Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of my friend, Michael Levin. Looking through my archives, it seems the last time I wrote about him was one year after his passing. This morning I revisited that post as well as my notebooks from 2006. So many details I’d forgotten came rushing back, so many memories have been restored. I wanted to share some thoughts on Mike and the last decade.
Ten years ago I was relaxing at a coffee shop in Milford, Pennsylvania when I saw the message on my phone. I was teaching film at a Jewish summer camp up the road and went into town to relax a bit.
I missed two calls from my dad. He left a message that gave up nothing, but I knew it would be bad news. I called him back when I heard the message.
“Hi, Jonathan. Look…are you sitting down?”
“No, just talk.” I was pacing in the coffee shop parking lot.
“Mike Levin was killed in Lebanon today.”
“I knew it.”
“How? Did someone already tell you?”
No one told me. I just knew. What other bad news could there have been?
That summer, the Second Lebanon War had been raging. A large portion of the staff at the camp I worked at was Israeli, spending the summer abroad teaching others about their home, its language and traditions. When war broke out, everyone was looking for information, waiting to hear the status of friends and relatives back home. Some didn’t know if they would be called up, cutting the summer short to go defend their country. You got the sense all of them wanted to. It was too much to be away from home during a war.
So the war was on my mind every day. As was Mike, who cut his leave short to go back and be with his unit. When my dad called it was the only conclusion I could draw.
After his funeral in Israel, there was a memorial service in our hometown. Friends had come from all over the country, and from Israel too, to mourn. Local strangers came out to pay their respects.
I sat with friends from the high school program in Israel I went on with Mike. Speaker after speaker shared fond memories of him. We cried. We laughed. We embraced. We remembered.
It’s strange, watching your friend become a hero. He was already a hero to a lot of us, but now the world got to know his story. Mike’s death was front-page news. A narrative sprung up around him. He was a hometown hero, a Philly boy who made the ultimate sacrifice for his people. His is a story of selflessness and courage and bravery. It has had meaning for so many people. They learn about him and visit his grave; they follow in his footsteps and move to Israel and serve in the army.
That night, at the memorial service, Mike’s memory was only beginning to do its work in the world. And when you hear so many people praise his life and his sacrifice, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment.
I ran into our Hebrew school teacher after the service. We shook hands or hugged, I don’t remember. He told me Mike was an incredible person and he’s sorry he’s gone.
I said something to the effect of “At least Mike led an incredible life. He did everything he wanted to do. How many of us can say that?” My teacher looked at me in a way I didn’t understand at the time. He had a sadness in his eyes, not just for Mike, but for me.
What I’ve come to realize is that he was looking at me with the weight of experience, with a knowing that comes with age. I, at all of twenty-one, didn’t get it yet. Mike may have fulfilled the dreams he had, but he missed out on all the dreams yet to come.
Now I understand. Mike has missed so much, a thousand little victories, probably more. Births. Celebrations. Friendships. There is so much that makes up a life, and so much more that becomes important as you grow older.
It’s been ten years since Mike passed and I miss him all the time. I wish the world could have his smile back, his unrelenting positivity. But more than anything I wish Mike could have seen the last decade for himself. I wish he could know the beauty of growing older, meeting new people and building a life. You know, the boring stuff. The everyday.
Wherever you are, Mike, I miss you.
My heart goes out to the entire Levin family, Harriet and Mark and Elisa and Dara, and all the husbands and kids and cousins and friends and everyone else. I wish I kept in better touch, but know that you’re on my mind. I can’t believe Mike has been gone this long. May his memory continue to be a blessing.