It’s twelve years now and you’re still not back. So I guess this is going to be a thing, huh?
So much changed for me the day you died. I never know where or when, but things can affect me quite differently from the way they used to. Invariably it’s because a moment brings sudden, unexpected connection to you. I’ve certainly learned to live my life, and I’m doing pretty well at it. But then, without any warning, grief just sort of pours itself right back in.
Here’s an example.
A few months after your death, Ellen and I were back at Play Group Theatre (where you’d pretty much grown to maturity and adulthood so, needless to say, we’ve never wanted to see it leave our lives). It was painful to go back, of course, but we have so many loving memories that were born there, how could we not?
It was Cats that got us back into the building, which is funny because I’ve always disliked that show. I find it to be incurably unengaging (as did you and your siblings when we took you to see it on Broadway). But here we were, in your most loving of spaces, with many of your and Aiden’s friends on stage. So, good guy that I am, I allowed myself to be subjected to Cats once again.
You can imagine how utterly surprised I was to find myself deeply moved by this high school production. And it happened in ways that no Broadway blockbuster could possibly match. A young man who’d been your friend since you were both very young children was portraying a very old cat whose life was nearing its end. And although I knew he was only acting, his story affected me greatly.
In fact, it was painful for me to watch this 18-year old – someone I knew well and adored – as he drew close to dying. And although he was playing a much older character, all I saw was you, my young child whom I adored, your own childhood scarcely behind you, with everything in life to look forward to. But with that 18-year old pretending to be nearing death, I was grimly reminded how you had done the very same thing, only it had been real and I’d had no idea it was coming.
You were away at college, loving it, had recently celebrated a wonderful nineteenth birthday, and had only days before spoken with us on the phone. How could we have known it was you who’d been that much older cat? And we’d had no idea.
Art imitates life? Art mirrors life? Art confronts life? Yep, all of that. In the space that you had loved, filled with the friends you loved, I was reminded that young people sometimes don’t get to grow old, that death can take the ones we love long before we could ever possibly be ready for that to happen.
Which brings me to Big. I’ve never actually seen Big. Not the musical anyway. I loved the movie, and I love listening to the cast recording. Recently, the score popped up in iTunes and I made it all the way to a song called “Stop, Time” before I lowered my head and cried.
Most of Big is a pretty audacious adventure for a 12-year-old named Josh Baskin, who longed to be grown up and magically gets to do so. Which is fun to watch, this 12-year-old kid navigating the world of work, apartment living, and adult relationships. All fun, that is, until you realize that, for Josh’s parents, it’s not an adventure at all. It’s about the death of their little boy. To them, he just disappeared. Vanished without a trace. There at bedtime, and gone by breakfast.
With you, the call came at midnight. An ambulance was enroute and they’d phone later to let us know more. I’d assumed we’d drive up to Buffalo to visit you. I could never have imagined that next call would inform us you had died. There at bedtime, and gone by breakfast.
Big, it turns out, is not a comedy. It’s a horror film
Every now and then, I play this absurd mind game with myself where I ask if it might have been better had you gotten sick and died only after months, perhaps years, of treatment. Then I would have had more time with you, time to get used to the idea of your being gone, time to hug you once more, and to kiss you goodbye.
Instead, I lost you in an instant. I never got to say anything to you, give you any last hugs, no last kiss. It had been three months since I’d previously seen you. You were coming home in just a few days. How could I possibly have understood that I’d already said goodbye – not knowing you wouldn’t be returning, not giving you a hard-enough hug. I just thought you’d be back.
The moment that Big turns grim is when Josh’s mom prays for his safe return. That’s when I understood that, for all intents and purposes, she was exactly where I had been on March 5, 2009. Her words in the song, “Stop, Time,” stopped me cold:
Two months old, he looks up at you. How his smile melts your heart. You want to say, “Stop, time. Don’t move on.” Even as you watch, that look is gone. Then he’s two, such a little man, so alive and so smart. Again you say, “Stop, time. Stay just this way.” But the future comes and he can’t stay.
Nobody warns you of this parent’s paradox. You want your kid to change and grow but, when he does, another child you’ve just begun to know leaves forever.
Birthdays fly – seven, eight, nine, ten. Every kid he becomes you clutch and say, “Stop, time. Hold this one fast!” But it’s not supposed to last, and that time has come and passed for he’s growing, and he has to go.
If I had only stopped the clock four weeks ago, somehow had frozen time right there, he’d still be here. I’d see his face, I’d hold him in my arms, safe forever.
It can’t be that he’s reached thirteen. Now the real changes start, but he’s not here. “Stop, time. Don’t rush life so. Bring him back, and then I’ll let him go.”
