'Making Toast': Simple Gestures For Moving On

Roger Rosenblatt And James i i

hide captionAuthor Roger Rosenblatt with his grandson James. Rosenblatt is a journalist and the author of many other books, including Lapham Rising.

Ginny Rosenblatt
Roger Rosenblatt And James

Author Roger Rosenblatt with his grandson James. Rosenblatt is a journalist and the author of many other books, including Lapham Rising.

Ginny Rosenblatt

A little over two years ago, a 38-year-old pediatrician named Amy Solomon collapsed on her treadmill at home. She died of what was discovered to be a rare, undiagnosed heart defect.

The day she died, Amy's parents — Roger and Ginny Rosenblatt — drove from their house on Long Island to their daughter's home in Bethesda, Md. The Rosenblatts have been there ever since, helping their son-in-law take care of three children, who were 6, 4, and 1 when their mother died.

Now, Roger Rosenblatt has written about this reconfigured family in an exquisite, restrained little memoir filled with both hurt and humor.

The title of the book itself — Making Toast — contains both of those emotions. At first, it conveys Rosenblatt's dry sense of humor, before revealing a more complex meaning.

"It's my only skill," he tells All Things Considered's Melissa Block. "It's worth developing a specialty, and my specialty is making toast.

"I come up very early in the morning, set the table for the children, and then when they come down make toast for those who want it. Sometimes cinnamon toast, sometimes regular toast," Rosenblatt continues. "The only reason I wanted Making Toast as the title is that it is a simple gesture of moving on. Every morning there's the bread and you make the toast and you start the day. And so, even unconsciously, it became a symbol of how to live our life."

Making Toast
Making Toast
By Roger Rosenblatt
Hardcover, 176 pages
Ecco
List price: $21.99

Read An Excerpt

Rosenblatt is known as "Boppo" to his grandchildren. Having raised his own children, he's had to relearn how to be a parent. One thing he's rediscovering is that children have no respect for sequential thought.

"No matter what you're doing, you will be battered with questions. To say left field doesn't even begin to describe how odd the questions are," Rosenblatt says. "Eventually your reflexes develop in that direction and you're able to answer the craziest questions: 'How tall will I be? Do marlins have lips?' "

And Rosenblatt has found himself getting caught up in the kinds of thoughts that rattle around in the heads of his grandchildren.

"Sammy, the middle child, who is now 6, asked me, 'What are years? Why do we have years?' And that began a little investigation on our part into how long years are on other planets and that sort of thing, which interests him very much," Rosenblatt says.

Answering the seemingly random questions of a 6-year-old have proved easier for Rosenblatt than asking some of his own. He says he couldn't face the question — "Why us?" — that haunts "all parents in this terrible situation." And couldn't bring himself to confront the issue of just how rare his daughter's heart condition really was.

"Ginny had a much more quasi-scientific or medical attitude and wanted to know exactly what had happened," Rosenblatt says. "I knew enough of what had happened to satisfy me that I did understand why our daughter had died, but the more I talked to people — the more that I got the idea that this was so rare — the angrier I got."

That anger is brought to vivid life in the early pages of Making Toast, in which Rosenblatt recounts how he picked fights with store clerks, lost his temper with one of his students, battled road rage, bristled at anyone who attempted to comfort him using phrases he viewed as cliched or trite, and — as he puts it — cursed God.

Struggle with a higher power is one of the book's most compelling — and troubling — themes. Rosenblatt describes himself as a believer, but not in a beneficent deity.

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"The God I do believe in is the God who doesn't care: James Joyce's God who stands back, paring his fingernails," Rosenblatt says.

After Amy's death, this kind of belief presented itself as a dilemma.

"If you're going to believe in God," Rosenblatt explains, "if you're going to take that leap of faith, as I do, then the God that seems the most comprehensible to me would be the God who set us spinning and said 'Good luck.' What happens, unfortunately, with that conclusion about God, is that when you are yourself stricken, when you are brought to your knees, then you become entirely superstitious, as I did, and say [to God], 'You should have cared; you should have spared this one wonderful young woman with her three young children and her life barely lived, who was so valuable as a doctor to others.' "

But even as he finds himself grasping for answers, he knows his God cannot give the ones he's looking for.

