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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Commencement Gifts, No. 1

This is probably a surprising statement to hear a father say about his son who died young, but Jonah was a very lucky guy. I mean it. He possessed some very special gifts. Like an electrified and magnetic personality. And a heart of gold. We don’t all get those. Jonah did, and he used his gifts well. But there were more. Each one of Jonah’s friends had been a precious boon to his life. And he had a whole lot of friends. I suppose it was only natural, owing to his being both goofy and kind in one package. Who could resist that?

Commencement Gifts campaign (May 2012)

On May 13, 2012, a little more than a week from now, Commencement Exercises will be held at the State University of New York’s University at Buffalo. This was to have been Jonah’s college graduation. I’ve had the date in my calendar since Jonah started UB four years ago. It is certainly an understatement to say that Jonah won’t be there.

In trying to figure out what else I might do (besides cry) to mark this first significant moment in Jonah’s post-March 5, 2009, timeline (which, for me, continues forever, even without him here), I thought it might be meaningful to reach out to some of his friends from freshman year, and ask them to each share a memory about their college chum. So this next bunch of entries in “A Thread That Has No End” will feature words written by Jonah’s college friends. I hope they open for you a small window into the life he’d begun there.

I have to tell you, though, as much as I enjoyed being in touch with these young people (most of whom I met when my family and I flew to Buffalo upon learning of Jonah’s death), I’ve learned something from them about perspective. While Jonah’s going off to college was a BIG deal in my life, the actual time he spent there was not. A mere six months. No big deal. In the four-year experience of a college student, those six months were brief and long ago. But Jonah’s time with this group was good, and it was affirming. It left deep impressions. On Jonah. On them all.

Meet Lexi Milford. She graduated from UB last Spring (2011), with a Bachelors of Arts degree in photography. She’s hoping to pursue a Master of Fine Arts, possibly in the field of Medical Illustration. She had been a good friend to Jonah. He felt grateful to have her in his life.

Here’s the memory Lexi shared with me.

It was late one night, probably closer to the early hours of the morning. I was awake for no reason really, finishing a drawing or just monkeying around on the computer, when I received a text message from Mac. “Meet me in Fillmore in ten.” He knew of my insomniac behavior and knew as well that I would respond (he was probably bored on his computer as well). So off I trotted from the Porter dorms to the Fillmore lecture hall, a common hang-out spot for us. We sat in the furthest seats facing the blackboard, talking about nothing in particular, and musing how quiet it is in the dorms this evening. The conversation turned to how we always seem to stay in only one section of the dorms. Why don’t we ever explore? And with that, we left the lecture hall in search of somewhere new.

A frequent theme in our conversations was the perception of reality. So as we walked through the empty halls, I joked that we were really the only people living in the dorms. He took it a step further, bringing up the “brain in a jar” theory, that this was all in fact in his imagination. Like a video game, each section of the dorms, and of reality, loaded as we moved into it. None of it had existed until his mind had created it.

Surprisingly, we came to a door that, in our previous adventures, had been locked but was now ajar. We went in, of course, and it turned out to be a rather beautiful theater. We climbed up into the rafters and looked down at all the seats. Mac had a big grin on his face as he moved from the stage to the seats and then to the sound room. Occasionally, he shouted something to listen to the echo, testing the ambiance I’m guessing.

Continuing our conversation, I questioned how he knew it wasn’t me who was creating this instead. If his mind had created it, how could I go and do things apart from hanging with him? As clever as ever, Mac responded that his mind would use logic, of course, and have her send a text message and create other moments “outside” of his view. It was only natural. He further explained that his own consciousness was like an audience member attending a movie or a play. His subconscious was the director, controlling each twist and turn of the story. That way, the audience (the conscious Jonah) always remained surprised, all of life’s experiences new and interesting. But I, Lexi, was merely a player in his story. All of my emotions and expressions were exactly how one should feel. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been a convincing movie.

I remained silent and we left the little theater we had found to continue walking and talking. I never was able to refute his idea. He kept me mildly wondering (for a good week after) whether I might in fact be that imaginary friend. Our debate of who was real and what was real continued for some time after that particular evening.

In addition to our conversation, I love this moment because of the expression of sheer joy Mac had in that theater. The look on his face was that of a kid in a candy store (though he often seemed amused by things, like he had some sort of joke none of us were getting). I didn’t know until later that Mac had loved theater. Looking back, I now understand why he was so pleased by our finding that theater in the middle of the night.

Late-night philosophy when we’re young is the best! But it’s also the stuff of lifelong memory. I recall (with great affection) spending a night between floors in an elevator (voluntarily) with two of my best friends. It was in that tiny, cramped space, in the wee hours of the morning, that we pieced together the wisdom of the universe (well, as much as our 16-year-old minds could fathom). To this day, that conversation remains a treasured image from my youth. Jonah and Lexi gave this same gift to each other in that inadvertently unlocked theatre, and she may very well carry that gift forever.

Jonah’s love for theatre had really defined his high school years. We’d never expected him to pursue it professionally but we kind of knew he’d always love it deeply. Chancing upon that stage in the middle of the night would have triggered a wonderful moment for him. Nothing more magical or enchanting could have been hidden behind that door!

To me, memories of Jonah in college seem like only yesterday. And it feels like he was there for a long, long time. But that’s my mind and heart magnifying those final moments of his life. As Lexi and Jonah’s other friends have taught me, it was really only a brief moment that he was in Buffalo. A cherished memory, to be sure, but only a brief one.

Philosophers and playwrights will tell us that life is brief no matter how many years we’re permitted to live it. The key is to live each moment well, and to cherish the memories that follow. Those of us who knew Jonah, we got to watch a master. In his short life, he had learned to live more fully and genuinely than many will do in eight, nine, or even ten decades.

We miss Jonah, but as May 13, 2012, approaches, these are some of his commencement gifts to us.

Billy

P.S. “Commencement Gifts” is 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 I hope will be a worthwhile participant in the not-for-profit community. Please consider making a tax-deductible gift at https://www.jonahmac.org by Sunday, May 13 (okay, or any other time). Thank you.

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