Jeff’s mom was a coalminer’s daughter, and his dad was a coalminer’s son. Yesterday, we spent the entire day cleaning up the grave of his father, John “Doug” Swiney (pronounced Sweeney, please) in Elkhorn City, KY in an effort to honor his local legacy. John Doug (known as Doug to his friends, John to anyone official and Pa to Jeff and me) was very active in the historic preservation here, and one of the more interesting people I’ve ever known.
Unfortunately, much of his story was unknown to me until after he died, in 2008, when his friends and family came forward with their memories. He never talked about himself unless you asked him a direct question, and even then he’d keep it short and sweet. He was a listener, not a talker. In fact, he carried around business cards with his phone number that said:
John “Doug” Swiney
This is what I know about Pa. He went to school here in Elkhorn City, at this now dilapidated, abandoned high school.
His picture hangs in the new high school, in the Athlete’s Hall of Fame.
He was one good looking boy, his looks a combination of Elvis, James Dean and Mel Gibson. As an older man, he was a “strong, silent type,” who brought to mind a combination of Clint Eastwood, John Wayne and James Garner. I told him that once and he smiled modestly, replying, “I’ll take that.”
After high school, he joined the Army to avoid life in the coal mines. His was the generation that began escaping the guaranteed future of black lung disease and probable early death. Eventually, he ended up in Cleveland, where he joined the police department. It was there, as a young cop in the hospital with a bad appendix, that he met Jeff’s mom, Lueana, a nurse who was raised in the coal mining town of Seward, PA.
Doug retired—a sergeant on the East Cleveland PD,a dangerous area of the city—after his first heart attack at age 42. That’s also when he quit smoking and drinking, and all the other stuff that causes heart attacks in the very young. Three sons and one divorce later, he worked security at the Lakeland College PD, where he earned several degrees (employees could take free classes). We don’t know for sure if he ever dated any of them, but the co-eds certainly found handsome John Doug handsome, indeed!
He never did remarry, and we never heard of any girlfriends after the divorce. He and Lueana remained best friends until the day he died. They loved each other; they just couldn’t live together because they were such different people (just one example: Jeff inherited his Oscar Madison tendencies from Pa, and his mom was almost obsessive compulsive about her house being immaculate).
After the divorce, Doug spent a lot of his time back in Elkhorn City, as a member of the Heritage Council. He volunteered a great deal of his time here and at Breaks Interstate Park (known as the Grand Canyon of the South) just a few miles up the road over the Virginia state line. In fact, he received a commendation from the governor for helping to mark the hiking trails there, after he saved the life of a man who had fallen from an unmarked mountain trail. This man had fallen three days prior to Doug’s finding him, and he was aimlessly wandering, lost and close to death.
When he wasn’t in Elkhorn City, Doug was traveling the country on his motorcycle. He rode his Goldwing out to California to visit us when we lived in LA. Unknown to us at the time, he wrote every day of that trip to his lifelong friend, Pat, who he had befriended at age eight. (In fact, we’re staying at Pat’s house. I’m writing this blog there.)
After his death, Pat shared his letters from that trip with us. It was great fun to read his side of the stories we experienced together. She told me, in one email, “It was interesting to see the difference in Doug’s feelings about Las Vegas before and after Jeff’s arrival. And he says something about what a delight it was to watch Brian and Jeff, and the relationship between them.” In one letter to her, he wrote “When I’m gone and you are hiking in the Breaks and hear the wind whispering through the trees, it will be me.”
Children and animals adored Pa, and he them. His Siamese cat, Veronica, hated everyone but him. She would sit on his shoulder and stay there for hours. When “Ronnie” died, he built a beautiful burial tomb for her in his back yard. Any cat we ever had (and we had many) loved when he came to visit. They’d sit on his lap and purr for days, only getting up if forced to.
