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Death

April 11, 2011

I told you I would write the story of Gertrude the coffee ground reading psychic after we talked about her yesterday. I don’t know quite what to think of most people who profess to be psychic, but I do know that Gertrude said some fairly bizarre things that at least seemed to have come true. My dream of your impending arrival into the world and Grandma Beanie’s dream about the funeral home service in Minnesota just before the death of our young cousin we affectionately called Gumper were specific enough to make me believe that prescience is possible. Of course, my having a dream about Grandma Beanie’s childhood and not knowing it was real memories belonging to her, was just… odd.

Gertrude was an ancient woman who visited our house as a guest of a family friend during a girl’s night at our house. Grandma Beanie had invited some friends for wine, card playing and girl talk, and allowed my sisters and me to hang out with them. After everyone had been introduced, Gertrude told us that she could read coffee grounds and would read those of anyone who was interested. We had all heard of reading tea leaves, but reading coffee grounds was new to us. Grandma Beanie loved anything mystical and had studied astrology, metaphysics, reincarnation, and was a fan of the psychic Edgar Cayce.

Each of us poured ourselves a cup of coffee and placed one teaspoon of the coffee grounds from the percolator basket into our cups per Gertrude’s instructions. Visiting while we drank, we were careful to leave the grounds on the bottom of the cup. We turned our cups upside down on a paper towel to drain the last drops of coffee, leaving the coffee grounds on the bottom of the cup. Gertrude then read each cup in turn. It was all silly and fun, and most of what she said I didn’t remember the next day. But there were a few things she said that we all remembered a few months later.

Gertrude told of two comatose young men in an intensive care hospital room after accidents on the same night, one in a very calm state, and one in a very agitated, thrashing state. She talked of a new person coming by airplane from the east to stay with us because of the two young men in the hospital. I would probably doubt the story had I not see those things unfold just prior to your uncle Johnny‘s death. Because the two stories are related, I will tell you about that now.

December 9, 1973 was just another day for us. Johnny and Cindy were employed at the nearby Ponderosa Steakhouse restaurant, and Johnny was going to attend a company Christmas party that evening. The rest of us spent our evenings with friends or with the television or completing homework for the next day. The day wound to a close and everyone headed to bed except for Grandma Beanie. She always waited for the last of us to come home, and by 1:00 a.m. Johnny had not arrived. The phone rang and Grandma Beanie answered to hear the voice of a good friend of Johnny’s, informing her that there had been an accident. Johnny’s friend was in training to be a paramedic and had been called to the scene of a one-car accident, impact with a tree.

Every morning Grandma Beanie came into the hallway between the bedrooms and called, “Linda, Johnny, Cindy, Chuckie, Jan, Tommy, Dave!” to awaken us for school. She was always forgetting that Johnny had recently moved to the basement to have his own room, so she needed to holler down the basement stairs to awaken him separately.

The morning of Johnny’s accident she came into the hallway as usual, but called only Linda. I could hear her and Linda speaking quietly at the bottom of the stairs, and thought I heard Grandma Beanie say, “Jamie has been in a car accident.” Jamie was one of Cindy’s boyfriends, and I thought that was why Grandma Beanie had called Linda first, so they could deliver the news to Cindy gently, together. I had misheard Grandma Beanie’s words. She had said, “Johnny has been in a car accident.”

When death invades the chaotic insanity of a family of growing teens, everything stops. As if mired in amber we could not move to change things, could not be heard screaming from our deepest recesses that we had already had enough tragedy and weren’t sure if we could take this, too. But life doesn’t offer us opportunities to turn back the clock, doesn’t offer do-overs no matter how much we beseech the heavens or the cosmos or whatever the heck is supposed to be keeping us from spiraling out of control. Believe me, I begged.

We went to school December 10th as usual because we had no idea what else we could do. We were waiting for the doctors to tell Grandma Beanie and Grandpa John how bad things were for Johnny. That evening we learned that Johnny had suffered catastrophic injuries to his head and his brain was swelling. Doctors operated to release pressure, with hope that the surgery would help Johnny to heal. At that point it had not yet occurred to me that Johnny could die. He was only seventeen.

There was activity all around the house reminiscent of the years of Tommy’s illness and surgeries. Ladies we barely knew brought Jello (of course); neighbors were doing laundry; and someone was always checking on Dave. He was 7, Linda was 18, Cindy was 16, Chuckie was 14, I was 13, and Tommy was 11. We youngest four were not allowed to go to the Intensive Care ward—only Linda and Cindy were old enough. It was the second time in our lives that we were separated from a gravely ill or injured sibling. It wasn’t any easier than it had been the first time.

