[This is Part Three. Part One is here.]
When friends come over to our house they pretty much all notice how many family photographs we have. They’re everywhere! On the shelves, on the walls, in the bedrooms, in our studies. And you’re in a ton of them.
We’ve never hurried to put you away, Jo. We left your bedroom untouched for the longest time because we loved sitting in there and being with you. It’s only in the last few years that we’ve made any changes. And while lots of your stuff has been removed (no more scantily-clad women pasted to the blades of the ceiling fan), there’s still plenty of you in there (some of your posters, your books, your couch and more).
Why? Because we like having you around. And obviously we can’t literally have you with us, so we draw some joy and sustenance from stuff that was part of your life.
In the movies, when someone dies clothing seems to be the first thing to go. We took a good long time before giving yours away. I remember finally donating your heavy-duty winter coat that, for years, we knew we’d distribute to someone living homeless on the streets of New York City but we’d hesitated (an understatement) because (is this odd?) we loved the smell of you that was on everything of yours. It wasn’t until your scent started fading away that we could really consider letting your clothes move on and do some good out in the world.
By the way, it was the same with your bed. I used to love laying my head on your pillow because I could smell you there. And believe you me, there were times when I wanted you back so desperately that I pressed myself hard into those sheets and blankets probably hoping I could trick time and space into giving you back. When that little bit of you finally dissipated, I knew it was okay for the bed to go.
In Sarah Wildman’s New York Times essay, “My Daughter’s Future Was Taken From Her, and From Us” (May 19, 2023), she writes, “There is a blurry quality to time now. The other night, I took a dance class thinking I would focus on movement — until I signed in and realized it was the very studio where Orli danced until she first fell ill.”
I remember how painful it sometimes was to be in the places where you had been. The synagogue where you’d grown up (and where I worked nearly seven days a week your entire life). The community theatre program where, throughout high school, you spent more time “in production” than you did at home (quotation marks because you’d show up there for absolutely any reason, no matter who asked). The restaurants, movie theatres and shops our family had frequented. And the roads that you and I drove each morning to meet your school bus. In the first year after your death, all of these evoked powerfully emotional responses each time I came upon them.
Which isn’t to say I avoided the places where you had been. To the contrary, I wanted to see them. I wanted to feel how much I missed you. I wasn’t interested in numbness (which is a very common sensation during grief and I remember it well from the early days after you’d died). In my mind, numbness shut you out and I most definitely wanted you with me in whatever ways possible. So as painful as it sometimes was to drive those roads (and there were times when I had to pull over for a good cry) I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Except when I couldn’t. Case in point, the summer camp where you had been a staff brat for years (while Mom and I served on faculty) until you were old enough to be hired on staff yourself. I simply couldn’t manage the bottomless chasm of emotion that took a profound and heart-wrenching toll on me during that next summer just a few months after you’d died. Every inch of that camp was filled with indelible memories of you. You as a two-year old, as a ten-year old, as a fifteen-year old, as an eighteen-year old, and every age in between. There was simply no respite and it was exhausting. So after only a few days, with apologies I excused myself and returned home.
Fourteen years later I can’t say those feelings have completely disappeared. One, they haven’t. They just haven’t. And two, I still don’t want them to. Something in the feelings of you that these places evoke helps to keep the memory of you alive. If the place were no longer to affect me, I might feel like I’ve betrayed you.
That wouldn’t be true, of course. Feelings are feelings, and they don’t have to mean anything else. After all, one ought not live life in perpetual mourning.
I’m pretty sure you’d understand. After all, how could I possibly survive living in the house you grew up in if those reminders never quieted down? I love still being in the your childhood home. I love seeing you and remembering you in all our house’s nooks and crannies. You’re not haunting me all the time, Jonah, but I love when you do.
That being said, I understand the difficulty Sarah Wildman is having. She and I both see ghosts. For her, where others watch their feet trying to move to the right places so it can be called dancing, she sees her daughter. And because it’s so soon after her daughter’s death, it’s hard, perhaps impossibly hard.
For me, where others are watching the unfolding of synagogue life, I see you. I see you strumming your guitar (my guitar that you would steal from my study!). I see you drawing during services because you would otherwise not be able to sit still. I see you leading a group of younger kids in crazy singalongs and how much they adore you. I see you tutoring young students and the regard they have for you. I see you sitting in my chair, taking it away from me with that mischievous smile that says with no words whatsoever, “You know you love me!”
I still see your ghost, Jonah. But these days, it only rarely makes me cry. Fourteen years later, the raw, heart-broken anguish of your absence no longer consumes me. I still miss you, but any lingering grief has been (mostly) woven into the fuller tapestry of my life. My sadness at losing you is alloyed with the thrill of watching Katie and Aiden enjoying their lives. My sorrow is forever and thankfully mixed with my joy.
Perhaps my greatest achievement in the aftermath of your death is that there is an abundance of joy in remembering you. I don’t just cry at how you died. I smile and laugh at how you lived. I don’t just regret that you are gone. I am forever grateful that you were here.
It’s been said, “When someone you treasure becomes a memory, their memory becomes a treasure.” It’s not necessarily an easy road to get from one side to the other. But with time and a growing understanding of the full picture of a person’s life – yours, Jonah – it can be done.
Love you forever, boy. Thank you for giving me so much to treasure.
I’ll write the final piece soon.
Love you forever,