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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Doctored Memories

On a recent visit to my physician’s office, while I was waiting to be summoned I watched with muted delight as a father and his 20-year old son arranged to get the young man a check-up before he took off for a semester in Australia. The whole time they were there, the kid’s dad was joking around, poking gentle fun at his growing-up child. At one point, he said to the nurse, “I’m trying to get rid of him.” Both of the men seemed quite comfortable with what was probably a familiar routine to them both.

I recognized this exchange as one that Jonah and I had played out many, many times across the years. Part of me thought, “Jonah will never be 25. Jonah will never get to travel to Australia. Jonah will never need another check-up. Jonah will never again have to tolerate me making bad jokes to nurses at his expense.” But the other part, the part that keeps me sane, even a year after Jonah’s death, was thinking, “I’m so glad I got to share with Jonah what this father and his son are sharing.” We goofed around so much. Maybe it was compensation for our inability to communicate as well as we had when Jonah was younger, but our verbal sparring and even our wrestling and poking and punching, these, I’m very certain, were dear and precious expressions of the love between us.

Just arrived! February 14, 1990

Just arrived!
February 14, 1990

That office scene got me thinking. Across Jonah’s nineteen years, how often had we needed to provide medical care for him? Not often at all. He rarely got sick. Which is ironic, because he was born sick. He arrived into this world with what the doctors described as “a touch of pneumonia.” His infant body wasn’t bothered in the least by it, even though they stuck a needle in his foot and had to keep him in NICU until the very mild infection went away. But while he was there, the nurses fell in love with him because he was an 8-pound baby in a room filled with 2- and 3-pound preemies. They couldn’t get enough of holding him, singing to him, and watching over him but without the same critical concern the other newborns required. I remember visiting him that first week of life, watching him through the NICU observation window, and how I couldn’t wait to bring him home, to hold him in my own arms, sing to him my own songs, and watch over him as he grew.

The funny part about Jonah’s not getting sick was his feelings about school. He was so critical of it — of the teachers he felt imparted far too many irrelevant bits of information, and who assigned homework which Jonah always refused to complete on the grounds that, “If they can’t do their job and teach us what we need to know during the day, I’m not about to cover for them by doing their work on my own at night.” But aside from Jonah’s less than complimentary view of educators and of education, he almost never missed a day of school. Not only did he very rarely get sick, he never pretended to get sick either. I loved that about him. It was never easy to get him up in the morning, but eventually he always got moving, a bit too slowly for my own morning pace, but he always walked out that front door, either to catch the bus when it used to pick him up in front of our house, or for me to drive him to the pickup point.

There were a small number of medical interventions in Jonah’s life. And they make pretty good stories.

Day of the Smashed Fingers Jonah with Ryan Bone, May 1995

Day of the Smashed Fingers
Jonah with Ryan Bone, May 1995

Jonah’s first visit for urgent care occurred sometime while we were living in Cleveland (in other words, prior to his sixth birthday). He’d been playing in his bedroom with his buddy Ryan. This, by the way, was the one kid he missed when we left Cleveland, the one kid he never let us forget we’d ripped from his life when we destroyed it by moving to New York, the one kid (it turns out) who missed Jonah right back (and when Jonah died, whose mom drove him from Cleveland to New York so he could attend Jonah’s funeral). Oh, and the one kid who slammed a closet door on Jonah’s hand, squashing it at the hinge (so much so that the mold of the hinge had pressed itself not merely into Jonah’s skin but into the muscle and bone). Jonah’s screams alone were enough to persuade us to drive him to an Urgent Care facility. Amazingly, an x-ray revealed that not a single bone had been broken. Everything was so soft at his age that the bones just bent to the form of the door pressing into its hinges, and then (after a little time, of course) they just bent right back. Lucky Ryan, Jonah (who knew how to hold a powerful grudge) never thought for a moment to direct one at his extremely guilt-ridden friend. Their friendship held strong.

See Jonah’s scar? Kutz, Summer 1996

See Jonah’s scar?
Kutz, Summer 1995

But the most exciting medical moment in Jonah’s childhood took place during one of our summers at Kutz Camp (1995). Jonah and Katie had been sharing a bunk bed in our family cabin – Katie on the bottom and Jonah up on top. On this particular evening, Jonah, asleep, rolled off the bed and, on his way down, struck the edge of a small night table (it would be the very next day that guardrails would be built for each and every one of these top bunks throughout the camp). Jonah’s forehead split open right down to the bone. Blood was pouring out, drenching his blue Superman t-shirt (the irony of which was not lost on us). We banged on the wall for our neighbor Laura, who was also the camp nurse, to come over and convince us that Jonah wasn’t bleeding to death. She patched him up and we headed into Warwick to the local ER where we had to restrain his young arms behind him and inside of a pillow case, then had to wrap his entire body in a large sheet, so that we could hold his squirming frame in place for novocaine injections and stitches. Six years later, Jonah would write for a school project, “Since I was the kind of kid who liked reading Batman, I thought that stitches would’ve made me look like a thug. So I put up a real fight at the hospital. In the end I ended up getting the stitches and going home like nothing happened.” That’s probably as good a read of the evening as any. For the rest of his life, Jonah had a spiffy little scar on his forehead that at various times he would grow hair to cover, or cut short to let the world know he had some unique markings all his own.

Dr. Wally PGT's “Marvin’s Room” May 2007

Dr. Wally
PGT’s “Marvin’s Room”
May 2007

Until March 2009, Jonah’s only encounters with medical personnel (besides annual check-ups) would include the extraction of a baby tooth that wouldn’t fall out, and two of the characters he played in productions at PGT. In May 2007, he appeared as Dr. Wally in “Marvin’s Room,” and in December that same year, he played a retired, morphine-addicted Dr. Otternschlag in “Grand Hotel.” As I wrote earlier, Jonah rarely got sick. The closest he got to doctors was in pretending to be one.

The last time Jonah saw a doctor was on March 5, 2009. In his report, the Medical Examiner noted how healthy Jonah had been. On the night he died, Jonah was in great shape. And on the night he died, no doctor could save him.

Being the family storyteller and keeper of the story archives (just check my computer’s hard drive), I was surprised to find that Jonah had collected a few stories on his own computer. Very few, actually. But this was one of them:

A little girl named Liz was suffering from a rare and serious disease. Her only chance of recovery appeared to be a blood transfusion from her 5-year old brother, who had miraculously survived the same disease and had developed the antibodies needed to combat the illness. The doctor explained the situation to her little brother, and asked the little boy if he would be willing to give his blood to his sister. The boy hesitated for only a moment before taking a deep breath and saying, “Yes. I’ll do it if it will save her.” As the transfusion progressed, he lay in bed next to his sister and smiled, as we all did, seeing the color returning to her cheek. Then his face grew pale and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked with a trembling voice, “Will I start to die right away?” Being young, the little boy had misunderstood the doctor. He thought he was going to have to give his sister all of his blood in order to save her.

What was it that appealed to Jonah about this story? Why was this one of the very small handful that he selected to keep? I think it may have something to do with the wrestling, and the poking, and the punching, that were dear and precious expressions of the love between us. Jonah’s heart was a deeply caring one. And were his brother or sister ever to need someone to make the ultimate sacrifice to save them, I think he’d have done so.

Of course, had any of us been given the chance, we’d have done the very same for him.

Every now and then, Jonah would poke fun at me, saying, “Watch yourself, dad. I’ll be picking your nursing home.” I’m sorry he won’t get to really do that.

Billy

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