It’s hard to gauge the depth of another person’s suffering. Even if we ourselves have walked through the valley of the shadow, so to speak, the pain of catastrophic loss is not transferrable. We can empathize. We can speculate. We can even shudder in horror, but only when it happens to us can we truly know the searing devastation of personal calamity firsthand.
It was in just such a frame of mind that I happened to be killing time at the Chino Hills, California Barnes & Noble and picked up a book prominently displayed at the entrance to the store. It was positioned, as is always the case, to garner maximum exposure. And whoever tapped this particular publication for such a prime setting knew what they were doing. It was impossible to miss. Strange that such a coveted position wasn’t reserved for the latest Stephen King, Dean Koontz or John Grisham mega-bestseller. Not even Stephenie Meyer’s latest Twilight clone managed to snare such a choice location. Of course, such prime movers of the pop culture world have no need of such conspicuous exposure. Their disciples will find their works if they have to move heaven and earth to do so.
So, on this particular occasion, the catbird seat was reserved for a book penned by a local author, Ruthe Rosen, a former flight attendant and current stay-at-home soccer mom residing locally in Chino Hills. The book, a self-published volume entitled Let It Be: My Daughter’s Legacy, featured yet another innocent-young-girl-dying- tragically-from-an-incurable-disease. And while such tales can often be compelling, if for no other reason than most of us recoil in horror with a kind of I’m-glad-it-wasn’t-my-daughter mentality, I was wondering what it was about this sad tale of heartbreak that merited such favored status. Out of curiosity, I picked up the book and leafed through it.
I hate to say it, but there wasn’t much remarkable material from which to choose, at least not from what I could see on a cursory examination. And at $22.95 for a thin-sliced hardcover edition, I had to think twice before tucking a copy under my arm and heading for the cashier. Nevertheless, I did just that.
Sure enough, there was nothing unique about the story. But then, how could there be? Such tragedies following an all-too familiar pattern. A young, beautiful, vibrant young girl – Karla Asch-Rosen – with an extremely positive outlook on life contracts a malignant brain tumor. The family is devastated. The treatment buys her time and nothing else. During the course of her death struggle, neither the girl nor her family loses their optimism, their courage, or their faith in spite of the inevitable outcome. It’s the stuff of which inspiration is made.
Last Saturday, the author was signing books at the very same Barnes & Noble. And since the schools just got out, and, due to the imminent collapse of the California public education system, I am unlikely to be called back next fall, I figured I better show up and get an autograph while I still could. You see, Ruthe Rosen and I have a couple of things in common. Perhaps the most notable is that we both lost a daughter – hers to cancer, mine to a traffic accident. And maybe the common factors should stop there, since that’s the prime motivator that got me in the store on that gloomy Saturday afternoon last weekend.
The gathering was small, in one of the far corners of the mammoth store. There were nine chairs set up for a reading for which I didn’t stay. And the obligatory table was piled high with books, behind which, signing them as fast as her fingers could fly, was the author de jour, and grieving parent, Ruthe Rosen. Only she didn’t look like the grief was exacting too heavy a toll on that day. Her dazzling smile could light up the surface of the sun. Good thing, too, considering an army of local paparazzi was in attendance. Never saw so many flashbulbs going off since Barack Obama made his one and only appearance in the Inland Empire last October.
I got off to a rough start, I must admit. I’d been doing some work at the house, and I wasn’t exactly at my best when I hurried through the door. I also made the bad mistake of forgetting my book, which, when I got up to the front of the short line, I explained with a good deal of chagrin. The super-model-like smile faded momentarily as she no doubt pondered what the local derelict was doing, unkempt, unshaven and bookless, spoiling her coming out party. Then I explained our common bond. Then the smile came back. It was a sad smile just the same.
“I’m not going to answer the common question,” she patiently explained to me.
“That’s good,” I responded, “since I wasn’t going to ask it. I already know the answer.”
We understood each other, at least thus far. Those of us who’ve lost children inevitably come to grips with the age-old question – Is it ever going to get any better? The short answer: No. The more extended one: We get so we handle the loss better. Think about it. They’re two different coping sets, really.
So, we talked for a while. She asked me about the accident. Where did it happen? Athens, Georgia. When? Six years ago June 19. How did it happen? Her car was broadsided on the driver’s side in a driving rainstorm. She got to a T-intersection just ahead of the pickup truck that hit her. The power to the traffic signals was out, and both vehicles were going too fast. No one walked away from that one. The driver of the truck was paralyzed from the neck down, so everyone paid a price, some heavier than others.
I’m not sure what I expected when I told my version of the sad tale of woe. The empathy that springs from a shared experience, perhaps? The knowing glance of a parent that has sustained a similar loss? Something like that. What I got was an undeniable moment of definitive discomfort. She seemed at a loss for words. Suddenly, the all-American smile was nowhere to be seen. The dazzling, white teeth were uncomfortably concealed. She didn’t know what to say. Her eyes drifted to the floor. And then one of her neighbors elbowed me out of the way, and the two girlfriends dissolved into a bevy of squeals, shrieks, giggles and gossip.
