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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Seven Years Gone … But No Way Are You Forgotten

Dear Jonah,

Jonah.2008.08.23.#001a.UBPretty much from the moment that you died, I would wake up in the morning and experience a pair of responses to each new day … in this order. First, there would be 2-3 blessed seconds during which I hadn’t yet remembered that you’re gone. I actually looked forward to waking up and that brief illusion when it seemed as if you were still here. Then the second response would come: I remembered. All the air would seep out of me as my spirit flattened and I would sigh, “Still dead.”

That hasn’t happened for quite a while although, every now and then, I do feel a milder punch in the stomach when some sudden acknowledgment of your absence sort of drops on me from out of the blue. I mostly just shake my head and try to get back to whatever I’m doing. But the feeling of missing you lingers. You’re a hard guy to shake.

I’m pleased to say that, more and more, my memories of you are filled with a restrained delight and timeless love. That’s a pretty significant achievement, I think. I can certainly conjure up the worst of what I recall about your dying, but I’m glad that’s something I have to work at. More common are the moments when best memories surface and I’m reminded how fortunate I am to have had you in my life.

Part of learning to live without you is processing those moments when I think, “Jonah would have loved this!” They’re bittersweet, of course, as they bring a smile (because I love when you come to mind) along with a tear (that once again you’re not here to share it with me). I manage these not unwelcome interruptions by acknowledging that they’ve happened and then (pretty much always with a sigh) moving on.

Sometimes I write them down before I let you go.

Jonah.2007.01.#006.WinterKallahI remember in August 2009, about five months after your death, Ellen had posted on Facebook an incredible 4-handed guitar duet that was performed by two remarkably accomplished Brazilian musicians but on a single guitar (goo.gl/5qckDh). Most of the time, the two instrumentalists played independently of each other. But sometimes, the one’s left hand fingered for the other’s right hand. I thought to myself, “I need to share this with someone!” But I couldn’t think of anyone to tell. And then I remembered. The person I loved sharing amazing instrumental music with was you.

About a year after that, in August 2010, our family visited England and Ireland. You, of course, came along with us riding in my heart. We toured Liverpool, birthplace of The Beatles whose music you and I both loved. I brought you home some guitar picks and a Sgt. Pepper’s refrigerator magnet, fully aware that you’d have preferred a poster for your room. I had the presence of mind not to buy something for you but to get something for me that could remind me of you. The picks and magnet did the job.

Then, in Ireland, we spent an evening doing a “pub crawl,” visiting Dublin’s saloons and listening to Irish folk music while downing a draught of beer in each pub. I detest alcohol and had to demur each time a server took our orders, a scene whose humor was not lost on your siblings. You didn’t like beer either but very likely would have ordered at least one even though you wouldn’t have drunk much more than I had. You would have loved that evening, Jonah. You’d have been drawn in by the songs, and by the stories that frequently accompanied them. And you’d have been the first to want to purchase the musicians’ CDs because you’d have really enjoyed bringing home some music from Ireland, especially after hearing the singers perform live.

Jonah's 1st haircut. His evil twin emerges.

Jonah’s 1st haircut. His evil twin emerges.

Over Thanksgiving weekend in 2011, we celebrated a babynaming at Shabbat services. A little infant girl was joined on the bimah by her mom and dad along with her four-year-old brother. The brother had the sourest look on his face, with arms crossed to make absolutely clear his unwillingness to play along. There was nothing about this that he wanted to enjoy and he was determined to be the best sourest four-year old that he could be. He was great at it. Which brought back startlingly clear memories of you, when your baby brother was named at temple in Cleveland and you lasted maybe thirty seconds before storming off the bimah. You took up an offensive position in the center aisle where you set about your self-assigned task of ruining whatever decorum might have been part of our celebration that evening. I remember having crafted a written blessing for Aiden but throwing my note-cards into the air as I launched into something that might out-do your performance and somehow rescue this important ritual moment. There was no saving it, of course, and that simply made it one of those family memories we can only laugh at years later. And guess what? I’m glad I can see you so very clearly in my mind’s replay of that evening. If you’d behaved yourself, I’d have nothing of you from that night to remember.

