'Making Toast': Simple Gestures For Moving On
A little over two years ago, a 38-year-old pediatrician named Amy Solomon collapsed on her treadmill at home. She died of what was discovered to be a rare, undiagnosed heart defect.
The day she died, Amy's parents — Roger and Ginny Rosenblatt — drove from their house on Long Island to their daughter's home in Bethesda, Md. The Rosenblatts have been there ever since, helping their son-in-law take care of three children, who were 6, 4, and 1 when their mother died.
Now, Roger Rosenblatt has written about this reconfigured family in an exquisite, restrained little memoir filled with both hurt and humor.
The title of the book itself — Making Toast — contains both of those emotions. At first, it conveys Rosenblatt's dry sense of humor, before revealing a more complex meaning.
"It's my only skill," he tells All Things Considered's Melissa Block. "It's worth developing a specialty, and my specialty is making toast.
"I come up very early in the morning, set the table for the children, and then when they come down make toast for those who want it. Sometimes cinnamon toast, sometimes regular toast," Rosenblatt continues. "The only reason I wanted Making Toast as the title is that it is a simple gesture of moving on. Every morning there's the bread and you make the toast and you start the day. And so, even unconsciously, it became a symbol of how to live our life."
Rosenblatt is known as "Boppo" to his grandchildren. Having raised his own children, he's had to relearn how to be a parent. One thing he's rediscovering is that children have no respect for sequential thought.
"No matter what you're doing, you will be battered with questions. To say left field doesn't even begin to describe how odd the questions are," Rosenblatt says. "Eventually your reflexes develop in that direction and you're able to answer the craziest questions: 'How tall will I be? Do marlins have lips?' "
And Rosenblatt has found himself getting caught up in the kinds of thoughts that rattle around in the heads of his grandchildren.
"Sammy, the middle child, who is now 6, asked me, 'What are years? Why do we have years?' And that began a little investigation on our part into how long years are on other planets and that sort of thing, which interests him very much," Rosenblatt says.
Answering the seemingly random questions of a 6-year-old have proved easier for Rosenblatt than asking some of his own. He says he couldn't face the question — "Why us?" — that haunts "all parents in this terrible situation." And couldn't bring himself to confront the issue of just how rare his daughter's heart condition really was.
"Ginny had a much more quasi-scientific or medical attitude and wanted to know exactly what had happened," Rosenblatt says. "I knew enough of what had happened to satisfy me that I did understand why our daughter had died, but the more I talked to people — the more that I got the idea that this was so rare — the angrier I got."
That anger is brought to vivid life in the early pages of Making Toast, in which Rosenblatt recounts how he picked fights with store clerks, lost his temper with one of his students, battled road rage, bristled at anyone who attempted to comfort him using phrases he viewed as cliched or trite, and — as he puts it — cursed God.
Struggle with a higher power is one of the book's most compelling — and troubling — themes. Rosenblatt describes himself as a believer, but not in a beneficent deity.
"The God I do believe in is the God who doesn't care: James Joyce's God who stands back, paring his fingernails," Rosenblatt says.
After Amy's death, this kind of belief presented itself as a dilemma.
"If you're going to believe in God," Rosenblatt explains, "if you're going to take that leap of faith, as I do, then the God that seems the most comprehensible to me would be the God who set us spinning and said 'Good luck.' What happens, unfortunately, with that conclusion about God, is that when you are yourself stricken, when you are brought to your knees, then you become entirely superstitious, as I did, and say [to God], 'You should have cared; you should have spared this one wonderful young woman with her three young children and her life barely lived, who was so valuable as a doctor to others.' "
But even as he finds himself grasping for answers, he knows his God cannot give the ones he's looking for.
"The God I am talking to is not the God of my comprehension. The God of my comprehension said, 'I'm sorry, I did the best I could.' "
Rosenblatt says he came upon an idea that might help to reconcile those two ideas of God — an indifferent creator with something more sympathetic — when a friend told him that he believes God wept at moments of tragedy. But he admits that the God that he can conceive of does not weep — at least not in the way he understands God now.
"It would be the best way to think of it, that God would set these things in motion, allow such things to happen, and then weep at the consequences," Rosenblatt says. "But as I say, I'm not quite there yet."
His anger diminishes as time passes, but Rosenblatt says that at times his anger rises from unexpected sources: a piece of music, or a television program, or a word from a friend. In those moments, he says it feels as though "Amy had died yesterday."
The questions of faith and God that weave through Making Toast also help to animate the way Rosenblatt perceives his daughter's spirit.
"There was a moment," he explains, when he and his wife were waiting for their youngest son to arrive on a train, "and I felt this tapping on my forearm. It wasn't a breeze and it wasn't a flutter of the garment. It was an actual tapping, like one person comforting another. And I looked to Ginny to see if she had done it and she had not. And I never felt it again.
"Once in a rare while, a breeze or something gives me an idea of Amy's presence," Rosenblatt continues. "But it is not in my nature to believe in such things. It is in Ginny's nature, and she believes in it very strongly. And in many of our friends too, who have lost loved ones in their families."
The support that came from friends in the wake of his daughter's death opened Rosenblatt's eyes to what he calls a "terrible secret society" of those who had experienced similar grief.
"Suddenly, you learn of the deaths in families ... of people you had known your whole life," he says. "And I thought, 'I never knew that about you,' or worse, 'Did you tell me that and did I forget it?' You know, because until it happens to you, there is a kind of casual way you look upon other people. Death is something that happens to others, you think, until it happens to you."
After living in the aftermath of his daughter's death for two years, after intertwining his life with those of his grandchildren, after mornings and mornings of making toast and grappling with questions of God and faith and fairness and anger, what shape does his daughter take in his daily life? Does he believe that the moment, waiting for his son on the train, where he felt a tapping on his arm, might have been Amy?
Rosenblatt's answer, like his book, looks back on the changes wrought by those years. It is a mix of faith — fragile and mysterious — and careful reasoning.
"As a writer, I have to believe in invisible things," Rosenblatt says. "So when it happened, I had no choice and no other explanation than to believe it was Amy tapping me saying, 'You're doing OK.' That is our standard, you see. It is the only reason that we can keep Amy alive with us: to think that she is approving of what we are doing and how the children are being reared and that we're doing as much as we can. This is a way of immortality. This is a way of keeping the dead alive. To do what you think they would have wanted."
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