Today is May 13, 2012. Jonah’s graduation day. Commencement. Not an end, but a beginning.
I’ve had this date in my calendar since Jonah was accepted into, and elected to attend, the University at Buffalo. It’s always been important that I put dates like these into my calendar, even when they’re years away, because, as a rabbi, my dance card fills up. If I don’t place a hold on important personal occasions, I won’t be able to attend them. So before Jonah even moved into his freshman dorm, you can bet I registered these dates. I knew four years ago that I’d be in Buffalo, NY, this weekend to celebrate his graduation, because … well … Jonah graduating from college? That was going to be a sight to see, for sure! I had not a shred of doubt that he could do it; the question was, would he do it?
What I hadn’t counted on … was him dying.
In these three-plus years since, even I wonder why my calendar has remained unchanged. Conventional wisdom might advise that I remove such sad reminders of my loss. But I’ve never been too keen on conventional wisdom in general, all the moreso as it relates to grieving. We each find our own path, and mine includes plenty of reminders how much I miss that boy, even three years later.
But surely some other event would come along and take its place? In fact, it did. I’m writing this from my hotel room in Cincinnati, OH, where I have reunited with my siblings to dedicate the stone on my father’s grave. That’s what I’m doing instead of heading up to Buffalo for Jonah’s celebration. A bit ironic, to be sure, but actually a far easier death to manage since my dad lived to the age of 95. The air in Cincinnati is filled with warmth and affection, not heart-wrenching grief. My father brought quite a crew into this world and it’s breathtaking to be here and to see us “kids,” now all middle-aged and then some, living full and engaged lives. My dad was far from perfect, but this is a great gift he gave to us.
Yet even while I am here, I see those graduation dates … on this laptop’s calendar, even on my phone. Why have I left them in place? Because I need them there. I need to see them. I need to be thinking about them. About him. After all, this was to have been Jonah’s next big life-moment, the one that comes after my child heads off to college. A moment during which I should know what’s happening next in my child’s life. Where he’s going for graduate study. Where he’s moving to find his first job. Now I can only guess, of course. I don’t even know what Jonah’s four years at UB would have looked like, whether or not he’d have moved off-campus, changed his major (again), graduated with honors (can you imagine?). And so, with Commencement only days away, I find myself wondering.
It’s all I get.
That, and The Jonah Maccabee Foundation. An unexpected light to shine on the path ahead.
Commencement was to have been a beginning. And with the genesis of this Foundation, that’s precisely what it’s become. A different beginning, to be sure, but a wonderful one. To honor Jonah’s life – what he accomplished while he was here, and what he might have accomplished had he remained – our family has established a new venture that will, with a lot of good people’s help and support, raise money on behalf of organizations and programs that empower young people to take charge of their lives and to help them make those lives good ones. If Jonah Maccabee can’t “commence” doing this for himself, we can certainly – with him as our inspiration – see that it “commences” for others.
Throughout this first project, which we have called “Commencement Gifts,” we’ve played with this image of college graduation and the gifts that come with such an occasion. Fully recognizing that the one gift we would have loved more than anything else cannot again ever be, we consider what gifts and blessings still remain. Here are some of them:
1) Hearing from Jonah’s college friends in the “Commencement Gifts” blog entries. This has been an incredible offering to us, and to many others who have enjoyed hearing Jonah-stories these past three years and have now been afforded the opportunity to hear from a very special group of Jonah’s friends. I am so grateful that they have so generously shared their memories with us.
2) Receiving your first donations at http://www.jonahmac.org. Asking you to help us start the work of this Foundation, you’ve responded with love and with cash. We are so deeply touched at these gifts you have so selflessly entrusted to us. We can’t wait to begin turning these dollars over to the people who will put them to hard, good work.
3) And of course, recognizing how Jonah continues to shower us with gifts even though physically absent. Each time I hear another story of how he brought a smile, gave a hug, helped a friend, or helped a stranger, I’m blown away all over again by how lucky I am to be his dad.
His 19-year old’s legacy is simply this: be good to one another. And so, with “Commencement Gifts,” we begin the next phase of our lives as we carry Jonah’s legacy into a thousand acts of lovingkindness. We’ll keep telling his stories, and now we’ll be adding new ones, told by others who won’t have known Jonah, but whose lives will be made better by him just the same.
