It’s not lost on me that it’s the Day of the Dead, when we remember and honor our departed beloveds (between Oct. 31-Nov. 2 this year). The veil is thinner during this time between worlds, dimensions, states of being, the spirit world and the world we seemingly inhabit. I’m thinking loud and often about a very recent departed dear one, Phil Brater, a phenomenal man who saved my life when I was a traumatized teen.
I was 15 when I met Phil, one of the leaders of the Temple Shaari Emeth youth group in Manalapan, New Jersey. The rabbi of our congregation, when I met with him at the urging of my father (freaked out that when he said he was suicidal, I said I was too) hooked me up with the youth group to give me more stability. It gave me much more: a sense of belonging, plus equal doses of sanity and humor, but most of all, it gave me Phil.
There’s an old Yiddish saying that we can survive anything if it’s part of a story, but to have a story really help us bring together the shards of our brokenness, we need someone to listen to it and help us see it in new lights and bigger perspectives. Phil was my witness, my confidant, my ad hoc therapist, and my spiritual advisor all in one.
In short order, Phil told me to come 30 minutes early each week to youth group so we could talk, and talk we did, usually sitting in a hallway, our backs leaning against the white-painted cinder block walls between kids’ classrooms. I would tell Phil of my parents’ long and damaging divorce, the price and pain of my rupture from most of my family, and what it was like living with a father who kicked or screamed at me most days. I shared what seemed like an endless well of sadness, insecurity, shame, and how I couldn’t see a way out of this.
Mostly he listened. Sometimes he held my hand or strategized with me about how to get through the next year, month, day. Always he told me that no child should have to go through what I was going through, caught in a maze of a mess so thick we could not see what to do to change things without exposing me to potentially more danger. But because of Phil, I had a way out I couldn’t see at time although I was desperate each week to sink to the ground in the dim hallway with him and start talking.
Having someone who truly verified each week that I wasn’t crazy, that things were indeed bad, and that I was strong, smart, and creative enough to survive this — even if believing that was a vast trick of suspended belief — helped me get strong, smart, and creative enough. He also praised whatever scrap of poetry I brought him and told me to keep writing no matter what, telling me that poetry was one of my best ways through all this.
Phil came by his genius for help and healing naturally, it seemed, and through his vocation as a guidance counselor at an all-girls’ school in New York City where most of the girls were navigating poverty, violence, and mental illness in themselves and their families. So he knew how to work with people like me and many others who were struggling, even in our middle-class suburban youth group. But mostly, he was innately gifted and inherently intelligent when it came to being wildly present with people in pain.
When I say “wildly,” I mean it. Phil (as well as his brother-in-law, who co-led the youth group) had a wicked sense of humor, and nothing was too disgusting or out of the pale for our youth group to fall out of our chairs laughing about. Phil also had a no-holds-barred high-pitched laugh and absolutely no self-consciousness about being himself. Through his fierce love of his wife and daughters, he also showed me what it meant to be a mensch and good family man.
Although we stayed in touch since that time through letters or phone calls, and occasionally a visit, I got to see him and actually co-present with him at the old temple in 2014. Fittingly, I was giving a reading from my novel, The Divorce Girl, a semi-autobiographical novel (the plot and some of the incidents were from my life but all the characters, including the main one — who was taller and smarter than me — were fictional). When I thanked Phil for all he did for me, then people started asking him questions as well as me, and soon he was standing next to me.
“How did you help her become a writer?” one person asked. Phil said, “You know, you just find out what someone is interested in and encourage them.” This was completely true, but the bigger story is that he showed me the power of telling our stories aloud and on the page.
Phil is the one who first shone the flashlight of good listening enough for me to see not just my way out but how writing and listening could be a way for others to find their own path. I credit him with helping me become a teacher and facilitator, and much of what I know of the power of such an encounter informed my development of Transformative Language Arts, a field that encourages people to make community and change through what we say and write.
When I hugged Phil goodbye seven years ago, I told him I would try to visit again. Although I very much wanted to, being so far away, then the distance magnified by the pandemic kept me of seeing him alive again. Another old temple pal let me know that he died October 27. I’m sad that he’s gone, and I especially wish his wonderful family all comforts and peace possible.
Phil’s life on this side of the veil is over, but my full circle time with him is so embedded in my heart that he will never be dead to me. And in case he can hear or read this (my idea of the afterlife would surely include a lot of reading), thank you, Phil, for getting me through the hardest three years of my life. Love in action like yours never dies.