It’s been 21 years since I lost my brother, Aaron Jacobs, in the World Trade Center attacks, at age 27. So long ago that you have to be an older person to even know what happened, or why it seemed so important at the time. As a writer I have traced the experience of mourning Aaron all these years in images–tattoos, birds, watches, even a wacky 9-11 Christmas ornament. Check out the ornament-like thing I just discovered that Aaron must have made in middle school, with our two faces peering out from inside a beaded egg mobile.
But ultimately all these words and images and acts of memory are for me…as Adrienne Rich said, “A yahrzeit candle belongs/to life. The sugar skulls/eaten on graves for the Day of the Dead/belong to life. To the living. The Kaddish is to the living,/the Day of the Dead, for the living.” I have a box of Aaron’s stuff in my room, and have dug in there over the years to share his clothes with my kids. This sampler helps me bring Aaron the person back to mind.
- Spanish flag: Aaron spent the fall of his junior year at Colgate in Madrid living with a host family, and I visited him there and got to witness some of their habits that live on in our family lore, like the time Aaron was in the shower and saw the host mom’s hand reach into his room to turn out the light.
- Boston Marathon space blanket, from Aaron’s “bandit” run in 1998
- Boston AIDS Walk shirt from 1992: Aaron and I did this walk together, at a time when AIDS was afflicting tens of thousands of people, and the country was so blinkered that they had to call the walk “From All Walks of Life” and not mention AIDS. Seeing this I like to think Aaron would be an awesome uncle to our three kids, all queer, who marched in Pride together this year. And for sure he would be their supportive neurodivergent uncle, who rode his boy-version ADHD energy to success on the stock trading desk, and apparently wore lightly the scars of being called spaz from ages 5-12.
- Aaron was in the Delta Upsilon fraternity at Colgate. “You can’t spell ‘duh’ without DU,” but Aaron broke the mold and graduated with honors in Spanish and Philosophy to spite the chapter’s proud history. His thesis was on Don Quijote, and I have that and his Cliffs Notes…who can blame him!
- Aaron’s Champ Bailey jersey from the Washington NFL team, which I know he would be grateful is now called the Commanders.
Pretty much all of these items have Aaron’s sweat stains on them, which remind me of how he used to be embarrassed about sweating a lot when working out. I guess he got past that, and I’m so happy he enjoyed the fruits of his body as a young person. But the older I get and the further away from our common experiences in our 20s, the more sad I am that Aaron did not have the chance people get as they age to look back at themselves and reckon with everything–remembered bliss and shame alike–and fold it into their evolving sense of self, and share that with others. Who knows what he could have unpacked from his childhood on the leading edge of the Ritalin generation?
As my own children get older I’m having the experience of seeing Aaron’s life reflected in theirs. My oldest goes by AJ, in part to recall Aaron, and I’m excited for her to follow in his path of spending time in a Spanish-speaking place. We visited Portugal and Spain this summer and stopped at a Neolithic stone circle site called the Cromlech of the Almendres. Touching these ancient, hot stones (as AJ’s doing in the photo) reminded me of laying hands on the Western Wall, and I thought there must be some connection between these acts of physical grounding and our efforts to evoke the dead or the divine. I try to keep the channel open for these moments of connection and communion.
Thanks for reading and for keeping the memory of Aaron Jacobs alive.
At the Cromlech of the Almendres, Portugal
All around the ring of stones
the cork trees go about their work,
bearing ants and spray-painted numbers
on their just-peeled lower trunks,
but even pantless in this heat
they have an up-before-dawn dignity.
The stones were propped back up
after centuries scattered in the dirt.
Apart from spiral lines and cut-out holes,
no one would know they stood on purpose,
but when I lay hands on the big one
I feel the same heat as the Western Wall.
This is another scavenged temple
whose circuit panel hums and ticks,
the generator running even with everything
stripped down to drywall
and the stones rehabbed into alignment,
the way I stand and sit at prayer
who once formed a circuit among
my brother, mother, father, God.