Part FOUR: 14 Years and the Blink of an Eye

Part FOUR: 14 Years and the Blink of an Eye


University at Buffalo (Feb 2009)[This is Part Four. Part One is here.]

Dear Jonah,

Numbers can be useful. They’re able to confirm a point, even if they’re far less interesting than the point itself. I’ve got some numbers to share with you. In a minute.

You were only 19 years old when you died. Your life had really only just begun. You’d left home six months earlier to embark upon the next chapters in your life: college and whatever lay beyond. I remember your telling us that we could do whatever we wanted with the stuff you left at home: nearly everything from what we’d just begun describing as “your childhood.”

Who would have dared imagine that the stuff you had discarded would become sacred keepsakes for us of the life you had once lived … and that, except for the little bit you had taken or accumulated while at college, this – plus our memories and our love, of course – was all we’d have left of you. Forever. From March 5, 2009 and onward, there would be nothing new generated from your life. Unbelievably (as it would be for any parent), for you there would be no more life.

In the early 2000s, society’s ability to document itself would be forever changed and amplified by the arrival of the iPhone. Every moment, worth recording or not, would be photographed and video’d ad nauseum, so much so that an entirely new market would open up purporting to save and organize people’s digital media so they wouldn’t have to bother doing so themselves.

In 2008, you hadn’t yet obtained an iPhone. You were still using an “old” model along with a small digital camera that you happened to have used for picture-taking as much as people today use their smartphones.

Okay, here come the numbers.

After you died, I began curating your life. If all I had left were the digital files that had documented much of your existence, I was going to do everything I could to preserve them. By the way, the blessing that came out of this manic effort was that I also organized our entire family’s digital life into a filing system that rivals the Library of Congress. You’re all welcome.

From the very beginning of your story (February 1990)

Okay, ready? Over these past fourteen years I have gathered, labeled and filed 18,341 photos and 2,010 videos that were taken by either you, a friend of yours, or a member of our family. These do not include the many images from our general family collection in which you also appear.

I’ve also filed 22,531 documents (school papers, stuff from theatre, youth group and camp, as well as birthday cards, Facebook posts and so much more). Yep, I went a little crazy in those first months after you died. I was determined to lose nothing else that had been generated by your existence.

Of all the stuff I accumulated, however, I think my favorite is the single piece of notebook paper that I kept in my back pocket during those first weeks after you were gone. Each time I, or someone else, remembered something about your life – something you did, something you enjoyed, or something you said – I wrote it down. In not much time at all, I ran out of space on that piece of paper and started, yep, a digital file preserving every memory anyone shared about you.

It turns out, that was a very good idea. Fourteen years later, those memories have begun to fade. Some I remember generally but the details have grown hazy. Others I don’t remember at all. But all I have to do is open that file and there you are again.

That single text document is now 168 pages long, and totals 101,718 words.

That’s a lot of memories I get to hold onto and, for anyone who’s been reading my letters to you over the years, it’s a lot of memories I can share with others.

To those very happy days in college (Feb 2009)

In Sarah Wildman’s New York Times essay, “My Daughter’s Future Was Taken From Her, and From Us” (May 19, 2023), she writes, “The peculiarity of grieving an adolescent is that there is still so much Orli to absorb. Some of it comes by way of anecdotes offered by friends and acquaintances, some from her written journals. A vast majority of it is from her phone, which is alive with her photos and videos. […] But the stories in Orli’s phone are finite. I have all the Orli photos I will ever have. I can only look backward. [….] I cannot finish the stories she started.”

Here is where Sarah Wildman (whose grief journey has only just begun) and I are on the same page. No matter how much time has passed, the past is fixed. There are only so many photographs, so many videos, so many memories to hold onto. Sure, once in a blue moon someone tells me something I hadn’t known before. Those moments are rather incredible because while I know there’s so much more about your life that I wasn’t privy to, I’m no longer expecting such anecdotes to surface (although, if anyone has a photograph or a video or a story that you would like to share, please be in touch – you hold the power to amaze).

My obsession, Jonah, with organizing your life is no longer anywhere nearly as compulsive as it once was. And yet, it remains crucial for me to know all of that information is safely protected and that my memories of you, while fading a bit in my own aging brain, will be around for a long, long time to come.

I don’t feel the same need as I once did to play your videos or to read your clever Facebook comments. I think it’s important that you’ve quieted down in my life. It lets me carry on a bit more successfully. Satisfyingly. Less haunted by your not being here.

“Carry on,” not “move on.” I will never move on, JoJo. I will never leave you behind. I will carry you with me always. What else can I do? I love you too much to move on.

So I carry you with me. I go where I want to go. Where I need to go. Sometimes I take you out and share you with people. Lots of times I don’t. But you’re always there. Always with me.


You and I, and so many people who loved you, have gone on quite a journey these past fourteen years. A journey that Sarah Wildman has just begun.

Once upon a time, it was such a hard journey for me. Now it’s quiet and reflective but one that hasn’t ended. Nor can I imagine it ever will. I’ve gotten quite used to it and welcome traveling with you in whatever manner I can.

You’re my kid. And as every one of these letters has concluded, I will always …

Love you forever,

BillyPart FOUR: 14 Years and the Blink of an Eye


Join the conversation
  • Malcolm Leinwohl - June 27, 2023 reply

    Thanks, Billy. My daughter Judith died 10 months ago at 30 years old. Thank you for sharing your journey.

    Billy - June 27, 2023 reply

    Hi, Malcolm. Thank you for your note. I don’t know how I missed news of Judith’s death. But for the last hour I’ve been catching up online. Please accept my sincere sympathies, my hope that you and your family are able to navigate the choppy waters of grief, and may you hang onto a million wonderful memories of your daughter to help sustain you through all the times ahead.

    Wishing you every blessing,

  • Marie - June 26, 2023 reply

    Thank you

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