My oldest son, Justin, was not a quiet, reflective type of young man. He was loud, funny, and loved to be in the middle of a crowd. Maybe that is what surprised me about this story and why it left such an impression on the lives of those who loved him.
When Justin entered Jr High school, he played Jr Varsity Football. He was the smallest player on the team, but so wiry and fast that he made quarterback. The only thing that he loved more than football at that age was- girls. Justin liked girls. Around the third week of football practice Justin decided that he would skip football and go watch the cheerleaders practice on the other side of the school. The coach was not amused by Justin’s excuse that he was too sick to practice and watching the cheerleaders made him feel better, so Justin was ordered to get a doctor’s excuse to get back in practice.
As we entered the pediatrician’s office the next day, I was not in any better mood than the coach was. I explained to the doctor that Justin was in perfect health and we just needed a note from her to get him back onto the football field. Thankfully, she was too professional for that, and insisted on giving him a full exam. As she checked his blood pressure and got out her stethoscope, she frowned and I saw a worry line on her brow. All my impatience and annoyance fled as I realized she had found something.
She told us that Justin had a heart murmur and needed to see a cardiologist. I sat in shock as she called in a nurse to go make him an appointment for the next day. We were told that He had a defective heart valve and needed surgery right away.
Four weeks later, Justin had his first open heart surgery at the young age of 14, and came through it just fine. However, he could not play football or any sport again. That was a rough year for both of us, but as most children do, he bounced back he had a large circle of friends, he loved school, and he had a quick sense of humor. I began to relax and life went back to normal. Justin finished school and I remarried. We were happy and those painful days seemed behind us.
In the Spring of 2007, Justin developed an infection in his heart and was rushed to the Medical Center in Auburn Alabama to fight for his life. For several days, he struggled with fear and pain, but he seemed to finally be getting better.
As he began to feel better, he set out to charm and entertain the hospital staff. Every day, as soon as visiting hours began I would have to maneuver through a small crowd of student nurses, friends of Justin’s, and anyone else that he persuaded to come visit him. At times the visitors were at the hospital to visit other people and were drawn in by his open door and constant laughter. He was a happy person and a joy to be around.
After being on the heart monitor for over a week, the doctor informed us that Justin would need another surgery to repair his heart valve again. It was leaking and without surgery he would die. So, we agreed to the procedure the doctor had planned.
The day of the surgery, all of Justin’s friends and family sat for hours in a large waiting room quietly, praying for him. I don’t believe anyone thought he would not come through just fine, until the hospital Chaplin asked me to come into a small private waiting room.
As I sat in that private waiting room, my own heart grew heavy. I knew that something must be wrong, but I had faith that the doctor could handle any problem with the procedure. We waited for what seemed to be hours and the door finally opened for the surgeon.
As he stepped into the room, I knew. I knew that my child was gone.
The next few days passed in a fog for me, preparing to lay my son to rest. My home filled with family and friends the day before the funeral as I was trying to find a cemetery. I was not from the town that we lived in but it was now home. My husband’s family had a cemetery on our property, but it never occurred to me to bury my son there as he had not been born into this new family of mine.
As my husband and I sat listening to stories that Justin’s friends told of him, one story caught our attention. Justin had told one of his friends that when he died, he wanted to come back as a grasshopper and live in his mom’s front yard. It was so peaceful there.
My husband jumped up and ran out of the door. A few minutes later, he came in and took me aside and asked if I would consider burying Justin in his family’s cemetery. It wasn’t in my front yard, but it was within walking distance. As soon as I could see through the tears, I accepted his offer.
Weeks went by and I attempted to put myself back together. It was hard. Justin had never lived with us, as he was grown by the time we married and had his own home, but there were reminders of him everywhere I looked.
One day, my best friend called me laughing. She said that she had walked out on her front porch and sitting on the rail was a grasshopper. She picked it up and it didn’t jump out of her hands. She immediately thought of Justin and was comforted. She and I had been friends since Justin was a baby and he was very close to her.
A few months later, her daughter got married. I didn’t attend the wedding; I was still raw and broken from Justin’s death. Again, my phone rang. My friend’s daughter was calling to tell me that a grasshopper had jumped on her dress at the wedding. This soothed me more than anything had since his death.
I don’t believe Justin is a grasshopper, but seeing a grasshopper now is a sweet way to stop and be reminded of such a precious young man. I have a large group of family and friends now that always seem to have encounters with grasshoppers. It keeps us all in touch and keeps his memory alive for us all.
Today, many years have passed and the memory of my son no longer haunts me. I can look back on the time that I spent with him with joy. Life is short for all of us, but living life large the way he did makes it so much better for those around us.