During my Bar Mitzvah, I looked up from my prayerbook exactly twice. Once, I peaked to see whether a certain eighth-grade girl I’d invited showed up. (She had, but I was too shy to ask her to dance later.) The other time, I made eye contact with my big cousin Laurence Polatsch from Long Island, sitting right in the front row.
In 1989, he was a charismatic, 20-year-old student at the University of Michigan, possessing all of the self-confidence I lacked. He shot me a wink; the reassurance I drew from that gesture helped me get through the affair.
Laurence, or Larry, as I still think of him, immediately came to mind when I heard this week that U.S. forces finally had succeeded in tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden.
A few weeks shy of his 33rd birthday, Larry went to work at One World Trade Center nearly 10 years ago and never came home.
For me, Sept. 11 has always been more of a personal tragedy than a national one. Rather than ease the pain of loss, the news about bin Laden conjures up memories of my cousin, and of the days and weeks that followed when his friends and family — really an entire nation — struggled to take a breath, wondering if tomorrow was still possible in a today that seemed so warped and suddenly empty.
Taken in his prime, Larry was the sort of guy who never had a qualm about asking anyone to dance. His affability and courage were practically legendary in our family. He once ran into Julia Roberts at a Manhattan news shop, shortly after her first marriage ended, and asked her out. Though she declined, he somehow convinced “Entertainment Tonight” to run a segment on the encounter.
His personal lore also includes successfully crashing the wedding of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
That same chutzpah helped him exit the legal profession, and quickly find his footing on Wall Street as a partner at the firm Cantor Fitzgerald.
The last time I saw Larry, he gave me a ride home from our family’s 2001 Passover seder in his brand-new Porsche. We’d always been at different stages in life, but as we got older, the gap seemed to melt away. I was 25 the night we took that ride on the Long Island Expressway, weaving between cars at ridiculous speed. I felt like we were just getting to know each other as adults.
Then, just a few months later, as planes attacked the twin towers, he became frozen in time. Now, I’m three years older than he was on that clear blue morning nearly 10 years ago. He will never get to meet my 4-month-old daughter, who has brought more joy, and less sleep, into my life than I could have ever imagined.
I can only envision him offering another wink, or perhaps a slap on the back, as I handed her to him. Being a new father, I can only mourn the fact that he’ll never know the soaring emotions of that experience.
Has bin Ladin’s death brought me any solace? Perhaps muted satisfaction is a better phrase, a reminder that sometimes, things happen as they should — that people get what they deserve.
In the end, bin Laden’s death has got me thinking about what parents owe their children and what big cousins owe little cousins: A knowing wink, a reassurance that everything will be all right, a way to explain the unexplainable, even as we know that tragedy can strike at any time.