Dear Jonah,

Today is February 14, 2023. You were born exactly thirty-three years ago. Our Valentine’s Day baby.

In my birthday letter to you last year, I wrote that many of your friends and family have, over the years, dreamed about you. The bonus in many of those dreams was if you reached out and gave your dreamer a hug. Your hugs were legend, Jonah. Big, strong, and rib-crushing. They were to be savored and remembered. Remembered because your hugs always made an impression. Even in a dream, Jonah-hugs are unforgettable!

Big man/Little man … G’pa Jake and Jonah (circa 1996)

You must have learned how to hug from your Grandpa Jake, Mom’s dad, with whom you shared a special bond, including the genetic gift of size. Grandpa Jake was strong as an ox, as were you, and his hugs were rib-busters too. In both cases, we really had to prepare ourselves for the boa constrictor-like squeeze that accompanied every hug. In your case, if we were lucky, you’d augment the hug by picking us up and swinging us around as well. I don’t think I ever got one of those, but I did once get an unforgettable pick-me-up!

Age 13 and he still loved hugging his George!

In 1991, you were just a year old, not yet a hugger to anyone except Curious George, your little monkey buddy who accompanied you nearly everywhere. While silently wishing you’d direct some of that affection in our direction, Mom and I adored watching as you would smother that little critter with unbounded love. Sometimes though, you would be overtaken by your excitement about something, the source of which we had absolutely no inkling, and you’d run over to me, and bury your head in my shoulder, too cute for words. A sign, to be sure, but we had no idea the storm of tenderness that was brewing inside you, and that the relentless squeezes you unleashed on that little furry guy were paving the way for you developing the very trait that would one day become your calling card.

I’ve mentioned these hugs in many of my letters, Jonah. But I’ve gathered a few of them here, just in case you were somehow oblivious to the impact (physical and emotional) they had on all of us.

Even in front of the Ark, in front of the congregation, at Jonah’s Confirmation in 2000, everything stopped for a hug from this boy.

When you were in the tenth grade and a member of “Rabbi Dad’s” Confirmation class, I remember you finishing the reading of your Confirmation statement, walking over to me at the open Ark, my placing a Torah in your arms, whispering some words to you, and then placing my hands on your head to give you a blessing. As I finished, I reached out to kiss your forehead and you reached right back. With your left arm (the right, still holding the Torah) you hugged me. It was a moment and a feeling that I will never forget.

Which, every now and then, was what it meant to be Jonah Dreskin’s dad.

On Hanukkah, after lighting candles, we would open gifts. When you were younger, you weren’t very good at hiding your feelings of disappointment upon receiving something you didn’t much care for. But as you grew older, your charm and your grace and your deepening understanding of the important things in life, these all kicked in. I cherished watching you give a thank you (almost always accompanied by a hug) for something I knew hadn’t been anywhere near the top of your list. I so admired that in you. Especially knowing how far you’d journeyed to get there.

And then there were the dreams. I haven’t had too many of them, JoJo, which makes them all the more special.

2006. When his arms opened wide, you didn’t miss the opportunity!

In 2009, about eight months after your death, I had my first dream about you. You had gone away to college and we went to visit you. At the end of that visit, when it was clearly time for a goodbye hug, you and I hesitated, as if maybe it wasn’t that time. Which was surprising, of course, since hugs had always been your go-to, your specialty. But then you reached out to me and gave me that precious hug. After a moment, you broke from the embrace and I thought our goodbye was over. But then you reached for me one more time … and you kissed me. You kissed me! Never in my life (or yours) had your lips ever touched my person! And not only that, you kissed me a whole bunch of times, all over my face! Six or seven smackaroos, from cheek to forehead to other cheek. And I’m still left wondering: Was that a dream, or did you make your way back to let me know you loved me?

If so, message received. Thank you, boy.

In 2010, about a year after you died, I was sleeping at Kibbutz Merom Golan in Israel and I dreamt that you had returned to us. I’m in some sort of movie theater and I notice you towards the front. You’re on your feet speaking quietly with others around you. It feels so good to have you back. I go to you and, of course, there are hugs. But this time they’re different – sweet, tender, and quiet. You seem humbled to be there. To be anywhere. You are neither boisterous nor your usual large and smiling self. But you do seem comfortable. I think you told me it was frightening, but I’m not sure that was the word you used. I do remember that you were taking nothing for granted.

This nighttime moment has been precious, but I sense that the roosters on the kibbutz are crowing and I am waking up. I resist, knowing the moment will fade. As I drift toward consciousness, I’m pleased that the scene lingers for just a bit. But as I expected, it softens and begins to fade. I am awake. The warmth, however, remains.

17th birthday hug from Mom. Notice the lock-technique in his hands. She wasn’t going anywhere!

We all craved your hugs, Jonah – family and friends alike. They were so strong, but they always conveyed your relentless and generous offerings of gentleness, kindness, friendship, protection, intimacy, humor, bravado and love. And who wouldn’t want some of those? Even after you’d physically gone, the effects of your presence among us still reverberates.

Someone once suggested to me that if I spent less time thinking about you during the day (guilty as charged), I might meet you more often during the night. But much as those nighttime romps might appeal to me, I’m not sure I either want or should remove you from my day. You are such a vital part of my daily life. Your photographs are all over our home, capturing not only that big, beautiful spirit of yours but also time that you spent sharing that spirit with each of us. There are mementos of your life — gifts you once gave me, toys and books and music that were yours — scattered throughout. I love them all. Because while I don’t want you, or your absence, to rule my life, I never want to push you aside either. You are one of my three children. And you always will be. That makes me cry, because you are gone. And it makes me smile, because you were here. I won’t ever let you disappear.

Dr. Sunita Puri, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Southern California, urges us “to examine, rather than bury, the loss and grief around us” (“We Must Learn to Look at Grief, Even When We Want to Run Away,” New York Times, Feb 23, 2022). In a sense, Jonah, your death defines my life. I am so grateful that you (and Katie and Aiden) have been part of it. And your early departure is constantly teaching me to appreciate what I have, right here and now, to do my very best to not waste it. If I spend part of my days with you, it’s because I miss you, and because you have become one of my life-guides. I think I’m doing life better because of your continued presence in it.

For me, Jonah, you were a giant. Yes, because of the person you had become and were becoming. But also because you were a Dreskin. You and your siblings loom larger than anything else in my life. The three of you are the gleaming jewels of my existence, and of whom I never tire watching. So while dreams are exciting, perhaps because they bring some sort of new experience to the table post-March 5, 2009, the truth is that you’re gone. Thinking about you, about the nineteen years that you were with us, helps me to face the reality that you are no longer here. And that, dreams aside, you’re not coming back.

Never too young to learn. Note the lock method in Aiden’s burgeoning technique!

Your hugs were so physical, so tactile, that they remain, for many of us, a powerful memory of the time we were lucky enough to share with you. And yes, those hugs have become a most welcome encounter gleefully and gratefully met during the twilight hours of a delicious, obliging dream. But like any memory, they capture only a fraction of the real thing.

Today would have been your 33rd birthday, Jonah. I miss you. I miss you today and everyday.

As sad as I am that you are gone, I am happy that you were once with us. You made us a five-some. A family. A fantastic gathering of love and delight. We laughed, we played, we sang, we annoyed, we took care of each other. Thirty-three years after your arrival, and nearly fourteen since you’ve been gone, I don’t live my life for you but I don’t live it without you either. Like those titanic hugs of yours, you are not and will not be forgotten.

It’s not what we wanted, but it’s what we’ve got. So day or night, your memory and your spirit will be cherished and honored. You were a blessing to us all. You always will be.

Happy birthday, my sweet Maccabee.

Love you forever,

read more

That Reminds Me

No comments

Dear Jonah,

You and I shared a fondness for entertaining movies and TV shows, as I now do with Aiden. When you were eleven, we rooted for Chris Rock and Bill Murray in Osmosis Jones. When you were twelve, we thrilled to Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black II. When you were thirteen, we tried not to pee in our pants watching Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles. And of course, in your teens, we watched the entire Monty Python’s Flying Circus DVD collection, from which you quoted liberally throughout your life.

A few weeks ago, I decided to re-watch all six movies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Hey, I’m retired. I can do that sort of thing now.

It wasn’t until I was nearly finished with all of them when it dawned on me that these films are just about twenty years old and that you were eleven when The Fellowship of the Ring was first released.

I watched these films with you by my side.

I don’t really get that emotional anymore about your being gone. You’ve been pretty well integrated into my life, and your story is, more and more, just a story. Okay, not just a story – a pretty spectacular story. What I mean is, your dying no longer pushes me over a cliff. I only very rarely find myself lost and crying in a puddle of tears and regret.

