On this date 38 years ago, the first of a series of explosions in my life took place, and sometimes I wonder if some of the others can be traced to that one, echoes and aftershocks of that Big Noise.
It was my grandfather’s 70th birthday. My folks, my brother, and I had moved to Kentucky seven months earlier, and this was the first time I could remember that we hadn’t gotten to be there for the celebration. We had called Nashville that afternoon to wish him a happy birthday, and then my folks had gone to dinner with some friends, leaving me at home with my nine-year-old brother.
We heard that there was going to be a party, of course, at my aunt’s house, a few blocks from my grandparents and from the house where we had lived until recently. My cousins Jack and Jeff were going to be there — Jeff had even baked the birthday cake.
Jack, Jeff, my brother and I made up this generation of our family. Jack’s the oldest, two years older than I am. Jeff was three months younger, and Michael was the youngest, four and a half years behind Jeff and me. We grew up together, noodling around each others’ homes and my grandparents’ place in our subdivision. Jack and Jeff were close enough to my age that we were natural playmates — building dams in the small creek behind my grandparents’ house, engaging in extended sessions of make-believe adventure when we were indoors, or playing with our assorted games and toys. Mike, being younger, would typically try to tag along, with a level of success inversely proportional to his peskiness on any given day. My parents and Jack and Jeff’s mom would host any or all of us in whatever combination we happened to take that day.
Maybe because our ages were so close, Jeff and I were extremely tight. When Jack would be busy with school or model building or some other activity, Jeff and I would stick together, and even though the four of us were cousins, our relationship was more like that of siblings. We played football in the same youth league, discovered music together — like me, Jeff learned to play drums, while Jack took up guitar with fanatical devotion and concomitant success. And the four of us were bright — all in whatever the local equivalents were to gifted programs. Jack wanted to be a pilot, I wanted to write, and Mike was too young to really know what he wanted to do. Jeff? Jeff wanted to be a doctor. After my mom was diagnosed with MS, he decided to become a neurologist, and told Mom that he wanted to come up with a cure for her illness. Jeff not only was smart enough to make that a realistic ambition, but unlike me, he was focused, driven enough to succeed and make the grades I didn’t care enough to get.
And at about 7 in the evening on 4 May, the phone rang. It was a friend of my mom’s, and she asked to speak to one of my parents. I told her the restaurant where my folks were, and she rang off. About 45 minutes later, my parents came through the front door and told Mike and me to sit down. Jeff was dead.
We asked what had happened, and my father said no one really knew. He had finished my grandfather’s cake, gone to a neighbor’s yard to play baseball, collapsed, and was dead before the EMTs arrived. To this day, we don’t know if it was a cardiac event or something else, although most of us think it was an aneurysm. (There was no autopsy — my aunt didn’t want to have her child — her baby — cut open like that.)
We drove to Nashville immediately, arriving at my grandparents’ home at about 2 that morning. When we got there, I remember seeing my grandfather — a big man, with hands the size of baseball gloves and all the strength I could imagine. He was slumped against the arm of the living room sofa. “This wasn’t the surprise I wanted,” he said.
The next three days were my first real taste of death. Later, my parents would say that while they knew that one day, we boys would have to learn about death’s finality, they never imagined it would be one of us that would die. We were at the Hibbett and Hailey funeral home, where 30 years later, my parents would be prepared for burial. Jeff’s casket was light blue, and there were roses everywhere. While it was still customary in that time and place for children to be dressed in a nightgown-like shroud, Jeff was dressed in a suit, because he had always enjoyed dressing up. There were so many mourners — from the family, from Jeff’s school (where I had gone the year before — we shared some teachers), teammates, friends, other parents. And now that I’m a father, when I think back on this, I wonder about the horrors those parents must have felt, and likely the mix of guilt and relief of knowing that they were seeing someone else’s child, and not their own.
And I remember sitting in a rocking chair on the funeral home’s porch with my father, who smoked a Camel cigarette and told me how much he regretted the things Jeff would not get to do and be. And he said that sometimes horrible things happen in life, and that we would wonder why, but we simply had to trust there was a reason, that it wasn’t just something meaningless. “That way,” he said, “lies madness.” And the next day, Jeff was buried in the family plot at Woodlawn. Later, my grandparents would join him there, and later still, my mom and dad.
And the reverberations of that Big Noise continued. My brother and I would come stay with my grandparents during the summers, and each evening, I remember that my grandmother would sit in the den and cry silently, remembering the grandchild we had lost. She stopped breathing in 1985, but in some very important ways, my grandmother died in 1979. My grandfather died in 1987, and while we acknowledged his birthday each year, there was always an unspoken awareness of the surprise none of us had wanted. And at every gathering thereafter, even with the laughter and good times (and there were both), there has always been a slight echo of the joys that we never quite felt again. There’s even a part of me that wonders if my brother’s descent may have been partially fueled by that week in 1979.
While Jack and I remained close, he was angrier than he had been, and I always sensed the difference in him, the loss of innocence he must have felt in a way that even I could not. Eventually, though, he found the satisfaction of his marriage, his own children, and the career he loves. As I sometimes wonder what might have been if Michael had made different choices, I also wonder how much of Jack’s life has been shaped by the loss of his brother. But I can’t speak for him, and we’ve never talked about it.
Later today, I’ll call my aunt, as I always do on this date, and we’ll remember Jeff, because we love him and each other. These days, it’s a little easier to smile when we remember him, but the occasion remains the occasion, and we still hurt and wonder why things happened as they did. And the next time I’m in Nashville, I’ll go to the cemetery as I always do, and I’ll pay my respects to my grandparents, and my cousin-turned-brother, the best friend of my childhood.
I miss you, Jeff — I wish you could have been here longer.