September 8, 2010
A Loss of faith
I am angry with God. I thought we had a deal. I feel betrayed. The bargain was not kept. The contract was broken.
(I am not used to the weight of sadness. I don’t carry it well. I’m searching for balance so I don’t become crippled.)
Some families seem burdened with mishegoss. Always a “drama,” a “situation,” a “disaster,” an illness. Our children’s stories seemed embarrassingly carefree. Two beautiful daughters, perfect health, excellent schools, traveling the world, lovely friends, wonderful careers. Raising them was pure pleasure. The only real “drama” was the argument about letting my older daughter attend her winter formal in Chicago while interning in London. My younger daughter faced a similar controversy. Would her bat mitzvah be on Masada or at the Western Wall, and should she choose to attend Vanderbilt or Boston University. (She chose the Wall and Vanderbilt.)
God smiled on our house, and the Book of Life overflowed with abundance. What could possibly go wrong? Handsome menches had shown up to propose, the brides were stunning, and the years of joy flowed easily. By last summer, my elder daughter had produced two perfect grandchildren and my younger announced she was expecting. My husband and I sat back comfortably to contemplate retirement and plan for the next round of nachas.
How does one process the death of a child? Unfortunately, we are all too familiar with the more common scenarios. The blinding flash accident, the hand of fate, the wrong place at the wrong time, a drunk driver, a drug overdose, the teen suicide or the long, heart-wrenching struggle against incurable disease such as the one described in Rabbi Harold Kushner’s seminal book on the subject of death, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” The “good fight” is waged and lost.
But what happened to us was an aberration, fitting none of these scenarios. A slow-motion train wreck, an unbelievable series of errors, omissions, miscalculations, coincidence and bad timing, a spinning vortex of tragedy. Our beautiful daughter, Shane Gold Burwick, a bride of eight months, and her unborn son of six months’ gestation, are now forever together at Mount Sinai Memorial Park.
How did they get there? It makes no sense! Why did they miss the seder, and all our birthdays? Her first anniversary was to be her first Mother’s Day. We were planning a bris, not a funeral. This does not equate! This is not my life!
The new birth control pill Yasmin was supposed to help solve a variety of problems common to young women. And for many, it does, but for countless others, it has dangerous side effects, including blood clots, particularly, deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism, which Shane suffered. But, being vibrant and otherwise healthy, Shane quickly recovered, resuming her career at Sony Pictures, becoming engaged in August 2008, then married in May 2009 and pregnant in July, never being warned of the well-documented extreme danger, the ticking time bomb, her condition produced.
Last fall, our lives began to unravel. A gut-wrenching medical horror story unfolded, rivaling those of medieval torture. Shane and her husband saw the loss of their child, and then we saw the loss of ours. Shane was diagnosed with a cerebral thrombosis in December and died following a Caesarean section on Jan. 14, 2010. She was 31.
Sadly, the hows and whys of what happened to Shane and to us will be revealed by investigating medical records and expert testimony. Perhaps there will be answers, but not the one I am seeking.
Where was God? Why did he turn away? So many were praying! Why our Shane? Why our grandson? Why this time? Why this way?
I have studied Rabbi Kushner’s book. (Ironically, he had officiated at the bar mitzvah of Shane’s husband in Boston.) I find no answers there. I find it intensely provocative that the book is titled “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” rather than why. The answer to “when” is well addressed. It’s often and randomly. The answer to why is the critical issue and is simply not there, or anywhere else. Perhaps it’s just “why not.”
Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei of Sinai Temple, (now with Bet Shira in Miami) delivered a eulogy that managed to penetrate and resonate through my grief-addled mind:
“This is tragedy in its most cruel manifestation. ... This is a dark time. There should have been more light, there should have been more memories and blessings. ... It should have been the beginning, not the end ... the light of Shane’s memory does not take away the pain or the anger or the hard questions: Why? How could God do this? ... There are no good answers. Any attempt to explain, any attempt to answer would be an insult to their memory. Why? ... This is a question for which there is no answer. What I will say is that I do not believe God caused this. The God I believe in does not rob us of life, does not impart illness and does not devastate us with tragedy. The God I believe in is not such a God.”
Still contemplating his words at 3 a.m., I wrote the following: “God is the universal Life Force, setting in motion, but not controlling, the power of nature and her seemingly random extremes of beauty and cruelty.”
As the holidays approach, I struggle with the thought of going to temple. Why do we pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life? It might as well be the Book of Good Luck. Some will have it, others, not.
God exerts no control. God is not involved. We see the evidence that this is so and experience it first-hand but persist in the fantasy that life makes sense, that things can be fixed, that we have some control. Is it a comfort to believe that God cries with us? It seems a greater comfort that the odds are usually are in our favor. The first is a matter of faith, the second a statistical reality.
As we left the hospital that horrid afternoon, the Los Angles sun was blinding and defiant. We pulled the car over, gasping, uncomprehending. “What just happened?” My husband said that we ran out of luck. Yes! That was it! Certainly not God’s will! God doesn’t will such things! Just bad luck. Shane’s husband said we were cheated and that Shane was cheated most of all.
Shane was so incredibly sweet and loving. She brought nothing but joy and light into the world. Why did she have to suffer weeks of such pain only to have her child taken from her? Why did it take three days of torture for her to die? Is it possible to envy those who can say, “He never knew what hit him. In an instant, he was gone”?
Why didn’t anyone at the hospital and the doctors, in all their wisdom, seem to notice that everything was spiraling out of control. So many bad things had to fall into place, a virtual conspiracy of “bad luck.” I keep going over and over it in my mind, the staggering improbability of this series of events. An infinity of “ifs.”
Shane was a great beauty with a vibrant, indelible personality and intelligence. She led a charmed life only made possible by the blessings of good fortune and the culmination of her grandparents’ impossible dreams. So, we cannot mourn the life she led, only that it was cut so short, all the promise unrealized.
Nature is random, but the universe is generous. The lord giveth, and the lord taketh away, but for no real reason, either way. So much evil is rewarded while the good suffer. And, while it may be true that our prayers are heard, God doesn’t manipulate the affairs of man. The concepts of prayer, faith, hope and luck are powerful illusions. We persist in believing because to do otherwise is against human nature.
People say that time helps to heal the searing pain of loss. But nothing could be less true. Each day that passes takes Shane further away from me, so that now, when I hear her voice and see her smile, I realize that these are memories, and will always be, only that — receding deeper in time.
The living are compelled to travel forward. Time is a dimension of distance, moving in only one direction, and no matter how well “packed” you are for the journey, you can take nothing with you.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do good things happen to bad people? It’s all the same question.
So, why do we pray? Not for the future, over which God exerts no control. We pray to honor what exists, what we’ve been privileged to know and see. To honor the power of life God has set in motion and all that we don’t understand and will never have answered.
The future tense does not belong to the Book of Life because we can only see it in the rearview mirror.
Shane is survived by the author, Roberta Gold, and Arnold Gold, of Encino, as well as her husband, Jordan Burwick, and her sister, Robyn Fener.