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  • Jørn Earl Otte

December 18, 1989

It was a Monday.


There were about 12 inches of snow on the ground, but we had school. Snow had been a fixture of this particular December. The roads had been cleared and the temperature was mild — at least for a West Virginia winter. Back then, in addition to the whole “up hill both ways” thing, we actually went to school when it was cold and the ground was snow-covered. Guess I’m crotchety now.


That morning, I had peaches for breakfast. Dad loved to make us eat healthy to start our day. To end our day too. And he made us brush our teeth roughly 11 times a day. This, by the way, he did at the same time in his life as he snuck out to smoke, devoured bacon, and enjoyed a few Pabst Blue Ribbons. In front of us, he ate rice cakes, but he wasn’t fooling anyone.


School lunch that 18th of December in 1989 was something that resembled a hamburger in name only. I hear from my son that Woodrow Wilson High school has improved their dietary selections in the last 30 years. I’ll take his word for it.


My fifth-period biology class was about to start when my Dad walked in just to say hi. Not to me actually, though he smiled and winked in my direction. His smile made his eyes disappear, his red cheekbones on display. He came to say hi to Mr. Casto, probably his best friend at the high school. They chatted for a minute — I have no idea about what — and then Dad headed back to his own classroom. He taught math and computer. He said it was the happiest he’d ever been in his job.


When we came home from school, plodding along the potholed-biways of Beckley in Dad’s dented-up less-than-lovely blue Ford Escort Pony, we stopped at the new house my Dad was building.


“Your mother wants a phone jack in every room,” he explained as we walked through the skeleton that should become our new home by spring. He marked wooden boards with a letter “P” in black ink all throughout the house. It seemed redundant to me, but a few things Dad had done with this house seemed so.


To say my Dad was “building” this house is to give him a bit more credit than he deserved. Now for sure he designed it — he did the blueprints and sketches down to the last nail — and in a way it was a work of art. But he didn’t know how to plumb a toilet or wire a light or install sub-flooring or jim-jam a flim-flam through a hooziwhatzit any more than I clearly do.


So instead he dug holes. Useless, redundant, meaningless holes in the future crawl space so that he “could fit under the house better” when it was completed. Made no sense to me then, makes no sense to me now.


Future phone jack locations clearly marked, we hopped back into the Pony and drove on the 100 yards to our current home. Grannie and Gramps’ house sat on the hill, a beacon to the world around Prosperity, WV, (“suburb” of Beckley), of the hard work Gramps has done throughout his life. A museum to the cleanliness that made Grannie next to godly, I suppose. Their love for their grandkids was unparalleled, and I fondly bask in memories of being spoiled fucking rotten. God bless them.


Our house was beside theirs, just at the edge of the hill. It was one of 8 units that my grandparents rented out to provide a retirement income for them. I have no idea if my parents paid my mom’s parents rent, but I have my doubts.


I went in my room to do my homework, and then of course did not do it. I played Legend of Zelda on my ancient gaming system, perhaps the first version of Nintendo that ever existed. I had a good life.


A bit later, Mom sent my brother and sister over to Grannie and Gramps house because she and Dad would be going Christmas shopping soon and G-n-G were babysitting. I stayed back so that I could go over the list with Mom. I was the only one who didn’t still believe in Santa.


Dad came in my room carrying our gray cat Honey. He was stroking her fur and snuggling her close to his face.


“Listen,” he said. “Listen.”


The purring sound coming from Honey was like a soothing lullaby for my Dad. He looked really happy. I smiled at him and our cat, and Dad turned and left my room.


Moments later I was in the kitchen with Mom going over the Christmas list when we heard a heavy loud grunt. It sounded a bit like an animal’s growl, or a motor unable to start.


What it didn’t sound like was my Dad.


I ran to the bathroom in the hallway, Mom on my heels. The door was locked. Dad’s grunting happened once more, then it stopped.


We tried to break the door down, Mom and I. I was a scrawny 15-year-old nerd who weighed 98 pounds soaking wet. Mom was mom. She chipped her elbow slamming it into the door, and would have a tiny piece of bone floating around in there for the next 29+ years.


Somewhere in there my Mom ran to the phone and called Gramps. As if by magic, he appeared by my side and used a coat hanger to pop open the lock on the bathroom door.


December 18, 1989. Five o’clock in the evening.


You don’t forget seeing certain things in your life. Hopefully, most of them are wonderful. Inevitably, some will be terribly unbearable.


My dad’s face was blue. He was on the yellow linoleum floor, a trickle of blood leading from his temple toward the sink. I dropped to his side. I tried to pick him up.


“Oh Daddy! Oh Daddy I love you! I love you!”


It hurts nearly as much to type it today as it did to say it 30 years ago.

Many more things happened that evening. My mom and Gramps followed an ambulance to the hospital, but the outcome was never in doubt. Dozens, perhaps a hundred people, came to Grannie and Gramps house to comfort us all, console us. Mom and I had to make a phone call to my Uncle Ejgil in Denmark. We heard a great deal of crying in the background.


Many people who mean so much to me remember that day as well, I’m sure. Tommy and Karen Rubin. Lee Ann McGraw. Jerry Sherman. Dave Laraba. Drema Bell. My Danish family of course. Many many others, I’m sure. My incredible little sister Hazel Otte Lewingdon, who says she doesn’t remember but I know she does.


But as I reflect on this I realize that most of the people I know and love, so many of the people who matter more to me than anything in the world — they weren’t a part of my life back then. My beautiful bride, my two incredible children, the majority of my now closest friends. Life, as they say, goes on.


Three months later tragedy would strike our family again. That is a story for another time.


But as I sit here and think about that day, exactly three decades ago, I do so in a new light. A new stage of my life.


My mom, Kyra Holbrook, the strongest, bravest, kindest person I have ever known, succumbed to her battle with multiple sclerosis earlier this year.


So this becomes the first time I have faced this date without her. The first time we haven’t shared a phone call, or a hug, or a tear. The first time we couldn’t exchange fond memories of a much more innocent time. The first time we can’t make fun of Dad together, or flip our collective middle fingers skyward in either jest or righteous anger. The first time on this date that I can’t tell her I love her.


Life does go on. I am extremely blessed. Privileged. Lucky. I have more than I deserve, and I am thankful for all of it


I miss you Dad. I always will. But today, I miss my Mom most. I miss the things only she and I could remember, only she and I could share.


I pray that Mom and Dad are together now. I pray that they are enjoying their reunion with Konrad as well. Despite my best efforts, I have my doubts.


But I want the world to know that, even though our lives changed dramatically and permanently on December 18, 1989 in ways that none of us could have imagined at that time — I am so incredibly thankful that my Mom and I got to have 29-and-a-half more years to be together. To talk. To laugh. To cry.


To remember.


— Jørn Earl Otte


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