Age: 16, Grade: 11
School Name: Brooklyn Technical High School, Brooklyn, NY
Educator: Stephen Harris
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
Do You Truly Ever Lose Someone?
I remember the night in a very specific sequence. One that has frequently played in my head since I was five years old and probably will for as long as I am able to remember it:
Delores, my crazy, controlling, yet loving babysitter hangs up the phone; she frantically runs around the apartment and throws clothes on me; suddenly, we are hustling down three flights of stairs; carrying the big, bulky breathing machine in one hand and my small arm in the other, night air hits my face as we run up the giant hill to Broadway; her arm raises and she yells, “Taxi!” It’s 11 pm, way past my bedtime, but the New York City streets are packed and I am confused. I’ve never been out this late.
After weaving through traffic, the taxi screeches to a halt and Delores looks at me before rushing out of the car in a blur of machine tubes: “Stay here.” The driver tries to distract me, advising, “don’t look,” but I prop my small body higher on the seat, glimpsing out of the window. He starts talking to me, but I push open the door and run out. I stop thirty feet away from a giant group compiled of my mother, Delores, colleagues, friends, and in the center, my dad in his wheelchair. His close Italian friend screams in her heavy accent, “Breathe, Lewis breathe!” Someone grabs me and turns me away, pushing me back into the taxi.
When someone you love is sick, there is always a cloud of awareness over everything that you do. You don’t often talk about it, but it is always there in the back of your head.
The next morning was the last time I would see my father. The machine Delores and I had brought was not able to save him. His brain was deprived of oxygen for too long. My mom decided to remove him from life support, ending his long struggle with ALS. Despite my age, I was very clear on what had happened and knew that he wasn’t coming back.
Over the following years, my dad only existed in flashes of memories and pictures.
A towering figure at six foot six, he’d take long strides to the kitchen cabinet, easily reach the giant bag of colorful gummy bears my mom had hidden in the highest cabinet, bend down to my level, bringing his long finger to his lips to mouth “shush” and hand me a fist full of sweetness.
Before the sun rose on Sunday mornings we sat in the living room eagerly awaiting the familiar sequence of events.nHis giant arms fully engulfed me. Next, Handy Manny would appear on the television and together we would sing the theme song, careful not to wake my mom. No discussions. We watched in silence, mesmerized. Handy Manny was serious business.
Then at thirteen years old, my mom took me to Staples. But instead of picking up school supplies, she asked me to pick out a box. Though it seemed like a strange request, I chose a medium sized one, muted light pink and brown with an old fashioned appearance, as if from the 1920’s. The words “love” and “memories” curled in script across the top. When we arrived home, my mom went into her closet and came out with a pile full of letters, photographs, and a small diary, momentos of my father beginning from when they got married. I went into my room, alone, and slowly looked through everything. The small diary had an angel on the front encircled in gold. The first page read,“Layla’s diary.” I was confused, isn’t this supposed to be my father’s diary? I began to read the first page, dated the day after I was born. I then realized that my father had recorded my growth and his experiences with me as a baby, knowing that his sickness would keep him from being able to tell me in person when I was older. Looking deeper into the diary, he added my artwork and letters from his friends and family for me. As I spent hours pouring over this tiny diary, I didn’t learn as much about my dad as I did about my young self. The memories were beautiful, but they would only get me so far in understanding who he truly was, and how he left such a powerful legacy. As I matured, I longed to connect with my father, not as the five year old who had lost him, but as the young woman I am today.
In my freshman year of high school, my mom went to a screening of a documentary about Student’s For a Democratic Society (SDS), a student run political organization known for orchestrating massive protests against the Vietnam War. My dad played a large role in these protests. I didn’t know much about this group, so I began to research.
SDS was founded in 1959 and continuously grew as a nation-wide movement. Students organized demonstrations on college campuses across the country, as well as a national march in Washington D.C., to protest the war in Vietnam. 25,000 people marched to the capital calling for an end to the draft. Students held demonstrations and occupied universities and college administration offices across the United States.The leaders had confidence that a white revolutionary movement was needed to support liberation movements internationally. SDS continued to organize peaceful movements, but a branch called The Weatherman developed. They became increasingly violent, leading to their new name, “The Weather Underground”. They were known for bombings and staging protests where professors at schools like Harvard, were gagged and beaten. Once the FBI began to investigate several failed bombings, the group was shut down, ultimately ending in the mid-1970’s.
My dad, Thomas, was a member of SDS and a good friend of one of the main leaders, Andy; they were men with similar backgrounds; both Jewish academics, young and idealistic. My father pulled back from the group once it became violent, but Andy remained, staying politically active most of his life and eventually becoming a journalist.
