On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many will leave this world and how many shall be born into it, who will live and who will die.
“Without a doubt, Jean Georges!” I practically shouted with enthusiasm, waiting to hear his own. Moments before, Lenny Zucker, the man who would become my father-in-law and happily toast to my future, had grabbed my tiny one-fingered hand and led me to the dining room table at his sister’s home to have what he described as a ‘serious’ conversation. It was Yom Kippur and my friend Beth had invited me to join her to “break the fast” at the end of the 24 hour period known as the Jewish day of atonement. Following a difficult breakup and my reluctance to get back into the pool of suitors, Beth had been convinced that John Zucker, Lenny’s son, was my perfect match. Her family and the Zuckers always broke the fast together, so she invited me to spend the holiday with her.
The prior evening, during Kol Nidre services at their family’s synagogue in New Jersey. Beth and her husband introduced me to John. Her instincts were spot-on. The next day, at the Break Fast, John and I sequestered ourselves in his aunt’s kitchen and talked for an hour while nosy family members nonchalantly wandered in and out pretending to look in the fridge. And then his father grabbed my hand for the chat.
In fact, I had already met the Zuckers five years earlier because Beth and John’s brother Mat were close friends. But John had not been home at the time.
So this was different.
I was no longer simply a friend, I was a prospective girlfriend. I felt a shot of anxiety walking over to the table. Having been shunned by the parents of several past boyfriends unwilling to unconditionally embrace a girl who looked like me, I had low expectations for where the discussion was headed. I anticipated the questions. “Is it genetic?” “Can you lead a physically normal life?” Given that my prior boyfriend’s mom took one look at me and warned that we had no future, you can understand why my mind went negative. Feelings of initial anxiety began to deepen to dread.
I took a deep breath and waited. His clear blue eyes practically twinkled as he smiled warmly in my direction. “Meg, I’ve heard you’ve been to all the greatest restaurants in the City. I’ve got know…..which is your favorite?”
“Let’s call my Dad. I bet he’s around and can meet us for lunch.” John and I were walking around the Short Hills Mall after just leaving our baby’s anatomy scan appointment. I was 19 weeks pregnant, and we had just learned that our second son Charlie, along with his older brother Ethan, would also share my condition, ectrodactyly, which simply means having fewer digits. While the news was no longer a genetic surprise I had desperately hoped this child would be born with all digits in tact. After all, my own brothers had ten fingers and toes and I was convinced that having an unaffected sibling brought normalcy to my life.
We sat waiting at Joe’s in the mall. When my father-in-law Lenny walked up I began to cry uncontrollably. “What happened?” he asked with understandable alarm. “Oh Dad, I said softly. I’m so sorry. This baby has ectrodactyly too.” I began to cry harder as John put his arm around me.
Lenny immediately grabbed my tiny hand from across the table. “Now you need to stop right now. You’re talking about my next grandchild!” I took a deep breath, uncertain where the discussion was headed. He continued. “Are you kidding me? Look how beautiful Ethan is. All will be fine.” He paused and then added. “Make no mistake. All my grandchildren are perfect, just the way they are.”
For Jews, the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known as “The Days of Awe.” During this time, it is our obligation is to take notice of — ourselves, our relationships with others, the good we do in the world. We are taught that although we are finite, we transcend death by the way we live our lives and connect with each other. Essentially, the good we do lives on through the lives we’ve touched. We are expected to examine our lives and how we are living them.
In this context, I have been thinking a lot about how I have been living my life now compared with my past. If we “rolled the tape” and looked back a few decades, I wouldn’t see a person unconditionally accepting myself and encouraging our children to do the same. I was a girl who hid her different hands in public, in shame. That self-conscious behavior came from a combination of immaturity and external influences, like other people’s judgments. Not surprisingly, with one finger on each hand, one toe on each foot and shortened forearms, I was consumed with a heightened sense of self-awareness. I endured life in a glass cage, always being gawked at and catching side glances from the ever curious world around me. That kind of thing impacts a person.
Fast forward and, although the constant stares will never subside, I certainly am not the same person anymore. I wish I could say I was able to transcend and become the confident, unashamed woman I am now all on my own. But in reality, I have to credit people like my father-in-law, Lenny, able to accept me unconditionally even before I felt that way about myself. That impacts a person, too.
In August, Lenny passed away. Although he was frail, we hadn’t expected it in that moment and thankfully John was by his side. When I sat at his funeral service in their synagogue it occurred to me we were in the very same room I had met my John more than twenty years ago. And now he stood with his brother and sister before a packed room delivering their eulogies of love and praise for their father. Among many memories, John’s brother Mat shared how when he nervously informed his parents he was gay, Lenny (and their mom Leslie) embraced him unconditionally. I could certainly relate.
As I think about how I can best live my life and touch others inspired by Lenny, it will be to pay forward his ability to be open-minded to others.
Thankfully I no longer need outside encouragement—each day I choose to flaunt and not hide. Although I may make it seem easy in photos I post, make no mistake. Flaunting (code for being comfortable in your own skin) is a conscious choice I make every day. Some days it comes easily. Some days I admit I feel like yelling at the person that cannot stop staring at my children in particular (but thankfully I have my wits about me and refrain).
Although none of us know how many days we have left, the best way I can honor Lenny’s memory embodying his generosity of spirit will be to not only love and unconditionally accept myself, but to take a page out of his playbook and motivate others to do the same.