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A Tree Grows in Maryland... (Happy?) First Birthday, Ronen.

In the context of a chevruta (partner-study session) in memory of Ronen this week, a wise colleague told me, “Birthdays and anniversaries are special times for reflection. These are opportunities to mark where you were a year ago, and how you’ve grown or evolved since then.”

Oh, boy...

A year ago today was a relatively boring day, actually. I’d been scheduled for a repeat C-section for August 19, but when we arrived in the Labor & Delivery triage wing at 2:00 PM on August 19, my OB/GYN looked at the monitors and said, surprised, “Do you know you’re already having contractions?” So, we changed course, and it would be thirty hours before Ronen was born just after 8:00 PM on August 20.

Let me just say: When you have an epidural, and you end up in the hospital at the very beginning of labor, 30 hours goes by really slowly. It’s basically a waiting game until the last hour before birth. I was bored out of my mind until just an hour before Ronen was born. The pregnancy and labor were “uneventful.”

I’ve been looking at pictures from August 18 and the morning of August 19 last year. August 18 was Sunday, and we took the kids for haircuts and to Target to pick out special new clothes they could wear to the baby’s first celebration. Knowing their lives were going to change, we took my older children out for breakfast on Monday and then to their favorite playground (the one they’ve dubbed the “Shady Playground”). In the photos, they look happy as can be. D swinging and laughing. J climbing. I’m not in any of the photos -- there are barely any pictures of me while pregnant, my choice -- but the images and videos that include Bob playing with J, them “driving” together in a metal frame “car” is one that makes me smile.

This is the calm before the storm. The last day of our blissful naïveté, before our family became irreparably changed. I barely remember what life felt like before the haze.

The next month will bring a slew of anniversaries, but they aren’t the ones we had when we welcomed our first two children into this world. As Facebook and TinyBeans remind us of the one year anniversaries, there will be no remembrance of the day we brought Ronen home. No memory of leaving the birthing hospital with him, or ever putting him in a car seat. We won’t remember celebrating his bris -- Bob, with our parents and some siblings present, surreptitiously named him on the morning of his sixth day of life at the Torah in the Ohr Kodesh minyan because I wanted him to be named before he underwent surgery.

For those who know me only from reading my posts, I know you’re just piecing together our story. The people closest to us are just piecing together our story, too. Sometimes it feels like we are also.

From the moment I started labor to the time Ronen died was exactly forty days. I wonder what Moses thought as he began his forty-day stint on Mount Sinai. I wonder what Noah thought as he entered the ark as the storm began. I wonder about Elijah in his forty-day refuge in the desert. What would you do if you knew you were on a forty-day journey? What would you do if you embarked on the journey of a lifetime without knowing it would only be forty days?

Birthdays are for celebrating. I confess, I love celebrating my own birthday, but I’m also usually caught up more in the anticipation of my own birthday than celebrating it. There will be expressions of mourning over the next month, but for Ronen’s birthday I needed to do something forward-looking. I’ve been anticipating this day anxiously for about 326 days.

So, we planted at tree at Ohr Kodesh. It’s a dwarf Japanese Maple, the same age as Ronen. We dedicated it with our children with Kindness Rocks and a plaque that reads as follows:

Tree Planted in memory of Ronen Eliezer Labovitz, z”l son of Cantor Hinda and Bob Labovitz August 20 - September 29, 2019 20 Av - 29 Elul 5779

As long as we live, he too will live, for he is a part of us as we remember him.

The tree serves a few purposes:

  • First, it will be good for us to have a place to go when we’re thinking about Ronen -- he is buried in New Jersey. Between now and Rosh Ha-Shanah, benches will be set up in the area near this tree, and we hope that others will use this area as a place to rest, to think, to relax, or to listen to the children play on the playground just behind it. We hope that children and adults explore the rocks, take what gives them inspiration, and perhaps contribute new ones.

  • Second, the tree is a statement of gratitude for our community here at Ohr Kodesh Congregation for their unending support in the hardest months we have endured as a family.

  • Third, we will miss being able to watch our son grow, and certainly we will watch others his age grow up healthy and strong, God willing. As our year has been punctuated in several meaningful visual ways, we will watch this tree grow and it will mark the passage of time for us.

We erect monuments that stand through time, and Ronen’s tree is one. We have not yet been privileged to erect Ronen’s tombstone; COVID has made delays unpredictable both in terms of manufacturing and travel, but we will share when we are able to do an unveiling.

In the meantime, I have also collected our writings from CaringBridge and Facebook, hoping they don’t get lost to the historical annuls of the Internet, into a website at I’m not yet sure how much writing I’ll continue to do publicly, but our journey is now chronicled at that address, and I invite you to read as much as is comfortable for you.

Today we honor the future, that we slowly heal, that we slowly rejoin the world of the living. We are grateful for everyone’s support, comments, love, and texts. We appreciate everyone’s forgiveness when we misstep if we are too distracted by our own situation. Because it’s a birthday, we’ll have cupcakes, and D & J have already sung a birthday song to their absent brother. As we blow out the candles on this year, I wonder what wishes really are destined to come true.

The lesson of Psalm 27, which we share daily in the month of Elul, is that faith and strength from mended brokenness is stronger than the faith and strength of the inexperienced. I’m still not sure that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but I know that experience makes you a better companion, a better listener, a better empath. I pray that we are the last to experience our kind of loss, but when it happens again we will be here for the next family who needs our support.

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