Friday, July 3, 1992
I slept fitfully from three to six or so; Frank didn’t sleep at all. Our world had fallen apart; our son was gone. The emptiness I felt when I awoke that morning with only one child is indescribable. What was the reason for getting out of bed? I couldn’t think of a good one, but I knew that I had to. For one thing, I needed to check on the kids who had started out for Pensacola in the middle of the night. I dressed with no energy and went downstairs to meet them.
How different from most meetings that I had had with them in the past: tears instead of smiles, half-hearted attempts at hugs, futile attempts at conversation, tear-streaked make-up. Why had I even bothered to make myself presentable? Everyone would understand if I hadn’t even tried. But I couldn’t do that to Jay or to myself. I had to attempt to look good for my boy. I wouldn’t want him to be ashamed of me. I feel sure that someone was there even at that early hour, the Hinkleys or the Bennetts or the Youngs. I just don’t remember.
Around ten o’cloc Frank and I left alone to go to the funeral home to make arrangements. How could this be happening? Just twenty-four hours ago, we had been sitting at Cracker Barrel ordering a nutritious, delicious meal; it would have tasted like sawdust now. I had felt so bad that Thursday morning that I really didn’t want much to eat; however, the Lord works in our lives even when we don’t know we need Him. For some reason, I ate heartily. What a physical blessing!
As we turned in to Harper-Morris Funeral Home, Frank commented, “This is backward. We shouldn’t be burying our son; he should bury us.” We would say this over and over during the next year. Many friends said the same thing to us during that weekend.
That evening, Bob and Deb took us to Parisian because I wanted to buy Jay one last outfit. How I loved shopping for him at that store! It was the favorite place for both of us. His special saleslady waited on us, helped us pick out the clothes, and sent us the sweetest card the next week. We found something suitable—shirt, pants, belt. The outfit looked like something Jay would have picked out for dress clothes. I was satisfied. It felt so strange to be out in the world without Jay in it, though. Wendy went with us, too, and we all felt weird. People were going about their lives as though nothing had happened. How could they do this? Jay was dead; the world would never be the same again.
While we were shopping for clothes, we sent Bob and Deb to buy earrings for Jay. He had to have new earrings to wear for his final resting place. Bob, retired Army, was mortified, but he did his shopping anyway. I remember crying in 1984 because he had one pierce in his ear; now I was making sure that he had three earrings for his piercings.
Saturday, July 4, 1992
This morning, I couldn’t sleep past five o’clock. I went downstairs, sat in the recliner, and wept until I thought I would surely die of unhappiness. I didn’t see how I could live without Jay. Sometimes I still think that. I decided that writing might help me at that moment, so I went to the computer and wrote letters. To Jil, to Olga. That first writing was therapeutic. I knew I would write many times during the coming years, mainly about Jay.
This was the day of the first of many articles about Jay. Someone from the News-Journal had called me on Friday to get information for the article, and he did a good job with writing it. The obituary was also in the paper. I think Angela wrote it for us. I sat, read, wept.
Throughout the day, friends came, called, sent flowers and plants. I have no definite recollections of the day except a visit from Linda Rankin and a group from the Methodist church next door. To say that we were grateful is an understatement.
One definite thing I remember is Bob’s reminding me periodically that he needed to take the clothes to the funeral home so that the undertaker could get Jay ready for Sunday. Probably subconsciously, I didn’t want to send them because the preparation itself was too final. Eventually, though, I went upstairs to iron the pants and shirt, turning sweet Deb down about four times. She wanted to help me, but I wanted to iron Jay’s clothes just one more time. I have no idea how many times in the past few years that I heard a certain toned “Hey, Mom . . .” knowing instinctively that Jay was going to ask me to iron something for him. I never minded; I loved to do that one motherly thing for my boy. I wanted to do it just once more.