He wasn’t one of those “Ask me about my grandkids,” kind of people, but if you did ask him, he’d sure tell you. When my granddaughter Semani was two, she came to visit us for a couple weeks. As my daughter (her mother) was in the Air Force stationed far away, Semani had never met Doug until that trip. He came from Cleveland to visit us and to see her for the first time. We didn’t tell her about his coming because she was just a baby and had no idea who he was. There didn’t seem to be any reason to mention it to her.
She and I were sitting on the couch, looking out the front window, when he pulled up out front. I have no idea how she knew who he was, but when she saw him get out of the car she yelled, “Grandpa!” She ran out the door, into his arms and plopped her head on his shoulder. That’s where she stayed for his entire visit, and he didn’t mind a bit.
When I published my first book (then titled Addressing the Goo—the metaphysics of weight loss and now retitled Shape Shifting—the body/mind/spirit weight solution), he bought 20 copies to hand out to his friends. This really surprised me because I always assumed he was a rather strict Christian … not because of anything he ever said—as I mentioned he didn’t talk much—but because he was raised in the Bible belt.
He told me, years later, that he had a near death experience after his first heart attack that taught him that no one religion had it right, that there is so much more to life than we can begin to understand. He never feared death again. He said that when he died and saw his body below him, he went into a tunnel of pure velvety blackness, but it wasn’t a scary blackness, it was pure peace. He said that he had never felt so good before or since. The experience definitely opened his mind. In fact, after his death I found his private library filled with books on yoga and meditation, Wayne Dyer’s latest book and even a copy of the Course in Miracles!
In March of 2008, he and Ma came to visit Jeff and me in Florida, as they did every year. We had a great time, but he seemed to be slowing down a little. He was, after all, 70 and they had also just visited their grandkids from Jeff’s younger brother, Michael, in New Jersey. It had been a long trip for them.
Their last night in town, on Saint Patrick’s Day weekend, Jeff made corned beef sandwiches and matzo ball soup while Pa, Ma and I sat outside enjoying the weather. He entertained himself, and us, by showing us how he could call squirrels. He puckered his lips and made a noise that sounded exactly like a barking squirrel, puzzling the hell out of the squirrels in the yard, which came closer to investigate and grab a peanut from him.
The next morning, Monday, they headed back north to Cleveland, which was being hammered by a blizzard. They made it safely, and he spent some time with Brian, Jeff’s other brother, and his family. On Wednesday, we received an email from him. He used to send us goofy or interesting emails all the time—he especially got a kick out of sending me emails like this one:
When I was a medic with the Army Guard I use to administer a color blind test similar to this one. Click here: http://www.funstufftosee.com/colorblind.html Well I just failed this test at the Dr’s office this week. Check your color vision.
He thought that was the funniest thing ever.
This is the email we received from him that Wednesday:
FAREWELL LETTER FROM A GENIUS. A GENIUS SAYS GOOD BYE FOR GOOD.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, famous writer from Colombia, and Nobel Peace prize winner for literature, has retired from public life for reasons of health. He has a form of cancer which is terminal. He has sent a farewell letter to his friends and it has been circulated around the Internet. It is recommended reading because it is moving to see how one of the best and most brilliant of writers expresses himself with sorrow.
If God, for a second, forgot what I have become and granted me a little bit more of life, I would use it to the best of my ability.
I wouldn’t, possibly, say everything that is in my mind, but I would be more thoughtful of all I say.
I would give merit to things not for what they are worth, but for what they mean to express.
I would sleep little, I would dream more, because I know that for every minute that we close our eyes, we waste 60 seconds of light.
I would walk while others stop; I would awake while others sleep.
If God would give me a little bit more of life, I would dress in a simple manner, I would place myself in front of the sun, leaving not only my body, but my soul naked at its mercy.
To all men I would say how mistaken they are when they think that they stop falling in love when they grow old, without knowing that they grow old when they stop falling in love.
I would give wings to children, but I would leave it to them to learn how to fly by themselves.
To old people I would say that death doesn’t arrive when they grow old, but with forgetfulness.
I have learned so much with you all, I have learned that everybody wants to live on top of the mountain, without knowing that true happiness is obtained in the journey taken & the form used to reach the top of the hill.
I have learned that when a newborn baby holds, with its little hand, his father’s finger, it has trapped him for the rest of his life.
I have learned that a man has the right and obligation to look down at another man, only when that man needs help to get up from the ground.
Say always what you feel, not what you think. If I knew that today is the last time that that I am going to see you asleep, I would hug you with all my strength and I would pray to the Lord to let me be the guardian angel of your soul.
If I knew that these are the last moments to see you, I would say “I love you”.
There is always tomorrow, and life gives us another opportunity to do things right, but in case I am wrong, and today is all that is left to me, I would love to tell you how much I love you & that I will never forget you.
Tomorrow is never guaranteed to anyone, young or old. Today could be the last time to see your loved ones, which is why you mustn’t wait; do it today, in case tomorrow never arrives. I am sure you will be sorry you wasted the opportunity today to give a smile, a hug, a kiss, and that you were too busy to grant them their last wish.
Keep your loved ones near you; tell them in their ears and to their faces how much you need them and love them. Love them and treat them well; take your time to tell them “I am sorry”;” forgive me”,” please” “thank you”, and all those loving words you know.
Nobody will know you for your secret thoughts. Ask the Lord for wisdom and the strength to express them.
Show your friends and loved ones how important they are to you.
Send this letter to those you love. If you don’t do it today…tomorrow will be like yesterday, and if you never do it, it doesn’t matter, either, the moment to do it is now.
For you………With much love,
Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Little did we know that this would be the last we heard from Pa. On Saturday morning, Jeff received the phone call.
Doug’s neighbor had noticed that Doug’s car was in the driveway, but the driveway wasn’t plowed. That wasn’t like him. So he called Brian, who came over to check on Pa. The coffee pot was still on from the day before, and Doug was on the floor. I don’t want to get too personal, but suffice to say that it appeared that he didn’t suffer and was out of his body before it hit the floor.
His friend Pat told us, later, that he had mentioned that he was getting old, unable to move as easily as he once could and that hiking in the Breaks, which was his life, was now difficult. In fact, he had traded in his Goldwing for the Silverwing that Jeff and I brought with us on our trip, because the Goldwing was getting too heavy for him. Personally, I think he had said his goodbyes and was done—maybe not on a conscious level, but who knows? He was a pretty conscious guy.
His last wishes were, in essence, “stick a bone up my ass and let the dog bury me in the yard.” He didn’t want any fuss, but that wasn’t to be the case. As a veteran and a decorated police officer, he had earned a huge funeral, with bagpipes and an honor guard. It was standing room only at the funeral. Jeff and I both felt his presence and impatience with it all. At the same time, we both sensed his annoyance and heard his voice saying, “Oh for god’s sake, get on with it!”
He wanted his ashes scattered here at the Breaks, which we did in the fall, during the last week of October when he always rented a cabin to hike and watch the leaves change. Half were scattered, and half were buried here in the grave Jeff and I were working on, with his parents, grandparents and Uncle Log.
Jeff and I both still sense his presence from time to time, Jeff more than me, of course. But while we were cleaning up the graves, I wondered if there really is life after death. Do the people whose graves we’re honoring with all the painting and graveling even know we’re there? If so, do they care about what we’re doing? Do they see it as a sign of love and respect, or look upon us as silly humans who hang on to old memories? Or is there nothing, and we’re just comforting ourselves?
Just as I was wondering this, a blue butterfly came by and landed on the headstone. It stayed around all afternoon until I managed to get a picture of it on a nearby bush. The colors aren’t as spectacular in this picture as they were in real life. They looked like peacock feathers, with their blue iridescence.
But that isn’t the point is it? The point is, I got my question answered.