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. 2

On May 13, 2012, Jonah would have graduated from the State University of New York’s University at Buffalo. To mark this occasion in a meaningful way, I have invited friends from his freshman year (who knew him as “Mac”) to share memories about him. These young people have opened for me a small window into the life Jonah had begun away from home. I hope this collection of stories opens that window for you.

Meet Tracy Questel. While she started out at UB intending to major in psychology, Tracy’s path carried her far beyond Buffalo, to the great land of Pittsburgh, PA. She currently works in billing for a company there, which gives her a fine excuse to spend lots of time with her fiancé, Bill. Going back to school, she tells me, is not out of the question. She liked to call Jonah “Macintosh.”

Here are some memories that Tracy shared with me.

When I was at UB, I was a lost soul, not attending class and not caring about school work at all. I only wanted to have fun and to hang out with friends, enjoying my freedom (being away from my parents) as much as I could. When the first semester was coming to an end and it was time to register for second semester classes, Mac went with me and we ended up having most of our classes together. I hadn’t realized his reasoning in doing this until now. He wanted to make sure I was going to class and doing the right thing.

A few weeks into the semester, even though I had Mac coming with me, I again stopped attending classes and stopped doing my homework. He became extremely upset with me and I didn’t understand why. But now I know that he was the only person I was friends with at UB who tried to help me be a better person. He cared about me, tried to encourage me and, most importantly, was a true friend.

Jonah and Tracy at their favorite UB picnic table Fall 2008

Jonah and Tracy at their favorite table
Fall 2008

A second memory I have of Mac takes place one day when we were on our way back from English class. We were walking through the halls and Mac started singing ACDC’s “Big Balls” song VERY loudly. If you know the lyrics to the song, you would understand that this was very, very funny. Not only did he make me laugh hysterically as he kept singing the song word for word, strangers passing by would laugh too and I’m sure this had to brighten up someone’s day.

I had three roommates when I was at UB (as did he) and my roommates were very different than I was. They listened to pop music, liked everything to be pretty, pink and perfect, and would occasionally judge me because I was not like them. When they would start to gang up on me (which they did at times), I would leave my dorm room and Mac would be the first person I would text or call to go get coffee because I needed to vent. He would always drop what he was doing and meet me so I could talk to him. The funny faces he would randomly make, the way he would listen to music and pretend he was playing the drums, the way he would stand up for what he believed, and the way he was such a truly inspiring friend — these are all reasons why I can’t stop missing him, even though I’d only known for a brief period of time.

Jonah could be outrageous, that’s for sure. He had an overabundance of kinetic energy, and a powerful desire to be funny, so he’d resort to slapstick and vulgarity (see above) if that’s what it took to entertain his people. Not long after Jonah died, Tracy sent me a video she’d made of him on her phone. The images came from a bus ride, probably the return trip from some class they’d taken together. In it, she bade him, “Do something funny.” Never one to disappoint, or to back down from such a challenge, Jonah proceeded to fill the recording with very odd faces he’d somehow learned to make. There was much that Jonah knew how to do which I never realized he’d learned. He could fashion intricate origami designs which I’d find around the house and even in my study at temple. But even more surprising was that he’d somehow learned to play the piano. How is that even possible? I’ve played piano all my life, one has resided in our living room for nearly thirty years, and the first time I saw him sit down at it, he could play it!?

So a couple of funny faces I’d never seen before? I guess the only response would be, “Why should I know? I’m just the dad.”

Alongside this kid’s extreme silliness, there was always an earnest kindness, an authentic goodness that I don’t think he ever withheld from anyone. It’s a story I’ve heard, by now, dozens and dozens of times. Jonah dropped everything to be present for someone else in their moment of need. He did this for his friends. He did this for his family. And he even did this for strangers.

I wondered about what Jonah might say to Tracy, after haven taken her by the hand to get to classes and then finding out she’d not finished the program. I tried to channel him when I wrote these words to his college friend: “Different paths, Tracy. They’re all the right ones if they bring you contentment and joy. I know one of the happiest garbage collectors in the world, because he enjoys his work, the people he works with, and the life that surrounds it. The job’s not the goal; life is.”

Jonah’s path was not my path. His choices were not my choices. But when I find myself wondering what he might have done with his life had he been around to live it, I keep coming up with the same answer. He’d have been a great friend.

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


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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