Dad passed away just before midnight on a Thursday night.
He was born 31,447 days ago – on a Monday – in a four room cypress wood , tin roofed house. I usually just call it a ‘shack’, but if my grandpa, who died in 1985, were to hear me call his house a shack he’d still cuss me out from wherever he now abides. He and family built that shelter after moving from Kentucky and it was nearly a replica of the house where he himself was born in March of 1900.
I don’t know where grandpa was when Dad was born on that feather bed in the bedroom just to the left as you came through the front door of the gray wood house in the middle of a cotton field that had been picked over from the season before and had not yet been plowed for that year’s harvest. I wasn’t there, of course; I’d come along 22 years later.
“You’re Wilson Leslie Johnson. I’m Steven Leslie Johnson. You’re 22 years older than me. Always have been. Always will be.” He laughs at that. Always did. Always would. Always will.
I know what the house looked like where he was born because I lived a literal stone’s throw away from it when I was a child. That house sat on Bethlehem Road, Rural Route 1, Clarendon, Arkansas. Cypress Ridge. Monroe County. Mississippi river delta, flat as a fluke, mosquito infested, cicada symphonied, hot as hell dirt road where the flat bed trucks laden with cotton drove like the devil so that dust rained down and mixed with your sweat to make mud streak down your cheeks.
But on a Monday in February, 31,447 days ago the ground was frozen. Dry brittle, bare cotton stalks stood frosted and rooted in icy dirt clods and the only sweat for acres and acres was pouring on the feather bed that took up most of the space in the tiny square room that was just through the front door and immediately to the left inside the shack made out of cypress wood and covered with a corrugated tin roof. A 31 year old woman named Clydie – born in Mississippi, married to a Kentuckian, and transplanted to the other side of the big river for a decade now – gave birth to her fourth and last child on the bed where he was conceived. The bed his older sisters had died on in infancy years before. The bed where I would read the entire series of Ian Fleming’s ‘James Bond’ books during one Christmas break 33 years later, escaping the noise of siblings – a literal stone’s throw away – sinking into the feather mattress, covered up with home made quilts meticulously crafted by this woman named Clydie, who I called Mawmaw and my Dad called Mother.
Why don’t I know more details about that day? Why wasn’t I more curious when Mawmaw could have told me, would have told me the details down to what she thought of Roosevelt and Bonnie and Clyde and anything else I’d have wanted to know? The names of all the people in the boxes of pictures over a century old. The true story of my fourth great grandmother. The details of giving birth to my father in a tiny, square, linoleum floored room on the feather bed I sank into until I was 11 years old?
Grandpa – Pawpaw, aka Uncle Scrub – always told the same story about dad: he told dad to not go swimming in the slash, which was more like a ditch than a creek, running east and west behind all the acres of cotton between their shack and the one room school house across from Bethlehem Baptist Church, 3 miles away. But dad went swimming anyways, like young teenaged boys will do, and when a friend sounded the alarm, “Jockey! Your pa is comin’!” Dad jumped out of the water and pulled his clothes on. They were still sticking to him wet when Pawpaw came on him and said, “Son, were you swimming in the slash?”
“No daddy! I wasn’t!”
“You’re wet son. Tell me truth. I don’t want to whip you. Were you swimming in the slash?”
“No. No daddy! I wasn’t swimming in the slash!”
“Son, you’re wet. Your clothes are still soaked and your hair’s still drippin’! Don’t make me whip ya.”
“Daddy I wasn’t swimming…”
Why don’t I have more stories about dad from my grandpa? There’s only that one. Well, one other, about how Dad was teaching Mom how to drive the pick up truck and Mom had a wreck and broke Dad’s neck. Pawpaw would tell that story over and over as occasion would allow. He always had a bad feeling towards Mom for nearly killing his kid. But that story is more about her and how Pawpaw held grudges.
Dad was never a violent man. You’d never guess that to hear him talk, though. As his memory eroded he would often look deep in thought – not foggy confusion – as if he were trying to solve an ancient mystery and I’d say – say not ask – (never ask. don’t ask someone with memory issues questions. c’mon!), “You are D-E-E-P iN thought!”
“Yeah. Yeah. I just… I just… ” he’d sigh, shake his head and say, “I just know, that, uh, there’s someone I need to kill and I cain’t remember who it is!” Then he’d sorta chuckle, but not really, cause he was serious.
I knew who he was talking about.
McCall, my oldest and least encumbered with any hard and fast societal conventions, came over just a while ago and gave me a squeeze.
“How are you, dad?” Everyone who loves me is wondering how I am, which truthfully, is fine. Again, the death by a thousand cuts stopped cutting my beloved old man. Shouldn’t I feel relieved?
“Oh, ok, how are you?”
McCall shrugged, “I’m fine. I think where ever poppa is he’s better off.”
