And The Hits Just Keep Comin’

Bobby's sister, Sherrie

Bobby’s sister, Sherrie

I’d hoped that by now I’d have written about the July wedding reception the band played, the open mic nights I’d been attending every other week, or the music my crew and I had planned on recording and why that hadn’t happened yet – that’s what I’d hoped, but that’s not what I’m writing about. Because that’s not what’s on my mind.

2014 is kicking my ass.

Not personally, mind you. In Keffusland, everything is actually doing pretty well: got a day job helping keep the bills caught up; still doing a little freelancing on the side from time to time; singing strong, making new fans every time I do; band has a couple of rallies coming up, that will be major fun and garner us some major exposure. Life isn’t perfect – could use some benefits, could use a little more money per hour – but all in all, not too shabby. A hell of a lot better than last year or the year before, so yeah, the personal life has no major complaints.

Bad things keep happening to people around me. A lot.

Started back in January: my email got an alert from my Monster account about a possible job fit – lo and behold, it was a position at the job I’d left two years before. I texted my friend at the old job:

“Hey! You’re looking for a graphics guru – who left?”

The text came back. “OMG! We didn’t tell you! The senior graphic designer died.”

Over the next few minutes, my friend texted all the details: the senior designer got sick, but refused to go to the doctor until he attempted to drive into work and had to turn back around, he’d gotten too dizzy to continue. A trip to the emergency room revealed double-pneumonia – he was quickly admitted into the ICU and put into a medically-induced coma. While he was under on the antibiotics, he had a stroke. And then another stroke. After the third stroke, there was nothing left of my old co-worker. His family took him off of life support over the holidays.

The senior graphic designer had been with the company since its founding – all the original logos, package designs, spec drawings were all his; all the early catalogs were produced by him. And he wasn’t that much older than me, in his early to mid-fifties at most. I liked him – he was a little crusty, he didn’t like working a second extra minute if he didn’t have to, but we shared the same dry sense of humor and love of heart-clogging gas station snacks. I’d have gone to his service had I just known what had happened in time.

A month later, and I was sitting at his desk, temping while the president of the company looked for a new senior graphic designer – I’ve been there ever since.

Just about the time it was decided I needed to take on the late senior designer’s old job of laying out the new catalog, I got the call from my mom that my cousin had passed away. He’d been a hard-drinking chain-smoker since his teens, so the news wasn’t as surprising as it was just unexpected – last I knew, he’d been forced into early retirement from his failing health, but he wasn’t in horribly bad shape. I was wrong. My cousin had a reputation as a party hound with a penchant for extremely dirty jokes when he was young and spry; he was also always to first to show with his tool belt on when someone in the family needed a helping hand; and if he was on the job, the job got done right or it didn’t get done at all. We were thankful he wasn’t in pain any longer, but he was beloved and would be sorely missed by us all.

It was barely six weeks later that I got the call from Bobby’s family he was in a coma. It was barely twelve days later I’d deliver his eulogy. It’s been seventeen weeks since we all lost him, and none of his friends and family have recovered – there’s this pall hanging over everything, like a cinematographer leeched the scenery and all the players of some of their color. The world just isn’t as bright.

In late June, a good friend and former co-worker at an older job called my cell phone while I was heading into work. “Are you sitting down? Because you are not going to believe this: the Marketing VP was found dead, sitting in her car in a parking lot on Saturday. Last anyone had ever seen her was leaving work Thursday – she’d been missing two days.”

Had my buddy not warned me, I could have driven off the road, I was so shocked. My old Marketing VP had been a stunningly attractive, wonderfully charming woman of amazing competence and capability. She’d revamped the department, understanding early on the key to getting materials out on time was not just more hands on deck but better organization: she hired more account managers, then delegated authority to long-term designers that played to their strengths. In short order, the department was cranking out more catalogs and collateral materials with fewer designers on staff.

