Jonathan VanAntwerpen | What will survive of us is love

Might even some of our most burdened memories also be—or perhaps become—a blessing?

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Jonathan VanAntwerpen Storm King Zhang Huan Three Legged Buddha
Zhang Huan | Three Legged Buddha | Storm King Art Center | Photo: Jonathan VanAntwerpen

The first sign of something wrong was a pair of Facebook posts. One from my friend Cid, the other from his wife Hilda. “Please pray for our son,” they each wrote. Miguel was in his freshman year at UC Berkeley, where Cid and I had met nearly two decades earlier, the year Miguel was born. I sent a message. “What’s going on? Is everything alright?” A few moments later, Cid’s response came back. “He passed away, brother.”

While studying for exams, Miguel had gone to the campus health center, complaining of chest pains. He collapsed during his initial examination, was rushed to the hospital, and stopped breathing before he got there. A pulmonary embolism, the doctors said. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Miguel was gone. He was 19.

My initial response was baffled and inarticulate. “What?”

With his parents and his younger sister Gabby, Miguel had come to our small wedding celebration just two years earlier. He was a big guy, 6’3”, a track and field student-athlete at Cal. Like his father, Miguel was kind, thoughtful, and compassionate. At his funeral, Cid would tell us how moved Miguel had been by the Catholic teachings of the Jesuits, calling his son “a person who embodied a spirit of working hard, playing hard, and praying hard,” and honoring Miguel’s pride in his Mexican heritage.

Cid was on his way to Berkeley to identify Miguel’s body. I was in New York, and the distance between the east and west coasts quickly came to feel more immense than usual. I went digging through files on my computer, turning up a few sweet photos from our wedding. Miguel listening intently to a conversation, a slight smile on his face. Miguel and Gabby goofing around in the photobooth.

Still, no words. There are no words.

At yet, there must be. Or, better, I felt right then that I needed them. My friendship with Cid had long revolved around the exchange of ideas and arguments. Shared language was at its root. I closed my laptop, and without much thought found myself looking through a series of letters written to my father in the early 1970s.

Where are you from? De dónde eres? Being asked this question is a bit like being asked—often indirectly, once someone learns what I do—“so, Jonathan, are you religious?” There is no pithy reply.

The two queries are related, it seems to me. Both ask, “who are you?”

We have our easy answers, our personal elevator pitches—resumes and bios, places of origin and professions of faith. And there is some truth in those. But our best and most worthwhile conversations happen on the occasions, all too rare, when we get to say something different. Often that takes a few more words.

I grew up in a small home—we called it a parsonage—next door to a church in northern Connecticut, located at the corner of Avery Street and Beelzebub Road. My adoptive father Bert—the man I have for most of my life called “Dad”—was for several decades a minister in the Christian Reformed Church in North America, a Protestant denomination founded by Dutch immigrants. Our family of four had an Oldsmobile station wagon with faux-wood paneling running along its sides, and many mornings Dad and I would pile newspapers high in its backseat. He would drive, as I ran to deliver the news to our Beelzebub Road neighbors, dropping this paper just inside the storm door, that one in the box.

We had come to Connecticut from Michigan in 1978, and after I graduated high school a decade later, I returned to the midwest. Studying philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids was a homecoming of sorts, back to the place of my birth.

My parents moved to Grand Rapids not long before I was born. Living for a time in a rented house on Worden Street, they had their own home built south of the city, at Kettle Lake, and we moved in just before my first Christmas. Harmon and Marie were from California, having grown up together in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco. By the sixties they were living in an apartment in Berkeley, near the campus of the University of California, where Harmon would earn his PhD (and where I would later go to pursue a doctorate of my own).

In Grand Rapids, his degree complete, Harmon joined the Calvin College faculty, teaching in the English department. Just as he was getting established at the college, and six weeks after my younger brother’s birth, my father had a seizure while working outside our home. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and within little more than a year he was dead.

There were words then. Too many of them pretending to explain the inexplicable, replacing unfathomable loss with maddening affirmation. Or so I came to feel—years later—in a sorrowful rage deferred by decades. Discovering a tape recording of Harmon’s funeral three and a half decades after the fact, I sat late one night with an old cassette player and a pair of headphones, listening to the warbly sounds of that service, trying in vain to recollect what it must have been like to be there, as I surely was, and yet somehow experiencing the fullness of the memory all the same. We lost him. He was taken from us. That’s how it felt, as best I could tell. I feel his absence, still.

Along with that recording, I uncovered a small trove of letters, written to Harmon by his friend and colleague Stanley Wiersma, and sent from abroad during the long and arduous year between his seizure and his death. I put the letters aside, and then somehow surfaced them again, five years ago, as I went looking for words to share with Cid. Reminders of an earlier time, long before social media, they are pieces of correspondence thoughtfully composed, and—I can only imagine—carefully read. In one of the first letters I found, my father’s friend elaborates on a poem by Philip Larkin, lingering on its closing line: “What will survive of us is love.”

Six weeks after Miguel’s death, Cid came east to Connecticut, to deliver a paper at a Yale University symposium, as he had earlier promised to do—an extraordinary act of commitment on the part of a man still deeply undone by his son’s passing. I drove to New Haven to see him, sharing his small hotel room for a harrowing, grief-stricken night, and listening as he practiced his talk. Cid’s book, The Neighborhood Has Its Own Rules: Latinos and African Americans in South Los Angeles, was to be published that summer by NYU Press, and a revised version of the paper he delivered at Yale would later be included in a special issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Even as he prepared to present the results of his research, however, I could hear that he was thinking anew about the meaning of his work and its place in his life, approaching a familiar topic with fresh and unsettled urgency.

A month earlier, I’d flown out to southern California, landing in Los Angeles and driving a rental car past the mountains and north through the valley to the small city of Sanger, just outside Fresno. Meeting up with our friends Lynn and Teresa, who had come down from the Bay Area, I went to see Cid and Hilda at the funeral home late that afternoon. The mass for Miguel, the next morning at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, was followed by a long and slow procession of cars, winding their way through California farmland to a cemetery beyond the edge of town. While I have no clear and distinct memories of my father’s funeral and burial, I will never forget that beautiful and heartrending spring day in Sanger.

Nine months later, my wife gave birth to our first child. Our daughter is now the age I was when my father died. Someday—soon, I hope—she and her younger sister will meet Cid, Hilda, and Gabby, who graduated from high school last month and will start at UC Santa Cruz this fall. For now, with our family trips to California put on hold by the pandemic, Cid and I have continued to communicate from a distance, catching up occasionally by phone, trading texts.

In one of our recent exchanges, I wrote from out in the woods, where I’ve been spending more time these past months. Thinking of Miguel, I called up a Jewish phrase that has lately been making wider rounds: “May his memory be a blessing.” As Sharrona Pearl wrote eloquently earlier this year, the phrase itself is “a kind of blessing. It’s a kind of injunction.”

A complicated injunction, as Cid’s reply about the perils of memory reminded me. We enjoin each other to remember with frequently fraught if well-intentioned formulas, and too commonly imagine the results as inevitably healing. When things turn out otherwise, as they often do, there are those who quickly tell us that we’re just not doing it right—that we need another form of confessional practice, a better set of beliefs, an alternative mode of truth-telling, a different discourse of memory. And maybe we do. Yet when we need them most urgently, we understandably reach for whatever inherited or borrowed words we have at hand. Might even some of our most burdened memories, figured in a survivor’s language of love, also be—or perhaps become—a blessing? May it be so, I want to tell my friend. May it be so.

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