Thirty minutes after I found out my cousin Justin (aka Jup, aka Juppie) had died suddenly and unexpectedly, I took our youngest son Leo to soccer practice, because in some inexplicable way, life goes on even after someone you love dies. This is one of the great mysteries of the world.
Have you ever noticed that little children look you right in the eyes when you’re sad?They don’t look off and away to the side like adults often do. They take it in, your sadness, as if it’s both the most natural thing in the world and also a curious occurrence. Every time I found Leo’s eyes in the rearview mirror, he was peering at me, the most peaceful look on his face.
Grief for me wraps the world in gauze, and a heaviness descends. Grief, it turns out, also makes me want to move, so I walked around the soccer fields while Leo’s team practiced, just walked and breathed in the cold March air and walked some more. I walked towards that gorgeous setting sun, then away from it and towards the shadows gathering in the east. Then I turned the corner again, back towards the sunset, but by then the sun had dropped below the horizon. Gone. Suddenly.
How can something be so suddenly gone?
One of my earliest memories as a boy, around 10 or 11 years of age, is riding my little black Huffy bicycle three and a half miles from our farmhouse in Kinzers to Jup’s house. This was sometime in the mid-80s, and the sun beat down on me as I pedaled my bike furiously, sweating, tiring, finally hitting the long, straight, flat stretch on route 340. It wasn’t unusual in those days to ride bike five miles on those back roads and never see a single car. But there were always cows keeping me company, and they watched patiently from hot fields, chewing their cud, staring at me through barbed-wire fence.
It was probably the summer before Jup got his license, and yet even with that four-year age difference between us, he welcomed my visits (often unannounced). Now that I am older, I know what an uncommon gift this is, for an older cousin to treat you like an equal, especially at that age. Maybe it was because he didn’t have any brothers. I think it was because he always had such a soft heart, a heart that never quit loving.
We played basketball in his driveway that day, then ping-pong or something else in their large family room, then he let me hang out with him in his bedroom. The thing I still remember the most about that space is the huge U2 poster he had on his wall. If I remember correctly, it was the cover of the Joshua Tree album, that black and white image with three of the band members staring straight at you with these piercing gazes while the fourth, Bono, looked off to the side.
Jup was Bono to me in those days. He felt so much older and cooler than me. He was in high school. He had a real rock band poster on his wall. Soon he would have his license. After that we didn’t hang out quite as much, but even then, when I would see him at soccer games or at other gatherings, he’d act proud that I was his cousin.
As soon as I was old enough, a few years later, I went out and bought that cd, Joshua Tree, one of the first I ever owned. I will never hear a U2 song without thinking of Jup. Back when I first bought that album, that’s when I discovered the song, “Running to Stand Still”:
And so she woke up
Woke up from where she was lyin' still
Said I gotta do something
About where we're goin'
Step on a steam train
Step out of the driving rain maybe
Run from the darkness in the night
It seems a strange coincidence to me that only three days before Jup died, U2 released their album Songs of Surrender in which they have reimagined all of their greatest hits, re-recording them, some slower, some faster, some with different words.
Songs can be reimagined, but how can we reimagine this life without Jup?
35 or so years ago while Jup and I played basketball that day in his driveway. I made a particularly difficult shot against him, and instead of groaning that I had bested him, he held up his hand for a high five.
“That’s how it’s done,” he said, grinning, hitting me hard on the shoulder in a sign of teenage tough-guy approval. “That’s how a Smucker does it.”
My chest swelled up so much in that moment, I’m surprised I didn’t burst right there in that hot summer day. Because I knew, even at that early age, that nothing was more important to Jup than family (unless it was his friends, who he treated like family), and for him to welcome me in, to proclaim that yes, I was part of this grand and wonderful group, his inner circle, well, it gave me the most profound sense of acceptance and belonging I had ever felt in my life.
That’s how a Smucker does it.
It’s not the last time during my childhood he would say that to me, an encouragement that reached down into my soul. I never told him how much that meant to me. I wish I would have.
My cousin Burnie called a few hours after we all found out, and we were talking on the phone, mostly in shock, mostly in subdued tones, when out of nowhere Burn burst into tears on the other end of the line and in a barely audible voice said, “Shawn, Jup’s gone. He’s gone. I just can’t believe it.”
The way Burn said that reminded me very much of those last lines in John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, words that seem to always find their way to me in times of grief and sadness:
“O God - please give him back! I shall keep asking you.”
And perhaps this is one of those rare prayers that is always answered, because God will keep giving Jup back to us, if we have eyes to see, though not in the way we would prefer. I want him here, physically with me, so that I can tease him about the Eagles and he can protest loudly about something or other. I want him here to compete against, in quoits or bocce ball or corn hole or any of the other million games and sports we played through the years. I want him here to remind me again how important family and friends are.
Yet God does answer the prayer, in a strange kind of way. He does give Jup back to us, because there he is, in the eyes of his grandchildren, in the laughter of his children, in the love he had for Cindy, in his three sisters and their families, in his dad’s laughter and sadness, in the faces of his nephews and nieces who will always carry a piece of him with them, and in all the inside jokes and memories his friends will bring up for years to come. “Oh, man, do you remember that time when Jup…”
And we’ll laugh and we’ll cry, because he’s with us. And he’s not.
“O God - please give him back! I shall keep asking you.”
I both hate that you had to write this and am so glad you did. You capture the complexity of love and grief so well. Thank you for sharing Jup with us.
Shawn, you know I love your writing. And this is some of your absolute best. Thanks for giving the rest of us just a bit of Jup. And for once again giving voice to our own hearts. Peace to you, my friend.