I was doing anything. But here, with the help of a terrific fellow, Kevin Stachey, (sp?) a contractor in Long Island, we did make a very beautiful place for the kids. And I look upon it and other things as little monuments to our daughter and to the life she had anticipated.
REHMHow do you think of Amy now?
ROSENBLATTI always knew her very well. We were very close. Fathers and daughters are very close. I always say that every father looks at every daughter and the daughter's in the crib when she's born and looks up through the film of her eyes and thinks, sucker. And that's just right. And every father is very, very glad of the role, and Amy certainly had me pegged for that. But we were very close. I increasingly admired her, as well as loved her, as she pursued medicine. It wasn't something that she had studied. She never took a science course in college. But when she had decided on it, she decided on it.
ROSENBLATTAnd the -- just as an aside, we had an actor friend. She wanted to be an actor at one point. So she -- we had an actor friend talk to her for two hours about all the perils of being an actor. She emerged from that wanting to be a doctor. And I said to the guy -- I said, you know, I don't what you make on movies. But I am telling you, you've got a fortune if you could talk to every child in the country who wanted to be an actor.
ROSENBLATTThe parents would pay you everything in the house.
ROSENBLATTSo I knew her well. But what I didn't know was the stature of -- you don't know stature because stature is something acquired at a distance. Now, we have the terrible distance of death. But Amy was loved, respected by so many. Well, I'm talking -- now, I'm talking about patients, friends, colleagues in medicine, the Terminix man, the woman who sells children's shoes in Nordstrom's. All of these people remember her. She was a memorable person, mainly because she took people seriously. She was one of the best listeners I've ever seen. And if you had something that you were going to tell her, she never competed with you to say, well, this happened to me, too. She listened wholeheartedly. It made her a good doctor, too.
REHMHarris is also a doctor, different field.
ROSENBLATTDifferent field. He's an orthopedist.
REHMIs that how they met?
ROSENBLATTYes. They met in medical school. He was a year ahead. He was a year ahead of Amy at NYU Medical School. And a practice of the school is to have a graduate of the prior year put the hood on a graduate of the current year if they choose it. So this was going to be arranged, and they had, coincidentally, just asked me to be the commencement speaker that year.
ROSENBLATTSo we were at dinner the night before graduation. And a friend of ours at dinner said to Amy, Amy, isn't it great Harris is putting on the hood and your dad is giving the commencement speech? And Amy characteristically said, it is, and it's pretty great that I'm graduating.
REHMRight on, Amy. The notion of being in that household pretty much for a solid year or more?
ROSENBLATTNow, it's over two years.
REHMOver two years. And you've been staying here in Washington, going back home, what, how often?
ROSENBLATTI drive -- on Sundays, I drive up. I teach at Stony Brook University once a week, so I drive up Sundays, teach on Mondays, drive back on Tuesdays. If there were frequent driver miles, I'd be a wealthy man.
REHMAnd Ginny stays.
ROSENBLATTGinny is here.
ROSENBLATTAnd she's great. Ginny said to me, you know, this -- we're married 46, 47 years, and something terrible happens. But it's revelatory in a different way. She said that she felt that she was made to do this, that all her life had been tending to do this. Now, she wasn't talking about anticipating the tragedy but adjusting to the tragedy with a person not only perfectly capable of doing all things. And so, as I say in the book, you know, after 46 years of marriage, I'm getting to know my wife.
REHMRoger Rosenblatt, his new book is titled, "Making Toast." We're going to open the phones, 800-433-8850. To Ocala, Fla. Good morning, Brian. You're on the air.
BRIAN(unintelligible) to be on air. I must say that, Ms. Diane Rehm, you are a beautiful lady.
REHMOh, thank you.
