Part FOUR: 14 Years and the Blink of an Eye


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

Dear Jonah,

Numbers can be useful. They’re able to confirm a point, even if they’re far less interesting than the point itself. I’ve got some numbers to share with you. In a minute.

You were only 19 years old when you died. Your life had really only just begun. You’d left home six months earlier to embark upon the next chapters in your life: college and whatever lay beyond. I remember your telling us that we could do whatever we wanted with the stuff you left at home: nearly everything from what we’d just begun describing as “your childhood.”

Who would have dared imagine that the stuff you had discarded would become sacred keepsakes for us of the life you had once lived … and that, except for the little bit you had taken or accumulated while at college, this – plus our memories and our love, of course – was all we’d have left of you. Forever. From March 5, 2009 and onward, there would be nothing new generated from your life. Unbelievably (as it would be for any parent), for you there would be no more life.

In the early 2000s, society’s ability to document itself would be forever changed and amplified by the arrival of the iPhone. Every moment, worth recording or not, would be photographed and video’d ad nauseum, so much so that an entirely new market would open up purporting to save and organize people’s digital media so they wouldn’t have to bother doing so themselves.

In 2008, you hadn’t yet obtained an iPhone. You were still using an “old” model along with a small digital camera that you happened to have used for picture-taking as much as people today use their smartphones.

Okay, here come the numbers.

After you died, I began curating your life. If all I had left were the digital files that had documented much of your existence, I was going to do everything I could to preserve them. By the way, the blessing that came out of this manic effort was that I also organized our entire family’s digital life into a filing system that rivals the Library of Congress. You’re all welcome.

From the very beginning of your story (February 1990)

Okay, ready? Over these past fourteen years I have gathered, labeled and filed 18,341 photos and 2,010 videos that were taken by either you, a friend of yours, or a member of our family. These do not include the many images from our general family collection in which you also appear.

I’ve also filed 22,531 documents (school papers, stuff from theatre, youth group and camp, as well as birthday cards, Facebook posts and so much more). Yep, I went a little crazy in those first months after you died. I was determined to lose nothing else that had been generated by your existence.

Of all the stuff I accumulated, however, I think my favorite is the single piece of notebook paper that I kept in my back pocket during those first weeks after you were gone. Each time I, or someone else, remembered something about your life – something you did, something you enjoyed, or something you said – I wrote it down. In not much time at all, I ran out of space on that piece of paper and started, yep, a digital file preserving every memory anyone shared about you.

It turns out, that was a very good idea. Fourteen years later, those memories have begun to fade. Some I remember generally but the details have grown hazy. Others I don’t remember at all. But all I have to do is open that file and there you are again.

That single text document is now 168 pages long, and totals 101,718 words.

That’s a lot of memories I get to hold onto and, for anyone who’s been reading my letters to you over the years, it’s a lot of memories I can share with others.

To those very happy days in college (Feb 2009)

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 peculiarity of grieving an adolescent is that there is still so much Orli to absorb. Some of it comes by way of anecdotes offered by friends and acquaintances, some from her written journals. A vast majority of it is from her phone, which is alive with her photos and videos. […] But the stories in Orli’s phone are finite. I have all the Orli photos I will ever have. I can only look backward. [….] I cannot finish the stories she started.”

Here is where Sarah Wildman (whose grief journey has only just begun) and I are on the same page. No matter how much time has passed, the past is fixed. There are only so many photographs, so many videos, so many memories to hold onto. Sure, once in a blue moon someone tells me something I hadn’t known before. Those moments are rather incredible because while I know there’s so much more about your life that I wasn’t privy to, I’m no longer expecting such anecdotes to surface (although, if anyone has a photograph or a video or a story that you would like to share, please be in touch – you hold the power to amaze).

My obsession, Jonah, with organizing your life is no longer anywhere nearly as compulsive as it once was. And yet, it remains crucial for me to know all of that information is safely protected and that my memories of you, while fading a bit in my own aging brain, will be around for a long, long time to come.

I don’t feel the same need as I once did to play your videos or to read your clever Facebook comments. I think it’s important that you’ve quieted down in my life. It lets me carry on a bit more successfully. Satisfyingly. Less haunted by your not being here.

“Carry on,” not “move on.” I will never move on, JoJo. I will never leave you behind. I will carry you with me always. What else can I do? I love you too much to move on.

So I carry you with me. I go where I want to go. Where I need to go. Sometimes I take you out and share you with people. Lots of times I don’t. But you’re always there. Always with me.


You and I, and so many people who loved you, have gone on quite a journey these past fourteen years. A journey that Sarah Wildman has just begun.

Once upon a time, it was such a hard journey for me. Now it’s quiet and reflective but one that hasn’t ended. Nor can I imagine it ever will. I’ve gotten quite used to it and welcome traveling with you in whatever manner I can.