Dane Cook t-shirt Katrina Relief 2007

Katrina Relief 2007

And then just this week, I’m out walking Charlie and, boom, there you are. I often listen to podcasts along the way and I like to cycle through different ones. Today, up comes a fabulous old radio program called Car Talk, which ran from 1977 to 2012 and featured “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers,” better known as Tom and Ray Magliozzi, two fairly certifiable but brilliant car-nuts. They diagnose callers’ car problems while having a riotously funny time along the way. I wondered what my neighbors were thinking as Charlie and I came walking by and I was belly-laughing at what, to them, must have appeared to be nothing at all. How I would love to email you a link to the broadcast. I remember how much you enjoyed comedians as a kid: Monty Python, Steve Martin and, back when his name wasn’t a dirty word, Bill Cosby. In high school, you were frequently spotted wearing your Dane Cook t-shirt. Was that because he was funny or because the shirt flipped the world a bird? Probably both and, either way, I think you would have loved Car Talk, even though your and my ignorance about cars was surpassed only by that of sports, and that’s only because we had to know where the gas tank was

Seven years you’re gone now, JoJo. That’s simply stupefying. You were just here. But like the scent of the vanilla yahrzeit candle I’m burning today, you do have a way of lingering.

Aviator, adventurer and racehorse trainer Beryl Markham once wrote, “Never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour.” In truth, I try not to live in my memories of you. I do my very best to keep moving forward, and to meet each day with eagerness and curiosity. But as I’ve said, you do linger. And you manage to show up without calling first.

I’m pretty sure I’d have it no other way.

Love you forever,

6 Responses to “Seven Years Gone … But No Way Are You Forgotten”

  • Scott:

    Beautiful, Billy. I’m really amazed at your strength and wisdom. And your ability to keep moving. I’d like to say that I’d do the same but I really don’t know for sure.
    My Gabriel is 7 now, Eliyana will soon be 6, and I vividly remember a conversation you and I had one day in the car as we were going to lunch from Woodlands.
    You asked if Andrea and I were thinking about having kids, but it was more of a fatherly nudge than a simple inquiry. Like Jonah, I’m not sure I received those nudges openly, but it did stay with me. Andrea and I were doing fertility treatments while on Civil rights journey number 2, by the way! (Injections behind trees at rest stops!)

    To frame it for myself, Jonah has been gone now about as long as I’ve had my son. Such a long- short time. But Jonah’s not gone. Yes he is. No he’s not. So hard to wrap the head around. I loved Jonah. He challenged me but in a soft way that worked for us. Cool kid. We learned from each other.

    I think about Katie Aiden and Ellen, too. How strong do you all have to be to endure this? I almost used past tense in that last sentence. But he’s still here. It continues. You embrace it, and keep moving. I don’t want to find out if I’m capable of doing what you do.

    I admire you. It’s not that easy for me to say that. It isn’t in my nature to. But I do. I worry about that sort of pain, at times, but in a healthy way. It’s comforting to know that it’s survivable. Mostly.

    Thank you for that lesson. I’d rather not have to thank you, but thank you. Love to all, including our Jonah.

  • Dear Billy, Thank you for sharing this most personal, poignant and beautiful azkarah with us. I wish you, Ellen and your family continued strength and healing. Your ability to share your journey is a source of inspiration, guidance and teaching to so many. May Jonah’s name always be for a blessing.

  • Marcia Streussand Newman:

    Thanks for sharing. May his memory be a blessing:)

  • Ellen Fishman:

    Dear Billy,

    As we just lit a candle for our sweet Rachel , 3 years gone, your words are beyond poignant. I/will always carry her in our hearts. I, too, have to pinch myself when I think she is gone. I, too, shake my head and wonder is this really true. In just a matter of weeks, we will be traveling to Israel to celebrate our grandson becoming a bar mitzvah. We will walk the exact route we did with Rachel so many years ago. I will carry her with me and will also purchase something she would have worn with great pride- a Hamsa, and I will wear it. Thanks for including me in your posts. My heart is breaking, but, amazingly, there are days that seem to be more manageable, and then, out of nowhere, I return to the day that changed all of our lives, in an instant. ??????

  • Alice Passer:

    That is a beautiful essay, Billy. Jonah’s memory is surely a blessing. Thinking of you and sending love & hugs.

  • Evalyn Cohen:

    Dear Rabbi Billy
    Thank you for sharing your beautiful heartfelt words and emotions.
    They are most poignant and have affected me in a most spiritual way.

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