Thursday, June 30, 2011

Funeral Card Friday - Happy Birthday, Jeff

My cousin, John Jeffrey Ryan Jr was born on July 1, 1971.  My aunt Cathy and uncle Jeff had three children.  My mom and dad had three children.  We were all of comparable ages.  Their oldest, Allison, was close in age to my oldest sister so they always spent time together during visits.  I'm 3-1/2 years younger than my older sister so there wasn't much hanging out going on there when we were kids.  Too much of a gap.  So when we visited my aunt and uncle, my younger sister (18 months younger than me) and I would hang out with their two youngest, Jeff and Patrick.

Me and Jeff
I don't really know how Pat and Jeff felt about being stuck with 2 girls to play with all the time, although we were not dainty girls at all so maybe it wasn't too bad for them!  I've got nothing but wonderful memories.   I loved going to see them all.

Then life happens.  My parents began divorcing when I was in 2nd grade.  The divorce lasted for a very long time (and is a very long story), but the result was that we eventually didn't see my aunt, uncle and cousins anymore.  It didn't happen immediately.  My dad had custody of us (another long story about a very manipulative man), but my mom still wanted us to be able to go with her to see her family.  Eventually those trips stopped.  I don't remember why exactly.  It may have been us kids acting like little poop-heads and whining about it (my dad really manipulated us to make my mom feel like crap), or it may have been because with my mom having to pay child support to my perpetually unemployed father, she had no money to take us.  Either way, it happened and I went without seeing my cousins for eight years or more.

Jeff's 1st Communion
When I was a senior in high school, my cousins came to Pennsylvania for a visit.  I was living with my mom by now so I got to see them.  I was in shock at the change (and I'm sure they were too).  I still had memories of the little children I played with and they were all grown up.  What did I expect, right? My uncle is a very tall man and my cousins took after him so my sisters and I were pretty much the midgets of the party.  It was wonderful seeing them again, but because they were adults now (or almost adults) it would be another 5 years and me joining the Army before I saw them all again on a regular basis.

I was learning Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California and as coincidence would have it, my uncle was stationed there at the same time.  He was a military doctor at the medical clinic.  This meant that I got to spend some wonderful weekends with them all.  My other uncle lived in the area as well so it was like a wonderful family reunion whenever I got over to their house.

Pat, Jeff and Allison

Time passed and the Army sent me elsewhere.  My uncle retired and they moved to Hawaii.  As luck would have it, that's where my husband (boyfriend at the time) transferred to and I followed.  We loved spending time on weekends with my aunt and uncle.  I cherish those memories so much!  My cousins would come out to visit a few times a year from California and my husband and I would make sure that we had time to spend with them all.

We got to see Jeff get married.  He loved his fiance/wife so much, although I can't really say that we all did.  She was in the adult entertainment business.  I don't remember the details of her nasty little life, but I believe it was still pictures and stripping that she did...not movies.  Despite what she did for a living my cousin seemed truly happy when he was with her.  You could tell he loved her.  Would do anything for her.  In fact "anything" included having a pirate sea.

Jeff and his bride Angel
Pat and Jeff

Jeff had gone through some hard times emotionally in his life and probably spent a little too much time hanging with the party crowd, but he had made it past all that now.  He was really getting his life together and he saw all this as a new beginning.  As a tribute to his parents, his wedding was held on their anniversary.  So on December 27, 1999 we all went out to Honolulu Bay and boarded a little boat for the wedding.  The bride and bridesmaids were dressed as wenches.  The groom and best man, as pirates.  The Jolly Roger was hoisted and the wedding vows were recited.  Jeff looked so happy.

Angel and Jeff the day after the wedding
Cutting the cake the day after the wedding

He and his bride left a few weeks later.  Life went on and within a few months I heard that they were divorcing.  She had been unfaithful to him.  Needless to say I would have liked to ruin that little face of one messes with my cousin...and I knew it was breaking his heart.  Sometimes you don't have to ask.

