Part ONE: 14 Years and the Blink of an Eye

Part ONE: 14 Years and the Blink of an Eye

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University at Buffalo (Feb 2009)Dear Jonah,

Has it really been fourteen years since you died? I suppose so.

I remember that night like it was yesterday. The images from those first twenty-four hours, the tornado of emotions and events, the sudden and overwhelming sense of loss, the sudden and unfathomable sadness that descended on our family – these are indelible.

But there is an insistent thought that also persists: Have I somehow betrayed your memory these fourteen years? Recollections have begun to fade. I no longer carry the many details of your nineteen years that were once so vital to my active crusade to preserve what I could of your life. Even as I read back the hundreds of thousands of words that I’ve written across this past decade and more, I wonder if I could have gotten some of that wrong.

The creeping realization is that yes, I could have. Because at this point in time I can no longer swear by what I’ve written down; only God knows the irrefutable facts of your story and, much as I may have tried, there are bits and pieces of your story — both connected to your death and simply part of your life — that I will never know. Perhaps most surprising of all to me is that that’s okay. I’m no longer driven and fastidious about recording your history. Nowadays, I’m more willing to carry the feeling of you rather than your biographical record.

Which is not to say that you’ve faded away from me. I still think of you every day, and while those thoughts have morphed into broader strokes of who you were and how you lived, I continue to miss you. That has not changed.

But life (or in this case, grief) has changed a lot for me in fourteen years. Grief hasn’t gone away but it’s certainly been transformed. It had to. Otherwise, how could I have gone on without you? That acute, unrelenting pain which I felt in those first weeks after your death in early 2009, I’d never have survived if that pain hadn’t let up. Thank God for the resilience of the heart. It would have done no one any good for me to have died along with you and I knew you’d want me to move through the valley of the shadow of death, not take up permanent residence there.

All of this recently came to mind when earlier this month I read a piece in the New York Times written by a mom whose 14-year-old daughter had died after a year-long battle with cancer (“My Daughter’s Future Was Taken From Her, and From Us,” Sarah Wildman, New York Times, May 19, 2023). As I took in this mother’s thoughts, I remember two of my own thoughts that came to mind.

First, her grief is so familiar and visceral. So acute and agonizing, I can feel its relentless demands in every sinew of my body and in the deepest recesses of my soul. I’m so sorry for her loss.

Alongside that, however, my second thought is that I’m now, fourteen years after your death, in such a different place. I’m not over you. I don’t ever want to be. Maybe it’d be more accurate to say that you’re in a different place. No longer front and center, you reside nearby, forever present and close in mind but not so much that you dictate my emotions and actions.

So from this observation point fourteen years down that road that Sarah Wildman and so many others have only just begun, I thought I’d reflect a bit on a few lines from her essay and consider where I was then and where I am now.

Probably my most hard-won lesson: Grief isn’t easy but, amazingly, it’s doable.

Early in the piece, Wildman writes, “My partner, Ian, and I are, in Hebrew, av shakul and em shakula — a bereaved father and mother. […] We are parents who have seen a future stolen.”

When you died, Jonah, you didn’t die alone. Your unborn children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren – every generation that would have come into existence because you had lived – they all vanished. Never to be. As Wildman writes, “A future stolen.”

Fourteen years later, I am still aware of your endless absence. What’s changed is that this awareness drops its soul-numbing bomb with far less frequency.

Every now and then, I still cry that you are gone. And I ache that your future has vanished with you. But I have always lived by the creed of the optimist. Not only have I found other futures to believe in, our family has even found a way to return to you, in a manner of speaking, your own future. You died too young for us to know where life might have taken you, but we did know what animated you in those early chapters of your life.

We created The Jonah Maccabee Foundation to build a future out of what had been the drivers of your present life and which might have become your future. Friends, family and a whole bunch of other folks who just get inspired by how you lived, we all pull our resources together and help out in places that reflect the kinds of things you seemed to have loved: the arts, social justice, and your Jewish heritage. It’s certainly not the same thing. Oh that you could be here to live your own life. But failing that, the Foundation has become a wonderful vehicle for celebrating rather than mourning your life.

My sweet Jonah, fourteen years ago, in the blink of an eye, you were gone. Fourteen years later, you’re still gone … but you continue to make a difference in the world. And that allows this dad to live (even if somewhat uneasily) in a world absent your unforgettable smile and your enduring bear hugs.

Your spirit lives on.

I’ll write more about this soon.

Love you forever,

[Part Two is here.]

BillyPart ONE: 14 Years and the Blink of an Eye

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  • Angela Adler - June 7, 2023 reply


    Thinking of your loss and always wishing strength and love to comfort you. We wish we met Jonah and had the opportunity to get to know him. Having had you and Ellen as parents, we know he was special.

    Angela and Irv

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