BRIANI lost my brother at 31 years old in 2006 on Veteran's Day, Nov. 11. And after losing my brother -- I lost him to a car accident, which he was drag racing. He was a drag racer. That's what hobby that he had. And one of the things that I've dealt with -- I've dealt with a lot of anger, a lot of disappointment. I'm a pastor as well, and I never thought that I could feel that way. But this is a reality that, I think, is a part of the healing process or either one of the negative sides. And after losing him -- he left three kids behind -- and I feel guilty sometimes for not being able to be there for his kids the way that I desire to, in the way that I know that he wants because his kids was with him all the time.
BRIANAnd I admire you, the fact that you were able to go on and live in the same home that your daughter lived in. My mother hasn't been able to go to her twin sister's house since the day of my brother's funeral because they live right up the street from each other. And, I guess, one of the things that is a big concern for me and a question that I have is, you know, how do you -- how did -- how would you encourage someone to deal with the guilt feeling of not being able to be there for them? You know, sometimes it's based upon some other...
ROSENBLATTBrian, my experience is that if people feel guilty about something like that, they're very good people. You know, it's only the good people who feel guilty about not being able to do the right thing.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Kokomo, Ind. Good morning, Julie. You're on the air. Julie, are you there?
REHMGo right ahead.
JULIEToday is the first day that I actually had to pull my car over because I was crying too hard to see the road. My question is -- you mentioned that you had a faith in God, and I wonder if the children share that same faith. And has that, in any way, (word?) their feelings and their hurt?
ROSENBLATTI'm exploring that little by little. We -- when I say a faith in God, this is true. But we grew up in a nonreligious family, and -- that is, a non-practicing religious family and sort of picked and chose among other -- all the religions, usually things that appeal to children -- the Easter bunny and the Christmas tree and so forth. Sammy says he believes in God. We talked about that the other day. But I kind of -- I tend to leave things to them and see what they want to ask about God or about other things 'cause I don't feel equipped to make the answers. The -- they don't make the tie between God and their mother that I make, and...
ROSENBLATTThey do not.
ROSENBLATTAnd, I think, because Harris, too, is basically a scientific mind, most of the time, this is a subject that does not arise. When it arises, we do more listening than talking. I think it's the only -- I don't know if it's right, but I don't feel confident talking about God or talking about faith, acceptance so far as the slight way I practice it.
REHMJulie, thanks so much for calling. To Nancy in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., you're on the air.
NANCYFirst, "Making Toast" is a brilliant title, and, secondly, you're doing a phenomenal thing with these kids and with your own life. My son died three weeks ago.
REHMOh, I'm so sorry.
NANCYAnd -- yeah, it's a huge story. And he was -- he got diabetes at 9 months old, and at 22, he got MS. And he screamed, why, why, why, for years. For at least 12 years, he screamed. And then he got to the point where he started to surrender, and he started to become a very sweet, wise man himself. And one day, I went to his room, and I said, okay, Dan, I got to know something. You've lost your ability to walk. You can't hold the fork. You're in diapers. You can't finish a thought. Why you? And he looked at me, and he said, why not me? And I picked up the phone, and I called my husband, I said, okay, he's become a Zen master.
NANCYUnbelievable to say, why not me, and you kind of said that in the -- when I first tuned in, you were sort of saying that. It's like you -- until it happens to you, you think -- and then the other thing I wanted to tell you. He was also extremely white-hot angry, and there was a point where he let go of it. And I said, people are going to want to know how you did this. How did you let go of that rage? And he said something very profound and very simple and very slowly because the speech became very halting. He said, I noticed that being angry didn't help anything. And I just cracked up...
ROSENBLATTYeah, just right.
NANCY...and said, hello. So I hope -- I mean, you sound like a wise man. You didn't need either of these stories, but maybe that I noticed that the anger didn't help anything is a major, major piece of wisdom.
REHMNancy, thanks so much for calling.
ROSENBLATTYou know, Nancy, the talk about need -- I'm so sorry for your family. And I'm so sorry this happened and so recently and all, and it's so much more raw for you. But in an odd way -- without being Pollyannaish about it -- these things do connect us. We are all liable to the same misfortunes and suffer them. And so there's an odd peace about hearing such things.
