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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A Father’s Day Gift

Dear Jonah,

On Yom Kippur in 2010, when it came time for Yizkor (the service during which Jewish communities remember their loved ones who are no longer alive), we always invite a couple of congregants to speak about someone they loved who has died, to share the legacy of values and principals by which they lived and continue to inspire that congregant’s own aspirations.

Before the speakers, though, there’s a service to unfold. In Gates of Repentance – the High Holy Days makhzor (prayerbook) that I’ve always loved and now miss because it’s been replaced by an equally beautiful Mishkan HaNefesh – Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (not the Supreme Court justice, but his father who was a noted physician and author) was quoted as saying: “Alas for those who cannot sing, but die with all their music in them.”

May 2007

May 2007

I thought of the song of your life, Jonah, and how much of that song was able to emerge from you despite the severe time constraints that were placed upon you. It was a sad thought, but comforting as well. Your far-too-brief nineteen years were so full of life. Once you got the hang of how to be yourself, of how much people adored your self, you lived so completely and fully and authentically. It’s not that you’d finished growing (God knows, you certainly had as much a ways to go as any of us) but you did so incredibly well for someone your age. Your spirit was irrepressible and your friends couldn’t get enough of you. Neither could we. I’d have given anything to save you that night in March 2009, but I take great comfort knowing that you had been loving your life and that it had never been better than during that first year of college.

You certainly sang, Jonah – literally and metaphorically. We all would have loved keeping you around so we could hear all the melodies that were yet to emerge from you, but during the time that you had your spirit exploded with the music of your soul. That’s the blessing to be sifted out from the tragedy of your life coming to an end so soon.

During that same Yizkor service, my congregant and friend Dale Glasser spoke about his brother, Steven, who had died from AIDS at the age of 33. During Dale’s words, he shared lyrics from Never Die Young, a song by James Taylor. As with Holmes’ words, I again drew comfort from the feeling that your life had been such a full one.

We were ring-around-the-rosy children
They were circles around the sun
Never give up, never slow down
Never grow old, never ever die young

Hold them up, hold them up
Never do let them fall
Prey to the dust and the rust and the ruin
That names us and claims us and shames us all

I guess it had to happen someday soon
Wasn’t nothing to hold them down
They would rise from among us like a big balloon
Take the sky, forsake the ground

Yes other hearts were broken
Other dreams ran dry
But our golden ones sail on, sail on
To another land beneath another sky

I remember how moved I was listening to Dale speak about these lyrics. I, as you know, never hear lyrics, always lost in the music itself. But once attention is called to them, I marvel at how I could have missed it.

Lyrics are a bit of a guessing game, of course. It seems as if Never Die Young recalls the memory of each young person who has left this world before their time. And the beauty (and once again, the comfort) in these words is that our loved ones “sail on, sail on.” Perhaps literally, in some changed existence elsewhere, but they also “sail on” in our hearts, where they never age, never grow old, and forever “rise from among us like a big balloon.” The sad price, of course, for their eternal youth is that we never get to hold them, never get to speak with them, never get to share real life with them ever again.

By the way, James Taylor had a different image in mind when he composed Never Die Young. It wasn’t about death at all, but about life, its incarcerations as well as it liberations. He spoke about the song in a BBC interview in which he said: “I thought that song was about a character looking at an idealized couple. He’s made some sort of compromise in his life and he idealizes these two people that made it up and out of the situation he’s trapped in. But recently someone said to me, ‘That song’s about the death of a child.’ I looked at it again and I think that might be true.”

2016.06.SummerCampaign'16In your case, JoJo, I think it’s both. Just as you are both. At one and the same time, you are no longer alive – we had to say goodbye to you in March 2009 – but you are so very much alive, in our hearts and in our thoughts of you. Perhaps just as strongly, in the ways that you inspire us to live our authentic selves and to give it away to others. I loved and admired you so much for that. No, make that present tense: I love and admire you so much for that!

You were my son, and that would have been enough, but then you gave me so much more. I am forever grateful for those precious gifts of your own heart and spirit, which “sail on, sail on” to this very day.

I’ll say it for you, Jonah: “Happy Father’s Day.” I know it’d be fried pastrami and a walk with Charlie.

Love you forever,
Dad

One Response to “A Father’s Day Gift”

  • Janis Rosenthal:

    What a beautiful tribute on this Father’s Day, Billy. I never met Jonah, but I can feel his love of life and family and song through your words. Thinking of you, Ellen and your family and wishing you much peace and love today… and every day.

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