Jonah

On Your 13th Yahrzeit … War

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Dear Jonah,

I had another letter all done and ready to send to you, but the war in Ukraine has been weighing heavily on my mind and I want you to hear from me about it.

You always had such clear ideas about right and wrong, and you were a zealot for fairness. You could never tolerate injustice.

You would hate this war.

1st grade: cute but dangerous

When you were in the first grade, you got into big trouble at school. Another child had done something which, right or wrong, you felt deserved a clear response. So you bit him.

While your biting phase came to an end, your sense of justice did not. If it was happening to you, woe to your adversary. But as the years moved forward, your sense of fairness extended far beyond yourself. You looked out for others all the time. And we loved that about you.

When you were graduating from high school, NFTY NAR (your regional youth group community) voted you “most likely to lead the Jewish people in a revolt against the Romans.” Okay, so your middle name was Maccabee and that’s almost exactly what your namesake did (it was the Greeks, but the Romans got theirs later on). Your friends’ sentiment very likely transcended that historical reference. Everyone knew you enjoyed raising a ruckus, especially for a good cause.

Mom and I named you Jonah Maccabee with real intention. Yonah (Hebrew for Jonah) means “dove.” Combining that with the name of Jewish history’s greatest warrior, Judah Maccabee, we couldn’t have made it much clearer that it had been our fervent wish for you to grow up and become a “warrior for peace.”

Yep, this was the award

And lookee there. It’s pretty much exactly what you did!

On the other side of the world – actually, in the land of your great-grandparents! – there is an unjust war being fought right now. Russia has decided to destroy Ukraine. Putin and his gang thought they could act with impunity, that there would be little resistance from the Ukrainians and a divided world looking the other way. But neither of those things has happened.

Like a modern-day Judah Maccabee, these Ukrainian underdogs have fought back with such determination and fierceness that the Russian authorities are in a tizzy about what to do next. In addition (and quite surprisingly), the world has rallied around Ukraine in so many powerful and loving ways, with governments and everyday citizens across the globe all responding and trying to help.

You would be so proud, Jonah.

Because no one should have to endure the relentless bullying of thugs. I’m pretty sure you’d be rolling up your sleeves to help in whatever ways possible.

When you were younger, JoJo, you were quite famous in our home for your inconveniently combustible temper, and we all knew to give you plenty of safe space whenever we saw smoke coming out of your ears.

As you grew up, we loved seeing that anger subside, even as your sense of justice grew stronger. By age nineteen, you had become such a caring and giving young man, it was sometimes hard to believe all that goodness could emerge from a kid who, only a few years earlier, wasn’t able to see beyond his own needs.

But you did.

And that’s why so many of us loved you and continue loving you.

I pray each day for Ukraine. Mom and I help out where we can. We simply have to. And I’m pretty sure you would too.

Thirteen years ago I lost you, Jonah. Life veered far off its course that night, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done to grieve your death. But as much as I love you (and always will), it’s been crucial that I remember I wasn’t the one who died.

And so I live. I live as fully and joyfully as I can. In addition, I carry you with me. And in carrying you, I try to honor your life and your memory each day. I do so by trying to act when another is in need, hoping to preserve the impact you might be having on our world were you still with us today. I do so for you. I do so for those who need you.

Thank you for being part of my life, Jonah. Thank you for sharing your heart and your goodness with me and with so many others. And thank you for learning not to bite. With your teeth, that is.

However, if it were Putin …

Love you and miss you forever,
Dad

BillyOn Your 13th Yahrzeit … War
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I’ll Be Right Here

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Dear Jonah,

Don’t take this personally, but I don’t cry that much for you anymore. I mean, it’s been nearly thirteen years! It’s certainly not that I don’t miss you. I do. But life goes on. It has to go on. So my grief, which very much continues to this day, resides in a much quieter place than it once did.

But today I cried.

It was a story that did it. I was watching Stargate SG-1, the 1997 sci-fi series in which a U.S. Air Force special ops team visits and explores planets in other galaxies. I know it sounds silly, but bear with me.

The SG-1  team has a run-in with little blue crystals that turn out to be sentient. When Colonel Jack O’Neill reaches out to touch one, the crystal apparently feels threatened and slams the guy with a power blast. Later realizing that Jack probably hadn’t intended any harm, the crystal assumes Jack’s human form and returns to earth with the crew. The crystal wants to heal Jack of the pain it sensed in him, but back on earth discovers it was the death of Jack’s seven-year-old son that constitutes the real pain Jack carries.