As I was standing there in a daze, mindlessly pressing the pants that didn’t really need any attention, Tara came up to talk to me. She rather offhandedly remarked, “You know, when my dad died last year, we buried him in his cut-offs, t-shirt, and deck shoes and put a rag in his hand because he was always cleaning something.” I immediately knew what she was trying valiantly to communicate to me.
“This isn’t right, is it?” I asked.
Hesitantly, I asked, “What do you think he should wear?”
No hesitation on her part, “His denim shirt, `jeans tight rolled, and Reeboks. Oh, and his Mexican belt.”
“That’s just what he had on the night that he left for Chattanooga. I remember thinking how cute he looked, and that’s exactly what he’ll wear for tomorrow.” What a relief! Several times during the day I had thought about that outfit but had decided it was inappropriate. When will I ever learn to do what I want to do and not to worry about what other people will think? I asked her to check with Frank and the guys. She brought word from them that they liked that outfit even better and that Todd also added one of the new Velvet Melon t-shirts under the denim shirt. Now my boy would be dressed right!
Frank wanted to take the guys to the gig they were supposed to play that night just to get them away from the crowds for a while. They would have none of it. Jay had planned to set off fireworks on the Fourth of July, and that’s what they wanted to do. I guess they went over to Alabama to make their purchase. Anyway, they had a big fireworks display right in our backyard . . . for their friend Jay. One of the guys, maybe Mike, came to me during the evening, put his arm around me, and announced that they would do this for Jay each Fourth of July. They would call it the Jay Young Memorial Blowout, and it would be sparkly and loud, just the way Jay would want it.
Sunday, July 5, 1992
Some things are fuzzy. I have vague recollections of trying to watch the First Baptist Church service on TV, of losing consciousness and Frank’s catching me before I hit the floor (remember that I was still having twinges of the vertigo that had sent me home instead of to the mountains for a camping trip), and of Jennifer Mann and Tom Jensen’s bringing me a cake. What a special gift from former students!
Soon after noon, I went upstairs to get ready to go to the funeral home. Channel 3 was sending a reporter and cameraman out to interview us. I had never heard of anyone else in Pensacola having this great honor. Jay was a very special young man whose personality and heart touched hundreds of people in Pensacola, including many who worked at the television station.
I can’t remember whether they came at two or three, but they came. All of us were interviewed – Frank, Wendy, the guys in the band, me. I believe they even interviewed Angela; however, that part was cut during the editing. I was sorry about that because she deserved to be heard if anyone did. I floated through, answering questions and making comments that I could never have done without God’s help. Frank spoke, too. And so did Wendy. We all sounded coherent, calm, composed. I’ll never fully understand how we did it, but I’m grateful for the prayers of friends and the uplifting of the Lord.
The hours at the funeral home are indescribable. Years before, Dana had bought Jay a saxophone. She had asked if she could place it next to the casket. We had already decided that we would put several of his instruments in that place because music was Jay. We certainly thought Dana’s request reasonable; however, even though we had asked for that particular instrument to be left outside the room so that she could do what she wanted to, someone had already placed it with the other instruments. We quickly removed it before Dana arrived. Just in time, I might add. Tara didn’t go to the funeral home with us, so we avoided any unpleasantness that might have resulted if both friends had arrived at the same time. Bless Dana’s heart . . . she still considered herself the “girlfriend,” I fear, even though Jay was very much in love with Tara at the time of his death. Dana put inside the casket a carnation with a picture of her and Jay attached. Old fuddy duddy mama didn’t care for the picture, though, because in it Jay had a beer in his hand. I didn’t want my church friends to remember Jay that way. I casually slipped the picture into Jay’s pocket, but I told Dana what I had done.
I remember walking around to see who had sent all the lovely flowers. We had requested for donations to go to a Pensacola Junior College scholarship in Jay’s memory, but many, many people had sent flowers. I was glad; flowers just help the bereaved . . . or at least this bereaved. They were absolutely gorgeous. If only I had the words to describe them! The blanket of flowers that I had ordered for the casket (almost too late, I might add) were the prettiest I’d ever seen. For my boy. They were bright and cheerful, and if he had been one to be impressed by flowers, he would have loved them.
