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Remembering Jed Kesey

Ken Kesey is a novelist — One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Sometimes a Great Notion, and something forthcoming, set in Alaska, notes for which appeared last year in CQ (Spring '83). He's a longtime cohort and mentor of mine. I rolled into his house in Palo Alto in July 1963, the very week Jed Kesey was busy being born, and never quite rolled out again. Unlike many of the famous I've encountered, Kesey and Faye have always attended better to their family than to his fame, letting decades go by novel-less but no landmark large or small of the kids' lives pass without appropriate attention and ceremony. Sweet solid citizens resulted — Jed's older brother Zane, older sister Shannon, younger sister Sunshine, and Jed himself looking most like and wrestling most like his old man. The living-room rug in the Kesey home (an Oregon barn) is a wrestling mat. The first letter printed here is to a handful of Kesey's old buddies, Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, Ed McLanahan, Bob Stone, and Gurney Norman, who came of writing age together in the creative-writing program that Wallace Stegner ran at Stanford University in the early sixties. Kesey notes: "I sincerely hope that I do not — as Richard II worries — 'play the wanton with our woes,' by this display of my family's private grief and publication of my personal correspondence. I mean it only to suggest a path for others wandering in similar pain. We've all got a lot of dying ahead of us. We might as well learn how to go about it." - Stewart Brand

It was the toughest thing any of us has ever had to go through, harder than jail, or my dad's death, or an OD on STP, yet it also had and always will have a decided glory. Partly, I think, because Jed was such a good kid, very loving and very loved, and the power of his being carried us through a lot of the ache. But there was also the support we got, from friends and family, from teachers and coaches and schoolmates. Without this support I don't think we would have attempted the kind of funeral we had, or plunged into the activism prompted by the circumstances of the accident.

It's the funeral that I mainly want to share, because I think you guys and your constituency of readers should know that this homemade ceremony is legally possible. All you need is the land, the determination, and the family. The activism comes later but I thought I would include it; it's part of the glory. Besides, it's attached to two good letters I wrote after Jed's death. Here are parts of the letters:

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's 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, 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 ahead on. Well 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 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.

With love,

PS: 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...kk

So, Stewart, we now have the beginning of our own graveyard — a big basalt headstone, an iron gate Page welded, poplar trees and honey locust that Zane and Joy Smith planted. It was simpler to do than anyone ever imagined. When the guy from the mortuary came to pick up our pine box he shook his head in awe. "Beautiful," he marvelled, "and in only a day and a night. Beautiful." And when the county health inspector came out to okay the grave site that I pointed out, all he said was, "Looks just fine to me." Because they are just people — fathers, husbands, neighbors — and they respect what they see respected. They didn't take death away from us; we relinquished it.

Next is part of a letter I wrote to Senator Hatfield. He called the other day and asked if he could use it in the Senate appropriations debates going on back in Washington. I told him okay and asked if I could do the same, send it to seatbelt advocates in our state legislature and to antimilitary groups. He said fine. Since then I have read of stiffening resistance to Reagan's obscene military budget requests.

Dear Senator Hatfield:

...From the very first my response to this anguish has been nagged by a terrible teeth-grinding of blame, of blame un-laid. I tried to stanch it. Don't blame, I told myself. It just hurts people. There's been enough hurt already. Turn the other cheek, I kept telling myself.

But the nagging kept on: "What if the other cheek is somebody else's kid? In some other slapdash rig? On some other ill-fated underfunded trip next wrestling season? Or next debate season? Or next volleyball season? Moreover, what if this young blood has been spilled not merely to congregate people and their feelings, but also to illuminate a thing going wrong?"

So I want to try to apprise you, Senator, of just how my chain of blame is proceeding:

I could blame the Oregon coach or his assistants for driving a borrowed rig over a treacherous pass without snow studs, or seatbelts, or even doors that closed properly. But these guys are already doing the best they can to scrape together funds and transportation for a "minor" sport. I could blame my alma mater for not funding the activity better. I could blame the Pacific Athletic Conference for not protecting athletes en route to sanctioned events, or I could blame the whole National Collegiate Athletic Association for fostering a situation where more energy is devoted to monitoring the ethics of the few "stars" in the sports firmament than to the actual welfare of the untold thousands of unknown athletes traveling to their minor events all across the nation.

Faye and I have received more than a thousand letters from around the nation. Most are like yours — sweet, straight, supportive. Many are from people who have lost kids or grandkids on the highways, like Bob Straub and Len Casanova. But a lot of them are from teams, the kids and coaches of wrestling teams, high school and college. Or the parents of kids on teams. And most of these letters mention at least one near scrape. Some speak of worse, like the wreck of the wrestling bus in Montana that killed nine on the same day and in the same area. One member of the Washington State College woman's crew team writes of returning from a rowing meet in Lewiston last year, over the same road that got Jed and Lorenzo. The girls couldn't even afford state vans. They were travelling in private cars. She said she came around a foggy corner and saw her sister's car mashed into the grill of a Greyhound. Her sister was dead. No one in the big bus was so much as bruised.

And every wrestling tournament we've attended since the accident (yeah, they still go on, and we still go; it's always been our family's fashion) has prompted a parent or coach or school administrator to come up and speak to us of their renewed anxieties — the midnight returns from Glide down foggy 1-5; battling the chiptrucks along the Umpqua; picking their way across the January passes from Redmond and La Grande and Lakeview. In rigs without seatbelts, without CBs or trauma kits, usually driven by the coach or his wife. But what can they do? they ask. It's hard enough to pass a school budget in Oregon without asking for fancy protection. Just not enough money in the communities. Nobody wants to increase property taxes, not even for safer playgrounds, let alone for safer activity buses. Sure, the kids need to be defended against the treacheries of travel, but there's just not enough money. Where are the already-scrimping schools gonna come up with the revenue for that kind of defense?

Then, the other night, as I watched the national news, it came to me. We were lobbing those 16-inch shells into the hills of Lebanon. The Pentagon spokesman said he wasn't certain exactly which faction we were hitting, but he reassured us that we were certainly hitting somebody. Then he was asked what each of those shells costs. The price was something enormous. I can't remember. But the spokesman countered by saying that the price for national defense is always high, yet it must be paid.

And I began to get mad, Senator. I had finally found where the blame must be laid: that the money we are spending for national defense is not defending us from the villains real and near, the awful villains of ignorance, and cancer, and heart disease and highway death. How many school buses could be outfitted with seatbelts with the money spent for one of those 16-inch shells?

I know it's a radical notion, and I have no idea what to do about it. There are going to be a lot of lawsuits coming out of this tragedy; there will be no other way the Topliff family can afford a boy paralyzed from the neck down; there will be no other way to force new safety regulations. It's going to be a real tough battle for a lot of folks who are already badly wounded, and it's going to be messy. And I'm afraid the real villains will squirm away again.

Help deal with this, Senator. Please. Talk about it. Talk about bringing some of these umpteen billions back home, back into the vulnerable guts of this nation where our dollars can actually be used for our actual national defense. I intend to begin work on it, in whatever ways I can find. I may have to join those old long-haired peaceniks on the railroad tracks when the next White Train full of nuclear warheads rolls across our land. Just like in the sixties. I guess it's kind of old fashioned, but it looks to me like it's the job God has dealt this hand around.

Thanks for listening to me ramble.

I remain,
Ken Kesey