Author Archives: David Crumm

‘Heartache comes in many shapes and sizes’

EDITOR’s NOTE: In November, 2023, the whole world is overwhelmed with grief, wondering: How long? From Pope Francis to individual families on every continent, we know that grief—and often our sense of isolation in that grief—is a challenge we share. The many writers who contribute to ReadTheSpirit magazine have been writing about this challenge every week. And, this week, Suzy Farbman shares an important truth about this journey: It is long. We need to remember and honor that truth as we reach out to our neighbors. Here is Suzy’s column:

Grief returns and recedes in wave-like reminders. I write these words on Nov. 1, four months to the day my husband of 56 years died. I’ve asked friends who’ve lost husbands how long it takes to stop grieving.

The universal answer: It takes as long as it takes.

Four months isn’t enough.

Things bring back the memories. So many things. Having grown up poor, once he could afford them, Burton loved acquiring things. His adored aide, Angela, and I tried to de-Burtify the house. We put away the obvious things that reminded me of him, of the void he left behind—things that make me sad he’s not around to use them.

We put away his Laurel Oak sweatshirts and enormous shoes– size 14 near the end. They rest in closets behind closed doors. So do his clothes. Our sons and grandkids will come to Florida at Christmas. They might want a jacket or sweatshirt or golf cap. Ditto the golf clubs Burton once wielded with skill. Ditto the Titleist ProV1 golf balls.

I haven’t found a home for Burton’s camera equipment. Until he became sick, my husband appointed himself unofficial photographer at Laurel Oak, our winter home. He captured pictures of friends and club members playing golf or tennis or celebrating birthdays, developed them on his own machines and gave them to their subjects. After his stroke in 2018, I touted the quality of cell phone photos. Couldn’t convince him.

There’s also the fishing equipment. Poles lean against the wall in our garage. Don’t want to give those away. Our grandkids use them when they visit.

There are knives. Too many of those as well. Burton loved good quality knives. If he came across one at a farmers’ market, it accompanied him home.

There are playing cards. Burton once enjoyed playing Bridge. Two decks of cards wouldn’t do. I counted the packs of Bicycle playing cards in a drawer in our living room: 34.

There are trophies atop laundry room cabinets from contests Burton organized for grandkids’ visits. They remind me of how Burton loved being a grandpa. He took the trophies to the trophy store every January to update them and proudly displayed them in the living room when family visited. Trophies for Bingo, Boggle, Rummikub, Pop-a-Shot and Tennis. In 2016 when Fischer was too young to win anything else, Burton ordered a trophy for Congeniality.

Sad reminders also remain. The handicapped shower chair. The exercise band and hand weights Burton used faithfully to strengthen the arm that still worked after his stroke (his non-dominant right arm). The golf cart I still use. Angela helped him into it. He drove it around the streets, waving at neighbors. Doing what he could to enjoy fresh air and sunshine and still stay mobile.

Thankfully the two sons who played golf with their Dad and took his phone calls every single day are alive and well and present in my life.

In 56 years of marriage, Burton and I experienced plenty of ups and downs, as readers of my first memoir and Oprah’s 5 million-plus viewers can attest. Heartache comes in many shapes and sizes. No one gets through a long-term marriage without scars But overall, on the four-month anniversary of my husband’s death, I’m grateful for the life we led together. For the family, the homes, the trips, the friends.

Burton not only cared for me, he took care of me. As a devoted believer in signs, I believe my husband’s soul is still looking out for me. In that spirit, I share the Godsign Burton left for me to see today. It’s small but significant: a tiny heart shaped mark on my kitchen sink.

For me, there’s no one who can fill Burton’s size 14s.

It takes as long as it takes.

As Queen Elizabeth II told the world after 9/11:

Grief is the price we pay for love.

Michigander and psychologist Donna Rockwell sparkles and inspires others to sparkle, too

Elen Schwartz’s family. Donna and her husband Bernie are at right in this photo.

Last week we met the irrepressible Elen Schwartz in the first part of this story.

Now, in this second column about her remarkable family, you will get to know her equally irrepressible daughter, Donna Rockwell…

Donna began her career at CNN in June, 1980, one of the “CNN Originals.”

