Thursday, April 12, 2018

April 12 Pilgrimage - J.T. Hurley's Anniversary

The J.T. Hurley Chronicles

St. William Cemetery
There is a temptation to canonize and rhapsodize about the dead.  Thirty-nine years ago, my friend, J.T. Hurley, died: April 12, 1979, the Thursday before Easter weekend.  At the time, my little brother and I were looking forward to going to J.T.'s on Easter Sunday for an Easter egg hunt.  Then came the phone call for my mother from Metropolitan Hospital.  It was J.T.'s mother.  She was frantic, but she was clear -- J.T. was dead.  He was nine years old.

I was seven years old at that time, and remember playing in my back yard when my father called my brother and I into the house.  An ice storm, days before, caused a neighbor's tree to collapse across a couple of yards -- the topmost tangled part of the tree (the part we could never climb to when it stood straight) rested in our yard and my brother and I were exploring it when my father called us.

Dad led us into the living room and sat on the floor with us, which was unusual.  His face was in turmoil, but at seven, I had no way of reading it.  Adults were strange creatures to me, then, who confused and bewildered me on an hour-to-hour basis.

When Dad said, "J.T. had an accident," I remember smiling inward, excitedly preparing to hear about the latest cool cast J.T. would be wearing on Easter Sunday.  Months before, he had broken his leg, and I remember examining his plaster cast with rapt fascination, running a finger over the inscriptions and drawings left in multi-colored pen by his friends.  Maybe it was his arm, this time, or maybe he had a black eye.  Or, a bandage wrapped around his head like those guys in TV shows who had amnesia.

Then my father said, "J.T. has gone to Jesus."  It took nothing more for me to understand that something terrible and irrevocable had happened.

The most galling, scalding detail of J.T.'s death was that he died while climbing through a window into his house.  It was the one day he was allowed to go home by himself -- his regular after school babysitter was out of town for Easter weekend.  After a week of concerted lobbying to be allowed to go home by himself just this one time, J.T.'s mother relented.  Except, J.T. forgot to ask for the house key, or his mother forgot to give it to him.  When he got home, he was locked out.

J.T. was a natural athlete, graceful and agile.  He could climb anything.  Climbing through a window into his house -- which was all of five feet off the ground -- was like a starting basketball player shooting a balled-up piece of paper into a garbage pail.  Except, the window fell as J.T. climbed through.  It seems he didn't raise the window high enough for the clasp at the top to catch and hold.  It should have just clunked him on the head when it fell, leaving nothing more than a goose egg.  If it had to fall, it should have fallen on his back.  But on April 12, 1979, the window came down on the back of his neck, pinning him in place, his feet bare, excruciating inches from the ground.

So, it's 39 years later, and though I have thought of J.T. many times during the intervening years, visiting his mother numerous times at their house, this anniversary has landed on me like an anvil.  The 2018 calendar aligns with the 1979 calendar.  Not perfectly.  Easter was a couple of weeks ago, but April 12 is a Thursday, once again.  And here I find myself on a self-guided pilgrimage.

My first stop is J.T.'s grave.  It is lunch time and, sure enough, the sounds of the students in the St. William school yard, nearby, are completely audible here.

I never get used to seeing J.T.'s grave marker.  There obviously has been some kind of mistake, and the more I visit, the more I'll draw attention to this flaw and something in the Time/Space Continuum will jostle itself and the whole tragic accident that claimed J.T.'s life will be undone.  The utter ridiculousness of such a thought is apparent to me everywhere, except when I stand at J.T.'s grave.

One afternoon, a few weeks ago, while visiting, I strolled around to see who his "neighbors" were.  I was taken aback to find the graves of two other boys -- in a cluster of Robitaille family tombstones -- who had lived 1966 - 1976 and 1968 - 1978, respectively.  I am no demographer, but I marveled at the slim odds of three boys, buried within 25 feet of each other, who had all died at the same young age outside a time of plague or pestilence.

Following an unspecified length of time, graveside, I drive eight minutes to J.T.'s house -- though, it is no longer his house.  After his mother's death in December, a new owner took possession (though, the house remains empty), so I am technically trespassing as I walk around the property, taking pictures.

I start at the open carport where I had watched J.T. perform one of his "stunts" -- crashing his bicycle into a pile of boxes, garbage cans, a hockey net and other, assorted garage debris.  He had choreographed it to look and sound as dangerous as possible.  It had worked.  My brother and I, standing at a safe distance wondered, briefly, if he'd broken his neck, only to see J.T. jump to his feet without a scratch.  After his death, the carport emptied of anything that looked fun.  All that was left were garbage pails, an ancient extension ladder, various unused flower pots.  The only thing, possibly, from J.T.'s era is a dirty, old plastic bin that used to be situated at the top of the back stairs -- a quarter-filled with water -- for us to swish our sandy feet before going into the house.