We had asked Oliver, one of Jay’s and our D.J. friends, to bring a small stereo system to play music . . . Kenny G . . . in the background softly. Jay would have probably preferred something loud and rocking, but we really felt that soft sax music would be more appropriate. And besides, Jay loved Kenny G. Suzy had told us a while back that once while the guys were living in New York, Jay had spied Kenny G. walking on the other side of the street. What did that crazy kid do? He hollered, “Hey, Kenny! Love ya, man!” And Kenny’s response? “Love ya, too!”
For the next three hours or so, we greeted, hugged, laughed with, cried with over five hundred friends. I’m sure that not only was this the largest number of people ever assembled at Harper-Morris Funeral Home, but that it was also the most eclectic group. Jay’s friends ran the gamut of people from Pensacola to parts unknown. Since he had the innate ability to associate with and to become real friends with folks from every age group and every walk of life, our comforters were a “motley crew.” Most of his friends are also our friends, but in addition, we had people there who were our friends aside from his: co-workers, former students, church friends. And then there were Wendy and Steve’s friends. I wish I had pictures of all of those people. Of course, I have the guest book, and I can go back to that to get my mental picture, but it’s not the same.
I neglected to mention earlier that Wendy’s catharsis during the weekend had been the assembling of two beautiful collages of Jay’s life: one from the beginning to the end, with lots of family pictures; the other of the life of Jay and Velvet Melon, that one, too, with family because all of us were involved in that aspect of Jay’s life. Actually, Melonheads from all over had worked on the project, rummaging through years’ worth of pictures all day Friday and Saturday. They chose the ones they felt should be included. During the whole process, I had listened to laughter and tears as they talked about their good friend. The activity was part of the healing they needed. They fondly referred to our home as the “healing house,” and indeed it was . . . is. In the final analysis, Wendy, herself, chose the pictures to be included because it was her project, her healing. She stayed up all Saturday night working on it and didn’t get any sleep until we got up on Sunday morning. Let’s face it, though. Part of the reason that she didn’t go to bed was not because of the collages—she couldn’t find a bed! When we got up, she crawled, exhausted, into our bed and slept for a couple of hours. I’m afraid no one slept for very long at a time during that weekend. How could we? Jay was dead. We were devastated.
Back to the funeral home. We took the collages with us so that people could see them. I love the new custom of taking things of the deceased to the funeral home. It helps us remember them alive, and that’s just what we should do. Jay is, indeed, alive; in fact, as someone pointed out to us immediately, he is more alive today than he ever was on earth. But that’s another journal entirely. Someday I’ll get to that one. Probably I’ll need more healing myself before I can attempt it.
That afternoon, we found roles reversed. I honestly believe that we did more comforting than anyone else did. People just didn’t know what to say, what to do. All we needed were hugs and reassurance. They gave that to us. But we gave them something else, as our friends have told us since that day. We weren’t aware of it at the time; it certainly wasn’t a conscious act on our part. It’s just that we had experienced so much spiritually in the past two days that we had something to share with our friends. We could honestly tell them that God has a plan and that we don’t understand all of it. I kept telling people that Frank and I had joined an exclusive club and that we didn’t want them to be members—the club of parents of deceased children. No loss is so devastating as the loss of a child. Of that, we are sure. Frank admonished them to enjoy, appreciate, support, and love their children. We have always had the comfort of knowing we did just that with Jay, and for that we have no sorrow. The sorrow comes in part from knowing we can no longer fulfill these actions with Jay. Wendy now receives all of them, not that she ever lacked them. She welcomes them; however, she would tell you in a heartbeat that it was much better to share them with Jay. The word Wendy means “wanderer”; the name absolutely fits now that she no longer has her brother-buddy. When a sibling dies, the other sibling has no way of replacing him or her. Antigone understood.
