Being Vilomahedby Janice Alper February 28, 2011
Vilomah: derivation Sanskrit; meaning: against a natural order. As in, the gray-haired should not bury those with black hair. Our children should not precede us in death; if they do, we are vilomahed.
There is a story in the Talmud about Bruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir. When her sons died on the Sabbath, it is said she hid the fact from her husband until the end of Sabbath so he would not be unduly upset on the holy day.
Then she posed a question to him: “If someone were to lend you something and then later came to ask for it back, should you return it to the owner?” Rabbi Meir replied that of course it should be returned. Bruriah then took him by the hand to see their dead sons lying on their beds. She reminded him that he had said they should return a pledge to its rightful owner.
The rabbi replied, “God has given, God has taken away. Blessed be the name of God.”
Our first child was born in April 1965. It was an exciting time for my husband and me and our family. Our baby was underweight, so he was placed in an incubator in an isolation unit. We could only see him through a glass window. I was discharged, but we were advised that the baby should remain in the hospital for a few more days. Before I went home, I walked over to the nursery, put on a gown, gloves and a mask, and held my baby for the first and last time. The next morning the doctor called to say the baby had died. We were vilomahed, but we did not know it then.
The rest is a blur, but we were young, hopeful and optimistic. Our whole lives were in front of us. Eventually we picked up the pieces and began to look to the future. Should we take a chance and try to produce a child of our own, or should we adopt a child? We did both.
Our eldest son was born July 21, 1966. His brother arrived March 3, 1967. Yes, our sons are seven months apart. We adopted again a few years later, this time becoming the parents of identical twins. In a few short minutes and one phone call, the size of our family had doubled.
Ours was a hectic household. There were four children under the age of 3 and a loud, hyperactive dog. The time flew quickly and the years melted away. We rarely sat down to dinner with just the six of us at the table. Frequently there was a friend who happened to be there at dinnertime, and what difference did it make to put one more plate on the table? There was always enough food to eat. We had our share of carpools, music lessons, tennis lessons, dance lessons, gymnastics, Hebrew school — you name it.
Our daughters were always a major challenge. When they were about 2 years old, I noticed they were not developing appropriately. A pediatric neurologist evaluated them and suggested a developmental preschool program. Thus began our entry into the world of special education, which continued for the remainder of their school careers.
The challenge of our daughters played havoc on the family dynamics. Everyone knew the girls were ‘different,’ but because we were one household, living under one roof, we accepted it as our reality. Early on, my husband and I made a decision that we would not be senior adults with adult children living at home — a decision we painfully kept.
During the child-rearing years, my energy focused on my immediate family and its growth and development. I did not give much thought to the demise of our first child. Occasionally the subject would come up in conversation, and I would refer to it as an itch in the middle of my back. You know it is there, and you cannot quite reach it, but give it time and it will abate, at least for a while. On rare occasions I fantasized about what he might have been like, but in the end we just continued with our lives.
Then it hit us again. Sharon, our youngest child, died Feb. 22, 2009. It was not quite the same. I had seen her grow into adulthood, and now she was gone, just shortly after her 39th birthday. Sharon, who had been diagnosed as HIV positive in 1996, put up quite a struggle, and she responded well to her meds. Her doctor told her she would die of a heart attack before she died of AIDS — not so.
She had always had serious emotional problems, and eventually severe depression started to get the better of her. About two years before she died, she developed full-blown AIDS. She stopped taking her meds and lost her will to live. Then she died. And that is how I came to be vilomahed, again.
But this is a different time of my life. I am a senior adult and more than 45 years separate the deaths of my two children. I do not have to fantasize about my lost daughter. I know who she was — I raised her, hugged her, wiped her tears, fought with her, laughed at her creativity and ingenuity and mostly enjoyed being her mother. For a short time after Sharon’s death, the itch in my back was quite severe; now as I begin to live with the reality of what has taken place, I realize it just is.
God gives, God takes away. Blessed be the name of God.