Blue Crystal Jack later meets up with Real Jack, explaining that death is different where the crystal comes from, and that Jack just needs to spend time with his son to ease his pain. Jack tells him that’s impossible, that his son is gone forever.

JoJo, let me interrupt a moment to say that, as I recount this story to your mom, I am again consumed with crying, gasping for breath as tears cascade down my face.

Blue Crystal Jack tells Real Jack that Charlie isn’t gone, that he lives on inside Jack’s heart. Blue Crystal Jack then reaches out, ET style, and touches O’Neill’s chest, to emphasize where his son Charlie can be found. As the crystal does so, its hand transforms from Jack’s hand into Charlie’s hand, and the rest of Charlie soon follows.

The final interaction between the blue crystal and Jack is that of Jack holding his son’s years-gone seven-year-old hand and the two of them walking together before Jack gets his goodbye. The blue crystal then returns to its galaxy and Charlie returns to Jack’s heart.

I catch my breath.

From the very first days that you were gone, Jonah, I had to learn to live with what so many have described as “the waves of grief.” Never knowing when one will roll over me, I had to do my best to ride them out. Thirteen years ago, there was nothing harder for me than to meet those waves. I’ll never forget the deep, gasping, heaving crying that went on back then. But in time not only did I come to accept those waves, I understood them as a sign of my profound, ongoing love for you, a love I hoped would never disappear. And whenever a new wave would arrive, that was confirmed.

Which is why, as I’m watching something as trivial as a dumb TV show, I open wide to welcome the always-surprising return of the wave. It’s the closest I think I can get to seeing you again.

You and I never got our goodbye, Jonah. You died in Buffalo while we were home in Ardsley. The last time I was with you was on January 9, 2009, as you left to return for your second semester of freshman year at the University at Buffalo. The next time I would be with you was on March 5, 2009, about ten hours after you had died. You were lying in a hospital bed in a very cold room, with a lot of tubes still connected to you.

This is how I spent my last moments with you. Nothing at all like a hand-in-hand walk across the tarmac. Or, as I remember from dropping you off at UB the previous August, one of those great, big, powerful bearhugs that squeeze the breath out of you but always sent me home with the lingering sensation that I still had you with me.

So the idea of getting to see you one more time, all these years later, well, you can imagine how appealing that might be.

After you died, Jo, lots of people reported seeing you in their dreams. “Come visit me again” was a common refrain on Facebook as your friends adjusted to your being gone. I too had a few of those dreams. Some mighty strange ones that I hoped against hope contained some truth in them, that I had in fact seen you, and that I might get to see you again. But while those were very powerful moments, I slept through each and every one of them!

Poor image from a surveillance video, but even in front of the Ark, in front of the congregation, at Jonah’s Confirmation in 2000, everything stops for a hug from this boy.

So you can imagine the emotional tug of that episode of Stargate SG-1. My heart instantaneously switched over to grief mode. And it hurt, that’s how badly I wished this television “dream” also contained some truth and could happen for you and me.

It can’t, of course. Outside of my dreams, seeing you can’t ever happen again. But oh, to be able to spend ten more minutes with you!

Sitting with my memories of you, Jonah, is something that can, and does, happen each day. If it weren’t for those memories, you’d be truly gone. It’s the memories – precious memories, sacred memories – that keep you close to me, that keep your hand in mine.

In life, we all have to let go of lots of the people we love. I think of Grandma Ida and how often I wish I could pick up the phone and call her. Even though I can’t, my memories of her are so strong, and so clear, that I can almost have our conversation without her. And because of that, I still miss her but I’m not really without her.

And I’m not really without you, my son. You live inside my heart. You bring me joy. You teach me wisdom. And yes, you break my heart.

But I live. And I live well. Happy. Still missing my boy. Never moving on. But grateful to be able to carry on.

Happy birthday, kid.

Love you forever,
Dad

BillyI’ll Be Right Here
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A Song Inspired By You

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Dear Jonah,

There is a persistent mystery that you left us. It concerns a burn mark on the bathroom counter. To this day, none of us knows (or admits to knowing) where it came from. But I have a theory. Back in July 2009, I wrote you about it. Let us review:

The infamous burn mark!

