Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath. Keep me in your heart for a while. If I leave you it doesn’t mean I love you any less. Keep me in your heart for a while. ~Warren Zevon~
I’ve never been able to find out exactly how August 18, 1984, started for you, but it had to be terrible. I think I remember hearing that you’d gone into respiratory failure late the night before. Your doctor, Bill Robinson, had been just a young resident when you first got sick, but had taken a special interest in your case, and over the years had become one of your best friends. He’d been up all night trying to buy you more time.
You’d checked into the hospital earlier that week to see what could be done about your diminishing oxygen levels and, as always, you’d put on a brave show. You’d taken your little Casio synthesizer with you, and Aldrich “Cookie” Troutman was going to bring in a video camera to record the fast ones you were planning to pull on the nurses, who knew you from previous visits and tolerated your pranks for the same reason everybody did – you’d charmed them.
I thought this would be just another in a string of artful dodges, another clean getaway.
We talked on the phone a couple of times that week about work and issues with my kids. I’d recently gotten a job as a reporter at the Shopper, and you even showed up for a Mary Lou Horner campaign event a week or so before. She would return the favor by making an appearance at your funeral (which you would have pointed out was one of her favorite campaign tactics).
So, I pushed the grim reaper to the back of my mind again. You made it easy not to think that you were running out of time.
You didn’t want pity. That’s why you joked about your health – like the time at a family friend’s funeral when you handed one of the undertakers a buy-one, get-one-half-price cemetery plot ad and asked if he had any scratch’n’dent caskets. You told him you’d require one of those new slim line models. Your mother was not amused, but everybody else was.
The cascade of pranks you unleashed on the unsuspecting Lynnhurst Cemetery salesperson who called the house looking to peddle a plot was probably your ultimate laugh in the face of death.
It couldn’t have been easy for a born athlete like you to adjust to your body’s betrayal, but you did – although you would die wondering why you were given lethal doses of radiation for Hodgkin’s Disease. You were dead serious about investigating your own case, even as you kept perfecting the pranks that would make you a legend.
Nobody was laughing on August 18. For me, it began with a phone call from Daddy in the wee morning hours telling me Dr. Robinson wanted to talk to us at Parkwest Medical Center ASAP. I called Jeanette and tried to get out of the house without awakening anybody, but Rachael, who was 16, popped up as I was slipping out the front door and wouldn’t let us leave without her. We made the long drive from North Knoxville through a ghostly late summer fog. I don’t remember anybody saying much.
It was quiet inside the hospital, too, and we were ushered into a little room where Mama and Daddy were already waiting. We weren’t as good as you at faking it, and the dread hung heavy. Daddy didn’t have anything to say, for once in his life. He didn’t want us to see him cry. Mama radiated silent misery.
John, you were 33 and had been losing lung function for years as a result of radiation treatment for Hodgkin’s Disease at the age of 19. You fought it hard. You exercised, ate healthy (you used to rag me about eating “dough balls”), wrote music and never stopped laughing. Your old friend, Dr. A.D. Simmons, said you were tougher than pig iron. You outlived all the initial predictions until you couldn’t anymore.
I feared your memory would be diminished as time rolled on and carried us where it may. I wondered who would remember you.
But your friends decided to keep you alive. Those tapes – some on old-timey reel-to-reel recorders, some on mini-cassettes – were kept and treasured by people like Woody Hutson and Burton Akers. There came a day when Marcus Shirley gathered them up and put them on cassettes that got copied and recopied and passed around until they gradually spread around the country. People who weren’t even alive on August 18, 1984, have heard them, and people who never met you have kept you alive.
What they didn’t know is how much more you were than that.
You were unable to defend yourself from fakes and rip-off artists – of whom there were many, including some Tri-Cities poseur who tried to copyright your actual recorded voice and threatened to sue us over it – and we found out that the law didn’t give us much in the way of legal remedies. So, we rolled on as best we could, trying not to think of what could have been.
This first reminder I’m including is Nancy Brennan Strange’s recording of you playing and singing “Tennessee,” which, thanks to the efforts of childhood friend Steve Hunley, was later named an official state song.
The second is a video of Jeff Foxworthy crediting you as his comedic inspiration:
And finally, from a cassette that Phil “Gooch” Simmons tossed into your casket. He said it sums you up as well as anything ever has. I agree.
“I’m different, don’t care who knows it. Something about me’s not the same. I’m different, that’s how it goes. Ain’t gonna play your goddamn games…”
This day never gets any easier, John. But we’re all riding that train. Catch you on the flip side.
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.