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The View from the Valley

This entry is not a Jonah-story. It’s from words I wrote for Rosh Hashanah, describing a bit of my faith-journey since Jonah’s death. It comes from the place in my heart where Jonah now resides, and where I regularly go to spend time with him.

Billy

 

August 2007

August 2007

My dear sweet Jonah,

It’s Rosh Hashanah. A new year, with new beginnings. But March 5th was already the new beginning for this year. The day you died, Mom and Katie and Aiden and I (and a whole lot of other folks who really miss you) … we all had to begin learning a new way of living – without you to brighten our days, without you to make us laugh, without you to help us out, and without your great, big hugs. So for Rosh Hashanah, I’m thinking less about beginning anew and more about continuing what started six months ago.

I know you probably would never sit still to listen to all of this, but you probably would enjoy that it’s all about you. And though you’d never let me know, you would probably also enjoy that I’m trying to help others with these words.

Well, here goes.

I’ve read Psalm 121 about a thousand times in my life. As a folksong, I’ve shared with hundreds of friends in the melody given to it by Shlomo Carlebach. But mostly, I’ve read it at funerals. “Esa eynai el ha’harim … I lift up my eyes to the mountains; what is the source of my help? My help comes from God, creator of heaven and earth. You will not let my foot give way; my Guardian does not slumber. For indeed, the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps! You are my guardian, You are the protection at my right hand. By day the sun will not smite me, nor the moon by night. You keep me from all harm; You protect my soul. You will guard my going out and my coming in, from this time forth and forever.”

Psalm 121 is a prayer of comfort. It affirms that God cares for us, and will care for us, always, and forever, because that’s what God does. It’s a statement of faith … that no matter what life may throw at us, God will make sure that all is well.

But JoJo, I don’t know how anything can be well when your child has slipped away from you. How can I possibly find comfort in being told no harm will come my way? Harm has already been here, and it’s left disaster in its wake.

These past months, as I’ve grieved for you, I didn’t find myself blaming God. I don’t live in a micro-managed universe, where God picks and chooses what lives to interrupt. My world is built with molecules and energy. And when things happen – good or bad – it’s because the natural forces of our physical world have aligned in such a way that the outcome was scientifically inevitable. And the only way it might have been avoided is for other physical forces to have exerted their influence. I would give anything to have been in Buffalo that evening of March 4th, to have been with you, to have exerted myself and changed the natural course of that evening’s events.

But I wasn’t there. And ten billion other events that might have altered the sequence of that evening, none of them were there either. We don’t know what happened to you, Jonah, and we may never know. But if there’s one thing in which I have unshakeable faith, it’s that you were not singled out by a judging God. And whether you made good choices or poor choices that evening, you died because of the progression of physical events. No one would have understood better than you. Physical events are always subject to the laws of physics – and the laws of physics cannot be broken, not by human beings nor by divine ones.

I don’t blame God for your death. But I have not found comfort in God either. Still, this is a journey. A long, incredibly difficult one. And already, my emotions are very different from what they were six months ago.

Rabbi Harry Essrig (z”l) once asked what should have been an obvious question to anyone who reads Psalm 121. When the psalmist wrote, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains,” where was he standing when he said that? Was it merely a geographical locator, to tell us that his position was somewhere near sea level and that he was literally gazing upward into the hills above? Or is this the poetry of someone who knows the feeling of stumbling through the valley – of groping, of tripping continuously against the sharp rocks that line that barren path deep, deep within the valley of the shadow of death? When the psalmist looked up and spoke of God, did he do so from that cheerless pit of loss and despair? Did God seem distant, far removed from the events of the psalmist’s life, at that moment? Did he too wonder when he would again feel the comfort of living in God’s universe?

If so, then the psalmist speaks for me as well. You would have skewered me for this, Jonah, but my life has recently become a set of parallel spiritual inconsistencies. I may profess a scientifically-based perspective on life and death, but I have also of recent demanded from God an explanation for your disappearance. And yet, just as you’ve not spoken to me since your death (much as I may wish for it … and I do), neither has God. Except for the fantastic imaginings of film and novel and the occasional snake-oil psychic, I don’t expect that sort of thing to really happen.