I pause at the small front porch.  Next to it is a winter-ravaged plant of some variety I can't readily identify.  My last visit here with Aunt June, J.T.'s mom, last September, she offhandedly pointed to the plant (flourishing at the time), saying, "I planted that right after J.T. died.  It's doing well!"  And it was, and it probably will, again.

I look through the narrows windows on either side of the front door.  There are no surprises inside the house.  It is vacant; door of the fridge hanging open in the kitchen, sunlight streaming through the windows.

Halloween 1970s
Then, around to the lakeside of the house.  Long, long ago, Aunt June had the windows replaced, so the one that had claimed J.T. is long gone.  My mother said that people would ask Aunt June how she could stay in the house after what had happened.  It's a reasonable question, but to my mind, highly unreasonable to ask of a woman who lost her son in that house.  I go around and look at the windows.  I turn and look at the beach, which has receded greatly since I visited as a kid.  The day is sunny and the winter chill that has stubbornly hung on has released its hold -- for this afternoon, at least.  I go to the water and let a wave run up onto my shoes.  My parents have Super 8 footage, somewhere, of me sitting on this shore as a baby, slapping my hands down on each small, lapping wave, attempting to catch them.

I take pictures with my phone, and look into windows. Yes, I am looking for ghosts.  I find none.  All the furniture is gone. J.T.'s room has been devoid of his belongings for decades.  On visits to Aunt June's, those first few times after J.T. died, my brother and I would approach the open door of his bedroom, never entering, and gaze at his stuff: sports pendants, a granite chess board, books, toys, his old bedspread on the bed.  Far sooner than I was ready, the room emptied of J.T.'s belongings. No one could begrudge Aunt June for doing whatever she needed to do to make life livable in his absence.  As it turned out, far from simply donating all of J.T.'s possessions to Goodwill, Aunt June allowed his friends to come over and pick out mementos.  Of everything J.T. had owned, Aunt June held back his favorite jean jacket, an odd stuffed monkey with which he slept as a young child and his baseball glove.  All of which I now have.

Hoping to indulge my over-developed sense of nostalgia with this visit, I'm only reminded of Thomas Wolfe once wrote: "You can't go home again."

As I take a few final photos at the front of the property, a curious neighbor approaches and asks what I am doing.  I explain my relationship to Aunt June and that it's J.T.'s anniversary; that he was once my friend.  I am relieved to see the suspicion disappear from the neighbor's gaze.  He remembers Aunt June fondly, though he never knew J.T..  He marvels that 39 years have passed since J.T.'s passing.  "As we got to know, June," the neighbor says, "she would talk about him from time to time..."  The thought drifts away.  He goes back to his yard work.  I go to my car.

And drive to Metropolitan Hospital.

* * *

We should honor how people lived, not dwell on the circumstances of their deaths.  My memories of J.T. are filled with happiness and fun.  There is a temptation to canonize and rhapsodize about the dead.  Suffice it to say that J.T. Hurley was wall-to-wall fun.

As a middle-aged father of two boys, my youthful delusions of invincibility are long in the past, shed like the jeans that no longer fit me.  My mind dwells on the circumstances of J.T.'s death.  He died alone, the silence of his childhood home surrounding him in mute helplessness.  The waves of Lake St. Clair lapping against the shore with metronome regularity, utterly indifferent.

According to Hourly Data Weather Report for April 12, 1979 it was a cloudy, hazy day in the area with a high temperature of 13 degrees Celsius (55.4 Fahrenheit).  Jacket weather.  There is every chance that J.T. was wearing his favorite jean jacket that day, which his mother gave to me last September.

In his book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, author David Eagleman says, "There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time." 

Mr. Eagleman offers some comfort that I can, at least, save J.T. Hurley from one death.

The image that keeps returning to me centers on the first day back to school following Easter 1979 -- the day after J.T.'s burial.

J.T.'s final resting place is in St. William cemetery, which was next to St. William Church (now defunct), which was right next to St. William elementary school, where he was a fourth grade student.  The first time I visited J.T.'s grave, I was amazed to see that the school was visible from the cemetery and wondered if the sounds of kids playing in the school yard were audible there.

Students in the St. William school yard beyond the cemetery.
I imagine that first day back, Tuesday, April 17, 1979, the students of fourth grade filing into their classroom following the morning bell, taking their seats, a somber silence hanging over them.  And when finally the last student was seated, there was that one, lone, empty desk among them.

J.T.'s desk.

The morning announcements would have mentioned his death, prayers asked for.  Many of his classmates, no doubt, arrived that morning already knowing of the accident.  How sad and surreal it must have been to know that J.T. was gone, but nearby, that he lay within a grave that was five minutes' walking distance from where he sat through Math and Geography lessons.  How circumstance had forced the trade of a student desk for a grave, a classroom for a coffin.  That, on the previous Thursday, he was among them, laughing, running in the school yard, taking notebooks out of his desk, shoving them back into his desk, dropping pencils, chewing on erasers, talking, joking, listening, drawing.

