As a rabbi and as a father, the saddest funerals at which I have officiated or attended are those for a child. The loss of a child goes against expectation. Kids are supposed to survive parents and when a child dies, hope for the future dies as well. It is a profound loss and recovery is hard. I sense that when I talk to parents who have lost a child, they are still grieving inwardly. Life has gone on, but the pain lingers.
The loss of a child haunts Frank Redmond, the central character in On a Clear Day, an emotionally moving narrative of loss, acceptance, and reconciliation. When he loses his job as a veteran Glasgow shipbuilder after many years, he is adrift professionally and mentally. Freed from work that has occupied him for many years, his mind often wanders to the fateful day when his son drowned. Rob, his surviving son, does not fully grasp his father’s grief and disappointment and interprets his father’s withdrawal as an indication that his father in some way holds him accountable for his brother’s death. In truth, Frank holds himself responsible for the tragedy that took place while they all were swimming in the ocean. In spite of possessing a loving wife, a devoted son, and sweet grandchildren, dysfunction rules on the home front. His life is empty and devoid of meaning, leaving Frank depressed and inwardly angry at the world and at himself.
A casual conversation with friends gives Frank an idea that piques his curiosity and focuses his attention and energy; namely to swim across the English Channel. Already a serious recreational swimmer, he sees this swim as a goal that will give his life some purpose and boost his self-confidence, especially after being released from his shipbuilding job.
Enlisting the aid of friends, he trains arduously to prepare himself for the crossing. Without revealing his plans to his wife or son, he rents a boat and tests the waters literally and figuratively. Over the course of his secret training, he strains his relationship with his wife and falls into intense arguments with his son.
Frank, indeed, has problems: loss of job, loss of a child, loss of self-esteem. None of this is easy, but the approach of Jewish tradition to such challenges can be helpful. Lori Palatnik, a noted Jewish educator and self-help guru, wisely observes that her belief that God is in charge of the world gets her through almost anything. She writes: “It means that God is sending me this so that I can grow. It prevents me from blaming others, including myself. It frames a situation not as something overwhelming that is impossible to solve, but as a puzzle that can be worked out, and the process of working it out is where real growth takes place. Words are powerful; as soon as you reframe from ‘problem’ to ‘opportunity,’ you pull down the covers, get out of bed, pull up your boot straps and rise to the occasion. No one wants problems, but who doesn’t want opportunities?”
One of my Torah teachers once told me to see adversity in life as the back of a tapestry. The travails that we encounter are represented by the knots and clumps on the back of the tapestry. On the front, however, is a work of art, which is what is visible from the aspect of eternity. In God’s eyes, it all makes sense, but from our human perspective it is incomprehensible.
Frank, like all men, has no ultimate understanding of the tragedy in his life, but through supportive friends, he becomes more accepting of life’s twists and turns, and moves forward towards a family who has been yearning for his love and acceptance. On a Clear Day beckons us to accept the rain and focus on the clear day ahead.