When we ran the “Commencement Gifts” campaign to introduce The Jonah Maccabee Foundation, I reached out to Jonah’s UB freshman year friends inviting them to share stories of their six months at college with him. I received wonderful reminiscences of that brief but unforgettable period during which these young people were just learning to stretch their newly-liberated wings as they lived life away from home for the first time.
One of Jonah’s close friends was Charlotte Lopez. Before Jonah’s death, I’d only known of Charlotte as the one who referred to me as “Rabbi Kenny.” Having learned that Mac (which everyone called him at UB) actually had a first name, she’d asked him, “Does everyone in your family go by their middle name?” So she began referring to me by my middle name as well.
Charlotte had promised to send me a story. After years of switching majors, Charlotte had finally settled on, and is close to completing a degree in, English. So I figured a story from her was worth waiting for. A month after “Commencement Gifts” had ended, I received a message from Charlotte saying she’d finally thought of the story she wanted to share. She felt if was a perfect metaphor for Jonah Maccabee’s life. When I read it, I agreed.
Here’s Charlotte’s story:
When Mac and I were freshmen, he and our group of friends would drift aimlessly from place to place – into a lecture hall, then outside, someone’s dorm room, and then the dining hall, etc. Mac, like a few of our other friends, insisted on bringing something with him to each place. Some days it was a guitar, other days it was a necklace, or some strange trinket. His well-remembered messenger bag seemed to always carry interesting stories and playthings.
This particular day we were lounging in the empty lecture hall and he was playing with a Rubik’s Cube. He’d mess it up, solve it, mess it up, and solve it again. I was fascinated and asked him to teach me how to solve it. He insisted it would be a long and arduous process, that we would need to practice for at least twenty minutes a day for two weeks before I’d be able to solve it on my own. I thought he was exaggerating. I agreed anyway.
Day one was the toughest but Mac was so dedicated, passionately describing how a Rubik’s Cube should be looked at, using many analogies and long sentences to do so. He was an excellent teacher.
We practiced all the time! Every few days, he would teach me a new step in solving the riddle. He never belittled me or made me feel frustrated. He would even go out of his way to let me borrow his precious Cube for the day while he was in class, or meet me on campus in some obscure place to let me work for even just ten minutes. As Mac had promised, it was indeed difficult. Each day, I would have visions of learning the next step in solving the riddle. Mac was always sure to leave the Cube just as I had given it to him, so I could pick up where I’d left off. He was a natural, intuitive teacher explaining each principle, but never solving any piece of it for me. This was a month or two in the making!
The time arrived when there remained only one step for Mac to show me so I could solve the Rubik’s Cube on my own. Sadly, that was when he died. I never learned that last step.
Nowadays, anytime I see a Rubik’s Cube I think of Mac. And when I get the chance to play around with one, I can almost always reach that final step. Some of my family and friends think it’s sad I never got to learn the final piece of the puzzle, but I think it’s a great ode to Mac that is forever being sung in my heart. When I get to that last little step I frown, I giggle, I become a little frustrated, I get sad, I get happy, and sometimes I get deep. That’s exactly how Mac made me feel. And that’s why it’s okay that I don’t know the last step in solving Mac’s Rubik’s Cube.
Charlotte’s story is truly an ode in praise of Jonah’s life. He was so full of interesting and captivating ways of being. He drew my attention even when he was just sitting still. His ideas were fresh, often insightful and, just as often, entertaining. At age nineteen, he was just getting started. In this experiment called college, he’d only begun to discover what he loved about himself and what he loved outside in a world that continually thrilled him. Having known him and loved him, I now find myself wondering what would have become of him. Where would life’s adventures have taken him? And like Charlotte’s unsolved Rubik’s Cube, it’s a piece of Jonah’s puzzle that will never be revealed.
I’m grateful to Charlotte Lopez for sharing this story, It teaches so much about my son, and about the enchanting possibilities and the sobering realities that exist for us all. We’re invited to experience so much during our lives. There are countless moments that beckon to, and delight, us. Opportunities to live boldly, with all our heart and all our soul. But something else beckons and, though we may wish it, won’t be rebuffed. Life ends. It comes to an unremitting finish. For some, the end arrives after many, many years. For others, it unceremoniously arrives after almost no time at all. Regardless, things are left unfinished. None of us gets it all done. There’s always a piece of the puzzle that remains out of place.
I think Jonah would have loved comparing life, especially his, to an unsolved Rubik’s Cube. Whatever came next would never be known. To that, I think he would have smiled that great, big smile of his, and proclaimed to all the world, “I’m an enigma!” And he was. We loved him for that. Our days were all a little bit brighter because, for a brief, hurricane-like while, he came bounding into them.