Jake Kaufman: Life’s Like a Bicycle; You Need the Front Wheel For Direction and the Back For Drive

Jake Kaufman

Hometown: Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Age : 21

Major: At UChicago, I study Philosophy as well as Fundamentals/Issues & Texts, a major focused on close reading of canonical texts, revolving around a core question proposed by the student. My question is, “What is the function of a narrative?” 


Profession: For the past two summers I have worked at Young’s bicycle shop, renting and occasionally repairing bikes. Having learned how to ride those crafty two wheeled machines on a bike from Young’s, this job has been particularly meaningful.

During the school year, I work both in the Department of Visual Arts Wood and Metal Shop and the Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society. In the first, I rent tools, assist students with projects, trouble shoot design issues, and generally watch the people working for safety concerns. In the second, I help organize conferences for various academics, in addition to writing the odd bit here and there for the Collegium’s newstream.


Q: What are your proudest accomplishments? 

JK: Taking first place at the Southwest Novice Lincoln Douglas Championship, garnering three letters of commendation from the math English and science departments in high school, being selected for the English department award my senior year of high school, and becoming an editor of Sliced Bread, a literary magazine on University of Chicago’s campus. 


Q: Did you lose a mother or a father? How did it happen?  

JK: I lost my mother. She was 49. Technically she died of pneumonia contracted during the final phases of her grade four glioblastoma multiforme, brain cancer.


Q: How do you feel that your loss affected you? Your family?

JK: It has fundamentally changed who what and why I am. Jake Kaufman as he is today would not exist if his mother still did. As far as my family, it’s difficult to say. We were all depressed deeply, and we all have our own separate tragedies. My father turned back to the drink, my sister collapsed into herself, my other sister dived into her boyfriend and his drugerrific arms, and I pretended it was all a dream. It destroyed my grandfather. I have never seen a human more completely forlorn than him upon seeing her dead, and he has not recovered. 


Q: How is your family now?  Can you tell us a bit about them? 

JK: My father is now happily remarried to a lady he met at the Children’s Grief Center, one of the scariest places I’ve ever had the misfortune to pass time. After my mother passed he went through a brief period of sobriety but then relapsed after I was caught smoking weed outside of temple one night. He enjoyed drinking and taking oxycotin and I can safely say Leslie, his current wife, saved his life. He wouldn’t stop drinking for me, but he would for her. Imagine that for a second. He has numerous health issues, had serious back surgery this past year and has just been hospitalized for a pulmonary embolism. He is on the mend currently. He had a fight with his sister over his wife and they are no longer speaking.
My sister Annie is now attending nursing school and working full time to support herself, she is dating a wonderful welder by the name of Ivan and is very happy, albeit busy as a bee. After Mom passed, she moved out at the age of 16 and supported herself as she finished high school. She had a rather dangerous relationship with drugs but has since cleaned herself up. 


My other sister, Laura, is teaching English and social studies in Hong Kong after having spent two years teaching English in Colombia. I have no idea how Mom’s death affected her, she is a steal cage of emotion, much like my father. She is entirely abstinent, with the exception of the occasional drink. 


Q: Do you discuss your loss with your family?  How did you explain the loss to your friends? JK: We talk about Mom quite a bit, but never about how the loss and how it affected us. We reminisce. When friends ask, if they do, I simply tell them she passed away thanks to Torquemada, the name she herself choose for her tumor. 


Q: How often do you think about your parent?  Every day. Go ahead and get Freudian, but I have yet to meet another human, let alone a woman, who was half the person my Mom was. Strong, loving, thoughtful, funny, friendly, and deeply, deeply compassionate. Also, deeply depressed. 


Q: Can you tell me some memories of your mom? What were your favorite things to do together?