I knew Andy had told my mother that I could reach out to him when I got older, and it seemed like now was the right time.
I drafted an email to Andy, explaining how I wanted to write an essay about my dad and needed some more information. I didn’t know what he would say, and I was nervous to find out. A part of me thought that he wouldn’t even respond. But, his response was ecstatic. He told me stories about my dad’s past, questioned me about my life, and asked my opinion about current events such as the recent school shootings.
My Dad, as described by Andy:
“After Columbia many of us turned toward violence. Your dad was close, but pulled back, which I honor him for. He was a really smart guy. Your dad was smarter than I and was not involved at all; I on the other hand was a founder of the organization known as the Weathermen, and I knew what was being planned. Your dad stayed totally out of it… I don’t think it was because of lack of courage. He was extremely courageous. I just think he knew it wasn’t going to work.”
According to Andy, my dad continued his work with the peaceful side of SDS, and was able to stave off the urge to turn to violence: “He came forward and assumed a leadership role immediately because of his clarity of mind and his brilliant speaking ability. He had commitment and courage, too, and many people looked up to him. I did.”
Courageous, leader, clarity of mind, brilliant speaking ability, commitment – all qualities that have become my father’s legacy. Learning about him in this way allowed my dad to become much more than the towering man sneaking me gummy bears. While I’m grateful to Andy for exposing me to another aspect of my father’s life, I’ve come to realize that I also knew that same man as the person who fought so courageously against his illness.
My conversations with Andy ended up becoming a way for thinking about my legacy and what I want to accomplish. As it turned out, Andy was coming to New York City to do an interview with a well known CNN reporter and one of the students who survived the Parkland shooting.
It was very sudden, and soon I was getting off the train at Columbus Circle, ready to meet the man who had been one of my father’s best friends. As I waited for him in the hotel lobby, I was picturing what he was going to look like. In my head, I could only see him as a young protester with a full head of brown hair and extremely skinny. Instead an average height man with a grey beard and hair walked out, enveloping me in a hug.
After we broke the ice, we walked across the street to the CNN studio. We were greeted by a smiling woman who gave us special passes, making me feel like a VIP. We took the elevator up and were soon surrounded by photos and articles of every big current events story. They were huge, and the CNN sign shone down on us, as if it was saying, “I am important. Look at me.”
We were escorted into a small room where a young man was standing. There was no smile on his face. He looked extremely intimidating, and sure of himself, as if he could fix any problem. He seemed nothing like a senior in high school.
He appeared exactly like the image of my dad that I had created, unafraid of anything.
Finally, there was a smile, and he looked like a regular teenager. We sat down and discussed how small towns handled the protests compared to New York City, where thousands of kids walked out of school, almost making it dangerous. Some chose not to walk due to being unexcused from class or worried that their parents would get mad. I walked out proudly imagining that my dad would be proud of my actions.
When it was time for the interview to start, we all walked into a small room full of cameras, wires, and people only wearing black. That is, except for the reporter. He was wearing a plaid shirt, crisp jeans, and Adidas Superstars – a shoe that almost every teenager has, and here it was on one of the most dignified reporters. As the interview started, the two activists compared the way they organized a protest. They were surprised to learn that when planning the protests it took SDS about five months during 1969, while it took the Parkland kids only two weeks.
After the interview, we all went to the roof of their hotel to talk more. We talked about everything controversial-
Abortions, the election, guns, the most recent school shootings.
It was such a shock that this young boy, only three years older than me, was doing all of this to help the country. He will be remembered for years, leaving an impactful legacy. I thought about my dad in the same way, a young man willing to do anything to help people.
While I have volunteered during the summer months at a day care center for the elderly who have Alzheimer’s, it is maybe just the beginning of my own journey toward helping others. I feel inspired by Andy and the Parkland activists but especially by my father Thomas.
While our paths might be different, I realize he will always be with me in whatever I choose to do in my life.
This February, my mom and I travelled to Greece, a place my father had visited many times. As I walked through the grass around the Acropolis, I imagined my dad here, walking with me, taking in the peaceful moment of only the sound of cats meowing. He was explaining to me why he loved Greece so much and what he had learned from studying its history. When I arrived back home, I opened the box my mom had given me and found a photo of him, standing in front of the Acropolis almost exactly where I had been standing a week before. With the same bright blue eyes, we were looking over Athens with the bright sky and Acropolis behind us.
At this moment, I understood that I will carry my father with me wherever I go.