I cannot say, and I will not say–James Whitcomb Riley, Away
That he is dead- . He is just away!
With a cheery smile, and a wave of the hand
He has wandered into an unknown land,
And left us dreaming how very fair
It needs must be, since he lingers there.
In late June of 2008, a mere three weeks after I underwent lifesaving surgery, I arrived at the local college campus to meet with someone I had only spoken with on the phone, a man named Jonathan. I was determined to completely derail my career and switch majors from elementary education to veterinary medicine, and he was the last roadblock standing in my way. I had filled out all the forms, dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s, but there was the problem of me being wait listed, as the program only had 64 seats. This “Jonathan” was going to get me into the program whether he wanted to or not.
My bravado wavered immediately as I walked into the door of his office and I saw him: a 6’4″, bald headed, bear of a man with a scowl that sent shivers down my spine. Okay, so, maybe I would be asking more than demanding, but damn it, I wanted this so bad I’d face him down if I had to. I swallowed the lump in my throat and told him that I would like to know what I needed to do to get moved up the wait list.
He laughed at me, a soft chuckle that belied his size. “You do realize it’s June and classes start in August, right? You better pray.”
My face must have ratted out my inner dialogue, because he laughed again at my reaction. He told me that I’d need to come with him on an official orientation tour later and that maybe, just maybe, he’d give me some more information. In those first few moments, there was something about him that told me he’d be important in my life. I had no idea just how much of an impact one person could have on me until later.
My good friend Taylor was also on the wait list, and we attended the tour together. Jonathan saw and greeted me, and we made light talk throughout the entire tour. If you knew me back then, you’d know this was sort of a big deal, as I was extremely shy and barely spoke unless I knew you well. With Jonathan, I felt like I had always known him, from the very instant we met.
At some point on the tour, he made fun of my fanny pack, which, unbeknownst to him, contained my abdominal drains from my surgery. I sheepishly told him and for the first time, that tough exterior cracked and he apologized profusely. He’d later tell me he never felt like such an ass!
I impressed him in some way and he got me in contact with who I needed to talk to to get moved on the wait list. “She’ll tell you no at first, but call her every day for a week? You’ll be in.” I did so, as did Taylor, and we both entered the program that August.
As my instructor, Jonathan was terrifying, in a good way. He made sure that all students respected the work, respected the learning process, and above all, respected the animals. When it came time for him to hire the yearly kennel assistant to take care of the colony animals, I found him looking squarely at me.
“Fill this out and get it back to me.” He said, shoving the application into my hands. “I’d like for you to start working in March if you can.”
“I, um, okay,” came my stammered reply, but he had already walked off. I hadn’t even told him I wanted the job, but he somehow knew.
Working for Jonathan in the beginning was terrifying. He was a perfectionist and I, ever eager to please, busted my butt to make the floors so clean you could eat off of them. He admired the grit and OCD drive that I had, but that stoic exterior was hard for me to read at the time.
I will never forget the day that I finally saw Jonathan as a human being, and not militant instructor. I was taking care of cats in the ward when I heard Jonathan come in. His heavy boots stomped through the lab, and I heard a cage door open. And then? A flurry of coos and babytalk in a high pitched voice. I couldn’t help myself, and crept around the corner to verify that yes, it was indeed the same Jonathan who was sweet talking the cats. I laughed.
“You tell no one!” He looked serious, jamming his finger at me threateningly, cradling a cat in his arms. But he couldn’t help but crack a smile and laugh too.
After that, we became fast friends, or at least as friendly as a boss/instructor and staff/student could be on a professional level. Even once I graduated, we kept in touch. He had become my idol. Really, most of my classmates and other alumni idolized Jonathan. He was the ideal veterinary technician. I honestly doubt that to this day you could find someone more dedicated to the profession.
I called him when I had questions about techniques and OSHA regulations in practice. He’d call me to update me on the school animal adoptions. I’d visit school here and there when I could, popping in to see him and chat about guns, cars, and 90’s rap.
When a position came up at the school, Jonathan called me right away to tell me to apply. He gave me a fantastic used-car-salesman pitch, opening with “How would you like to have weekends and holidays off again?”
It’s thanks to him that I am working in the field I love, teaching the subjects I love. Being his coworker, friend, and mentee was the best experience I could ever ask for. To learn from such a passionate, dedicated person was an amazing opportunity that I hope everyone may experience in their life.
We ate lunch together every day, and spent most breaks between labs and lectures scheming different ways to improve our teaching modalities and brainstorming avenues for expanding the program offerings. We daydreamed new programs, new buildings, and new directions for the college and veterinary medicine. Like some creative powerhouse, we felt confident we could make some great changes; that we were unstoppable.
