Walking the streets of Jerusalem without a mask these past few weeks has been strangely hard, despite the liberating feeling that relative health and normality has returned. The mask, uncomfortable as it is, has served us this past year as a protection from a virus that has killed millions of people across the world, as well as from the common cold and simple allergies.
Masks also protect our identity. The past year we walked the streets in partial incognito, our identities blurred. Although certainly bizarre and unnerving at times, wearing the mask has also been strangely comforting. Ever since my son Ariel z”l completed his life by suicide, on Purim my wife and I head to Tel Aviv – because in Jerusalem we are easily identified in our close-knit community. It feels more comfortable and safer to celebrate the holiday in private, concealing our identities just for a day. In lieu of wearing a costume in Jerusalem, we go to Tel Aviv where we do not have to wear a mask because we are unidentifiable as “the parents who lost a child to suicide”.
But then I come back home, and my identity is reestablished. I have to own that. What do I mean? A friend complimented me the other day about my writing “on the subject”, carefully choosing his words, but then suggested that I expand my horizon and write about other fields of interest as well. While it was certainly nice to receive positive reinforcement, the comment helped me understand that I have been in a kind of a self-imposed lockdown by publicly sharing my thoughts on grief and the healing process. I do not regret at all trying to open up the conversation about suicide in order to break down the stigma of mental illness.
The process has been therapeutic for me, and hopefully, educational for others.
The price though, has been presenting a persona that reflects only part of who I am, for I have many other identities: father, husband, son, Jew, Zionist, political centrist, humanist, social worker and fitness trainer/educator. Each of these multiple identities tells another part of the story of who I am, what I do and what I believe. But the pain of losing my son to suicide seems to have eclipsed the other identities and led me to focus my writing only on my grief and healing process.
Lately, life is resembling normalcy, as we can be outside without the itchy, uncomfortable mask that protects us from and reminds us of fear, sickness and possible death. These days, I also feel lighter in terms of coping with the loss of my son. The emotional tsunamis, when they hit, really hurt and send me spiraling, but the distance between each one has certainly been growing the past four and a half years.
Will I someday be brave enough to see the light, as Amanda Gorman, the National Youth Poet Laureate, urged us to do at the recent presidential inauguration?
Will I, someday, take off the mask of a grieving father, and expand my writing horizons?
Perhaps. But not yet.
For now, I ride through. I climb the hills, fall off the bike, accrue some light wounds and then get back on the bike until my tire punctures. I fix the tire, get back on the bike and continue riding until the next fall. Then, I mount the saddle again. I am on the move cycling, working and enjoying my family, friends, country, good scotch and gin and tonics. I have the strength, conviction and resilience to handle any hill thrown at me. I ride through.
Yet writing for me is not about creativity or an attempt to enrich other people with interesting ideas, important as that may be. Rather, it is about the longing for my son Ariel z”l. I embrace this process and will not hide behind a mask.
May his memory be a blessing.