REHMRoger Rosenblatt. The book is titled, "Making Toast: A Family Story." We'll take just a short break. When we come back, more of your calls, comments. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd if you've just tuned in, Roger Rosenblatt is with us. I'm sure you know him as an essayist, as a frequent guest on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and, certainly, as a frequent guest on this program. His new book is titled, "Making Toast." It's a book he wrote after the death -- suddenly -- of his 38-year-old daughter, Amy, and the years following when he and his wife, Ginny, moved in with his son-and-law, Harris, and their three children. Here's an essay -- an e-mail from Cindy who says, "As a mother, it's easy to wonder if what I do on a daily basis really matters. Listening to your speaker reminds me of the critical nature of the role I play in the lives of my precious children."
ROSENBLATTWonderful. And it is. It's absolutely indispensable.
REHMAbsolutely. And here's another. "Thank you for this moving program. I lost my mother when I was 9. And, no, you never get over this. But with love and care, this has become part of the fabric of my life rather than the horrible tragedy it was. It has shaped my life but has not defined it. My true story is the love that was shared by the aunt who raised me and taught me that I can overcome anything.
ROSENBLATTThat's very nice to hear. I'm very glad for you and for us if it's a foretaste of the future.
REHMAll right. To Huntington Woods, Mich. Good morning, Adam. You're on the air.
ADAMYes, good morning, Diane and Roger. Thank you for a beautiful and moving program. I lost my beloved daughter, Michaela, in May of this year.
REHMOh, I'm so sorry.
ADAMI -- thank you very much. She was 5 years old.
ADAMShe had cerebral palsy.
ADAMAnd she was a tremendous inspiration to everyone who knew her. What I'd like to talk about is community and the sense in which we become parts of communities by virtue of our life experiences. As special needs parents, we became involved in an incredible, warm, loving and nurturing community of therapists, doctors, other family members. And essentially, when our beloved Michaela passed away suddenly that one night, we had two deaths because we lost our daughter and we also lost that community.
ADAMAnd while we've gained a community with people like Roger who've also, unfortunately, lost children far too early, we're both having struggles, particularly my wife who was the primary caregiver of our child in getting -- in moving, in somehow finding a way to re-imagine a life with purpose like the one that she had before caring for Michaela. So I'm interested in your comment, Roger, on that.
ROSENBLATTWell, I think it's a -- your observation is a wonderful and honest observation. And I think it probably -- this is just my guess that, listening to you, you will solve it by finding a way to be useful to a different kind of community that you -- I mean, the -- I don't -- given the person that you're revealing yourself to be, I don't think you will sit with your wife unconnected to the world. You profited so beautifully from the connections that your daughter created for you. I think you'll find a way to create it for others.
REHMYou know, Roger, it's interesting that having written this book, you find yourself far more understanding of what other people have gone through.
ROSENBLATTI'm far more interested in other people. I mean, writers are loners.
ROSENBLATTI didn't -- I never belonged to any community. I never -- the society of writers is as weird as a society as one could possibly invent. People -- Wordsworth once was visited by Coleridge. Coleridge walked in the house, didn't say a word for four or five hours, walked out, and Wordsworth declared it one of the loveliest evenings he'd ever had. We are an odd group. And so, now, through lots of things, through Amy's community, Ginny's friends are now Amy's friends, new friends -- younger women, of course. But they're very close, and you can't tell that there's really much of an age difference between them.
ROSENBLATTAnd we have developed friends of Amy's friends who were -- by the way, I didn't mention this before. This was just a gesture initiated by two or three of her friends. Every other night from December, when Amy died, through June of the following year, they left dinners for our family so that we would have dinners for that night and the night after in a cooler outside the house. And I cannot tell you how touching it was, that they would take the trouble to do this, and they just developed a whole society of people who were doing this. Some were strangers.
REHMThey never even knocked on the door? They just left the cooler right there?