"The God I am talking to is not the God of my comprehension. The God of my comprehension said, 'I'm sorry, I did the best I could.' "

Rosenblatt says he came upon an idea that might help to reconcile those two ideas of God — an indifferent creator with something more sympathetic — when a friend told him that he believes God wept at moments of tragedy. But he admits that the God that he can conceive of does not weep — at least not in the way he understands God now.

"It would be the best way to think of it, that God would set these things in motion, allow such things to happen, and then weep at the consequences," Rosenblatt says. "But as I say, I'm not quite there yet."

His anger diminishes as time passes, but Rosenblatt says that at times his anger rises from unexpected sources: a piece of music, or a television program, or a word from a friend. In those moments, he says it feels as though "Amy had died yesterday."

The questions of faith and God that weave through Making Toast also help to animate the way Rosenblatt perceives his daughter's spirit.

"There was a moment," he explains, when he and his wife were waiting for their youngest son to arrive on a train, "and I felt this tapping on my forearm. It wasn't a breeze and it wasn't a flutter of the garment. It was an actual tapping, like one person comforting another. And I looked to Ginny to see if she had done it and she had not. And I never felt it again.

"Once in a rare while, a breeze or something gives me an idea of Amy's presence," Rosenblatt continues. "But it is not in my nature to believe in such things. It is in Ginny's nature, and she believes in it very strongly. And in many of our friends too, who have lost loved ones in their families."

The support that came from friends in the wake of his daughter's death opened Rosenblatt's eyes to what he calls a "terrible secret society" of those who had experienced similar grief.

"Suddenly, you learn of the deaths in families ... of people you had known your whole life," he says. "And I thought, 'I never knew that about you,' or worse, 'Did you tell me that and did I forget it?' You know, because until it happens to you, there is a kind of casual way you look upon other people. Death is something that happens to others, you think, until it happens to you."

After living in the aftermath of his daughter's death for two years, after intertwining his life with those of his grandchildren, after mornings and mornings of making toast and grappling with questions of God and faith and fairness and anger, what shape does his daughter take in his daily life? Does he believe that the moment, waiting for his son on the train, where he felt a tapping on his arm, might have been Amy?

Rosenblatt's answer, like his book, looks back on the changes wrought by those years. It is a mix of faith — fragile and mysterious — and careful reasoning.

"As a writer, I have to believe in invisible things," Rosenblatt says. "So when it happened, I had no choice and no other explanation than to believe it was Amy tapping me saying, 'You're doing OK.' That is our standard, you see. It is the only reason that we can keep Amy alive with us: to think that she is approving of what we are doing and how the children are being reared and that we're doing as much as we can. This is a way of immortality. This is a way of keeping the dead alive. To do what you think they would have wanted."

Excerpt: 'Making Toast'

Making Toast
Making Toast
By Roger Rosenblatt
Hardcover, 176 pages
Ecco
List price: $21.99

LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some readers may find offensive.

The trick when foraging for a tooth lost in coffee grounds is not to be misled by the clumps. The only way to be sure is to rub each clump between your thumb and index finger, which makes a mess of your hands. For some twenty minutes this morning, Ginny and I have been hunting in the kitchen trash can for the top front left tooth of our seven-year-old granddaughter, Jessica. Loose for days but not yet dislodged, the tooth finally dropped into a bowl of Apple Jacks. I wrapped it for safekeeping in a paper napkin and put it on the kitchen counter, but it was mistaken for trash by Ligaya, Bubbies's nanny. Bubbies (James) is twenty months and the youngest of our daughter Amy's three children. Sammy, who is five, is uninterested in the tooth search, and Jessie is unaware of it. We hope to find the tooth so that Jessie won't worry about the Tooth Fairy not showing up.