We also confided in one another. His father walked out on his family at a young age, too. We spoke often about absent parents, our abandonment issues, and all manner of life problems with life, love, children, and animals. Jonathan was a hobbyist photographer and a lover of Ansel Adams, and he taught me what little I know about photography. He was the big brother I never had, and he often said I was his little sister in that regard as well.
Being such an asset to the program, Jonathan worked long hours, sometimes up to 60+ hours a week. The burn out for him was real, and I often worried, along with his wife, for his health because of the stress. In 2015, he took another job at the veterinary medical board. With less stress and more pay, I couldn’t blame him. Though we were all sad to see him leave the college, I was happy for my friend.
His last day on the job, I organized a going away party for him. I am usually in control of my emotions, but that day, I couldn’t help but cry openly, weeping in such a way that I felt I was mourning. He laughed at me and said ‘Hell, kid, it’s not like I’m dying or something.”
I felt that tug in my gut when he said that, but I ignored it. I felt that same tug later on when he messaged me and said, nearly verbatim, what my grandfather had said before he passed: “I’m there in spirit.”
October of 2015 was the last time I saw him well. We chatted over the months and met up a couple of times between, but he had a cough that wouldn’t go away. It was especially bad the last time I saw him in person on February 3rd. Mid-February we were supposed to have a lunch get-together, but he cancelled on me very last minute. On the phone, he sounded weak and delirious, not himself.
The next day, he was in the hospital. Three weeks later, on March 4th, 2016, he was gone. The flu, proclaimed the doctors, though I am dubious to this day. I visited the hospital nearly every day, but I was not allowed to see him.
“He wouldn’t want you to see him like this”, explained Kelley. And she was right, he wouldn’t have wanted that. I respected that wish to the letter, though my brain to this day does not register his death because, as my flawed logic goes, I never saw him truly sick. He’s merely away, said my brain.
The months that followed were lived in numb disbelief. My closest friend and confidant was gone. We had planned to take over the world together, or at the very least, veterinary medicine. In what felt like the blink of an eye, it was all gone. O Captain! My Captain! Our voyage, unlike Whitman’s, was not done. Had barely begun, even. It just wasn’t right.
Daily, I’d find myself reaching to text him or call him. Something funny would happen that I knew would make him laugh and I’d go for my phone and feel that awful pang of realization. That “oh, yeah, he’s gone” let down. Every white Silverado sent me into sobbing spells. I couldn’t listen to the Beastie Boys without tears.
And what made things worse? The Facebook memories and reminders. Jonathan and I were serial memers, tagging each other in funny pictures constantly. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t get a notification about some status or picture we’d shared together. In the beginning, I hated this. It was like raking the wound open and ripping out what few stitches were holding me together each time.
Amazon Photos also began to remind me of pictures I had taken of and with Jonathan. In the earliest stages of grief, I shut off all my notifications. Salt in the wound was how I took it. I thought of my Papa and Sammy, and how I was thankful I did not have a barrage of notifications for them during my darkest grief.
Even turning off notifications was not complete escape, because when I’d open the applications, I’d invariably be overwhelmed with posts about him by friends. He was loved by so many, and reached so many lives, that Jonathan and the hashtag #missingJSL was his own trending subject on Facebook and Instagram for a good while. All I wanted to was honor him the way I had my Papa and Sammy, but modern times wouldn’t quite allow that.
Eventually, though, the notifications became less painful. Less of heartache and more welcome. It’s hard to believe, but three years later, and I don’t mind them as much. I sometimes look forward to them, for the memory. A second laugh at a funny picture or post. Another chance to relight a faded memory.
I still get a lump in my throat when I hear the Beastie Boys, especially “Intergalactic”. My heart still leaps in my chest when I pass a white Silverado. And yes, sometimes I still reach for my phone to call him and share what’s been going on. Oh boy, would I have SO much to tell him!
In thinking on what I prefer of my mourning experiences, I would most likely point to less technology being better for me. Definitely, if you had asked me about it immediately after Jonathan’s death, I would have denounced technology completely. However, in time, I’ve realized that it’s nice to get those reminders here and there. To remember how close we were, and all those inside jokes. I could see how for some people, that might be treasured opportunity, and I can appreciate those who enjoy it. I wonder often what the Victorians would make of it all?
This series has been a reflection on many things. Death of course, and technology, but also of age, of evolution. I am no more the 9 year old that I was when I lost Sammy than I am the 25 year old grieving her grandfather, or the 29 year old mourning the loss of her best friend. I am miles from those states of being, and sometimes I think, even further than I may realize. Time passes sometimes in the blink of an eye, and sometimes there are days wherein I feel entire lifetimes passing between the hours. I can only hope that many more of those lifetimes pass before I must say goodbye once more to someone I love, and hello to another of technology’s influences on the art of mourning.
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