Bobby; his mom, Mary Ann; and his sister, Sherrie, around 1979-80

Bobby; his mom, Mary Ann; and his sister, Sherrie, around 1979-80

I’d screwed up: I took something personally that was only business, reacted with hurt feelings when I should have been more pragmatic, and I ended up losing that freelance gig. She was the only bridge I’d ever regretted burning down, and I’d still held out a small measure of hope that if I couldn’t salvage the professional relationship, I might someday repair the friendship – finding out she was gone hit like a mule kick to my chest. The funeral was for family only, so I hung my black tie back up.

Finding out about my old boss was the last straw: too much bad emotion had a physical response. I had a fever by the end of the day; by the end of the week, I was home sick with a upper-respiratory infection. I was still taking antibiotics, still hoarse at the July Fourth wedding reception the band played for one of our biggest supporters. The next weekend I had all my voice back, but only about half my lung capacity for our last bar gig of the summer. I took advantage of the band having the rest of July and the first weekend of August off to rest and heal up.

About a week before Labor Day, a buddy posted up on Facebook some horrible news: rather than explain to his parents he’d rather keep working the family store than deal with the stress of college, my buddy’s very intelligent, very sensitive son had taken the pistol stashed in the office for security and taken his own life. I was at work the next day, making the arrangements to take off for the service when I got a text from Barbara Ann, Bobby’s sister-in-law: “gm keith sherrie is n icu not good machines r breathing for her”

Sherrie was Bobby’s sister. I left the office, found a semi-quiet corner of the warehouse and called Barbara Ann for the details. Sherrie had been out running errands with her boyfriend when she started feeling bad – she asked if they could head back home so she could get a breathing treatment for her COPD. Her boyfriend complied and took them to the house – he heard the breathing machine hum on, heard Sherrie say, “Call 911,” and then he heard her hit the ground. She’d stopped breathing and soon went into cardiac arrest. The EMTs had resuscitated her twice on the way to the hospital, but she remained in a coma. Bobby’s mother, Mary Ann, was with her in the ICU, Barbara Ann would be down with her husband, David, when they could swing it.

I thanked Barbara Ann for the information and ended the call. I couldn’t breathe and my head swam – the similarities to Bobby were unavoidable. I wiped my eyes, got my act together, then told my co-workers what was going on and that I had to go. I got in my Mustang, hit the road, and then called my lovely Lady Fair, filling her in.

The Kaufman hospital was a breeze to get to compared to its Bedford counterpart, just a quick left turn after leaving the highway. Mary Ann saw me and honked her horn as I was walking towards the doors – she needed nicotine and it was too hot to stand outside, so she was sitting in her running car with the air conditioning. “Thank you so much for being here,” she sniffed, squeezing my hand. I shrugged, holding up my arms. “Where else would I be?” I answered. Bobby had been my oldest friend – he hadn’t just been adopted by my family; I’d been adopted by his, as well. And since he couldn’t be there for his family, I damn sure would be.

One request for information landed me in the third floor ICU in no time. Sherrie’s son, Justin, was in the room with her – except for the breathing tube down her throat, Sherrie looked asleep. She also looked gorgeous: good color, plump cheeks, eyelashes impossibly lush, as is her big blue eyes would flutter open at any moment. I hugged Justin as he tried to put his thoughts in some semblance of order – as desperate as he was to hold on to any shred of hope, Justin had experienced too much life not to be pragmatic. Against his will, he was already planning for a future without his mother, worrying more and more about his grandmother – two children lost in less than four months was more than anyone should have to bear.

I made plans to head back in the morning – the results of the EKG would be ready, and I wanted to be with the family when they received the results. I hugged my folks good-bye and headed for the car.

“Are you ready to do this again, Keith?” Mary Ann called after me. The question had a double-meaning – she trusted that I caught it.

I shook my head. “No!” I called back. My answer had a double-meaning – I was afraid she’d ignore it. I climbed into the Mustang and headed home.

No one was completely sure how long Sherrie had been without oxygen, but it could have been as long as fifteen minutes – the EKG would hopefully let the family know how much hope to hang on to. I got up as if I was going to work, put on clothes I could wear with my sports coat even in the summer – I always feel more confident in a sports or suit coat, and I’d learned a long time ago professionals take you more seriously when you wore one, even if it was matched up with blue jeans and gym shoes. I headed back to the ICU waiting room, welcoming family members as they arrived and we waited for the results. It was after lunch before the attending doctor and the hospital chaplain finally met with us.