JoJo, at nineteen you’d barely finished childhood. You stepped away from the home that had sheltered you and had prepared you to step away. But in a flash it was over. You were gone.
I’ve learned something though.
The people we love do not belong to us. Life branches in new directions and relationships must accommodate. I’ve brought three breathtakingly wonderful children into the world. I’ve let each one of you go because that’s how life works. I’ve loved having each of you grow up in my home. I’ve cried when you each set off to pursue your destiny. And I’ve rejoiced in watching you make your way.
I also knew that letting you go was dangerous. I could no longer grab your hand as we crossed the street, and I could only assume that things would be fine. Which they were. Until they weren’t.
Twelve years later, while life is good – and it really is – I still miss you, and sometimes find myself returning to those early grief-stricken days, still trying to make a parent’s deal with God: “Bring him back, and then I’ll let him go.”
Love you forever,
P.S. Here’s Barbara Walsh, who played Josh Baskin’s mom on Broadway, singing “Stop, Time” …
Angela Stone - November 12, 2021
I never had chance to meet Jonah – but I know he was wonderful because he had two of the Most Wonderful parents anyone could ever wish for.
I’m sending love to you & Ellen.
Riki Lippitz - September 12, 2021
This song brought me to tears. Thank you, Billy, for this heart-wrenching essay — so true, so tender.
Janet Gordon - August 8, 2021
Thank you for sharing your Jonah with us. Thank you for being there for me five years ago. With much love and deep respect, Janet
Aliya Cheskis-Cotel - July 30, 2021
I remember hearing of Jonah’s z”l death, right after the tragic surprise death of my husband z”l. Barbara Walsh is a friend, but I never expected to hear her powerful song sung on a gorgeous tribute page written by you, Jonah’s father. Heartbreaking and, at the same time, oh so powerful.
Tal Varon - July 29, 2021
Billy, thank you for posting this. It gives me a profound and potent reminder, for several fundamental, heartbreaking truths, about parenthood and life. Sending you a strong-enough hug. May his memory be a blessing.
Barak Epstein - July 29, 2021
Thank you for sharing this beautiful tribute and candid reflection. I’m very moved by your courage.
Wishing you all strength.
Joel Horwitz - July 27, 2021
Hi, Billy. Wish you and the family an easier and easier time. Don’t know if you’ve heard this one, or if it resounds with you, but a client who had a great loss told me he rejects the idea of “Moving On” but changes that to “Moving With.” Hope to see you soon. Joel
Billy - July 27, 2021
Thanks, Joel. “Moving with” makes a whole lot of sense. I too have little confidence in “moving on.” I strive to “carry on.” Billy
Andrea Steinberger - July 27, 2021
I just loved this essay so much. I lost my brother at age 20 when he was in college way back in 1993. He would be 48 these days. He has been gone far longer than he lived his beautiful short life. I understood every word of what you said. I’m a rabbi too and I cry at some pretty strange times as I get inklings of how vulnerable our lives are. I admire you so much for writing this. Thank you.
Billy - July 27, 2021
Hi, Andrea. Thank you for leaving your comment. I was thinking that I write for two reasons: to let out what’s inside me, and to remind others that Jonah needn’t disappear entirely. You’ve reminded me that I also write for those who share this world of loss, hoping that I might offer a bit of balm on this neverending journey. I’m not going to apologize if these words made you cry, because I think our sadness can be a beautiful reminder to ourselves of how much we continue to love someone who’s gone. Me, my son. You, your brother. This might just be what we mean when we ask that their memory be a blessing. Thanks again, Andrea. Billy
mark miller - July 27, 2021
May all of us who care take a small portion of your grief.
Nancy Oren - July 27, 2021
What a moving tribute to love, loss and letting go. Your love for your son leaps off the page and leaves me feeling breathless. I struggle with this process of letting go of each stage my children go through. I struggle and know it is a blessing. And with that, I say with confidence, may Jonah’s memory be for a blessing.
Fran - July 27, 2021
Billy, I marvel at your courage, honesty and ability to share so much of yourself. You are truly a gift to all of us who are lucky enough to have you in our lives.
Phyllis Opochinsky - July 27, 2021
Teaching Jonah I got a glimpse of the man he was becoming. And it was good. I wish we had the power to bring him back and give you a long goodbye.
Elona - July 27, 2021
So sorry for your loss…still. 12 years. Wow.
Judy Flamm - July 27, 2021
OMG, this one tore at my heart more than all the others.
Mark S. Kaufman - July 27, 2021
May his memory be a blessing. (Don’t know what else to say.)