Thursday, December 25, 2003

Our Louisianan

Here's another family story, about a death and a birth and the consolation in continuity.


Date: Thursday, December 25, 2003
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B

On this morning given to pondering the miracle of new birth and the promise of ongoing life, I have a story to tell.

You couldn't call it a Christmas story, for that holiday is not the tradition of our family, and this story is personal. But its meanings are open for anyone, and you are invited to pick your own.

It begins with a man named Lee Rubin.

Around his adopted town of Lafayette, La., he stood out for his red hair and for being a Jewish New Yorker who had drifted south and reinvented himself as a red-necked Louisianan.

He was a stubborn and independent guy who, in his younger days, could be counted on to start a barroom fight or drive his pickup into a ditch at the end of a hell-raising Saturday night.

When I met him, about 15 years ago, he was taking pride in a prodigious beer belly. And he was getting ready to marry a woman he'd met in Mexico named Maria Teresa and to bring her to the United States to live with him in Cajun country.

They wed. They had a son. And Lee settled down into an irregular domesticity. He worked weeks at a time offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, helping energy companies figure out how to get their drill bits down to where the oil was.

On the job, he was a respected engineer and decision-maker.

At home he became a board member of his synagogue, a small but stubborn group with roots in Lafayette dating back to 1869.

He was my wife's younger brother. But he was distant from us in some ways that went beyond geography, and we didn't connect with Lee and his family very often.

That would change this year.

One day last summer, while Lee was on the rig, he began experiencing a problem with his leg; he had trouble putting his boot on. Driving home a few days later, he could barely press the pedal.

He saw a doctor. And the diagnosis staggered the imagination.

It was a brain tumor.

We got the phone call in August: Lee, not quite 51, probably wouldn't live another six months.

Snap your fingers, and a robust man faces his demise. Just that fast, he would be facing surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and the prospect of soon leaving his wife a widow and his son without a father.

None of us knows what we would do if we knew we had just months to live. But Lee gave himself a focus. His son, 13, was scheduled to have his bar mitzvah on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Lee promised himself to be there.

And he made it.

He was in a wheelchair, many pounds lighter, his power of speech greatly reduced, his eyes somewhat glazed, his scalp shaved and scarred under a colorful prayer cap.

But he was there.

Members of the synagogue had seen the family's need and pitched in to make the event possible.

Someone sent the invitations, someone else ordered flowers, a third person arranged for the food for a luncheon, a fourth the decorations.

The young man, Ian, chanted his prayers, read his speech and, in an added ceremony not part of any known tradition, accepted the hard hat his father had worn at work. The boy put it on, over his skull cap.

We watched with a poignant sense of continuity and a terrible sense of farewell.

The next day was sunny. My wife and my stepson wheeled Lee onto his patio and made him comfortable under a blanket.

The light was bright on his face when he told my wife: "I've had a good life."

The following morning he declined to get out of bed. He lost interest in food.

The next week, he slipped into a coma.

He died Dec. 13, two weeks after the conclusion of the bar mitzvah. Almost to the minute.

But as Lee was fading, another life was coming.

In a Miami hospital, my stepdaughter Rachel -- Lee's niece -- gave birth on Dec. 15.

As Lee's ashes were scattered beneath a stately live oak tree on a Lafayette college campus, a day-old baby boy was making great-grandparents of Lee's grieving mother and father -- and first-time grandparents of my wife and me.

There are some who are saying that one soul has passed to another.

I can't say if that's true. Nor do I think it's fair to burden a baby with the duty to live on for an uncle who departed this life too early.

But I know that the uncanny timing of the arrival of this baby is helping fill the hole in the hearts of a family that has been rent by a horrific loss. That mourners are being soothed by a baby's cry.

And that while the deepest mysteries of life may never be answered, the imperative of life is clear:

To go on.

The baby's name is Logan.

He is named -- in the Jewish style of re-using the first initial -- after Lee.

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