Jeff spent Thanksgiving in Hawaii with his mom and dad.  I was very pregnant.  Jeff seemed to be doing pretty well.  He talked about scripts he was reading and famous people he'd gotten to meet in Los Angeles.  Despite the divorce (which wasn't discussed) he seemed to be at a peaceful place in his life.  I took no pictures that Thanksgiving.  It haunts me still.  I will regret it always.

My parting words to my cousin before getting into my little Saturn to drive back to my side of the island was, "the next time you see me, you'll be able to meet the newest member of the family!"  I hugged him and left.  I would never see my cousin again.
Jeff and his guitar

Jeff didn't want to spend Christmas in Hawaii in 2000.  He wanted to take a trip to Greece.  A great opportunity.  He didn't say it, but we all could guess that his marriage ending hurt him and the fact that he dedicated it to his parents and had hoped it would last just as long, hurt him.  To be back where it happened on what would have been his 1st anniversary was just too much.  I truly believe that's the reason he really went to Greece.

I received a phone call from my aunt a few days before New Years Eve.  Jeff was vacationing in Greece with two female friends and was critically injured in a car accident.  The roads were wet and a semi-truck hit the car they were driving.  They told me he was in bad condition.  That he had been intubated and was on life support.  My uncle and cousin, Patrick, were getting everything together that they needed and were flying out to Greece.  As a doctor my uncle could hardly sit by and wait for news.  He needed to make sure that Jeff was getting the care he needed to recover.

Jeff, Patrick and Allison

My uncle and Pat arrived in Greece only hours after he passed.  They hadn't made it to him in time.  My aunt, all alone at her house was actually hesitant to call me because she worried it would effect my pregnancy. I found it incredible that at such a time she was worried about my baby, but I suppose the loss of one child was enough.  We asked to come over.  She wanted to be alone.  It's such a hard position.  You sit there and wonder if you should go over anyway or give the person space.  It was a situation I was unfamiliar with.  We did not go over though until she was ready for us.

I cried harder that night than I can remember ever crying in my life.  He was one year older than me.  He was 29 years old.  He couldn't be gone.  Even knowing how critical his condition was the possibility of losing him never had crossed my mind.  He was my counterpart in my aunt and uncle's family.  I was the middle child and so was he.  I always looked at my cousins as siblings.  Siblings that I didn't see as frequently as my own, but I loved them all that way.  In my heart I lost a brother that day.  I still feel that loss today and I cannot even write this tribute to him without using so many tissues.

My uncle and Patrick made the arrangements to have his body sent back to the states.  He was cremated and his ashes were sprinkled at sea.  That's what I remember anyway.  The time was a blur and I tend to block out bad memories.  I don't know if there was an obituary notice published.  The burial happened in California and being at the end of my pregnancy, I wasn't there.

Uncle Jeff and Patrick after the LA Triathlon 2002

At the end of my time in the military I was again stationed at the Defense Language Institute.  Each year around September, Los Angeles holds a triathlon.  Jeff used to compete.  Now his family would come out each year to compete in his name.  Those that weren't competing would watch and support those taking part.  It was an event I didn't miss when I was stationed in California.

Every year, my calendar reminds me that today is Jeff's birthday.  He would have been 40.  I won't ever remove that reminder.  I will never forget him.  And while he may never have been able to hold "the newest member of the family" I have no doubt in my heart and mind that he has seen him.  Has seen both of my children.  I know he watches over us all as the years go by.  He's not missing a moment and he will always be with us.

UPDATE: I have gotten a few comments/emails from people who remember and love Jeff.  Even though he does not have a physical memorial to visit, I created a virtual one on Find A Grave so everyone that wants to can leave a message for Jeff.  I love getting all the comments/emails from friends that knew and loved him.  It is more meaningful and special than I can say. You can view the memorial by clicking here.

Uncle Jeff after the swimming portion of the triathlon

Uncle Jeff beginning the biking portion of the triathlon

Uncle Jeff heading for the finish line