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Looking Waaaay Back

Dear Jonah,

Now that I’m in my sixties and you’re gone more than nine years, there’s a different kind of remembering going on. I’m getting “old man” nostalgic — that time in life when youthful memories, dimly recalled from years “long misprision rusted,” sneak up and remind me that many decades have passed and not so many more are waiting up ahead.

You, of course, always called me “old man” so this would be nothing new to you (except maybe the reality that it’s actually starting to come true).

Let me explain.

Just the other day, I went looking for some old letters and stumbled upon more than I’d remembered saving, a small treasure trove to be sure. Frankly, I don’t know how I pulled this off, the fact that letters I sent are somehow back in my possession. Many were returned by Grandma Ida, who understandably might have saved her baby’s letters and given them back during the twilight of her own life. But there were also letters that I’d written to other family members, friends, mentors, and even an old girlfriend by the name of Ellen Siegel (you knew her as Mom). I was rather astonished to discover such an abundant and diverse collection. Did I break into these people’s homes and steal them? However these missives came into my repossession, they brought with them an unexpected record of some key moments in my life.

And that brought you to mind.

Norvall the Brick!

It all started with a brick. Yep, a brick. In 1970-71, when I was in eighth grade, I attended Crest Hills Junior High School in Cincinnati. Occasionally, I would walk the two and a half miles home and, on one particular day, happened upon a construction site where, for no particular reason, I pocketed one of the concrete bricks being used there (not a cinder-block, mind you, but a regular … well … brick-sized brick). That brick has not only traveled with me these past forty-eight years, I even named it Norvall, and Grandma Ida needlepointed a cover for it! A little odd, yes, but Norvall’s been a good companion (and a well-dressed one) through the years.

The fact that you probably saw this brick inside its needlepointed cover but had no idea of its origins, this got me thinking about life “before Jonah” and life “after Jonah.” They are completely different worlds, of course, but I’ve been pondering the rather absurd synchronicity between the two: that you are part of neither.

Who could have imagined you, Jonah? I mean, when I was fourteen years old, maybe I pictured myself getting married someday and even having a child. But as anyone who knew you would likely agree, there was simply no way I could have imagined you!

But there you were, just the same. You were that eighth grader’s future. I may not have been able to see you, but you were most definitely coming, every bit as real as the improbable truth of that brick from 1970 still being here in 2018.

Today, I reside in a world you are no longer part of. As with the universe before you were born, you simply aren’t here. The difference now is that your memory endures; it is just as present as Norvall the Brick.

I’m at an age where nostalgia for the past grows a little every day. Reading those letters reopened windows into a life I only recall in bits and pieces. Once upon a time, that life burst with color like fireworks on the 4th of July. But now the memories have slowly faded and only remain as a pale, vaguely defined version of themselves.

But Jonah, you didn’t fade. In a single brief moment, you were erased. Horrible as that notion is, the hidden blessing is that you don’t ever fade. Perhaps it’s the trauma that accompanied my losing you, but your memory remains as strong and vibrant as ever.

I’m so glad of that.

It’s fun to look back at the world of my youth. The disappearance of its details doesn’t bother me. Your details, Jonah, I’ve worked hard to hang onto. Those tiny moments that were your life, they were filled with wonder and with love and, unless someone happened to snap a photograph, we allowed those moments to just slip by. That was life being lived as it should be. Who could ever have imagined that I’d need to hang onto those memories so fiercely?

The week you died, I shoved a folded piece of paper into my pocket. Whenever someone mentioned, or I recalled, something about your life, I immediately wrote it down. That page filled up quickly and was expanded into a text file on my computer. Today, there are hundreds of pages of Jonah-memories that, like letters returned to the writer by their recipients, have wondrously restored the details of chapters I’d thought were long gone. I’m so glad to have them back in my possession.

The universe may have let you go, Jonah, but I never will.

Sometimes I think, “I still have that stupid old brick, but I don’t have you!” Then I remember the two of us watching Blazing Saddles when you were twelve years old and how awesome it was to share that with you. I realize that this old man, who lived through a parent’s worst nightmare, is blessed with the sweet, invincible truth that your whole life was like a fireworks display on the 4th of July — delightful, surprising, and a splendidly precious adventure that I will never forget and, like a pile of old letters filled with wonderful, long-forgotten memories, will always treasure.

Love you forever,
Dad

6 Responses to “Looking Waaaay Back”

  • Andy Bossov:

    MODEH ANI HAIKU

    Blessed are You, God
    We thank You for sacred life
    Cherished souls we love

  • Geri:

    I’m crying again with love and memories

  • Kendra:

    What a beautiful remembrance of your son. As well, the reflection back to youthful times as bursts of fireworks colors…and the realization that Jonah himself was a unique celebration of colored fireworks throughout his life, and these colors will not fade in your heart or mind. How difficult for a parent, I cannot imagine….that you and Ellen carry on and continue to spread love, hope and goodness with your lives is very inspiring, and I’m sure Jonah is cheering you on, amazed at what the “old man”! does!

    This thought piece of yours teared me up, yet made me smile too. You have a special style of expression that is even more special because you choose to share it with others. Thank you, and many blessings to you and family for the upcoming holidays!

  • David (Berliner):

    Billy….Nostalgia creeps with increasing frequency into one’s thoughts while symbolically—as in a movie—the calendar pages fly off, denoting the passage of time.

    You and Ellen suffered the worst of personal losses, but the wonder and joy that those letters rekindle are a blessing.

    One day your grandchildren will savor them, too.

  • Amy Dattner-Levy:

    Your relationship with Norvall reminds me of Tom Hanks’ connection to Wilson, in Castaway. A lifeline, a companion, a reminder. Jonah’s life a fireworks display, what a beautiful, evocative image. Thanks for this open letter.

  • Marcia Plumb:

    This is a gorgeous piece of your heart. I remember a young man just starting out in his rabbinic career- funny, witty, cynical and smart. And now, you’ve added wisdom and heartache to your bow. I send much love to you and that old girlfriend who I too remember as Ellen Siegel.

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