Jeff was in an accident. Life flight to hospital, he is responding, whatever that means.
That was the text message from my wife on March 6 that started the worst week of my life. Jeff is my wife’s sister’s husband – one of two brothers in law that I have and look up to in ways that would probably creep them out. Next to my dad and brother, Jeff and Wade are the two adult males that I admire most on the planet.
Jeff used to be one of the Secret Service guys who stayed in the White House and protected Bush 41, the Clintons, and Bush 43. He has twentysomething years of law enforcement experience, and is a Federal Air Marshal. He has a beautiful wife and two beautiful daughters the same age as my sister’s kids.
In short, Jeff needs a cape.
What you think when you hear life flight is “Whoa. Sounds serious. He probably broke some bones. Might end up retiring and walk with a limp for a while. Hope he’s okay.”
I called Sara’s sister, Kristen, and gave my best wishes to her voice mail – “Hope he’s okay, let me know if there’s anything blahblah whatever you say when there is nothing you can really do.”
Then Sara called and told me that Jeff didn’t make it. Jeff was alive this morning and now he isn’t and never will be again.
Turns out the first phase of dealing with tragedy is, in fact, denial. People like Jeff don’t get killed in car accidents at age 45 for a few reasons in my rational brain. Number one, they don’t deserve to. Number two, his family certainly doesn’t deserve it. Number three, he’s a fricking government authorized protecting and serving machine with a gun and a badge and everything. These guys die heroically doing their jobs – I mean, hasn’t anyone ever watched a movie?
I went home and waited for Sara to get home. I called and told my parents, probably a couple of other people, my work, and whatever. I was fine until I called my brother. For some reason I could no longer hold it together and now he has a voicemail of me not really saying anything. “Uh…Josh? Jeff got killed in a…(forced exhale that is supposed to somehow make the tears stop)…whoa…umm…so…call me.
Annnnd…I collapsed on my knees in front of my recliner and sobbed like a child for about 20 minutes.
I’m sure there are people out there who are going to try to explain things in a “God has a plan” kind of way. Well, forgive me for saying this, but taking a husband away from his wife and a father who did nothing but love his kids is a shitty plan by any measure. If you can explain how it isn’t I’m all ears. But please spare me the religion on this one.
That thought originated when I turned on the news in an effort to compose myself and saw a story about a guy who held his wife and kids hostage when his meth lab was raided by the cops. He ended up killing his wife, stabbing one of his kids, and going to jail. Now his fucked up kids will be raised presumably by another family member who is probably just as big a piece of shit as their dad was. Awesome. This asshole somehow gets to live to a ripe old age courtesy of the taxpayer dollar and Jeff gets clipped by a jeep on a Sunday afternoon. Fantastic goddamned “plan”.
When Sara got home we both kind of staggered around all swollen-faced and packed some bags, I called everyone I knew who had an airplane to see if we could hitch a ride to anywhere within a couple of hours of Detroit, and we finally decided we’d “sleep” for a few hours and drive to Motown early the next morning. Probably not the very best plan considering our emotional and physical state, but it was what we had.
We arrived late afternoon the next day, and I have to say, the walk from the car to the front door was a long one. We both knew what was waiting for us, and I kind of assumed it was my job to try to hold it together. Which I did extremely well until I saw Kristen and the girls about seven seconds later.
It’s weird the things that run through your mind in times of extreme grief. I kept thinking that somehow maybe if I suffered more by, say, cutting off my right leg, it might be used as some kind of karmic bargaining chip to take a couple of hours of suffering away from everybody else. I would have done anything to make their pain stop or lessen in some way. Later in the week I came to realize that my grief was made of equal parts loss of Jeff and this helpless agony I was feeling for what Kristen and her daughters were going through.
At one point one of my nieces came to me and said “Uncle Dusty, will you draw me a picture of a cat?” (I don’t know if that was the specific request, but it was something like that.) I looked at her and thought “Right now I would build you your own art studio and drive the nails with my face if it would make you forget about this for one second.” And I meant it.
As in all things, no matter how hopelessly shitty, there is some good to be found if you look hard enough. Don’t get me wrong – nothing good enough to make up for the loss of Jeff, but some good. And here it is:
When we arrived I didn’t notice due to the weird tunnel vision and time compression surreal Dr. Who-esque swirling of time and space that was going on due to my acute stress, but there were about 20 cars parked in front of the house. The whole house was filled with people who loved Kristen and/or worked with and/or/or/and loved Jeff. I was very touched by the way this many people who had lives and families and professions and haircuts and diapers and whatever just dropped everything, closed ranks, and gave everything they had to support Jeff and Kristen’s family. And they probably didn’t give it any more thought than Sara and I did. This is what you do when this kind of thing happens. There is no question or hesitation, but there is a very definite beauty in the act, and it was not lost on me.
And I made sure it was not lost on my nieces, either, and I don’t want it to be lost on anyone reading this blog – at one point I told them “See all of these people who are here, planning the service, making phone calls, getting food, making beer runs (that was me), and hugging your mom and you two? This is it. This is the kind of adult you want to be.”
It was the pinnacle of human existence in my observation.
And sweet baby Jesus in a bulletproof onesie, did the Federal Air Marshals ever show up. From the moment Jeff died, they had two Marshals or State Police guarding his body 24 hours until he was buried. No, no one thought anyone was going to steal his wallet. It was pure honor and respect for him. There was one lady named Patty who showed up at Kristen’s house at about 9 am every morning and stayed there until 10 or 11 each night just planning the memorial service and funeral. She was far from alone, either – there was always either a couple more guys helping Patty, or at least one Marshal standing post a the house all day. When we left the house for a service, they had someone guarding the house. There isn’t a combination of words in any language that can describe the gratitude and respect I have for these people.
