June 17, 2011

Dealing With Double Layers of Grief and Joy on Father's Day

I thought I would reflect on Father’s Day, not with my standard fare of global social and political analysis, but on a personal note for a change.

Father’s Day has a special significance to me, in a month filled with life’s milestones. After all, my birthday is in June, as is my father’s birthday, my parents’ anniversary, and the anniversary of my father’s death. My father, Al, died two years ago this month. And my older son, Ezra Malik, died nine months before my father, born sleeping after 34 weeks in his mother’s belly, taken away from us by a placental abruption. The placenta tore from the uterus, cutting off Ezra’s oxygen supply in utero. Never in my most hopeless and helpless state did I ever envision mourning the death of my father and my son - much less months apart from each other.

As for my father, he lived a long life of 82 years. In many ways we were different. I was born and raised in New York, and lived around the country and the world before settling in Philadelphia. Albert Love was born and raised in Augusta, Georgia, in a segregated South. His mother was black and his father was Irish, as he reminded us. He fought in the Korean War and came back with medals. He was a union man who worked a printing press in Manhattan so that I could attend Harvard. And he was active in his church and with the local VFW post. He didn’t fully understand my world and the opportunities available to me - and I can only imagine the difficulties he must have faced in his life - but I came to appreciate him. And I regret that he spent his final days in a nearby veteran’s nursing home, dying suddenly a few weeks after complications from surgery, and away from home, rather than with his family beside him.

While my father lived a full life, my son Ezra never had a chance to live life. I met Ezra in the hospital, where fathers typically meet their newborns. The big difference was that my son was born the day after he died, and only a few weeks short of his due date. I helped my wife as she went into induced labor at the hospital, knowing our son was already lifeless, no heartbeat, as that final ultrasound ultimately had told us. To make matters worse, during our living nightmare spent in the maternity ward, a new father in the elevator asked me if I was a new father as well.

Meeting my son for the first time, holding him and kissing him, with his full head of hair and flat feet, was unlike any experience before or since. I was overjoyed to see Ezra, but overcome with a debilitating and painful grief, the kind of pain you can feel in your bones, in your soul. Reality is suspended, yet you are compelled to experience a reality like no other, the loss of a child.

His mother and I read him a bedtime story before we buried him. Ezra Malik was wrapped in shrouds over his alligator pajamas, covered in his blanket to keep him warm, and buried in a Jewish cemetery in the ways of his mother’s people. Ezra is Hebrew for helper. Malik means King in Arabic (Melech in the Hebrew). His name reflected his parents’ commitment to social justice. To think of all of the hopes and dreams that would never be. I can’t help but believe that somewhere in that spirit world, Ezra’s grandfather, Al, is taking care of the boy, in between all those extended trash-talking sessions, and even an occasional moment of wisdom, from the old black folks from down South and the old Jewish folks from the old country.

Late the following year, just a day before New Year’s Eve, Ezra’s younger brother, Micah Amir, was born. Micah was named in remembrance of his brother (M for Malik) and his grandfather (A for Albert). Micah means “resembling God” in Hebrew, and Amir means “prince” in Arabic and Hebrew. This prince has given me nothing but unspeakable joy from the moment I first met him, and I am proud to be his father. But sometimes, I dream of having both of my sons with me, playing with them at the same time. Other times, I imagine Micah sitting on my father’s lap, the two of them belly laughing as only they can. The boy reminds me so much of the grandfather he never got a chance to meet, with his sense of humor and warmth towards others, and the obvious physical resemblances.

My sense of grief two years ago was quite different from now. At that time, the pain was overwhelming much of the time, as if I had been hit by a train, or had run into a brick wall. Tears and crying came without notice, or triggered by a song on the radio. And I dreaded Father’s Day like the plague. These days, grief tends to hide in the background, from a distance, and visits on occasion. And when grief returns, it reminds me of my humanity, of the things and people in my life that are important to me.

Father’s Day will always be a bittersweet day of reflection for me. And every June, I imagine I will find myself engaged in this delicate balancing act, this cruel negotiation between the joy of being a father today, and the sense of loss over what used to be and what could have been.

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