- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

MAKING TOAST: A FAMILY STORY

By Roger Rosenblatt

Ecco/HarperCollins, $21.99, 166 pages

Reviewed by Priscilla S. Taylor

One evening a couple of years ago, PBS’ Jim Lehrer made a brief, straightforward announcement at the end of his “NewsHour” broadcast: Roger Rosenblatt was retiring from the TV program for which he had long delivered impeccable, thoughtful essays. It turned out that the acclaimed journalist, novelist, playwright and teacher had just lost his only daughter, Amy Solomon, a 38-year-old pediatrician and mother of three. She died of cardiac arrest while exercising at home. Her sudden death was attributed to an “anomalous coronary artery.”

Mr. Rosenblatt and his wife, Ginny, a former kindergarten and first-grade teacher, immediately left behind their five-bedroom Long Island house for the guest room in the home of their son-in-law, Harris Solomon, a hand surgeon in Bethesda. A family tragedy had abruptly plunged the Rosenblatts into a new life.

Now, Mr. Rosenblatt fixes breakfast for three children ages 7 and younger, while his wife is “in her element” as caregiver and teacher. She has taken over Amy’s maternal responsibilities, has been writing poetry and has organized a book club. In admiration, Mr. Rosenblatt says, “After forty-six years of marriage, due to the most painful of reasons, I am getting to know my wife.” He adds, “We know that we are creating a diversion for the children as well as a differently constructed life for them. Yet we are doing the same thing for ourselves. When Amy died, Ginny and I never had to confer as to where we wanted to be and should be. We had to ask Harris, but not each other.”

At of the end of the book, more than a year later (chronological markers are not the book’s strong point), the Rosenblatts are still there, prepared to stay as long as Harris wants them to remain.

“You are not the first to go through such a thing, and you are better able to handle it than most,” said the Solomon family’s wise Filipino nanny, who volunteered to work 12-hour weekdays. (She also advised them to call the baby James rather than Amy’s pet name for him, Bubbies.) Both Rosenblatts, in their mid-60s, are energetic and were able to make themselves available to step into their late daughter’s household and comfort each other in their mutual loss. Amy’s brothers and her husband’s family rallied, as did friends from all over: Casseroles magically appeared every other day for the first six months.

“Until Amy died,” writes Mr. Rosenblatt, “I had always believed that good things would simply befall me. Except for a few disappointments, … I’ve led a charmed life. I am learning what most people know at a much younger age - that life is to be endured, and its rewards earned.” The author easily confesses his anger at God and claims that “we will never feel right again. No analysis or therapy will change that.”

As for reuniting after death, he can go only so far as to “accept Lewis Thomas’ idea of an afterlife based on the principle that nothing in nature disappears …. The only spiritual thought that has come to me is a kind of prayer to Amy that we are doing what she would have us do.”

Thus, while his wife sings along with Toddler Tunes and handles play dates, Mr. Rosenblatt entertains the children in his own way - visiting their schools and giving exhilarating upside-down swings to the 23-month-old James (aka Bubbies), whom he can deny nothing. When the child asks him to read from a book he selects from the shelf, which happens to be “The Letters of James Joyce,” Mr. Rosenblatt fakes it: “Dear Bubbies, Went to the playground today. Tried the slide. It was a little scary. I like the swings better. I can go very high, just like you. Love, James Joyce.” He can’t resist adding, “It tickles me that Bubbies has chosen to latch onto a writer who gladly would have stepped on a baby to get a rave review.”

Since Amy’s death, Mr. Rosenblatt has continued to teach a class or two at Stony Brook University, commuting to Long Island by car, Sunday through Monday or Tuesday. And he has had a contractor turn a garage into a playhouse for family visits. As it happened, the contractor’s 18-year-old son died suddenly (“Something to do with his heart”) during the project, underscoring the author’s new awareness of how many people he knows have also lost a child.

Amy’s death colors everything for the author. He says he has come to a new appreciation for poet Anne Sexton’s “The Truth the Dead Know.” When he asked his class to comment on the meaning of the line “in another country people die,” one young man said, “It means that death happens to other people.”

He also reminisces about an interview he did with Amy when she was a second-year medical student. Mr. Rosenblatt was writing an essay about the character of physicians for New York magazine’s issue on the city’s “Best Doctors” and asked Amy why, given all that medicine has accomplished in the past few years, the stature of doctors had not risen.

Amy responded, “Doctors used to be the be-all and end-all when they knew very little. Now that they know so much more, it works to their disadvantage. When something goes wrong, people think, ‘Well, they should have known,’ and the fact that the ordinary person knows so much about medicine demystifies the profession. … People don’t believe in death these days. But doctors do.”

This restrained little book about coping with the incomprehensible meanders through the present and past in a stream-of-consciousness style. Sadly, there are no illustrations other than one inside the dust jacket, which shows the author leaning back as his 2-year-old grandson pulls his hair. Given the book’s subtitle, and the frequent references about how important family photographs are to the family today, the omission seems curious. Maybe he can’t bear to look at them.

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean, Va.

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