At the visitation that evening, the line was all the way out the door and around the block. My cousin Marilyn kept trying to keep me with my family, but I couldn’t resist walking back in the line to greet those who loved us and our boy so much that they would give up their Sunday afternoon to stand in line just to hug us, tell us how much they loved us and Jay, and to try to comfort us. We tried to be brave.
I haven’t mentioned how Jay looked. I don’t think I can describe it. He was recognizable, but he certainly wasn’t my boy. All the life was gone; only the shell was left. When Danny Hamilton came through the line, he asked if he could take a picture of Jay. We told him it would be fine, but in my heart, I said I never want to see it. I much prefer the hundreds of pictures we have, pictures showing that beautiful personality that continues to develop in the presence of the Lord. I firmly believe that he is still growing – in talent, in personality, in love of God and with God.
What I started out to say is that his friends took care of the way he looked. As they passed by the casket, they reached in and rearranged his hair, the most important part of that physical existence of Jay. The hair was his pride; they knew that. And even though the funeral directors had tried, they had not arranged it right. With no life left in it, they had an impossible job, but those kids knew what to do.
Other things happened, too. Todd took charge of his shirt. Before I knew it, the denim shirt was opened, the t-shirt in full view; so much “stuff” added that it reminded me of an old Anglo-Saxon burial in which the retainers attempted to make their king as comfortable as they could in the afterlife . . . not that I believe that necessary. Andy had put the lei that Jay had requested from Hawaii (actually, what Jay told Andy was that he wanted a good lei . . . take that how you will!) in the casket with his friend; Tara laid a flower with her boyfriend; someone had made a clover bracelet and put it on Jay’s wrist. (Mike added, on Monday, Jay’s trusty NY baseball cap that he wore to cover his hair when he hadn’t had time to shower.) Jay looked much more like himself and comfortable by the time that we left. Once more, his friends had come through for him. And for us.
That evening, we all eagerly awaited the ten o’clock news to see what the media had done with our story. It was beautiful. Just beautiful. Very tastefully done and a wonderful tribute to our boy. He was the star. How I hope he knew what was going on that evening!
I believe that thirteen people besides us slept at our house that night.
Monday, July 6, 1992
The thirteen young people were scattered all over our house, and Marilyn was in the downstairs guest room. Kids from Pensacola, Biloxi, and Chattanooga had found a little space last night. I doubt that they had slept long, wherever they had lain down.
The funeral was at 10:00 a.m, but anyone arriving after 9:15 didn’t get a seat. Many people stood in the back, around the walls, and in the foyer to the funeral home. We heard that about eighty people were outside the building. Andy counted 129 cars in the procession to the cemetery.
Some people might object to a funeral that could easily be called a celebration, but that’s exactly what Jay’s was. We wanted to celebrate the life of our boy, who had touched so many lives and who would be missed tremendously for a long time. Just to prove that Jay’s service was different and celebratory, here’s what one of Wendy’s best friends said, “I’ve never attended a funeral before, so I don’t have anything to compare with; but I think funerals after this one will be quite a let-down.” My answer to her would be that any others certainly will not be like Jay’s. Since Jay was not an ordinary young man, his funeral was not ordinary. It was truly a celebration of his life!
We asked several people to take part in the service. Roy Chewning, my cousin’s ex-husband and a local pastor, was the first speaker. Since he was Jay’s “uncle,” he had known Jay the longest. He spoke a little about Jay’s early life, read and commented on Scripture, and had prayer. The thing I remember most about Roy’s words was something he began his comments with, “I didn’t really know Jay after he was grown, but I heard one of his friends say before we came in that Jay had lived more in 24 years than most people live in 75!” How true!
Then Rick Gill, one of Jay’s Sunday School teachers, spoke. One funny incident that he recollected was the time that he (Rick) spent two nights in Jay’s room during a youth retreat at our house. He entered a new world—one with very special posters. You can imagine the ones that were in that rocker’s room! He also recalled for us that Jay was the third “Mr. Leprechaun” in his Sunday School department—strictly a popularity honor on St. Patrick’s Day.
