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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Hats!

I started this piece six years ago. About a year after Jonah died. I have no idea why it took so long to finish it. But it’s always been one of the stories I wanted to tell.


 

2016.06.SummerCampaign'16Dear Jonah,

I should have known. It had already begun when you were just a little boy. We were riding the Circle Line tour boat around Manhattan and you (all of 7 or 8 years old) were having the best time sticking your head out the window, watching the skyline float by and the ripples bouncing on the water far below. I remember that hat so clearly (because you nursed your anger about it for years). It was a green baseball cap, emblazoned with the original “Jurassic Park” logo. A strong gust of wind yanked it from off your head and sent it tailspinning downward into the waters of the East River below.

You and I watched, mortified, as our boat continued in one direction and your hat in another. You weren’t simply upset about this; you were bereft. I, of course, thought you were overreacting, but I was looking at it through an adult’s eyes and you were just a little kid. Still, what I hadn’t yet come to understand was how important hats would be to you throughout your life. In fact, my guess is that anyone who knew you – whether as Jonah or as “Mac” – can probably conjure up an image of you with something on your head. Not that you were ashamed of anything underneath – you had a great head of hair – but somewhere along the way, you just fell in love with hats.

Here’s a selection of some of my favorites, numbered to correspond with the adjacent montage:

1. Perhaps it all began the day you were born. When you and I first met, you were wearing a hat – one of only a very few times that your wardrobe would be chosen by others.

Jonah.2016.08.Hats2. An early indicator (how oblivious could one dad be?!) was how much, as a 2-year old, you enjoyed sitting at the dinner table wearing a placemat on your head. I would describe that as the embryonic stage in the development of both your love for hats and your acclaimed (if not somewhat warped) sense of humor.

3. Then there was the 4-year old who preferred wearing a coffee filter on his head. While I imagine this was ultimately your own choice, I suspect your mother’s sense of humor was at work here. I don’t know why I didn’t call social services immediately.

4. However, the proclivity was allowed to deepen unchecked. The next thing we knew, at age five, the Mighty Ducks appeared atop your noggin. You were never much of a sports fan, even if you did enjoy the film, but Ellen took such a great shot of you that this photo (and this hat) remains one of our all-time favorites.

5. At nine, you were given an opportunity to reclaim your lost youth when, on a family trip to Orlando, we visited Disney World and, yep, you got new “Jurassic Park” headgear. Different style, but boy were you happy to welcome back an old friend! The glasses were just odd.

6. I’m willing to admit that part of the reason for logging the hats is to let the world see a bunch of great pictures of you. Case in point, when you were twelve we visited my brother Michael’s family in New Mexico, spending a day at the Bandelier National Monument climbing in and out of elevated cave-dwellings that date back more than 11,000 years. Somebody took this spectacular shot of you standing on a ladder wearing a New York Mets cap. At the time, I think you actually wanted to become a sports afficianado, one of those silly but understandable attempts to fit in socially before you had figured out how to do that and be true to yourself. So while the hat fit, the logo didn’t. It was all part of the journey.

7. When you were 14, and pretty gawky (frankly), our family had fallen in love with the beach in Wildwood, New Jersey, and you procured your first personalized hat (as far as I know). “JMAC” was the inscription which, again if I’d been paying attention, might have hinted at the day you left for college and announced you would no longer go by “Jonah” but from then after would be known as “Mac.” You seem to have had every intention of marking your place in the world in your very own way. The hats, it would seem, were just the tip of the your iceberg.

8. Still fourteen, you apparently embraced your gawkiness, very happily donning an orange pylon for Halloween. Gone were the days of pre-packaged Spider-Man and Batman costumes, giving way to identities that would refuse categorization. Thus emerged the goofy half of Jonah that we all treasured.

9. Pretty much throughout your 16th year, you wore just one hat. It did not, I’m afraid, accurately reflect your growing maturity (the cap advertised “Woody Rentals,” plumbing the shallow depths of adolescent sexual humor). It did, however, reflect your growing sense of self, that you’d do what you want to do regardless of others’ sensibilities. Even as you became more and more caring of people’s feelings, you cared less and less about social norms. And yes, that is a rather large lizard on your shoulder – you were as happy to be wearing that as you were the hat!

10. Thankfully, by age 17, you’d grown out of the “Woody” hat. Born in Cleveland, we had taken you away from there when you were five, and you pretty much never forgave us. No surprise then to see a Cleveland hat appear up there. But the “Indians”? Did you even know what sport they played?

