by Roger Rosenblatt
Reviewed by Jessica Handler
Making Toast is Roger Rosenblatt's graceful memoir of the year following his daughter Amy's sudden death from an undiagnosed heart condition. Rosenblatt, a distinguished author and senior contributor to Time magazine, writes here mostly as grandfather to three small children: Bubbies, (James), Sammy, and Jessie. His chronicle of a family learning to live after tragedy contributes elegantly to the canon of loss memoir.
When Amy, a pediatrician, collapses on the treadmill, her two oldest children discover her body. "Mommy isn't talking," Jessie tells her father, Harris, also a physician. His CPR doesn't revive her. After her death, Rosenblatt and his wife Ginny move from Long Island to Maryland, into Amy and Harris's home. Making toast -- his grandfatherly specialty -- driving the children to appointments, and grocery shopping become part of Rosenblatt's day, along with periodic commutes to Long Island to teach. Ginny "lays out the children's outfits for the day, supervises the brushing of teeth," and more, aware that she is living her daughter's life.
Rosenblatt focuses our attention on the small steps that go into rebuilding a family. "Because I could not understand why she died, I sought to make other things less confusing. I cleaned out junk-closets, gave order to a chaotic shelf of CDs, and cleared an ivy-choked area of the yard." But don't presume that composure denies sorrow; their "close family . . . suffers closely," Rosenblatt writes. The day after Amy's death, his two grown sons stand with him and weep. "Arms around one another, we formed a circle, like skydivers."
Freefall is an excellent metaphor for surviving great loss, and Making Toast is constructed in gentle, short bursts that a parachutist might recognize. The book's sections are brief, a few no more than dispatches from a new territory. In a two-sentence segment, a sister-in-law announces her pregnancy, and Amy's daughter Jessie hopes for a girl. Life insists on going on.
Because life goes on, Rosenblatt illuminates moments of pure humor and joy in a difficult year. When Bubbies picks a book for evening reading, Rosenblatt is wryly delighted at the toddler's random selection of The Letters of James Joyce. He does what any clever grandfather would -- makes up the words. "Dear Bubbies," begins Rosenblatt-as-Joyce. "Went to the playground today. Tried the slide."
Support comes from friends and family. Nearly 800 condolence letters arrive. Rosenblatt can't resist indulging in name-checking famous friends: memories of Garry Trudeau and Jane Pauley at Amy and Harris's wedding, a poem for Amy from Billy Collins, a donation to a scholarship fund in Amy's name from Alan Alda. But it's his inclusion of the parallel story of Kevin, a contractor at the Rosenblatt's house whose son also dies suddenly, that resonates most strongly. Kevin's wife Cathy consults a medium. Kevin keeps his son's cell phone active just to hear his voice. Everyone, Rosenblatt implies, grieves in his or her own right way.
A thread of mystery runs through Making Toast: the content of a voice mail message Amy left for her brother and sister-in-law. No dire communication this -- just Amy hinting to the grownups about Christmas gifts for the kids. "Would you like to hear it?" Rosenblatt's son Carl asks. He declines. It's only at the end of the book that Rosenblatt listens to Amy's voice on the answering machine, but he doesn't succumb to paroxysms of sorrow. Instead, because he's a grandfather and one of Amy's children wants breakfast, he does what they believe he does best: he makes toast.
Rosenblatt's message is as clear and comfortingly ordinary as that. After tragedy, we are never the same, and yet, snow falls, toast gets made, and children learn to read. With joy and sorrow, life goes on.