Somewhere around 4:30 in the morning on Wednesday, July 1st, my cell rings. It's in the living room, on the hearth next to my chair, so of course I don't hear a thing.
Like most mornings, Bobbie's up and out before me. She's careful to ease out of bed, so as to not disturb her slumbering giant. Closing the bedroom door ever so softly, she patters out to a still dark kitchen, flips the switch on lights and morning coffee, as I finish off a couple more pre-conscious dreams. This is the way our days begin...except for Wednesday, July 1st. 2020.
I'm putting in the last few steps on some mountain summit when my dream is interrupted by a sudden opening of the bedroom door. The transition to reality from my peaceful summit takes a moment. A shadow person moves toward my bedside, holding a phone. I'm awake now, take the phone. The screen glows with my nephew's name: "Darin." It's 5:30 a.m. Calls at this hour seldom bring good tidings.
"Hey, nephew," I say with a strange brew of hope and trepidation. My first thought is that someone in the family came down with the virus.
Darin's straight forward and to the point.
"Mark, I've got some news and it ain't good." There's a slight pause.
"Your brother died this morning...a few hours ago."
I have no memory of the conversation beyond that. An emotional tsunami swept me out to a sea of loss and despair.
Brother Dan turned 80 just three weeks prior—somewhat of a benchmark among Johnson males. Originally, Elaine, Dan's wife, along with sons Darin and Brent, had been incubating a grand, pre-pandimic plan to throw him surprise birthday party in, of all places, Cornwall, a rugged, picturesque coastal region on the Atlantic side of England. Cornwall is renowned for its hiking trails, oceanside cliffs, secluded beaches, and charming old-world villages. Darin assured us that Cornwall would live up to it's reputation, as he and wife, Tracey, had experienced it a few years back and found it a highlight in among all their sundry globetrotting travels.
In order to keep the surprise under wraps, Elaine planned to pretend that the Cornwall trip was just for the two of them...a spontaneous whim to whisk Dan away to a place befitting an 80th birthday. In the meantime, however, members of the immediate family began to secure flights to England, where we would lay in-wait at a quaint bed and breakfast near Cornwall's magnificent coast. SURPRISE!
How's that saying go? We make plans, God laughs.
Enter the wretched pandemic, a viral villain that blew our best laid plan from the realm of possibility. Instead, our family, as well as most of the world, were self-quarantined...huddled indoors like some dystopian scene straight out of Huxley's "Brave New World." Planes, all but grounded. Cruise ships, emptied. Tourism evaporated. As nation after nation went from yellow to red to "Stay Home!"
In light of the pandemic, Darin put together a family Zoom Meeting to celebrate Dan's big day on screen, instead of Cornwall. It was a wonderful call...and, honestly, the only way to safely gather and attempt to convey to Patriarch Dan how much he's loved and appreciated. Darin explained how the pandemic preempted our Cornwall surprise, to celebrate abroad. "Next year," it was decided.
It was obvious that Dan was touched by the outpouring of love, appreciation and recollections of poignant memories from each family member on that Zoom call. In fact, a week later Dan face-timed me to express how much the call meant and to say "thanks" for a Birthday Youtube video I put together for him...kind of a "This Is Your Life" thing, with photos of him growing up and old family photos. "I've never felt so loved," he said.
That call proved to be the last conversation I would ever have with my brother. "I'll call him again next week," I thought as we hung up.
Oh the things we take for granted.
Bobbie and I assumed Dan would be cremated. I don't know why, I guess we were all too focused on living to talk about dying. Following our assumption, and given that the pandemic was spiking upward with a second wave, we thought the memorial for Dan might be postponed till the virus settled down a bit.
Darin mentioned that he would keep us posted as to what, where, when and how. He called on Thursday to report that Elaine's plan was for a traditional funeral, with a mortuary "viewing" on Tuesday, followed by a small "family/close friends" graveside service on Wednesday.
This news was somewhat of a surprise. That services were commencing in a few days instead of months meant we had to make some fast decisions.
For obvious reasons, flying was out of the equation. We would have to drive. So much for "sheltering in place." We balked at 3 long days behind the wheel, especially over a Fourth of July weekend. Moreover, we would be staying in hotels, eating out, gassing at swamped Truck Stops with lines of full bladdered, mostly unmasked patrons waiting too pee. At one fly-over country truck stop the guy standing one urinal over had a coughing fit. It all seemed such risky business, to be traveling cross country during a spiking pandemic.
Additionally, what about the rest of our family, some coming from raging "hot spots," gathering indoors, exchanging hugs, disavowing "social distancing"? How does one not touch at a loved one's funeral?
Ultimately, "It is what it is...whatever happens, happens." We had to go, to stand and grieve with family left in the somber wake of our patriarch's passing. They would need our support. And I will need their's. I called son Caleb and D.I.L. Kelli in Missouri to let them know our plan...only to get so choked up all I could manage was sobs and unintelligible blubbers.
Carrying on after the death of a loved one is brutal. The earth's gravity seems to double as we flounder, grasping for an epitaph that captures the essence and magnitude of what was lost. How does one carve a lifetime, any lifetime, into a few measured words? There are no "words" when it comes to a brother, a father, a husband, a grandfather, a Daniel Milo Johnson.
We are told that "Time" heals all wounds. It's a lie. When a loved one is lost, the wound scabs over but never completely heals. There are days...nights especially...when we can't help but pick at those scabs. A trickle of blood begins to stream, as does tears. It is best not to pick at scabs of loss. But we always do.
We are also told that, eventually, perspective will come to our emotional rescue. Time will tell, I suppose. Unfortunately, perspective takes time, and we have little alternative but to suffer through and wait for it. Distractions help. I pass hours wandering mountain trails or biking county backroads...exhausting my angst till it submerges beneath the raging sea, only to have it resurface in my dreams.
Toledo was too abominably hot and humid to sit outdoors and it's dangerous to gather inside. I became more and more despondent. I didn't know what to say or do, other than drink. I felt helpless, if not useless, as if my presence was not making a difference.
I don't tolerate restlessness very well. My release has always been to get moving, run away, climb some fucking mountain. There are no mountains in Toledo, and you can't even walk, let alone run, in July. Bobbie, tried, but managed only one miserable walk. So we decided to leave, start the long journey homeward on Wednesday, the day after Dan's graveside service. Besides, everyone else will be sticking around for a while, I rationalized, then dealt with the Guilt that comes from such decisions.
As for the cemetery, Dan and Elaine had discovered a small backroad graveyard on one of their walks from home a while back. It came to be that Dan mentioned the possibility of being buried there. On better days, when the weather shows a little mercy, the cemetery is within walking distance for Elaine, just a mile or so up a rural county road from where she lives. It's a peaceful setting, surrounded by cornfields and farms.
After the sudden, untimely losses of a sister (age 22) and father (age 61), I understand how seemingly random, if not, superfluous, "life" can at times feel. The heartache is palpable when a loved one passes, no matter their age. The cautionary lessons are twofold: One, the passing of a loved one should serve to remind us of our own mortality. And two, it should allow the opportunity to question if we are living our best possible life.
Elaine is blessed with two gracious granddaughters, Megan and Maia, who volunteered to stick around and help ease the melancholic transition from wife to widow. Heartfelt appreciation to nieces Megan and Maia for that. Such an unselfish gift...to pause your life for someone in need. The entire family is truly grateful.
Here is a link to the video I assembled for Dan's 80th birthday.
And below is an article from the Toledo Blade regarding his contributions to the University and community:
Daniel Johnson, the 15th president of the University of Toledo who led merger efforts with the former Medical College of Ohio and forged ties with community and business, died Wednesday at home in Wood County's Washington Township, near Grand Rapids. He was 80.
His son Darin Johnson said his father had not been ill and had been working productively.
Robert Maxwell, a retired chief executive of the Lathrop Co., said: "He was all of God's good things put together in one and very humble about it.
"Everything he did in life, and he did a lot, was toward helping life for the people," said Mr. Maxwell, a close friend since they became neighbors in recent years.
Mr. Johnson served as UT president from 2001-06, and led the effort in 2006 to merge UT with the Medical University of Ohio, the former Medical College of Ohio, creating the third largest public university in the state. His accomplishments at UT included launching a $100 million capital campaign that surpassed its goal and laying the foundation for the UT Science and Technology Corridor.
He was a proponent of the concept of metropolitan universities. While at University of North Texas, Mr. Johnson in 1995 wrote an essay on leadership challenges facing metropolitan universities.
"Universities must begin to redirect a portion of their major resources, i.e., faculty interests and expertise, research priorities, and service activities, from discipline-defined issues to community-defined problems," he wrote. "The need for change is urgent."
For Mr. Johnson, the concept meant, "The University of Toledo is in the city of Toledo, of the city of Toledo, and for the city of Toledo," he told The Blade in 2002, when the university was a member of the Towson, Md.-based Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities.
