Beloved Johnny


It was about 4:00 P.M. on a cheerless February day in 1977, and I was sitting in my office at the university, preparing for a night class, when the phone rang.

“Dad?” the voice came. “Mom said to call and tell you she’s taking John to the hospital.”

“Hospital?” I asked. “What for?”

It was Kathryn, and she sounded rather nervous.

“Well … you understand … I was coming home in the car, and he wanted me to give him a ride on the fender.”

“Oh no,” I groaned. “How many times have I warned you about …”

“But it was only about half a block,” she said, “and I was going really slow. He didn’t even get hurt until I stopped, and I told him I didn’t want him to get on to begin with.”

“Okay, that doesn’t matter. Just tell me what happened. How bad is it?”

“Not very bad. I mean, I don’t think so. He just sort of jumped off, and then fell over backward and hit his head.”

My anxiety had suddenly mounted. “Well, what’s his condition? Is he really hurt? Is he in a lot of pain, or what?”

“No,” she replied, “he’s just been acting kind of strange. He can’t remember things, and the fingers on his left hand keep curling in like he’s trying to scratch something.”

Moments later I had phoned the hospital emergency room and was talking to my wife, Sharon. “He’s not in much pain,” she informed me, “and his memory’s pretty well returned. They just want to keep him under observation for a while and maybe take some X-rays to make sure his skull isn’t fractured.”

“All right,” I replied and felt better. “I have to prepare for my night class, but call me if he gets any worse and I’ll come immediately.”

Darkness had settled in a faint wintry drizzle, and I was halfway through a three-hour class session when my son Tony, a member of the janitorial crew, appeared in the doorway. Just behind him was our good friend and neighbor Dr. Evan Memmott, head of the college audio-visual department. Both of them appeared very solemn. I will never forget, in fact, the expression of tragedy on Evan’s rugged, empathic countenance. He seemed to be on the verge of tears, and in that instant I concluded that my son had died.

What occurred during the next few minutes is blurry; I was standing there in the hall, looking into their eyes, hearing the urgent agony of my own voice as though it were spoken by someone else. “What is it? What’s happened?” My thoughts mingled in relief and anxiety over the reply. Johnny was alive, but he was definitely getting worse and was having convulsions.

He was sitting on the edge of a hospital bed as we arrived, and was surrounded by his mother; Dr. Grant Way, our pediatrician; and two or three nurses. Johnny’s face was sallow, tinged with grayish green, his hair was a mess, and he looked terribly frail and vulnerable. They were holding a crescent-shaped pan under his chin, and there was blood in it. My stomach clenched.

“Johnny,” I said quietly and placed my hand on his shoulder with great care. “Are you all right?”

He actually smiled a little, spit futilely into the pan, and someone wiped his lips with a tissue. “I’m not feeling too well,” he managed. “I’d better lie back down.” Pretty courageous, I thought, especially for a kid of 13.

“All right.” I helped lower him to the pillow. “Do you want us to administer to you?”

He closed his eyes, breathing through his mouth. “Yes … I guess … only don’t press too hard.” I glanced at Evan, and we laughed a little. “No, we’d try not to press too hard.”

Later, conferring with Dr. Way in the hall, I learned that John had landed on the back of his head but had sustained a fracture on top, right down the middle, and that he might be suffering from subcranial bleeding, perhaps even a blood clot. Dr. Way glanced toward the bed and its occupant. “He is looking better now, though, isn’t he?” I nodded a bit dubiously, still offering silent prayers in hopes of building up some kind of reserve help.

They kept him there for the next 48 hours, but despite the excellent care, his mother stayed with him during the days, and his father stayed during the nights. At 6:00 A.M. on the morning of his scheduled departure, having made “steady improvement,” he suddenly developed intense pains. “I have a terrible pain in my head,” he moaned. “It feels like somebody’s cut right down the middle of it.”

The nurses had been making their rounds every 30 minutes at first, now every hour, observing him carefully, shining a light in his eyes to see if the pupils were properly dilated, but I didn’t wait. His description of the pain greatly disturbed me, and even as I left the room, he was tossing about, clasping his head and moaning. I returned moments later, having received approval to give him another mild pain-killer. A nurse would be there soon.

Soon, however, was too long. John made no response as I entered the room. “Johnny!” I said, “are you all right?” I bent over him, frowning, clasping his shoulder. “John? Can you hear me?” But his eyes were glazed, losing their color, and a tiny bubble was forming between his lips. He was turning gray again—receding, shriveling before my eyes. Dying! Absolutely incredible … absolutely true. Johnny!