Next came two of Jay’s best friends—#1 Melonheads Angela Hinkley and Andy Waltrip. Andy had just landed a job at a hotel in Hawai’i when Jay died. As soon as he heard about Jay, he headed back to Pensacola because, as he told us, “I didn’t have a support group there. I needed to be with friends and family.” The following is what Andy said at our boy’s funeral:
I was fortunate enough to call Jay Young my friend, the same as all of you. You see, Jay knew everybody. Even if he didn’t know you, he acted like he knew. Jay had a unique way of making people feel comfortable around him. If you look up the word charisma in the dictionary, there will be a picture of Jay Young right there next to it.
He had such a diverse group of people that liked him. When we would be out on the road, he could, and would, talk to a mechanic, a janitor, or a teacher. If we were in a restaurant, he instantly became best friends with the waitress and sometimes the manager. When we were in a bar, he could just as easily talk to an accountant, a drunk, and certainly any pretty girl within ten feet.
Jay was where the fun was. He could make the most mundane situation hilarious, and usually did. He loved life, and his love was infectious! Everybody wanted to be around him. If you were a Melonhead and knew Jay, you were “IN.” It was cool to say, “Yeah, I know Jay.”
I have this picture of getting to the pearly gates, coming before St. Peter and saying, “I know Jay Young!” and him saying, “Oh, well, then you’re cool. Come on in!” And Jay would be just inside the gate to welcome me. I look forward to seeing him again up there. I love you, Mom and Pop.
Angela talked about what it meant to be a Melonhead. Melonheads were a special group of friends who tried to be at every gig. There were, and still are, Melonheads all over the Southeast and even as far away as California. The requirement for being a Melonhead? Just love the band, love their music (both the covers and the originals), show up for gigs whenever possible, and love to dance to their music. Pretty easy, huh? Neither Angela not I have any idea about the number of these followers, but dozens appeared every time Velvet Melon performed.
All of the guys in the band then spoke, a very emotional time for all of us, including them. During all of the tributes to Jay, we were either doubling over with laughter or weeping. The whole service was a catharsis for all. After the guys spoke, they sang. The first song they sang was “Lights,” one of Jay’s originals; the second was “Let It Be.” Both were so beautiful. I just wish I had the words to describe the guys’ performance. There was not a dry eye in the house.
The next speaker was Tim Weekley, a young minister who was one of Jay’s best friends. He was the official Velvet Melon chaplain. He is a man of God, and his contribution was a masterpiece. Every person in attendance heard a message straight from the Lord. We wanted the sermon to be one that young people would remember, and we believe Tim succeeded in delivering it.
As the pall bearers, all of them either current or former guys from Velvet Melon, carried Jay’s casket out, we heard “When I Get Home,” by 4Him (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTBaisNU7S8). What a beautiful, meaningful song! It is about a young person’s leaving this world too soon but with the comfort that he and his friends will be together again when they all go Home. I’m forever indebted to Steve Mansfield for suggesting this song to us.
At the cemetery, our friend Jim Wilson spoke. His message was wonderful. I hope it was something that he had used before and just modified for Jay. You see, all of us had forgotten that we needed some thoughts graveside. I had called Jim early the morning of the funeral to ask him to do the “honors.” God told me to ask him, so he was the one meant to do it. His message was just what all of us needed to hear. We even sang “Amazing Grace” right there at the graveside. It was so moving to hear those young people singing a church hymn. Actually, I doubt that I sang at all. I just absorbed the song, something to “ponder in my heart.”
Just before all of us left the cemetery, one of the guys in the band (I think it was Todd Laws) slapped a Velvet Melon sticker on Jay’s casket. This mother’s heart sang with that gesture!
