When we got married, we knew that we wanted to have children. When our first child, David, was born a little before our second wedding anniversary, we were thrilled. “Our little family” had come to be! When we welcomed Sam four years (and two rabbinic theses) later, we spent time talking about our family. Was it “complete”? Were we “done”? Yael came along just 15 months later and, four years after that, Solly was born.
Four children seemed like a good number: round and full and even. It felt right, a fulfillment of a dream of a large, robust, energetic family. It fit us so well, to be a crowd of six.
And then it crashed down. In 2012, we received a leukemia diagnosis for Sam — our kindergartener. Sam loved bugs and being outside; he liked to draw and play video games, especially a particularly annoying game about dragons. He loved stories, and he could repeat, with appropriate inflection, those he’d heard told only once.
Sam had acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a rare diagnosis with a survival rate of about 65 percent. At first, he presented with pains in his legs and arms and, eventually, the leukemia showed up in his blood counts. Months later, when we told Sam that he was going to die, he wailed with sadness. He had so many things to say, so many questions unanswered. We tried to let him lead. A child of two rabbis, he wanted to know who would conduct his funeral service and whether we’d have fireworks and party games afterward. We were filled with anguish as we told the older children that Sam was going to die, knowing they would have to figure out how to live without him. The youngest, Solly, was only 3 years old and didn’t understand very much. Eighteen months after his diagnosis, Sam died.
His death left us with a place where brokenness, imperfection, and fracture replaced completeness. When Sam died, the pain was sharp, spiky, a defined edge. We were constantly aware of it, our family left broken, and our hearts constantly exploring that pain with every moment.
It’s been more than two years since Sam died. We are forever broken. But over time, momentarily, the ragged edge feels smooth; we pass over the craggy part a little less often, perhaps. A picture that unexpectedly moves us back in time, a song we would sing together, a story retold — these moments suddenly bring us back to the pain. Sam’s photos still hang on our walls and we speak of him regularly. We revisit the pain. And while we’ve adopted new rhythms, we are always aware of our loss. A glance passes between us at family moments, and we know that we are both standing on that broken edge.
Our path through the darkness is lit, not only by Sam, but by our other children. Though we may plead to continue to parent this one child, our other children call us back to life. And we have a marriage that holds us together, and each of us is a partner for the other — a needed shoulder to lean on. As rabbis, our work requires great attention, as well as our full hearts, our creativity, and our passion.
We have come to learn that we cannot be only in a place of sadness. We want to celebrate and love and play and create. We cannot ignore the world’s goodness because we are pulled toward the valley of the shadow. Through we sometimes feel that we should “carry on his legacy” and “honor his life,” the truth is that Sam was precious because he was our child and all parents think that their children are special. He was a little boy and we loved him, and that is what we have. An 8-year-old leaves behind little in the way of unique accomplishments. The light is there because the alternative is darkness.
There is a large part of each of us that isn’t here, that exists somewhere else — buried in a small grave, with a marker that reads: “Beloved son, brother, grandson, cherished nephew, super friend. Samuel Asher Sommer. Forever 8, forever in our hearts.” We are neither whole nor incomplete. Without Sam, our lives are a little less bright, certainly less sweet. But, each day, we find more brightness and sweetness. Each day, through the cracks, we continue to seek the light.