I ran for the door. “Get the doctor in residence, quick!” I shouted. “He’s in a coma, and he’s fading fast!” A young nurse swished into the room—checked his pulse, his eyes, did other things (I don’t know what), and left, crying. Crying! Undoubtedly she had been trained not to display such emotion, but sometimes emotions take precedence regardless of the circumstances.

I’m not certain of the following sequence, but a call was placed immediately to Dr. Way, and I phoned Sharon moments later. She took the news with what can only be described as beautiful fortitude and asked one question: “Is there someone there who can help you administer to him?”

“I’ll find somebody,” I replied, asking her to phone family and friends and request their prayers.

I have never known doctors to arrive with such speed. Within the first two or three minutes a young intern, Ed Parker—a bearer of the priesthood—appeared, and somehow, before we even had time to perform the administration, Dr. Way was there as well. I don’t recall what I said during that blessing, but I do know that I made some strong, unqualified commitments to the Father of our spirits if only he would spare my son, his son. I do know that despite my failings, I have been a better man since. I do know that almost immediately after our administration, the light returned to John’s eyes, that he emerged from the depths of his coma, speaking a little, communicating all that was required to neurosurgeon J. H. Hauser, who had also arrived with remarkable swiftness.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Hauser explained that a large hematoma (blood clot) was exerting pressure on John’s brain and that it might still be growing. “We have two options,” he said, “One is to use drugs. That may help eliminate the clot, but we can’t really be certain of their effectiveness or the speed with which they will act. The other is to bore some holes in his head and remove the clot directly.”

“Please do exactly what you would do if he were your own son,” I said, and moments later Johnny was on his way to the operating room for surgery that was to last almost two hours.

“We’ll do our best,” they had said. That was all they said—no promises.

By now we had formed quite a congregation—his mother, Grandfather Allred (who spontaneously offered perhaps the simplest, most fervent and beautiful prayer I have ever heard), various medical personnel, several of our own children, and our neighbors the Memmotts—true Good Samaritans. We sat there together in the main waiting room, conversing quietly, and young Mike Memmott, one of John’s best friends, was blinking back tears. That fall in the road three days earlier had momentarily knocked John unconscious and left his head bleeding rather profusely. Bending over him in great anxiety, Mike had called John’s name, then actually picked him up and carried him into our home.

During the half hour that followed, we phoned our oldest son, Mark, then at the Language Training Mission in Provo, Utah, in preparation for his departure to Hamburg, Germany. We also phoned the Ogden Temple to place John’s name on the prayer roll and learned that someone else had done the same thing at the Salt Lake Temple. Shortly thereafter we received a call from the receptionist at the Language Training Mission in Provo. “President Pinegar took the liberty of placing your son’s name on the rolls at the temple here,” she said. “We hope you don’t have anything against it.” Of course we didn’t have anything against it.

It was such an incredible interplay of feelings! Such a sense of spirituality, of belonging, of family—not only our immediate kin, but all those others, virtually everyone we talked to, in fact! Friends of our daughters were now there also, and various acquaintances passing through the hospital had stopped to talk to us, offering words of concern and consolation. It seemed as though everyone knew our young son personally and truly loved him.

And yet, despite all those things—love, comfort, faith, buoyant warmth—there was the lingering feeling of fear, which was just as pervasive as the smell of antiseptic, the kind of fear that seems to shrivel one’s innards a little. At one point I encountered a doctor friend on the elevator and explained briefly our son’s condition. “That’s too bad,” he said. “The same thing happened to the Jones boy last week, the very same kind of accident. He never lived through the operation.”

Somehow that observation didn’t help to make me feel any better, nor had our son Mark’s earlier response to our phone call. “I always thought John was too good for us to keep him very long,” he had said. Pacing the hall outside the operating room, I glanced at the forbidding green doors marked “Surgery—Unauthorized Personnel Not Permitted” and thought about that other boy, the one who hadn’t lived. I had met his father, and I knew in part his family’s grief, for at one point I had supposed that my own son was dead. At another, I had literally seen the life fade, and who really knew the outcome even now? No assurance of anything, only those final words: “We’ll do our best.”

