A Life Measured by the Soul- A Tribute to Jeffrey Lane Graber

The album was filled with glossy 4×6 photos. Photos of the red rose-bush tall against the wood fence; an upward shot of the aging basketball goal framed in Kansas blue sky, one single white cloud in the backdrop; a robin perched on the edge of the stone bird bath; a cardinal balancing among the branches of the juniper; a mug shot of Puggie, the gray muzzled pug dog. I never before realized the beauty of your backyard, the color, the life contained within its fences of wood, chain link, and evergreens. Later, I went home and sat on the back porch and gazed upon the everyday wonders of my own backyard. It was if I was seeing the green of the grass, the yellow of my mother’s daffodils, and the uneven gray of the patio for the first time.

My cousin Jeff was born with neurofibromatosis, an incurable disease which affects the development and growth of nerve cell tissue. The disease causes the growth of benign or malignant tumors, especially near the brain and spinal cord, as well as skin abnormalities and disfigurement. As a kid, I didn’t know the name of the disease, I just knew it limited Jeff, kept him from going with us to Joyland Amusement Park or to movies at Crest Theater. The disease attacked the right side of his face, rearing its ugliness when he was just a toddler, causing large, benign tumors to stretch and deform his appearance. Born in 1955, the medical field was still learning about the disease, working to understand its manifestations, and attempting to help patients live with the disease. His future was uncertain. We were told he might not live as long as the rest of us, his cousins. The disease was a mystery. The disease was selfish, keeping Jeff to itself. It was the first thing I remember ever hating.

As one of the cousins, Jeff was no different from the rest of us. We celebrated birthdays, read comics, and shot hoops for hours on the dirt court in his backyard or the makeshift goal at the farm. It was at the farm he experienced the most freedom. He helped bait hooks as we all fished, sitting along the old wood bridge, sneakered feet dangling a few feet above the creek. He swam with us in the large above ground pool, went on hikes with us through the pastures, spun us younger cousins on the tire swing, and played ping-pong in the damp basement of the old farm house. On the Fourth of July, we tossed firecrackers, lit smoke bombs, and waved sparklers. I’m certain he instigated the whole “let’s take the Black Cats and blow up cow pies.”

Like the majority of us, he even graduated from North High School, although he earned his degree while being tutored at home, having been pulled from the public schools when he was twelve. When my aunt and uncle sold the farm, Jeff’s outings became fewer and fewer, secluded to the house just a block from my own. Older than a handful of the cousins, Jeff became the family babysitter, but he was more like a teacher. He educated us on music, movies, and sports. He fed us Red Baron pizzas topped with his own special ingredients and the creamiest macaroni and cheese; served us cold Cokes in coffee mugs with tiny ceramic frogs hidden in the depths, and played board games with us seated around the kitchen island. He would tell us jokes, be stern with us when needed or threaten us with “tickle time” if we misbehaved. He taught us to appreciate the soundtracks to movies, corrected our song lyrics (no, it’s not elected boobs, it’s electric boots) and inherently provided the simplest of life’s lessons.

And as we grew up together, we transitioned from the babysitter and the babysat, to best friends and best cousins. We replaced Monopoly and Sorry with hours of Music Trivia and sipped our first German beers while sitting around that same kitchen island, eating Big Cheese pizza. We talked about books, cocooned in juniper trees on the front porch while listening to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 Countdown. The first time I heard Cheap Trick, I was sitting on the floor in front of his stereo, passing the album and liner notes back and forth, Jeff schooling me on the talents of Rick Nielsen and Tom Petersson. My sister may have sparked my love of music, but Jeff provided the kindling to ensure the flame burnt bright and long. He was one of the first in the family to own a stereo that allowed you to record albums to cassettes and he spent hours creating the perfect mix tapes, introducing me to Elton John and Led Zeppelin.

I often thought, and still do, that Jeff would’ve been an incredible radio disc jockey because he listened to every nuance of an album, read Rolling Stone magazine front to back, and was passionate about passing along his newfound knowledge, summarizing articles, and introducing the cousins to new music. It would have been a perfect job for him. And when MTV launched onto the music scene, my younger brother and I watched many a World Premiere with him, including Pat Benatar, Sting, and Van Halen. He would rate the videos, as we watched them over and over, Jeff always recording them to make sure we didn’t miss a thing. He loved those early days of MTV, especially the concerts. And in 1985, when the Young Ones crossed the pond, we watched many an episode at the Graber’s abode hysterical over the antics of Vivian, Rick and Mike. Jeff’s impression of Neal, his favorite, was spot on.

