Monday, November 27, 2017

Counting to Infinity

 The J.T. Hurley Chronicles

My family's lifelong friend, June Hurley, is at the end of her life.  True to her singular, incorrigible way, June was given six months to live... more than three years ago.  There is little question now, however, that the Ferryman is on his way.  It's a long way from the time she and my mother first met while attending the School of Social Work at the University of Windsor, back when Senator John F. Kennedy was running for President of the United States.

Aunt June passed away peacefully at 5:30 p.m. on December 8th.  She was surrounded by loved ones and will be missed by everyone who knew her.

June was bridesmaid at my parents' wedding in June 1966.

She was the second friend in my mother's circle to have a child. John Timothy Hurley was born November 27, 1969.  New coaches and teachers called him "John", but the rest of us knew him as J.T..  He was the image of June: chestnut hair, eyes so brown you almost couldn't see his pupils. I was born eighteen months later and grew up calling June "Aunt June".

By his second birthday, J.T.'s parents had divorced. He lived with Aunt June in their little house on the shore of Lake St. Clair. The place was nearly swept away in the Flood of 1973, but Providence and a fortress of sandbags staved off the lake. The sandbags remained for years afterward. The great challenge for me and my little brother was to take a run at the sandbags and get over them without using our hands. In the initial years after the Flood, we couldn't do it. J.T. did it with ease.

My brother and I loved visiting Aunt June's. Her house was like a cottage. Nearly the entire interior was made of wood. It smelled of summer year-round.

J.T. once built a ramp for his bike with discarded wood from an old dock a neighbor was replacing. It was a summer day in 1977 and while our parents visited on the lakeside of the house, J.T. demonstrated the ramp for us.  He started off in the carport, sped across the gravel driveway, standing on his pedals, picking up steam as he came to the front lawn and hit the ramp.  It creaked, but held, and he was airborne for one momentous second.

After a few jumps, he rounded back to us, looking displeased.  He didn't have to say anything -- we knew what was wrong.  Those were the days of Evel Knievel -- a ramp was pointless unless you had something to jump.  He looked at me and said, "How 'bout you lay down in front of the ramp?"  Far from hesitating or being chafed at serving the same purpose a garbage pail might have served, I couldn't believe J.T. was including me in his stunt.  I lay down in front of the ramp.  I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little apprehensive hearing the sound of his approach, but the moment he hit the ramp was exhilarating.  It strained for a moment, but held and J.T. cleared me with ease.  He was smiling when he rounded back that time.

J.T. could climb anything. He wanted to be a stuntman or motorcycle cop when he grew up. While our parents visited on the lakeside of his house, he took my brother and I along the side of his house. He climbed onto the roof of his neighbor's small house (they were small houses then; they are all mansions now). Then, he asked me to shoot him. I made a gun with my hand and shot him. J.T. clutched his chest and rolled down the roof onto a smaller roof above the neighbor's dining room window. He rolled onto their shed and finally to the ground. A moment later, he sprang to his feet, unhurt.

When my brother and I asked to take a turn, J.T. said no.  But it wasn't like somebody telling us "no".  We knew J.T. was looking out for us.  And then he was off to the next fun thing. 

J.T. taught us how to skim stones across the water at the riverfront. He showed us how to climb a doorway by jamming our hands and feet against the frame. He came to our house one day when we had my mom's old typewriter out on the kitchen table for some reason. My brother and I drove our parents crazy by putting paper in the machine and randomly holding down keys and the space bar, enjoying the machine-gun sound it made. When J.T. arrived, we stepped aside, eager to see what he would make of the typewriter. He looked at it a moment and then sat down. With the deft touch of a seasoned newspaper reporter, he fed a clean sheet of paper into it, centered the page, and typed: UFO REPORT. He proceeded to type gibberish, but ever after, my brother typed up dozens of our own gibberish UFO REPORTS.
J.T. Hurley (left), Tim St. Amand (middle), Matt St. Amand (right). Puce, Ontario, summer 1978.
Easter of 1979, Aunt June invited my brother and I over for an Easter egg hunt. Earlier in the week, as she and J.T. were planning where to hide the eggs, June suggested putting one in their mailbox. They lived in the county and though their house was modest, they had a huge long driveway. J.T. didn't think the mailbox was a good idea because it was so close to the road and my brother was only five years old at the time.