Leaning against the tiled wall with one hand, I rested my head on my out-stretched arm. “Father in Heaven,” I asked, “why did that other son have to die? Why did his loved ones have to endure all that pain and sorrow?” I knew full well, of course, that answers are rarely given to such questions. “Is it right,” I inquired, “for me to ask that my own son be spared under the circumstances?” I remembered the blessing, my commitment to rededicate my life if only John could be spared. But who am I, the thought came, to be setting up conditions for the Lord? I should be constantly striving to live a better life regardless of the circumstances.

There was no one in the hall. I closed my eyes and continued. “Father,” I said, “I have no right to bargain or to establish terms. Thy will be done in all things.” Pausing, I struggled for some small particle of wisdom. “On the other hand, if we’re allowed to keep him, well, I can guarantee you this: it will certainly be great motivation.”

The surgery was pronounced a success, and I remember walking with my arm around Sharon out into the sunlit parking lot of that winter morning; we were trying to reassemble ourselves emotionally, breathing deeply the air of mortality, offering our thanks. The morning was very pure and bright, almost transparent.

I remember the night that followed—Johnny in the intensive care unit, head wrapped in white bandages like a swami, taking intravenous fluid, moaning occasionally, causing my heart to fibrillate slightly each time it happened. The following afternoon, having improved rapidly, he was returned to the pediatrics ward.

I remained in the hospital each night, Sharon taking the days so that I could continue my classes at the college nearby. And Johnny rapidly grew better, startling everyone—doctors included—with the rapid rate of his recovery. Periodically, however, there were the low points—the time, for example, I was lying with a blanket and pillow on the floor of his private room, and awoke to hear him crying. He was standing in the bathroom and didn’t quite know where he was. “What’s the matter, John?” I called.

“I don’t know,” he lamented, “I don’t know!” Guiding him back to his bed, I hoisted him into it.

“Are you having pain?” I asked.

“Do you need me to call the nurse?”

“No,” he sighed and turned his head away from me for a moment. “It’s just that I’m still getting headaches, and I keep thinking about those holes and not having any hair. “It’s just that … well, for a minute, I didn’t know where you were, and I couldn’t cope with it.

I paused, and then laid my hand on his brow with utmost care. “I understand, buddy. Just let your old dad cope with it for you, okay? Everything’s going to be all right, just great, in fact, and we’ll have you home before you know it. Your hair will grow back in no time.”

He had turned to face me now, and I could see his eyes, big and brown with luminous depths in his pale face. “Not like yours,” he smiled. All my own hair had fallen out a few years earlier.

“No,” I grinned. “Mine will have to wait the resurrection. But then, John, do you know what kind of hairstyle I’ll have?”

“What kind?”

“I’m going to have hair that is curly, thick, and bushy.”

“That’ll be great!” He began to laugh, but it hurt his head.

We remained together in the darkness with only a pale blue light from the parking lot shining dimly through the window, and I continued to look at him, marveling at the number of friends and relatives who had drawn even nearer as a result of our experience, the number of people, some of them total strangers to me, who cared and truly loved that boy.

“Remember a long long time ago when you were just a little boy?” I mused. “Well, you couldn’t, of course, because you were only about 18 months old, but it was the night after Robby was born in the old Dee Hospital on 24th Street. Anyway, you and I were the only ones home, and I guess it was about midnight or later. I came into your room to see if you were covered up, if everything was okay. The light from the hall was shining on your face a little, and there you were, wide awake, just looking up at me and smiling—like right now. So I sat down on the edge of our old rocker, and we looked at each other. That’s all we did. We were all alone, just looking at each other through the bars of that crib—looking into each other—for maybe 15 minutes. And you know something?” I paused. “That was one of the finest experiences your old dad has ever had.”

He looked thoughtful, frowned a little, but it was a pleasurable frown somehow. “I can’t exactly remember,” he said slowly, “but, well, I sort of do in a way, like I can still feel it.”

My hand was on his wrist now, and I could feel the life there, pulsing, pulsing, pulsing, all very steadily. Yes, strong and steady now, and it seemed as if we were going to keep him. It looked as if he would go on to become a doctor as he had planned, perhaps even a surgeon. It appeared that he would fulfill some special calling here on earth, for there had always been a special spirit about him, and at times he seemed to move along in something like a state of grace.

“John the beloved,” I said.

He peered at me inquisitively, not really comprehending.

“What?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I replied. “Just rest now. Try to get some sleep.” It was the secret name I had given him that night long ago, the name reserved for very special occasions.

[illustration] Illustrated by Del Parson