Since I’d been summarily dismissed at this point, I didn’t know quite what to do. There was a reading scheduled for the afternoon. And since the turnout for autographs didn’t amount to much more than the local neighborhood acquaintances and myself, I expected it to get started in short order. That was not to be. What followed was an endless flurry of posed photographs by local reporters and eternal interviews with husband Michael, who appeared to be the choreographer of this production.
He was a genial man, somewhere in his late 30s or early 40s from the looks of things. Like his wife, he bore an irrepressible smile that never wavered through all his clipped orders to photographers, print media beat writers, and television reporters. During a lull, we got a chance to talk. Yes, he was the executive vice-president and manager of operations for the Let It Be Foundation – an organization he and his wife founded after the tragic death of his step-daughter. And would I like to make a contribution? Yes, there was worldwide interest in this life-affirming new book, and would I like to buy a copy? Yes, they’ve reached a cultural tipping point where the value system of the entire world will inevitably be changed for the better on a global scale. Never had any girl lived a more meaningful life or died a death that touched so many people.
Call me crazy, but the names Rachel Joy Scott and Cassie Bernal – both of whom perished at Columbine – come to mind as potential competitors for this dubious crown.
And yes, they’ve received offers from Good Morning America, The Today Show, ABC News, NBC Nightly News, Katie Couric, Sky News London, the BBC, CNN and Fox News begging Ruthe for interviews. The only problem is none of these networks will pony up the required fee for a fifteen minute interview. And of course, there have been movie deals in the offing. But the asking price begins at a level much higher than the major studios are willing to consider and goes up from there.
No wonder husband Michael quit his job as a multi-million dollar corporate executive to manage his wife’s career. Gold mines are where you find them. No recession in Chino Hills. Happy days.
Just before I departed, husband Michael introduced me to the couple’s two surviving sons, Brandon and Cole. I’m not sure which was which, but they were both pre-adolescent youngsters of about 12 and 10. Like their parents, they bore the unwavering, indomitable smiles that appear to be a family trait. They were so polite, so well-behaved, and so measured in everything they said and did, they impressed me as little adults. No doubt these two boys will go far in life, possibly as executive managers of the Let It Be Foundation: The Next Generation.
I departed with my Let It Be (autographed) bookmark, not quite sure what to make of this carefully directed encounter. I say that, because I am hardly an objective observer of such happenings. And I am, as previously noted, a member in good standing of a fraternity which is growing much too big, much too fast. In the past four years at my church, six families have lost teenage children – five to traffic accidents, and one to a fatal disease. And since the congregation is composed of the prosperous leaders who make things happen in the local community, many have gone on to establish foundations of their own in the names of their cherished and lost children.
But none have ever made out of it the carefully staged production that I witnessed last Saturday. Its intent was inspiration. In truth, it creeped me out.
I have to be careful about what follows. Because commenting on another person’s grief is an explosive, often incendiary topic. A topic that could easily blow up in the face of the commentator. Add to the mix that I’ve dealt with my own version of pain and loss, and the problem becomes even more elusive. Being on the receiving end of that kind of agony does not provide any kind of perspective, sad to say.
So, let’s set a couple of ground rules, shall we? Call them a series of baseline assumptions which, I hope, we can all agree on.
All catastrophic loss is just that – the end of the world. There’s no mincing words when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of it. Because coming out the other side, the world is significantly different than before the loss.
Different people deal with loss differently. Viktor Frankl wrote a remarkable book following his experience in the holocaust at Auschwitz – Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist and protégé of Sigmund Freud, differed with his mentor on several crucial points. Frankl believed that it was not sex, but the search for meaning which was the driving force in the lives of human beings. Frankl spent the rest of his post-holocaust life making a conscious effort to find meaning in everything. I will not debate the merits of his existential approach to life, or its pitfalls. The point is, people will go to great lengths to find significance in the wake of personal devastation. It brings meaning to the loss and somehow makes the agony less agonizing. And that includes establishing charitable foundations and going on the interview circuit.
No one heals on a schedule, or in quite the same way someone else does. It’s that simple. There is no timetable, and there is no operating manual for coping. Some people find God. Others blame Him. I’ve encountered both since my brush with tragedy. And I’ve been both too.
Having said that, I will share my gut reaction. And it’s very simple. People who smile all the time make me shudder. Right or wrong, I always wonder what’s cooking behind that all-American smile. Children who act like mini-grown-ups make my skin crawl. Do they ever wrestle and fight over some small thing, as brothers do from time to time, or do they resort to more subtle, devious ways of stabbing each other in the back. Are they healthy kids on their way to being functional young men? Or are they politicians in the making? And, in the wake of such a loss, a mother who turns into a bubbling fountain of effervescence the instant the red light comes on makes me wonder if there isn’t a darker form of denial operating not far below the surface.