As a working, single parent, June organized for J.T. to go to an after-school babysitter each day, until she got home from work -- she was a social worker who helped profoundly disabled children. On Holy Thursday, however, the babysitter was unavailable because she was going out of town for the weekend. J.T. begged his mom to let him go home by himself after school just that one day. June was reluctant, but J.T. was nine years old and he was a good, capable kid.  He would be alone for only about 90 minutes.

Climbing a tree at the Windsor riverfront.
J.T.'s right leg was broken at the time and
he wore a cast up to his hip.
When he got home that day, J.T. realized he forgot to get the house key from his mom. Around the same time, Aunt June had finished work and was getting her hair done and had the same realization.

J.T. was a resourceful kid, so he did what any of us would do -- he climbed into the house through a window. After all, he was a pro. I'd seen him climb unclimbable trees. He had climbed neighbors' boat lifts and onto the roofs of their houses. Climbing through a ground floor window on the lakeside of his house was nothing. The windows were five feet off the ground. Almost too easy.

Aunt June called a neighbor, explaining that J.T. was locked out of the house and asking if she saw him outside, waiting, or wandering around the house. The neighbor went outside.  As she walked around the lakeside of Aunt June's house, she beheld a scene that would haunt her the rest of her life -- the window J.T. was climbing through had fallen on the back of his neck, pinning him there.
An ambulance was called and J.T. was rushed from his home in Puce to nearby Windsor. The hair salon where June awaited her neighbor's call was very near the hospital. She heard the ambulance roar past, having no idea that her son was inside. The neighbor finally called and told June that J.T. had been hurt and was on his way to Metropolitan Hospital.

June went to the hospital, where she called my mother. My mom arranged for my favorite aunt to come and get me and my brother, and then rushed over to Met Hospital.

The next day, Good Friday, my brother and I returned home and were playing in the yard when our dad called us into the house.

He brought us into the living room and sat on the floor with us.

He said that J.T. had been in an accident.

I remember the words actually igniting a moment of excitement in me because it hadn't been so long ago that J.T. broke his leg while climbing a tree with his friends. His fourteen year old neighbor had been there, too, and had splinted his leg with sticks and tape.  Then J.T.'s friends had brought him home in a wheel barrel. He had a cast up to his waist and on a visit to the riverfront soon after, he put his crutches aside and climbed a tree with me. So, I figured he'd have some cool cast on his arm or an even cooler black eye. But when my dad said, "J.T. has gone to Jesus," I knew it was terrible.

I said that I wanted to see J.T.  My dad said no way, no how.  I began to cry.  My mother asked me why I was crying.  I don't recall it, but she remembers me saying, "I want to say goodbye to J.T.."

She talked to my dad and somehow it came about that my brother and I went with them to the funeral home.

Seeing him in that coffin, the only thing that looked strange about J.T. was that he wore his "good clothes". I'd only ever seen him in cutoffs or jeans or his pajamas. He looked like he was sleeping.  I watched his chest, waiting for it to rise.  It did not rise.

Aunt June was shattered, as anyone could imagine. Somehow, through her tears, I remember her smiling. No doubt it was to keep herself from coming completely undone.

My brother and I didn't attend the burial at the cemetery. We spent the weekend with our favorite aunt. At one point, she took us to our grandfather's house. Stepping through his door was like stepping into County Kildare, Ireland circa 1928. The smell of stew, pipe tobacco and lighter fluid always hit me in pleasant, equal measures. While there, we listened to news on the radio. At one point, a report about a nine year old boy dying in a bizarre accident in Puce came on. It was the first time I'd heard the word "bizarre" and asked what it meant.

