Friday, March 02, 2018

Lost in the Tall Grass

 The J.T. Hurley Chronicles

Probably the last photograph taken of J.T. Hurley, 
processed in March 1979, weeks before his death.
Whether it's Marilyn Monroe, Lenny Bruce, Jim Morrison, Anne Sexton or David Foster Wallace, I am fascinated reading about the final days of people's lives.

One of the first biographies I read was 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky: The Life of Jimi Hendrix by David Henderson. As I neared its inevitable conclusion, I pored over the increasingly sketchy accounts of Hendrix's final days and hours with an archaeologist's eye, directed by a strange sense that if his dwindling moments were given enough attention, Hendrix's death could be reverse-engineered, and possibly averted.  Ridiculous, of course, but there is a part of me that still doesn't know that, or at least, refuses to acknowledge it.

And so, revisiting the story of my childhood friend, J.T. Hurley's sudden and tragic death, I am doing it all again, visiting the main branch of the library, scanning through microfiche of our local newspaper, The Windsor Star, searching for the Easter weekend 1979 edition.  I found a grainy image of his obituary and a short article describing the circumstances of his death with all the heart of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

J.T.'s accident occurred on the one day his mother allowed him to go home by himself after school.  His usual after-school babysitter was out of town for Easter weekend.  As it happened, J.T. forgot to get the house key from his mother, and was locked out when he arrived home.  Never one to sit still, he went around the beachside of his home on Lake St. Clair and attempted to climb in through an unlocked window.  He was an agile, athletic boy for whom climbing was easy. 

Except it wasn't.  The window fell as he pulled himself through.  It's maddening to consider how easily it could have just thumped him on the head, leaving him with little more than a goose egg, or falling across his back, leaving him to wriggle his way in, possibly breaking the window with his heels as he swung his legs to propel himself forward... later suffering the harmless ire of his mother.  But the window came down upon the back of his neck.  The window frame was five feet off the ground.  J.T. was four feet, six inches tall. 

The details are as maddening as they are heartbreaking.

J.T. Hurley (left), Tim St. Amand (seated, center),
Matt St. Amand (right)
My mother shared her recollections of the event with me.  She was very close with J.T.'s mom -- whom my brother and I grew up calling "Aunt June" -- and she was the first person Aunt June called from the hospital.  My mother went and recently described to me seeing J.T. lying upon the examination table in the Emergency Room: A boy we were to see on Easter Sunday, whose diapers my mother had changed when he was a baby, aged nine at the time of his death, at the outer edge of adolescence, four and a half feet tall, a "big guy" to me and my brother.  All vital signs lost. 

My mother described how Aunt June, distraught and steadily descending into an inescapable circle of Hell, came and went from the examining room where J.T. lay.  She was waiting for her ex-husband, Michael Hurley, who had driven in from Sarnia to see J.T. on Friday and Saturday. Time passed.  He did not arrive.  According to the doctors, J.T. was probably gone before he was placed in the ambulance at his house.  EMS made every possible effort to bring him back.  As impossible as it still seems, nearly 39 years later, nothing worked.  He had died.

And here is where reality and memory disrupt the even flow of a story that smoothed over in fiction.  All the while Aunt June came and went from the ER examining room where J.T. lay, J.T.'s father, waited for her at her house.  He had arrived some time after the ambulance had left.  Police officers lingered, making notes on the scene, but for some reason said nothing to J.T.'s father about the severity of the accident.  It doesn't make sense now, but apparently, that's what happened.  They knew J.T. had died, but nobody could utter the words outloud.  All they said was that J.T. had an accident, giving no indication as to its seriousness.  In all likelihood, J.T.'s dad thought it was another fall from a tree, or some such accident, and that he'd just wait for his ex-wife to bring J.T. home.

Except, she didn't.

Finally, after literally hours had passed, a neighbor had mercy and told J.T.'s father that his son was at Metropolitan hospital in Windsor and that he should probably go there, too.  Michael Hurley arrived at Met Hospital ER, impatient from waiting, utterly unaware -- until he saw Aunt June and proceeded to freefall like a doomed airliner from the stratosphere of feeling irked and put-out at being kept waiting, to hearing his only child was no longer alive.