But every now and then, I do. The wave returns. (People often describe grief as coming in waves, there one moment and gone the next, and you never quite know when the next one will sweep you away.)

Watching this movie, which was just a movie … until I remembered seeing it with you. And suddenly, I’m sobbing all over again.

Don’t get me wrong, kid. I love the sobbing. I love the renewed sense of loss, of horror that you’re no longer where you should be, the pain that stings whenever my remembering that one of my children is dead really sweeps over and through me.

“Love” is probably the wrong term, but these feelings, especially when they’re so strong, remind me how much I miss you, how much I still wish you were here, and that you’re not just a story. You’re my son, and God damn it I want you back. I don’t ever want to lose that feeling. But thirteen years later, I’ve adjusted and, for the most part, I’ve successfully integrated you into my everyday living. I’m comfortable with that. But I also welcome those times when the discomfort returns.

So my life now consists of: I’m fine. And then I’m not fine. And then I am. And so on, and so on. And that, I think, is how it’s always going to be.

Back to these movies.

In The Lord of the Rings, Theoden is the King of Rohan. He spends a good while under the catatonic spell of the evil Saruman, until good wizard Gandalf breaks the spell and Theoden is able to rule his kingdom once more. Upon regaining his health and his power, Theoden asks for his son Theodred, only to learn he has just died in battle. Theodred’s body is returned to his father and a funeral is held.

That was the moment when I realized that you and I had seen this film together. This fictional story of a father’s loss reminded me how the very real story of your death is no fiction. It was all too real. And it will always be very real. Sure, I place the story on a shelf all the time. Because I have to be able to live my life. But the story comes down off that shelf all by itself just as many times as I reach for it.

As always, I speak for myself and cannot vouch for anyone else’s journey. But this seems to be the trajectory of my life. I carry on – I live life fully and happily – but I never move on. I have never left you behind nor, it seems, will I ever. Even if I could, I would never choose to do so.

I love my life, Jonah. I love your mom, and I love your sister and your brother. I also love the dog that you never got to know. I love the things I do with my life. I love the opportunities I have to be creative, to be with others, to be by myself, and to help out a bit along the way.

And I love you.

Always always, you are never far away. I carry you close to my heart and – I have a strong feeling about this – I don’t think I’ll ever let you go.

I so wish you’d gotten to live your life, Jonah. I won’t be doing so for you, but I will make sure you’re not forgotten. Whether it was a dumb movie we shared or a trip to help traumatized families in hurricane-ravaged Mississippi, your story now lives in me.

As long as I’m around, Jonah, others will know that your nineteen years meant something. That you loved and were loved. That you dreamed big, you laughed big, you hugged big, and you heaped kindness big. While in time, for others, those memories may fade. And even for me, that might also happen. But it will be in those unexpected moments, when bits and pieces of you return, if only for a moment – your stories will be told once again.

Love you forever,

BillyThat Reminds Me
read more

I Cried Today


Dear Jonah,

I cried today. Five times, actually. It had nothing to do with you.

And everything to do with you.

Charlie and I left the house about 6:30 am. We’d barely stepped off the driveway before we saw the little creature. I think we both thought he was dead which, of course, brought Charlie in for a closer look. But the moment he sniffed it, the chipmunk’s head popped up. It was alive.

Neither of us could have been more surprised.

But then he lowered his head back down as if to tell us he preferred to sleep. We were in the middle of the street, ‘though, and that was no place to go back to bed. The little guy must have been hurt.

I cried.

This first cry, I think, was out of sympathy and also despair. What do I know about wildlife? I was in no way equipped to rescue a wild animal, even one as small as a chipmunk. But I could tell he was in distress and it distressed me to just leave him there.

For a while, Charlie and I walked around, but we never ventured so far as to let the chipmunk out of our sight. Eventually, we came back to him and I fretted over what to do next.

Ellen soon joined our completely untrained and inexperienced team, and we very gingerly wrapped a towel around the little guy and gently placed him in a milk crate. We moved him off the street and onto our front porch, breathing a little easier because he was out of harm’s way but still having no idea what to do for him.

I got onto the computer and began searching for how to rescue a chipmunk. Local vets aren’t equipped to do this kind of work, so I was pleased to discover a network of volunteer “wildlife rehabilitators” who will care for a rescued animal and release it back into the wild. It was still early though, and a long hour before someone got back to me. Unfortunately she’d moved out of state and couldn’t take the animal. But she also reassured us that she would coach us through.