On the first floor of our house is the bathroom you shared for fourteen years with Aiden. In that bathroom there is a Formica countertop. The countertop had been there for probably a decade or more before we moved into the house in 1995, and had always been pretty much in pristine condition. Formica is fairly impervious to abuse, so the sudden appearance one evening of a prominently positioned two-inch charred hole in the countertop caught my attention. I had my suspicions as to who caused the burn mark, but felt it important to perform my fatherly due-diligence and questioned Aiden, who was maybe four or five years old at the time and, thus, not a very likely culprit. Moving on to my older son, I tried to use gentle but firm persuasion to draw the truth out of your (I was hoping) guilt-ridden soul. Wasn’t gonna happen, though. In fact, in all the years since the burn mark appeared, I never managed to get you to admit anything about it. And the fact that, in succeeding years, you amassed a collection of matchbooks, eleven Bic and/or Zippo lighters, a container of lighter fluid (!), eight boxes of sparklers, and even more boxes of incense … well, let’s just say I held out hope to one day get a confession. This past Hanukkah (Judaism’s fire holiday, always a good time to discuss arson with your child), I actually came close to connecting you to the crime when I mentioned the burn yet again and suggested that enough time had gone by, that the statute of limitations on punishment had run out, so wouldn’t you please just tell me what happened in there. You paused what you were doing, looked over at me, peering deeply into my eyes, smiled that amazing smile of yours, and then walked away. You walked away! I never did get the story of how that burn mark got there. It will remain a mystery forever.

“Fireworks” (July 6, 2009)

This makes me think, JoJo, of how we – your family – have chosen to live our lives in your absence. I often tell people, “Rather than always be mourning that he’s gone, we celebrate that he was here.” And while that doesn’t mean the tears have stopped falling, it does mean that we try to focus on what we loved so deeply about you. Included in that list is your perpetual hope that things would be okay (like not getting caught for burning a hole in the countertop), that problems can be worked out, that people can make it through hard times, and that love and an exuberant, powerful bearhug never hurts (much).

So I’ve written you a song. Okay, I didn’t write it for you per se, but I’ve dedicated it to you. And for a specific reason: hope. You were so good at conveying hope to others: at comforting them when their chips were down, at showing them there was always a reason not only to look forward to what was up ahead but to be grateful for that very moment because there’s always something good in the air even when you might not be thinking so. Because of all of that, this piece just reminds me of you.

Here’s why.

The song is called “Hope Smiles (Neilah Conclusion).” The title references its placement as the last prayer of the long day of atonement we call Yom Kippur. The ancient imagery of the Neilah Service is about asking God to forgive us for all the times we’ve messed up during the past year. With sunset and the end of Yom Kippur fast approaching, we stand with great urgency before the open Ark promising to do better in the year ahead, if only God will grant us a boon: the blessing of an inscription in the Book of Life.

The title was inspired by the writing of Alfred Lord Tennyson, who offered that “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier.’” Tennyson’s words expressed what I had wanted to convey in this piece because this is what I feel at the end of Yom Kippur: not that we leave the worship space filled with fear and dread not knowing if we’ve been inscribed into the Book of Life but with confidence that the year ahead will be a good one, that each of us can do better at living our best selves, and that we therefore have every reason to write ourselves into the Book of Life.

Give a listen, JoJo. It’s only 90 seconds long. You’ll hear three of me singing, plus a few instruments. Focus on the clarinet. In the opening bars you’ll hear echoes of Kol Nidre, the ancient melody which started the Day of Atonement only twenty-four hours earlier. These opening notes remind me (and hopefully others) that we gathered here (wherever our Yom Kippur services happen to take place) to sincerely prepare for a better year ahead.

The opening Kol Nidre notes then give way to ancient Hebrew words that acknowledge God as God, and reaffirm a very real desire to do better with our lives, to make a difference, and to make life mean something substantially meaningful and good.

The clarinet follows along for the minute-and-a-half of this musical ride, joining the three vocal parts in some pretty harmonies. But then, in the final bars of the song, the clarinet offers its own final thought. With a jubilant flourish that some listeners will likely frown upon because it breaks the somberness that often defines this moment, “Hope Smiles” ends on a celebratory note (okay, 20 notes). Instead of sending us home anxious about God’s decree, the clarinet certifies that our promise to do better is not only a sincere one but one that gives us every reason to smile at our neighbor and to head home with unbridled confidence that we will make a difference, that we will, in whatever ways we can, make the world better for everyone. If there are inscriptions into the Book of Life, we’ll be doing the writing!