There was definite signs of brain damage – how much no one would know until Sherry woke up. Sherry was showing signs of wakefulness, an improvement from two days before. But that was all the doctor could tell us for sure – the recommendation was to just keep Sherrie under observation for a few more days, see what developed. The family was frustrated – we’d all hoped for more definite news. Mary Ann heard what she needed to hear – she heading back to Sherrie’s room, asking her baby girl to please wake up. I hugged Bobby’s pretty niece, Doniene. “I’ve got to get back to my life. If I can make it back up here over the weekend, I’ll see you then.”

She squeezed me back. “Thank you so much for being here.” The tears came back to my eyes. “Where else would I be?”

Sherrie and Bobby two years ago, maybe the last photo of the two of them together

Sherrie and Bobby two years ago, maybe the last photo of the two of them together

I’d missed most of Wednesday and all of Thursday at work; Friday was the day before a holiday weekend, so I made sure I was at the job all day so the regular full-time employees could start their vacations early if need be. Saturday was a band rehearsal that lasted most of the day. The practice went great – new songs were coming along, old songs were sounding better than they had in months, and my lung capacity was almost back to normal. The practice room had been like a sauna, though, so once we were done, we were done – I headed home to a much needed shower and a good night’s sleep.

Sunday brunch with my mother-in-law fell through, so I headed back to the hospital to see Sherrie. In the two days I’d been gone, her appearance had completely changed. The breathing tube was gone, with just a cannula in her nose providing oxygen. Someone had pulled Sherrie’s hair up into a pony  tail on the top of her head, exposing her terribly frail neck. She didn’t look as plump – the skin of her face seemed to be pulled tighter, sinking in her cheeks a bit. Most striking of all was her lower jaw which had fallen open, as if all the muscles had gone slack, as if she had no sense of self-awareness at all. My chest got tight – I’d been in too many ICU’s, I’d seen that look before, I knew what came next. I started asking the Universe to not let her linger too long.

Monday was Labor Day, so I went back to the hospital – my Lady Fair and I were in between the rotation of family members, so we sat in Sherrie’s room for a little while. Her eyes were open, but she didn’t see me – she didn’t see anything. Tuesday, I went back to the hospital. Mary Ann was coming in just as I was leaving, so she filled me in on what the kids had decided on the day before: they were moving Sherrie to Oklahoma for in-home hospice care. Mary Ann wasn’t going to fight it, which told me she’d stopped asking her baby girl to wake up. I walked her down to her car for another smoke break, hugging her close when we made the parking lot. Mary Ann was even smaller than a few days before – she hadn’t been eating. If I had to guess, she probably hadn’t been sleeping; just chain-smoking and crying and praying. “When it’s time, will you take care of things?”

My heart sank. “Mary Ann… sweetheart… I’m not a minister.”

From a million miles away, her tear-filled eyes stared up at me. “But, Keith… you’re the closest thing we’ve got.”

I couldn’t say “No” again. Bobby had been my oldest, my closest friend – I’d be there for his family.

I didn’t go to the hospital Wednesday – I needed the break, I needed some time with my Lady Fair, and I needed to process what I’d just promised Mary Ann I’d do. My phone buzzed – I had a message from Bobby’s close friend and former roommate, Loretta. “Sherrie has passed. Please don’t post. Waiting to let the kids know.”

All the air left the room as tears trickled down my cheeks. I told Kristi, who cried. I texted my mom. I texted my sister. I called my brother. I texted my band leader. I went to my office to check Sherrie’s Facebook status – soon, words of condolence started appearing on her wall. The kids knew. I wiped my eyes and went to bed.