The kids in Johnny’s class obtained a five-foot tall Christmas stocking and hung it on the family room wall. People put all kinds of things in it as they moved in and out of the house: notes, cards, money, and personal items.

For ten days we were like zombies, mindlessly trying to make it through each day. We answered concerned questions from schoolmates, from voices coming over the phone, and for Linda and Grandpa John, from colleagues at work.

I went to the church every day to pray, to beg, that God would send Johnny home before Christmas.

At the hospital, Johnny lay in a very calm coma. In the next bed, another young man lay in a coma as well, but he was thrashing about in a very agitated coma state. His name was Danny. His older brother, Andy, had flown in from the east coast to be with his younger brother. He hadn’t checked into a motel, and Grandma Beanie and Grandpa John told him he was welcome to stay with us. It was their way. They always picked up strays.

Coffee grounds. Who would have thought it possible that anyone could come up with even the small amount of information that Gertrude relayed?

Danny’s coma never became calm, and Johnny’s never became active. On December 20th, Grandma Beanie and Grandpa John asked Linda and Cindy to meet them at the hospital, as it had been determined that Johnny was in a persistent vegetative state and would not recover. At the direction of my parents, the hospital removed life support and Johnny died at 12:30 p.m., December 20th, 1973.

We youngest four had taken our sleds to a hill a few houses away, unaware that anything was happening at the hospital.  We got back to the house and were fixing hot chocolate to warm up when the phone rang. I answered; it was Grandpa John. He asked, “How’s everybody doing there?” I told him we were all fine. Then he said, “We’re coming home now.” I could tell by his voice that it was no time to ask any questions, so I just told him I loved him and we would all be there to see him soon.

Grandma Beanie, Grandpa John, Linda and Cindy arrived home a short time later and told us Johnny was gone.

I couldn’t think, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t scream. I became very angry with God. My mind raced with furious questions, “Was this a joke? Did I pray for the wrong thing? Did I cause this? Did God bring Johnny home before Christmas? Did He just not bring him to the home I had in mind? How could we possibly deserve this? How could we possibly survive this?” Everything became ugly: the Christmas tree, the presents, the huge stocking, the snow, and life itself. The pain was absolutely searing.

I felt alone. I was not close to my other siblings. I had adored Johnny, and I felt suddenly alone.

Later that day a neighbor who was a funeral director came to the house to discuss details. Grandma Beanie and Grandpa John scheduled Johnny’s funeral for December 22nd. I can’t imagine where they got the strength to make decisions. The music Grandma Beanie chose for Johnny’s funeral was perfect. Let it Be by the Beatles; No Man is an Island written by Alex C. Cramer and Joan Whitney and originally performed by The Lettermen; and Time in a Bottle by Jim Croce. She chose clothing for Johnny to wear including a turtleneck, because he always looked so handsome in a turtleneck.

We needed to be at the funeral home and the church for the following two days. Grandpa John said, “If you need to cry, do it in your room or in private.” We tried to not cry in public and held our heads down as we left the church after the funeral mass; the tradition of having the family exit in front of and prior to the exodus of the congregation is barbaric, to my mind. Grandpa John had long been teaching us about the importance of being strong, with and for each other. It was part of what he very generally called attitude, but we understood. Grandpa John was fighting to keep his family together when things kept insisting on falling apart.

The funeral procession went by our house and with all of us being in the same limousine, we all saw the same thing. Our dog, Missy, was sitting at the corner we lived on, near the street. She was just sitting there, watching the funeral procession go by. We will never know why she did that. She had loved Johnny more than any of us because he took her hunting with him. Maybe she felt something we don’t understand.

People said that Johnny looked good in his coffin. I was angry and didn’t want to hear that. I wanted to tell them that, to me, Johnny did not look good. He looked dead. He would never look good again. His lips were the wrong color and his eyes and lips looked tight. His hair was combed all wrong. We would never see him smile or laugh again, and his voice was already fading from my memory. I was losing him and I didn’t want anyone to say he looked good.

Johnny was placed in the cold ground three days before Christmas with the five-foot Christmas stocking and a variety of stuffed toys, including a Cookie Monster, tucked in with him. He had been popular with the girls at school and many of them had placed things into his casket, or had left things in the stocking at the house. A couple of those girls sent Catholic mass cards for special mentions in memoriam of Johnny for over 35 years.