One last thing about the funeral and the visitation on Saturday, where more than 500 people signed the guest book. I always asked Jay how the gig the night before went, and his standard reply after a good night was, “It was a good crowd, Mom.” We were so glad that Jay had another “good crowd.” I feel certain in my heart that Jay was watching those days and that he was truly happy with the celebration.
We were so touched by the generosity of all our friends and family. The flowers and plants were absolutely beautiful. Our home looked like a florist’s shop. They lasted a long time because Frank took such good care of them in his greenhouse. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer said that the Franklin’s house “snowed of meat and drink.” That was true of ours as well. People began bringing food to us on Friday, and they didn’t stop delivering for a week. Since we had hordes of hungry young people here, we were very much grateful. Jubilee, a beach restaurant where Velvet Melon played each Sunday night during the summer of 1991, sent a huge box of fried chicken and enormous bowls of green salad and potato salad. The young people devoured the food!
The rest of the day was full of people. Some stayed into the night. Jim and Carol Woods and their children had come in from south Florida on Saturday. Before they left for home on Monday evening, Jim asked if he could talk to the young people who were still there. Such a sweet talk . . . straight from his heart about living life here and in the hereafter. Those “kids,” whom we saw mainly in bars, sat there enthralled by Jim and his testimony. What joy! A revival right in our family room with some of the people that we love best in the world. Only Jay was missing . . . and I have a feeling that he knew exactly what was going on and was saying to the Lord Jesus, “Cool! That’s so cool!”
Later that evening, we—Frank and I—met in our bedroom for privacy with some special people—Wendy, Todd, Gus, and Roz. We wanted Todd and Roz to tell us exactly what happened in our boy’s life during his last twenty-four hours. As best we could tell, when Jay and Todd left Nashville, they went immediately to Chattanooga, stopping along the way to purchase beer, which I think they drank on the way, and Ephedrine, an over-the-counter “stay awake” drug. Jay took some of the Ephedrine, as he sometimes did when he was tired and sleepy but wanted to stay awake for something important, like a gig. I had asked him many times not to take those pills; however, he always assured me that he didn’t take them often and that they wouldn’t hurt him. (Later, too late, I discovered that people with heart problems should never take them. The warning is right there on the label. But we didn’t know then that Jay had a heart problem.) Evidently, he didn’t eat anything that night, but he did drink quite heavily at Yesterday’s, so much that he threw up several times after leaving the club and then on the way home the next day. Gus, after asking many questions of Todd and Roz, tentatively concluded that Jay was probably dehydrated and that that condition aggravated the heart problem considerably, to the extent that it killed him. Gus didn’t know for sure at that time that Jay had a heart problem; rather he assumed that something was wrong with his heart because of the suddenness of his death. Would he have lived had he not been drinking, had he not been dehydrated? We’ll never know. From the conclusions reached in the second autopsy, he had an enlarged heart and a degenerated mitral valve. He might have had it from birth. It might have been something that had developed through the years. It could have killed him at any time. What we gather is that Jay had the same kind of diseased heart that athletes who drop dead for apparently no reason have. “And we’ll understand it better by and by.” That’s the comfort we have.
(I do need to introduce you to one of the young people gathered in our bedroom on July 6. Gus Krucke was Wendy’s best friend in high school and one of our favorite friends. We watched him grow up, loving him all the time. In 1992, he was a doctor specializing in determining the cause of death. He came to Pensacola to be with us [especially with Wendy] in our time of need as soon as he heard about Jay. We valued his determination, sent him the autopsy report when it came, and had him check to see if his determination had been right. It had. Gus is another person to whom we are forever indebted.)
