JEFF BY ANY OTHER NAME IS STILL JEFF (A LEGACY STORY) Posted to salute my grandson Jeff’s 13th birthday, and to salute the “Jeff” who gave his life and name to make it possible.
Legacy stories are about those tangible and intangible lessons and experiences you can leave for others who follow. It is doubtful that there are many teenagers out there thinking about what their legacy would be in life. Jeff Wise was no exception. He was too busy living life to think about leaving it.
The legacy of Jeff ‘s loss is knowing you must never allow yourself to be drawn into thinking you can spend time with your children later, because you have to work or travel or spend time with your friends. It is a legacy of finding out: that the loss of a smile, or a laugh, or sparkling eyes when you talk, can’t be replaced by things or places or other people. You must cherish the gift while you have it near: for in a heartbeat, it may be gone.
A Short Story by Joyce Godwin Grubbs
Having two daughters and one son there was no doubt that our son felt out numbered. He longed for the companionship and camaraderie of a brother and that was never going to happen. It was fortunate then, that when we moved to what would turn out to be the house we would raise our family in, there was a family next door that would not only fill his longings for a brother but would fulfill our longings for a wonderful place and neighborhood for our children.
To our immediate left was a house with a newly divorced mom and two boys. To her immediate left were her parents. Her father, the boys’ maternal Grandpa had built both their houses. The meticulously built homes were small, only two bedrooms; but each sat on about a half acre of shaded traditional yards. (Rich people have lawns, our neighborhood had yards.) The yards held magical places where pirates could abound; where great flag football teams with prestigious championships could compete, and the imaginations of children could expand and know no boundaries.
Best of all, there was in the maternal grandparents’ house, a charming, round, white haired grandma, claimed by the entire neighborhood. She charmed the children and all the adults with her little “giggle” (she never laughed). Her hair was pristine white and worn in tight white curls which only enhanced her sweet “poodle like” disposition. Every problem was solved with cookies, pie or some fresh out of the oven sweets. If she couldn’t solve it, a game of checkers with grandpa could. It was the house that was a sanctuary from the cares of life, and sparkled with the magic of gentility and hope.
To our right was a two parent family with two boys. The father in that house had built his home and the one we were moving into. Ours had been their first home. It was a modest three bedroom and his new house was a slightly expanded version; also with three bedrooms and modest, but comfortable. They too enjoyed being a part of the neighborhood: and like us, they were enjoying the fact that all the children were in the same age range, and all had a zest for school and athletics.
All in all, the neighborhood was made for kids. Each home had a half an acre+ yard, and behind us was farm land and pasture with horses. Across the street were more fields and a thick stand of trees which lined a small creek at the bottom of a ravine. The wild mink and “critters” abounded. The four houses stood together in physical proximity to each other, and connected by friendships and neighborly concerns. The nearest neighbors on the left and the right of the four house grouping, were far enough removed to allow us to be our very own small neighborhood.
Oh ,the joys and sorrows we experienced together over the years. But the one thing that bonded all of us was the welfare of the children. Jeff, became my son’s “brother” in all ways. They were both unusually gifted in school and their humor and personalities were an absolute blend. While Jeff was already recognized as having athletic potential in early grade school, my son only “aspired” to athletics. Jeff on the other hand was also gifted in learning and charm, but was very shy . Our son shone when it came to ‘ never meeting a stranger’ and then talking the leg off that poor captive soul.
Life was good in those early years. They kids devoured the neighborhood woods and stream with activities from morning to night. Our son was known for his industrious efforts to make money. He would put his little wooden stand out at the end of our drive and sell canned pop that he kept cool in an insulated cooler. He would also resell his comic books, toys, books, games and anything else he could lay his hands on and talk some one into. Being in a rural setting there was little competition and the kids from down the road came to buy his pop and treasures. On occasion, he would bribe his younger sister Shannon to mind the store for 25 cents a day then sell her a pop at the end of the day for, you guessed it, 25 cents.
Jeff was one of those kids that just fit in. He was at our house as much as he could muster. He and my son were so simpatico that they would finish each other’s sentences. When Jeff stayed the night, he and my son loved sleeping on the couch so you’d find the two of them on the couch, each with his head at their own end :and dead to the world.
Jeff had a unique, raspy low voice and a lightening quick grin. His uncommonly bright blue eyes sparkled and he enjoyed life. The simple life, but life.
As happy as we were for his dear mother to find her new husband, eventually was how sad we were when the new dad accepted a job out of state and moved the family. It was traumatic for all of us, but for the children involved, it was momentous. Unlike many friends who are parted in the middle school ages, our children stayed in touch with both Jeff and his brother Jay who was my older daughter Trula’s age. It was like the dearest cousins in your life and being separated but being able to visit on the holidays.
When my daughter was old enough to drive, the two older children made a trip to Wisconsin to see the Jeff’s family: the bond was made even stronger. I remember that as Trula and Steve left to come home, they said they pulled over on the side of the road and cried. They felt like they were leaving their best friends behind and were unbearably sad about it. They took comfort in the fact that they would be able to be together during the Thanksgiving holidays. The boys were coming home to visit their grandparents and would be in town long enough to get together.