Producer for Emmy-award-winning TV journalist Daniel Schorr, Donna was with him as the Iran hostages returned to the US and on the White House South Lawn the next day as newly elected President Ronald Reagan welcomed them home. She accompanied Schorr on Reagan’s trip to Checkpoint Charlie at the Berlin Wall and to summits in Bonn and at Versailles Palace.  She  then became CNN’s Capitol Hill producer. At CNN, 23-year olds Donna and Katie Couric became good friends and remain so today.

Donna covered the House and Senate for three years. She was then hired by NBC station WRC-TV as Executive Producer for anchorwoman, Susan King.

Donna met Bernie Smilovitz when he was a young sportscaster in DC. They fell in love (he could speak Yiddish to her grandmother!) and married in 1985. Three months later Bernie was offered his dream job, Sports Director for WDIV-TV in Detroit. The couple moved to a Tudor home in Huntington Woods and started a family.

Donna adored Michigan. For the Huntington Woods 4th of July parade, she recalls, she “stood on the sidewalk watching and weeping—it was so quintessentially American.”

Donna became an executive producer at Detroit’s WJBK-TV,headed by Marla Drutz—one of the few women running a TV station at the time. Donna oversaw For Kids Sake, a station-wide public service campaign.

Donna also dove into raising sons, Zach and Jake.  “I went from producing TV news to producing the lives of two boys.”

An “urge for more” inspired Donna to pursue a doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the Center for Humanistic Studies (now the Michigan School of Psychology).  She wrote her dissertation on the psychology of fame and celebrity.  As a result, Donna often appears as a fame expert on TV shows, radio and social media.  She says obsession with fame, linked to the rise of Instagram and social media, has caused depression, anxiety and suicidal thinking to jump over 30%. with girls as young as 9 attempting suicide.

Hoping to diminish that influence, Donna founded Already Famous with Dr. DonnaThe online wellness community for women and girls focuses on building self-confidence and inner worth.  Donna wants women of all ages “to see that they’re enough, perfect just the way they are, and already famous in the ways that really matter.”

Donna says, “My mother may not have danced for Balanchine, but she knew, on the inside, that she was the star of her show.”

Rather than crave external validation, Already Famous helps women and girls discover their internal compass and find “the lust for life, confidence and resilience” her mother had.  As Donna learned from Elen and hopes to pass on to others, “True joy is an inside job.  The only real happiness is to find joy within.  Then we’re able to share that joy with the world.  Of course, mixed with a little hot sauce and sparkle.”

Just like The Belle of the Bay.

In just over 300!!! columns I’ve written for RTS, this is my first mother/daughter story.  Thanks, Donna.  And Elen—wherever you are.  Sparkle on!

Silver Linings of a Caregiver: Real-life angels, hard-earned lessons and time with family

Our whole clan accompanied Burton (in the dark green shirt) and me (just above him to the right) to Detroit’s landmark American Coney Island.

When health and other crises strike, look for silver linings

My husband’s brain surgery last fall led to complications. But 50+ years ago, we said “I do” in sickness and in health.

Looking at married life from both sides now, I confess: the health part’s more fun. As my medical advocate 14+ years ago when I suffered stage 4 cancer, Burton agrees.

Other caregivers will understand this: We’ve physically adapted our home in many ways. But we all enjoy maintaining traditions and family customs. Here Burton and I are celebrating cousin Judie’s birthday.

I’ve been busy making/attending appointments, researching resources, preparing meals (okay, picking up meals), checking on details, buying supplies, enjoying visitors. Thankfully, our aides have been good to great. But I’ve rarely had the time or heart to write more than medical notes.

Being a caregiver has silver linings. A big one is the angels who show up on the journey. Like Roger, who comes over many afternoons to play checkers with his old buddy Burt. And Judie, Burton’s first cousin, who joins us for frequent dinners and entertains us with funny stories.

Another silver lining: the things you learn.

Joanne Cruz, a social worker sent by a health-care company, mentioned a term I hadn’t heard. It applies to our current situation: Radical Acceptance.

“It’s about accepting what you can’t change or control,” Joanne said. “Change pushes us in one direction. Our gut wants to pull back. We feel powerless. We grieve what was and fear the future. We make up bad stories about what’s ahead when the truth is none of us knows. We’re all vulnerable.”

Burton seems to have come to Radical Acceptance before I have. He works hard at PT every day just to pull himself to a standing position and get his feet to move an inch or two. His positive attitude and determination are remarkable.