(One more thing about July 6. Frank’s mother’s birthday is July 6, and in order to give her something pleasant on the day that her grandson would be buried, my precious brother-in-law Jim took Grandma to a nice restaurant for lunch. She could celebrate her birthday, but she could also ease the pain of losing her grandson. I’m sure they talked about Jay, and I’ll bet both of them had memories that they shared. Grandma probably told Jim about the wild ride that Jay took her on his go-cart. In The Jay Book, she said of the experience, “He went like the devil. I had a good ride.” And Jim probably told about the time that he convinced Jay that jalapenos were sweet peppers, and Jay popped a whole one from a jar in his mouth. Poor Jay . . . we thought he’s never get his mouth cooled or his eyes to quit dripping! Or maybe he told about the time that we all went to New Orleans while Jim was visiting us in Pensacola. Jay needed a nap. We needed for Jay to have a nap! Jim told him that if he closed his eyes, he could check his eyelids for holes. Jay closed his eyes, looking for holes, but instead he took a nap. All good memories, and I hope Grandma and Jim shared them on July 6.)
The Healing Heart
(Written in 2017)
The days after the funeral were a jumble. They were a jumble at the time, and now, twenty-five years later, they are even more so. I’ll try my best to get some semblance of order.
Jay’s funeral had been on Monday, and on Tuesday afternoon, we began the trip to Biloxi, MS, to take Tara home. This was the first time that we had ever been with Tara alone, except for my ten minutes with her while I was ironing Jay’s burial clothes. All three of us needed our time together. We stopped in Mobile for dinner at Wentzel’s and chatted away the whole time.
When we returned home that evening, we found the Healing House still occupied by lots of Jay’s friends. All of them got great comfort in being together, swapping “war stories” about Jay. Lots of laughter and lots of tears, I’m sure.
I remember that Jay’s friends were with us for several days; Frank remembers that they were there for weeks. Somewhere in between is probably correct. In any event, we loved having them with us, and believe me, we had enough food to feed the proverbial army, so I wasn’t spending hours and hours in the kitchen. Neither did I have to feed them only hot dogs the way I had done in the early days of Velvet Melon.
I can’t recall much during those days, but I do remember going to Cordova Mall to a store where Jay had put some clothes on lay-a-way. I went to tell them to put the items back on the shelves and explained briefly why Jay wouldn’t be in again. The clerk wanted to know if I wanted Jay’s money back. No, I didn’t. When I left, I went across the mall to a store where a friend worked. I just needed to talk. When I told her about my visit to the clothing store, she said, “Sandy, you must get over this.” I couldn’t believe my ears. She had two children alive and well. How could she say this to me when Jay hadn’t been dead more than a couple of weeks? But she didn’t understand. I had to try to make myself believe this and to forgive her. I did both eventually. Many people during this time hugged me and said, “I just don’t know what to say.” Actually, all I needed was the hug. What we all need to learn from my friend’s words is that if we haven’t traveled the grieving person’s road, it’s probably best not to say anything. Just give a hug.
I learned in the days after Jay died that one of the main things I needed from friends was permission to talk about him. Most of them obliged, but even today some aren’t comfortable when I talk about him. Frank had a friend who would literally change the subject if he mentioned Jay. He’d change the subject to what his son was doing. People react to death, especially the death of a child, in different ways. Children aren’t supposed to die before their parents, so the discussion of the children brings thoughts of “What if my child died?” and adults have difficulty with the topic. Anyway, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to.
One person who would always talk to me was my sister-cousin JoAnn Gaines. I remember one day thinking I just want to crawl back in bed and die. I knew I couldn’t do that because I had Wendy and Frank and Corey and needed to at least attempt to stay strong for them. I called Jo that morning because I knew she’d make me laugh, and that’s just what she did.
Every afternoon for at least three weeks, Wendy, Frank, and I gathered at our dining room table. We were there to open the mail. Every day, we received cards and letters, all of them telling us how much they loved Jay. I’m sure you can imagine the laughter and tears present during those times. Somewhere there’s a box with all of them in it. Someday I’ll find it!
I’ll tell you about one envelope that arrived. The return address was Danny Hamilton’s. You may remember that Danny was Jay’s friend who took a photo of Jay in the casket and that I said I never wanted to see it. Well, the three of us were afraid that Danny had sent the photo to us. Here’s how the “conversation” went that afternoon:
“You open it.”
