Thursday, October 4, 2012

The boy with the laughter in his eyes (redux)

(Written Monday June 30, 2008 on the train home from New York City)

I went to visit Jon yesterday. It had been years since I'd seen him, but that didn't matter. Mention Jon, and my heart smiles. The image that comes to mind is one I only actually saw in a photograph. I vaguely remember the picture being taken. It's more a memory of the "feeling" of the time. The grown-ups are grouped on the old brown sofa in our living room on Walden Road, probably in 1958 or at the latest 1959. (It was the couch that later caught fire and the undamaged half became my first bed when I outgrew my crib. When the fire broke out my big brother ran upstairs and scooped me from my crib, carrying me in his arms to safety. I told Daddy, when he came home, that Bobby had carried me in his arms "like Superman".) Sitting at their feet, if you looked at the black and white print, you'd see a little blond girl, with her sun suit strap slipping off one tanned shoulder and the other arm thrown around a patient looking beagle. She's looking away from the camera, almost as if she knows that the star of that photograph is the small brown haired bundle of energy sitting next to her. He's looking straight at the camera, his face fully lit up by his delight with life, exuberance spilling out of his toddler's body. His smile takes up most of his face. There is laughter in his eyes. He is palpable joy. He is Jonnie. He is my cousin.

I suppose there was a time when I didn't know him, but it was very brief, and hidden deep in the realms of earliest memories. He was born a month before I turned one, and my memories of the time before Jonnie are very, very faint, if at all. I can't say we grew up exactly "together", as we lived several states apart, but in those childhood years, our families visited often and we children grew to count on the security of one another when the grownups went off to do whatever it was grownups did in the 50's and early 60's. I'd visit his family in the Bronx or they'd come to our home. Sometimes, there'd be a little awkwardness as we became reacquainted with each other, and learned the leaps and bounds we'd each taken in life since the last visit. Two smart, focused little kids, checking out each other, testing to see had done what since the last visit.

There were some things I was better at (swimming, playing with large groups of people, smoozing the grownups) and some he was better at (math, being precise in saying what he meant, remembering facts and letting me know I didn't.) But we couldn't outdo the other's love of books. We each loved to read. I remember him being surprised that a girl read boy-oriented books. I like to think it was something that made him like me a little bit more.

There are other childhood memories-- playing on the merry-go-round on the playground behind my home, swimming in a saltwater pool in the Bronx, watching fireflies from the stoop of Mikell Avenue, sharing a joke or a funny turn of phrase (we both seem to have developed a dry humor. Perhaps it's genetic?) putting on a show for our Grandmother-- but I'd rather remember my absolute favorite conversation with Jon. It was when we both were in our early 20's, unmarried, neither with a prospect in site. He came through St Louis on business, and stopped to visit. We went out for a drink, and spend hours talking. I found that the little boy with the laughter in his eyes had grown into a thoughtful and very insightful young man. I liked him a lot. There was an amazing intensity in those blue eyes, but a real vulnerability, too.

Maybe it was our 20 some years of knowing each other. Maybe it was the scotch. But regardless, he let me into a little space of his soul, and I have never forgotten. I don't remember the exact words but the gist of what he said was beautiful.

"I know the world values money and material success. I know that succeeding means making more and more money, and getting ahead in business. But what I want is a woman I can open my heart to and build a life with. A woman I can love completely. To me, that would be success."

Jon found that woman, and built a life (and rebuilt several houses in Brooklyn in the process.) They started a family. Their oldest son has my father's name as his middle name, and that always touched me more than I ever thought possible. Every time I heard about Jon, he only grew in my esteem. The boy with the laughter in his eyes had grown up well. And I looked forward to getting to know him again as adults. It was something I planned to do.

I went to visit Jon yesterday. I went with family and friends, who gathered together to remember him. Jon died suddenly a few days ago, leaving a stunned and shell-shocked group those of us who loved him. At the memorial, the words spoken by those who had been close to him these years when I was not gave me both enormous joy and great sadness. I missed my chance. I thought I had time. The boy with the laughter in his eyes had indeed grown into a remarkable, remarkable man. I am honored to be in his family, and grieve more that I could imagine at his passing. I grieve for his wife and sons, and for his parents, and for his brother, sister-in-law and nieces. I grieve for the missed opportunity.

At his memorial, Jon's best friend Joe spoke some real words of wisdom. I'll paraphrase him and add a bit, too, for it helps me to put some sense of something into the senselessness of loss. If you love someone, tell them, don’t wait till tomorrow, tell them now. If you miss someone, tell them, don’t wait, you may not have it tomorrow. If you’ve been thinking about someone whether it’s a friend, family, an old lover, the kid you grew up with, whatever, if you’ve been thinking about them, get in touch with them. If you haven’t had a physical, get one. If you haven’t updated your will, do so. Take the time now, take it now. For those who love you and those you love.

Goodbye, Jon. I miss you. I always thought we'd have time, that you'd be there. I'm glad you had such a love-filled and full life. I'm glad you have such wonderful sons and such fabulous friends. I'm glad you found the woman of your heart. I just wish there was a tomorrow, so I could tell you I love you.

From the New York Times
Jon Nadel
NADEL--Jon. Born August 13, 1957. Passed away suddenly on June 25th, 2008. Loving husband to Kim, beloved father of Jamie and Skye, son of Monroe and Evelyn. Director of Membership and Connectivity with the International Securities Exchange. We, as well as all who knew him, will miss his intelligence, his keen sense of humour and fine wit. Services will be held at Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, Amsterdam Avenue corner 91st Street, New York, 2pm, Sunday June 29, 2008.
Published in the New York Times from 6/28/2008 - 6/29/2008.


  1. Very sorry to hear of this. I've been caught flat-footed several times already by how it's much later than we think. Eventually I'll learn.

  2. Thanks -- he was sort of the last standard bearer for that generation of blood relatives. Another chapter closed...