We’ve been thinking a lot about life and death lately. Terrorists murdered hundreds of civilians in Israel last weekend, including babies and grandmothers, and the carnage horrified the world. Missiles flew. War was declared. It was the kind of thing that felt so huge that all other events had to pull to the side of the road.
But humanity does not operate on a single street. I remember the same hour when those planes crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 — another act of gripping terrorism — my wife got a call that her grandmother had died. It felt like an impossible juggling act, the grief for the masses, the grief for a single loved one.
Well. History is repetitive. The same day that news broke of Hamas attacking innocent Israelis, I got a call from my good friend Bernie Smilovitz, the longtime sports anchor at WDIV-TV. We have been buddies since the 1980s.
In a shaky voice that I barely recognized, Bernie told me that his wife of 38 years, Donna, had passed away in the middle of the night from a sudden blood clot. She woke up saying her heart was racing. Minutes later, she was gone. She died in his arms.
And once again, the grief for the masses met the grief for a single cherished person.
I’m still trying to balance the two.
A strong presence wiped out so quickly
Let me tell you about Donna Smilovitz. She was a light. A supernova. A mountain of human energy in a pint-sized frame. She was endlessly curious, hopelessly intellectual, affectionate, compassionate, and often hysterically funny. She had reddish hair, a sweet, husky voice, and a trilling, infectious laugh. She had big, curious eyes, but she was all ears. Donna could listen the way Miguel Cabrera could hit. If you had a problem, you could call her anytime, day or night. “Tell me,” she’d say. You would.
Listening is an art, and Donna employed it every day with friends and family, but also as a young journalist in the early years of cable TV news, and later — after leaving that world to focus on being a mother — as a clinical psychologist, going back to school to earn a doctorate degree. She became well respected in our community as Dr. Donna Rockwell (her maiden name), saw patients, wrote articles, and often spoke on radio and TV. Her two professions, journalism and psychology, suited her perfectly, because each insists that what other people have to say is important.
When hundreds of those other people gathered to say goodbye to Donna last week, it was heartbreaking. Not just because half the people there felt she was their best friend. Not just because we loved her, loved hearing her stories, loved watching her laugh, loved sharing meals or seeing photos of her grandkids.
And not just because, at 66, she seemed so healthy, vibrant, so energetically far from death, that mourners at her memorial service kept expecting someone to say, “Sorry, a mistake had been made, Donna’s fine.”
It was heartbreaking because of the stunned faces and wobbly voices of her immediate family. It was in their blinking-back-tears expressions that we witnessed how cruelly a life can be snatched away from us.
Donna’s two sons, Zach and Jake, each now married with young children of their own, spoke through choked voices about their mother, saying things a mother always wishes her sons would say.
Jake declared the best days of his life were when he curled up next to Donna as she helped him with his homework, or when she showed up at the birth of his first child with a suitcase full of Gatorade.
Zach recalled being brought to the hospital when his brother was born, and Donna having him lie down in the bed and meet the new addition, telling him that “he would be my best friend for life.”
Bernie, still shell-shocked, tried to douse the burning agony with a splash of humor, his specialty, saying he knew Donna was somehow there watching over him, so yes, he would remember to water the plants.
We all laughed. It’s all you could do to keep from weeping.
One loss puts so many others into perspective
I knew Donna for more than 30 years. My wife and I adored her. She once asked to interview me on what it’s like to be well-known, for a thesis on the subject. Perhaps being married to a celebrity, or having many famous friends, it stoked her interest. Recently, she started an online program for teenage girls and young women called Already Famous, to try and encourage that at-risk age group to recognize their own inner strength and beauty.
The thing is, there’s being well-known, and then there’s being known for something. Donna’s face may not have been on magazine covers, but nearly everyone gathered in that packed memorial service knew her for the same attributes: being warm, caring, loving, patient and present.
How much better “known” could a person hope to be?
And now, just like that, she is gone. And all last week, while the world howled over events in the Middle East, Bernie and his sons, their wives, and their young children, sat in a house that was suddenly too quiet, too empty, too lonesome.
There’s a lesson in there. And since Donna loved learning, perhaps it’s fitting that we try and absorb it.
All the people that are dying these days are somebody’s Donna. And while we focus angrily on our differences, the universe keeps trying to show us how alike we really are, because sudden death rips the fabric of every human heart. And we all cry the same tears when we have to say goodbye.