But, as the cousins grew older and became more involved in sports or school activities, and friends, our time spent with Jeff decreased. We grew socially, fell in love, went to college, moved away, married, and had children. Jeff stayed his course. He began babysitting the next generation. Later, he became the Commissioner for our family fantasy football league, keeping track of stats by hand, waiting for our phone calls to verify our standings, reprimanding us if we called too early before he’d had a chance to update scores following Monday Night Football. He would answer the phone, ‘The Commish, here.” Even after our family league disbanded, he remained the Commish, to me. But, the disease remained relentless, tightening its grip, and soon visits to his home became limited by his immediate family. Now living across town from one another, we kept in touch by phone, instant messenger, and later, Facebook. His birthday became the only day I would see him and the visits were brief, but he was never far from my mind. A song, a movie, a pug dog meme, and every Shocker game I thought of Jeff.

Neurofibromatosis is the disease, but it is not Jeff. It is easy to look upon his life from the outside and feel sadness and pity for a life so contained, but for us who knew and loved Jeff, his life was inspiring and profound, especially for us, his cousins. I know I speak for all of my cousins when I say that knowing and loving Jeff transformed our lives and embedded within our souls the gifts of compassion, empathy, and unconditional love. As children, we did not see the tumors, only Jeff, and at times, it was easy to forget about the disease until that moment when we would think or say aloud, “we should all go to the drive in,” or “let’s go to the game, this weekend.” It was then we hated the disease, as it stood between us and Jeff, separating us, pushing us away. Jeff was intrinsic to our development, educating us in so many ways, but for me especially, he taught me to realize and appreciate what I had in my own backyard. Jeff helped to recognize the beauty of that within our own fences, to look inside our windows and not just outside or beyond. So often, we look over the fence and long for what is not ours, while what is most important is sitting next to us on the porch swing, laughing with us at the kitchen table, and holding our hand.

The Kansas wind blew loud and strong the day we took turns sprinkling soft Kansas dirt over the small box in the ground which held the earthly remains of Jeff. It seemed at times we might topple over and roll comically down the hill of Calvary Cemetery, one last prank by our cousin whose bag of tricks included “tickle time” and “the Cucuy.” I could almost hear his boisterous laughter over the wind and afternoon traffic on Kellogg. Jeff would’ve celebrated his 60th birthday on December 18, defying the age expectancy given to him by his doctors so long ago. As we drove away from the cemetery, I thought of Jeff and his life, his world filled with movies, National Geographic magazines, the roar of the crowd through the speakers of his radio, and music, lots of music, and the love of cousins. It was then I understood the strength and forcefulness of the wind that sad day. Jeff is free. Free to see the sunset over places he learned about between the pages of those magazines. Free to gaze upon the ocean waves. See his beloved Yankees. Hear the roar of Shocker Nation in Koch Arena.

Forever a part of our lives, our souls, the intrinsic make up of our being, but free. Finally, free.

Thank you, Commish.

“If I could reach from pole to pole Or grasp the ocean with a span, I would be measured by the soul; The mind’s the standard of the man.”

– (adaptation) Isaac Watts- False Greatness


Blood Circle – A Tribute to My Best Friends

I am often envious of those whose friendships have endured since childhood, even high school. My brother is a prime example, as his circle of buddies has remained intact through the years. From the relationships he began in little league and junior golf to junior high and even as a high school transfer his group of guys, while somewhat scattered between Arizona and Kansas City, has endured college, relocation, marriages, children, even death. And throughout this legacy of friendship, I have benefited greatly in adopting (and being adopted) by a team of little brothers whom I love.

What my brother has is rare, I believe. Maybe it is my innate independence or possibly I’m not as wonderful a friend as I believe myself to be that results in my circle not being so intact, if there is a circle at all. Oh, I have wonderful friends, people whom I love and care about and worry over. Maybe we don’t see one another very often, maybe once a month, every four to six months, once a year, but they are never far from my mind. And, should they call in need, I would leave work or hurry into the darkness of night to provide assistance or comfort.

Or maybe it’s because as a child I didn’t need best friends because I had my cousins. In a family of 48 first cousins, I was always surrounded by relatives my age or close to my age, especially my mother’s side of the family. My mother and her siblings lived within blocks of one another, except for one family in California, so that Wedgewood Street, Waco, Market, Somerset and Manhattan, even Martinson (which was across town), became extensions of my childhood home. We walked to school together, shared birthday cakes, hunted Easter eggs, fished along the banks of creeks at the farm, rode bicycles, took up entire rows at movie theaters, huddled in basements during tornadoes, stayed up all night during sleepovers, babysat one another, became roommates, took trips, sang and danced at concerts, and eventually stood stiffly in rented tuxedos or scratchy new dresses during weddings.

When I was younger, I was always surprised or found it odd that others didn’t spend much time with their cousins. Some didn’t even know their cousins, let alone go swimming with them. I cannot imagine a life without my cousins. Even now, I’m picturing my life from childhood to present sans relatives and all I can imagine is boredom and loneliness. As I sort through the photos of my childhood birthdays, if I were to erase the cousins sitting at the kitchen table waiting for me to blow out the candles, well, that would leave me, my little brother, my sister, and in a few photos, a child or two from my school whose names escape me, now.

