May 17, 2001
A Father’s Loss
Against the Dying of the Light: A Father's Journey through Loss" by Leonard Fein (Jewish Lights Publishing, $19.95)
In January 1996, Leonard Fein's daughter Naomi, called Nomi, collapsed and died of cardiac arrest. A pacemaker had resolved a previously diagnosed heart problem, but no one had any clue that Nomi harbored another fatal condition. All involved, her physicians, her husband, her father, two sisters, mother and wide circle of friends were shocked and unprepared for her death. Her own daughter, Liat, was just 16 months old. Liat was with Nomi when she was stricken.
Fein walks us though numbness, shock, grief and acceptance. Pointedly, we are never told precisely the medical cause of Nomi's death. Scientific names here do not interest Fein, a veteran journalist (and a Journal contributing writer), editor, social activist and crusader. (Two Los Angeles Jewish social action institutions, MAZON and Koreh L.A., flow from Fein's public engagement.) Covering five years, Fein distills the disjointed, painful sorrow of a bereaved parent.
Along the way, one discerns a certain ruefulness. "When the buses in Israel were bombed a month after Nomi died, I experienced something that felt strangely close to envy.... I wanted ... the death, if death there had to be, to be part of a larger story." Fein's impulse is not strange at all. Ariel Glaser's death prompted Elizabeth and Paul Glaser to establish the Pediatric AIDS Foundation; Grace Ann Monaco's loss was a factor that led to the Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation, a help-and-advocacy group for pediatric cancer patients. Some, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, founded by Candy Lightner after her daughter's death, have radically changed our views.
But Nomi's death was not, to Fein's passing chagrin, "socially meaningful." It simply happened, and he grows older and Liat grows up. Fein had stopped wrestling with God long before, although as a passionate Jew raised inside Jewish tradition, he held on to rituals, songs and even the blessings. Nomi and her husband David's more intense religious commitment seemed to bemuse him. Nonetheless, he took comfort in the waves of community that surrounded Nomi's family, during the funeral and across the years.
Threaded against his grief is his memory. Liat, too young when her mother died, would not have memories of the child that Fein had raised with his ex-wife to accomplished adulthood. But he hopes that she will, through interaction with Nomi's friends and family, get some idea of what her mother was, some sense of "Nominess." He hopes that Nomi's younger sister, Jesse, will, if not impart "Nominess" to Liat, at least teach her "Jesseness," for Jesse, as did Liat, never had a moment without Nomi until her death.
How to answer the most difficult question a bereaved parent faces: How many children do you have? "I hesitate: I cannot say 'two'; that would be a betrayal. Yet if I say 'three,' the next question is typically, 'And where are they?' So I preempt the question, volunteer that one has died." So Fein writes in the first year of his grief. Fein doesn't revisit the matter during his five years of journal and journey. It is the question that does not disappear. Later, perhaps, he became adept at deflecting it, keeping distant, keeping quiet, keeping ahead of the inevitable, trivial exchanges.
At Jesse's wedding, 18 months after Nomi's death, Liat, the flower girl, "stopped and looked around, confused" for a moment after starting up the aisle. Her Aunt Rachel took Liat's hand and led her, and the rest of the family and friends, to "push open the doors of joy."
Fein learned to laugh and smile again. His reminders do not evaporate, however, nor would he have them do so. He claims his daughter's passions and hopes that her daughter will claim them also. He hopes too that Liat will know what Nomi's family was, her immigrant great-grandparents, her grandparents committed to social justice. In the end, Fein cannot give his granddaughter her mother, only his sense of her. He can give her a book, a letter, vanished hopes and the poignant memories.