Below, cut and pasted, is the letter that I handwrote and typed for the wife of my teacher, Mr. John Gifford. He passed away this past Tuesday, and I only found out about it Thursday. Although his loss weighs on my mind heavily, what hurts me more is knowing that he left behind his wife and one-year old son. I wrote this letter in the hope that what I had to say would help her eventually find some comfort, so that she would have my thoughts on paper outside of one simple meeting at his casket...and also because I thought it would be a bit more polite to just give her something she could look at if/when she wanted to, rather than have me try to say it all to her at once like everyone else did, although she seemed to warmly greet everyone who approached her and seemed eager to hear everyone out. Never would I have anticipated her to be so strong...perhaps seeing the outpouring provided her comfort? Perhaps she was trying hard to live in the moment before having to see her husband buried? Whatever her reasons, she made an impact upon me, and although I had to leave because it was getting very late and I had 50 miles to get back home, I can't help but be amazed she took the time to embrace everyone the way she did. It was a four-hour wait to get up there from where I was in line...I've never seen such a turnout in all the visitations/funerals I've been to. It's a testament to the man he was.
But without further ado, here we go:
How to begin…that’s always the first question to come to mind when one sits down to write. Half the battle is beginning. I should know as a self-professed/aspiring writer and certified writing tutor at Northern Kentucky University. I find myself sharing that adage with many a fellow student that pays me a visit seeking help. Often, I find I’m saying this to a person who is lost for words or just not passionate about the topic at hand, but in my case the opposite is true: there are so many things I want to say to you, things meant to show you what your husband meant to me and how he impacted my life, as well as things to say to you in hopes of easing your pain and helping you to cope with your loss and the fallout from it. All of these thoughts are attacking me at once, so please forgive me if this letter seems to meander, and I beg your forgiveness if (God forbid) I unintentionally offend or upset you more than you are already. Those are not my intentions at all. I just want to help you. I figured writing it all out would be best; I speak well, but I write better…plus it beats trying to dump all my thoughts on you at once. This way, you can take it in when you want to, at your own pace.
I met John Gifford in 2004, as an incoming freshman enrolled in his Tech Overview course at Campbell County High School. His tall stature and deep rural voice, which oddly reminds me somewhat of Josh Turner (who, coincidentally, I was getting acquainted with around the same time), made an instant impression on me. I knew he was cool. His calm demeanor reminded me of my grandfather on some strangely subconscious level, an observation that came to me much later, which is why I think I hit it off with him so well looking back. I am glad to have met him when I did, given my grandpa passed away a month prior and it was the start of my time in the “big, scary” high school. Mr. Gifford’s warm presence and kindness definitely put me on the fast track to getting comfortable at CCHS. I was so fond of him that I took his Production Tech class my sophomore year, too. Those two years of having him as a teacher were, simply put, AWESOME!!! So many memories made…building the cardboard chairs comes to mind first. Although the challenge of building a chair out of cardboard and masking tape that was strong enough to support his weight was daunting, I wound up building one that he very nearly taught class out of, and it stands to this day. I should admit to you now that I laughed when he’d fall through the other chairs to the floor…HARD…hard, as in I nearly cried and…well, almost lost control of two important bodily functions…not sure if it’s appropriate to say “peed” or “pooped.” Oh well. There were other awesome projects we did, too…the CO2 cars, the birdhouses, the mousetrap-powered cars (I outfitted mine with a rod and gear/spool system to ensure it went the length of the hallway we tested them in)…his assignments were always so fun. I also loved when he took us to the Toyota plant, but sadly the most pervasive memory of that time is when classmate Trent Decker ate as many chicken nuggets as he could and left McDonald’s feeling absolute miserable. We were amused to hear he wound up up-chucking that very night…served him right eating over 60 nuggets…or was it more??? I’m laughing regardless. I didn’t attend the Donkey Basketball games, but I still remember Mr. Gifford talking about how they gave him the smallest, meanest donkey to ride. I remember screenprinting shirts; I still have mine, and will cherish it always. I remember this heavy…I think it was some sort of machine that deployed either gumballs or pencils…sadly I can’t remember which. My mind goes to gumballs because I recall it doing something cool with the money you put in, or maybe the gumball that came out…but my mind also says pencils because I remember him getting mildly frustrated with the students who didn’t bring pencils for drafting, and doing something to capitalize/penalize us for forgetting…you know, come to think of it, it might have been a pencil machine. I also remember him being excited about his engagement to you, and recall him talking about the home he was building for you and him. That really stands out in my mind. I also recall him subscribing to the school paper after I started into journalism. I think he left CCHS before I was named Editor-in-Chief my senior year (07-08), but I recall volunteering to bring him his paper myself to see him. I was sad to see him leave CCHS, but sympathetic due to knowing the distance he drove to work for us.