You’re my kid. And as every one of these letters has concluded, I will always …

Love you forever,

BillyPart FOUR: 14 Years and the Blink of an Eye
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Part THREE: 14 Years and the Blink of an Eye


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

Dear Jonah,

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.

Age one at camp, Jonah as a newly-minted staff brat.

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,

[Part Four is here.]

BillyPart THREE: 14 Years and the Blink of an Eye
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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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Part ONE: 14 Years and the Blink of an Eye

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University at Buffalo (Feb 2009)Dear Jonah,

Has it really been fourteen years since you died? I suppose so.

I remember that night like it was yesterday. The images from those first twenty-four hours, the tornado of emotions and events, the sudden and overwhelming sense of loss, the sudden and unfathomable sadness that descended on our family – these are indelible.

But there is an insistent thought that also persists: Have I somehow betrayed your memory these fourteen years? Recollections have begun to fade. I no longer carry the many details of your nineteen years that were once so vital to my active crusade to preserve what I could of your life. Even as I read back the hundreds of thousands of words that I’ve written across this past decade and more, I wonder if I could have gotten some of that wrong.

The creeping realization is that yes, I could have. Because at this point in time I can no longer swear by what I’ve written down; only God knows the irrefutable facts of your story and, much as I may have tried, there are bits and pieces of your story — both connected to your death and simply part of your life — that I will never know. Perhaps most surprising of all to me is that that’s okay. I’m no longer driven and fastidious about recording your history. Nowadays, I’m more willing to carry the feeling of you rather than your biographical record.

Which is not to say that you’ve faded away from me. I still think of you every day, and while those thoughts have morphed into broader strokes of who you were and how you lived, I continue to miss you. That has not changed.

But life (or in this case, grief) has changed a lot for me in fourteen years. Grief hasn’t gone away but it’s certainly been transformed. It had to. Otherwise, how could I have gone on without you? That acute, unrelenting pain which I felt in those first weeks after your death in early 2009, I’d never have survived if that pain hadn’t let up. Thank God for the resilience of the heart. It would have done no one any good for me to have died along with you and I knew you’d want me to move through the valley of the shadow of death, not take up permanent residence there.

All of this recently came to mind when earlier this month I read a piece in the New York Times written by a mom whose 14-year-old daughter had died after a year-long battle with cancer (“My Daughter’s Future Was Taken From Her, and From Us,” Sarah Wildman, New York Times, May 19, 2023). As I took in this mother’s thoughts, I remember two of my own thoughts that came to mind.

First, her grief is so familiar and visceral. So acute and agonizing, I can feel its relentless demands in every sinew of my body and in the deepest recesses of my soul. I’m so sorry for her loss.

Alongside that, however, my second thought is that I’m now, fourteen years after your death, in such a different place. I’m not over you. I don’t ever want to be. Maybe it’d be more accurate to say that you’re in a different place. No longer front and center, you reside nearby, forever present and close in mind but not so much that you dictate my emotions and actions.

So from this observation point fourteen years down that road that Sarah Wildman and so many others have only just begun, I thought I’d reflect a bit on a few lines from her essay and consider where I was then and where I am now.

Probably my most hard-won lesson: Grief isn’t easy but, amazingly, it’s doable.

Early in the piece, Wildman writes, “My partner, Ian, and I are, in Hebrew, av shakul and em shakula — a bereaved father and mother. […] We are parents who have seen a future stolen.”

When you died, Jonah, you didn’t die alone. Your unborn children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren – every generation that would have come into existence because you had lived – they all vanished. Never to be. As Wildman writes, “A future stolen.”

Fourteen years later, I am still aware of your endless absence. What’s changed is that this awareness drops its soul-numbing bomb with far less frequency.

Every now and then, I still cry that you are gone. And I ache that your future has vanished with you. But I have always lived by the creed of the optimist. Not only have I found other futures to believe in, our family has even found a way to return to you, in a manner of speaking, your own future. You died too young for us to know where life might have taken you, but we did know what animated you in those early chapters of your life.

We created The Jonah Maccabee Foundation to build a future out of what had been the drivers of your present life and which might have become your future. Friends, family and a whole bunch of other folks who just get inspired by how you lived, we all pull our resources together and help out in places that reflect the kinds of things you seemed to have loved: the arts, social justice, and your Jewish heritage. It’s certainly not the same thing. Oh that you could be here to live your own life. But failing that, the Foundation has become a wonderful vehicle for celebrating rather than mourning your life.

My sweet Jonah, fourteen years ago, in the blink of an eye, you were gone. Fourteen years later, you’re still gone … but you continue to make a difference in the world. And that allows this dad to live (even if somewhat uneasily) in a world absent your unforgettable smile and your enduring bear hugs.

Your spirit lives on.

I’ll write more about this soon.

Love you forever,

[Part Two is here.]

BillyPart ONE: 14 Years and the Blink of an Eye
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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,

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That Reminds Me

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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
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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
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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,

BillyOn Your 13th Yahrzeit … War
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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
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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,

BillyA Song Inspired By You
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