When his 18th birthday arrived, my son, Jacob, became awfully popular. The U.S. Navy wanted him. "Before you find your place in the world, maybe you should see it first," it urged. A local menswear shop offered him 50 percent off a tuxedo package for high-school graduation. And a razor company sent him a free razor, hoping, I suppose, to make a lifelong customer out of him. Their only miscalculation was that Jacob didn't shave. Nor was it likely that any of the armed forces would gain Jacob's services. And he certainly wouldn't graduate from high school. Jacob, you see, died in 1993. He was only 7 years old when a cancerous brain tumor stole him from us.
As much as we loved Jacob, that period of our lives is still incredibly painful to remember. Yet, years after his death, letters addressed to Jacob find their way into our mailbox. Early on, I was driven almost to tears by these inducements for our son to attend a ritzy local private school or to sample a particular snack cake. I knew my wife would be devastated by such mail, and I tried to get to the mailbox first so that she would never be affronted by envelopes addressed to her dead first child. Much later, I realized she had been doing the same thing, hastily throwing out mail addressed to Jake so I wouldn't have to endure the epistolary abuse.
I thought I had learned not to take these mailings personally, but in the months surrounding Jake's 18th birthday I had to throw out dozens of letters soliciting my dead son. How galling it was to receive envelopes with bright colors and bold lettering urging him to have professional high-school graduation pictures taken, to consider a particular limousine service for prom night or to make sure not to drink and drive.
I won't dwell here on how wonderful and gifted my Jacob was, how he began to read before his 3rd birthday, how he was doing long division and double-column multiplication in his head when he was 5 years old. When Jacob died, one of our friends simply said, "I thought he would cure cancer." Like many children, Jacob loved the alphabet and numbers. Unlike others, he had a photographic memory and was capable of prodigious cerebral feats at a young age. One of his 4-year-old games was to memorize the license-plate numbers of every car on our street--and we lived on a fairly long street. Jake could see a car coming down the block, and tell you, without hesitation, what number house it was going to pull into. He would then proceed to inform you of what other license plates belonged to cars at that address. He also loved the 50 states, and could rattle them off in alphabetical order. Another of his games was to spell state names such as California--backward. So I can almost imagine him receiving these solicitation letters from all over the country and delighting in the return addresses. But he would have had no interest in their contents.
This direct-mail campaign aimed at my dead son is just one of many trials that the parents of dead children face. I didn't get overly upset when vandals knocked over his gravestone a few years back, nor even when the local TV station made a big story of it and actually showed the toppled stone on the 6 o'clock news. And though I'm not particularly pleased that, according to the Social Security Administration, "Jacob" has been the most common boy's baby name in America each year since 1999--and that every single mention of that word shoves me back to a time when my son, too, was alive--I think I've dealt with that as well.
The mail addressed to Jacob has slowed recently, but some still trickle in. As summer approaches, Jacob usually gets a few feelers from temp agencies looking to hire college kids on summer break. Or, ironically, an offer for low-cost life insurance. But that's about it.
I'm not dreading Jacob's 21st birthday, though I can't say I'm looking forward to the offers of credit cards, loans and invitations to try this brand of beer or some highland single-malt Scotch that are sure to find their way into our mailbox.
Where will it end, I wonder. On his 50th birthday, will we receive a solicitation from AARP?
When you are the parent of a dead child, you try, desperately, to keep his memory alive. You beam inside when people tell you that they remember him and that he was a nice boy. But he's been gone a long time, and now those comments are rare. The advertisers, though, will never forget Jacob.