One Man Gathers What Another Man Spills

I was able to read in one of my favorite shows, Reading Aloud, at the LA Festival of Books this past weekend.  My friend Nate Corrdry runs it, and it’s always a joy to participate in.  It’s funny people reading funny things.  I always feel smarter for having participated.  Aya Cash, Thomas Sadoski, and Brian Huskey read, and there was an interview with Johnathan Gold, who’s work I was unfamiliar with but will now, ahem, devour.  There was a reading that stuck out though.  A letter, beautifully read by Rob Corrdry, written by Ken Kesey.  It was found via Letters of Note.

Ken Kesey sent this letter to his friends shortly after his son Jed’s funeral.  Jed was a college wrestler who was critically injured in a team bus accident, dying a few days later.

It is beautiful and sad and simple.  It’s really stuck with me the last few days.  Here it is:


Dear Wendell and Larry and Ed and Bob and Gurney:

Partners, it’s been a bitch.

I’ve got to write and tell somebody about some stuff and, like I long ago told Larry, you’re the best backboard I know. So indulge me a little; I am but hurt.

We built the box ourselves (George Walker, mainly) and Zane and Jed’s friends and frat brothers dug the hole in a nice spot between the chicken house and the pond. Page found the stone and designed the etching. You would have been proud, Wendell, especially of the box — clear pine pegged together and trimmed with redwood. The handles of thick hemp rope. And you, Ed, would have appreciated the lining. It was a piece of Tibetan brocade given Mountain Girl by Owsley 15 years ago, gilt and silver and russet phoenixbird patterns, unfurling in flames. And last month, Bob, Zane was goose hunting in the field across the road and killed a snow goose. I told him be sure to save the down. Susan Butkovitch covered this in white silk for the pillow while Faye and MG and Gretch and Candace stitched and stapled the brocade into the box.

It was a double-pretty day, like winter holding its breath, giving us a break. About 300 people stood around and sung from the little hymnbooks that Diane Kesey had Xeroxed — “Everlasting Arms,” “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” “In the Garden” and so forth. With all my cousins leading the singing and Dale on his fiddle. While we were singing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” Zane and Kit and the neighbor boys that have grown up with all of us carried the box to the hole. The preacher is also the Pleasant Hill School superintendent and has known our kids since kindergarten. I learned a lot about Jed that I’d either forgotten or never known — like his being a member of the National Honor Society and finishing sixth in a class of more than a hundred.

We sung some more. People filed by and dropped stuff in on Jed. I put in that silver whistle I used to wear with the Hopi cross soldered on it. One of our frat brothers put in a quartz watch guaranteed to keep beeping every 15 minutes for five years. Faye put in a snapshot of her and I standing with a pitchfork all Grantwoodesque in front of the old bus. Paul Foster put in the little leatherbound New Testament given him by his father who had carried it during his 65 years as a minister. Paul Sawyer read from Leaves of Grass while the boys each hammered in the one nail they had remembered to put in their pockets. The Betas formed a circle and passed the loving cup around (a ritual our fraternity generally uses when a member is leaving the circle to become engaged) (Jed and Zane and I are all members, y’unnerstand, not to mention Hagen) and the boys lowered the box with these ropes George had cut and braided. Zane and I tossed in the first shovelfuls. It sounded like the first thunderclaps of Revelations…

But it’s an earlier scene I want to describe for you all, as writers and friends and fathers…up at the hospital, in cold grey Spokane:

He’d finally started moving a little. Zane and I had been carrying plastic bags of snow to pack his head in trying to stop the swelling that all the doctors told us would follow as blood poured to the bruised brain. And we noticed some reaction to the cold. And the snow I brushed across his lips to ease the bloody parch where all the tubes ran in caused him to roll his arms a little. Then more. Then too much, with the little monitor lights bleeping faster and faster, and I ran to the phone to call the motel where I had just sent most of the family for some rest.

“You guys better get back over here! He’s either going or coming.”

Everybody was there in less than five minutes — Chuck and Sue, Kit and Zane, Shan and her fiance Jay, Jay’s dad Irby, Sheryl and her husband Bill, my mom, Faye…my whole family except for my dead daddy and Grandma Smith down with age and Alzheimer’s. Jed’s leg was shaking with the force of his heartbeat. Kit and Zane tried to hold it. He was starting to go into seizures, like the neurosurgeon had predicted.

