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Eulogy for Jonathan Sondow

By James Sondow

Jan 20, 2020

My father has been very lucky. He had, I think, a difficult upbringing but one that motivated him to focus intently on a single passion from a very young age. I used to think he fit the mathematician stereotype of being less aware emotionally, but in fact he was an incredibly sensitive man who had the strength to be surprisingly vulnerable and honest. That allowed me to be very close with him and helped create a model for me to in turn be close to my children.

Math was a part of that. His love for Math made it the language we spoke at the dinner table, becoming part of my emotional bond with him. It inspired me to major in Math and teach it during and after College, which I may now have the opportunity to do again at my daughters’ school. I had hoped he would teach the girls but am glad that he gave me enough skill and passion for it to transmit some of his love for it to them.

He is responsible for so much of who I am. His love of Jazz and Art History also highly influenced me as I studied Jazz guitar in my youth and am now a figurative sculptor. There are many parallels between his development of a math paper and my development of a sculptural composition. We both look for truth and devote obsessive amounts of time presenting that truth in the most elegant way possible. Math was an art form to him and he gave me the gift of seeing it through his eyes.

He tried to do all he could with us in and out of his skill set, taking us to Museums, summer trips to France (where he lived as a young man), camping, and fishing. He really didn’t know what he was doing sometimes, but he tried anyway. One fishing trip ended soon after it began because he cast the entire rod into the Hudson. I remember my father, my brother, and I, laughing uncontrollably. Sometimes he took me to see him lecture and that was something special. I remember struggling so hard as a boy to understand the magic symbols he wrote on the blackboard of his graduate classes, that all the engrossed adult students copied in their books. This was a very strong imprint for me as well, as I’ve been teaching most of my adult life.

He loved deeply and was not afraid to show it, and work for it. He traveled to Russia to see me and meet my future wife, to California, frequently, to stay connected to my brother, and across the street to the play-ground to stay connected to his granddaughters (despite, in the last year, requiring multiple breaks to get there). Ahna in particular responded to his caring nature, forming a very strong bond to him. She insisted on going to see him often in the hospital, caring for him as he had for her, even going so far as to draw different facial expressions so he could communicate his emotions to her when he could no longer speak.

His battle with cancer gave me a new perspective on his depth of resolve, incredible will power, and humor in the face of pain and fear. Always keeping the atmosphere light, when the palliative care doctor asked about his end of life “wishes” he answered, “I want Robert Redford to play me in the movie.”

He brought my brother Joe, his wife Hisayo and me together as we fought to advocate for him through his last months in the hospital. I will never forget when my brother came back with the very difficult to find liquid form of sleep aid that, given the myriad issues facing my father, had fallen very low on the ICU physicians’ priority list, but we knew he had been taking it for 5 decades and would never get the rest he needed without it. He did sleep better and had a reprieve from complications after it was administered. This was what the palliative care doctors never understood when they said he would never leave the hospital. He wanted to stay connected to his family and it didn’t matter where he was. We enjoyed fighting together. It brought us closer. When his younger brother was also critically ill in a hospital in Argentina, my father recorded a video of encouragement for him even though my father had recently been extubated and had trouble speaking. His brother is now recovering and is with us via video link now.

In this way my father helped guide by example, showing how important it is to stay connected to yourself and be clear about what you want and keep striving for it. In the end it was simply life he was striving for, but when I look at his web page I see just how prolific he was publishing papers in Topology, Number Theory, and Geometry, the majority of which were written in the last 20 years after he had been a mathematician for 35 years already. I remember his frustration in my childhood when his work was rejected from prominent Math journals, but he never stopped and eventually came to jury other’s papers in those same journals.

A huge number of those papers are joint papers because my father became known as someone who would collaborate with anyone with a good idea, regardless of their training or pedigree. A lot of amateur mathematicians made it into prominent journals because of him. I remember traveling with him in France where he had done his postdoctoral work and meeting one of these young mathematicians. When my father was away the young man turned to me and said “Your father is truly a great man. There are many brilliant men but he is also kind and generous. He has helped me more than anyone” That sentiment has been echoed in many of the messages I have received in the last few days like: ”My interaction with your Dad was the most important thing that happened to me in College” “He invested time in me and gave me direction and advice at a critical period” “My own choice of field was a direct outgrowth of his taste and judgement and the time he spent nurturing me.” I don’t think I really understood the depth of his impact on other people until now. I even heard from the great John Milner, his graduate advisor at Princeton. I was surprised to hear from him in part because I didn’t know he was still alive, but I realize my father was 22 when he finished his PHD and Milner is only about a decade older. The real reason I was surprised to hear from him is that my father spoke of him like he was a God. My father said one of the best moments of his life was when he showed Milner the beginnings of his graduate thesis and Milner’s eyebrows piqued with genuine interest.

Now, the other reason he was so widely published in the last 20 years was because of his wife Hisayo. She took such good care of him, allowing him to focus on his passion. She was also with him everyday when he was ill and I will forever be grateful to her.

Inspiring love from those around him, he fought to the very end. On his last conscious day he spent 3 hours writing and re writing one sentence until I understood that he wanted to see Ahna once more. Their bond was so strong, she in fact insisted on coming the next day, and despite him being completely unresponsive, held his hand for hours.

Two weeks ago, he made it to 77 - the product of primes. He was fond of bad puns so he laughed when I congratulated him on being back in his prime.