My first son was born on July 27, 1957, at Chicago’s Wesley Memorial Hospital. I saw him, but heard no sound from him. He’d suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and he died 54 minutes later.
There was no funeral, no burial. The hospital had the baby cremated, but there was no urn of ashes to take home. There was no baby picture and no goodbye ceremony.
The loss was so painful that practically no one spoke of it, neither our family nor friends. It was treated as something too unbearable for words. We wept in private.
The hospital told me a name was needed for the death certificate. A doctor suggested that I name the baby rather than risk adding to the emotional burden of my wife, Helen, who had just had a difficult birth. I picked an Old Testament name – Joab – which means ‘he is with the Father’.
In time, Helen and I had three children: Anne, Jonathan and Adam. And, in time, we divorced.
Over the years, whenever Joab popped into my mind, I would smile. I see him today as I did then, as a handsome, well-formed baby. Whatever anger there was in me – anger at an unjust world that could cut short the life of such an innocent baby – ultimately gave way to acceptance.
I was aware that it was different for Helen. It was as though she had a huge, raw open wound. There were feelings of a deep emptiness and despair, and that she’d been denied the chance to truly grieve.
Last November, when our family prepared to celebrate Thanksgiving – that annual American ritual that brings together all spouses and ex-spouses – Helen suggested that it might be a good time at last to have a ceremony of remembrance.
At that same time, like the rest of the world, we had recently witnessed the agony of people suffering irreparable loss as all traces of husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters were obliterated in a terrorist attack.
We recognised anew our own need for closure.
Our plans were to observe the holiday in Chicago. I called upon three of my childhood friends – Oscar Walchirk, Abner Brown, and Lawrence Shefsky – to create a proper service.
On Thanksgiving morning, we gathered at the Omni Orrington Hotel in Evanston. My friends came with their wives, and my daughter Anne came toting five inflated blue balloons to carry messages to Joab.
Oscar began the service: ‘We have come together on this special day to remember Joab Gavzer, the infant son of Helen and Bernard Gavzer, who breathed but a brief moment in time. Let us hope that our shared remembrance will help lighten the sorrow that lingers on in the hearts and minds of those who mourn for Joab, for it has been said that grief – when shared with loving family and caring friends – can be assuaged.’
Abner then read Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’. Shefsky read Psalm 121, ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains’.
Helen, who had asked that we write individual notes to Joab, read hers: ‘My son, my baby, I have never forgotten you. And now we remember you in this way – as a symbol of the memory that lives on. Here in Chicago, where you were born, we bring these balloons for a little, little baby who stays with us forever in our hearts.’
Annie, 43, a designer and clothing manufacturer in Seattle, wrote: ‘Dear Joab, I welcome your spirit into my life, and I release you to be free. I ask the same of you – be with me, let me be free. Though I’ve never known you, I miss you. I pray your sacrifice was a gift. Your death made way for my rising – your sun, my horizon. Thank you. Perhaps we will meet again, though we may not understand. All is as it is meant to be. Love, your sister Anne.’
Jonathan, 41, an acupuncturist and healer in San Francisco, wrote: ‘I am putting my intention here with you and our mom to help resolve any energy still left hanging as a result of your early death and the unfortunate circumstances and incomplete attention afterwards. I pray for your completion and that your spirit will be able to soar free and unencumbered. Your full life would have been much embraced, but your death is accepted. If there is anything that still needs attention for resolve, please send a sign and I will, with all my clear intention, be a help as best I can. With all my love, Jonathan Franklin Gavzer, your brother.’
Adam, 40, an actor and real estate broker in San Francisco, wrote: ‘My dear brother Joab, I never had the chance to know you, but I know that you have always been with me. You are there looking out for me, watching over me to make sure I make the right choices in my life. In fact, I truly feel that I owe you my life. If you had not been taken from this earth the day that you were born, it is most likely true that I would not be here at all. You are with me in my heart, in my soul and in my daily existence. I feel you. You are not gone. You live on in our dreams and in my prayers. You are my big brother, my spiritual guide. I love you and miss you, Your loving little bro, Adam.’
I wrote: ‘Joab, my son, You are with us in our minds and hearts.’
Then, in unison, we recited the Mourners Kaddish, a Hebrew prayer of remembrance.
Then, on that sparkling Thanksgiving morning, Helen, Annie and I went to the edge of Lake Michigan with the balloons. Each balloon was tethered to a note for Joab. Annie released them and they flew skyward, vanishing into the blue canopy of heaven.
For us, after 45 years, there is at last the comfort of acknowledgement and mourning, the comfort of an ending. Joab now has the balloons, and he is smiling.