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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Lessons from My Younger Son

On June 10, 2012, an era came to an end for our family. Beginning eight years ago, in 2004, and continuing every half-year since, either Jonah or Aiden (and often both) has performed in a production at The Play Group Theatre in White Plains, NY. I’ve written extensively about Jonah’s shows there (see “Clown Mensch of White Plains,” parts one and two), but I’ve rarely commented on Aiden’s involvement. As it turns out, both of my boys were profoundly affected and shaped by their time at The Play Group Theatre, and Aiden, now graduated from high school and PGT, has chosen to pursue his drama interest professionally.

Aristotle wrote, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” Whenever I sit in the auditorium at PGT, I can’t help but adore what Aiden’s doing onstage and, at the same time, feel Jonah’s presence deep inside. So whenever words are recited or sung, I can’t help but sense the Jonah-connections.

Aiden performed in two shows during this last season. A Sondheim musical and a Shakespeare comedy. A pretty perfect cap to his incredible eight years there. True to form, there were moments that plopped Jonah right down next to me, reminders of how much I miss him and how much I continue to learn from his absence.

Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s Into the Woods brings together a number of fairy-tale characters on a shared journey beyond happy endings. The show illustrates how many of us get to live beautiful stories, sometimes for a good long while. But being human, life becomes both emotionally and physically complicated, and those become part of our stories too.

In “Lament,” the Witch sings of her daughter’s having just been killed by a Giant. For so many years, the Witch had locked her child away to protect her from a dangerous world. But parents can only succeed at doing that for a brief time. Eventually, our children leave home because they’re supposed to. At one point or another, we no longer take them to school; they ride the bus. At one point or another, they go away for a vacation, or camp, or a school trip, without us. And then, at one point or another, college (or some other post-high school adventure) comes along, and our kids begin the process that will carry them into their independent-of-us, rest-of-their lives. Sometimes, they don’t make it. An illness, an accident. And their story ends. All the possibilities, all the brightness – finished. And it can happen to anyone. It happens a lot. “This is the world I meant,” the Witch sings. “Couldn’t you listen? Couldn’t you stay content, safe behind walls?”

And then she points out the most difficult lesson for us parents: “Children can only grow from something you love, to something you lose!” In its best expression, this is what makes parents into “empty nesters.” Children, grown and matured, begin new lives for themselves, with new partners and children of their own to love – elsewhere. We phone, we visit, but their lives are away from us. It’s as things should be, and we learn to appreciate that. But sometimes we lose our children to illness and to death. They go elsewhere, and we have to learn to live with that. And to appreciate what we had. And also to appreciate what still remains – memories, love, and those things we do to try and build something good, something positive, on top of all we’ve lost.

Aiden, “Into the Woods” May 2012

Aiden, “Into the Woods”
May 2012

Toward the end of the show, Aiden, playing the role of the Mysterious Man, counsels his son about running away from the mess his life has become (something the Mysterious Man knows much about, having done so for nearly a lifetime … something I also know about, having experienced a pain that no one would wish to own). But the Mysterious Man points out, “Trouble is, son, the farther you run the more you feel undefined for what you have left undone and, more, what you have left behind.” So we continue to show up. Show up for life. To make our contribution. To take our fill. And to honor our dead by not allowing our love for them to disappear.

The Mysterious Man’s son is shocked to be speaking with his father who he had watched die. “I thought you were dead,” the son asks. “Not completely,” comes the response. This may be the most difficult question of all. Not merely in terms of the afterlife, but in how we live after the life of someone we love has fled. For three years, I have been the curator of Jonah’s memories, writing down stories, archiving photographs and carefully preserving memorabilia. Starting this past April, our family established The Jonah Maccabee Foundation. Its mission is to assist young people in growing good lives for themselves. Suddenly, I’m not just looking back at Jonah but I’m carrying his memory forward. And his memory is carrying me, as that irrepressible spirit of his seems to defy even death by helping me to reach out and do something good with all of this. Maybe we don’t have to completely die.

Even closer to the show’s end, Cinderella comforts Little Red Riding Hood, who has experienced violent deception and loss in her young life. “Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood.” Of course, I think only of Jonah, who has indeed left us far too soon. Part of me feels forever lost inside those woods, fearful of continuing the journey without him. Cinderella tempers the harsh lesson by offering these words of comfort, “But no one is alone.” And she’s right. I’ve learned throughout this sad course of events that in the worst of it, humanity is a pretty caring crowd. There’s always someone to offer a leg up, or a warming embrace. We may have to climb out of our basement depressions to see them, but good people are rarely far away.

In Aiden’s final PGT production, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he plays Lysander, one of four lovers whose story wends a most confusing path through a different woods, and whose ending finds all things set right. I’m tempted to dismiss this as another fairy-tale, but who’s to say what’s possible and what’s not? We all lose some (even much) of what is dear to us. But we don’t lose it all. The great challenge in life is to find a happy ending despite abundant detours and traumas along the way. We’re all in the woods where, yes, there is much to fear but much beauty as well.

The fairy king, Oberon, completes Shakespeare’s fantasy with these words. “Now, until the break of day, through this house each fairy stray. To the best bride-bed will we, which by us shall blessed be, and the issue there create ever shall be fortunate. So shall all the couples three ever true in loving be, and the blots of Nature’s hand shall not in their issue stand. Never mole, hare lip, nor scar, nor mark prodigious, such as are despised in nativity, shall upon their children be. With this field-dew consecrate, every fairy take his gait, and each several chamber bless, through this palace, with sweet peace. And the owner of it blest ever shall in safety rest.”

I have lost my middle child just as his life was emerging into shimmering adulthood. Now, my youngest, his friends beside him, has stepped forward to teach me that life has not come to an end. Nor has beauty. Nor has love. And while, in time, there will be more sadnesses (for we are fragile beings), there is no reason we shouldn’t feel that our house is watched over and blessed by the most generous of angels. Jonah was a sight and a joy to behold, and now his physical essence is gone. But the beauty and the laughter he once unstintingly shared, these remain with us forever. As do Aiden, Katie, Ellen, Charlie, my friends, my colleagues, my communities, and a phenomenally exquisite planet upon which to experience it all.

Billy

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