This sort of activity has constituted our life since Amy died, on December 8, 2007, at 2:30 p.m., six months ago. Today is June 9, 2008. The day of her death, Ginny and I drove from our home in Quogue, on the south shore of Long Island, to Bethesda, Maryland, where Amy and her husband, Harris, lived. With Harris's encouragement, we have been there ever since. "How long are you staying?" Jessie asked the next morning. "Forever," I said.

Amy Elizabeth Rosenblatt Solomon, thirty-eight years old, pediatrician, wife of hand surgeon Harrison Solomon, and mother of three, collapsed on her treadmill in the downstairs playroom at home. "Jessie and Sammy discovered her," our oldest son, Carl, told us on the phone. Carl lives in Fairfax, Virginia, not far from Amy and Harris, with his wife, Wendy, and their two boys, Andrew and Ryan. Jessie had run upstairs to Harris. "Mommy isn't talking," she said. Harris got to Amy within seconds, and tried CPR, but her heart had stopped and she could not be revived.

Amy's was ruled a "sudden death due to an anomalous right coronary artery" — meaning that her two coronary arteries fed her heart from the same side. Normally, the arteries are located on both sides of the heart so that if one fails, the other can do the work. In Amy's heart, they ran alongside each other. They could have been squeezed between the aorta and the pulmonary artery, which can expand during physical exercise. The blood flow was cut off. Her condition, affecting less than two thousandths of one percent of the population, was asymptomatic; she might have died at any time in her life.

She would have appreciated the clarity of the verdict. Amy was a very clear person, even as a small child, knowing intuitively what plain good sense a particular situation required. She had a broad expanse of forehead, dark, nearly black hair, and hazel eyes. Both self confident and selfless, when she faced you there could be no doubt you were the only thing on her mind.

Her clarity could make her severe with her family, especially her two brothers. Carl and John, our youngest, withered when she excoriated them for such offenses as invading her room. She could also poke you gently with her wit. When she was about to graduate from the NYU School of Medicine, her class had asked me to be the speaker. A tradition of the school allows a past graduate to place the hood of the gown on a current graduate. Harris, who had graduated the previous year, was set to "hood" Amy. At dinner the night before the ceremony, a friend remarked, "Amy, isn't it great? Your dad is giving the graduation speech, and your fiance is doing the hood." Amy said, "It is. And it's also pretty great that I'm graduating."

Yet her clarity also contributed to her kindness. When she was six, I was driving her and three friends to a birthday party. One of the girls got carsick. The other two backed away, understandably, with cries of "Ooh!" and "Yuck!" Amy drew closer to the stricken child, to comfort her.

Ginny and I moved from a five-bedroom house, with a den and a large kitchen, to a bedroom with a connected bath — the in-law apartment in an alcove off the downstairs playroom that we used to occupy whenever we visited. We put in a dresser and a desk, and Harris added a TV and a rug. It may have appeared that we were reducing our comforts, but the older one gets the less space one needs, and the less one wants. And we still have our house in Quogue.

I found I could not write and didn't want to. I could teach, however, and it helped me feel useful. I drive from Bethesda to Quogue on Sundays, and meet my English literature classes and MFA writing workshops at Stony Brook University early in the week, then back to Bethesda. The drive takes about five hours and a tank of gas each way. But it is easier and faster than flying or taking a train.

Road rage was a danger those early weeks. I picked fights with store clerks for no reason. I lost my temper with a student who phoned me too frequently about her work. I seethed at those who spoke of Amy's death in the cliches of modern usage, such as "passing" and "closure." I cursed God. In a way, believing in God made Amy's death more, not less, comprehensible, since the God I believe in is not beneficent. He doesn't care. A friend was visiting Jerusalem when he got the news about Amy. He kicked the Wailing Wall, and said, "Fuck you, God!" My sentiments exactly.

