When I was 4, I used to sit on the sidewalk in front of my house & watch the 3 boys across the street play in their front yard. And I thought they were so lucky because they had brothers that were old enough to play with. And all I had was a 1-year old little brother, Johnny, that wasn’t good for much except crying & refusing to eat his peas & carrots. One day, my dad came out & sat next to me on the curb while I watched the neighbors playing, again, & he told me, “Before you know it, Johnny will be big & he’ll be able to play & you guys will have so much fun. And he will grow up to be your best friend.” I can remember thinking in my head, “Maybe. But that time is SO FAR away…”
But it happened. Johnny grew up. And we DID become best friends – we spent our childhood playing baseball & football from dawn til dusk in the backyard. One of my favorite things was to teach Johnny how to do something – we had a baseball tee in the backyard, & he was trying to hit the ball off the tee, without success. He said, “Help me Louie!?” And I did. And I loved it.
Sometimes the games carried into the house, with the predictable destructive results to the house – & also to Johnny – I remember trying to teach him what form tackling was in the living room. I was on my knees to make it fair – & he ran the football towards the end zone (aka the fireplace) & I launched myself at him & sent him sprawling. I was so proud of my form tackle that I didn’t notice him get up & run as fast as he could to the back of the house. I yelled at him, “Come back here you chicken. You have to tackle me now.” He didn’t come back… turns out when he fell he hit his forearm on a screw sticking out of an open door – & his forearm was sliced open, clean as a whistle, no blood at all, from his wrist to his elbow. Good times.
We did everything together – early morning paper routes, collecting baseball cards, cheering for the hapless SF Giants, feeding the dogs & chickens… although somehow he found ways to be missing when it was time to clean the chicken coops. Johnny was a great athlete, probably the best out of the four of us boys, & worked incredibly hard at everything he did. When I was 12, my Little League manager pulled Johnny up from the Farm division & promoted him to Majors. We got to play ½ a season together… & it was obvious that while I still had the upper hand, he was going to be much, much better than I was at baseball. I remember one of my teammates asking me if I was mad that my brother was on our team now… I said, “Nope. He’s good.”
The older we got, the better friends we became…And the more intense our fights got. I’d wake him up in the morning & he’d welcome me with a baseball aimed at my head. We’d wrestle & somehow I’d end up with a bloody nose because Johnny had ‘accidentally” kneed or elbowed me in the face… again. Our conversations shifted towards topics fitting our teen years… Sports. Girls. Music. His interest in “New Wave” fashion – he was a fashion-ista & rocked board shorts, surfer t-shirt & black/white/red Air Jordans as easily as he did cool pegged jeans, top-siders, & pastel button ups. Goodness, he was confident – so sure of himself, much more so than I ever was. I appreciated his strength, his sarcasm, his ability to show compassion, his loyalty, as well as the killer instinct on a football/baseball field. He was my best friend.
The memories whirl around me like I’m in the eye of a hurricane, & they’re flying around me, so vividly faint that I feel overcome… & I don’t want them to stop.
When Johnny was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, everything in our family got turned upside down. My strong, independent brother became fragile & dependent on others for the most basic of tasks. He spent quite a bit of his last months in San Francisco receiving experimental treatments in the hope that his body would rebound. I didn’t know how to deal with the hurt, pain, grief, & other negative emotions I felt, so I did what I knew: I poured myself into work, hoping beyond hope that when I finally lifted my nose off the grindstone, everything would be back to normal. It never happened.
And through it all, I watched my little brother Johnny grow as he experienced the closeness of a God who would never leave or forsake him, even when he was walking through the Valley of the shadow of death. In many ways, my faith in Christ had been theoretical – never before tested; then, right in front of my eyes, I got to see what it looked like to persevere in the face of adversity, to find joy & peace in times of despair & chaos. I got to see & hear the response of a 17 year old who was asked, “So, do you want to die in the hospital or at home?” He said, “I’m going home. And if I die, I will bring God glory. And if I live, I will bring Him glory. Either way, I win.” And he meant it.
In his last days, Johnny received assurances from heaven in the form of dreams. He didn’t go into a whole lot of detail about them, but there was a calm, a peace, a sort of anticipation present in his eyes & his countenance. He was in & out of consciousness quite a bit – one of the last things he said to my parents was, “Have faith. Have faith.” And he meant it.
Saturday night, June 16, 1990, Joni & I visited my parents home & Johnny in the downstairs – he was mostly out of it, but we hung out for a while & talked to him. We got up to leave & I told him I loved him. As I walked up the stairs, I can remember him faintly saying, “Love you Louie.”
We got a call from my mom early the next morning – Johnny had gone to be with Jesus at 4:34 a.m. Sunday, June 17, 1990. Father’s Day. His last words: “Help me Louie!?”
I’m still trying to “help him” everyday…
Within this last year, my two sons have gotten married; myWeez, my little princess, got engaged. So many things like this I wish I could share with my brother. So many things I wish my kids would have gotten to know about him, & having him involved in their lives. I feel like his physcial presence would more readily explain the passion with which my son Johnny attacks life; the fiercely compassionate temperament of my son Joey; the wit, sense of humor, & smile of theWeez. They’re a lot like him & don’t even know it.
I see Johnny in each of them, & I’m so glad that these parts of Johnny living on into the next generation.
So, in his honor, & to the glory of God I say to you today, “Have faith. Have faith.”
Happy birthday Johnny.