To Honor My Brother Don


Last night Libby and I reached mile 8,000 on our journey across America. It was just about sundown, near Grainfield, Kansas. Could there be a more appropriate name for a prairie town? Grainfield? I pulled over and snapped a photo.

Kansas sunset along I-70

Kansas sunset along I-70

It was a momentous day for a number of reasons – it would be our last night on the road, it was exactly one year ago yesterday that Libby inspired this little road trip, mocking me for not challenging the choke hold on my life. Reminding me that life, indeed, is short.

Don being goofy, siting on the front porch with Baby Girl

Don being goofy, siting on the front porch with Baby Girl

It was one year ago today that I lost my big brother, Don. I miss him terribly. I want him to be there on the front porch when I’ve driven a thousand miles to Albuquerque. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve pulled up to find him there. I want to talk to him about politics, or baseball, or history, (world or personal) or pie. He ate almost an entire lemon meringue pie one day when I was there last year. He knew he was going.

Don on his Lambretta scooter

Don on his Lambretta scooter, Mom, Jean, J.R. & Garrett, Ft. Worth, 1960

I want to reminisce about Ft. Worth, or wild goose chases in Wisconsin in search of spudnuts, (donuts made from potato flour) and I want to hear him tell that story, one more time, about how he accidentally whacked Nathan in the head on a tennis serve. Don worried about that for years, Nathan apparently not any worse for the wear and now has a healthy appreciation for NOT walking across the tennis court when he’s told to “stay off!”

What I wanted,  was to take Don on this trip with me. Oh, I know, you’re probably saying, “he was with you in spirit,” that’s great and all but spirits can’t drive. But, I do believe this spirit shit is real. I’m a convert.

Don, sans Baby Girl and a cold beer. Albuquerque

Don, sans Baby Girl and a cold beer. Albuquerque.

I believe it because I have experienced spiritual intervention, in spades. Literally. They keep dropping in front of me. You can NOT make this shit up, swear on a stack of bibles.

Three of Spades

And then one day, the three of spades was plopped in Jean’s path.

I spotted this three of spades laying smack dab in front of where I was walking Libby in Lake Tahoe a few days ago. Considering that I’d found a seven of spades, which I referenced in Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs, I figured this was yet again, a sign from God or Don or my childhood dog Bowser, or Mom, or Tommy, or Garrett, whomever, so I should consider picking it up. I did. There was only one card, face up, wet, since it was lying in a shallow stream. I brought it back to the condo and looked up the meaning.

The Three of Swords represents rejection, sadness, loneliness, heartbreak, betrayal, separation and grief. Such events feel so painful because they are unexpected. However, the Three of Swords often serves as a warning sign to show when one or more of these are possible. By preparing for this difficult event, the emotional blow can be minimised or even prevented entirely.

That said, pain, sorrow and grief are often a necessity in the journey of life. Without pain, there would be no challenge and no lessons learned. Pain can be a great motivator because it encourages you to surmount obstacles and ultimately learn from your mistakes. Each challenge you encounter creates that initial pain, which is inevitably turned into an opportunity to grow stronger and to change the direction of your life as a result of the lessons learned. While the pain may cloud your vision for a certain period, it will eventually allow you to see clearly and to put the past behind you. Though life seems meaningless at the time, recovery can and will occur. It takes faith, self-love, forgiveness and time. Count your blessings.

Well, okay then, I’m countin’. But on this journey to enlightenment, I have spilled tears from Youngstown, to NYC, to Asheville, to the desert of New Mexico to San Francisco, parceling out my necessary grief like water from a rain barrel. That’s what this was all about, you know, taking the time to grieve. Looking out over a desert, the ocean or a sea of cars ahead of me, and having the time to grieve for Don, for Garrett, my mother, the father I never knew, the loss of the life I thought I’d have, my marriage, my family’s innocence.

But, it’s more about being alive. It is about being alive, feeling alive, being grateful to BE alive. I got to do this because I still am. I’m alive. This is what my brother Don would have wanted. It’s what he’d have done himself, if he’d only had the chance.

