Remembering Ari Halberstam, 18 Years Later
March 6 is a day that etched indelibly into my heart and soul.
In 1994, my son Ari was shot by a by a terrorist on the Brooklyn Bridge on March 1. Five days later, he died. I cannot believe that he is dead longer than he lived.
Only a mother who lost her child could imagine how, 18 years later, grief can be as fresh today as it was then. It’s as if a bone is lodged in your throat choking you, not allowing you to breathe. You feel the squeezing in your heart, like it will explode, suffocating you because you’re deprived of air.
I attended the trial of my son’s murderer every day. Listening to the testimony, I would see an image in my mind of a faucet and the blood of my son flowing. He was murdered as a living, breathing human being, because someone hated who he was, what he stood for and who he represented. He was a Jew. He was an American. I still cannot understand that. If you would have told Ari that someone murdered him because he was a Jew, he would have never believed you. Ari could never fathom hatred so deep, so vengeful, to cause anyone to be murdered.
It is important to me that the world knows who my Ari was: a charming, handsome, smart, all-American 16-year-old; a 6-foot-tall star on the basketball court wearing a size 131/2 sneaker. He had a permanent smirk on his face, not because he was a snob, but simply because he had the coolest sense of humor. He could mimic anybody to the point where I would laugh until I cried. He had a sparkle and twinkle to his deep-sea blue eyes. He didn’t walk down the street, he glided. He didn’t climb the stairs; he jumped two at a time. He was smooth and graceful as a deer. Focused on where he was going, Ari would fly with ease down the street.
My child. My baby. He was like a fleeting dream. Like a star in the sky. I wake in the night more often than not, with an acute pounding in my heart so loud that I hear it in my ears. My pain only deepens when I think about what kind of man he would have become.
I hear Ari calling me “Mommy.” I hear the sound of his voice every day, all the time. His name is on the tip of my tongue. He is in every fiber of my being, always. He is with me wherever I go and is the driving force of a lot of what I do.
I am a religious Jew. And, as I light candles every Friday night for the Sabbath, I pray that Ari’s memory live on. From the moment my Ari was murdered, I began praying that he be remembered; that his death not be in vain; that the world remember who Ari Halberstam was, what he lived for, and why he died. That is this mother’s mission.
It is some comfort that his memory lives on. It took nearly seven years for my country to acknowledge that he was an early victim of terrorism.
Yes, thanks to New York City there is the Ari Halberstam Memorial Ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge. There is Ari’s Law, which traces gun trafficking in New York State. There is the landmark Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn that is dedicated to him and has hosted more than 1 million visitors. There are the New York State laws on terrorism that were inspired by his death, and the deaths of the other victims of terrorism in the state.
But in the end, I am Ari’s mother. And mothers are one with their children. We may be in separate bodies, but our source is the same. Our connection never falters. Not in life and not in death.
Mourning and grieving for your child is like nothing else in the world. We are so sorely misunderstood. I know it is a cliche to talk about the hole in my heart. But it’s an anguish so deep and intense that it never lets go. It is everlasting. It is like a chronic disease.
It is about the life that Ari never had. The joys of waking up every day to look out the window and see the sun shining. The chance to develop into the best person he could be. To play another basketball game. To fulfill his dreams. To conquer the world. To live and love. To smile and laugh. To have married and had children. To share his life with his family and friends. To hope and to pray.
He never even had a chance.
In Judaism, the number 18 is symbolic of life. As this year marks the 18th anniversary of Ari’s death, I am charged with renewed emotion and commitment. Even in death there’s life.
My friends, my colleagues, to those who knew him and to those who never did: Please think about him. There are no words of comfort for us who mourn our children.
The truth is I can go on and on, but it is not fair. And so I will climb back into myself and yearn for my lost child.
While there are public memorials to Ari that help to keep his memory alive, I take comfort when I see echoes of his essence in his wonderful sisters and brothers. They all loved their big brother deeply and were influenced by him in so many ways. And yes, I am blessed. I have three beautiful grandchildren named Ari (and several others). They can never replace my oldest son, but with G-d’s help, they will make their own unique contributions to this world in his name and his memory.
All I ask of you is that you remember Ari.
Devorah Halberstam is the director of Foundation and Government Services at the Jewish Children’s Museum, which is dedicated to the memory of her son Ari.