Just Scratching the Surface
“Enjoy him. You won’t have him for very much longer.” The voice was as clear as though someone were standing right by my side, speaking to me quietly. I looked around, expecting to see who might have spoken the words, but there was no one there. Jay (our son), his band members, and a few Melonheads who always showed up for the gigs early were there, but they were busy getting set up for the evening’s performance at Trinity’s in Mobile, Alabama, another lively evening with Velvet Melon, Jay’s band. I shrugged and immediately dismissed the words for the moment.
The stage at Trinity’s was above the bar, a strange location but one that was perfect for bands because they were up high where everyone could see them. Not a bad seat in the house. All evening I had a perfect view of my boy and the other guys in the band. Talent shouted from all of them as they played originals by Jay and Mike and cover tunes by bands such as Crowded House, Human Radio, and Billy Idol. Jay was obviously the leader and had the audience in the palm of his hand. If he told them to sing with him, they sang; if he said for them to dance, they danced; if he motioned for them to clap, their hands couldn’t wait to smack together. They loved him! And the feeling was mutual.
Between sets, he “worked the crowd,” as he called his moving from one group of friends to another, from one group of first attenders to another; this evening to one girl sitting by herself. She wasn’t a pretty girl, not made up like the others, not dressed in provocative clothing, not dancing and flirting. In fact, she was a bit homely and obviously by herself. During the set of originals, she had had eyes only for Jay, and he noticed. Instead of heading to beauties in the crowd—those girls whom he and Mike, the keyboard player, referred to as “swanks”—he made his way to the lone girl, spending several minutes visiting only with her, obviously making her day.
This night at Trinity’s was just one of hundreds at bars all over the Southeast. Frank and I attended all of Jay’s gigs if the band was playing in Pensacola, and we went to gigs in other cities whenever we could. Since bands don’t begin until 9:00 p.m. and since we both had to be up early the next morning for work, we’d usually go for the first set—always the band’s originals—and then leave so that we could get to bed at a halfway decent hour. We had done this for months, maybe even years, and not thought a thing about our schedule. One Monday after a Sunday-night gig, the phone rang in the teacher’s work area in the school where I taught. The call was for me. It was Jay.
“Hey, Mom,” he said. “I’m really put out with you and Dad.” Put out with is Southern for disappointed in.
“Really? Why?” I asked, shocked by his words.
“Because y’all come to the gig, stay for one set, and then leave without telling me ‘good-bye.’”
Now that really was a shocker. What twenty-something boy is insulted because his mom and dad don’t tell him good-bye in front of all his friends? Jay Young, that’s who. You can be assured that we never left a gig without hugs right in the middle of the bar after that revelation. The music that flowed from his sax was beautiful, but his words on the phone that day were even more beautiful. They were music to my ears.
As most people know, the atmosphere in a bar can sometimes be a bit raucous and racy. The bars where Velvet Melon played were no exception, so I’m told. I say “so I’m told” because even though the young people in those places were energetic and the music much too loud for parents’ ears, most of the time we didn’t see too much that we’d object to. Why? We found out when one of Jay’s friends told us that just before we were to arrive, Jay stopped the music and announced, “Hey, guys, my folks are gonna walk through that door any minute, so cool it!” I think there had been some banter back and forth between the Melonheads and the band that Jay didn’t want us to hear. What a boy!
I could write a book about Jay’s friends and his relationship to them. For now, though, I want to write about only one—Gary, a young man who, in his junior year in high school, had been warming up for the 100-yard dash at a track meet, when a policeman had lost control of his motorcycle and literally flown into Gary, leaving him a paraplegic. When Gary returned to school after a lengthy healing period, kids in his own class didn’t know how to react to his new situation and, instead of being friendly and conciliatory toward him, practically ignored him. Sometimes we just don’t know what to say to those who are suffering. Not so with Jay and some of his classmates, young people a year behind Gary in school. Instead, they flocked to Gary, not concentrating on his handicap but endeavoring to make him feel normal . . . like them. Jay was a ringleader in the Let’s Make Gary Feel Good group.
Gary told me that one day Jay was late to band and saw Gary sitting in his wheelchair in the commons area of the school. Jay, in his unabashed way, asked Gary what he missed most in his new life.
“Running fast,” Gary immediately answered. He said that sometimes he’d go to the track and wheel himself around just to feel the fresh air blowing through his hair.
Jay said, “So you miss going fast?”
“Sure do,” answered his friend.
“Hang on, Gary! You’re about to go for the ride of your life!” And away they went all through the halls of Pine Forest High School. As Gary said, “It was so exciting I almost lost my water!”
Jay loved all sorts of people, no matter the person’s physical condition, station in life, intelligence, or talent. People and music were his passion. I don’t think I ever heard him hang up from talking to a friend without saying something like, “I love you, man!” And he never hung up from talking to Frank and me without telling us that he loved us. We even have a tape of one of his songs in which he leaned close to the microphone and said, “I love you, Mom.” What made him do that, I don’t know, but you can bet I love listening to that recording.
My boy was funny, but that’s an understatement. He was hilarious. He and his sister, Wendy, could entertain us for hours just playing off each other. Before I ever saw Saturday Night Live, they used to have us in stitches on Sunday morning, “replaying” the program from the night before. The first time I saw SNL, I didn’t think it was nearly so funny as our children were. He was an entertainer from the core. Just the most insignificant event took on magnitude when Jay told it. He didn’t lie; he just embellished. Something that could have been serious was comedy when he finished telling about it.
Just as with most mothers and sons, Jay and I had a very special relationship. Many mornings I’d be up grading papers before getting ready for school, and he’d be just getting in from an out-of-town gig. We’d sit and drink coffee and chat before he went to bed and I headed to the bathroom to get socially acceptable. He’d tell me about the gig he’d just finished, and I’d tell him about projects that my students were doing. Just chit chat between a mom and her boy . . . times I’ll never forget.
The things that I’ve mentioned about Jay just scratch the surface of his personality and give merely a taste of the reasons that he is so special to me. Every incident that I’ve mentioned taught me, the mother, something . . . compassion being the main thing. His love for people is what endears him the most to me, his love for me being included.
Our son died on July 2, 1992, when he was twenty-four years old, much too young to go. I can tell you, and Jay would agree with me, that God had a reason for his going to be with Him so soon. Someday both of us will understand. In the meantime, I still hear the voice that I heard only four months before he died: “Enjoy him. You won’t have him for very much longer.” The voice told the truth.
Not long after Jay died, I read a book called My Dream of Heaven (Intramuros) by Rebecca Ruter-Springer. At the beginning of each chapter, she inserted a quotation. One of the last quotations grabbed my heart and though I’ve read many books since then about losing children, this quotation has remained my favorite, and I can’t conclude this piece without showing it to all who read because it sums up my feelings for my boy:
There is an endearing tenderness in the love of a mother to a son that transcends all other affections of the heart. It is neither to be chilled by selfishness, nor daunted by danger, nor weakened by worthlessness, nor stifled by ingratitude. She will sacrifice every comfort to his convenience; she will surrender every pleasure to his enjoyment; she will glory in his fame and exult in his prosperity; and if adversity overtake him, he will be the dearer to her by misfortune; and if disgrace settle upon his name, she will still love and cherish him; and if all the world beside cast him off, she will be all the world to him.