Joanne asked how he feels about having his left side largely shut down. (He’s left handed.) And about challenges with speech, memory and logic.

This is a man who came back from our honeymoon with 13 cents in his pocket, built a company that’s afforded us more than comfortable lives, chaired well over a dozen boards of directors. A man who excelled at golf, was a crack shot with a rifle, flew airplanes, spent hours fly fishing and who, like many Detroit born boys, adored driving. This is a grandfather who took grandkids on frequent adventures, who planned a treasure hunt at our farm up north and financed two in-ground trampolines and a sport court.

This is a man who lost his father when he was 11 and became the father and grandfather he wished he’d had.

And yet…

In light of his current health issues, Joanne asked Burton how he was feeling. Given the same situation, I’d be crying and carrying on nonstop. My resilient husband said, “I’ve got work to do, but emotionally I’m pretty good with it.”

“How far in the future do you look?” Joanne asked.

“I’m not looking at the future at this point,” he said. “This Rehab is just something I have to do. When I finish, I’ll be better.”

Talk about Radical Acceptance. The traits with which Burton built his career and ran organizations are the traits he’s still applying. I’ve often said Burton has a vocabulary deficiency. He doesn’t understand the meaning of the word: No.

Another major silver lining: time with our sons.

David lives nearby but with a new baby, 3 more sons and a career that demands travel, we didn’t seem him often. Now he comes over more to visit his dad and check in with me. Andy flies in from Chicago and spends 2 days a week with us. Bonus: several times he’s taken me out to dinner. He researched wheelchair capable vans and accompanied me to rent one.

Andy, Amy and our granddaughters visited on a recent Sunday. Our grandkids love getting together. Thanks to our nifty van, we were able to accommodate Burton’s chair. Along with 2 more vehicles, we all drove downtown for Coney Islands.

50+ years ago, Burton and I often ended dates with hotdogs from Lafayette Coney Island. On this occasion, American Coney Island next door proved more accessible. They didn’t even object when our Chicago gang brought along their new Doodle Mac.

It was Burton’s first real outing in months (not counting trips to hospitals or doctors). Some of you know about our Thanksgiving Day Slide Ride (see blog post). Burton, who started the tradition, couldn’t make it last fall. Our family trip to Coney Island helped compensate. Thanks to my cell phone camera, we immortalized the memory.

Making memories can take effort. But they’re worth it. Wishing you and yours good health, silver linings and magical memories.

Even as we enjoy each day we have together, now, we love to recall fond family memories we’ve shared. Our sons surprised Burton for his 75th birthday by traveling down to Florida to see us—and, of course, they had to go fishing.

Love and loss and the price we pay for friendship

Having friends enriches our lives, but it comes with a cost

I’ve been thinking about love and loss and the price we pay for friendship. I try not to dwell, but sometimes my heart will catch on something the way a sleeve catches on a sliver of wood.

Marj Jackson Levin had a long career as a Detroit journalist, writer and activist for equal rights for women. Click on her photo to read her bio in the Jewish Women’s Archives.

It happened earlier this week. Driving home from the dentist, I turned down a side street, then found myself in front of the house where my late friend Marj lived. Marj was a journalist who also alienated a few subjects in her day. She wrote for the Free Detroit Free Press; I, for the competing Detroit News. We attended writers’ conferences together and toasted sunsets on Lake Michigan up north. Dying, she continued to host cocktail hours in her bedroom. In her memory, I still savor vodka with Clamato juice.

There’ve been so many more fabulous dames. Cancer took most of them down, way too soon.

There was Jackie, a sculptor who gave up her practice to open a gallery in the Fisher Building because she thought artists working around the Cass Corridor area of Wayne State U. deserved decent representation. That led to the blockbuster Kick Out the Jams exhibition at the DIA and to greater recognition of talented Detroit creators. Jackie was determined to attend my 40th birthday party, and she did. Her last outing.

There was Bobbye, my first friend, who had an impeccable sense of design, and whose husband, David, I spotted on the same day she did. Bobbye brought me an eyebrow color compact while I was in treatment. Thankfully, my eyebrows returned but I still use the compact. I thank Bobbye whenever I do.

Suzy with Gertrude Kasle. Click the photo to read Suzy’s earlier column about her friend Gertrude.

