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    • September 20, 2014 in Columnists

    Swerving into traffic


    Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW


    I sat pressed between my sister Barb and cousin Susan at Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, New York, fingers twisted around a Kleenex. I wondered if this was the same place I’d sat six years earlier at Ellen’s bat mitzvah. I barely remembered that affair but no one in the packed chapel would ever forget assembling for the current gathering — Ellen’s funeral.

    Two days earlier the 19-year-old, a college sophomore majoring in Feminist Studies, had been driving to school when her Toyota inexplicably swerved before colliding head-on with an SUV, trapping her in a car that collapsed as easily as a cardboard box. The other driver escaped with minor wounds.

    The tox screen was negative; cops ruled out excessive speeding or a pre-existing medical condition; her mother, my cousin Beth (okay, not an impartial observer) insisted her daughter knew better than to text while driving. The Toyota was too wrecked to investigate whether mechanical failure had occurred.

    The trauma of the impact left Ellen, who used facts and a calm demeanor to out-debate all comers, brain dead. The young woman whose ambitions included becoming a Supreme Court Justice or First Woman President never regained consciousness. Doctors offered zero hope. Two days later Beth and her husband David made the most wrenching decision imaginable. They pulled the plug and then watched the life gradually ooze from their firstborn.

    In the chapel, watching Beth and David stand four feet from the casket and bravely deliver eulogies for their daughter who still fought bitterly over who could eat the last Boston Kreme Donut with her 11-year-old sister Emily, I pondered my and Beth’s heritage as children of holocaust survivors.

    I’d been an interviewer for Steven Spielberg’s “Survivors of the Shoah,” a visual history foundation which videotaped testimony from people like my and cousin Beth’s parents… people that somehow endured the unendurable. I recalled interviewing a gray-haired grandmother in her cozily cluttered Forest Hills townhouse (the day’s “set”) who sipped water in her floral chintz armchair while recounting in exacting detail the night she leapt from an Auschwitz-bound cattle car into a mile-high snow bank. Another Shoah survivor recalled darting from hiding to confront an SS officer on patrol who promptly beat him with the butt end of his rifle, then shipped the teen off to Bergen Belsen.

    Most split second decisions are much more innocuous — what flavor Frappuccino should I order or do I have time before my next appointment to pick up the dry cleaning? I’d need the fingers and toes of every person on earth (barely an exaggeration) to count up all my spur of the moment actions – many dumb with a capital D. My most infamous emotional swerves into oncoming traffic include lending thousands of dollars to a down-on-his-luck acquaintance after he’d sworn, “I’m good for it.” Yeah, yeah, I deserved that one.

    The Grand Kahuna of impulsive non-reasoning was giving my business card to a pimp at the conclusion of our half hour lunchtime meeting at the Silver Star Diner on the Upper East Side. Clad in skintight leggings, gold stilettos and enough perfume to gag an elephant, I was researching an investigative story about being an escort. Rocky thought my interest was in working for him. I lost several nights’ sleep over that lapse of judgment, especially after a white stretch pulled up to my pre-war red brick high-rise. The pimp called from the limo to ask if I wanted to come downstairs and work a shift. I mumbled that I’d reconsidered my career goals, and he rolled away.

    The point is that whatever caused Ellen’s accident — momentary preoccupation, bad brakes, or hideous karma — is not the point.

    At New Montefiore Cemetery on Long Island, in a plot near my parents’ graves, the “pffft” sound of shovel-fuls of dirt being poured onto the casket pierced both the stillness of a mild December afternoon and everyone’s hearts.

    Why do horrible things happen? Why couldn’t we press “rewind” to three days earlier and have Ellen the devoted student impulsively decide to play hooky and gorge on Dunkin Donuts? If there is a God, what is the lesson to be gleaned from the ongoing Rubik’s Cube of seemingly senseless and random tragedies?

    Holocausts still occur, as do horrific acts of nature and individuals. Then there are those arbitrary horrors like a brick loosening from a building and landing on a passerby’s head… or Ellen’s accident.

    Cousin Beth sobbed in my arms, “Why couldn’t it have been me? I’ve lived my life.” I had no answers, just, “I’m so sorry. It shouldn’t have happened. It will always hurt… hopefully not always this sharply. But you’re not alone.” And she is of survivor stock. We endure.

    After the burial, my sister and I followed the line of cars from the cemetery to our cousin’s home for the start of “Shiva” (a seven-day period of mourning). As Barb listened to her Garmin gratingly emit “recalculating,” I dug in my handbag for my cell phone to check messages. Belatedly, I discovered my latest emotional swerve into traffic: Damn, I’d lost the 30-day unlimited Metro Card I’d purchased a few hours earlier. Automatically I began getting upset, before catching myself.

    Why does one careless swerve result in tragedy and another just an annoying glitch? I’m not wise enough to know. But seeing Beth during the Shiva eating a bagel and white fish, hugging loved ones, even mentioning she followed the Facebook updates of my puppy Shea (named for the Stadium now saddled with the moniker of a monolith) I felt comforted. Her life was forever altered. But it could still be worth living.


    Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW is a therapist, author and adjunct journalism professor living in Long Island City, New York. Her website is www.marriedfaq.com.


      • David Lacy

      • September 20, 2014 at 11:08 am
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      Wow. Stunning column.

      • Maya North

      • September 20, 2014 at 9:06 pm
      • Reply

      Life can reach out and smack us senseless without the slightest warning. It is not to be trusted — but it is still everything. The day I found out my unborn son had died within me, my OB-Gyn told me something that applies to literally everybody. “Remember the joy you felt this morning, before you found this out?” When I nodded, he continued, “That joy is still yours. It always will be and nothing that came later can take it from you.” Your beloved Ellen and the joy you had in her will always be yours. Not even her loss can take that away. Will it hurt forever? Oh, yes, it will. It’s just that the hurt won’t be all of it. There will still be joy. <3

    • So sorry this has happened to your relative. Yes, life can throw a curve no one is expecting. My sister also interviewed Shoah survivors and was amazed at their resilience. I hope your cousin can come to some kind of peace. We can never forget but we can see Ellen alive in memories forever. Did they donate any of her organs as that also helps people to feel they gave someone else a gift of life, sight or other options to improve their lives. Peace and blessings to your family and your cousin’s. A real tragedy, sadly.

      • Kaila Charice

      • September 22, 2014 at 1:02 pm
      • Reply

      Incredible read. I’m so sorry for your loss.

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