ROSENBLATTThey just left it for us, and we had our dinners. And it seems -- it may seem like a small gesture, but when you're rearing three children, three very little children in a house -- and then everybody's sort of like jugglers, spinning plates on sticks, trying to make sure that they don't fall. That was an enormous help just to take away one thing that we didn't have to do.
REHMKatherine in Ohio writes, "Mr. Rosenblatt, I'm moved to tears by your compassion and generosity in caring for your daughter's family. At age 36, I had two elementary school-aged children, a loving husband, a fulfilling career. The future looked bright until two months before I received my masters degree when I was diagnosed with a progressive neurological disease. It's now 17 years later. I've worked through the stages of grief many times, but there is always that small kernel of anger that persists because my children were deprived of a healthy, active mom during most of their childhood. Unfortunately, both my parents died when I was in my 20s, so we did not have their support."
ROSENBLATTInteresting. The fellow who was talking to us before about searching for a new kind of community, this is the community. It's the community of the normal life, the ordinary life, which is beset by difficulty and tragedy from all sides. And Diane and I sit here in the studio and reach out to you at the end of an e-mail or at the end of a phone conversation going through the very same things, as part of the same world spinning in the same direction. I'm -- Diane, you asked me before what I had learned in this.
ROSENBLATTAnd apart from learning my own -- well, I didn't have to learn them. Maybe it reminded of my deficiencies as an active parent. I have learned that the world of suffering is, in its strange manifestation, a useful world. It's a world that reminds us who we are and that we're mortal and that -- on the positive side, that we're capable of reaching out toward one another.
REHMDo you think you are a very different grandparent from the person you were as a parent?
ROSENBLATTThere's no question of it. As a -- I was a very young parent. I was parent in my 20s, and I was ambitious. I thought everything -- the other thing that you are apprised of is mortality itself. I thought I'd live forever, my children would live forever, and everything would go along swimmingly. I was not used to misfortune. I think Amy -- and this was a matter of temperament, not a matter of biography. I just thought things would -- and the good things would befall me, that I led a kind of charmed life. Amy, I think, was different. Amy understood that you had to endure life, that life was something to be endured. That's a much more intelligent way to look at things.
REHMWhy do you think she had that perspective?
ROSENBLATTI think she was smarter than I, and I think she saw the world more clearly than I did.
REHMOf course, as a physician, she saw life. She saw death. She saw the entire cycle of life.
ROSENBLATTI saw her face when a 1 ½ year-old patient of hers died, and she felt that she should have seen something. Nobody else felt she should have seen it. The doctors rely on a sixth sense, and she felt that her sixth sense had failed her. To see my daughter's face falling in that kind of helplessness told me who she was.
REHMRoger Rosenblatt, the book is titled, "Making Toast." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's take another call. From Lorie in Wheeling, Ill. Good morning, you're on the air.
LORIEGood morning to you both. Roger, I can totally relate to your story, and you have my complete sympathy. My ex-husband died in January '09, so last year -- of hypertension, basically, and aneurism. And he just didn't take care of himself. We have a 16-year-old daughter -- now 17 -- and to -- really, to deal with that has been so difficult, and you won't believe this part of it. His mother died two months prior to him.
LORIEAnd it's just unbelievable. And when he came back from his mom's funeral in Alabama, he had had a heart attack, a second heart attack. And he called me and told me, oh, they think I had a heart attack. And I'm like, you're kidding me. And I literally said to him, Sam -- Samantha, our daughter -- Samantha just lost her grandma. She doesn't need to lose you, too. And four weeks later, I get a phone call. He was found dead in his apartment.
REHMOh, I'm so sorry.
LORIEAnd, you know, it's just been such a trying year because it's something you never expect to happen. He was just a year younger than me. And I -- you know, you expect your ex to be around for your teenage daughter. And, you know, to see her go through so many, you know -- so many problems, and she's very much, Roger, like your granddaughter. She doesn't talk about her dad. And so last year, every holiday we're dealing with both deaths, you know, Mother's Day for the grandma and Father's Day. And then when his birthday came around a few days before hers in September, I mentioned, oh, I know it's dad's birthday. And she just gave me such a mean look, and she just doesn't -- I mean, she may -- maybe she's brought him up two times in the year that he died.
