30 Oct October 30, 1997
The hurricane was my main thought this morning. I woke up to make sure we had power and no trees had fallen in the woods behind our house. The pelting rain still bounced off our home, but we were fine. Snug indoors. No work and no school. No reason to leave the neighborhood. The bulk of the storm was history. Ahh. Such a nice day.
I scrolled through my facebook feed and saw this post from my dear niece: “Hard to believe it has been 15 years since that horrible night. I miss my dad more than anyone could ever know.”
I knew today was coming.
But with a houseful of kids (mine and various neighbors) needing peanut butter and jelly and chicken nuggets and 47 cups of apple cider to fuel their “Hurricane Sandy Woo Hoo No School Rave Party” in our basement, the black October 30 date did not throw me off balance like it does sometimes.
Until I saw her facebook status. She lost her daddy when she was nine. Poor sweet thing. And he was a good daddy too.
Fifteen years ago on October 30, 1997, Lee and I had been married almost four months. We lived in a one-bedroom, furnished (ick) apartment in Paducah, Kentucky. He worked in the corporate world. I went between substitute teaching jobs (Remember the Paducah school shooting in November 1997? Horrible. We were there.) and office jobs with a temp agency.
That Thursday morning I went to work for the first time in an extremely unorganized office. File folders littered the floor and were stacked on top of desks and cabinets. I don’t remember what kind of business it was but I know their record keeping was out of control.
I was stashed in a room with three desks, two were taken. A man and a woman who had seemingly, from all their gossip and inside jokes, worked together for years gave me a two-minute tutorial on how to manually enter the information hidden inside the file folders into their new computer database. Easy enough. Repetitive and brainless, my kind of job.
On my lunch hour, since I was an outsider, I went alone to eat my packed lunch at Noble Park. Lee and I spent a lot of Sundays reading the paper on the shores of its man-made lake. I chose a bench overlooking the water and devoured my food and then just sat, killing time. I remember thinking I was happy the job would last a few weeks and I could develop a bit of a routine. Peace comes for me with predictability. Oh, if I had known.
That evening after dinner, Lee called one of his friends and went into the bedroom to chat. I was more than content to hang on our borrowed blue couch to view Seinfeldand other sitcoms.
After his hour-long conversation, Lee was not even out of the bedroom when the phone rang. Instant ring. Almost like the caller had been dialing and dialing, just waiting to get through. (This of course was back in the dark ages when we had no caller ID, no call waiting, one home phone only – no cell phones.)
Lee answered. I heard him groan and walk out to me. Darn. I was enjoying TV and didn’t want to talk. (Again, dark ages. Watching live TV. Couldn’t pause anything.)
He said, “I better let you talk to JJ.”
Christy, my stepsister was there. I don’t know her exact words, but she told me Jeff, my brother, was dead. They thought it may be a heart attack. A heart attack? He was 34 years old!
TV off. Suitcase packed. Shower. Called and cancelled my new job. Lee called his boss.
We checked in again with my family and found out that my dad was in Texas on business and had to get home to Indiana somehow.
He had just arrived at the hotel room with a banana split to enjoy after a day of travel when he got the news. He immediately abandoned the room to make the long trip home. His ice cream left to melt.
Lee, thinking rationally, decided we would head south from Kentucky instead of north to Indiana. Dad drove north from Texas and we met up on the highway somewhere. Then traveled home together. Even though we were in two vehicles, we were together.
Imagine finding out your son was dead and then have to face a 20-hour roadtrip (or more, I have no idea) alone, with nothing but your thoughts and talk radio. Dreadful.
As it turned out, Jeff did not have a heart attack. No. My big brother died by drinking rubbing alcohol. Either an accidental overdose or a suicide. His girlfriend found him dead, sitting on a chair by the refrigerator. I can’t tell you how many times this image has haunted my thoughts. What was he thinking?
Jeff was 19 when our mom died, by her own hand. Her death rocked our world and we both coped in our own ways. He was a fun and jovial person and responsible and kind. Funniest person I knew. But I never saw him without a drink in his hand. He fought many demons.
So. His kids. Here they are today, still battling the sadness, the legacy he left them. It’s another example of: life sucks, life is not fair. My nine-year-old niece and 11-year-old nephew should have been enjoying their Halloween that year, not mourning their daddy.
Someone can look at Jeff’s life and figure he was doomed. His mom committed suicide. He had the same tendency. But are his kids going to follow that pattern?
Pray for them. God, I pray for them.
I want them to know that I had the same mom Jeff had and battle/battled many of the same demons. Life isn’t always rainbows and lollipops (shucks!). But with pain, you can live. Day by day, step by step.
The demons still lurk around my thought life. But with the power of Jesus Christ, they have been beaten down so their power does not grip me.
God is big. And hard to understand sometimes. But don’t be dismayed. We all have to make a choice – “Am I going to be miserable? Or am I going to be victorious?”
Be encouraged you who may be suffering – holding onto a God takes courage and blind faith. It’s not the easy road, but rather the challenging one. The freedom and peace that comes from making the decision and taking that first small but mighty step is worth it.
We don’t control what others do – those sweet kiddoes had nothing to do with their daddy’s death. But they can control how they live now. I pray pray pray for victory.