I found out about his passing when I first got home from NKU on the 25th, this past Thursday. It was one of the first Facebook posts I found. The wind was completely taken out of my sails. I was hoping to come home to finish work on a poem I’d started in honor of the tenth anniversary of the death of singer Aaliyah, who died tragically at 22 in a plane crash leaving The Bahamas (strange, I know, but this Kentucky boy has a soft spot for urban pop music…well, just her’s anyway…I’m much more complicated than I can explain here), but I couldn’t think. I was just in shock and disbelief. I couldn’t process what I’d just learned, and frankly I still can’t. Never could I imagine I’d be talking about the passing of a man only eight or nine years my senior at this tender age, this soon in my life. I’ve lost a fair share of people thus far in my short existence: elder family members in their dying-off phases (my dad’s mom in 2000, which is a sad story in that other family members used her living will as leverage to bring that about, and my mom’s dad in 2004 due to lung and bone cancer; the other two both died in 1984), classmates in car accidents, a cousin who was shot and killed in 2001 leaving behind a baby boy…but with Mr. Gifford, this is the first time I can truly say I lost a friend. It really hurts in a way I struggle to put into words. I cried when I watched Channel 5’s coverage of his death on their website, and wept more at the outpouring of grief from the students posting on the newly-created John Gifford Memorial Page. Over 1,000 people have already joined the page, a testament to the man he was and the lives he touched. I would say that I wished he could see it for himself, a collective show of appreciation in his honor all in one place, but I’m certain he got to see that appreciation every day he went to work. It’s something many people likely never see until after they pass on, just how much they are appreciated by those they care about. I’m thankful enough to have gotten a glimpse of how much I matter to those around me. I saw it when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease on Friday, August 13 of 2010 (I should probably be somewhat superstitious…). That weekend is the darkest point thus far in my life. I was convinced life as I knew and loved it was over. I spent most of that time asleep, initially due to the anesthetic from the colonoscopy that confirmed the diagnosis, but mainly because it was the only escape I had readily available from a grim, harsh reality I hated. I was ready to give up on myself, and I more or less did until my family and friends came out in droves after I announced my diagnosis to the world. They weren’t about to give up on me, or let me give up on myself. Their encouraging words overwhelmed me. Their heartfelt support showed me nothing had changed and I still mattered. My diagnosis didn’t have to be the end of my world unless I wanted it to be. My family and friends gave me the strength to get back up, to understand the true x-factor in life is all in how you choose to react to whatever happens. My dad’s father was an alcoholic, and he and my grandmother would constantly get into fights as my dad was growing up. By all intents and purposes, he should be an asshole, but he’s far from it. He’s a good father and person in spite of that. As such, I try hard not to let my condition affect who I am, except to strengthen me. I still get depressed from time to time, and deal with physical and emotional pain on a daily basis, but I try my best to take the bad so I can keep experiencing and focusing on the good. If Mr. Gifford had still been in touch with me, I am absolutely certain he could have helped me reach these conclusions much faster than I did. I wish we hadn’t fallen out of touch.
I share with you my condensed life story not to unburden myself upon you, but to offer you a better glimpse of who I am and who I’ve become, thanks in part to your husband’s influence, and also in hopes that you might find some points of sympathy with what I’ve experienced to help you as you grieve. I’ve dealt with death quite a bit in my nearly twenty-two years and grieved each time, but I’ve yet to suffer so personal a loss as you have. I’ve never lost a spouse, lover, and soulmate before. I almost have no leg to stand on next to you, yet here I am trying my best to comfort you. Chalk it up to how I’m hard-wired, but I’ve found most of my sadness and grief is built upon seeing/knowing/being cognizant of the pain of those left behind. Mr. Gifford’s loss definitely saddens me greatly, but my thoughts have been mainly with you, Jake, and the family and close friends, and wondering whether you’re getting along the best you can in light of his loss. Consider it a sort of repayment for what Mr. Gifford did for me if you want, but I think it’s on a greater level than that. I almost feel it’s a hard-wired desire or instinct to make sure you’re faring as well as you can. I’m trying not to be overwhelming about it; I don’t want to be like one of those people who, in spite of their desire to help, only make it worse, use worn-out words whose meanings have faded with each processed sound, or are forceful in their efforts to get you back on your feet. My intention isn’t to push you down the road to healing, but rather to gently point you in what I think (and hopefully you think) is the right direction for when you’re ready to walk it. I don’t want you to feel alone as you make this journey, but I’m smart enough to know that no one else can walk the path you’re on. You grieve for your husband, John; I grieve for my friend, Mr. Gifford. We aren’t in line with one another on the same path, but thankfully our paths run parallel with each other, which puts me somewhere right next to you.
