While some knew him as Jonah and others as Mac, we all loved and respected him. And we miss him dearly.

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Thanksgiving Thanks

Thanksgiving at the Dreskins is not the same kind of tradition many other families have. While Ellen does spend most of the day preparing a lot of great food, each of us is usually involved in our own individual activities throughout the day, and when we finally gather to gorge ourselves, relatives and friends are only rarely at the table. So a couple of weeks prior to this year’s Thanksgiving, when the words of concern and support began to arrive from around the country, from others who imagined this holiday might be difficult for us, I didn’t pay them much heed. Hard to believe that at my age I can still be so naive.

Grandma Iris and Jonah Thanksgiving 1992

Grandma Iris and Jonah
Thanksgiving 1992

First, Ellen took off for Houston to spend the holiday with her mom. Leaving a multitude of instructions with a refrigerator full of vittles, I knew that this Thanksgiving would be nothing like any we’d experienced before. Me cook? But Katie and I bravely reassured Ellen that we’d be fine and that she should just enjoy herself with her mom. Good thing that was a phone call, so Ellen couldn’t see the exchange of looks between Katie and me. Foodwise, this Thanksgiving had all the makings of a disaster.

Then there was Jonah. What I hadn’t counted on was that while our Thanksgiving was a very small affair, the “small” always included the five of us. Each year’s observance is a quiet, delightful, loving weekend. Here’s how it typically plays out. On the Wednesday evening of Thanksgiving weekend, I attend the local interfaith Thanksgiving service, some years even managing to drag along a child or two (though not successfully for a long, long time). Then on Thanksgiving morning, one or more of the kids almost always join me either in serving Thanksgiving meals in New York City with the Salvation Army or preparing them at temple for delivery to a shelter near our home. Afternoons, we mostly stay home, each doing our own thing, occasionally responding to Ellen’s call to set the table, help clean the house, etcetera. When dinner is ready, Ellen never allows a morsel to be touched until we all share something for which we are thankful. Dutifully, we quickly oblige so we can dig in. After dinner, the evening typically involves watching a movie, eating pumpkin pie, building a fire, and just being with each other.

Thanksgiving 2008

Thanksgiving 2008

Since Jonah died at college, these home-for-the-holidays moments seem to intensify our already profound sense of loss. He came home for Thanksgiving last year, during his first semester at Buffalo. He should have come home this year, as a sophomore, but that wouldn’t be happening. Instead, we’ve got this great big photograph in our living room of Jonah with his arms around Aiden and Katie that we took last Thanksgiving. This year’s holiday gathering would produce no great big photographs of my three kids. There’d probably be terrific ones of two of them (remember, Ellen was out of town; she’d want the play-by-play). But only two. Two charming, sweet and very much loved children. But only two. And sure enough, we did take a lot of pictures: of each other, of the permanently cooked-in string that we couldn’t remove from our turkey, and of the burnt marshmallows on top of the sweet potatoes. When Ellen returned home that Friday evening, we took more. Remarkably, Jonah showed up in a few of them. In some of the dinner shots, you can see that great big smile of his in the background as the 8×10 from last Thanksgiving surreptitiously found its way into our snapshots. This was most appropriate, of course, because while we were making a fine go of it, Jonah was definitely on our minds and in our hearts.

Ellen’s annual Thanksgiving ritual of having us each say something for which we’re grateful – this Thanksgiving, it could not be ignored. I knew she’d be counting on me, the rabbi, the leader of ritual, to lead the way. But all I was able to share was what I wasn’t grateful for – I was just missing Jonah too much. Perhaps for the first time, Katie and Aiden did a far better job than “rabbi dad.” The next evening, during the sermon slot at Shabbat worship, I let my congregants know how difficult this weekend was for me and that I’d very much appreciate their sharing what it is that really matters in life for them, that for which they are truly and deeply grateful. What followed was several minutes of the most thoughtful and touching list of blessings, reminding me yet again how grateful I am for the community that continually surrounds me and supports me during this most arduous of journeys. But it got even better. We welcomed and blessed a baby that evening. As I scanned the information card which contained her Hebrew name, I was stunned to see that she had been born just one day after Jonah had died. Here I was, missing my child so deeply that Thanksgiving weekend, and along comes another child who’d been born on the very heels of Jonah’s last breaths.

I am so lucky. In the midst of this terribly risky venture called life, one in which “the worst thing imaginable” can happen and did happen, I am continually blessed with a lifelong partner who patiently tolerates me, with incredible children who endlessly delight me, and with eyes and heart that are frequently wide open during the multitude of extraordinary happenings that unfold in so many of life’s most ordinary moments. It may not have been Thanksgiving as I’d have wanted to celebrate it, but as things turned out, it was still very much a day of thanksgiving.

Billy

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