Inspiration in dark times
By Michelle Tedford, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer
In the darkest part of his life, Neil David Schwartz found reason to hope.
He’s sharing that hope with others through his writing and public speaking around his memoir, What If Tomorrow Never Comes?
“My mission in life is to inspire people, especially in times of great darkness,” said Schwartz, who suffered the death of two family members within three months. “There is another chapter out there, and there is hope.”
Schwartz will bring his message of hope to Dayton on Oct. 29 as part of the JCC’s 2014 Cultural Arts and Book Festival.
Until 2010, Schwartz said, his family’s life “was nothing but sunshine and flowers.” He had a happy marriage, a successful career as a trial lawyer, and two accomplished adult children.
Then his daughter, Amy, was diagnosed with a rare and deadly lung cancer.
A year into Amy’s fight, Schwartz’s wife of 32 years, Joanne, died in her sleep of a stress-induced cerebral-vascular incident.
This left Schwartz in unfathomable grief but with the responsibility of taking over the primary caregiving for his daughter during the last three months of her life.
It was a dark journey, he said, but it was also a loving gift in the way he was able to connect with his daughter during her final months.
“Her strength will always be an inspiration to me,” he said.
During his daughter’s illness and after both deaths, Schwartz recognized that he was living in galut.
Galut is a Hebrew word for exile. It is often used as a physical exile, but for Schwartz it was a spiritual disconnect.
Schwartz said he learned about galut as a young man through his studies of Kabalah, Jewish mysticism. He recognized the despair in his life as a struggle of a person out of sync with his soul.
In his book, Schwartz writes, “Galut divests you of your dreams, your hopes, your ability to love and be loved. Galut crushes and destroys the human spirit… Galut has emptied my dream bank and poured water on the flame of hope.”
If we are lucky, he said, we pray for a good life and our prayers are answered.
But what happens to your faith when you pray for the most important things in the world and the answer is only silence?
Schwartz continued to pray. But he had to realize that God “cannot be the Coca-Cola God” that dispenses answers to every prayer. There is a greater mystery in the universe that remains to be discovered, he said.
He also began to write.
What would become his memoir started as a cathartic journaling process suggested by a therapist who counseled the family after Amy’s diagnosis.
Schwartz said he had written more than 2,000 pages when those who knew him suggested he turn it into a book about his journey.
The book has helped him heal, he said, both in writing and through meeting others who share their stories about fighting grief, despair and loss.
He’ll discuss the role of prayer and faith in emerging from the darkness. And he’ll share what he calls Schwartzie’s Toolbox for Survival.
While he does not have all the answers, Schwartz says he has learned things that have allowed him to live again.
One is the concept of the legacy of immortality. As individuals, our legacy includes the things we’ve created and all the people we’ve touched, he said. It gives him solace, he said, to know that Joanne and Amy’s legacies as teachers include all the students they helped.
He also discovered that he wants to reform his own legacy, focusing on what is most important in life. That includes this opportunity to share his story in hopes of helping others.
He still fights the darkness, he said. But he has found rays of light, including meeting a wonderful woman and remarrying.
“I’m sharing my story,” he said, “and I hope I can emit some positive energy, that there is life and sunshine.”
The JCC Cultural Arts & Book Fest presents author Neil David Schwartz on Wednesday, Oct. 29 at 7 p.m. at the Boonshoft CJCE, 525 Versailles Dr., Centerville, sponsored by Hospice of Dayton. The cost is $5 in advance, $8 at the door. R.S.V.P. to 610-1555 or at jewishdayton.org.