Douglas R. Jacobson
We had eight around the kitchen table. That's a lot. There was always plenty of food. There was plenty of love. But never enough time to be heard.
You had to be clever if you wanted to
Doug always told us he wanted his own
He loved to talk.
Douglas called this being voluntarily mute. It was the first display of his brilliance, his stubbornness, his distinction between home and outside. It was the beginning of a life spent swimming upstream.
As he got older, he learned to speak outside of the house, but school was tough for him, and he was tough right back. At its best, he made his way into programs that were not based on judgment and conformity.
He was a clever little brother. We'd see him laughing silently behind Mom's back, when Jim was getting punished. Douglas had carefully set it all up - hitting his own arm until it was red, and then shouting for Mom.
When his Bar Mitzvah came around, he insisted on high fashion. All he wanted was a green velvet suit.
A green velvet suit? And we didn't know he was gay?
Almost every teenager has an epic struggle with his parents. But Douglas was outraged enough to attempt to have his parents arrested, raising an All Points Bulletin throughout the state of Maine.
Soon he was home in New Jersey. He began to fix things. At first just simple things. Like the Volkswagen engine that he assembled in his bedroom one winter. Or the three-cylinder Saab that sputtered about, spewing oil. Or the enormous Mercury that he bought at auction. The gas in the tank was worth more than he paid for the car and you could put a king size mattress in the trunk.
Just before graduation, he walked out of a high school that tormented those kids that were different. He didn't want their diploma. He had a tremendous knowledge- but he was entirely self taught. He took the GED test while working on a farm in Maine.
But Douglas never completed his education. His entire life was one of learning, from books, from experience, and from every human being he ever met.
Very troubled human beings were the kind he met as he entered the work force. He spent many years working in a mental institution. His job title was Orderly. But his mission was to treat the patients with the respect that no institution ever showed him. He would bring home the stories of trapped souls, and it was clear that there were many people to whom nobody but Douglas would listen. In his compassionate voice, these were not crazy people, but human beings trapped by circumstance and neglect and lots of Thorazine.
Here was a very young man with infinite patience for the old. He listened as they talked about their youth and their pets and their simple needs.
Within the family, too. He was a dedicated -and courageous- companion in Grandpa Harry's long decline.
Douglas had a chance to go to college. Just before Dad's offer expired he took advantage of it. It was exactly what he expected: a short vacation from the real world, partying in dormitories with his friends. Actually there weren't enough dorms, so Douglas lodged in a beach motel. If he learned anything academic in that period, it was unintentional. He was a menace to anyone there who wanted an education.
Douglas studied the world around him. He learned to rebuild houses from his father and how to make them beautiful from his mother. The economic boom of the mid 80's created yuppies and the yuppies wanted beautiful city neighborhoods. Douglas discovered Trenton.
Trenton was like the mental patients that Douglas listened to: The city was once prosperous and beautiful, but now it was choking on neglect. The busy yuppies drove past Mill Hill and the Island. But Douglas stopped and saw Trenton's beautiful broken mansions. And he decided to fix the world in Trenton.
He began an adventure of restoration in a neighborhood whose stately homes had been boarded up and busted up into shabby apartments. It was big work.
And he fell in love. Lenny was the perfect mate. Douglas saw beauty. Lenny created beauty. Lenny had style. Douglas had the strength to realize the style. Somehow they approximated the happy example that our Mom and Dad have set for all of us. These were the good years. Plenty of work to do, fixing the world. A lover who could keep up with Doug's quick tongue. They took a row house and turned it into a wonder home.
Then they found a treasure. A tiny brick and stone cottage from before the War - the Revolutionary War. They cultivated their secret garden in the middle of the broken glass and burnout wrecks of Hermitage Avenue. Douglas spent the rest of his life in this magic house, this Little Hermitage.
New lives were coming into the world. Douglas was never happier than when he was an uncle. When all the grownups were talking, Uncle Doug would be listening - to the kids. And he could make any kid laugh.
But times changed. Booms go bad. Yuppies had children and the Trenton school system chased them away. The world lost its interest in Trenton, if it ever had any. Decay returned to the neighborhoods where Douglas had invested everything.
One person cannot repair the world. One person cannot repair a neighborhood. Without money, one person cannot even repair a house. Sometimes he cannot even repair a relationship. Douglas lost Lenny. Lenny lost Douglas.
Our fine brother crashed. He ended up in a program for young people in trouble. There was only one rule: suicide attempts are forbidden.
Douglas broke the rule.
He was in a deep pool of despair, and it took great courage to rebuild himself. But he did. He earned admission into Rutgers University as a student of architecture. For the first time, he was a passionate student, a creative designer, a fierce intellectual. Rikki was an architecture student from Japan who became a tenant in Douglas's home. He was much more than a tenant - but not a lover. The peak of this experience was the period Douglas spent in Italy, drunk on beauty, drunk on learning, intoxicated with artistic ambition. And maybe Chianti.
Back in Trenton, it all ended at a stop light. Douglas was rear-ended while he waited for the light to change. Whiplash damaged his neck forever. Ultimately he had terrible surgeries to fuse his vertebrae. By then he was deeper than ever - swimming up a river of pain.
Again he tried to find an end. Mom and Dad were there for him again. They rescued him with their own hands. Heroically, they battled to help him and miraculously he survived. Very slowly, he regained his courage. He found medicine to quiet some of the physical agony in his head. He stood up and began to defend his claims with insurance companies and the state.
There is a huge catch-22. To prove disability to the state is extremely difficult, and the "Contract with America" made it even more difficult. Only the most supremely competent person can prove that he is not competent. It took research, and intelligence and stubborn patience. It took years. But Douglas succeeded. He won the recognition he sought, as a person too damaged to work.
Don't tell anybody. Douglas continued to work. He worked to repair the world. He didn't need to repair Trenton, or even his home. He found more important work.
His job was Uncle. His job was Friend. His job was Nephew. Brother. Son. His job was Teacher. And he took his work seriously.
He was there for Stephanie - in Texas when she went through her divorce. Uncle Doug made his nieces feel safe and helped fix up the new home.
He was there for Mom at each of her shows, hanging her artwork, inventing and constructing new displays.
He was there for Matt and Liz - in Maine - helping them transform their house with the detailed care he applied to his own. Playing games with Noah.
He was there for Max. He was there for Joe Mooney, and thank you Joe for always being there for him.
He was there for his nephew, anxious that Jascha would understand what meant for his uncle to swim upstream.
He was there for Aunt Jane when she needed him, and he reminded the rest of the family that she needed us too. He built a computer system for her and taught her how to use it. And, by his reminders and his example, he helped us know that we too could be better.
He was there for Carmen after a hard day. He was always ready to help the neighbors on his block.
Everybody feels like they were Doug's secret special friend.
But everybody knows that Doug's real special love was his tiny dog, Moocher.
This great talker was a great listener. And although he spoke so thoughtfully, he almost never spoke about what was central in his life. The whirlpools of despair. The roaring rapids of hurt inside him. He spoke very rarely of this. And when he did - thank God - I did not know what he was talking about. The best I could do was believe him.
And it is hard to understand his end. He approached his fortieth year with an altogether new attitude toward his difficulties. He determined to look forward, not backward. He declared an end to blame. He told us that he had half his life still ahead of him. Maybe he messed up the first half - but there was no way to change that. Only the future can be changed.
In this, he terribly underestimated his past achievements. But this attitude toward the future was new. After decades of storm and gloom --- here was the sun breaking through the clouds.
He made a plan to leave Trenton. He made a plan to leave the United States. Doug identified a little town in Mexico, where he could live well on his disability allowance. He began the process of setting his affairs in order.
He tied up loose ends in his paperwork, and began a campaign of reconciliation. He attended the family Seder for the first time in ten years.
One by one we got calls from Doug. Sometimes we felt like we had made the call - but each of us found ourselves talking out unspoken issues with Douglas over the last few months. The things that would torture us if they were left unsaid got said. Not everything of course. Never everything. But whether he meant to go to Mexico or just meant to go, Douglas gave us each opportunity for resolution.
He died as he lived: with meticulous care for those around him. His last message was a note on his door, addressed to the policemen who would open it. It was concerned only with their safety and their feelings.
Douglas leaves us only a legacy of love and an example of tragic courage. We look back and we see how hard he tried to leave us with a minimum of pain.
But Doug, that minimum is enormous.
From the family. Put in wordsby Dov, delivered by Peter accompanied by Steff