I was in my parent’s van and on the way to my grandfather’s funeral when I learned that Johnny Cash had died. We’d just gassed up and I’d grabbed a USA Today before being dealt that blow.
I should back up. He’s not really my grandfather, not by blood. And he’s not even my stepdad’s actual father. Grandpa Stan is my stepdad’s stepdad, and we were on our way to Canada to pay our respects. We would attend a funeral in a small chapel, where my adopted grandma wouldn’t have it in her to properly reveal her sadness. Dry tear ducts, you know. She was as broken up as anyone else, but never had the tears to show for it.
I recall a kindly man who looked vaguely like Jimmy Durante. He had dimmed eyes and a smile to share; he had a joke or story for you, too, and you would hold off on whatever else you were doing to take it in. Grandpa Stan buoyed you up, whether you liked it or not. And you always did.
Still, there wasn’t enough time to get to know him for me to get sad. I hadn’t enough shared conversations. Instead, I had small talk at Christmastime. This a man who had survived a plane crash while in the air force. Shot down in India, with a lifetime of back problems to show for it. Now? He was well liked and hard of hearing. He’d survived right on into his 90s and it was his time to bow out, but not without a certain kind of graciousness. He’d lived a full and storied life.
The news of Johnny Cash, on the other hand, was a surprise punch in my gut. Sure, his June had passed on not long before and, yes, he’d had his health problems, but he wasn’t supposed to die. Hospital visits and bouts with drugs were simply obstacles to step around and look past. He may as well have been a grandpa of mine, one I’d grown up with long enough to miss. I’d filled my head with enough of his tales, enjoyed enough of his concerts for the prisoners. He was the real thing. Genuine. Extraordinary.
Johnny Cash defies easy categorization, which lends to his being larger than life. You could call him outlaw country, but that wouldn’t be quite enough. You could say he dabbled in wordplay, a little like Roger Miller did, too, surprising you into laughter. And then there are his gospel songs that aren’t anything close to being gospel songs; they’re just a man sharing his roots and beliefs. Nobody should cover him. Nobody should try to tackle his catalog in a karaoke bar. And don’t get me started on impersonators. You can’t sing-speak the way he can, no matter how hard you try.
You know when life pulls that plug before you’re ready to have a say in the matter, especially when you feel like you should have one? That was one of those instances.
My mom’s mom listened to Johnny Cash, too, though again, I don’t think I knew it until after she’d lost her battle with diabetes. I knew we’d shared a common interest when it came to Scrabble and cans of Black Cherry Shasta, but it took my poking around a few of her things before I learned of yet another: unzipping her cassette tape case unveiled a kind of treasure trove. Tape after tape by The Man in Black. I’m not sure she had anything else in there. At the time, I’d only known one of his songs, “A Boy Named Sue.” Who knew he had so many others?
Maybe that was a beginning, too. A beginning found in an ending. And that will happen.
I regularly give in to dreams and scenarios I’d like to see play out. Whether or not they will come to pass or are based in reality doesn’t seem to matter much. And one of them involves Johnny Cash, the devout man of God that he was, as the only man allowed to dress in black up in those clouds of heaven. My grandpa Stan is there, too, wearing a pair of his trademark sweatpants and slippers, easily earning laughs in exchange for jokes. And my grandmother, she’s there, too, always wondering what she did with her cassette case of Johnny Cash tapes, but she never has to worry over that for very long.
You see, in heaven, Johnny and June play three times a day.