I spent a couple of days on bereavement graphic arts duty. I set up camp in the corner of the living room and collected photos of Jeff, sending them to others who were making cards, scrapbooks, memory boards, newspaper articles, funeral service programs, whatever. I also spent a lot of time making a memorial video of Jeff. And I’m going to go ahead and admit I observed a lot of interesting, heartwarming, and even funny things.
One thing was that I was the only dude in the house most of the time. Kristen has her posse of awesome friends who rallied around her in superhuman ways. They had kids (for some reason almost all girls) who played with my nieces, and my wife and mother in law and her mother and so on down the line. All of these chicks are planning the logistical equivalent of a massive wedding in the space of four days, and the energy level was as one might expect. No, I’m not saying they didn’t pull together a feat on the scale of the pyramids in that time, and I’m not saying they didn’t forget a single detail. I watched and listened (and did whatever I was told) and tried to compare it to how it would be if a bunch of dudes were doing this. It’s no secret that women do things differently than men. If you are confused/offended by that or would like to deny it, I would like you to shit in your hand and punch yourself, because you are a big retarded retard.
I have read that men say on average about 30,000 fewer words per minute than women do, and now I know that to be correct. Again, let me restate that I am not minimizing or downplaying broads or their ability to do shit as good as and in many cases better than men. I have to write things from a man’s perspective because I only have one brain, and my brain has a dick. Some might say my brain is a dick. And they might be right.
The scene was understandably very stressful, and no one except Patty really seemed to have central command in her brain. As a result of this and the fact that women are extreme communicators, there was a constant level of what I will call “chanic” at all waking hours. That would be a combo of chatter and panic for those who haven’t read my stuff before.
I realized the infectiousness of the herd (I hate to have to qualify this again, but I am not calling anyone a cow or otherwise intentionally demeaning men, women, or bovines) one day when I was trying to fix a doorknob and someone grabbed my arm and said “You need to email a picture of Jeff and the kids to soandso for the whozawhatza right now” (but without spaces between the words) and I dropped the screwdriver on the floor and sprinted to my computer. About halfway there the testosterone or whatever kicked in and I thought “Holy cow, that was intense. Why?” The service isn’t for two more days, and that’s a pretty tight deadline, but is the request seriously that urgent? Most of my adult life has been spent making decisions big and small, and one thing I have learned (particularly in flight training) is that most hasty decisions are bad ones. So even though emailing the picture was not a reactionary or bad decision, the urgency and emotion of the request made me slow down and question it.
But I shut up and did as I was told, because someone was in charge and it sure as hell wasn’t me.
There is obviously more than one way to accomplish a huge task, and they did an astounding job.
The memorial service (I think that’s what you call the open casket sobby/huggy part) was Friday, and it was a brutal 8 hours. We were all exhausted from the emotion of the past four days, and poor Kristen had to sit in a chair while hundreds of people came to pay their respects. I could not imagine how worn out she must have been, so I and a couple of other people took turns making sure she was okay. “Can I get you some water? Food? Another Costco pack of tissue? Perhaps if I dumped a bag of centipedes down my pants the resulting gyrations and flopping around on the floor would amuse you for a little while? Anything at all to make you smile for one second.”
They did a changing of the guard every 20 minutes or so, and three uniformed cops would come in and do that really cool robot walk to the casket, spin on their heels and two of them would stand with their heads bowed at either end of the casket. The third would do this super slow, super reverent salute toward Jeff’s body and turn and walk away. I made a point to watch them every time, and every time it made water come out of my eyes. That was the highest form of honor I had seen until the next day, which truly and completely blew my fucking mind.
Throughout it all, my wife was awesome. I can’t say how much I admire the strength and grace she showed in dealing with this, or how lucky I feel to have someone like her to support and be supported by. After everyone had gone to bed we’d talk about the day and people and feelings and all of that stuff. I wouldn’t have made it through the week without her. We agreed after the memorial service that most of the tears had been shed and we just had to stay upright for one more day, if not for us, for those around us.
When we arrived at the church, the entire entryway was lined with about 150-200 Air Marshals in black suits, standing with their hands over their hearts, staring straight ahead as we walked in behind Jeff’s casket. Anyone who thought they were going to make it through without crying was wrong. Seeing so many tough guys and girls standing there in Jeff’s honor with tears in their eyes was seriously moving.
The service was held in a huge church, and songs were sung, stories were told, and the most amazing part was when Kristen got up and read a tribute she and the girls had written about Jeff.
I am always amazed when people do this. I have seen sons talk about their fathers at funerals and it baffles me. I love my dad like Charlie Sheen loves Charlie Sheen, but I don’t think there is any way I could have the strength to do a speech at his funeral. Unless people want to hear a lot of uncontrolled breathing and sniffing. I guess we never know how much we can handle until we find out.
Kristen got up there and talked about how they met, fell in love, got married, and raised kids. She read letters that the girls had written, and she got through it with poise.
As I was listening to her, I thought “She’s got this. She’s going to be okay – not just for the speech, but even though she has a lot of pain ahead of her, she has it together. Her friends, family, and faith will fill in the gaps and she’ll be alright.” That was the first time in the past six days I started to feel better.
So here’s to you, Jeff. You were and still are a great guy. You leave behind a lot of people who were positively influenced by you, and two great kids who will grow up to be great adults because of you and Kristen. I know we talked about going ice fishing one winter; I just thought we had more winters ahead of us. When I do go, I’m pouring a beer out for you – but not the good stuff…you wouldn’t want that.
99 Responses to “Jeff”