Over the next few days, I helped plan my second funeral, wrote my second obituary, and wrote my third eulogy. I didn’t know Sherrie as well as I’d known her baby brother – it wasn’t writing Bobby’s eulogy that was so difficult, it was editing it down to just ten minutes that was the challenge. Sherry’s obituary was a challenge from start to finish, fighting me the entire way – it took me part of Thursday and all of Friday to compose, barely finishing before I needed to get ready for the visitation. My lovely Lady Fair and I took separate cars to the funeral service Saturday morning – she wasn’t sure if she was driving with me to Oklahoma, she might stay back and spend some much-needed quality time with her mother. The funeral home’s chapel was packed, mostly with family and friends, but with some of Bobby’s friends making the drive, and Justin’s Dance Moms rounded things out (among other things, Justin owns and operates two dance studios in Dallas specializing in drill teams). A little after nine in the morning, I stood at the podium and welcomed everyone to the service. I outlined what was going to happen, then I officially began things by reading the obituary I’d written. Sherrie was survived by so many people, and I’d been asked to name them all, some of the grandkids were old enough to notice if they hadn’t been mentioned – mother, brother, sister-in-law, niece, five kids, two stepkids, seven grandkids, seven step-grandkids… so many people… but only three names remained.

“She was preceded in death by her father, David Wesley Laye; her nephew, David Wayne Laye, Jr.; and her brother…”

My voice broke as tears suddenly appeared. I’d practiced the obit, but I’d never actually said it standing at the very same podium, wearing the same shirt, wearing the same sports coat, as I had sixteen weeks earlier; and it suddenly hit me full force that Sherrie’s brother – my brother – was dead.

I forced his name, “Bobby Lee Laye,” then choked out “She was 53,” and sat down as a long-time friend of the family said a few words. I dropped my head and pulled myself back together as he led the room in a prayer.

I delivered my eulogy without a problem. The service didn’t go as smoothly as Bobby’s, but it still went fine – at least, I assume it did; I didn’t get any complaints. I got the chapel cleared and the casket loaded into the SUV for the trip on time, which made me a hero in the eyes of the funeral directors who still had back-to-back services to go. My mother-in-law didn’t need my lovely Lady Fair, so she decided to make the run to Oklahoma with me. Nine hours later, we were home. I skipped the drinking I had planned for the evening and went straight to bed, tired and soul-weary.

Sherrie Ann Johnson

Sherrie Ann Johnson

The day after Sherrie had passed, I’d gotten a note that a former officemate of mine, a wonderful young woman I still miss working beside, had lost her mom. I was tied up with Sherrie business, so I shot a quick condolence; now that the service was over and life almost getting back to normal, I shot her a longer note apologizing for being so distant and asking her how she was holding up. I’d just gotten back her reply when another note appeared on my screen: Bobby and my old friend and former roommate, after years of watching his mother decline, was letting us know his vigil was over, she had passed just that afternoon.

I stared at the screen, numb. I quickly typed out “Oh, my dear sweet brother… I am so, so sorry. Love to you.” I then turned off my computer, went straight to the bedroom, crawled into bed and pulled the covers over my head. My Lady Fair turned off the light and shut the door for me – that was ten hours ago.

Since I first got the news of my old senior graphic designer, I’ve been doing what I can not to complain. Going to visit someone in the ICU is stressful, but way less stressful than if it was your sister, your mother laying in the bed with a tube down her throat. Attending a funeral is depressing, but no where near as heart-breaking than if it was your brother, your child laying in the satin covered in roses. So many people I care about are dealing with such loss, I’ve been doing what I can to focus on them, keep this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year about them and not about me…

but I am so tired. I can’t process one piece of bad news before another piece of bad news arrives. Gravity seems to have gotten stronger, I feel so heavy and sluggish. There is this band of stress that lives right across my eyes – I’m a second away from crying all the time. And whatever progress I made coping with Bobby’s death is just gone, wiped clean – it was exactly four months today that I did everything I could to honor him right, to bury him right, and it feels like it’s still happening today, that I still have that eulogy to deliver. I just want to go back to bed, pull the blankets up over my head, and stay cocooned there for a week. A month. Until New Year’s Day and this damn year is over and done with.

I am truly blessed to have people who think the world of me, and bless their hearts, they are seeing the cracks in my armor and doing what they can to send me love and support. I’m trying to listen to them, I’m trying not to hurt their feelings, I really am… but I’m just so raw and worn out. This year can’t end soon enough for me.

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