This is about mental illness.
My friend Judy Rosenfeld in Seattle had a 43-year-old son who was mentally ill since the age of 12. The other night he was shot and killed by police in a confrontation. It is a shock to our whole community up here in Seattle. I’m visiting, trying to help out and just sitting with her.
Judy’s son, Ariel, struggled all of his adult life. He was a terrified and frightened boy who grew up to be a terrified, frightened and violent man. He was violent toward Judy and to his ex-wife.
Ariel was an orthodox Jew and as such, knew that some of the things he did were unforgivable. He prayed daily at the synagogue with the rabbis, talked about the Torah and about God, and tried to be a good person. But the demons inside of him were stronger than God.
I’ve known this family for 35 years, since Ariel was a boy. I’ve watched Judy live in fear for about 23 of those years. At one point she moved to Israel, where she worked as an RN, partly to get away from him. But then Ariel decided he wanted to go to Israel to become a rabbi. He studied Torah in Israel for five years.
Judy came back, got a good nursing job and bought a house. When Ariel came back to Seattle, her life became hell.
Judy’s house is bright pink with a red roof. The inside is about the most charming and most comfortable a home can get. Books, religious symbols, her beloved piano, lots of lovely textile patterns. One whole wall is covered with ceramic and metal suns, her favorite symbol.
As Ariel’s condition worsened, Judy went through these last years bravely, always there to help her friends (like me) with anything we needed. She is the most generous person I know. And in all ways. She loved her son and was always optimistic about him.
After the shooting in the supermarket where Ariel worked, the officer who killed him called Judy. She told him not to feel guilty, that she understood and wasn’t angry, and she knew he did what he had to do. Apparently, Ariel had pulled a gun on the officers. Knowing how terrible police officers feel when they have to kill someone in the line of duty, however justified it is, Judy’s statement to him was what we call a mitzvah, a good deed. I imagine her words were a great comfort to him.
When the detectives came to her house to interview her, Judy asked them to bring a pizza, which they did.
She called Bob, the manager of the QFC grocery store a few days after her son was killed, to tell him how sorry she was that such a commotion occured in his store, which was closed by the police for several hours.
Since Judy is an observant Jew, we sat shiva for Ariel, which means that we sat around the house while parades of people visited her. People from the neighborhood, people from several Jewish congregations, rabbis, old friends. Hundreds of people came over the one-week period and every one of them brought food. Lots of food.
Judy was very grateful for the shiva because the tremendous support and the occupation of her time with guests really got her through the first awful period after her son’s death. Everyone I saw was marvelously compassionate.
We all knew Ariel was mentally ill when he was twelve and helplessly watched as his illness progressed to the point where he committed crimes and used drugs. He has never been able to fully maintain himself or hold a real job. Judy has bailed him out of tough situations dozens of times. He was her son after all, and she couldn’t bear to see him alone and confused.
I am in awe of Judy’s strength and in her ability to be kind and thoughtful to other people in the midst of her own grief. I’ve learned a lot this week about kindness and humility.
Mental illness doesn’t go away. It gets worse. In Ariel’s case, like many other people, he was simply overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it all. He could no longer bear it. Many mentally ill people resist taking medication and Ariel was one of them.
This was a tragedy. And it was unavoidable.