And that, Jonah, is why I dedicated “Hope Smiles” to you. This is how you lived your life: doing what you could by lending a hand, giving comfort, and simply sharing that beautiful smile of yours. All this to make the world in which you lived a little better for your having been here.

And what if it isn’t true? What if you had your sour moments too? What if you weren’t always there to lend a shoulder? Well, to that I say …

In the years since you left us, so many acts of kindness have been offered because of you — in memory of you, and inspired by you — that your impact in the universe has been exponentially increased. So maybe you weren’t a perfect angel, but you were good enough for us to want to remember you in these ways.

There’s an old hasidic story I love that goes like this: The Hafetz Hayyim (Lithuania 1839-1933), who was renowned for his saintly character, had a student who was falsely arrested. The prosecution, hearing that the Hafetz Hayyim would testify on his student’s behalf, said to his colleagues, “Do you know what they say about him? That he came home one day and, finding a thief ransacking his house, ran after him, even while he could plainly see the thief was clutching the rabbi’s possessions, and shouted, ‘I declare all of my property ownerless,’ just so the thief would not be found guilty of stealing anything.” When asked if the attorney actually believed that was true, he replied, “I’m not sure. But they don’t tell stories like that about you or me.”

In life, Jonah, you offered people hope. In death, you continue to inspire us, reminding us that each of us can be a force for good in the world.

And if that isn’t a hopeful conclusion to your own song, I don’t know what is. Thanks for everything, boy. I’m so glad that, for a while, you were here. You are one of the lights that help me steer my ship.

Love you forever,
Dad

BillyA Song Inspired By You
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New Year’s Resolutions

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Dear Jonah,

In the summer of 1998 when you were all of eight years old, you spent a week at Cub Scout Day Camp on the other side of the county. After the first day, you were nearly thrown out of the program for grabbing a camper and talking back to several (!) adult counselors. This was not an unfamiliar sequence of events because you’d always had a pronounced sense of justice that would likely have served you well in adulthood but, as a child, simply made you look like a misbehaving brat.

A pretty cute Cub Scout!

That evening, you and I talked it through and came to an understanding about what society wants of us and, more importantly, what real injustice is all about. You returned to camp the next day and everyone enjoyed having you around the remainder of the week. You were, after all, a pretty fun kid.

I remember, a few years later (when you were maybe eleven or so) lying in bed with you discussing your unhappiness socially. I assured you that you were a very likeable kid — sweet, kind, FUNNY — and that the day you decided to let the world see THAT kid, that would be the day your social woes would come to an end.

At eight years old, you didn’t necessarily understand all the textures and dynamics of right and wrong. But you were learning. And I always loved that it mattered to you. I also loved that you were always watching and listening. Sometimes that caused you to punch another kid, but sometimes it helped you understand why you should think about refraining from punching another kid. As you grew into adulthood, I marveled at the lessons learned. You had become such a fine human being, and I couldn’t wait to see what your mark would be on the world.

That didn’t get to happen because at age 19 your life ended. But not the difference you were making. When our family created the foundation that bears your name, we did so to try and bring into the world a bit of what you might have brought to it yourself if you’d had the time to do so. Each gift came from another friend empowering us to do this for you. Their donations help us with “turning love into action.”

That same week back in 1998, you and I went to Rye Playland, an amusement park near where we live. You and I did not ride The Spider. There was no way you were going anywhere near that thing, mostly because you’d heard about my experience when I’d taken Katie earlier that same summer. But you did want me to go on it by myself so you could watch me throw up afterwards.

10 years old and so excited about entering the new millennium!

I didn’t oblige you. But hope has to begin somewhere, doesn’t it? And this is one of the great lessons you’re still teaching us.

Despite losing you, despite other disappointments and challenges that life throws our way, despite the coronavirus still ravaging the planet, I insist upon hopefulness, preferring to build something good rather than regret what’s been loss. And everyday, it is you — Jonah Maccabee Dreskin. You inspire a goodly part of the strength of that resolve. Yes, of course I wish you were here. But you’re not … and this is how I choose to awaken each morning. Will I be able to do so tomorrow? I don’t know. But today, yes and yes.

