My One and Only Dear John Letter

When I was four years old, John and Ada moved next door with their daughter Maureen and Jen. As Maureen, who is two years older than me, tells it, she and I were the first to meet over the fence which separated our homes which share a backyard. Evidently, I sparked up a conversation with her about McDonalds and Burger King. Burger King had better burgers and McDonald’s had better fries. I don’t know how a four year old would know such things or have enough time in her young life to do the research necessary to make the claim. Especially considering we didn’t eat at those places all that much that I recall.

Regardless of how we connected, our two families, neither of which had family nearby, became a family. Maureen and I played together. Sometimes all four of us played together. We celebrated holidays together, Christmas dinners and Easter brunches, Thanksgiving meals and every day cook-outs.

I remember watching John crank the massive handle on the wood ice cream maker. I remember there being a need for salt to be added to the ice. I remember I didn’t much like blueberry ice cream (I still don’t), but I ate some anyway because ice cream’s better when it’s homemade, no matter the flavor.

Christopher, Jen, Maureen and I put on performances, too. Most notably was our circus; Christopher was the comic part of the show, dressed like a lady, wearing Jen’s training bra over his patriotic t-shirt, and a pair of nylons on his head. Maureen was the acrobat, whirling around the lawn, cartwheeling in a blue leotard. Jen was a ring master, I was a strong man, lifting up over my head in triumph, a barbell made with a stick and one balloon on either end. Except right before I was to come out for my part of the show, one balloon popped. We improvised, as good circus performers do, and stuck the stick into the soft summer earth so I could lift it our like Excalibur’s sword from the rock to applause from our small audience of adults.  The finale will go down in the Scott Wall book as one of the most memorable vignettes. All the kids went inside and when we emerged, I was holding a hula hoop and the others were on all fours. Lions! And I the lion tamer. The name of this act? The Ferocious Mildreds.

I have no memory of this and I tell it from stories which came from others. The story goes that the parents basically lost it completely. Tears rolling down their face at the innocent, possibly unintentional stab we had made. Have I mentioned on this blog before that my very difficult, relatively unpleasant, late-maternal grandmother was named Mildred?  Therine lies the hilarity of the circus act.

We spent a lot of time together. We two families. I had countless dinners at their house and when I got older, John drove Maureen and I to school every morning when our high school careers coincided. Whenever one family went to the others for a meal, party, or celebration, we were always smiling to see each other. There was a long-standing joke that our families could never get through a meal without potty humor coming in to play. John was said to be the source of such humor. He and I bonded over our love of the movie Parenthood. Most notably for the scene when one of the kids sings and entire song about diarrhea. It was not uncommon when I was a kid, for John and I to bust out the diarrhea song for kicks and giggles. We thought it was funny, anyway.  When I would go to the Walls for a visit while living away for so many years, they always seemed happy to see me; all hugs and smiles and “tell us the latest!”.

When my own dad had his heart attacks so many years ago, I thought, who would walk me down the isle if I ever got married and Dad wasn’t here? John would, is what I thought.

Why am I telling these stories about the past? I do that sometimes, but this time, I’m just stalling. Stalling about talking about today, because today, we are one less.

Less than a month ago, John went to the hospital with stroke-like symptoms. It wasn’t long before they realized he had a massive brain tumor. Geo sarcoma, I believe. In extremely aggressive cancer. The majority of the tumor was removed, but the surgery left him, now 73, extremely weak, mostly blind, and with partially paralyzed vocal cords. He developed a severe case of thrush as he attempted to recover at a rehab center.

It is the cruelest of things; he loved to laugh and tell jokes, and was barely able to speak. He loved food and was unable to eat because of the pain on his tongue and throat. He loved to learn and research and could no longer see the pages if they were placed in front of him.

It was nasty. It was unfair. It was shocking, sudden, and fast.

It wasn’t a week before it became clear that John would not recover. He was brought home for hospice care on Friday.  On Sunday I went to visit him. Also there were Jen, Lilly, 15, Patrick, Ada, and an attending nurse. We all joined John in the front room where he lay in his hospital bed as the nurse fed him some soup. John was out of it, but knew we were there. He struggled with the carrots in the soup and Jen rushed off to puree it some more.

Eventually, Patrick said “Grampy, we’re gonna head back over to my parents’ place where Owen’s watching the Pat’s Game”.  John’s eyes shot open at the sound of football “What happened!” he whispered loudly, curious about the status of the game, and we all laughed. Lilly and I looked at each other and there was an unspoken feeling of relief that we saw a smidgen of John. A bit of himself rising out of that limp body on the bed before us. There was a break in the uncomfortable tension and feeling of helplessness and Lilly and I appreciated it together, without words.

Jen and I stayed with John for a bit. I figured out how to get the football game on the TV for him. After doing so, as Jen gave him a Popsicle, I said to John “I’m sorry, John, I know nothing about football so I can’t explain what’s going on. There’s just a bunch of big guys in tight pants. That’s all I know”

He laughed. I was glad he laughed. I have that. As I said goodbye, I gave him a staccato of kisses on the cheek and told him I loved him. He said it back to me.

I didn’t get to say goodbye, or tell him how much I loved knowing him, how grateful I am that he moved in next door along with Ada, Jennifer and Maureen so long ago, how happy I am to have so many memories of his incredible humor, intelligence, and kindness, but I do have the kiss and the “I love you” and that’s not too bad.

He died Monday night, October 26, 2015

Tuesday morning I went over to the Walls house before my late shift started. Mom and Dad were there and I added a collection of muffins to the breakfast they were already eating. Jen and Maureen were working on what the next steps were. Helping them get an obituary photo ready. We were basically just being together. Keeping each other company. That evening, there would be a lot of food, Jen told me, and I should join them if I could. As I left to go to work, I said goodbye to Lilly who was in the kitchen leaning over a bowl of Ramen and she gave me a distracted but clear “Bye I love you!”

I headed to work and knew I just didn’t care what assignment needed to be shot that night. I wanted to be with my family. So I got out of it, and that’s what I did. We ate, we chatted, we raised a glass to Grampy, “If Dad were here” Maureen said as we sat down to eat  “he would say ‘MM MM MM MM MM!”

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Back at my parents’ place, John crankin up some ice cream