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By Stefan Kanfer

The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.

Books and Culture

Stefan Kanfer
Matters of Life and Death
Two fathers’ memoirs show that grief has no political affiliation.
19 February 2010

A Cracking of the Heart, by David Horowitz (Regnery, 256 pp., $24.95)

Making Toast, by Roger Rosenblatt (Ecco, 176 pp., $21.99)

Making Toast and A Cracking of the Heart recall, and celebrate, daughters who perished in the prime of their lives. King Lear’s tragic speech—“Thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never!”—as he mourns over the body of Cordelia is no more poignant than the quiet, understated recollections of Roger Rosenblatt thinking about Amy or of David Horowitz remembering Sarah.

Pediatrician Amy Elizabeth Rosenblatt Solomon was happily married to Harris Solomon, a surgeon. Both had burgeoning practices in Bethesda, Maryland. They were the parents of three appealing children, the oldest five, the youngest barely out of infancy. The Doctors Solomon enjoyed busy, altruistic lives with few shadows—until an afternoon in December 2007, when Amy stepped onto a treadmill and began her daily exercise. She collapsed in mid-run. An autopsy attributed her sudden death to “an anomalous right coronary artery.” All her life, that vessel had fed Amy’s heart from the wrong side. She could have died at any time. It was perhaps a miracle that she reached the age of 38.

But in the midst of profound tragedy, her father is in no mood to speak of miracles. Instead, he charts the maternal grandparents’ relocation to the Solomons’ house in Bethesda, and the time that follows. Ginny Rosenblatt becomes a surrogate mother to the grandchildren, while Roger shuttles back and forth from his teaching post at Stony Brook University on Long Island. “Road rage was a danger those early weeks,” he remembers. “I picked fights with store clerks for no reason. I lost my temper with a student who phoned me too frequently about her work. I seethed at those who spoke of Amy’s death in the clichés of modern usage, such as ‘passing’ and ‘closure.’ I cursed God.”

On a dank morning in New York, Ginny calls from Maryland with some disturbing news. Last night the youngest grandchild inquired, “When is Mommy coming home?” He had not asked that question before. “All this time,” Roger wonders, “has he been thinking she was simply away? Ginny says Harris told him Mommy is dead and is not coming home, and in the morning James seemed fine. Immediately after we hang up, a friend calls. He asks where I am. I tell him I have to look around to be sure. He thinks I’m joking.”

The Rosenblatts never come to terms with the loss of their child; no anguished parent does. But they do come to cherish the dailiness of ordinary family life—the making of breakfast; the putting on of costumes for a Halloween party; the easy banter between the young and their elders:

‘Here’s a riddle,’ says Jess. ‘A man came over on Friday, stayed two days, and went home on Friday. How is this possible?’
‘Friday is a horse,’ I tell her.
‘Right,’ she says. ‘Here’s another riddle. Three men fell off a boat into the water. Only two of them got their hair wet. How is that possible?’
‘Friday is a horse,’ I tell her.
‘Right,’ she says.

Throughout this short, radiant book, Amy keeps reappearing, recalled by her parents, her brothers, her children, her patients. A fund is set up in her memory at the NYU School of Medicine, and monetary contributions flow in. With them come reminiscences of an inspired and caring doctor. “The distance of death reveals Amy’s stature to me,” writes her father. “My daughter mattered to the histories of others. Knowing that did not prevent my eyes from welling up for no apparent reason at Ledo’s Pizza the other day. But it is something.” It is, in fact, miraculous.

David Horowitz’s memoir begins: “The reflections of a mourner are a relentless accounting, and there is no bottom line.” The bookkeeping began early in March 2008, with a phone call: his 44-year-old daughter Sarah had died alone in her San Francisco apartment. Horowitz, his ex-wife, and their surviving children gather to examine a life cut short.

Sarah, they recollect, had not been an ordinary child. A victim of Turner syndrome, she suffered from diminished spatial perception (which meant that she could never drive), debilitating arthritis, and encroaching deafness. Yet she excelled in college and graduate school, always refusing to don the garment of self-pity. Indeed, she went out of her way to offer ecumenical aid to the needy. “Despite the enormous difficulties Sarah faced getting anywhere,” recalls her father, she “traveled to far-away places to offer help—to El Salvador to build homes for poor Catholics, and half way across the globe to Uganda to live in a mud floor hut without electricity or running water, to teach the impoverished children of the Abayudaya, a tribe of African Jews. On another mission, she went to India to the slums of Mumbai to seek help for sexually abused Hindu girls.”

Sarah wrote essays, and, in recent years, tried her hand at fiction. The excerpts in A Cracking of the Heart show that she inherited some writing genes from her father. What she did not inherit was his political outlook. Over the years, Horowitz, the son of Communists, became famous for recounting his voyage from the redoubts of the New Left to the ranks of the Right. Sarah took a divergent path. En route, she accomplished what many thought impossible: she taught David to be tolerant of those who didn’t share his views. In turn, he gave her what she acknowledged as a “two-fold legacy.” Though she embraced radical causes, she refused to join groups that flew the banner of political correctness. “I have always felt driven to pursue justice,” Sarah declared, “but am wary of ideology and partisan politics.”

In a bitter irony, Horowitz notes that a day before her own demise, Sarah spoke to a friend about the death of a loved one. After the loss, she advised, “Pay attention to the ways in which your relationship continues.” The fathers of two gifted, accomplished daughters have, consciously and unconsciously, taken those words to heart.

Between them, the authors have written more than 40 books. Those familiar with Rosenblatt’s witty essays, plays, novels, and nonfiction know that he has a liberal bent. Those who read Horowitz are aware of his conservative proclivities. No matter. As different as they are in temperament and philosophy, they are united in grief and in another way: their memoirs luminously commemorate the departed while they enrich the reader.

Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author, most recently, of a biography of Marlon Brando, Somebody.

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