MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And Im Melissa Block.
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, Maryland. The Rosenblatts have been there ever since, helping their son-in-law take care of three children, who were six, four and one when their mother died.
Now Roger Rosenblatt has written about this reconfigured family in an exquisite, restrained little memoir thats filled with both hurt and humor. It's titled "Making Toast."
Rosenblatt is known as Boppo to his grandchildren. He's had to relearn how to be a parent. And one thing he's rediscovering is that children have no respect for sequential thought.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROGER ROSENBLATT (Author, "Making Toast"): It really is something I hadn't entirely forgotten, that no matter what you're doing, you will be battered with questions. To say left field doesnt even begin to describe how odd the questions are. So, 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?
Although some of the questions, I must say, do get to things that are so interesting I want to research them with the kids. Sammy, the middle child who is now six, Sammy 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.
BLOCK: The title of the book, "Making Toast," comes from one special skill that you have as a grandfather.
Mr. ROSENBLATT: You're very kind to put it that way.
BLOCK: Yes, so...
Mr. ROSENBLATT: It's my solitary skill.
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BLOCK: Your only skill.
Mr. ROSENBLATT: My only skill. But I tell you, I am really good at it. It's worth developing a specialty and my specialty is making toast. So I come down very early in the morning - I come up, rather, 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.
The only reason that 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.
BLOCK: You say at one point in the book that there are things that you simply dont want to know. And one of them is you did not want to know, at least when you wrote that, how rare Amy's heart condition was.
Mr. ROSENBLATT: I didnt. Ginny had a much more quasi scientific or medical attitude towards it and wanted to know exactly what had happened. 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 I got the idea that this was so rare that the angrier I got.
I was asking the questions that all parents ask in this terrible situation, all people ask in this situation: Why us? Why should the odds have been so stacked against us? So I did not want to know the answer to that question.
BLOCK: You mentioned your anger there and there's a part of the book that I was hoping you could read for us, where you're talking about the anger - especially in the early days after Amy died. This is on page five.
Mr. ROSENBLATT: (Reading) 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, "Beep you, God." My sentiments exactly.
BLOCK: You come back to this question of God and his place in your life and how it shaped, if at all, how you dealt with Amy's death, at several points throughout the book. And why dont you talk a bit about how you came to an understanding of that?
Mr. ROSENBLATT: Well, as I have told other friends, it would be easier - who did not believe in God - it would have been easier for me if I had not believed in God. Therefore, I would have just cursed the bad luck of our daughter's death.
But believing in God, the God I do believe in, is the God who doesn't care: James Joyce's God who stands back, paring his fingernails. That seems to me a sensible - if you're going to believe in God - if you have that leap of faith, as I do - then the God one, 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, well, you should've cared. You should have spared this one wonderful young woman with her three young children, and her life barely lived, and was so valuable as a doctor to others. You shouldn't have done it.
I realize as I say that, that 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.
BLOCK: This whole question, I guess, of faith and God, shapes also how you perceive Amy's spirit. And you talk about this too, that you really feel her spirit, you say only fleetingly. And you know what comfort it brings to other people who can feel that the dead are nearby. You dont have that it sounds like.
Mr. ROSENBLATT: I dont. There was a moment, which I described in the book, when Ginny and I are waiting for our youngest son, John, to come by train around Christmas time. And I felt this tapping on my forearm. I mean it wasnt a breeze and it wasnt a flutter of the garment. It was an actual tapping, like one person comforting another. And I looked at Ginny to see if she had done it and she had not, and I never felt it again.
Once in a while, once in a rare while, a breeze or something gives me an idea of Amy's presence. But it is not in my nature to believe in such things. It is in Ginny's nature. She believes in it very strongly and in many of our friends, too, who have lost loved ones in their families.
Thats the - by the way, as an aside - thats the trouble with - one of the many troubles with a situation like this. Suddenly you learn of the deaths in families that you'd never known before, of people you had known your whole life. It is like a terrible secret society holding this grief inside. 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.
BLOCK: Im fascinated by that tapping that you described. What did you make it of it, especially as someone who doesnt, as you say, believe in these things?
Mr. ROSENBLATT: Well, as a writer, I have to believe in invisible things. So when it happened, I had no choice and no other explanation than to believe it was Amy tapping me saying, "You're doing okay." I mean that's 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're 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.
BLOCK: Roger Rosenblatt, thanks so much.
Mr. ROSENBLATT: My pleasure. Thank you.
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BLOCK: Roger Rosenblatt's memoir is titled "Making Toast: A Family Story." There's an excerpt at NPR.org.