I still miss him every day. But nobody misses him as much as Beverly. They were married 46 years, high school sweethearts, proving that love can last a lifetime. I just spent a few more days with Bev at our friend’s house in Salida, Colorado. She wanted to be with good friends and perhaps just a smidge closer to heaven, (it’s about 7,200 feet there)  on the anniversary of Don’s death. She took their dog, Baby Girl, her first long road trip, like 300 miles, a mere rookie compared to Libby. But they’re tight, Bev and Baby Girl. She is Beverly’s steadfast companion now, on the road.

And on the porch.

Bev and her Dog

How lucky are we to have them. Baby Girl and Bev, Albuquerque

Here’s the eulogy from his service last year. I’d be honored if you’d read it. Peace.

Eulogy for Donald Wayne Whatley

Our family thanks you for being here today to share our sorrow and to honor Don.  

Truth is, none of us really want to be here. Not Mike, who is now giving us the volume discount on funerals, having pastored our family through three now in less than eight years. Not me, not Beverly, or Amy and Troy,  Kevin and Najma, or JR and Karen, Paul and all of their kids and all the nieces and nephews, cousins and friends, none of us want to be here. Certainly not Don. God knows he was a fighter.  

And an inspiring teacher, policy maker, trusted colleague, respected Union leader, advocate for homeless kids — for all of the roles he played, we will forever be proud. Both Amy and J.R. have commented in the past few days, that they didn’t give him enough credit for what he’d accomplished. We did, as a family, however, give him a lot of grief, especially in the early days. When we were growing up, we had a saying in our house, “Don did it!” Anytime someone ate the last piece of pie, or turned the dog loose, or burned the skillet, left the car out of gas, or the toilet seat up, we’d all say, “Don did it!” He got blamed for everything!!! It was a standing joke, I can still hear my mother saying, “Don did it!”  and us younger kids repeated it like parrots, when I’ll bet money that sneaky little Garrett did 98% of the stuff Don got blamed for. They’ll have plenty of time to work this out now.

He was culpable for a few misadventures, though. There was the time when Mom went to pick up Don from Stripling Junior High School and when Don got in the car she said, “there are two detectives at the house waiting to talk to you…” Turns out Don and a neighbor kid figured they’d stumbled upon a World War II army surplus store in old garage Don had spotted on his paper route. Don said he thought nobody lived there anymore. I’m sure he really did, but that didn’t keep Don and his partner in crime from having to march those gas masks right back to the old man’s house down the street. Guess that was back when cops had nothing better to do.

And Don did crash the Ford Galaxy into a phone pole, our only car, when he graduated from a walking route to a driving route. He’d fallen asleep at the wheel, throwing papers at the crack of dawn, before school. God love him, on occasion he had to hand off some of what he made from the paper route to help pay the bills. Mom usually paid him back.

And he did leave J.R. and I at a total stranger’s house, in a hurry to make it to the first day of school, he was probably 14, Yep, Don did it! Mom was working the midnight shift at the Flight Service Station and she’d made arrangements for “Mrs.Jones” to keep Jay and I for an hour, from the time Don left for school until she got home. We had just moved into our house on Lafayette Street, and Don took us next door, knocked on the door and said, “Mrs. Jones?” She said yes, and he said, “here’s the kids” and left. Well, not quite that fast, she said, “I think you’ve got the wrong house…” but she could see Don was in a bind, what with needing to get to school and all, so she said, “go on to school, I’ll take care of the kids.” Imagine my mother’s chagrine at the note on the door, “Mrs. Whatley, I have your children.” Yep, Don did it! Okay so every kid is allowed a few boneheaded mistakes, especially when they’re handling responsibilities way over their grade level.

And challenges….Don survived polio. At seven, he had to stay in a hospital for three months in San Francisco, about 100 miles from where he lived. My mom and grandparents would take turns coming on the bus from Placerville to see him, sometimes only once a week!! Can you imagine? But, Don did it. He cried when they first got to the hospital and my mom said, “Don’t cry, there are people here who are really sick.” He dried his tears and manned up, but he told my mom, “I’ll never ride my bike again” to which she said, “of course you will.” And of course he did. All over New Mexico in several Bike-a-Thons for the American Lung Association. Don did it.