JK:  We’d always do crafts and go hiking. She liked me to play music, and she liked to do Jewish things with me. I have this distinct memory of her teaching me how to dive into the waves at Madaket, a beach on Nantucket Island. In my mind, she is always swimming beneath those waves like the seals she loved some nine years ago. I also remember how she would always call herself ‘the gingerbread Mommy’–‘catch me if you can’. We’d also go on ‘Kaufman adventures’, where absolutely everything would go wrong. And we’d have a great fucking time. She was so crazy compassionate, she made damn sure I had as much respect for Roger, the janitor at my temple, as I did for her. People used to call her the Mayor of Albuquerque because she knew everyone and their second cousin in the city. She also told me how to kiss a girl properly, pulling their head into mine as we embraced. Every night she would sing to us, until we finally were too old. She’d sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, and a song she would call ‘the Daddy Song.’ Funny story there–the lyrics are “I love you, but my heart belongs to Daddy.” 


When both of my sisters were in high school, before she passed, they were on a band trip and went to a variety dinner show place where they heard one of the actresses singing “The Daddy Song.” I remember my mom dancing at my bar mitzvah. I remember her saying she would dance at my wedding as well–this was six months before she passed. I remember when her parents gave her a Nantucket lightship basket (a very very nice variety of basket) and she started crying, and for the life of me I couldn’t understand why. She said sometimes there are tears of happiness. I remember her threatening to commit suicide one night when the depression and the cancer were just too much. “Just give me my pills and let me die,” she said. I remember her dictating her ethical will to our friend Jane, knowing well before any of us she’d be leaving us very soon. I remember her thanking me, she could no longer speak her lungs were so full of phlegm at this point, which we had to siphon out periodically, for all the help I was giving the rest of the family, not her. She knew sign language and kept holding up three fingers trying to convey one last thing when she could no longer speak or write. I’ve asked everyone who knows sign language what that might mean, still don’t know. I remember asking her what heaven was one day, and her saying it was where you relived the best parts of your life. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why I’d keep living then, for surely I was already in heaven. 

Q: What did your mom do for a living?

JK: She was a pediatric psychiatric nurse, who had trained as a lawyer before that but decided to raise kids instead. She went to nursing school while I was in elementary and middle school. 


Q: Do you feel that you’re still seeking your mother’s approval? Do you feel conscious of her opinion? Yes and yes. I live for her now, not in the sense that her wishes dictate my life, but this experience showed me that there’s a life to live and I damn well better because she no longer can. 

Q: How old were you when it happened? What were you told at the time, and what do you wish you’d been told? 

JK: The hospice nurse called us into the room. Dad just kept saying ‘damn disease’.  As for what I wish I’d been told, there’s nothing to say. Don’t pretend there is.


Q: What was the hardest part about that time?

JK: Watching her lose her ability to communicate. 


Q: How do you think your loss changed who you are? 

JK: It changed me entirely. I gained a lifetime’s worth of experience in two years watching her slowly die. I learned hope means nothing, and that the world doesn’t care. I learned that people lie and miracles don’t exist. But I also learned that we go on, that we forget, we forgive. That what separates humans from animals is our ability to see sadness and find some odd beauty. I learned that if there was something that great to lose, than whatever and whoever am I, you are, and they are, has to be pretty great. I learned that through it all humans do care, madly, deeply, and often times mistakenly. And all I want to do from now on is to find love, someone who has the same power my mom did to bring together my broken family. Someone who, when it’s her time to go, can have everyone eating quesadillas and playing cards for weeks, just like my mom. I want to just to be with her one last time. 


Q: If you could go back in time what would you tell your past self? 

JK: This is not a dream.

Q: What is something that people do or say in regard to your parent that comforts you? What about that irritates or saddens you?  

JK: Anything anyone says about her does all of those at once.


Q: Through all of this, what has strengthened you? 

JK: Realizing that I am only one of three who carries her blood, and finding out just how strong that blood is proving to be.


Q: Now that you’re a little older, what do you have to say for all those kids out there grieving, who have lost a parent, too? 

JK: That this too will pass, that they are never truly gone, and that whether or not you want them to be, they will always be on your shoulder watching you and loving you from wherever it is that they went. Grief will slowly be replaced with joy, once you realize that you had the great fortune of knowing them while they were alive. And that they had the great fortune of knowing you. 



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