The journey of parenthood is long and winding. It took a grieving Devon father to Nepal for the saddest of reasons — but then yielded him the gift of comfort.
On June 2, 2016, Frank Rapoport’s daughter Alex, 32, took her own life after a 20-year battle with an eating disorder. In 2018, Rapoport traveled to the Himalayan country of Nepal to scatter Alex’s ashes in the holy rivers of Kathmandu. He wanted to return her to the place where she had once found peace, connection, and, for a time, a respite from the condition that had plagued her most of her life.
Afterward, Rapoport decided to linger a bit longer in the Buddhist culture that had meant so much to his daughter. So he traveled on, west to the Kingdom of Bhutan. While there, he bought a vest made of handwoven fabric, the kind of thing Alex would have loved. Not long afterward, Rapoport was at a meeting of eating disorder advocates. Several people complimented his unusual vest.
And an idea took form: He would import and sell traditional garments and goods from Nepal and Bhutan, and use the profits to support eating disorder advocacy and awareness.
Thus was born Samsara Gear, a clothing and woven-goods import project inspired by and named for the Buddhist concept that describes the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
Samsara Gear is still in its infancy, but Rapoport intends for a percentage of its profits to support the work of organizations like Project HEAL, a national advocacy group aiding people with eating disorders.
Samsara’s goods range from simple bags and mats to elaborate, ornate jackets and coats, with prices ranging from about $20 to several hundred dollars. The more modest items are sold on Etsy, while the more expensive goods are sold through the company website, samsaragear.com. At some point, Rapoport would like to see Samsara goods carried in retail stores to increase awareness of the company’s mission.
But even at this nascent stage, Rapoport is getting something very special from his work with the project.
“It’s my way of connecting with Alex,” the father said.
In her earliest years, “Alex was really just like every other father’s daughter,” said Rapoport, 69, a Devon attorney.
She was a happy, athletic kid who loved soccer. She had three siblings and was especially close to her younger brother, Graham, who is on the autism spectrum — playing with him, arranging campouts together in their Wayne backyard, empathetic toward his differences.
“I always had the sense that she was very intuitive, an old soul,” Rapoport said.
When she was young, Alex had weight issues, like other kids in her family, and like Rapoport had when he was a boy. At the time, doctors and other health practitioners weren’t as attuned as they are now to the best ways to nurture healthy body image in those who fight with the scale.
“Physicians weren’t really up on what to do about weight. They used the word that is deadly in eating disorders — which is diet,” Frank said. “You always talk about moderation, but you never put someone on a diet.”
Alex’s family, however, didn’t realize she had an eating disorder because she was neither obviously heavy nor rail-thin from anorexia. What she had was bulimia, which she was good at hiding, so they simply never knew of her struggle. It wasn’t until she was an art student at Goucher College in Baltimore that she finally told them.
Two good and important things happened to Alex during her college years:
The first was that she became a certified yoga instructor, which remained a positive element for the rest of her life. The second was that she studied for a while in Nepal, whose people, spirituality, and culture gave her a reprieve from the inner demons that tormented her nearly everywhere else.
Despite the pain, Alex was a helper. She taught yoga to inner-city children, and became an advocate for eating disorder awareness and treatment, speaking in schools about her own experience, offering encouragement and hope. She also started Heart Your Body, now a charitable trust whose mission is aimed at cultivating positive body image (and is now Samsara Gear’s sister nonprofit).
In notes found by her family after she passed away, Alex wrote that she hoped they would “spread a message of prevention and recovery from eating disorders — even if it’s the smallest action, like ‘liking’ a group on Facebook.”
Rapoport said Alex helped him as well, teaching him yoga when he was 62.
“I said, ‘Alex, this is so hard, and it hurts so much.’ She said, ‘That’s why you need it.’ I have to tell you, if I hadn’t started yoga seven years ago, I would be hunched over now. And Alex gave me that.”
Despite her own ordeals, Alex found ways to coach her dad toward better health and wellness, in body and spirit.
“That kid did more for me than I could have ever done for her,” Rapoport said.
But Alex struggled — through several inpatient treatments, rounds of outpatient therapy, and with the shame that she couldn’t defeat her disorder.
“I think she felt powerless; it is an addiction, like any other,” said her father. “I remember one of her therapists said, ‘I never had a patient who tried so hard to get well.’”
In the months before Alex would take her life, she was on a waiting list for another inpatient treatment program. Finally, she was told by its administrators that they could not admit her at all, said Rapoport; they felt she needed a facility with a higher level of care.
The following month, Rapoport visited Alex in San Diego, Calif., where she had been living. He found her dead in her apartment. She had taken a type of barbiturate sometimes used for insomnia, but, in high doses, also used for euthanasia in animals and people.
“I think she had finally given up,” he said.
Rapoport now works to increase eating disorder awareness, as Alex tried to do, and as he believes she would have wanted him to do.
At 69, he still has his hand in law, but he is also plugged into the national eating disorder advocacy network, donating his own funds to the efforts. He visits schools to talk about Samsara Gear and the cause behind it. Meanwhile, he continues the yoga practice Alex taught him. Between his advocacy efforts and his ties to yoga and Buddhism, it’s like a part of Alex is with him.
“When I wear the handwoven, Himalayan sheep wool from a place that Alex spent a happy time, I feel a spiritual infusion. I feel the spirit of the Himalayas on me,” Rapoport said. “This is the environment that Alex thrived in, and it’s kind of a daily reminder that she would be smiling. She would be so happy if she were around to do this with me. It makes me feel connected to her, with a shared experience.”