And there was something so surreal and appalling in how life returned to normal after that. My brother and I returned to school after Easter Monday.  My father went back to work. I have a photograph of me in my second grade classroom during Education Week -- two weeks after J.T. died -- a math test of mine on the bulletin board next to me with a score of 30/30 on it. The test was dated 1979-04-24. Looking at the photo all these years later, something in me is appalled that I got a perfect score on a math test 12 days after J.T. died.

I made my First Communion shortly after.

That summer, we returned to our cottage outside of Peterborough, Ontario. My brother and I swam and waterskiied. And though undoubtedly crushed in ways no human being can really withstand, Aunt June carried on. She returned to work. She continued birding. She invited us to her house. We often went there in our little waterski boat. She was always so gracious.

Matt St. Amand, Grade Two, April 1979, Education Week.
The first few times, after J.T. died, I remember looking at the lakeside windows of Aunt June's house, wondering... which one...

My brother and I were fascinated with J.T.'s bedroom (which was just off the living in the little single-level house), though we never entered.  He had a marble chess set that I had always wanted to look at, but never asked, just looked at it from the doorway. All too soon, we noticed it emptied out of J.T.'s belongings.  His toys, his clothes, his books, the chess set, gone, as though they evaporated over time.

My mom remained in touch with June.  They traveled to Ireland together in 1985.  I visited, occasionally, as I got older. It was always fun and nostalgic seeing her house. It hadn't changed a bit since I was a kid. Three years ago, we learned Aunt June had been diagnosed with cancer. She was given six months to live. She is still alive, though it's clear she really is near the end. Her mind is sharp and she always looks sharp. She resides now in an assisted living home, which is leaps and bounds more pleasant than any nursing my grandparents had lived their final days.

Over the years, I have run Internet searches on J.T. He died long before the Internet, but I wondered if maybe his obituary was online or an errant, scanned news article from so many years ago. I could just as easily go to the library and find a copy of The Windsor Star from April 1979, but I have simply not gone.

On September 1st, my search found a link to the cemetery where J.T. was buried. I never knew where he was buried. I never asked anyone, fearing I would upset my parents or Aunt June. In fact, I was never even clear on the date. I somehow thought he died in 1978. As it turned out, he died on April 12, 1979. Oddly enough, my eldest son was born on April 12, 2012.

Alan Ginsberg once wrote about Bob Dylan being so focused during a performance, that he had become a "column of air", "where his total physical and mental focus was this single breath coming out of his body."  In the moment I saw the photograph of J.T.'s gravemarker on my computer screen, I became a column of air.  The years between the present and 1979 suddenly knitting together.  The event -- J.T.'s accident -- that had hovered so distantly in the back of my mind for so long moved into the light.  It was real.  It had actually happened.

That day, after work, I drove to Emeryville to find J.T.'s grave. I couldn't get there fast enough.  Thirty-eight years had passed and I didn't want another moment to be lost.  I was surprised to see how small and sparsely populated the cemetery was.  I started walking from one end, looking at every marker and soon, I stopped.  Soon, I found J.T..

His grave marker is a slab that shows Jesus/The Good Shepherd sitting on a rock, facing J.T.'s full name: John Timothy Hurley. Jesus/The Good Shepherd holds a lamb. The inscription at the bottom reads: "IN HIS ARMS HE GATHERS THE LAMBS."

And being forty-six years old, now, a father of two young sons, I suddenly saw J.T. not only as the "big guy" he once was to my brother and I, but also as the nine year old boy he was -- as a kid, a child who would never shave, drive a car or lose his virginity.

*     *     *

A couple of weeks later, I visited Aunt June on a sunny Sunday afternoon. We planned on having lunch, but my mom (who sees June about once a week) said that Aunt June didn't have much appetite anymore. Thinking, "Who the hell wants to sit back and watch me eat?" I asked if we could go to her house, instead. Aunt June was reluctant, mostly because one of her nephews was helping pack the place up. "It won't look anything like you remember it," she said. I said that was fine -- I just wanted to see the place. She goodnaturedly relented.