And Gertrude, a visionary who brought to Detroit artists who became international stars. She lured them to flyover country with a promise to sell at least one painting per show. Often, she sold that one painting to herself. From Gertrude I learned to buy art for love, not investment—an attitude that runs contrary to much of today’s art market.

And Marji, a fashion editor for the Detroit Free Press. When I returned to the D to live, I had trouble finding a job. Marji heard Fairchild Publications was looking for “a man with experience.” She recommended me anyway. I got the position.

And Tavy, wildly creative fashion editor for the Detroit News. She wrote one of my all time favorite bits of fashion commentary on the 1970s fashion trend called “Hot Pants.”

She penned a poem that concluded:
“Unless your legs are perfect joys
Short little pants are for short little boys.”

And Marilyn, a wisecracking, wise friend for all seasons. We watched foreign movies together and, after, shared lettuce cups at the bar of PF Chang. Marilyn and sister Sharon celebrated one New Year’s Eve with us on a snowy hay ride to the new pavilion at our farm.

And another Marjie, hostess and storyteller without peer. She told me the legendary Robert Frost and Ogden Nash joke and patiently went through it with me again while I wrote it down. It remains my best routine.

And Julie—upbeat, farsighted. She saw and fostered Detroit’s cool factor and helped found MOCAD. Her hard work and enthusiasm influenced artists to move to the D.

And Claire and Virginia, brilliant retailers who mentored me when I started writing about fashion.

And, and, and. By myself on a ski slope several years ago, I dedicated each run to a different girlfriend. I ran out of legs before I ran out of friends. As soon as I send this column, a dozen more names will occur. Each time I lose a friend, another hole opens in my heart, which feels like a hunk of Jarlsberg.

Still, considering the laughs and insight, the support, fun and memories—the joy my girlfriends bring me, I’m willing to pay the price.

The Mi Shebeirach, or Jewish prayer of healing, includes this line: “Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.” My girlfriends have been and are a blessing to me. I’m honored to know, and have known, them.

Alfred Lord Tennyson was right. Better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.

I just wish it didn’t hurt so much.

Friendship is a current beneath the surface of our lives

Having written this column for more than 3 years, I looked back at the columns I’ve published.  While I haven’t blogged directly about friendship, it’s a theme that runs through many of my stories.

Friendship is a current beneath the surface of our lives that buoys us and keeps us moving forward.

Here are just a few of my subjects who were saved or propped up by friendship…

Natalie Meyerson, 97 and ½, who has 45 “courtesy daughters,” friends really, who help her run errands, take walks and keep her independent and vital.

Tony Acosta, a tennis pro who happened to be hitting balls with some doctor friends.  When Tony mentioned he couldn’t catch his breath, they sat him down, took his pulse, and drove him to the hospital where he had multiple bypass open heart surgery.  They’re all back on the courts.

Doug Leith, a personal friend and fine golfer with a devoted group of golf buddies.  After Doug died prematurely of pulmonary cystic fibrosis and was cremated, his friends scattered his ashes on his favorite golf holes around the world.  They still carry some of his ashes in their golf bags.

Ellen Kahn, in her 90s.  She fled Berlin as a child on the Kinder Train.  She went on to lose both her daughters over the years.  She credits her friends for pulling her through.

Photographer Monni Must, who was inconsolable after losing her daughter Miya.  Monni’s friend Linda  Schlesinger-Wagner accompanied her to Europe several times, assisting in photo shoots that turned into a landmark series of books about Holocaust survivors.

I’m blessed with many good friends.  One is my husband, Burt.  The stage 4 cancer diagnosis I received 13 years ago was so frightening I knew I couldn’t make intelligent decisions.  I asked Burton to take over.  He was relentless in tracking down doctors, calling and re-calling, keeping notes, taking me to every appointment.   He saved my life.

Another dear friend of more than 50 years is Brenda Rosenberg.  Throughout my complicated diagnosis, Brenda also came to every doctor’s appointment.  She designed a card printed with the Misha Beirach (Jewish prayer for healing) on one side and a meaningful photo she’d taken on the other.  She cried with me when my head was shaved, designed my wig, talked me through many meltdowns.  This same Brenda Rosenberg is one of the guiding lights behind this book and the Women of Wisdom.

The Torah commands Jewish people to fulfill the concept of tikkun olam, or making the world a better place.  Brenda, I’m so proud of how hard you work and how much you accomplish in helping to heal the world.  On a personal and global level, thank you, dear friend.