I had a family. Four beautiful children, two boys, two girls. An open home filled with guests all the time. A wonderful relationship with my parents and siblings. A hard working husband. Enough money to pay the bills. Health. My life felt so perfect. So complete.
Then my world suddenly caved in.
My talented husband was being transferred down to Florida and I looked forward to building a new, fun life for our family and being closer to my father and grandmother. We were knee deep in packing tape and boxes as the school year was coming to an end. The Sunday before our big move we took a break from the packing and traveled to Chicago for a close friend’s wedding.
The baby got a little fever and started crying on Sunday afternoon as I shopped for a dress for my older daughter to wear that night. I was worried that he might have an ear infection. Some baby Motrin took care of his pain and he fell asleep. He was resting so deeply and comfortably that I left him at my sisters house while we went to the wedding instead of dressing him up and taking him along. We came home well past midnight. He was asleep in the pack n play. I couldn’t sleep very well; he was making noises that sounded as if he was having a bad dream.
Early in the morning I went to take him out of bed. It was dark in our room, so I couldn’t be sure but he didn’t look right. He was definitely sick, I decided, but something seemed more alarming. I woke up my husband. “Does he look funny to you?” I asked.
“This boy needs to get to a hospital,” my usually under reactive husband said. We ran upstairs, leaving our two oldest kids sleeping in the basement.
The next few minutes, hours and days seem like slow motion…Asking my niece for the keys to the car. Deciding that we couldn’t drive with him in this condition. Calling 911. Waiting what seemed like a very long time before hearing sirens as the ambulance approached the house. Sitting outside the house with paramedics. His blood sugar was too low. His head was turned to the side and he was staring to the left. My uncle, a doctor, running up the block in response to my frantic phone call minutes earlier. The ambulance finally heading to the closest ER. The ER doctor was quite worried. Blood tests. IV’s. MRI’s. Sepsis? Meningitis? Infection? Holding him on the stark white stretcher and just waiting. He seemed to be calming down a little, closing his eyes to rest, but then startling himself awake. His tired body was giving in and giving up. But at least he was startling himself awake to breathe, a good sign to me.
"It’s a matter of time. Say your goodbyes.”
Transferring to the Children’s hospital. I realized that we might not be going home that day, that something might be very wrong. I called my mother in Israel. Please pray for him. I reminded myself that God doesn’t give us what we can’t handle and I knew I couldn’t handle losing my son. So it would be okay, right? But that gnawing feeling that this was the beginning of his end. I couldn’t ask God for anything. I just knew that He’d do what was right and just and deserved.
Waiting and waiting for the pediatric ICU doctor to talk to us. Another brain scan. No activity. "We’ll know more tomorrow." Still no activity in the brain and stem. "It’s a matter of time. Say your goodbyes,” he said.
Just a virus that got into his spinal fluid they said. No cause, no reason. We couldn’t have done anything different. It was no one’s fault…but I knew that it must be mine. I must not have valued the lives that I created, and so now He was taking one away. I knew that he’d never wake up again. All those wires and tubes and the beeping. Holding him after waiting all that time, being careful not to move his breathing tube. He didn’t feel like mine anymore….
And nine days later, he was gone. We were still in Chicago, in unfamiliar apartments and houses. Our home was packed up and sent along to Florida without us. Our cars were driven to us by friends. Following his casket. Sitting in a velvet covered chair. Shocked. Listening to my husband read the eulogy we’d written the night before. Hearing people crying behind me. Watching me watching them bury my son, thinking of their own healthy children. Mine was gone.
My once full, happy, satisfying life was empty and sad. The constant yearning inside of me for the familiarity of being complete threatened to turn the most basic daily motions into tears of desperate sadness. Like picking out vegetables at the store or switching a load of laundry. I was overwhelmed with despair. I was forever incomplete. My purpose of life snatched away from me as I sat in my house for eight hours a day waiting for my other three children to come home from camp and school so I could reclaim my role of Mommy that was gone all day long.