Maybe I would have had more traditional friends, maybe not. In our family, being blood means putting up with one another’s eccentricities and imperfections, which we may not understand, but we endure or ignore for the love of family. Others outside the blood circle would probably not be so patient or kind. One thing I know for certain is that I would be a different person. All of my cousins have provided a piece to the puzzle.They are all a part of who I am.

Each February, I am more aware and appreciative of my family since we celebrate seven or more (remember, there are a lot of us and sometimes I forget) birthdays during this month. February brings to memory piñatas and games and much later, themed parties and lots of beer at a small house in Riverside. Ours is a circle made different only by the means in which it is held intact, by time, by memory, by blood. My life is all the better for the love of cousins.

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The love of farm or country fill his heart

The farm. That’s what we refer to the place of our childhood where we lost ourselves in cow pastures, fished in creeks, catapulted into the Kansas sky on a tire swing. The farm. Always said with a sigh of nostalgia. The Graber’s farm.

My Uncle John and Aunt Becka owned the farm in Kingman, KS. Their sons ruled its gold and green roost, the dilapidated sheds and small barn, the tiny one-bedroom farm-house. The four-legged Graber’s, Sam and Puggy, hunted, barked, lounged, and housed ticks while guarding the land. That was always a final chore before heading back to town, searching and burning ticks from the dogs.

There was a huge fire-pit area for fallen branches and other miscellaneous farm trash. An old grill, a basketball hoop attached to the barn, an above-ground swimming pool with only waist-high water due to the fear that a child might drown while the adults were playing horseshoes, fishing, shooting clay pigeons, or preparing the meal.

I can still hear the slam-bang of the screen door, smell the Palmolive dish soap mixed with a hint of mildew as you entered the small kitchen. I can’t recall if there was just one large room that also served as a bedroom. My memory is fuzzy in that aspect because we never spent time in the house. We were always outside. The only time I came in was to use the bathroom, preferring to perch upon that tiny, old toilet than squat in the high grass. The boys had it easy.

We would arrive in the morning, what seemed a million birds singing our arrival, the cows lowing in the distance, Uncle John checking on things while carrying a speckled-blue tin cup of coffee, Aunt Becka, always in curlers and scarf, cleaning and inspecting. We, my cousins and I, would tumble out of the cars along with the dogs, and head toward the tire swing, grab a basketball, a fishing rod, an old bicycle. The day was ours.

Sometimes Aunt Becka would pack us a sack lunch of PB&J, chips, and a soda wrapped in aluminum foil, and we would head out to explore. Climbing gingerly through barbed-wire fences, long sticks in hand to ward off the snakes, we walked through varying heights of grasses until we reached an area of interest alongside the creek. I remember Jerome packing a silver “cowboy” tincup and we took turns dipping it into the creek and drinking the ice cold water. When we would return from our adventure, we would be dusty, hair sticking to our sweating, red faces, our socks loaded with stickers, and starving.

While the older female cousins spent time sunbathing on the tin roof of the old barn, listening to the transistor radio, I stuck with my male counterparts. They were much more entertaining, blowing up cow patties with firecrackers when they weren’t chasing the cows, fishing off the old bridge, running from snakes. And besides, Uncle John was always near to protect us, severing the heads of snakes or shooting them off with his shotgun. He taught me to squish a worm onto a hook, and how to delicately pull the hook from the miniscule fish I caught. To this day, those small styrofoam coolers remind me of carrying Uncle John’s cooler filled with minnows. Sometimes as the boys fished, I would dip my hand into the murky, cooler water and let the minnows swim between my fingers.

Uncle John also piled us into the back of his old Charger and sped down the dirt road, all of us tumbling into one another, sliding onto the floor, seatbelt-less and giddy, yelling “Go faster!”

The 4th of July always brings memories of the farm crashing into my memory. I can smell the coals and toasting hot dogs combined with the bitter-smoke smell of fireworks. I can hear the mourning doves, the tumble of ice in an old Coleman cooler, the sizzle and crackle of Roman candles and golden fountains, and the hiss of sparklers tossed into a bucket of well-water.

I miss the farm, as do all of my cousins. It isn’t just the nostalgia of childhood, it is the freedom. There were no boundaries on the farm, no constraints, just blue sky, unending fields, lazy creeks, and each other.

The title of my post comes from a quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupey,  “Only he can understand what a farm is, what a country is, who shall have sacrificed part of himself to his farm or country, fought to save it, struggled to make it beautiful. Only then will the love of farm or country fill his heart.”

I wish we’d fought harder to save it, in our soft struggle to make it beautiful, and our sacrifice is the inability to return, except in memory.