I cried again. Her name was Camille, and I was deeply touched by someone’s willingness to step up (even across the country) and offer skilled assistance to a couple of pretty helpless know-nothings. Camille represented the possibility that we might be able to save this guy and I was awe-struck to find myself in the middle of what was now feeling like a very holy moment.

Throughout the morning, Camille and I exchanged texts about how to keep the chipmunk comfortable, what to feed it, and who else nearby might help. Then an amazing thing happened. She mentioned there was an emergency veterinary clinic that accepts wildlife rescues. And when she gave me the address, my jaw dropped. It was no more than ten minutes away!

Yep, more tears. My third cry before lunch. The universe was aligning in a very wonderful way. I phoned the clinic and they invited me to bring the chipmunk right over.

When we arrived, there was an additional layer of meaning and emotion that surfaced. The veterinary clinic had recently moved into a larger space, one that had been our local Blockbuster video rental store when the kids were little. Standing in the waiting area as the chipmunk was examined, I thought to myself, “How many times, Jonah, had you and I rented videos and videogames here? How many times had I chased you and your brother up and down these aisles?”

There was a powerful commingling of memory, of life, and of loss. I felt privileged to be standing in the middle of all of it.

I cried again. Because I still miss you. And because something metaphysical was taking place as I pondered the profound intersection of your life with this little animal’s.

Contrary to what you’re thinking, I’m not a crier. Before you died, I was far more likely to nod my head in recognition of a moving moment, but tears had always been few and far between for me.

On the day that you died, however, my thoughts and feelings about life and death changed forever. I think I treasure life more than ever because you’ve taught me that you never know when it’ll be over. So much of what I experience now, in the years since you’ve been gone, is colored by the continuing shades of grief that still wash over me. Whether I witness a life saved or a life lost, my emotional response is a powerful one which, I think, is why I cried five times today for that little chipmunk.

The vet’s examination complete, someone came out to tell me that the chipmunk had likely experienced a major trauma to the head and the neurological damage was too severe. It wasn’t going to survive. They would make it comfortable and then help it to quietly cross over. I thanked them for doing what they could and I headed home.

As I left the Blockbuster-now-veterinary-emergency-clinic, I cried one more time. I was pretty certain I had done what I could. But I felt so sorry that the little guy had died. I hadn’t left him to die in the road, but I was still busted up. I’d really wanted him to live — for him AND for me.

Because these days, death and I don’t get along so well.

I’m sixty-five, JoJo. Death is something that has become more and more real because I’m closer to it than ever. Not that I plan on leaving for a good long while, but I do think about it. I think about you. About your life that had been far too brief. About your death that had come far too soon. And about the reverberations from that night in 2009 that even now, thirteen years later, shake me to the core.

Saving a chipmunk would have been a good thing.

Trying to save a chipmunk is a reasonably close second though. I wasn’t able to even try to save you.

I feel good for having made the effort with this small creature, for not ignoring the little guy huddled in the street, for choosing life when I could just as easily have sat down to breakfast (okay, there’s no f***ing way I could have just sat down to breakfast).

It’s not that I would have done nothing before 2009. But the things you make me feel these days, the admittedly exaggerated responses to the world around me, these are what made it fairly impossible to ignore that tiny injured creature in front of my home.

Author Suzy Kassem writes, “Learn from animals for they are there to teach you the way of life … constantly teaching us things about ourselves and the way of the universe.”

Today, a chipmunk opened my eyes and my heart. I will only add, JoJo, that you do that too. I continue to learn from you and suspect I will keep on learning from you until I’ve cried for the very last time. I miss you but am grateful to still be your student.

I’m exhausted.

Love you forever,

P.S. Injured wildlife find its way to you? Reach out to or There are volunteers everywhere who want to help.

BillyI Cried Today
read more

On Your 13th Yahrzeit … War

1 comment

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,

BillyOn Your 13th Yahrzeit … War
read more

I’ll Be Right Here


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,

BillyI’ll Be Right Here
read more

A Song Inspired By You

No comments

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,

BillyA Song Inspired By You
read more

New Year’s Resolutions

No comments

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,

BillyNew Year’s Resolutions
read more

9/11 Twenty Years of Remembering

1 comment

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
read more

Bring Him Back, and Then I’ll Let Him Go


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
read more



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.

read more