It’s been a year now since my toddler died. A year that was mostly spent remembering only that he was gone and not so much on thinking about his amazing personality. I let myself remember him two weeks ago on his first Yahrzeit. I remember holding him and how he’d pat my shoulder the way we do to our babies. I remember his chubby hands taking hold of my cheeks and planting a big messy kiss on my lips. I remember him dropping food off his tray and saying “Uh-oh.” I remember him signing for more food or a drink. I remember the almost boastful pride that I felt pushing him and his older sister in the double stroller to shul. Or down the aisle at the grocery store. I remember spoiling him, giving him a taste of whatever I was eating. Letting him stay up past everyone else’s bedtime so I could spend some time playing with just him. Nursing him. He was gorgeous, with his blond hair and blue eyes peeking over the side of his car seat when I walked around to his door playing his own version of peek-a-boo.
I’d cry to relieve the painful pressure that I felt in my chest but no relief would come.
I was very strong when he was in a coma. I was even stronger when God took back his precious soul. After the shloshim, the 30-day period of mourning, it got harder to feel positive. After we moved to Florida I was too sad to function. I’d cry to relieve the painful pressure that I felt in my chest but no relief would come. I was too sad to continue my life. I felt like I was just going through the motions every day. I reminded myself to be a good mother to the other kids. I didn’t want them to lose their brother and their mother, even if I was still here physically. I played the role of “coping” well. I seemed to be doing fine. Talking or thinking about how I really felt was just too hard, too painful, too lonely.
Somehow I got through the year. Taking trips without buying him a ticket. Taking carpool without having to count his seat as occupied. Buying three shabbos treats instead of four. Thinking in “fives” instead of “sixes” for making reservations and setting the table. His birthday. His yahrzeit. And somehow the strength worked its way back in. I am functioning. I love being a mother to my older three. I pray better. I turn to God more often. And He has helped me make it through.
Feeling the Loss
For as many years as I can remember, the Three Weeks were always a strange time for me. I observed all the customs or mourning -- I didn’t take a haircut or go shopping for clothes. I didn't listen to music. But it seemed rather rote and not as meaningful as it should. I tried to imagine what we are missing with not having the Temple so I'd be mournful that we were still in exile, but it was hard to do with my perfect family, my lovely home and my nice clothes.
I no longer struggle to mourn for something that I never loved or held dear.
This year is different. No more perfect family, no more lovely home. And my nice clothes are meaningless to me without my son here to complete the picture. I now realize that this is what it must have felt like 2000 years ago to lose the Temple. We had a home in Jerusalem – a place of security, safety and comfort. Walking down the street as a Jew brought pride, the same way strolling down the street with my kids filled me with pride. And now the home is gone. Chained up and burned to the ground. We can go to the Kotel and feel a hint of the closeness of what used to be there, the same way I can hold his blankie and remember my son. But what we really need and yearn for is the real thing.
I know that with the coming of Mashiach and the rebuilding of our Temple, I will also get back my completeness. My son and so many other beautiful souls will return to us. We will all be whole. We will all feel the comfort and familiar and the security that we need. So this year, I feel it. I feel the raw pain of being stripped of what makes me complete. The raw pain of being a Jew without a home. I no longer struggle to yearn for something I never knew, to mourn for something that I never loved or held dear. Because I’ve suffered the unimaginable, unbearable loss of my son I understand a little bit of how I should feel as a Jew during this time. I yearn so much more for the final redemption. I only wish I didn’t learn to yearn by losing my son.
* * *
A toddler dies with no sins and joins the Almighty at a level higher than the greatest tzaddikim. So as much as I want to say that I write l’iluy nishmas my son, Menashe Koppel A’H, I really know that anything I do in his merit is really salve for my own pain. But I do hope that the merits that are credited to Koppie become merits for the healing of other sick children.