“No, you open it.”
“Not me. You open it.”
This went on for several minutes. Someone opened it. In the envelope was a sweet note from Danny and a photo of Jay outside the Melon Mobile, exhibiting Danny’s art work. We all laughed and breathed a sigh of relief! Here’s the photo that we found inside:
(Fast forward to August 15, 2016, when we met with Danny for a few minutes between trains in Los Angeles, where he lives. We had a wonderful time reminiscing about his and Jay’s high school days. I just had to take the opportunity to ask him about the casket photo and the people who had seen it. He enlightened us. He never showed it to anyone; however, before he could put it away where no one would ever see it, a friend happened upon it lying on Danny’s desk. He asked Jay’s friend about it, and I think Danny gave a short answer, all the while taking it away from the person. After the explanation, the friend said something like, “That’s sick, Dan!” Danny hid the photo, and no one, not even he, has seen it since. I like that story!)
A little more than a month after the funeral, school started. I would be going back to my home away from home, Woodham High School, where I had taught English for more than twenty years, where I knew virtually every faculty member, where I knew that I’d be welcomed with open, loving arms. The first day back was difficult, mainly because of all the hugs and kind words. I loved them, but they brought tears. How did I handle this? I retreated from time to time to my office, where I could weep and talk to God. He got me through.
I was overjoyed to see 150 seventeen-year-olds that first day. I was back in my element, and I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on my grief. I had teaching to do. Since most of my students had heard about Jay, they were on their best behavior. I had taught some of their brothers and sisters and maybe even a parent or two. My classroom had been my comfort zone for twenty-four years, and it would continue to be.
I do remember two specific times when I had a hard time, though. One time was in the classroom, but I don’t remember specifics. A student said something that touched a grief nerve, and I immediately left the room, tears already beginning to come. As I left, I heard a dear student, Whitney Voeltz, say to the other student something like, “How can you say that? Don’t you know that her son just died?” I don’t remember the student who hurt my feelings, but I have never forgotten Whitney!
Another time that I remember tears starting was during my duty period not long after school started. For some reason, we had a band playing out on the campus during lunch. My duty station was just inside the back doors. They began playing a song that Velvet Melon played, and the tears came. One of my students walked by me just as I started to cry. She stopped immediately and gave me a great big hug. Later that day, she slipped a note in my hand when she passed my room, where I was standing during class change. Such a sweet note telling me how sorry she was about Jay and how much she loved me. If only I had a good memory and could tell you her name!
One morning, I went in to tell Frank good-bye, leaned down to kiss him and heard him say, “I wish I could get in my truck and drive off a cliff.” I realized that he was at the bottom of his grief and that I couldn’t leave him. I hadn’t heard him sound so despondent since Jay’s death. I immediately called Mrs. Love at school and told her I needed a substitute and whoever could come would just have to find something for my students to do. I didn’t have time to think about being a teacher at that moment: I had to be a wife and comforter. Everyone in my department came to my rescue.
I talked Frank into getting dressed, and we left the house. What I can recall of the day is that we roamed around the mall, went to a furniture store and wished for money to make purchases, and ate lunch at Pizza Hut. We both needed a day away from memories, just doing nothing in particular. If I recall, it was Friday, and we had the weekend to get ourselves together to face yet another week without Jay. Never an easy thing to do, but every time we had to face a new day, we could feel the presence of Jesus going right along with us.
And now, let me tell you about the next part of my book. For several years, I have been writing about Jay. Almost everything I’ve written, I’ve posted on either Facebook or my blog (http://www.foreveryoung279.blogspot.com) or sometimes both. As I mentioned earlier, all parents have are memories, and I have wanted through the years to preserve as many as I can.
And so . . . the next part of this book will consist of pieces that I’ve written and posted. I can’t imagine how I could have worked through my grief without writing. I’m not a professional; I’m just a mother who uses her words to preserve her son’s memory, the writing helping to heal her heart.