Please don’t let this shake your faith. I don’t know if it will, but I feel I should cover this point anyway. I can’t speak to how you believe, or exactly what, but keep hold of it. I don’t know if there’s a rhyme or reason for what happens, but history seems to indicate the truly great, talented, and good depart this world too soon. Mr. Gifford meets that criteria in my eyes. It’s sort of a funny idea to take stock in, that the better person you are the shorter your life is, but I can kind of believe it. It takes extra effort to be the best you can be, so it might possibly wear a person out…yet Mr. Gifford seemed to shine effortlessly, so perhaps that isn’t so true after all. Perhaps God needed him more? That could very well be the case, but I don’t think that definitively negates your needing him, your son needing him, or everyone else needing him. Makes God seem a bit cruel, but God could simply have a plan too great for us to understand. There are so many ways of framing the “why” in this, so please choose what your heart and soul and intuition feel is best. I’ve seen and heard of faithful people being shaken by moments like this because of the greater uncertainty that exists about what happens after death. It stems from an innate fear of the unknown; we can’t definitively say what the afterlife is going to be like, or whether there is one. Different religions and schools of thought exist with interpretations of how it might be, and argue, fight, and kill those that think and feel differently out of an innate fear of being wrong. You have nonbelievers clinging to science, the pious denouncing theories like evolution, skeptics wanting visual facts to build a theory, and the devout twisting and selectively believing facts to suit their beliefs. It’s chaotic and confusing, plus these factions wind up causing just as much bad as good. Call me off-kilter or non-traditional, but to me, no matter what or how you believe, it seems too farfetched to believe there isn’t a creator or some sort of afterlife. Why can’t we say that God is a scientist and just follow the religion we wish so that we become the best people we can? Why fear being wrong? Why kill one another or tell someone they are wrong? Just be the best you can, encourage others to do the same, and wait to see for yourself how it is? I’ve met many people of varying faiths/beliefs, studied many religions and philosophies, yet I still consider myself a believer in nearly the same sense as when I started, and somehow magically find it within myself to appreciate and be fascinated by beliefs different than my own, rather than shun them. This existence is too damn interesting for there to be nothing after death; I stand convinced there’s something at work outside of the tapestry of stars. I believe we’ll see the departed once again if we adhere to our respective moral compasses. Sorry if I come across as preachy; just keep believing how you want. Also, for the record, I’m a Christian with an appreciation for Asian/Native American religions and a “What Dreams May Come” view of the afterlife. If you’re confused by the last bit, find that movie and you’ll understand.
I hope that you’re okay, or at the very least make it to okay. I know there is no instant cure for loss/pain/grief, but I hope you reach the end of this overly long letter a bit better than when you started to read it. I tried to choose my words carefully, but fearlessly as well. I’m deeply sorry if I offended you along the way or made you feel worse in any way. I went into this with care, and also with the belief that laying myself open to you would be the best way of connecting with you. Your husband is a significant part of who I am, and I hope you are able to see that. I wish I could bring him back for you and Jake. It bothers me that things have happened this way, but unfortunately there isn’t much we can do but decide how to proceed. We’re stuck moving forward, whether we want to or not. If I have any shortcomings as a person, it’s that I get lost easily within myself and get stuck dwelling on the past too often. Neither practice is bad, as long as you remember to reach out again and use the past in a way that benefits your future. I hope and pray that you find peace, and I wish little Jake the greatest life that can be conceived. I may not be in line with you, but I’m somewhere beside you.
All my deepest sympathies,
Ryan Scott Hayes