“And I wonder: exactly where do you think he is?”
She gave me that long look she has when she knows I’m baiting her for a spiritual discussion but this time, maybe out of a spirit of sympathetic co-operation, she took the bait.
“Honestly, ” she began, ” I think he’s raising hell somewhere. Or really, on somebody. Someone’s getting haunted right now.” She smiled at me matter of factly, kissed my head and as she walked out of the room said, ” and we know who…”
Yeah, now, sans Alzheimer’s, Dad remembers who needed killing and I like to think maybe the Lord is giving him a little last ghostly fun time on Earth to raise some holy hell before taking him to heaven or laying him in Abraham’s bosom or wherever it is that the good guys go.
Last night at dinner – one of the greatest greatest greatest blessings of this quarantine time is that the four of us, Lisa and the girls, my most beloved family, all sitting at the table together like when they were babies. We’re telling Dad stories. McCall took care of Dad a few days a week before he was moved into a ‘memory center’, euphemism for assisted care; and she got to the story about his sitting in the living room here at my house and I’d been playing the guitar and making up songs for him. I left the room and McCall and him were just sitting and Dad was staring at the guitar.
“You’re looking hard at that guitar Poppa!”
“Yeah. Yeah. I was just thinking.
“You were thinking hard Poppa!”
“Yeah, I was thinking, I was just thinking it’s big enough you could hit two people at one time with that!” He laughed, she laughed; then – now – we all laugh at that story again. Dad was never a violent man, but you’d never know it to listen to him sometimes.
My friend and partner Sherwin sent me a text: Hey. Praying for you. We were going to put something in the North River newsletter about Les. Is there some information you’d like us to include? Also, could you send me a picture that you would like us to use? My deadline is Wed. Thanks.
So many people populate a life. In Dad’s lifetime he has friends from growing up in Arkansas. I’ve received notes from old ladies who remember him from when they were teenagers and talk about how adorable he was. He certainly was a charmer from birth. He played Romeo in a high school play, he would tell me, and they rewrote Shakespeare into backwoods vernacular. “Romeo, Romeo where art thou Romeo?” Dad – Romeo – answered loudly “Om rye cheer!”
People from all the churches who knew him have flooded phones and email boxes and social media with condolences and memories. Dad was one of those guys who was always pretty well liked and easy to get along with. Any stories of exceptions to that can be saved for another time. Nah, they can just go away now. Everyone has flaws, but Dad’s seem to be so obscured by the love he’d sowed living almost nine decades, most of them trying hard to be better than the little boy who lied about swimming in the Slash.
He never wanted to die. He wanted to be alive when Jesus came. That’s a lot of faith, there, but also, he really really didn’t want to die. Certainly didn’t want to get killed in any gruesome fashion. Not that he couldn’t endure a lot pain. He was for years an amateur long distance runner. He figured out one time that he’d run the equivalent of going around the world and then wanted to build up enough miles equal to jogging to the moon. But that didn’t happen. A flat footed fella, he had to stop running when, after a few thousand miles of pain, the podiatrist said, “Les, you’ve worn out your feet!” So he started riding a road bike and would often have 120 mile days. He wasn’t afraid of pushing himself. He couldn’t stop moving. He hated sitting still. In the memory center he walked and walked, and wouldn’t sleep, and would tell me, “I got to get up!” and take my arm and – we’d be in the lounge of his care facility but he’d say – and I’d say, “where we goin’?” and he’d answer, shuffling inches at a time, “uh, down there, about, about, a mile…” and we’d walk in a circle until we came back to his chair 120 seconds later and he’d say, “I gotta sit” and he’d sit on the rock, or the log, or the fence, whatever his chair was then, in his head (Lord how I wish I could’ve seen what he saw!) and after sitting for a minute, “I gotta get up!” Loop, cycle, repeat, over and over and over. Until he couldn’t move anymore. Until he was confined in a bed against his will but the authority of a brain that was shutting down all the vital organs and sucked all the power of out muscles and tendons that had seen miles and miles and miles of running to the moon, and I’m standing over his face and saying, “You’re Wilson Leslie Jockey Johnson. I’m Steven Leslie Johnson. You’re 86 years old! You’re 22 years older than me. Always have been. Always will be.” He smiled and pulled me to his face and kissed my cheek. He couldn’t say words out loud but his mouth moved, “I love you” and he smiled, and tears dripped out of his milk coated eyes; eyes that had always been clear and squinted shut when he laughed now cataract-like and clouded and staring into somewhere else. He still didn’t want to die. He was still waiting on Jesus to come.