He survived the shame of having to wear my mom’s penny loafers on the first day of school in the sixth grade — the beginning of the school year arrived before her paycheck did. He’d probably tell you it was a week and she say, “oh, come on! It was one day!” They’ll have to talk amongst themselves.

And while he gave in and wore the penny loafers, he stood his ground at seventeen when he announced his intentions to become a Baptist preacher. My mother was a bit astounded and somewhat dismissive of his calling initially, since we were not a household founded on piousness. Yet, Don had the courage of his calling, and earned a Bachelors of Divinity at Bible Baptist Seminary. Preaching would be 2nd nature to someone who had long been tending a flock of four younger siblings.

He put that to practical use, by driving the Gideon Baptist Church bus on Sunday mornings to pick up kids in the projects and bring them to Sunday School. Don would stop by our house on his way, and pick up whichever kid was ready, and Beverly would sometimes ride along. As a seven year old girl, with a house full of brothers, I idolized her. And Don was so handsome and idealistic and sweet. Have I mentioned just how sweet he was?

Like all self-respecting liberals in the ’60s and ’70s though, he became disillusioned…heading into a prolonged hippy phase. This coincided with the the “taking pictures of food era…” That one photo of the bubbling beef stew on the stove top, remains one of my personal favorites. Like we don’t know what THAT was all about! Don loved to eat, right? This was a man who enjoyed his food. My daughter Lauren said, when we were here in June, “Mom, Uncle Don just ate a whole lemon meringue pie for breakfast….”
SEE? Don did it!

Eventually the church bus became a VW bus and I was an eager passenger in that ride too. 41 years ago, this WEEKEND, Don and Bev and about 150,000 stinky hippies were all at the Lewisville Pop Festival. Yep, Labor Day weekend, summer of 69, the next major festival, just two weeks after Woodstock . I never smelled so much pachouli oil, among other fragrances, in my life. I was 14!  We saw, just to drop a few names,
Janis Joplin, Santana, Grand Funk, Chicago, Canned Heat, Sam and Dave….in one day. These were the kinds of adventures I had the privilege of experiencing under the watchful eye of my big brother. He and Bev even let me drive the VW van on the Pacific Coast highway in 1972 when we took Amy and Kevin to see my grandparents in California, I can see Don with his shoulder length hair, in his tweed cap, singing “You’re So Vain….” along with Carly Simon on the radio.

This is about the time preacher Don became teacher Don, in an inner city school in south Dallas, which soon became a school on the West Mesa, where he and Phil Osuna were undoubtedly the coolest cats in APS. There are testimonials from former students on the French’s website which attest to this.

And Paul has attested to how Don was identified, early on, as someone who could elevate the stature of public school teachers and the character of their pupils to a whole new height. Can I just tell you how proud we have always been of our big brother, the Union man who went to Europe, and Australia and Africa — and came back sportin’ a dashiki. My kids have asked, “Mom, why does Uncle Don have a dashiki in his closet?” We all know the man loved clothes, even until the end. Amy had called Bev from Dillard’s back in June when she took her dad to buy a suit for Madison’s wedding. Amy said, “Mom, are you sure????” because of course Don had picked out some mighty pricey threads….and of course Bev said okay. Don justified it by saying, “Well, you know, two weddings and a funeral….” My son Nathan is getting married in three weeks and Don so wanted to go, but he’d be the first to tell you that 2 out of 3 ain’t bad. And the sight of seeing Don dance at Madison’s wedding in that mighty fine suit is a memory we will never forget.

His amazing “joie de vivre” didn’t fail him, even just days before he died. Connie was up at the hospital visiting, she leaned over to hug him and Don just puckered up and kissed her….THREE TIMES….right on the lips! Connie and Karen and I busted a gut laughing, we told Bev he thought he had already died and gone to heaven. The man was no fool.

The apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. With Mom’s passing Don became patriarch, a role, which I think suited him, in his own “Bookerish” kind of way — Booker being our grandfather. Sage advice came naturally — gems like  “never wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row.” And his rueful truism of the Whatley family tradition, “buy high sell low.” When Uncle Don and Aunt Bev showed up, that meant family — his own kids and grandsons, for my children, for JR’s, for Garrett’s son Gabriel and Paul’s son, Joey. Uncle Don was simply, ”The  Dude.”  And the Dude did abide. As long as Don was alive, there was a sense of family, of order. I suspect we all feel a bit more orphaned now. The night that J.R. and I stayed at the hospital with Don, Jay told me, “Don will never know the ways in which he influenced my life.” Don did it!

But let me tell you something….he did it all with the love of his life by  his side. From the time I was nine years old, (I asked if I could go on their  honeymoon) it’s been Don and Bev. Don and Bev — a unit.  But lest you think she didn’t keep him in line, let me tell you something. When Beverly and Don were first married, they lived in a tiny, one room studio apartment in Ft. Worth and Bev had baked a cake, a 9X12 chocolate sheet cake, if I recall correctly. I had been there with Bev when Don came home from working at the A&P. Bev proudly showed him the still warm cake and Don said “aren’t you gonna frost it?”  And Miss Beverly, bride at 18, promptly marched out the door and dumped the entire cake in the trash can. I was stunned! And of course thought the marriage was over, that’s what it  usually meant in our household. Don kinda clammed up, but within minutes, he had Beverly all wrapped up in his arms, kissing her and laughing a little bit…. and well, we all see how that story turned out.

Except, it wasn’t supposed to turn out THIS way. Amy and Kevin, who are a testament to their parents’ good raising, were not supposed to lose their father so young. Trevor and Ryan, Cody, Mack and Jack, shouldn’t have to lose their grandfather now. J.R, Paul and I really weren’t ready to lose ANOTHER brother — and those who’ve lost a brother-in-law, favorite uncle, life long friend, champion for the downtrodden, good neighbor – to say this is a loss is an understatement. But, we have to man up, because Don did it.

He gave me strength when I needed it. Last November, I went to kiss him goodnight and crawled up in the bed next to him instead. I told him I was angry,  he said that was okay. I told him I was sad, he said he was too. I told him I didn’t want him to die, he said he didn’t really want to either, but he wasn’t afraid to die, because, he said, “I have a deep faith.” He was set to start chemo the next week and he said, “I’m actually excited to get started. It’s kinda like baseball,” he went on in that quiet voice that cancer had given him. “There are an infinite number of things that can happen when the ball leaves the pitchers hand. I can get a hit or I could get hit by the ball. Or, I can step out of the box. I could do that, but I’m gonna stand there and take my pitches.”

A light has gone out.

A wife has lost a husband.

A sister has lost her brother.

A family has lost its patriarch.

Children have lost a champion.

The birds have lost a watcher.

He is worth every tear.

He is irretrievable.

Until, we meet in heaven.

About Jean Ellen Whatley

Writer. Dreamer. Sometimes schemer. Journalist/memoirist/observer and sometimes constructive irritant. Prisoner of demon muses. Mother to four humans and two dogs. In my spare time, I delete phone numbers of former boyfriends.

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  1. Beautifully said. I feel I know Don just a little from your words. I can’t believe you are on your last night away. I thought you were going for months and maybe a year. It flew by. Can’t wait for more stories. And the bigger question, Now What?

  2. Your words are gifts, each wrapped up in a little bow. Gifts given to you by all those who have gone before, God, Don, your experiences, your life. You are now a gift to all of us. Thank you, Jean.

  3. You have been accompanied on your journey. You are an awesome writer, person, sister, mother, person.

  4. Jeannie, Jeannie, Thank-you. In a day so pressed with things to do, I have been busy at work and busy at home, just to have a few moments to stop and think about Don, was a blessing. We miss him so much and your writing and re-hearing your eulogy seemed to bring him closer to us. Thank-you so much for your beautiful words. This journey that you have been on, has become our journey too. So Thank you.

  5. I’ll have more to say after I finish wiping my eyes. Jean, thanks for traveling for the rest of us who weren’t brave enough to get free this summer.

  6. What a moving tribute. I feel as if I knew him. Just wonderful and full of love. I wish he’d been there in person, too, but it’s for sure that such a strong spirit definitely followed and helped to guide you on your journey.

  7. God bless you. :-)