On that dismal Tuesday, the books in his desk, and the lessons they contained, had been exploded into irrelevance by his death.  All of J.T.'s school things sat stuffed in that desk and the task of emptying it lay ahead.  The desk must have been like a bomb crater in the room.  I think of the student sitting behind J.T.'s desk, with that empty, gaping space before them the rest of the day, the rest of the week, the rest of the school year.  Or, the student sitting in front of J.T.'s desk.  Did they ever experience a superstitious tingling on the back of their neck?  J.T. would mean no one any harm.  He wouldn't haunt or frighten anyone.  Our own minds do that job.

Or, did the teacher reconfigure the seating arrangement and have J.T.'s desk removed?  Did a new student arrive in the weeks following, to occupy the desk with no knowledge as to why it was empty?  Kids being kids, there is no question someone would have stepped up to inform the new student.  Not necessarily with malice, but with a kid's guileless desire to inform.

Or, had the empty desk simply remained, as is -- sadder and starker than any grave marker could be.

So, today is April 12.  It is my eldest son's birthday.  He was born in the hospital where J.T. had been taken.  Although today is J.T.'s anniversary, it is first and foremost, to me, my son's birthday.  J.T. would have no objection to that.  Today, however, I am allowing myself to split it.  This is the first anniversary on which I am actually aware of the date J.T. died.  For 38 years, I only knew that he died on Holy Thursday, a moving target date that changed from year to year.  Then came the day I finally located J.T.'s grave.  The date engraved on it was suddenly engraved in me.

As I write this, it's 4:03 p.m.. It is hard to say with any accuracy, but J.T. would have arrived at his home sometime around now.  He would have found the front door locked and realized he didn't have the key.  There is a part of my mind that is certain if I only pore over the details of J.T.'s final moments, some detail can be found, some glitch in the matrix that would allow me to reverse engineer the accident and save him.  Impossible, of course, but part of me won't give up.

The rest of me, however, knows the ending to the story: J.T. found an unlatched window, raised it and attempted to climb into the house.  The window fell on him, pinning him, causing him to suffocate.  At some point later, J.T.'s mother realized she hadn't given him the house key.  She called a neighbor, asking if the neighbor could check on J.T. and see if he was wandering around the house, or sitting on the front steps.  The neighbor found J.T., got him down from the window and attempted CPR.  An ambulance was called.  J.T. resided in Puce, Ontario, on Lake St. Clair, a 40-minute drive from Metropolitan Hospital.  The ambulance arrived and took him to Met.  The EMS tech worked on J.T. during the frantic drive, fishing an intubation tube down his throat and attempting to get him breathing again.  Finally, J.T. was rushed into the ER, but it was apparent to all who observed him -- he was no longer alive.  The ER doctor pronounced him dead at 5:55 p.m.  His mother arrived.  My mother was called.  As they waited for J.T.'s father to arrive, Aunt June came and went from the examination room where J.T. lay with the intubation tube protruding uselessly from his open mouth.

Evening of April 12...

J.T. Hurley, March 1979.
My friend is gone, and the day of his anniversary is nearly done.  I'm sure there are those who would accuse me of not allowing J.T. to rest in peace.  Nobody questions my thoughts and motives more than I do.  What do I hope to find?  What do I hope to resolve? 

When I push to divine my motives, a phrase recurs in my mind: "He was us."  

One summer day when I was two or three years old, I was outside with my parents, hunting for bugs in the grass as they did yard work.  It was a Saturday and it was sunny and at some point a sudden impulse took hold of me and I ran into the street.  At the same moment, a car approached.  There was a great shriek of tires, which seemed to wrench the flow of time right off its rails. The air was sucked out of the world.  In that sliver of a moment, I looked at the car ten feet away from me -- I stood eye-level with the wide, round headlights -- and saw the startled expression on the face of the driver; he was still bobbing back and forth from the sudden stop.  He was in his twenties with floppy blond hair.  A girl with long hair parted in the middle sat in the passenger seat.  The look on the guy's face was a mixture of terror and confusion.

Then, air blasted back into the world, I took a breath, the sounds of the neighborhood reasserted themselves, and a pair of hands wrapped around my torso.  I was lifted off the ground and I didn't return to solid footing until my father set me down in my bedroom and shut the door.

Had one or two actions occurred differently that day -- had the floppy blond-haired guy left the house a few seconds later or my sudden inspiration to run into the road come a second later -- it might well be J.T. Hurley writing a blog post about his three year old friend who never made it to school, never lived to see Star Wars, or to write his name.

He was us.

And it would be my time-faded photograph on the wall, the memory of my voice and laugh and running footsteps that would haunt and harangue my parents the rest of their lives.  I would have been little more than a ghost to my younger brother.  But the world worked as it should have that day: the car stopped in time, I spent the afternoon in my bedroom, my parents thought twice about letting me so close to the road, again.  And life went on.