The week before Johnny died a special mass was held for him at the church. It was very crowded, mostly with students from the high school. They had given up their lunch hours and cut classes to attend Johnny’s mass. In the past, it had been said that the student body at the high school was apathetic. When Cindy saw the people in the church and realized she knew most of them from school, she was touched beyond belief. She wrote one of the most beautiful letters I have ever read to the student body of the high school. Published in the school paper and entitled Apathy is Not the Word, Cindy’s letter went a long way in thanking those who cared about us and supported us during that dark winter. The poem below was written by one of those high school students.

For Johnny

As the time for a second life beckons,
We cling to the life that is.
And no one knows why,
We all fear to die,
Or why the dying was his.

Outdoors was the key to his being,
The fish and the rabbits and birds,
And all nature’s ways,
To make sunny days,
Excited his every word.

In the essence of Godly wild flowers,
And trees as they reach for the clouds,
And sun-jeweled lakes,
And time he could take,
To love them as time would allow.

God planned he be here for a purpose,
Though to us it’s not thoroughly clear,
Why he should die,
We care not just why,
We wish he could only be here.

But if we all take a good look at his living,
And see that he led a good life,
His time on God’s earth,
For all that it’s worth, though short,
Was in quite a good light.

It states in a book called The Bible,
That time for one’s life shall prevail.
And a time in one’s life,
When all earthly strife,
Will gradually cease to entail.

He’s found a new life now immortal,
As his time on earth passed him by;
There can be no more grieving,
He found time for living,
And came to his time to die.

-of Chuck Kryder (one of Johnny’s and Cindy’s classmates)

Grandma Beanie and Grandpa John, in their usual unbelievable wisdom, decided that we needed to celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as close to the same as we usually did to honor Johnny. Sad and broken, we all attempted to keep up a strong front. At 7:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve as he had done forever, Grandpa John began handing out the gifts that had been piling up for weeks under our Christmas tree. At Thanksgiving I had drawn Johnny’s name for the annual gift exchange and had bought him white tube socks with orange striping so he would be wearing as much safety orange as possible during his planned deer hunting to Billings, Montana that season. When Grandpa John pulled that gift out from under the tree he handed it to me. I sadly smiled, and put it with other gifts I had not yet opened.

Familiar routines were a huge help in supporting us through our grief. Grandma Beanie and Grandpa John seemed to know that—maybe because they had experienced it before, when Tommy got sick. However they knew it, their idea of trying to stick to routine at Christmas to honor Johnny was brilliant. For me, routine made it feel as if Johnny was not so far away.

The tree that Johnny hit was in the front of a church on a main road. For years we would drive by that tree and try not to look at it, try not to remember. His car had been towed to a nearby gas station owned by friends. Grandma Beanie asked that they remove it as quickly as possible so we wouldn’t see it, but I saw it, and years later obtained the police report and supplements, including pictures of the car at the scene.

The speed limit in the area was 40 mph; conditions were icy, snowing and dark. Witnesses said that Johnny had begun to pass their vehicle approximately 1,000 feet before hitting what was later determined to be black ice, and the police report stated the car slid 424 feet before impact with the tree. The tree was about 10 feet away from the road. Many years later the church had new landscaping completed on their property and removed the tree. I was happy to see it go.

Andy stayed with us for a couple weeks more until his brother, Danny, also died. Grandma Beanie and Grandpa John introduced him to the funeral director and Andy chose the same casket and same services from the funeral home as had been chosen for Johnny.

Johnny’s favorite singer was Jim Croce, and his favorite song was Time in a Bottle. For years after his death Time in a Bottle would play on the radio when any of us pulled into the cemetery for a visit. Grandma Beanie told us to “open the doors and let it play.” It was popular, so the song playing many times, when many different people arrived at the cemetery, could have been many coincidences. Maybe.

I don’t think I learned any great lessons from the passing of Johnny from our lives. Maybe there wasn’t anything for me to learn. I still miss him.

10/12/11 – Today was the first time in eight years I went to pump gas, after beginning to drive again in September. I was nervous and went through most of my weirdnesses, but got the gas pumped and was headed back down the highway. It was lunchtime and the radio was playing “Lunchtime 70s” songs. Time in a Bottle began to play and tears streamed down my face, but I felt a little less afraid and a little less alone. It was a coincidence. Maybe.

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