Much of the furniture was gone, but the kitchen doorway where J.T. taught me to climb was there, of course.

I photographed the front room and the lakeside windows. I photographed J.T.'s long-empty room. The single bed that I am sure was his was still there, stripped and piled with a suitcase, a Scrabble game and some pillows.

I made my way into the laundry room where I found some boxes and a trunk.

I opened the trunk and felt the breath leave my body.

Inside, was a McDonaldland calendar from 1979.

A picture of actress Kristy McNichol from a 1978 teen magazine and pictures of muscle cars with ancient scotch tape still on the corners.

An unfinished Star Wars model.

Sports badges for Essex County Minor Hockey and tee-ball and little league from 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978.
Aunt June sat in the front room as I looked around. Eventually, she told me she had something of J.T.'s she wanted me to have. I figured it might be toy or maybe a Dr. Seuss book -- anything would have been a treasure.

Instead, June gave me J.T.'s favorite jean jacket.

I couldn't believe it. It was as cool as the Fonz's leather jacket when I was a kid. She also gave me J.T.'s baseball glove, along with the McDonaldland calendar, and other items I'd found. I was blown away and more than a little emotional. June was very Zen through it all. We have come to know her as an incredibly strong person, doing far too much on her own, never wanting to be a bother to others.

It was good that we went to her house because her nephew had not yet rescued any of her photo albums. We went through many of them and I photographed J.T.'s life in pictures with my phone. June was so used to giving, so used to others being more important, that I worried I had barged into the most painful corner of her life for my own purposes.  I kept an eye out for any sign of upset, but she seemed all right.

Finally, as with all things, it was time to leave.  I wiped my eyes, put my cell phone away and carried my treasures to the car.  Aunt June took for herself the furry toy monkey J.T. slept with as a young child and two crucifixes -- one from his First Communion, the other from his burial.

I drove her back to her new home.  She assured me she had enjoyed our afternoon together.  I thanked her, I hugged her, I went out to my car feeling myself outside of time, caught between the 1970s and the present.

Afterward, I emailed my mother describing the afternoon and sharing my misgiving that I might have been selfish in asking June to return to her home, as I had.  My mother wrote back:
I just talked to June to make a date for lunch and she loved your visit.  She said she is so touched by your response to the things you found in the chest and your reminiscing about JT.  To know that a child loved her little boy enough to remember him all these years and have his things mean that much to him is almost overwhelming to June.  She is so happy and thankful for that.
My brother and I shared a bedroom at the time of J.T.'s death.  We used to talk before going to sleep.  I don't remember how often, but I recall us talking about J.T. a few times.  In our own inchoate way, we tried wrapping our heads around the idea that he was gone forever.  More in an effort to reassure myself than my little brother, I reverted to my know-it-all self and said to him one night, "If we start counting, J.T. will be back by the time we reach infinity."


Pardigm9 said...

Wow, I'd be lying if I said there was no tear in my eye while reading this. Very beautiful piece and tribute to a young Evel Knievel in his own right. Aunt June and JT sure sound like the type of people we all wish to have in our lives, peace be to both of them.

Unknown said...

That is the best tribute June and JT could ever have. I am so proud of you

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful tribute to two beautiful people.
Thank you for sharing your experiences and your deepest feelings!

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful story of your relationship with JT and June. You really captured them both so well. She and JT will be fondly remembered by all those whose lives they touched.

June was my aunt, her sister Virginia was my mother. I always loved visiting June at her home on the lake. She was always so positive and fun. Even when she was quite ill you would never hear her complain. My sons and I were fortunate to spend some time with her in her last few years. It was a special time for us.

Bob Echlin said...

Matt, I remember hearing about this - about JT's accident. I would have been in university at the time.
What a great story about your close friend. June sounds like a remarkable woman. I can't imagine what she must have gone through losing her son. It must have been strange for you as a kid to experience the death of your friend.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings.