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.
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.