About four years ago I was putting laundry away in his room and I came across a stack of some drawings. He had obviously spent hours and hours on these works of art but I had never seen them before. I was stunned by their intricacy and beauty. Later I told him I had found his artwork and how incredible I thought it was. “Oh thanks,” he said casually. “I get hyper-focused.” I asked if I could show them to people, maybe share them of Facebook. He shrugged and said, “I guess. If you want to.” He did most of these beautiful drawings on notebook paper with Sharpie markers. He never took himself too seriously.
It was like that with learning to read. He had trouble reading in first grade, so much that though he was in a “gifted kid” class the school put him in the remedial program for slow readers. I was a mere rookie back then in dealing with school stuff but it didn’t make sense to me to call a kid a “slow” reader before he had learned to read at all. It seemed to me they were using experimental techniques that were not working, at least not for my kid. He would come home upset and tell me they were making him do stupid stuff like jump onto big word squares on the floor. I bought Hooked-on-Phonics and taught him to read myself. But I couldn’t seem to get him to love reading books on his own. I felt frustrated but kept reading with him or to him.
By second grade he could read fine and by the end of fifth grade his standardized test showed he had the reading comprehension level of a 22-year-old. “How is it you read so well when you don’t read books?” I asked him. “Because I know how to read,” he said. It was like that with violin too. “You won’t improve if you don’t practice,” I’d say. He would not practice. But when he went to his lesson he would take out the violin and play the music very well. “How do you do that when you don’t practice?” I’d ask. “I can read the music and press the strings,” he’d say. The violin lessons did not go far, because though he could technically play the instrument he did not love music and he wanted to do what he loved.
- He was charming and social. I knew what a wonderful person he was but I didn’t know how much he interacted with other people and what a pleasant impression he made. I have found out that he was very friendly with both friends and strangers. The receptionist at his doctor’s office knew he was looking into getting a nano-degree and the pharmacist at Walgreens commented on what a warm friendly personality he had. There was no fakery in Jesse, he made no great effort to impress anybody, so I feel like any conversation he had with anyone was a sincere one. If he talked to you, he cared about talking to you.
- He was proud of his family. I had felt that lately he was trying to distance himself from us to establish his independence. I think this was probably me projecting on him the way I was at his age. But I assumed he wasn’t really thinking much about his family at this particular stage of his life. Not true. A friend and co-worker of his told me he often talked about his Mom, Dad, and brother and made us sound wonderful.
- He valued family history. I knew he was into genetics because he had his DNA analyzed by a company called “23 and Me” and bought DNA analysis kits for me and his Dad for Christmas in 2014. But I did not know that his interest in family history extended to more personal things. In a box of his most important papers I found a story that was written my father. My Dad, who Jesse always remembered as “Pop-Pop”, died when Jesse was 2-1/2 years old. Apparently at some point – it must have been 2010 or before because my Mom died in 2010 – Jesse found these several sheets of paper that contained the start of a science fiction novel written in the small precise print of my Dad. And he kept that story with him in a special place.
- He identified with Jewish heritage. Now this may seem strange, but Jesse always told me growing up that he felt like he was Jewish. I grew up Catholic and his Dad is Baptist and Jesse was a sincere believer in Christ. In fact on his 18th birthday he had an eight-inch Christian fish tattooed on his chest. When we saw it he said, “This is the one thing that will never change.” But he was always intrigued by family rumors that he might have some Jewish in this DNA. His 2014 DNA analysis revealed that he did indeed have .5 percent Ashkenazi Jewish DNA which, as he explained, was significant given the tiny size of that population when compared to world population throughout the thousands of years that the analysis traces. I did not know quite how much this meant to him, until I discovered that at the tail of the fish tattoo he had gotten another tattoo – a tiny Star of David. I found this out from a photograph.