Radical Survivor

By Susan Estrich

March 18, 2013 4 min read

It was September 1995 when my friend and colleague Rob Saltzman told me what had happened to his sister's family. Tennis nuts. Her husband and their two boys died in a small plane crash on the way home from watching a tennis tournament. Did I mention that she had fought back breast cancer? That she was the principal at the elementary school both of her boys had attended?

I am "good" at dealing with loss. A lot of people run away from even the mention of it, thinking it is somehow contagious. And sadness might be, but not loss. Loss just is. You face it. You say you're sorry. You give a hug, make a cup of tea, arrange some flowers, cry. As with so much of life, 90 percent is just about being there.

But to lose your husband and young children... My own were 2 and 5 at the time. I could not bear to think about it. I searched my office for some book, some collection of something that could offer comfort, if not to Rob's sister, Nancy, then to Rob. I lived through rape and wrote about it. Not to compare suffering, but it seemed like nothing. How do you survive the worst thing in the world? I looked for my books about the Holocaust.

Eighteen years later, Dr. Nancy Saltzman has written the book I did not have on my shelves, the one you would wish on no one (and having read it, recommend to everyone), a book that — remarkably, truly remarkably — is as much about life as it is about death.

I am not going to pretend it is easy to read. I brought it home last week, and it moved from my desk to my nightstand and back to my desk.

On the cover, there is a picture of a beautiful, smiling woman, alive. She looks, in that moment, happy.

On the back, there is a picture of the same woman, younger, beautiful, smiling, surrounded by her handsome husband and two boys.

Inside is the story of how one woman survived a nightmare. It is also a celebration of the lives of the three men she so loved, her husband and two sons.

I did not want to read that part, I must admit. Knowing she was going to lose them, why did I have to live the joy? Why did I have to come to love them with her? Couldn't I just start at the end, at the part where she has a fiance and two dogs?

I have suffered from depression and anxiety my entire life. So did my mother. I know there are so many folks who have it so much tougher than I do. I try to remember that, but it doesn't really work. Depression is not a rational choice, much less a branch of game theory. Realizing how much more miserable things could be, things are, makes it worse, not better. Who am I to deserve to stay in bed if Nancy Saltzman can get up?

I was afraid to read this book for the usual reasons: that it would be the kind of book that makes you feel like a sinner in the company of a saint, the kind of book in which a writer's courage in the face of tragedy only leaves me with nightmares of catastrophe and shame at my own cowardice.

But I felt like I owed it to Rob to try. He is so proud of his sister. She signed it: "In comes love..."

In comes love.

Dr. Nancy Saltzman has written a moving tribute to her husband and sons and to the family and friends who helped her survive. She has written a painful and personal tale of death and grieving and acceptance and the small steps to a different kind of happiness.

But more than anything, she has written a book that is a celebration — at every level — of the power of love.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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