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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,