A Family Secret and a Grief Resolved, Part One

In the summer of 1998, my mother’s sister Ruth  was dying of pancreatic cancer.  A friend had performed a surgical procedure that granted her two years of life, but now there was no way to stop the disease from spreading.  We all knew that she had perhaps six months to live.  As a historian and gerontologist, I was well-schooled in catching stories of the dying;  I knew that when an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.  As a nephew, I wanted to know more about my aunt’s life, to preserve her voice and her memories for our family.  But I had another motivation—I wanted to ask her about a death in 1954 whose family narrative had never quite satisfied me.  I had a hunch that Ruth knew more about it than she had ever let on.  

Born in 1932 in New Haven, Ct., Ruth was 7 years younger than my mother Jesse.  They were the only two children of Jacob and Helen Breslav, both born near the turn of the century, both children of immigrant Jewish parents. Jacob (who went by Jack) had graduated from Yale and Helen from Mt. Holyoke, setting intimidating expectations of success and assimilation for their daughters.  My mother followed her mother and graduated from Mt. Holyoke.  As a child, I ate many meals on Mt. Holyoke china plates, whose maroon images and offwhite background left an indelible and dour Holyoke President Mary Lyon imprinted on my memory.  

My aunt Ruth was the rebellious child.  She stole pennies from her mother’s purse to buy soda at the corner store on her way to grammar school, several blocks from their house on Edgewood Way.  As a teenager, Ruth liked to skip school and hang out with a questionable crowd at the downtown New Haven Arena.  On weekend nights, she lounged in parked cars on the hill  behind my grandparents’ house, necking with her Italian Catholic boyfriends.  At Vermont Jr. College and Syracuse, she  continued her fun-loving ways.  

I always felt a special bond with Aunt Ruth, who was as sweet as the multicolored Lifesavers she always carried and as daffy as her phobias of leaving the house or vomiting.  My aunt and her first husband Joel stayed for three or four weeks with me and my younger twin brother and sister in September 1954, when my father died one week after an apparent car accident.  My mother sat at his side for a week and then took a cruise with some friends to help assuage her trauma and grief.  The official narrative of my father’s death—than his car ran into a bridge abutment while he was trying to light a cigarette—had never quite rung true for me.

As our taped phone conversations moved into Ruth’s young adulthood and her relationship with my parents, we both spoke more hesitantly.  I asked about her first husband Joel, who gambled away family money and  divorced her after their second child Laura was born.  One day, I gathered my courage and said, “Tell me everything you know about my father Burton, no matter what it is.”  Ruth began to cry.

    “I don’t want to hurt you,” she squeezed through the tears.
    “It’s okay,” I said. "I want to know everything.  Whatever you tell me will be better than being plagued by silences, fantasies, and not knowing.”
    “I can’t,” she sobbed.  “It will hurt too many people, and your mother will hate me.”

     “You have to,” I said.  “You owe it to me, to the family, and to yourself.  And besides, I already know what you’re going to say.”

    Ruth fell silent for a moment.  “What am I going to say?”

    “You’re going to tell me that my father committed suicide.”

A Family Secret and A Grief Observed, Part Three

read Part Two here

When Aunt Ruth divulged her ancient family secret to me,  I took it as a crucial, missing piece in the narrative of my father’s death.  My family coped by retaining the official story.  I hoped this more honest and convincing version would help to resolve my lifelong grief.  But Ruth’s story by itself didn’t erase the pain and rage in my heart.  The day she told me about the suicide note, I thanked her for telling me the truth and said I thought we’d all be better off for it.  But the following day, the news slipped past my body armour and quietly slit the throat of my narrating ego.  I was enraged:  you asshole, what did you think would happen to us? Next I felt relief: Oh, it’s not my fault after all.  I didn’t kill you (my four-year old self imagining his omnipotent anger), you killed yourself.  Then more injury and grief: How could you possibly do this do us?