What's Jessie's favorite winter jacket? The blue not the pink, though pink is her favorite color. Sammy prefers whole milk in his Froot Loops or MultiGrain Cheerios. He calls it "cow milk." Jessie drinks only Silk soy milk. She likes a glass of it at breakfast. Sammy prefers water. Such information had to be absorbed quickly. Sammy sees himself as the silver Power Ranger, Jessie is the pink. Sammy's friends are Nico, Carlos, and Kipper. Jessie's are Ally, Danielle, and Kristie. There were play-dates to arrange, birthday-party invitations to respond to, school forms to fill out. Sammy goes to a private preschool, the Geneva Day School; Jessie to Burning Tree, the local public school. We had to master their schedules.

I reaccustomed myself to things about small children I'd forgotten. Talking toys came back into my life. I will be walking with the family through an airport, and the voice of a ventriloquist's dummy in a horror movie will seep through the suitcase. Buzz Lightyear says, "To infinity and beyond!" A talking phone says, "Help me!" Another toy says, "I'm a pig. Can we stop?"

In all this, two things were of immeasurable use to us. First, Leslie Adelman, a friend of Amy's and Harris's, and the mother of friends of the children, created a Web site inviting others to prepare dinners for our family. Emails were sent by Leslie, our daughter-in-law Wendy, Laura Gwyn, another friend and school mother, and Betsy Mencher, who had gone to college with Amy. Soon one hundred people — school families, friends and colleagues of Amy's and Harris's, neighbors — comprised the list. Participants deposited dinners in a blue cooler outside our front door. Food was provided every other evening, with enough for the nights in between, from mid-December to the beginning of June.

The second was a piece of straightforward wisdom that Bubbies's nanny gave Harris. Ligaya is a small, lithe woman in her early fifties. I know little of her life except that she is from the Philippines, with a daughter there and a grown son here who is a supervisor in a restaurant, and that she has a work ethic of steel and the fl exibility to deal with any contingency. She also shows a sense of practical formality by calling Bubbies James, and not by the nickname Amy had coined, to ensure the more respectable name for his future. Ligaya altered her schedule to be with us twelve hours a day, five days a week — an indispensable gift, especially to her small charge, who giggles with delight when he hears her key in the front door. No one outside the family could have felt Amy's death more acutely. Yet what she said to Harris, and to the rest of us, was dispassionate: "You are not the first to go through such a thing, and you are better able to handle it than most."

Bubbies looks around for Amy, says "Mama" when he sees her pictures, and clings to his father. Bubbies has blond hair and a face usually occupied by observant silences. When I am alone with him, he plays happily enough. I've taught him to give a high five, and when he does, I stagger across the room to show him how strong he is. He likes to take a pot from one kitchen cabinet and Zone bars from another, deposit the bars in the pot, and put back the lid. He'll do this contentedly for quite a while. When Harris enters the kitchen, Bubbies drops everything, runs to him, and holds him tight at the knees.

Jessie is tall, also blond, with an expression forever on the brink of enthusiasm. Amy used to say she was the most optimistic person she'd ever known. She is excited about her hip-hop dance class; about a concert her school is giving in Amy's name, to raise money for a memorial scholarship set up at the NYU School of Medicine; about going to the Nutcracker. "Do your Nutcracker dance, Boppo," Jessie says. (Ginny is Mimi, I am Boppo.) I swing into my improvised ballet, the high point of which is when I wiggle my ass like the dancing mice. Jessie is also excited about our trip to Disney World in January, the adventure that Amy and Harris had planned for themselves and the three children months before Amy died. We speak of distant summer plans in Quogue. Jessie is excited.

Sammy is tall, too, with dark hair and wide-set, ruminative eyes. He brings me a book to read, about a caterpillar. He brings another, which just happened to be in the house, called Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children. The book says, "There's a beginning and an end for everything that is alive. In between is living." The book illustrates its lessons with pictures of birds, fish, plants, and people. I lean back on the couch with Sammy tucked in the crook of my arm, and read to him about the beauty of death.

From Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt. Copyright 2010 by Roger Rosenblatt. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, USA. All rights reserved.

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