Part TWO: 14 Years and the Blink of an Eye

Part TWO: 14 Years and the Blink of an Eye

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

Dear Jonah,

Once upon a time, in addition to being a very young father I was also a very young rabbi. You met me as an inexperienced, wet-behind-the-ears clergyperson just learning how to do the job. Of course, you knew nothing about my rabbinic abilities; you simply loved coming to see your dad at temple, interrupting whatever “important” business I was up to and jumping into my arms or, even better, having me lift you atop my shoulders.

One of my very favorite temple moments from back then was when you showed up for “Aladdin Purim” and got to meet a more-than-lifesized version of Abu, Aladdin’s companion monkey. Completely covered from the top of my head on down, I wasn’t at all certain you even knew it was me. But you sure did love climbing into that monkey’s arms, almost as if your own favorite Curious George doll had suddenly come to life.

David Berger Memorial. Note the shattered rings of the Olympic symbol.

About that same time, I remember meeting, and from time-to-time watching from afar, the parents of one of the Israeli athletes who had been murdered at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. Seventeen years had passed since their son was stolen from them and while they were lovely, kind people, I always felt that a light had gone out in their lives and that it had stayed out.

How could I possibly have known that twenty years later I would be faced with my own child’s light going out?

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 loss of Orli is a phantom limb that wakes me in the night or, sometimes, lies dormant with me for hours; I never know which will happen. Seeing old friends recently I joked, dry-eyed, about the wonder and terror of the first seven days of Jewish mourning — the shiva — being like a sort of cocktail party in hell.”

Shiva is a curious custom. At what, for many, is the very worst moment of their life, the doors of their home are opened to the public. The aim is to bring comfort or at least companionship, and perhaps distraction, during these incredibly sad days following the death of a loved one. At the same time, however, there can be a zoo-like feeling to shiva, that you’ve been put on display not just for close friends and family but for anyone who walks through that door. The desire to hide in the back of the house for at least a few minutes (if not days) might not be an uncommon feeling for those sitting shiva.

For me, shiva was an emotional and, surprisingly, at times an uplifting experience. So many people in our home – most just wanting to tell us how sorry they were, but so many also wanting to tell us how they knew you and how much they loved you or were grateful for something you had done for them.

I remember thinking that, at age 19, there was so much we no longer knew about you simply by virtue of the recent liberation that had come with your growing up and beginning to live a life that no longer relied on Mom and Dad either approving of, or driving you to, the places you wanted to be. To hear so many wonderful accounts of how you lived and how you treated others was both stunning (I mean, what parent doesn’t want to know that their offspring is beloved?) and startling. My little boy, who had been quite the devil when he was younger, wasn’t just an angel in heaven; he’d first become one right here on earth.

I think that might have been the beginning of my shaping the memories of you that I would want to hold close in the years following your death. I was learning about a Jonah who, although gone, was bringing smiles to my face and making me feel so incredibly proud of the person, of the mensch, that you had become.

Yes, of course there would be moments, even days, of horror as our family suffered the immutable reality that in an instant you had been taken from us and we weren’t getting you back (tho God knows, for a good while I tried to convince God to do exactly that).

I remember a surrealistic walk that I took in a rainstorm where I cried so intensely over your absence and yet I was unable to differentiate between the teardrops and the raindrops. That was probably an apt metaphor for just how overwhelming it was in those early days to come to terms with your dying.

But here and now, fourteen years later, I’m in such a different place.

Wildman writes, “The loss of Orli is a phantom limb that wakes me in the night or, sometimes, lies dormant with me for hours; I never know which will happen.”

For quite a while, nighttime was a mysterious ride into the chambers of my heart. While I never much saw you in my dreams, there were just a few times that I did and it was both sweet and terrible. Like a mirage, your appearance seemed so real and I reveled in the euphoria of your reconstituted presence. But it was impossible to hold you, let alone hold onto you. I loved those dreams, but I hated them too. I loathed waking up to the unlovely truth that you were still no longer alive.

And yet, I also remember sometimes waking up in the morning and how normal life felt in the few seconds before I remembered you were gone. Like one of Buber’s I-Thou moments, experiencing God’s presence but only knowing that after the moment had passed, I loved those brief respites when everything was right in the world, and I was tortured by them because I never understood how profound they were until they had passed.

Wildman describes shiva as “being like a sort of cocktail party in hell.”

In truth, the whole first leg of the grief-journey was like that. An overabundance of pain surrounded by, at its worst, so many people whose lives hadn’t been upended by tragedy and, at its very best, so much love that had come through the door for the express reason to help me and my family survive our loss.

Fourteen years later, I’m not over you, JoJo. That will never happen. But I believe that I’ve completed the worst of the grief-journey. And I’m so grateful for that “cocktail party in hell” and every kindness that was extended to us in the days and months after you’d left us.

But perhaps more than anything else, it was the beautiful soul that you had become, and the lives that you had touched in such unforgettable ways and thus gave so many stories to the folks who came to shiva and shared them with us. Yes, they made us sorrier than ever that your life had been cut short. But they also made us feel so lucky to know that you had lived a good life, a life that meant something … to you and to those who knew you.

I’m more grateful for that than anything else. It’s what has allowed me spend these last fourteen years honoring the life that you lived instead of just grieving your death.

Thanks, young man. You did just great. I couldn’t be prouder of my boy.

I’ll write more soon.

Love you forever,

[Part Three is here.]

BillyPart TWO: 14 Years and the Blink of an Eye

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