Zinc + Copper = Brass (or “Sometimes Alloys Change Our Lives, and Sometimes Our Lives Change Into Alloys”)

Zinc + Copper = Brass (or “Sometimes Alloys Change Our Lives, and Sometimes Our Lives Change Into Alloys”)

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It’s just about four months since Jonah died. I’m learning important lessons by residing in a world where I desperately wish he were here but — like Sisyphus perpetually at work moving his boulder towards the mountain’s peak — I am always denied my request.

Nessa Rapoport, in her Woman’s Book of Grieving, writes: “It is the hardest of all learning that the opposite of depression is not happiness […] but vitality, to feel alive each minute you are given. Then when sweetness comes it is most sweet, and when sorrow comes you know its name. In the aftermath of suffering, you chart each day as an explorer preceding map or compass, and what you find is shockingly alloyed: All happiness is dappled, and even bleakest tragedy has moments of strange praise.”

Aiden and I spent a couple of days at Kutz Camp this week. We had to leave. Too many ghosts. Everywhere we looked, we saw Jonah. He’d spent so many summers there – as a young fac brat, as a teen program participant and, finally, as an adult staff member. Every field, every building, had once been his playground. And now, every face we looked into was Jonah’s face; so many now there where he’d been so many times before, where he should be now. We had to leave.

Jonah and Dan Kutz Camp, July 2005

Jonah and Dan
Kutz Camp, July 2005

Three weeks ago, I was driving along a road I’d not been on since last year when, every morning, I would take Jonah to the bus that got him to school. I decided to follow the old route and was amazed at the powerful sense of Jonah’s presence I was feeling. At one point, I had to pull over and actually put my arm “around him” in the passenger seat, tears streaming down my cheeks. But here’s the astounding part. I have more than ten thousand songs on my mp3 player, usually set to “shuffle mode” so each tune heard is selected at random. At the exact moment that I turned onto the road which leads to where we would meet Jonah’s bus, one of only two tracks I have of Jonah playing ukulele – two tracks out of ten thousand – began to play. This was from a 2005 concert at Kutz where Dan Nichols had invited Jonah to accompany him and his band on a song. As I made the turn, my heart skipped a beat when I heard Dan say, “Please welcome Jonah Dreskin.” And the entire time I drove the route to Jonah’s bus, I was crying and listening to Jonah play his ukulele in 5/8-time on “Turn the World Around.” Utterly amazing.

Jonah's mom and dad kvelling Kutz Camp, July 2005

Jonah’s mom and dad kvelling
Kutz Camp, July 2005

Jonah died while still in his teens. As such, he hadn’t really begun sharing a lot of his life with his parents. You know the routine. He loved us, to be sure, but so much of his daily living had little room for mom and dad. Things had been as they should be. But as chance would have it, both Ellen and I had been up at Kutz the night he got to play with Dan Nichols. We couldn’t have been happier for him, doing what he loved more than just about anything else: making music with one of his very favorite musicians, in front of one of his very favorite communities. This holy moment – and it was certainly a moment filled with everything right and true and good – became even holier in memory. Not only would Ellen and I forever cherish this exquisite snapshot of the heights to which Jonah would rise in the four years that would follow, we would continue to witness the sights and sounds of that evening long after our boy was gone. We’d had no idea that Hope Chernak had taken pictures of Jonah (and of us reacting to Jonah) that night. Even more stunning (and holy) was that Leon Sher had made a digital recording as well. We were there and, so it seems, we can return there again and again.

Perhaps that’s the purpose of ritual: to return us to someplace right and true and good, again and again.

Ellen, Katie, Aiden and I miss Jonah so much. We each grieve in our own way, our souls so deeply hurt by his having gone away. But Jonah gave us so many BIG memories. He was a giant in our family. He could be irresistibly adorable, and confoundingly aggravating. Wholeheartedly earnest, and impenetrably aloof. Whichever persona emerged from him, he drew our attention like moths to light. We couldn’t get enough of him. He was growing, learning, evolving all the time. It was wondrous, and a privilege, to see.

We still enjoy watching him. Even in memory, Jonah Maccabee never ceases being something to behold. There are tears now. But they are partnered to our smiles. Everywhere we see him, there are tears and smiles. And I never feel quite so alive as when I swell with this fusion of delight and heartache. It’s astonishing … that out of Jonah’s death comes this intensified living.

I imagine that, eventually, everyone of us dwells in the aftermath of loss. Whether it is a child, a parent, a limb, or a livelihood, life sometimes changes in ways that can’t be fully healed. It becomes, as Nessa Rapoport writes, “shockingly alloyed.” The pure, rarified laughter and joyfulness of youth won’t likely return. But in the life we live after death touches it, something precious – something filled with love and beauty – can still abide. A new home for the next part of the journey, where soulful ghosts and awakening spirits learn to bunk side-by-side.


BillyZinc + Copper = Brass (or “Sometimes Alloys Change Our Lives, and Sometimes Our Lives Change Into Alloys”)

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  • Aliza - June 28, 2009 reply

    Billy – I know that you and Ellen feel the greatest loss a parent could feel – but you did not lose Jonah, not at all. Every story you write here tells me that. And as long as he is in our hearts he is truly not lost to us.
    So yeah, the other day when an acquaintence said, upon learning I was a member of Woodlands said, “Oh, I heard your rabbi lost his son” I kind of half smiled and nodded that yes, Jonah was gone. But definitely not lost.

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