23. Whatever Cannot be Grasped is Eternal
I don’t want to make Jonathan in death more than he was in life. But I want him to be remembered for the man I know he was. At his bar-mitzvah, the Rabbi talked about his special spark, a spark, according to Jewish tradition, that connects all our souls, that can emerge from the dust into a flame of wonder and goodness. Jonathan deserves to be remembered for what he accomplished in his brief life. The terrifying journey he took us through the last year of his life does not negate his accomplishments. He was a man who deserves our honor and respect. Jonathan was up against a hard game. He had to die to beat it.
Whoever degrades another degrades me,
And whatever is done or said, returns to me.
Later, a year later, Jeremy, his only brother, preparing for law school, would write the following—perhaps thinking as he wrote about the bruises on his knees and elbows from the times that Jonathan brought him out onto the concrete parking lot in the back of our apartment complex in New Bedford and pushed him on his new bicycle straight out across that vast wilderness as he yelled “pedal, Jeremy, pedal”; or perhaps thinking as he wrote about the sign on Jonathan’s bedroom door when we lived in the raised ranch house in Dartmouth before the fir trees were planted in the backyard, the sign written in magic marker that read “Keep Out,” because his big brother was studying and had just had a lock put on, so Jeremy wouldn’t again race in and jump all over him, wouldn’t challenge his big brother again to a world-wide wrestling match; or perhaps thinking as he wrote in his loneliness about the digital clocks that twice a day read 8:20 throughout the world, 8-20, the number that serves as an endless reminder of the worst day in Jeremy’s life, the day he lost his big brother and confidante, his best friend forever.
Unfortunately, the most harrowing experience of my life has given me purpose and direction. I wish it had been different. Last year, after a long battle with heroin addiction, my only brother Jonathan died. I am still grieving. I know that my life will never be the same. I have lost my brother and my best friend.
Before his death, I took life for granted. Now although I grow angry and then sad knowing that I must live with this tragedy forever, I believe that life is precious and that I must seize the opportunities before me because I may never get another chance. My brother’s death has taught me the value and possibilities of the smallest details in life. It has taught me to endure hardship and to be aggressive. Thanks to my brother Jonathan, I see the world with new eyes.
Everyday I think of the tragic struggle of my brother, but I also reflect on the good fortunes of my own life. Although I have become increasingly pessimistic about “the war on drugs” and the future of many young adults, I have become increasingly optimistic about the possibilities for finding meaning in the small acts of daily life. New chances and opportunities appear to me where I could never see them before. As a result, I try to make it easy for others to celebrate their own lives. I try to be pleasant to everyone around me and treat everyone with respect because I am convinced that every human being deserves a chance to live a life of dignity and caring.
Ironically, my brother’s death has helped me to grow certain of my decision to go to law school. In a way, a part of me died when Jonathan died, but instead of burying myself, I have been rejuvenated. I take nothing for granted and work relentlessly to achieve all of my goals. Law school was only a possibility for years, but nowadays, with a clearer perspective on life, I can see that law school is of central importance to me. It will make a difference to me and enable me to make a difference for others.
It amazes me that I used to worry about how I would ever find time to make my bed or to watch a football game on TV. At times I was obsessed with the apparent weight of those matters. Nowadays I focus on what I can do to better myself and to help others around me. I realize that there is not enough time in life to worry about every minor matter. I need to contribute and grow. For me, law school is the next important step in my life. My brother’s death leaves me without doubt about that. It is precisely what I want to do. It will help me to help others.
During my first two years in college, I never grappled with the meaning and importance of life. I had little sense of direction and purpose. When, in my junior year, I learned that my brother suffered from heroin addiction, I was reminded of how precious life really is. Working hard and achieving goals became very important in my life. I took on two internships and boosted my grades in my courses at Tufts the final two years. Nowadays I strive to create meaning for my life whether at work or at the gym or with my friends.
My brother was the most wonderful person I have ever known. He died from a horrible disease that we cannot seem to cure. He had recently finished his M.A. in labor studies and dreamed of going to law school, but he never got the chance. He didn’t believe he would die because, I imagine, he thought he was invincible. I watched him engage in a valiant struggle to break his addiction, but it was much too powerful. He wanted to live a normal life and take advantage of the opportunities available to him, but his disease held him back. He deserved the best, but never got it. I see the chances that I have, and I plan to take full advantage of them. The tragedy of death has caused me to see the chances that stand before me in life.
There are deep lessons in sadness and grief. Jeremy knows that. Jonathan’s loss changed all of us. Heroin addiction is a family affair. One hopes it made us better people somehow.
Yes, of course, I wanted to protect Jonathan. But I couldn’t. How could I? The world is a brutal place, and he needed to protect himself. If he had let someone love him, perhaps I could have protected him. A father should do that for a son. He did so much I admired; at times, I think he did it simply because I asked him to. But he was his own man, and that too I admired. He didn’t believe in rules; he thought he could create his own. Perhaps I should have judged him more severely. A father should be a judge, but I wanted him to create his own life, free from the restriction of my rules. He had enough rules to deal with, I thought. He needed structure imposed on him, granted; but for him, the weight of strict rules was as burdensome as a narrow jail cell. Jonathan wanted to travel with the gypsies; he wanted to be free.
On the top of the list he developed at Hazelden offering reasons not to take heroin he wrote: “because I might die.” Did he write it to satisfy his counselors or did he believe it? I wish I knew the answers to such questions.
Jonathan loved life, had a great appetite for it, yet his days had grown empty in this last year. He must have felt useless, needing to fill that long endless space with a heroin high. I should have tried to stay right on top of him, although I know that kind of control would have driven him insane. He needed to focus; we could have gotten clarity on that together. He needed a meaningful job; I could have helped him find one. He needed to be protected against the brutality of death, but there is no safe place in this world.
I wish he could have told me plainly why I was wrong when I suggested the choice in the end was his, whether to stay off drugs or not. Perhaps he didn’t want the responsibility that goes with admitting that choice, but more likely, he knew that heroin craving is larger and more voracious than most of us can imagine.
Heroin addiction is not primarily a psychological habit, but a physiological assault on the body. And it is always the body that betrays us in the end.
I will never know what was in Jonathan’s mind that fatal day when he picked up heroin for the final time. He probably didn’t know precisely what was in his mind either. I can’t grasp Jonathan’s life totally, and neither could he. Maybe that’s the way it should be.
As the French poet Edmond Jabes reminds us: “Whatever cannot be grasped is eternal.”
Jonathan Blake Waxler. He had passion.