One of the eight original Blackwells – that wild East Coast family whose members buck the impossible – did the unthinkable.
Blackwells die? gasp six ADHD screens in hushed unison. You’re – you’re wrong. You guys don’t. You can’t. Didn’t Jeff have ADHD? How could this happen?
On July 15, 2000, my brother’s youngest daughter tells the family she cannot awaken daddy. Eldest brother Mike leaps stair steps three at a time to find Jeff motionless in his childhood bed, one arm resting on the other, hand gently cradling his head. The heart of “JB” peacefully, quietly, easily ceases its rhythms on the second night of a family-wide reunion missing only my twin sister and me.
I leave behind my position as keynote speaker (to 400 youth campers and adult counselors in the California mountains) and rush back to New Jersey. Why didn’t I get to hold JB a final time? Punch him, hug him, tell him I will miss him desperately? What is life without Jeff? He and Mike are a team. A killer combo. The dynamic duo. They’re … they’re –
The Big Boys.
Two dozen people cry hard in the front yard of our New Providence home. I join them, melting into Mike’s shuddering embrace. As comfort flows from the strength of his arms and the press of his chest, my screens speak up.
Didn’t really lose Jeff, y’know. You’ve got Mike. They’re inseparable. Same formidable sports skills, handsome faces, charming personalities.
One screen laughs. Yes, but ol’ Mikey never had JB’s incredible gift for …
“New rules,” says Mom at dinner years earlier. “From now on, speak in your own voices.” Jeff (with sister, Di, at left) perfectly mimics cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn, “Boy! I say, boy! Boy’s about as sharp as a bowlin’ ball!”
“Jeffrey Roger Blackwell!!!”
Quick Draw McGraw arrives next. “It’s OK, Baba-Looey. I’ll do the thin’in’ ’round here!”
“Hey, Ran-ger Rick,” shouts top-hat-and-tie-wearing Yogi Bear, “I’ll just take that pic-a-nic basket. I’m smarter than the average bear!” Humble sidekick, Boo Boo, murmurs approval.
Our dinner table explodes in an uninvited array of characters and personalities. Deputy Dawg, Snagglepuss, Huckleberry Hound – even nasally sportscaster Howard Cosell – all join the meal. Jeff and siblings unleash voices so fast, so well, Mom laughingly threatens to sell our TV and sits down, defeated.
Ah, but back to the sadness in the yard. Mike will, in the days ahead, come alongside JB’s widow and help raise the children. Perhaps that is why, here and now, his voice breaks above me: “I miss JB bragging about his kids.”
Screen Six pipes up the loudest and seems to have the best question: How do you s’pose JB knew, even with his kids so young, the way they’d turn out?
Jeff and I watch his extremely active trio playing in the sand by the lake. I ask him if he’s figured out their strengths and weaknesses.
“That one,” he says and points, “is my hard-headed kid. Doesn’t wait for all the facts. Ever.” Sighs. “Can’t tell that child a thing once the mind’s made up. Always right – doesn’t need the details.” He shakes his head, laughs. “That could be – in the proper places – a really good thing. Very confident.”
A second child walks up, hugs JB’s leg. “This is the soft one. Gotta watch my tone … the tears come so easily. Still, what a listener – and such compassion! Hope the world’s careful with this kid.”
I point at the third, feverishly building a sand castle. “Omigosh,” JB exclaims, “everything’s a contest! Dad, I can do this in 10 seconds! Dad, let’s make that using half the wood. Dad!” A pause, then the voice shifts to admiring tones. “Imagine that competitive drive put into sports, or homework, or college?”
Man, did your brother call that, or what? You should tell him how well they –
I do. All the time. “JB, you and Cher have a right to be proud. A handsome son. Two beautiful daughters. All three funny, bright, creative. We love them as our own. The Blackwell aunt and uncles are their greatest champions. ”
Still not sure how these stories tie in to a name change. Details, please …
I follow JB to Ohio University, where he is the dashing senior captain of the soccer team. Fast-running, hard-playing, quick-thinking Jeff is called “Blackie” by the other players, who marvel at his speed and talent.
My arrival, far from eliciting remarks of wonder at sports ability, instead sparks confusion. “What do we call you?” the coach asks. Some forgotten genius says, “Well, he’s only a frosh. Call him Little Blackie.”
I, the smallest in the family, am alone in having never blossomed into a rugged six-foot frame. “Little Blackie” painfully underscores lack of height. But my new nickname puts me in JB’s classy category, so I eagerly grab that opportunity.
Our college season ends at the University of Toledo’s soccer stadium. For the first time ever, I share the playing field with “Big Blackie” in his last game ever. We nearly, but do not, combine for a goal. Then, much-admired Jeff graduates, I move to captain, and “Little” is chopped away. By me.
Across the years, the nickname “Blackie” comes and goes. But it kicks in – finally, fully, forever – when Jeff’s heart calls it a life and JB leaves behind his family and many fans, weeping at his absence, laughing at his presence.
So, please, call me Blackie – even “Little Blackie,” if you must – because each time that name’s spoken, you give me back another moment with Jeff, the brother who stepped away too soon.
Postscript: On July 21st, 2000, my company’s computer system glitch is resolved. Among the many delayed e-mails sent my way, I miraculously find this July 7 message from the brother who’s been gone nearly a week:
I promise not to hurt your daughter while playing monkeyball at Copper Springs Swim Club. But you should wring the same promise from the other uncles and her cousins! … I have to go, dude, but have a great time on your next trek into the wilderness with 1000’s of screaming kids….
“I’m eternally grateful, ‘Big Blackie,’ for that one last hug through your prophetic e-mail. Not even death holds ADHD for long, eh? I love you.”