by Michael Usey
On the one hand, it’s folly to summarize a life gone too early, although four of us are going to try. On the other hand, I’ve stood beside Jeff in the sweep of the last 20+ years of his life–though marriages, two births, divorces, baptisms, mission trips, and crazy roller coaster adventures. Over the last 6 months we got reconnected, always over long coffees at Special Blend, the cafe staffed by peoples with intellectual disabilities, a cause we both deeply cared about, plus fancy coffee drinks!
The first time we reconnected was last February. Jeff told me about his cancer, and his prognosis. We talked for a long time about his love for teaching. A 24-year teaching career, the last 11 at Northwest Guilford Middle. Math is a difficult subject to teach, and the strategies for successfully teaching mathematics to 13-year-olds seems to morph annually. But Jeff was successful because he loved both the subject matter and his kids. He brought a full gamma-ray charge of sarcastic energy in his Hulk green room, with his music heroes Johnny Cash and John Prine watching over them all. And, let’s be honest, some of Jeff’s fine success as a teacher was his ability to think and act like a 13-year-old. A fellow teacher said of him,
He doesn’t hesitate to dress up on costume days (a favorite character is from Dumb and Dumber), wears a bow tie every Tuesday, and a funny math T-shirt every Friday. He hands out hot cinnamon candy and name tags with the name ‘Sue’ on them for Johnny Cash’s birthday. He quotes movies and song lyrics, and has the quick wit to answer questions with sarcasm that most seventh graders love. Jeff works long hours at school, coming in early and leaving late, and is there every weekend for hours.
Jeff was highly valued by both his students and his colleagues.
On another of our coffee dates, we reviewed past good times. Here’s two favorite stories: Jeff and I were youth sponsors for a mission trip to Miami years ago. One of recent youth group graduates, Andrew Russoli, had gone to boot in the Marines. In a Miami gift shop, Jeff and I bought suggestive postcards to send to Andrew; mine had 5 extremely buff guys running in the Florida surf in teeny tiny speedos. On the back we wrote stuff like, “All the guys are missing you here. Remember, don’t ask; don’t tell!” Not my proudest pastoral moment, but it was funny. Andrew told us a year later that, when the drill read the postcards aloud, Andrew thought, “Boof! Whoever this guy is he’s so dead.” He said the postcards cost him one thousand push-ups.
Another time, on a Matt Cravey coaster trip, Jeff and I were sitting side-by-side on one of those terrible straight up and drop down horrors called Sky Drop. This one was especially diabolical: it went up 70% of it’s full height and stopped, and you think, “Okay, this isn’t so bad, maybe 7 stories.” Then it begins to creep up the other 30% until you are extremely high. Jeff was freaking out the whole way, and we of course were making endless fun of him, an army parachutist, acting scared of heights. When the drop started, Jeff yelled “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuudge!” all the way down (or words to that effect), only to settle on the ground right in front of a young mother with two young kids, who scowled at him, and to whom Jeff apologized profusely and repeatedly.
The next to last time we met for kaffeezeit, he wasn’t as hopeful as he had been before; he wasn’t feeling well. He spoke about his regrets, as we all have a few, and we feel them most clearly in the valley of the shadow of death. We chatted about an artist we both liked, Walt Wilkins and the Mystiqueros, which means the Mystic Cowboys, and in particular one of Walt’s songs, Trains I Missed. He liked these lyrics:
Here’s to the trains I missed The loves I lost The bridges I burned The rivers I never crossed Here’s to the call I didn’t hear The signs I didn’t heed The roads I didn’t take The maps that I just couldn’t read. It’s a big old world but I’ve found my way And the hell and the hurt lead me straight to it.
I don’t think he was afraid to die, but Jeff was grieving at all he would miss, especially his sons’ milestones. Jeff was deeply concerned about the toll his death might take on his family, particularly on his mother and his sons. He loved his family without bounds, the two brothers John & Jonathan, which earned Jeff the nickname Not-John. Jeff loved Adam and Daniel without bounds; he was fiercely proud of who they were, who they were becoming, these bright unconventional young men He crowed about their interests and their accomplishments, went to every one of their cross country meets. And he was so grateful that Lynn was the one he was parenting with, and that she would be the one to escort them into adulthood, with Scott by their sides.
The last time we got together we talked about his funeral, his hopes and fears, and his thoughts about death. We talked about our shared belief that God has created us for relationship — with God and with one another, and that death does not end that relationship. The conversation continues in the being of God. For Christians life after death must be about the continuance of the sacred personality, the part of you that is called by name. What Christian faith hopes in is this: That God’s destiny for every person will be fulfilled. Relationship continues beyond this life. In this relationship we will become fully who God made us to be. The Apostle Paul pointed there with these words: I am sure that the God who began a good work in you will carry it on until it is finished in the Day of Christ Jesus. (Phil 1.6) What we are becoming in this life, we shall be in God’s eternity.
The Walt Wilkins song that we both liked ends this way:
Here’s to this place I’ve found The love I’ve known The earth and the sky That I call home Here’s to the things I need Bigger than me And the moments I find myself right where I’m suppose to be.
At the all-too-early end of his life, Jeff found himself in good places, as a gifted teacher, involved father, excellent brother, and devoted son–and he’ll be greatly missed by all of us who knew and loved him. Amen.