UT trustees approved a revised mission statement Mr. Johnson proposed to define UT as "a student-centered public metropolitan research university, [which] integrates learning, discovery and engagement, enabling students to achieve their highest potential."
Karen Bjorkman, in her second year as provost but a 24-year UT veteran, said Mr. Johnson was "a big part of why the University of Toledo is so well-connected with our community and why we think that's an important part of what we do. He wanted to make sure we were making our students well-prepared to be good citizens in our community."
He worked with business, government, the Regional Growth Partnership, with cultural institutions and international universities, she said.
"He seemed sort of low key, but it was clear he had lot of energy that was under the surface," Ms. Bjorkman said. "He was good at making you feel at ease. He could talk in a quiet way with people and bring them together."
A conversation with Mr. Johnson "was like talking to your dad, your best friend. He was the real deal," said G. Ray Medlin, Jr., retired from the Lathrop Construction Co., a former labor leader, and a former chairman of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority. "He understood shared governance. He understood how to negotiate well where everybody was win-win. He was a diplomat, statesman, learned in all sorts of societal issues."
He retired as a distinguished university professor of public policy and economic development. From 2011-13, he was UT director of global initiatives. In 2008, while on a leave of absence from UT, he served three years as provost and chief operating officer of Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates with campuses in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
In a guest essay to The Blade in 2017, co-authored by the Rev. James Bacik, Mr. Johnson emphasized education attainment as the key to Toledo's future prosperity.
"We need a community effort - a popular movement - that will work to raise the level of education attainment in Toledo and our region. We need committed citizens and community leaders who will promote and guide a sustained, strategic effort to increase education attainment," the two wrote.
Mr. Johnson's involvement in Toledo-area organizations included the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Regional Growth Partnership, and the Urban League.
After his return to northwest Ohio, Mr. Johnson was trustee of the Global Medical Mission Hall of Fame Foundation, which in 2016 honored him for distinguished service. He'd served on the boards of the Toledo Symphony, Maumee Valley Country Day School, ProMedica Innovations, and of SkyLIFE Technology. He was a former trustee of Lourdes University.
He was born June 10, 1940, in Springfield, Ohio, to Hilda and Everett Johnson. He was 11 years old when his parents moved the family to Arizona, where they became lay missionaries on an Indian reservation. He received bachelor's and master's degrees from Texas Christian University. He received a doctorate in sociology from the University of Missouri, Columbia.
After a decade in leadership positions at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Mr. Johnson became a dean at the University of North Texas, Denton. He arrived at UT from the University of Alaska at Anchorage, where he was provost.
Surviving are his wife of 59 years, Elaine Clark Johnson; sons Darin and Brent Johnson; brother, Mark Johnson, and four grandchildren.
In Conclusion: Dan was fond of sitting outside in the morning sun and/or evening shade on his home's rear patio. The view is pastoral, with a small, well landscaped pond and windmill. Beyond the pond and windmill, stretches an endless plane of cornstalks that spike the horizon. Shortly before Dan died, he penned the following brief essay regarding some observations on backyard robins...
We have birds…
Robins are attracted to our house, for some reason. We have two nests just outside our kitchen windows that give us a front row seat to their daily activities. I feel like a new friend of the robins even though they don’t know me yet and fly away when I step into their space. I enjoy watching their comings and goings as they take very seriously their nesting, incubating and now feeding their newly hatched robinets.
Most of the activity I see is of the male robins. It seems they are they ‘breadwinners’ of the robin family, constantly bringing bits of food—bugs, seeds, parts of worms—to the nest for their baby’s breakfast, lunch and even dinner. These are demanding little robin chicks. You can hear them, almost all day, demanding something to eat. If you look into the nest, as I have, all you see are open beaks competing for the tiny morsel brought by their father-robin. It is not easy being a robin parent these days.
Male robins also carry a little testosterone, surprisingly. They like to challenge other male robins that might happen to wander into their space or glance ever-so-innocently at their competitors mate. Most of these male-robin squabbles take place on the ground; they look like baby cock fights. But, to the robins, these are pretty serious confrontations.
I’m impressed by the serious nature of the robin. They are hard workers, serious about their turf, conscientious parents, and strong defenders of their mates and offspring. A lot to admire.
I’m also glad they choose the area above our kitchen window for their nests each year. They are good teachers with lessons on such things are loyalty, responsibility, work-ethic, and more. I hope they keep coming back…
And some random photos...