Sometimes it feels like yesterday, that Sabbath eve thirty-three years ago that my daughter Ruth was struck by a car whose driver had spent six hours in a bar, drinking. Other days it feels like another era, another lifetime. If you have suffered the death of a child, you know that you never forget. You never “get over it.” Even now, a conversation that invokes Ruth’s memory inevitably evokes tears.
Years ago I developed a slide show called “The Story of Ruth.” It was designed to involve teenagers with watching this cute little girl grow up so that when she died, they would feel they had lost a friend. For many years, I took the slide show into high school health classes, and the discussions afterwards suggested that perhaps the students would make good choices: not to drink and drive, to be the designated driver for their friends. One day a student stopped me in a grocery store parking lot to tell me that I had ruined her day. She had seen the slide show that morning, and she felt she had lost a friend. And in that friend’s memory, she would never drink and drive. “Wow!” I thought. “Maybe it’s working. Maybe it really is worth doing.” That student’s sadness made me feel that Ruth and I were successful.
I presented “The Story of Ruth” dozens of times in the first years after her death. Each time I heard my recorded voice crack as I described Ruth’s twelve-day coma, I found myself hopeful. I could feel my heart rate pick up. This time the story was going to end differently. This time Ruth was going to wake up. But of course, I was only fooling myself. She never did.
Five years ago, as we approached the 28th anniversary of Ruth’s death, I started a prose piece which demanded to become poetry. I was fortunate to publish this poem in Jewish Action Magazine (March 2010), and I reprint it here in loving memory of Ruth. If there are Jewish allusions that you don’t understand, please use the Comments section of this blog to request clarification, and I will happily provide it. The Hebrew phrase “kriyat hayam” refers to the splitting of the sea during the Exodus; the phrase “kriyat halev” is my take off on that, referring to the splitting of the heart.
With the brilliance of a comet
Ruth streaked through our lives
for fourteen years
minus one week,
gone now two weeks short of
twice the length of her
“With a mighty hand,
with an outstretched arm,”
God blasted Egypt with plagues,
one for each finger, says the Hagaddah,
times five for God’s great hand at the Sea,
times four for the fury, rage, trouble
and messengers of evil that accompanied
each pestilence. Ten plagues became fifty,
fifty became two hundred.
One lifetime became
two lifetimes of loss.
Where was God’s protective hand
when the driver wrapped his
ten inebriated fingers
around the wheel that steered into
Ruth and her friends,
splitting our lives,
rending our spirits?
We read the story of
Kriyat hayam, how
God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm
tore nature in two and
split the sea.
Two lifetimes ago
we tore our garments
to match our broken hearts.
is written with permanent ink
on the fragile parchment of our souls.
The rabbis tell us that to save
one life is to save the world.
Where were God’s outstretched hands,
with ten fingers, or fifty, or two hundred,
to steer the car and save the world
that Sabbath eve two weeks short of
twenty-eight years ago?
Couldn’t God spare even one finger
to stay that evil man’s free will?
Two lifetimes ago
times all the lives
ripped and shredded and torn in two
by careless, drunken fingers.
We piece together our
fury and despair
our darkened dreams
to create a new life
stitched with love for Ruth
going on for Ruth
instead of Ruth
whose single lifetime
ended two lifetimes ago.
An infinity of lifetimes ago.