Without fail, Jake Greenbaum woke up every morning with a beaming smile.
It lit up his parents, Clint and Elisa, and their home in Westhampton Beach. It stopped longtime neighbors in their tracks as he whizzed by on his tandem bicycle, waving and clapping enthusiastically down Main Street, perhaps on his way to the ocean to swim in the waves.
It was woven into his selfless, sweet and outgoing nature — his kindness, generosity and optimism undoubtedly casting him as the village’s unofficial mayor. He was a man who lived a life full of fun and adventure, who never let his special needs hold him back, who embodied pure joy and total love.
Surrounded by family, Mr. Greenbaum died from an unknown, aggressive form of cancer on Sunday, August 23, at NYU Langone Medical Center, following a sudden five-week decline. He was 30 years old.
“I can’t imagine a world without Jake. I’m devastated. I’m completely heartbroken,” his younger sister, Augusta Greenbaum, said during a memorial service two days later at the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach. “Jake was a true angel on this earth.”
Born on November 29, 1989, Mr. Greenbaum did not have an easy start at life. At just 3 months old, he was diagnosed with a rare malignant brain tumor that, even after it was removed and treated with a year and a half of chemotherapy, left the young boy with significant developmental delays and the inability to speak.
But this never stopped him from communicating.
“Though Jake was non-verbal, he was one of the most expressive people you could ever meet,” explained his uncle, Kalman Fishbein. “Always upbeat, ready to laugh and up for everything, Jake did not need words to make his feelings known. The love he felt and demonstrated every day of his life for his mother, Elisa, his father, Clint, and his sister, Augusta, was crystal clear. It went beyond words.”
Known for his happy yelps and squeals, he also perfected his stinger high-five and a gentler pinky greeting after countless hours of physical therapy as a toddler. In March 1994, the family left the New York doctors and hospitals behind, moving themselves and their “miracle boy” to the calmer, slower pace of Westhampton Beach.
Here, he fell in love with books and music, bike riding and swimming, and attending services at the Hampton Synagogue, where he danced and celebrated, and earned the nickname “Rabbi Jake.”
In his free time, he kayaked, bowled, mini-golfed and skied, went horseback riding, roller-skated, ice-skated and ocean fished. He was even a Special Olympian.
“At some point after the difficult things that started his life, it seemed as though all of his early obstacles were in the distant past,” his uncle, Steven Epstein, said at the funeral. “Jake was the center attraction. Everyone loved him. He loved all the attention he received from his family and his friends, and the people in this town.
“What a remarkable lesson he provided to all our children in sensitivity and caring. Our children did not even notice anything different about Jake until they were much older. That shows what a part of the family he always was.”
When he wasn’t using his iPad as a communication aid, Mr. Greenbaum could sign 150 words and approximations, his parents explained. In 2011, he graduated from the Westhampton Beach BOCES Learning Center at age 21, and spent much of the next nine years attending day programming at IGHL in Manorville.
“One of the reasons I loved working from home because Jake would come home and he would greet me as though he’d been gone for years,” his father, Clint Greenbaum, said.
“It made you feel so good, as if he hadn’t seen you in forever,” his wife added. “He was so excited to see you.”
“He’d run toward me and give me a hug with liftoff. I’ll really miss that,” Mr. Greenbaum said. “When he came home from program, it was like the best thing. We’d stop our day just because it was so wonderful to be greeted like that. You had to do it. And it was every day. That was Jake. He was full of love, all the time.”
The father-son bond that the two men shared was not lost on anyone who saw them together, whether they were singing Disney songs or practicing how to walk, a skill that some doctors said the young boy would never master.
With his dad’s patience and determination, he did.
“Wherever there was Jake, there was Clint. And wherever there was Clint, there was Jake,” Mr. Fishbein said. “They were inseparable extensions of each other, and not just because of their complementary clothing styles. Their souls are intertwined.”
Together, they were fixtures in the Westhampton Beach St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Halloween Parade, often using their side-by-side Double Joyrider tandem bike as a makeshift float and always dressed in a unique costume.
“We had an incredible bond that other fathers could only dream about. I’ve heard other people talk about the sacrifices that I’ve made to be with Jake, but you’ve got it wrong,” Mr. Greenbaum said at the funeral, stomping his foot. “It’s not that. I was lucky enough to be able to give up the mundane tasks that, at the end of the day, should be lower in the priorities of one’s life.”
That lesson taught the Greenbaums to live with as much verve as they possibly could. They made family trips a priority, traveling to 31 states — including Hawaii twice — Puerto Rico and Europe, which saw Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Monaco, England and France. They visited Mexico, the Cook Islands, New Zealand and Australia, and Israel three times.
Everywhere he went, Mr. Greenbaum made a lasting impression. He met former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. He saw Billy Joel and Elton John in concert, and over 50 Broadway shows. His favorite part was always the bows, his sister recalled, “because he loved clapping and cheering for everyone.”
After a Broadway performance of “Cinderella” in 2014, the family attended a Q&A with the cast, which starred Tony Award winner Victoria Clark as Fairy Godmother Marie. She said that as she was flying through the air on wires, she couldn’t help but notice Mr. Greenbaum.
“Jake had the incredible gift of being able to make everyone happy,” his father said. “[She] told us that out of the whole audience, it was Jake’s joy and wave that filled her with glee and joy, too.”
All it took was one look at Mr. Greenbaum for his cousin, Lauren Ginsberg, to relax on her wedding day. He was her first friend, she recalled at the funeral, and “I thought he was the coolest and always appreciated the fact that, no matter what, he could make me smile and laugh.”
“I experienced this quality most recently at my wedding last year,” she continued. “Walking down the aisle, I felt a bit nervous with everyone’s eyes on me — not to mention, I was walking down an aisle with steps in a ball gown and heels. That was until I saw our Jake waving, clapping and pointing at me and my now husband, Jon. His smile and laughter were so contagious, I immediately felt at ease.”
Mr. Epstein said he will never forgot his nephew’s remarkable sense of humor and eruption of laughter every time he let out one of his notorious “earth-shattering” sneezes. A bad allergy day was like a comedy routine to Mr. Greenbaum, he said, and he was the best audience.
“I will remember Jake as that beautiful, amazing baby,” Mr. Epstein said. “I will remember Jake as the boy who survived all obstacles and never gave up. I will remember Jake as the boy and the young man who lit up our lives on every holiday and every family occasion. I will remember Jake as the young man dressed in a tuxedo who was the life of the party at Lauren and Jon’s wedding just last September.
“I will remember how much we all loved him,” he said, his voice breaking, “and how much we always will.”
About five weeks ago, Mr. Greenbaum did not seem like himself, his parents recalled. A CAT scan of his abdomen revealed an alarming number of swollen lymph nodes, and his team of 70 doctors at NYU Langome Medical Center — where they saved his life 30 years prior — immediately got to work.
While they did, his family did what they could to keep him comfortable. His mother read him his favorite books and his father sang his favorite Disney songs from “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Aladdin.”
But the cancer progressed rapidly and they ran out of time.
“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” Ms. Greenbaum said, pushing through her tears at the service. “We all had the gift of Jake Greenbaum for 30 years. He made a tremendous impression on all who met him. Selfishly, we wanted more years with him, but I do take great comfort in knowing that those 30 years were fantastic ones. He was happy. He was healthy, until literally five weeks ago.”
A sob escaped her as she regained her composure. “Clint jokes that Jake never got the common cold, only the uncommon cancers,” she said. “And I knew we couldn’t possibly have loved him any more than we did. My Jakey-G, it’s a privilege to be your mom. I love you forever.”
Over the next week, the Greenbaum family sat shiva in Westhampton Beach, welcoming mourners from the East End and beyond to their home for the seven days of intensive mourning. There, they reminisced and learned stories about their son that they never knew.
“It would have been a great party, except Jake, the life of the party, wasn’t there,” his father said. “Everyone considers Jake their own in a way, and it was really beautiful to hear, and the entire community came together for him.”
The final moments of the memorial service at Hampton Synagogue ended with “Adon Olam,” a traditionally upbeat prayer that concludes many services, but rarely funerals. Cantor Netanel Hershtik made an exception, and sang Mr. Greenbaum’s favorite song in his favorite tune.
The somber melody started slow, gradually speeding up so that by the end, the socially distanced mourners were singing at full volume, clapping along to the melody — a sight that, surely, would have brought a beaming smile to Mr. Greenbaum’s face.
When the song ended, the congregation grew quiet once more.
“We say to Jake, Adonai lee, v’lo eerah,” Rabbi Marc Schneier said, quoting two lines from the prayer as he wrapped his arm around the cantor, and they cried softly together.
“God is with you,” he said, in translation. “You shall not fear.”
Tax-deductible donations in Jake Greenbaum’s memory can be made to The Making Headway Foundation, which is dedicated to the care, comfort and cure of children with brain and spinal cord tumors, co-founded over 20 years ago by Elisa and Clint Greenbaum. For more information, visit makingheadway.org/donate. The family also asks for specific memories of Mr. Greenbaum to be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As published in the Southampton Press