Up till this time everybody had been exhorting him to “Hang on, Old Timer. Stick it out. This thing can’t pin you. You’re too tough, too brave. Sure it hurts but you can pull through it. Just grit your teeth and hang on.” Now we could see him trying, fighting. We could see it in his clenching fists, his threshing legs. And then aw Jesus we saw it in his face. The peacefully swollen unconscious blank suddenly was filled with expression. He came back in. He checked it out, and he saw better than we could begin to imagine how terribly hurt he was. His poor face grimaced with pain. His purple brow knitted and his teeth actually did try to clench on the tubes.

And then, O my old buddies, he cried. The doctors had already told us in every gentle way they could that he was brain dead, gone for good, but we all saw it…the quick flickerback of consciousness, the awful hurt being realized, the tears saying “I don’t think I can do ‘er this time, Dad. I’m sorry, I truly am…”

And everybody said, “It’s okay, ol’ Jedderdink. You know better than we do. Breathe easy. Go on ahead. We’ll catch you later down the line.”

His threshing stopped. His face went blank again. I thought of Old Jack, Wendell, ungripping his hands, letting his fields finally go.

The phone rang in the nurses’ quarters. It was the doctor, for me. He had just appraised all the latest readouts on the monitors. “Your son is essentially dead, Mr. Kesey. I’m very sorry.”

And the sorrow rung absolutely honest. I said something. Zane picked up the extension and we watched each other while the voice explained the phenomena. We said we saw it also, and were not surprised. Thank you…

Then the doctor asked a strange thing. He wanted to know what kind of kid Jed was. Zane and I both demanded what he meant. He said he was wondering how Jed would have felt about being an organ donor. Our hearts both jumped.

“He would love it! Jed’s always been as generous as they come. Take whatever you can use!”

The doctor waited for our elation to ease down, then told us that to take the kidneys they had to take them before the life support was turned off. Did we understand? After a while we told him we did.

So Faye and I had to sign five copies apiece, on a cold formica countertop, while the machine pumped out the little “beep…beep…beep…” in the dim tangle of technology behind us. In all my life, waking and dreaming, I’ve never imagined anything harder.

Everybody went in and told him goodbye, kissed his broken nose, shook his hand, squeezed his big old hairy foot…headed down the corridor. Somebody said it might be a good idea to get a scrip for some kind of downers. We’d all been up for about 40 hours, either in the chapel praying like maniacs, or at his bedside talking to him. We didn’t know if we could sleep.

Chuck and I walked back to the intensive care ward to ask. All the doctors were there, bent over a long list, phoning numbers, matching blood types, ordering nurses…in such a hurry they hardly had time to offer sympathy. Busy, and justly so. But the nurses, the nurses bent over their clipboards, could barely see to fill out the forms.

They phoned the hotel about an hour later to tell us it was over, and that the kidneys were in perfect shape. That was about four in the morning. They phoned again a little after six to say that the kidneys were already in two young somebodies.

What a world.

We’ve heard since that they used twelve things out of him, including corneas. And the redwinged blackbirds sing in the budding greengage plumtree.

With love,


P.S. When Jed’s wallet was finally sorted out of the debris and confusion of the wreck it was discovered that he had already provided for such a situation. He had signed the place on his driver’s license indicating that he wanted to be an organ donor in the event of etc., etc. One man gathers what another man spills.

Across the Hall

I’m on my hands and knees in my dad’s little office, which is right across the hall from my bedroom.  My light is off so no one can tell I’m not in bed under those blue and white Smurf sheets, which I’ve totally outgrown now that I’m ten, in fifth grade, but my mom insists are in perfectly good condition.  I’ve crept across the hall so I can do it.  Again.  Sin.  I’m a sinner.  The hallway light spills in as I kneel at one of my usual crime scenes.  If I get caught, it’ll be my third offense.  “Three strikes you’re out,” I imagine my dad singing off key at a Portland Beaver’s baseball game.

My dad’s office is small and painted mint green.  Even I seem too big for that little room.  There’s a desk crammed into one corner with a floor to ceiling cabinet pinning it in.  Not one of those metal cabinets, but cheap pressboard which means the doors bow out, so it’s hard to slide them open.  Unless you’re an expert, like me, at sneaking and stealing.  Burgling they call it on TV.   The loot inside?  My dad’s favorite thing ever, which is also my favorite thing ever.  M&M’s.  Peanut M&M’s.  The real kind, even though my dad doesn’t keep them in the big yellow bag he gets at Safeway (whether they are “Buy one, Get one free” or not).  Nope, he pours his M&M’s in a brown paper lunch sack and rolls the top down.  We agree that they’re much better than the generic ones my Grandma puts in a fake crystal dish on her coffee table each Christmas Eve.  They are the only thing my dad will pay full price for, even on non-payday weeks and he says the splurge is worth it because it makes me smile my silly Hobbit smile.

My dad started calling me “Hobbit” or “Hob” earlier this school year when I got the lead in the school play.  Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit.  Yep.  He came to the play all three nights, even though he slept through most of it.  My mom promised to wake him up when I killed the dragon.  And each night, during the car ride home, he went on and on about my sword and how I took out the dragon.  He’d say, “You did it, didn’t you Hob?”  And I’d say ”Yep, Big Dad, I did it!”  I don’t know when I started calling him Big Dad because he really is the tiniest man ever.

My dad’s laugh is the one big thing about him.  It’s so big it almost sounds fake, like he’s trying on a Santa suit and borrowing the bellow.  I can always get him to laugh.  It’s another one of my favorite things (even though it annoys my mom).  The best time is at the dinner table right after someone has taken their turn saying the prayer.  I sit across from my dad, now that the oldest three kids are out of the house, my brother Kerry sits across from my mom.  Which means I have to hold Kerry’s hand when we pray, and he always squeezes too hard.  But if I say anything I’m the one who gets in trouble.  And if I’m in trouble I can’t do my silly smile which gets my dad to laugh, and always seems to make him a little less tired.  My dad’s strong, even though he’s tiny, and he works harder than anyone I’ve ever met.  I’m pretty sure we’re pretty poor because he worries about money even harder than he works.

Each year, for his birthday, when I pick out his card, I try to find something particularly funny, because he’ll take extra time during his special birthday meal.  He’ll open the envelope slowly, notice my artwork on the outside, comment on how creative I am, say, “Hobbit, you sure can draw can’t you?”  He’ll slide the card out carefully and read the start of the joke on the front and get the goofiest grin on his face, which tells me to get my silly smile ready.  And then, when he reads the punch line, he’ll say  “You got me, Hob!” and I’ll give him my silly smile and he’ll Santa laugh.  Then he’ll read the front again and the punch line again and we’ll crack up again, together!  And it’s almost as good as my own birthday.  Almost.

I think I hear someone in the hall so I sit back, the carpet scratchy on my bare knees.  I hold my breath and try to listen, try to hear something beyond the pounding in my chest.  But the rest of the house is quiet.  It’s just my dad, noisy in the lazy boy, snoring.  I imagine his mouth tipped open, the stubble darkening his chin, the strain of his workday leaving him limp in his lazy boy.

I’m already in the doghouse with my dad.  Royally.  I’m in the doghouse because of last week and a couple things that happened.  See, first, I broke the little doorstopper for my bedroom door.  I really like the sound it makes when you flick it, when you hold it all the way to one side and then let go.  “Thwooooing”.  I love that sound.  But my Dad caught me doing it and hit the roof, blew a gasket, and for him, that’s pretty odd because he’s usually off somewhere in his head, not noticing anything at all.

But even worse, is what happened with my dad’s Bearcat Emergency scanner.  There I was, sneaking into his office after school to get my M&M fix and I started fiddling with the mysterious black box because it’s just so cool with gleaming dials and a lovely extendable antenna.  That’s the part I broke, the antenna.  (Which just doesn’t make sense to me because it’s supposed to extend.  Really, they should make those things more durable.  In my opinion.)  But that time, he got so mad he barked at me.  “That’s. Not. A. Toy.  Hobbit!”  I tried to act sorry, even worked at making myself cry when he called me by my favorite name, Hobbit.  Of the two of us, I think he was closer to crying than me.

Now, my dad’s not a fireman/medic/policeman, he doesn’t need the emergency scanner for his job, he delivers propane for a propane company.  But he loves that thing.  And I love that thing.  Whenever a siren sounds he’ll flip it on to discover what disaster has occurred, where the fire truck/ambulance/police car is headed.  And then he’ll sit there in his little office and listen.  And I’ll listen from my bedroom across the hall.  I’ve often wondered if you could see the images in our heads, how closely would they compare?  So many times I’ve wished he’d pop his head into my room and say, “Hey Hobbit!  Lets go!”  And then we’d race through the kitchen to the garage (ignoring my mom’s ambush of questions) jump into his red Chevy truck and take off.  We’d chase those sirens with the windows down.  

