What do you say to someone who is young and going through the surreal experience of losing someone they love – inexplicably and without any warning—in the prime of their life? Death never makes any sense, it always stuns and slams and blindsides you at any age, but how do you deal with it when you’re fresh and young and have the whole world ahead of you? How do you make any sense whatsoever of the incomprehensible and unfathomable?
I spent some time this week interviewing friends of Mitchell Perlmeter, the 17-year-old son of Rabbis Rex D. Perlmeter and Rachel Hertzman, both of whom were well-known and well-respected leaders in Baltimore’s Jewish community from 1996 to 2008. Mitchell died suddenly Feb. 1 of a massive coronary in his family’s home in Montclair, N.J.
I know his parents, but I never actually met Mitchell. But I now feel like I knew him, thanks to his friends’ loving and vivid descriptions of him. I’ve written tons of obituaries over the years, and yes, everyone who dies seems to be viewed in a haze of adulation and reverence. I do the same thing when someone I know passes away. I suppose it’s just human nature.
But I’ve never, ever heard people rave about anyone like I heard Mitchell’s friends and others rave about him. One friend, Emma Kane, a McDonogh School student, even said, “Look, Mitchell wasn’t perfect. No one is perfect. But Mitchell was as close to perfect as you can get, especially for a teenage boy.”
From what I gather, Mitchell was the kind of kid who always had a light around him. He was friendly, outgoing and fun-loving by nature, but smart and kind-hearted as well. A good listener, a good friend. I guess that’s why so many people were drawn to him and loved him so much. And why his funeral was completely packed.
Everyone talks about Mitchell’s smile. It was apparently radiant, warming, soothing, magnetic. And now, eternal.
He had lots of interests – sports, video games, rap music, books, movies. He loved sweets, especially chocolates. He was your everyday kid.
And he loved a good joke or a tasty prank (but always good-natured). “Mitch was sarcastic bliss,” his close friend Josh Mandell told me, trying to summon the right words to describe him adequately. “His sarcasm was the greatest thing about him, next to his big heart. He was so creative with his insults, they just always made you smile. But everything he said or did was out of love. It’s just who he was – a loveable kid. So much fun to be around. That feeling you’d get with him – he was just one of a kind. He brought out the best in you.”
Last week, Josh was in Spanish class at Friends School when he felt his cell phone vibrate, and he started getting a flurry of voice-mail messages from his friends. He ignored them all until he got a text message from his mom: “Call ASAP.” That’s how he found out about Mitch. Like so many others touched by Mitch, Josh’s world will never be the same. He now knows that life just isn’t fair.
“It didn’t even hit me at first,” Josh said. “I went back to class for another minute, the bell rang and then I went straight home. … When I first heard about it, I was just like, there’s no way. It didn’t seem real.
“It was not a day to remember, but one I know I’ll never forget.”
When I was 15, I lost two friends in a pair of completely separate drug-related incidents. One drowned at Liberty Reservoir, the other froze to death in a field in Howard County. Sometimes on a cold, moody night, I find myself getting lost in thoughts and wondering how their lives might have turned out if they had lived and not gotten dragged down in the drug epidemic.
But to be totally honest (and not to minimize their deaths), they were not close friends. I can’t even imagine what Josh Mandell and Mitch’s other close, close friends – not to mention his family – are going through right now. But I know they touched my heart with their stories and descriptions about this amazing young man whom I wish I could’ve met.
When I asked Josh how he was getting through it all, he responded, “I’m taking it day by day. There’s no way to really describe it. I see a lot of his friends and we all have our own ways of coping. I think Mitch may be gone but he lives on in our memories. He touched everyone he came into contact with. No matter what, I’ll always carry a piece of Mitch with me. Mitch is family. … I’m trying to celebrate his life instead of being upset about the death. But I don’t think it will ever be completely real to me.”
Life just isn’t fair. It’s true. But I do believe that Josh and his friends are absolutely on the money when they say Mitch will live on because he dearly touched the hearts of everyone who ever loved him and basked in the warmth of his smile.