REHMNow, perhaps, that would be a situation for someone outside the family...
ROSENBLATTI think that's right.
REHM...to whom to talk.
ROSENBLATTI think that's right, and I also don't want to overemphasize the sadness. The sadness is the context in which we live, but the particulars within the context are very happy, are very funny. The kids are good in school. They have a lot of friends. The house is the chaos of houses with children and all of that. And as I say, within the saddest of contexts, it's really quite a lovely, happy life. It's just that we can never forget what brought us all together in this world.
REHMDoes that mean that the anger is right there?
ROSENBLATTThe anger for me, yes. I don't think Ginny feels it. I think Ginny was wise, has been always wiser about it, seeing things from a wider perspective. I sort of regarded this as a kind of personal affront, an attack, a misfortune on -- as I say, on this young woman who would have led so wonderful a life -- who did up to this point.
REHMAnd yet you have never sought grief therapy yourself?
ROSENBLATTI haven't, but there's -- something interesting happened. Katherine Andrews also consults with adults in grief. And I went to her as a result of this book, as a result of "Making Toast," because I told her -- which was true -- I did a reading before. I've limited what I wanted to do. But still, talking about the book is like talking about any other book. It's all publishing. It's the same industry. So you appear on shows, and you sell your book. And you do interviews and all of these things, and I told her I was feeling cheaper and cheaper about the prospect of this...
ROSENBLATT...because I felt I was sort of violating my daughter's life by creating another book, another artifact of it. And she -- to give you an idea of how smart she is -- she said to me, you're looking at this entirely wrong. You should be looking at this book as something useful that you and Amy are doing together.
ROSENBLATTThank you, honey. No more. I mean, and once she said it, it was so right. And that's how I have been looking at it, that I hope it is useful to others and that it's something that my daughter and I are doing together.
REHMI see it as not only yours and Ginny's moving into this household, helping these young grandchildren become strong, vital members of society, but I see it as a celebration of Amy's life.
ROSENBLATTAnd that's certainly the way Ginny sees it as well. Ginny believes that Amy's presence is there. She believes in the corporeal presence of the dead. I do not. Although there was an incident when we were in our car waiting for our youngest son, John, to come to Union Station, that I can't deny because it did happen. I felt a tapping on my forearm, like a comforting tapping. And it wasn't a flutter of the wind, and it wasn't a spasm. It really was a tapping on my arm. And I looked to see if Ginny had done it, and she had not. She was looking for John. And so, even though it goes against my nature, I would be willing to believe that the presence of the dead was there at that moment.
REHMWhat about the children? Do you think they feel her presence?
ROSENBLATTI don't know if they feel it. We talk about Amy's spirit a lot because we're trying to reconcile the permanence of death with the presence of Amy in their lives. And so somewhere...
ROSENBLATTForever. Just right. And so we talk about mommy being -- mommy would've been so pleased. Mommy seeing how well you're doing and how much you're learning and how good you are with your friends and all of these things. And I suppose if you actually talk about a spirit that way, that's as close to immortality as we're going to come.
REHMAnd how is Harris?
ROSENBLATTHarris is an interesting, you know, case. He's a very strong man, highly intelligent, basically scientific in his view of the world so that the world of conversation that you and I were just in is not his world -- of faith and the things that are invisible. It is very hard on him to do everything. He is equipped to do everything. And I watch him with the kind of sympathy that a father extends towards a son. He's got a perfectly good father of his own, but sometimes I do feel helpless to be able to give him what he needs.
REHMRoger Rosenblatt -- his new book titled, "Making Toast" -- I think I speak for every person who's listening to extend my deepest sympathy and condolences for your loss.
ROSENBLATTThis conversation has helped a great deal. Thank you, Diane.
REHMThank you. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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