I sent this to my friend Sherwin:
Wilson Leslie “Jockey” Johnson was born in February 1934, in the four room house his father built in the middle of a cotton field in Monroe County Arkansas. He died just before midnight on a Thursday in Portland, Oregon; in April 2020. He suffered from Alzheimer’s in his final years, but his sweetness, endearing smile and ability to laugh prevailed literally to his final breath. During his last months saying a sentence was hard, but he never lost the ability to say, “I love you!” and his last words were, “I want to get up!”
He married the love of his life in January 1953, Jean. Together they raised four children. Jean grew up in the church of Christ and influenced him to study the bible with a man who would have a life changing impact on him and consequently he was baptized in into Christ in 1960. He would eventually migrate his family to Granite City, Illinois where he would become an elder and desire more and more to preach the gospel.
He started preaching full time in 1973 for a church of Christ in Godfrey, Illinois. Everyone knew him as Les, or Brother Les, and for 40 years he would occupy pulpits in Illinois, Montana, New York, and Georgia. In 2003 Michael Patterson, Todd “Speech” Thomas, and Brother Les planted a congregation in Atlanta that is known today as “The Path”. To Les, Michael and Speech were always his sons and even with Alzheimer’s he remembered them fondly even when so many other memories had succumbed to a wicked disease.
The house Les and Jean lived in on Sandy Lane in Smyrna was well known to hundreds if not thousands of souls who would make their way there almost daily for bible studies, meals or just having a cup of coffee with Les. For 27 years that was his ‘temporary dwelling’ he would say, and from there he’d drive everyday to a book store or a coffee shop or a mall – his ‘fishing holes’ was what he’d call them – to look for, meet, or share coffee and time with folks he wanted to bring to the Lord or fellowship with brothers who shared his zeal for Jesus. When asked if he was doing alright he’d always answer, ‘nothing wrong with me that two or three baptisms won’t fix’ and some people close to him never received a note from him that didn’t end with the simple citation “Jude 21”. Keep yourselves in the love of the Lord Christ Jesus.
In 2017 Les and Jean moved to Portland, Oregon to be close to family there. In no time the congregation fell in love with his winning smile and quick quips. He was 86 years old when he died and is survived by his wife Jean, his daughter Jacqueline, and two sons Philip and Steven. Announcements for a memorial service will be made as soon as possible.
I attached these two pictures:
Dad’s last years in some ways were easy. He wasn’t in agony and most of the time seemed pleasantly meandering in a benign kind of oblivion. But in another terrible way it was a death of a thousand cuts, dragging on for a decade; eroding memories and abilities until there was less and less of Les. I’m not trying to be cute with words. That’s what Dad said until he couldn’t anymore.
I wanted to be there with him when he went. I didn’t want him to be alone. They said they’d call me when they knew the time was nigh but that’s not always possible. I got the call about 10 minutes after he passed. He’d made the folks who worked there love him so much that it took them ten minutes to pull themselves together to give me a call and even then I could hear that they were weeping when they said, “Steve, your dad passed.”
Only a few minutes from my house, I arrive to find three women waiting outside for me. One is combining what I assume is a much needed smoke break with sobs of grief. I’d never seen someone cry so hard and smoke at the same time. I asked her “Who was with him when…?”
“We all were with him. But Ashley was closest and was holding his hand.”
Ashley, a young woman whom I’d not met before – I was seldom at the facility during the overnight shift – was wiping tears and I asked her, “Can you tell me anything about when he passed?”
She sighs and says, “You know, it was weird. Really weird. He opened his eyes and looked at me and smiled.” Dad had been on morphine with ever increasing doses the last few days and seldom was awake and even more seldom opened his eyes, glossed over as they were.
“He opened his eyes? And smiled?”
“He opened his eyes and smiled and I said, ‘it’s ok, God needs you!’ and he took a breath and smiled again and I said it again, that, ‘God needs you!’ and he took one more breath and his eyes were opened wide and he smiled and breathed out and then…” she chokes up but still manages to whisper, “… he was just gone.”
I wait a second and ask, “What time was that?”
I nod and look at the door. “Can I go inside?”
“Of course, The door is open.”
I go through the lobby and get to the other door, the one meant to keep residents from wandering away; the door to the memory center. I punch in the code to get into the locked down facility and walk the long hall way that Dad once ran – ran! – the entire length and fell into my arms crying. Remind me to tell you that story some time.
I go into his room and there he is, or isn’t. He’s been ‘gone’ for over 20 minutes now and the little bag of bones remaining were once the home of Wilson Leslie Jockey Johnson. He’s vacated and setting up a new address by the time I put my hand on his forehead and lean over him and say, “You ran a good race, amigo.”
The cutting stopped just before midnight last night. He smiled three times – 3 times! “Hello Father, hello Jesus, hello Holy Spirit” – and then got to do what he always wanted to do: Not so much die as to just leave when Jesus came. Came to get him.
Let the haunting begin.
Steven Leslie Johnson, April 17, 2020