11. The “Woody” hat should have signaled me that even worse still lay ahead. Less about immaturity, I think, and more about thumbing your nose at social convention, but we’ll let the reader decide. After Hurricane Katrina, you and I headed down to Gulfport, Mississippi, to lend a hand in rebuilding homes. We took an afternoon off and drove to Biloxi for a Mardi Gras celebration. In addition to loads (and loads!) of beads, you got yourself a hat that read, “Want beads? Show your titties.” You were a young man now, and I had to choose my battles and I let this one slide. By the look on my face in this photo, it would seem I wasn’t thrilled. At least I had a great hat too.

12. By the way, when you attended prom? Yep, a tux and your Cleveland Indians hat.

13. Then a hand-painted hat showed up reading, “J Mac Jr.” I think that’s a reference to a friend of yours from camp who knew before the rest of us that were someone to emulate. Not sure how you ended up with his hat, but like the box of Easy Mac that you kept in your room, I suppose you just couldn’t resist hanging onto anything that said Mac on it.

14. About that same time, your camouflage hat appeared. It would stay with you for the rest of high school.

15. And then, during your senior year, there came the checkerboard fedora. Truly a grand step forward. You were practically fashionable. And I was so glad to see the camouflage hat disappear (as a camouflage hat, simply by its nature, should).

16. For a brief time, during your last summer at Kutz Camp (right after graduation), you “obtained” a knit cap from someone else on staff and it never made its way back to him. Bob Marley’s Rastafarian colors. Redemption Song! No surprise that you liked it.

17. The last photograph that we have of you in a hat was taken by Katie just a few months before you died. It wasn’t your hat. This one (from Ohio State University) was a photography assignment and you became Katie’s model. So even though you didn’t choose this hat, it’s become the most familiar one to us because she took great and precious pictures that preserve the last Jonah we got to know. Ironic that it wasn’t yours, but so perfect that she put you in one at all.

18. This last picture was taken six months after you died. It’s the top of one of the bookshelves in your bedroom, and it’s almost exactly as it was when you left for college and told us we could do whatever we wanted with the things you left behind; you were finished with the fixtures of your youth. You’d left on that shelf all but one of your hats – the checkerboard fedora. That was the only part of your teenage years you felt warranted being carried into your adult life. It later came back to us with the rest of your college belongings, joining those other hats that had so colorfully tagged along during your childhood. Reluctantly, the checkerboard fedora joined that past when your future so abruptly ceased.

Would you have continued wearing hats throughout your life? My guess is yes. That checkerboard fedora looked so good on you that I can imagine you finally succumbing to social norms and getting yourself a smart-looking if not more conventional fedora to accompany your adult years. But then, would you ever really have conformed? While most of us (when we’re young) pretend to push against society’s norms, we usually pick an outfit that goes along with the other non-conformists we admire. But you, Jonah, rarely matched up with anyone else’s image of what a person should be. Perhaps it was because, in truth, you didn’t fit. The world was a very odd place for you. And it took a long time for you to find a place for yourself in it.

But I’ll tell you this, Jonah. No matter what was on top of your head, the world looked at what was inside your heart … and loved what it saw. Yes, you are missed because of your goofy hats, because of everything goofy about you that brought smiles to our faces. But what we continue to carry of you in these years since you’ve gone is not the goofy, but the love. The great kindnesses that you generously bestowed upon so many, these are the cherished memories that we will bring along on our own journeys.

Okay, and the hats too.

I think back to that first hat of yours, meanly loosed from our grip and rapidly drifting away in the waters below. There is much in life that is beyond our ability to contain and command. When we lose the thing we love, we too may find ourselves thrown into a downward spiral, our center threatened at being so unceremoniously cast into the waters below. Perhaps, in time, a new hat can bring grace and delight back into our lives.

Perhaps not.

But even if there are winds and waters that menace us, even if we are bruised and broken by life’s thundering tempests, we need not be ruined by them. We can live, and live well, despite the hardships. It is perhaps one of humanity’s enduring and crowning talents, to survive and to survive well. Resilience. Our ability to carry on, to eventually carry on, and to do so with grace and, yes, with delight … is stunningly remarkable and an answered prayer.

We can go on. And we can do so with strength, with courage, and with chastened (and perhaps downright rebellious) love in our hearts.

And that, Jonah, my sweet non-conformist, if our places were reversed, I hope would have been your choice too.

Love you forever,
Dad

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