Shortly after Ruth’s death, I attended a Palliative Care conference at which the novelist Gail Storey (wife of Porter Storey who at the time directed the Texas Medical Center Hospice) conducted a writing workshop.  Holding a magic wand, and wearing a princess’s tiara on her head, Gail first asked us to write our own obituaries.  I wrote a humorous, self-mocking piece.  Then she gave a few tricks of the writer’s craft (character, conflict, dialogue, sensory detail) and asked us to write a scene of death.  Here is what I wrote:

The ambulance arrived just as the 1952 Dodge, wrinkled up like an
    Accordion against the bridge, burst into flames.  Burton was lying on the
    Ground, burned over 90% of his body, fully conscious and regretting that
    He was still alive.  

        “Three men pulled me out of the car,” he told the ambulance driver.
    “I told them to get lost—I wanted to be left alone to die.  They must have
    called you.  Well, just turn around and radio for a hearse.”
    “Sorry Mister.  We’ve got to take you to the Meriden hospital and give
    you a chance to live.”
    “I don’t want to live,” Burton replied.  “If I wanted to live, I wouldn’t have
    driven into this goddam bridge at 60 miles an hour.”
    The driver and an attendant lifted him gently onto a stretcher, strapped
    Him down and loaded him into the ambulance.  
    One attendant sat beside him as the siren blared.
    “Do you have a family?” he asked.
    “A wife and three kids.”
    “I’ll call your wife.  She’ll come right away and we’ll
    get you on the road to recovery.”
    Burton lost consciousness as the pain of broken bones and burnt
    Flesh overtook him.
    The attendant inserted an IV line and checked Burton’s pulse and BP.
    “Listen mister,” said the EMT starting to panic, “wake up.  How old
    are your kids?  What is your wife going to do if you die?”
    Burton heard these questions dimly and roused himself.  “My
    baby twins are 18 months and my older son is 4 and ½.  They’ll
    find their way in life.  Do me a favor.  Give my wife this note that’s
    in my wallet."  The EMT pulled out the note and read it.

    Burton closed his eyes.  Finally, he’d have some peace from the
    Father who never let him live his own life.  The only way to exert
    Control over his life was to take it.  He slipped into the nether world and
    Silently became a ghost, yearning to be understood by a family who never


The final step in coming to terms with my father’s death took place in the summer and fall of 1999, at a time when my own adolescent son needed all the love and firmness I could muster.  Encouraged by my psychotherapist, I began writing my father a series of letters.  The more I took the risk of addressing him directly, the more real he became to me.  On Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement) which coincided with the anniversary of his death, I came home after a day of fasting and finally confronted him.  “You are the one who has some atoning to do,” I wrote.  “You caused more suffering than you could possibly know.  You abandoned me and you owe me an accounting of what happened and why.” My father wrote back immediately.  He apologized.  He explained things from his own point of view and asked for forgiveness.  Taking an ancient rabbinic perspective on the fate of his soul, Burton wrote: “My fate in the world of eternity depends on you, your brother, and your sister—on how well you live your own lives, on how much happiness and fullness each of you can achieve for yourselves and those you love.”

And my father had some advice:  “I’ve ached watching you retreat into an emotional castle and borrow the reality of others to spare yourself the recurrent, terrifying absence you felt after my death.  I am with you always.  Open your heart and transform your fear, your anxiety, your black emptiness into the experience of your own glorious presence in the world, so that you can enhance your service to others.  You’ve already begun to do this spiritual work—it is your fate, your gift, your burden.  It is the source of your deepest love, compassion, and understanding.  Remember: keeping faith with those who sleep in the dust does not mean identifying with me (as dead or depressed) or seeking me everywhere for guidance and support.  It means living your own full life with joy and commitment—and remembering to write once in a while."

After forty-five years, I finished grieving for my father.  I could finally let him go because I had found him in faith, in therapy, and in narrative imagination.  No longer a haunting and hunted ghost, my father lives inside me quietly as an ancestor.  His presence allows me to feel more deeply alive, to embrace my place in the cycle of generations, to accept my own death—to appreciate the sheer unlikelihood of being alive at all.  Finally I can say what traditional Jews recite on hearing that a loved one has died:  Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet.  “Blessed be God, the judge of truth.”