Mandahla: Making Toast

"The trick when foraging for a tooth lost in coffee grounds is not to be misled by the clumps," Roger Rosenblatt recommends, his experience based on the new life he and his wife, Ginny, found themselves living since December 8, 2007. On that day, their daughter, Amy Solomon, died unexpectedly. Thirty-eight-year-old pediatrician, wife and mother Amy collapsed at home--her death later attributed to an anomalous right coronary artery. She left a husband, Harris, and three children: Jessica was seven; Sammy, five; and James (Bubbies) was two.

Ginny and Roger moved from their spacious five-bedroom Long Island home to a suburban Maryland bedroom with a connected bath, and from a comfortable, settled life to one of initial disarray. Before Amy died, their biggest question of the day was where to have lunch. Now the questions were myriad. Who pours whole milk on his cereal? Who drinks soy milk? Who wants water? Where are the extension cords, the Scotch tape? And just what happened to that tooth?

The family was supported by friends and by Bubbies's nanny, Ligaya, who altered her schedule to be with them more. She gave them dispassionate advice: "You are not the first to go through such a thing, and you are better able to handle it than most."

Handling Amy's death and creating a new family in her absence form the heart of Making Toast. Rosenblatt writes in a straight-ahead manner, unsentimental yet with delicate, spare sentiment, like Amy herself--clear, tart, loving and kind. He says, "We will never feel right again. No analysis or therapy will change that." But they get on with life, they start to mend and Rosenblatt "confronts the long haul"--counter to his nature, but necessary now for the survival of his family.

He gets up early to perform the one household task he has mastered: making toast. He posts the morning's word for the day (maybe "equestrian," maybe "poopies"), empties the dishwasher, sets the table for breakfast and starts the toast. "Harris usually spends half the night in Bubbies' little bed. When I go upstairs, around 6 a.m., Bubbies hesitates, but I give him a knowing look and he opens his arms to me. 'Toast?' he says. I take him from his father, change him, and carry him downstairs to allow Harris another twenty minutes' sleep."

Rosenblatt, known as Boppo to the children, is a loving grandfather who creates songs and dances for them, takes them to appointments, shops for groceries. He has assumed the role of chief worrier. He notes that, at family events, Harris "cannot conceal his longing. His face is taut. I will not be his father. He has a perfectly good father of his own. But I worry about him helplessly, like a father." Simple events create anxiety. When Ginny has a short choking fit at breakfast, Jessie freezes and Sammy runs from the room. The equilibrium is delicate, the suffering deep.

"The trouble with a close family is that it suffers closely too." But in portraying their sorrow, Rosenblatt also renders a family filled with love and determination: Amy's brother Carl, capable, always looking out for others; her brother John, witty, gracious; husband Harris, stoic, a hand surgeon, who has lost weight and stopped eating toast, but is still able to carry all three children at once up the stairs. "The sight of his back makes me sad," Rosenblatt laments. And Roger's wife, Ginny, who tells him she thinks her whole life has led up to this moment. She loves being a mother, and he says selflessness is part of her character: "And now, in sorrow, she is in her element." He realizes after 46 years of marriage that he is getting to know his wife, and that he seems to know Amy more completely in death than he did when she was alive. "The distance of death reveals Amy's stature to me. My daughter mattered to the histories of others."

Roger Rosenblatt says that he and his family have chosen getting on with it over a cathartic expression of sorrow, and yet, Making Toast combines both. Billy Collins wrote them when Amy died, "Sometimes there are no words." And while it is true that there are never enough words to express sorrow and mourning, Rosenblatt has found the right ones to convey the essence of a well-loved and loving woman, the warmth and devotion her family, and some hard-won wisdom: "As far as I can tell, this is how to live--to value the passing time."

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