I used to live really comfortably in a world where, when our life comes to an end, we return to the earth and that, while our atoms continue on, our individual identity ceases. Rabbi Rami Shapiro (who I think you would one day have really enjoyed reading) explains it in a way I’ve always loved. “You and I are real,” he writes, “worthwhile, and unique. What we are not is eternal, separate, and independent. The relationship between us and that which is responsible for our being here is like that between an ocean and its waves. Each wave is unique and distinct, but no wave is separate from the ocean; without the ocean there would be no wave. You and I, and the myriad details of Creation, are manifestations of the one God; we emerge from the infinite source of everything. But we are not eternal! We are momentary, transient, and relative.”

Rami Shapiro teaches us that, like the wave, we appear above the surface for a brief moment in time, and then we return to the ocean below. We’ve not ceased to exist, but our individual identity has. Waves will continue to rise above the water – we may even be part of those waves – but our particular wave no longer exists; not in this world, nor any other, will it be seen again.

That used to work fine for me, Jonah. I didn’t mind that, when I die, my essence will vanish. But that was about me. That was before your wave disappeared beneath the surface.

Nowadays I want heaven. I want a place where people go when they die. I want to know that my son is still part of something. I want you to be hanging out with your cousin Noah. I want the two of you to be watched over and even reprimanded from time to time by your Grandpa Jake. And one day, whenever the time comes for my own wave to recede beneath the surface, I’d like very much to be reunited with you … my little boy who I miss so much.

That’s my heart speaking, Jo. My head still thinks that’s not believable. In time, I’ll need to reconcile my heart with my brain, to see if I can’t harmonize one with the other.

When all is said and done, Jonah, I think that these are my challenges. You’ll recognize them; I think they were pretty important to you throughout your life.

First, we live in a world filled with such colossal blessing. I want to always be grateful for that. I want my life to be great, but I want to be grateful too. And I want to hold onto that gratefulness.

Second, we live in a world filled with such colossal suffering. I want to always be bothered by that. I want to hold onto that botheredness, and I want to do something with it, help someone make their life a little better.

Life drags us over jagged rocks, JoJo. On March 5th, I learned this in the worst, most heartbreaking, way possible. It happens because we’re human – we’re pretty fragile, and we sometimes break. But I don’t want to live my life thinking we’re just here to get sick or hurt, and die. From the valley in which I’m standing now, six months after your wave gently withdrew into the transcendent deep, I’m still able to see a magnificent and miraculous universe. And I’m still deeply grateful to be here. Wherever my feet may tread, wherever my journey may lead — I hope my eyes will always be lifted up to the mountains … to see that life goes on, and that beauty and wonder and amusement (is that a word you might have chosen?) continue in spite of the hurt that comes our way.

Because we are human, Jo, we all come to know hardship and despair. But because we are human, we will also know delight and love. They’re all part of the deal, and try as we might to make it otherwise, we know we have to take the entire package.

You taught me that life is worth fighting for, that there are always opportunities to make things good for ourselves and for others. That was your blessing, Jonah Maccabee, perhaps the most God-like part of your story. Thank you for telling it to us all.

I love you, boy.

Dad

14 Responses to “The View from the Valley”

  • Anonymous:

    Thank you, Billy, for sharing your heart with us in this most personal way. I never met Jonah; I sincerely wish I had.

    But I know loss as well. I grieve for those lost loved ones every day. Some days are harder than others. To read your words; to be reminded of the 121st psalm is a balm on a broken soul.

    I do believe that G-d blesses you a hundred times more than you even know.

    It's because of all the comfort and kindness you offer others, throughout this painful time and long before. Even though you, as a teacher are far more knowing than us all, you may not know that about yourself, and your maker.

  • Thanks, Anonymous. I'm sorry you didn't get to meet Jonah, either. But there are millions others like him out there. Someone to meet, to enjoy, and to love.

    Billy

  • Billy that was heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time… Thank you again for sharing all of this with us

  • Ryann Miller:

    Thank you so much for this post, Billy. I've been reading this thread from the day you started it and I'm so glad to see that he is living through you, as well as all of us. This specific post has brought me to reflect on the past year and how many changes have occured. Not only did I lose Jonah but I lost my uncle as well and your words have been a huge inspiration to me in both losses. You're an incredible man and I admire your strength.

    Ryann Miller (one of Jonah's Kutz friends :D)

  • Ryann Miller:

    Thank you so much for this post, Billy. I've been reading this thread from the day you started it and I'm so glad to see that he is living through you, as well as all of us. This specific post has brought me to reflect on the past year and how many changes have occured. Not only did I lose Jonah but I lost my uncle as well and your words have been a huge inspiration to me in both losses. You're an incredible man and I admire your strength.