Happy new year, kid.

Love you forever,
Dad

BillyNew Year’s Resolutions
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9/11 Twenty Years of Remembering

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Dear Jonah,

StoryCorps recently posted a piece about twin brothers who’d been extremely close their entire lives, sharing their childhoods, sharing their livelihoods, and even their employment at the World Trade Center. As I listened to one of them speak, I wondered if this had been recorded prior to 9/11 and that the brothers had perished there together. I soon understood that the recording was recent, and that he was recounting how it was that his brother was gone but he is still here.

I cried.

2600 innocent souls were stolen on that lovely fall morning in 2001, gone long before their time, families and friends having to learn to live life around a gaping hole still filled with love but empty of the person who should be there.

I appreciate crying. It helps me to feel more fully human. I was deeply saddened by the brothers’ story, but grateful to have heard it and been moved by it. The tears didn’t feel good, but they felt right.

Billy9/11 Twenty Years of Remembering
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Bring Him Back, and Then I’ll Let Him Go

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Dear Jonah,

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?

BillyBring Him Back, and Then I’ll Let Him Go
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George

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G’ma Ida with a very little you and a very new Curious George (Jul 1991)

Dear Jonah,

I’ve been thinking about George — Curious George — that pervasive little imp who entered your life when you were only a year old, and who’s still very much here, living with us simply because stuffed bedtime friends don’t ever have to die. George continues to reside in your bedroom, which is now Mom’s study. I like to think that George is watching over your domain until you return but, hey, what do stuffed dolls know?

Curious George came into your life when your honorary grandparents, Fran and Gerry Weingast, gave him to you. They’d hoped that he would become one of those toys that a child won’t ever let out of their sight, which is precisely what occurred. From the moment you boys laid eyes on each other, you became the best of friends. George would follow you around for quite literally the rest of your life, so much so that even when you were still very young, while we were pretty sure you liked us, we knew without a doubt that you loved your monkey.

BillyGeorge
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“Jonah-Inspired” … a letter to Jonah from his Dad

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Dear Jonah,

So we’re running this campaign for the foundation. We call it “Jonah-Inspired.” The premise here is that when we award grants with the money that people donate, we’re selecting organizations and projects we think you yourself might have chosen, whether to donate money or to volunteer your time.

But where does that come from, this inspiration? Well, frankly, you’re kind of legendary. From the moment you disappeared, the stories about you began to surface. I mean, I knew you were a nice guy and all, but I had no idea how many individual lives you had touched in seemingly unforgettable ways.

Here are just a few of the notes that people left for you when they’d learned you were gone:

“You’ve been my hero since the day I met you.”

Billy“Jonah-Inspired” … a letter to Jonah from his Dad
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Slackline

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Dear Jonah,

I often find myself wondering where your life might have taken you. What career would you have chosen? Would you have found a partner with whom to share the empire? With a life that ended at age nineteen, you were nowhere near resolving these or many other questions. And while that was fine then, it leaves me pretty much at a loss filling in the details of the life that might have lay ahead.

Every now and then, I see something I’m sure would have caught your eye. But sometimes I see something and I’m definitely not sure what you would have thought about it. I think of you anyway.

BillySlackline
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Jill Abusch: Ten Years Later (Part 18 … and our final writing)

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Jonah’s death ten years ago commenced a journey for many of us that has been filled with sadness (of course) but also with love — so much love. With this campaign, “10 Years Later,” you’re invited to spend some time with some of Jonah’s best friends and teachers.

*          *          *

Meet Jill Abusch.

Jill is co-founder, Artistic Director, Camp Director and resident second mommy to many students and alumni of The Play Group Theatre. Along with directing many of PGT’s stage productions, Jill teaches a variety of classes from Little Theatre to Advanced Acting Technique, and has gone into schools and camps to train teachers on the use of drama in the classroom.  She studied acting and directing at the Stella Adler Conservatory and the Classical Studio at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where she earned a BFA in Drama. She adores working alongside her husband and partner, Steven, and is especially proud of their best productions, by far, Aviva and Ilana.

BillyJill Abusch: Ten Years Later (Part 18 … and our final writing)
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