The “best laid plans of men and mice“: as often happens, the reality can be very different from the plan. This was the case that Thanksgiving. Our family had their family Thanksgiving then a celebration of my mother’s birthday.The boys from Wisconsin were visiting their cousins and busy with family commitments. Lo and behold, time slipped away and they missed each other.
The boys started back to Wisconsin shortly after their turkey dinner with Grandma and Grandpa Weber: Carl and Lydia. . Jeff had been told he would have to wait until the next visit to show my son his new high school letter jacket he had gotten just a couple of weeks earlier for his 16th birthday.
Within hours of their leaving, the call came to us. They hadn’t gotten far when a terrible crash had occurred. The older brother Jay was driving and though they’d only been on the road less than an hour, everyone in the car was asleep. Suddenly Jay was asleep as well. Only he was still at the wheel.
Ambulances brought them to the local trauma center and the rest is a story of loss the likes of which our family had never known before. While the older brother would remain in a full body cast for eleven months, he did by the Grace of God survive. Jeff did not. He was taken off the ventilator just before Christmas.
I remember sitting in our church with the large sanctuary filled. That was saying something for the large size of our church. The fact was that the family had left our community years before, yet the loss was mourned by the large number of members who still cherished the memory of this wonderful family. There was a large contingent of Wisconsin students and families who drove down to be there and mourn as one unified body for a most unusual young man.In the few years the family had been in Wisconsin, they had earned the admiration and appreciation of so many. It was the largest gathering for a funeral our large congregation had ever had.
I am sure Darlene and Jim, who had been married in that very sanctuary and created this new family only a few short years before, were overwhelmed with conflicting reactions. They would be surrounded by memories of the happy family times, memories of the hard decision to move away, and now full circle and back here to bury their son.
As the service was still pending, I sat in the sanctuary so deep in painful sorrow I did not know how my good friend, his mother, could survive this. I prayed to God that I would never outlive my children and that God would grant me the grace to see my dear friend and her family through the maelstrom of misery which would be ahead.
As I lifted my eyes from a closed position and raised my bowed head to look straight ahead, I was struck by the amazing setting. It was just before Christmas and the church was flooded with Christmas lights and trees everywhere. Our usual cantata’ each Christmas season had been done on a scaffolding that was raised six tiers high to support the singers into the shape of one giant Christmas tree. This year for the first time we had fore gone that setting to have a new presentation. It involved having decorated Christmas trees ,six and eight feet high. Each was brightly decorated in lights and matching bows, and lined the two sides of the sanctuary beginning at the entry doors all the way to the pulpit. There were at least forty decorated trees lining the walkways on both sides of the sanctuary and the foyer had several complimentary smaller trees and wreaths.
The pastor and board had offered to take the decorations down for the funeral but Jeff’s family declined saying that when Jeff had been a member there he loved the Christmas events more than anything. Now he was part of the meaning of Christmas in its most real sense. He would have loved it. The beautiful site was uplifting and brought a complete sense of hope and joy to what normally would have been a stereotypical funeral of loss.
The service was further enhanced by the beautiful melodies of the family’s well known singing group, The Smith Family Singers.
What followed this amazing service was the legacy of Jeff’s amazing, though short life. Jeff stayed with us. He stayed with us in so many ways, and even today there is a daily reminder of him throughout the family . I have two grandsons with Jeffrey as a middle name, and one grandson whose first name is Jeffrey. Each of my children named a child after him. Increasingly, my youngest daughter Shannon’s son Jeffrey looks like he has the “Jeff” hair( “Bush”) and coloring.
Jeff’s best drawing of his favorite football picture, remains in my son’s home, in his sons room and there are pictures and mementos of his life staggered though out the homes of all our family members.
In his Wisconsin community of Sun Prarie, the high school has a trophy case donated by his family, that still after 30 years still has Jeff’s memorabilia. There is a print of his drawing of Billy Sims playing O.U. Sooner football .The last picture of Jeff that was taken, was in his Oklahoma Sooners t shirt. Jeff still holds some athletic records in his Wisconsinschool all these years later: and in the Davenport, Iowa school system before he moved.
And to honor him further, are the children of classmates who also named their children Jeff. So many namesakes I have lost count though I am sure his mother has not. She still has visits from his former friends, his namesakes and she and his step dad are still invited to attend special school functions. On a recent visit to the school, they observed a gentleman spending a long period of time reading all the contents of the trophy case with its story of Jeff’s eulogy and his many accomplishments.
After all these years, the example of a simple young man of charisma and integrity who used his athletic gifts to honor his school, is still relevant and serving as a role model. Ultimately it was his perfection of what a friend and brother could be, that in death created the passion to help him “live on” in all the Jeff’s.
What made him so special? Probably; the purity of his soul, his humor, his typical boy ‘orneriness’ as a neighbor boy, his good looks and definitely his bushy, thick, hair. He typified the American boy who never had to fear death or face maturity. He was loving, spontaneous and a most promising athlete. But mostly he was Jeff and that was the normal God fearing young man we came to share our lives with, then and now.
We thank God for all of our ‘Jeffs’ and for the Jeff who inspired us. There is still a little of Jeff in all of us and we believe he will continue to be shared through his legacy as the next generation follows.