    Ryann Miller (one of Jonah's Kutz friends :D)

  • Anonymous:

    Billy – you write with beauty that brought tears to my eyes.
    Gene S.

  • Anonymous:

    Billy – you write with beauty that brought tears to my eyes.
    Gene S.

  • Josh:

    Happy New Year Bill…I am not a good enough writer to express my feelings this way…but the heart of it has been passed on already to my children..love you…Josh

  • Josh:

    Happy New Year Bill…I am not a good enough writer to express my feelings this way…but the heart of it has been passed on already to my children..love you…Josh

  • Rabbi Dreskin; I just stumbled onto your blog. I am the adult daughter (and granddaughter) of Christian ministers. I married a Jewish man 20 years ago and our 2 daughters were Bat Mitzvah'd.

    I had a brother who died 36 years ago, when I was 13 and my sister was 11. He was 19. I am feeling lots of things while reading your blog. I am remembering my father and mother. I am remembering myself. I am remembering my sister. Who we all were in the first year after his death.

    My thoughts are with you, your wife, your other 2 children. My pain is with you. My love for life is with you. Peace

  • Rabbi Dreskin; I just stumbled onto your blog. I am the adult daughter (and granddaughter) of Christian ministers. I married a Jewish man 20 years ago and our 2 daughters were Bat Mitzvah'd.

    I had a brother who died 36 years ago, when I was 13 and my sister was 11. He was 19. I am feeling lots of things while reading your blog. I am remembering my father and mother. I am remembering myself. I am remembering my sister. Who we all were in the first year after his death.

    My thoughts are with you, your wife, your other 2 children. My pain is with you. My love for life is with you. Peace

  • Thank you, Christine. My heart goes out to you as well. I notice you write a blog about being a clergy kid. I'll be following and reading along.

    Billy

  • As you may realize by now from my email message to you, I found you through your Tikkun Olam graphic and then became aware of your losing Jonah. The intensity of your loss has to be beyond my imagining, though I think I may have had at least somewhat similar feelings when my father died unexpectedly while still relatively young and vigorous. I think my relationship with him was perhaps similar to Jonah's relationship with you. I still miss my father's special way of being in the world twenty years after his death, but the sadness has been replaced with profound appreciation for having been fortunate enough to be his son.

    You wrote, “Rami Shapiro teaches us that, like the wave, we appear above the surface for a brief moment in time, and then we return to the ocean below. We’ve not ceased to exist, but our individual identity has. Waves will continue to rise above the water – we may even be part of those waves – but our particular wave no longer exists; not in this world, nor any other, will it be seen again.” Through his books my friend Rami has had a significant influence on my thinking as a Jew. On the other hand, my life journey, both personally and professionally as a psychiatrist, has led me to believe that Rami doesn’t necessarily know everything there is to know about the spiritual dimension which for me is very real and beyond any human capacity to fully understand.

    I have shared on my blog a few of my own experiences that have expanded my perspective on what seems spiritually possible. If you are interested, it can be found at http://www.peacetalking.org .

  • As you may realize by now from my email message to you, I found you through your Tikkun Olam graphic and then became aware of your losing Jonah. The intensity of your loss has to be beyond my imagining, though I think I may have had at least somewhat similar feelings when my father died unexpectedly while still relatively young and vigorous. I think my relationship with him was perhaps similar to Jonah's relationship with you. I still miss my father's special way of being in the world twenty years after his death, but the sadness has been replaced with profound appreciation for having been fortunate enough to be his son.

    You wrote, “Rami Shapiro teaches us that, like the wave, we appear above the surface for a brief moment in time, and then we return to the ocean below. We’ve not ceased to exist, but our individual identity has. Waves will continue to rise above the water – we may even be part of those waves – but our particular wave no longer exists; not in this world, nor any other, will it be seen again.” Through his books my friend Rami has had a significant influence on my thinking as a Jew. On the other hand, my life journey, both personally and professionally as a psychiatrist, has led me to believe that Rami doesn’t necessarily know everything there is to know about the spiritual dimension which for me is very real and beyond any human capacity to fully understand.

    I have shared on my blog a few of my own experiences that have expanded my perspective on what seems spiritually possible. If you are interested, it can be found at http://www.peacetalking.org .

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