Still, the Bible tells us that such enthusiasm is not only proof positive of saving faith, but clear evidence of the fruit of the Spirit.
- “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.” – Galatians 5:22-23
This book was written ostensibly to provide inspiration for families enduring various kinds of catastrophic loss. From death to divorce, it was intended to provide comfort, solace and encouragement to those people who find themselves in the valley of the shadow with no way out. And it may very well succeed in that capacity. So, was I comforted? Inspired? Encouraged?
In a word, no. And my encounter with the architects of this recent exercise in sentimentality did nothing to mitigate that experience.
I find that in the post-America America, one of the symptoms of its demise has been a penchant to flounder in a pool of sentiment and sentimentality. We love a sad tale of woe. Always have. It takes many expressions. And it has been our undoing. Were it not so, there would be no Lifetime Channel. Neither would there be a citizenry that goes so blissfully about its daily business happily unaware that the country that nurtured it has vanished in the fires of political correctness, globalist values and an international citizen of the world as its leader.
The path to destruction has been littered with the bones of such a seduction throughout the recent history of western culture.
In 19th century Europe, it was an overly sentimentalized belief in the sublime nature of humanity and how man was in control of his environment and could, by reason and negotiation, accomplish anything that collapsed in the flames of the First World War.
It was an overly romanticized article of faith in the 1990s, of the inherent goodness of man in general and the Islamic world in particular that reached its terrible climax on that crystal clear Tuesday morning of September 11, 2001 in New York City.
And it is a quixotic, exceedingly nostalgic view of the country that purports that no matter what abominations are perpetrated against its people or its Constitution that America will endure for all time, simply because it always has.
Let’s face it, we love a good schmaltzy, sentimental story. And they don’t get any juicier than an innocent, young girl who dies tragically of a fatal disease.
Have you ever attended a funeral of such a child? Invariably, she is idolized in death in ways she never was in life. The girl may have been an unashamed gossip, a back-stabbing cutthroat, or a pushing slut, but in death she becomes “. . . so kind, so good, so full of life; everybody loved her. . . ”. I don’t know if either extreme applied to Karla Asch-Rosen. I never knew her. But she is certainly represented as being nothing less than a picture-perfect ideal, an angel on earth. And sadly, none of us who did not know her will ever know the truth. She has passed into the realm of the honored dead, whether she deserves to be there or not.
As for the media blitz, I can easily see why. They’ve got a hot commodity here. But there’s no novelty to it, and its shelf life is both perishable and short. It will last precisely until the next pristine youthful lass dies tragically of some fatal disease or some grad night traffic mishap. And so ends the fifteen minutes of fame of Karla Asch-Rosen and the Let It Be Foundation. The queen is dead (literally). Long live the queen.
And when it comes to marketing, there’s a very simple axiom that holds true – it’s very easy to love the hot blonde. I can see why Fox News is turning cartwheels to get Ruthe Rosen in front of their cameras. Another gorgeous blonde is just what they need. I’ll bet Megyn Kendall is shaking in her stylish stiletto heels as we speak. Maybe Ruthe Rosen and Carrie Prejean can fight it out in a celebrity death match for the next Fox News commentary spot that comes open. I just wonder if this tragedy had happened to some 300-lb. trailer trash mom living in a single-wide outside Boone, North Carolina, if she would get the same air play this group is getting. Somehow I think not.
And so, the parade marches on. But during the midst of it, I was reminded of a similar tragedy that happened during my tenure in Las Vegas. Her name was Valerie Pida, and she was a UNLV cheerleader. She also fought a losing battle with lymphoma for thirteen years and succumbed in 1992. Her attitude was nothing less than heroic. Immensely positive, she was tempered with the cold certainty of what proved to be a life cut short. Her life slowly, but surely ebbed away, one heart-wrenching tumor at a time. Yet, the girl had steel in her spine, and endured with quiet dignity, youthful enthusiasm, and defiant courage that touched everyone around her. Her passing left a void in the life of her family, particularly her father, whom I met toward the end of the ordeal. There was no inspiration to be found, just the soul-numbing loss of a beloved child, cherished and adored.
And what remains in the wake of so profound a loss is the nether world of “what if?”
You always wonder what might have been if she was still with you. How would your life be different? What would her life have become? You agonize over what you could have done while she was alive, even if it made no difference at all. You always wonder if somehow you could have done something to affect the outcome. And, during those deep, endless nights, when sleep was just out of reach, you inevitably come to terms with the non-negotiable fact that you will never see her again this side of heaven. And at times like that, no amount of inspiring stories, or charitable foundations takes away the black hole in your soul. Maybe you find God. Maybe you don’t. But you definitely live with the loss. And that never goes away.
So, I look forward to the interviews, the book promos, maybe even a paperback volume. I’ll even cough up $9.00 to see a matinee airing of the feature film. In the day of satellite television, Internet streaming video and digital movie productions, it’s all about show biz anyway.
And it’s always easier to love the hot blonde.