But he never does.  He just sits.  Even when I linger by his door and try to catch his eye.  Sometimes, when he does notice me, he’ll swivel around in his chair, reach down and slide the cabinet door open.  His fist will disappear into the crinkled bag and emerge with a handful of Peanut M&M’s.  Two at a time, he’ll drop them into my outstretched palm and say, “Sounds like fire, Hob. Sounds like a big one.”

I bought him a new antenna with some of my strawberry picking money that I’d been saving for one of those curling irons that’s also a brush.  When I gave it to him, he thanked me and said, ‘I know what this cost you Hob,’ which made me feel even more guilty because my mom helped me find the antenna on-sale at Ware-Mart and I still got the curling iron.

Yeah, I know what I do is awful sinful.  Stealing candy from my tiny tired dad. And I always try to hold out, try to be good, but I can’t help but do it again, I am just that BAD.  And I know it’s no excuse, but there’s something about having a fist full of those Peanut M&M’s that makes me feel like WE’RE GOING TO BE OKAY.  Because no matter when I sneak some, the bag seems full, like we’re doing just fine, like, there’s plenty for all of us kids, even me, the last of five.  And, there will be enough for my dad and mom if I ever make it to college and have to leave them.  See, when I reach down deep into the mass of M&M’s I think, maybe my dad’s got treats and treasures hidden all over and they’re not gonna end up sitting on the steps of the ‘Poor House’ like he likes to says.  (I’m pretty sure the Poor House is just an expression and not an actual place.  Although my dad seems as afraid of going there as my mom is afraid of going to the loony bin, which I know is an actual place because my mom said a distant cousin went there and never came back.)

I start to slide the cabinet door closed, the chocolate is coating my teeth and tongue. I really should dart back to my room but I want a second scoop so I stay.  I leave the cabinet door cracked open, just wide enough, so I can slip my hand back inside.  I usually eat the green ones first and make a list of all the candy I love that is green (watermelon Nerds, lime Now & Laters, apple Blow-Pops) and imagine having a Tupperware container of each stashed under my bed.  I make sure and save the red ones for last and get my list to cherry Starbursts before diving my hand back into the paper sack.

And then suddenly the light goes out behind me.  Not completely.  Not like someone flipped off the hallway light – that would have made my dad’s office go dark, concealing me completely.  More like… an eclipse, like the one I looked at with the shoebox I made at school.  The light dims, it is diffused.  I turn around to see my dad’s tiny figure silhouetted in the doorway, insignificant compared to the massive shadow he is casting down on me.

My mouth is packed with peanuts.  I can’t swallow, let alone speak.  And my heart does that thing I’ve read about in Sweet Valley High romance novels, when one of the twins gets her heart broken.

“Night, Hob.”

That’s all he says, standing there, between me and the light.  An eclipse.  I have been eclipsed.  My sin covered.

He continues on down the hall to the bathroom.  I hear the water running in the sink as he brushes his teeth and then I hear the water stop, hear him come back into the hall.

“Make sure and brush your teeth, Hobbit.”  The light goes out, all the way this time and I hear his bedroom door open and close.  The walk back across the hall feels like desert miles.  I sit there on my Smurf sheets trying to swallow.


SIGNED VEEP EP 405 – For Charity

Hey guys.  I’m auctioning off a copy of VEEP Episode 405 (the first appearance of Hugh Laurie’s Tom James).  It’s signed by the entire cast, including Hugh.

UPDATE:  Now includes VEEP Seasons 2 and 3 on blu-ray, a copy of FLOOD magazine featuring the men of Veep, and White House Barak Obama M&Ms and Hershey’s Kisses.

I didn’t want to do this on ebay, where ebay and paypal would keep some of the money.  I’d rather have all the money go to the school that will be benefiting.  So we are going to try it this way, and see if it works.

Silent Auction time.  Comment on this post with your bid.  After a week or so, they highest bid gets is.

We’ll use Venmo or Paypal or check.

The benefactor of the auction will be the Los Angeles High School of the Arts.  Support arts education!

Let’s try.

Start it at $100.

UPDATE:  Currently at $1250.