“Be good to one another.” Could there be a more beautiful way to remember him?
I knew there was one more UB student we all needed to hear from, who needed to be asked to write about her college friendship with Jonah. That was his sister, Katie, who was two years ahead of Jonah. As their dad, I longed to know some of what they shared while in Buffalo, so I extended to Katie the same invitation I’d made to the others.
Of course, having spent 19 years of my life with Jonah, I have an infinite number of memories that I’ll always hold dear. However, my last memories from our time together at the University at Buffalo are undoubtedly some of my favorites. As a big sister, I thought it was just the coolest thing in the entire world that my little brother wanted to go to the same college as me. When Jonah was accepted, I was so excited that I immediately obtained a Wegmans Shoppers Club card for him, and even wrote him a rhyming poem about all the fun things to do in Buffalo. Once there, Jonah and I made sure to have lunch together at least once a week. He told me about his friends and his classes, and I loved watching him navigate his freshman year.
One lunch date in particular stands out in my mind. Aiden had recently gotten his first (I think) cellphone, and a very strange glitch caused the phone to insert the phrase “poui poui poui” every time Aiden typed the letter “P.” I still don’t really understand why his phone did that, but all I know is Jonah and I found this to be beyond funny. Over lunch in the Student Union, in true older sibling fashion, we texted Aiden repeatedly, asking him questions that we knew he would have to answer using the letter “P,” and laughing hysterically with each response. I remember my friends sitting nearby and watching us entertain ourselves, at one point exclaiming, “You guys are exactly the same person!”
I never really thought of Jonah and me as exactly the same person (or even close, for that matter) but I was definitely honored to be compared to such an awesome, fun-loving soul, and in that moment, felt a really wonderful sense of closeness to my little brother.
Katie, Jonah and Aiden were a wonderful threesome. Ellen and I never tired of watching them together. That Jonah would join Katie at college was one gift atop another. We would be privileged to see their relationship deepen as college carried them together into adulthood. I am so grateful that despite the busyness of college, they made time to be with each other.
I myself have few memories of Jonah at UB, simply because I wasn’t there. But I do have a specific moment that we shared from afar. One afternoon, while sitting at my desk at home, the phone rang. It was Jonah. Only a few weeks after his arrival to Buffalo and he found himself in need of some cash. He possessed an ATM card but he’d never used it and was nervous about operating the machine. I smiled at his innocence and calmly (actually, excitedly … he needed me for something!) walked him through the process. While he stood in front of an ATM somewhere on the other side of New York State, I talked him through each simple (but for him, completely new) step. And for a brief moment there, my big man on campus was once again my little boy. I couldn’t have been happier, or more thankful that it was me he called to ask.
“Here the anthem doth commence,” writes Shakespeare in his sonnet, “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” It’s a tale of death and mourning which unfolds in the aftermath of the title characters’ demise. But while Shakespeare’s ode begins and ends with loss, not so Jonah’s story. He died once, that is true. But through our stories, and through the good works of the foundation that bears his name, he shall … well, like a phoenix, arise again and again. He may not live in that sense that permits us to hold him in our arms, or kiss the top of his head, but Jonah lives on just the same. Through our persistent love, our tender memories, and our passion for creating the kind of good works in this world that he might have done himself were he here, we perpetuate him. And he lives on.
May 13, 2012, has arrived. The graduates of the University at Buffalo collect their diplomas. While Jonah Maccabee Dreskin may not be among them, we celebrate nonetheless. For the beauty of his spirit has not vanished. It remains inside each person whose life, once upon a time, he made a little bit brighter. These acts stand strong, and are the very substance of his commencement gifts to us.
P.S. Today is the last day of “Commencement Gifts,” The Jonah Maccabee Foundation’s very first fundraiser. Thinking of what might have been Jonah’s graduation on May 13, 2012, we “commence” the work of what we hope will be a worthwhile participant in the not-for-profit community. Your tax-deductible gift at http://jonahmac.org (today, or any other time) will be greatly appreciated … by us, and by the young people who will benefit. Thank you.