One of this year’s San Diego Jewish Teen Initiative’s 18 Under 18 recipients, NetanelSchwartz had a different story to tell than his peers – Netanel had lost his father to COVID-19. In getting to know Netanel from the Jewish educators that nominated him for the award, NCSY’s Shmuel Prizant and SCY High’s Adam Simon, and then from connecting with Netanel myself, I knew that the beautiful words he shared with me needed to be seen by the greater San Diego Jewish Community. It has been an honor getting to know Netaneland it excites me to know that his story will be shared with a wider audience.
Allie Donahoo, Executive Director, SDJTI
If I Cannot Climb By Netanel Schwartz
Over the past two months, I have re-learned the meaning of many words.
Advocate, when I urged medical staff to let my brothers come to say goodbye to my Dad; one-sided, when all those goodbyes were cut in half and bounced off glass windows; wail, when we heard the final news; insomnia, in the nights following; platitude, in the days when well-meaning voices surround me with poorly fashioned sentences; isolation, when people ask me how I am doing or request that I be the same person I once was; and comfort, when little lights in the form of people, books, ornaments, choose to come forward and shine.
None of these words that I have learned for the second time are better or worse than the others. They are all simply pieces of this new world I live in.
My Dad, Daniel Schwartz, died when I was 17 years old, on February 19, 2021. He died from COVID-19, the same terrible disease that has torn down the world since its arrival in late 2019 and early 2020. For almost a year, I experienced the pandemic as most people did: I hated that gatherings were limited, that so many places were closed, and most of all, that I had to do online school. Of course, I adapted and did my best to live anyway, but that didn’t make it any less frustrating.
I was viewing COVID-19 through the lens of a high school teenager. My suffering was as simple as “I miss X activity that I can no longer do,” or “I wonder if Y dream/ambition/thing-I-look-forward to will ever be possible again.” I still feel those annoyances sometimes. But by now, the end of this pandemic is (hopefully) within sight.Vaccines are being distributed at unprecedented levels.In fact, I find it devastating that only a month or two after he died, my Dad would have been eligible for the vaccine that could have kept him alive. Everything around me seems to be very slowly rolling back towards normal.What will never return to any sort of normalcy is mine and the rest of my family’s lives now that my Dad is gone. He was 58. He had plans. He wanted to pick up and move to Israel. He would have in a heartbeat if there had been a job for him. He was not an old 58 year- old. He loved making kids smile and helping them tell jokes at the dinner table. He was a passionate community member to the point of stubborn assistance. He was far from a good candidate for retirement. The idea of drinking coffee, reading newspapers, and playing golf for the rest of his life seemed wasteful to him. He was a worker from beginning to end. He was an expert in many areas, including but not limited to: IT, law, real estate, writing, and telling jokes. The essence of almost all of his activities were being there for others when they needed it. His name was entrenched in the hearts and phonebooks of widows and orphans alike.
He tried his best to keep everyone and everything afloat during his first three weeks in the hospital. He sent me instructions from his hospital bed on how to replace my windshield wipers. The last thing he told me with his voice was how proud he was that my college interview had gone well and that he was sorry he couldn’t finish our online chess game that day. During the last three weeks, when he was on a ventilator, we all picked up a piece of what needed to be done and reluctantly called it your own.Forget this past year. Losing him has been far and away from the greatest challenge of my life.
My definition of grief is the agonizingly constant job of being alive when someone you love isn’t anymore.Instead of just asking my Dad to take a quick look, I have to use Google and a penny to check if my tires need to be changed. I have a harder time going to bed and waking up on time than I used to. I cannot bring myself to pay attention in class, let alone do any homework.Even writing this has taken significant willpower; where I’ve drawn it from I do not yet know. I have to make sure family bills are paid on time every month. I have to make sure my family and I are eating and sleeping. I have to make sure I graduate high school. I have to get ready to go to Yale next year. There seems to be so much I have to make sure of that it is hard to feel sure of myself.And those are just the surface-level “symptoms” of grief.There are also memories, reminders, gaps, voids, and more everywhere I look. There are empty chairs and clean plates and silverware at all my Dad’s old seats.His chess table now belongs to me and its heavy use is evidenced by all the scratches on it. My Dad was such a big part of everything I do that most of it feels wrong without him there helping or encouraging me.
Most days you could not convince me to call myself resilient. You certainly could not pay me to say that I have overcome anything at all. Sometimes my grief feels more like sitting at the bottom of Mount Everest, looking up and feeling unable to climb. And yet, the more I think about it, the more I find that resilience is rarely a matter of choice. Nobody wants to be resilient. Nobody wants to have to feel like they are doing what they must.
Resilience is just a name we give to people who are facing difficulties that seem impossible to face. And so while I’m honored to receive this award, I have a hard time calling my actions anything less than necessary.
There were people who needed my Dad and their are people who need me, too. My synagogue needs me. My school needs me. My family needs me. My friends need me. I need myself.
Writing this has caused me to look back and realize that nearly four months have passed since my Dad died. Some days have been harder than others. Some weeks have seen more tears. I find no value in the phrase“move on.” I prefer “carry forward.” It is true that the weight of my father’s sudden and tragic death is heavy. But something in that same weight reminds me that just because I’m sore doesn’t mean I’m done. I cannot answer why for any of this, only how. If so many pieces of me belong to so many people and places, how can I abandon them? If the day is short, the path is winding a long way up the mountain, and I cannot climb, run, or walk, what choice do I have but to put my father’s precious memory on my back and crawl?
Chairs, Tables and Games by Netanel Schwartz
That kitchen chair you were sitting on looked like some cross between Blonde and auburn and somehow worn in its clothAltogether humanMade wet in small patches that drizzle from your eye. Its legs looked brittle. You were brittleRegardless of whether you graced those pillows or not. Those pillows were your father’s they were on the third leg of some Endlessly-legged journey. Nouns (People, Places, Things) only move when someone Runs, Dies, or Loses all their money. We stacked the pillows on the chairs to make their dripping bottoms look more like hills than valleys. Some days it seemed you had to choose whether to put the pillows behind you or below youAnd suffer the consequences. You appeared some distant ghost in all your purple and black and none of your colors ever matched your furniture. I was just a few feet to the right of you, Phantom by association.
That kitchen chair I was sitting on was perpetually attached to some small table whose surface was somehow chipped and covered in rolling wooden chess pieces. Its legs were solid and generational. I looked like some fool sitting next to it, pretending I knew what any of this meant when all I knew was Opening, Middlegame, and Endgame. All I knew was King, Queen, Rook, Bishop, Knight, Pawn, How to move them all, When to say check and checkmate, When to be quiet, When to win. Useless knowledge in some worlds. Its 64 squares were some checkered mix of red and black and looked like some fool sitting next to it, pretending it was a table built only for this game and not for our game of one tissue box for two people crying. Not for our game of who can stack more books on the table before deciding to slide them on the shelf; Not for our game of who can cover their eyes with their palms fastest before we stop seeing. We called these chairs, tables, and games disbelief and still often doubted each other when we said so out loud.
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