At some point, a woman who worked with Aunt June at the Children's Rehabilitation Centre, heard the news and stepped in and took over as needed.  My mother couldn't remember the woman's name, only that she was British.  She was not an especially close friend of Aunt June's, but she knew what to do.  She got Aunt June home, stayed with her, and set down to the business of arranging a funeral that had come decades before its rightful time.

And so the terrible weekend played itself out with a visitation at Windsor Chapel across the street from Met Hospital.  The burial on Easter Monday.  And then school on Tuesday.  I returned to school that day and I am sure most, if not all, of J.T.'s classmates went to school on Tuesday.  I can't help thinking of the newly empty desk in their classroom, sitting their like a bomb crater, containing half-filled notebooks of spelling exercises and math problems, geography maps as yet unmarked or looked at, all of which had dissolved into irrelevancy over the weekend.  The sharpened pencils, the used eraser, the smudged wooden ruler on the ledge just inside the desk -- never to be touched by J.T. again.

Next door to the school was the church where J.T.'s burial service was held.  Beyond the church parking lot was the cemetery where J.T. now lay buried.  The sounds of the school yard could be heard in the cemetery.

For weeks afterward, Aunt June stayed at our house.  My brother and I shared a bedroom.  We began each night in our own beds, but sometime in the middle of the night, I would roll over and find him next to me in my bed.  I remember looking up and seeing the sleeping form of Aunt June in my brother's bed.

And at some point, she returned home and went back to work.  We all tried to get back to normal, but there was no normal with such a gaping crater in the center of our lives. 

A mutual friend recently said to me, pondering J.T.'s death: "Can you imagine the pain?"

I could not.  She could not.  No one can, yet it exists and beyond all comprehension, it appears -- to one degree or another -- to be endurable.

Reverse side of final photo of J.T. Hurley.
When Aunt June died on December 8, 2017, her niece left me some photos of J.T. that Aunt June had close to her at the end.  One of them shows him lying in the middle of his living room floor with a boy whom I do not know.  They are playing with toy cars. 

Across the back of the photo, in faded red script "MAR 1979" was stamped several times by the company that developed the photo.  J.T. died April 12, 1979.  As I examine what must have been the final photograph of him, and look at the microfiche scans from the April 14, 1979 Windsor Star, I somehow feel as though poring over J.T.'s final days, hours, minutes, I might find a glitch in the Matrix, a line of incorrect code, which, when corrected will bring him back.

After one of my countless Internet searches for April 1979, a photo from The Windsor Star came up -- a picture of a crucifix in St. Anne's cemetery, dated April 12, 1979.  J.T. was, in all probability, at school the moment the picture was taken.  I pore over the image and the date in the caption wondering if there is no possible way to transport to that place, to that moment, and to find my way to St. William elementary school in Emeryville...  It's all too ridiculous.  Of course I cannot.  Although I understand the sentiment, I don't understand the futile mental exercise of putting myself through that.

When a story ends far too soon in real life, it's difficult to end it in the retelling.  Whenever I visit J.T. Hurley's grave, I ask myself an uncomfortable question: Am I mourning his passing or am I mourning the passing of my own childhood and youth?  The easy answer is to say "a little of both", but I'm not yet decided.  J.T. is not the only friend I had as a kid.  In fact, he is not the only one whose life came to a premature end.  This is about the time someone would accuse me -- not for the first time -- of "thinking too much".  I don't believe there is such a thing, but at times I do feel like I'm working on an algebra problem that has taken me right off the page, across my desk and into the air.

And midair is where I have to leave this story.  I will not stop thinking about J.T. Hurley, nor will I stop visiting his grave.  After the spring, Aunt June's remains are interred there.  The house of memory at 784 Old Tecumseh Road now belongs to someone else.

I thought I saw an answer to it all in the 1978 movie, Superman, starring Christopher Reeves, when Lois Lane appears to die near the end.  After finding her, a grief-stricken Superman flies out of the earth's atmosphere and begins flying around the world against its spin on its axis.  After a few dozen orbits, the world actually begins to turn backward.  Superman eases it back just enough so that the accident that claims Lois Lane's life doesn't have a chance to occur.  She's OK and impatient to be waiting at the side of the road with car trouble.  If only.

No comments: