Jake Vogelman was a kind of unofficial first responder in things as small as fixing a neighbor’s television or as large as accompanying a friend into Hurricane Sandy to check on her cancer-stricken father.
Jake texted his mother, Marcia Sikowitz, to say that he and his friend Jessie had arrived at her father’s house on the other side of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. But he never texted to say he was leaving, and he did not pick up when she called his cellphone.
Jake was 24 and certainly under no obligation to keep his mother informed of his whereabouts, but he had always taken care not to cause her worry. She wondered if perhaps he had just fallen asleep while watching a movie at Jessie’s apartment.
When she awoke Tuesday morning, Sikowitz still had not heard from him. She began calling his cellphone every 15 minutes, again and again and again. She then heard an unfamiliar man’s voice answer.
The man said he was a detective. Sikowitz told him that she was Jake Vogelman’s mother and that she was trying to reach him. The detective asked for her address.
“Just tell me my son is alive,” she said.
The detective again asked for her address. He arrived at her Park Slope home soon afterward. He showed her Jake’s driver’s license and she confirmed that was her son. The detective then informed her that Jake and a young female had been killed by a falling tree during the storm.
In her shock, one clear thought Sikowitz had was that Jake might have suffered before succumbing. The detective reassured her that he had died instantly.
The detective asked Sikowitz if she knew the young, woman and she said that Jake had been with Jessie Streich-Kest, not a girlfriend, rather a best friend since middle school.
“They were always there for each other,” Sikowitz said.
Sikowitz later learned that after visiting Jessie’s father, Jake had performed yet another of his many smaller good deeds, joining Jessie in walking her dog, a pit-bull mix named Max. A dog still needs to get out for a few moments even in the midst of an unprecedented storm.
For days, the news had been filled with the storm’s slow, inexorable approach, and it had finally roared in over the course of hours across an area hundreds of miles wide. And somehow her son and his friend had chanced to be at the wrong place at the exactly wrong instant.
If he had needed to tie his shoe of if they had not been able to find the leash for a moment, or if anything at all had delayed them or sped them up for just a second, he might very well have come home safe.
The detective kept the driver’s license for the time being, but he left Sikowitz with Jake’s cellphone. She tried to open up his contacts with the hope of telling his friends what had happened, but she did not know the password. She knew it would not be anything
Sikowitz did have the number of the medical examiner’s office. The detective had given it to her, saying it was where she would be asked to identify the body. A person who answered the phone there said Sikowitz would have to wait, as the office was in near chaos because of the storm. The person said Sikowitz would be given the choice of viewing the body or just a photo.
She bent over, sobbing. “My son! He’s never coming home!”
“I want to see him,” Sikowitz said. “I want to touch him.”
In the meantime, Sikowitz had to tell her younger sons, the twins. She asked the one who was still in Brooklyn to come over. He arrived and when she told him the terrible news he responded with the word that was reverberating in everybody.
Her other son was in Vermont, and she arranged for somebody to be with him before she told him. The worry then was how to get him into the city if the bridges stayed closed. She decided it was best to wait a day, as long as he had friends with him.
That done and the medical examiner not yet ready, Sikowitz sat in her apartment surrounded by photos and mementos of Jake and the twins dating back to when they were toddlers. She remembered how wise and tempered Jake had seemed when she gazed into his eyes, even when he was the tiniest of tykes.
“He had an old soul,” she said.
Sikowitz had raised the three of them on her own, but it was for somebody else to say how monstrous it was that she had struggled so hard to give Jake everything a child might need only for it to come to this. What she spoke about was how earnestly Jake struggled to make his way into the world, working as many as four jobs at a time, paying his own expenses save one.
“I only paid his E-ZPass,” Sikowitz said.
On the wall by the front window was a framed diploma from the University of Buffalo. Jake had not let his dyslexia keep him from graduating cum laude. He had continued on, working toward a master’s at Brooklyn College.
“I think he was going to get a doctorate,” Sikowitz said.
Family friends and neighbors began to fill the front room, some bringing food, nobody knowing what to say. Each of them remembered aloud kindnesses large and small that Jake had done them and others.
“It is so unfair,” Sikowitz said.
As morning became afternoon, some of the visitors fell to talking about the big storm. A hundred homes had burned in Breezy Point and Lower Manhattan had flooded and the subway was knocked out, but this was one room in the city where anything that could be rebuilt or restored seemed inconsequential.
“I keep expecting him just to walk through the door,” Sikowitz said of the son who never would again.
Jake was a stage and lighting designer, and the computer he used was sitting on a table off to the left. On the wall above it was a poster from a production of The Cherry Orchard, in which he had done spectacular work.
“Of course I saw it,” Sikowitz said. “I went to all of them.”
Among her principles of good parenting is this: “You have to show up.”
In what threatened to be a hush, one of the visitors offered some unbidden news.
“The dog is in surgery,” he said.
He did not have to say that he meant the pit bull, Max. The words seemed to just hang in the air, wafting on bitter irony. Nobody wished the pooch ill, but it seemed almost too cruel that the dog had survived while Jake and Jessie had perished.
In the early afternoon, a friend called the medical examiner’s office for Sikowitz and was told the body was ready. But the person who answered this time said the earlier official had been wrong. Only a photo ID would be possible. A viewing would have to wait until after a funeral director claimed the body. The mother decided this might be better, anyway. Her other son would be there by then, and they could go together to see Jake.
The friend who came to pick up Sikowitz had to circle around because the next block over was blocked with another fallen tree. The traffic was as light as if it were some joyless holiday. A handwritten note taped to the entrance to the Brooklyn office of the medical examiner directed visitors to the off-hours entrance around to the side, even though it was a weekday during the posted hours.
The doorbell brought a clerk who admitted Sikowitz and her accompanying friends. The clerk then stepped behind a counter.
“Who have you come about?” she asked.
Sikowitz spoke the name that had until this day always been a pure pleasure to utter.
The clerk produced a white standard form on a clipboard. Sikowitz filled it out, giving her son’s particulars. She returned the form along with her identification as a Housing Court judge. She said she saw no reason for an autopsy to determine the cause of death.
“He was a completely healthy 24-year-old who was hit by a tree,” she said.
Sikowitz was directed to a waiting area off to the right. A framed HEROES poster on the wall listed the names of all those who were killed on 9/11. The mother of this other, unofficial kind of first responder sat as proof that in the mathematics of loss, there is no bigger number than one when that one is somebody you love completely.
After a wait that felt like a first, unbearably bleak taste of eternity, a clerk led Sikowitz into a second room that had lower lighting. The clerk had another clipboard with another form, as well as a facedown photo.
Once they were seated, the clerk turned the photo over and asked if Sikowitz recognized this person. The face was the same as in those pictures in her front room.
“Jacob Vogelman,” Sikowitz said.
She bent over, sobbing.
“My son! He’s never coming home!”
The clerk waited silently until Sikowitz had collected herself enough to sign the form. She seemed to be watching herself take the pen. Her signature was remarkably steady.
The clerk pointed to where the form asked the relationship to the deceased. Sikowitz adjusted her grip on the pen, and the very clarity of the letters was a testament to her determination to do even this for him, the boy who had been so singular as to put ketchup even on his pancakes but also so very much like those we call heroes.