"I've been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it's about ... forgiveness."
"Heart of the Matter"
On Sunday, I wrote about the death of a man I knew as the father of friends from my childhood in Arkansas.
At the time, I knew little about the circumstances that led to his death. I knew he was 85 and that he had been struggling with health issues, but I didn't know the nature of his health problems. I also knew that he had killed himself and that his body had been discovered on Saturday morning.
In recent days, I've learned more details. I have learned that the funeral will be tomorrow afternoon. And I have read numerous articles about the life and career of this man — Justice Jim Johnson. He was something of a notorious Southern political figure when I was a child, an outspoken segregationist, and I've been reading comments that have been posted on blogs in my home state in the days since his death.
When I was young, I guess I was aware of how controversial he was. I knew more about that as I got older, but by that time his political career was pretty much over.
I don't remember ever listening to one of his political speeches or observing him on the campaign trail so I never really saw him as a politician. From the accounts that I have read, he was pretty fiery in campaigns so it doesn't surprise me, on the occasion of his death, that some people still harbor resentments that are decades old.
What has surprised — and, frankly, shocked — me is the venom that many people have unleashed. Never mind that a man is dead and his family and friends are grieving.
Last night, I encountered a lot of this venom at a blog on the Arkansas Times website. I learned some specifics about Justice Jim's last days — and I also learned that his son, Danny, my childhood schoolmate/playmate, had been staying with him and apparently was the one who discovered his father's body.
It is an image I cannot shake from my mind. The article says Danny didn't hear the gunshot during the night so I presume that, when he got up that morning, he didn't have any idea what awaited him.
In my mind, I can see him walking into his father's bedroom, perhaps asking his father if he was hungry and stopping in the middle of his sentence after seeing his father's bloody and lifeless body. I can imagine his sharp intake of breath as his mind tried to absorb what he was seeing, followed by a barely audible, "Oh, Daddy." Then what? Did he sit down and weep for his father before picking up the phone to call the authorities? Did he call his brothers first?
If he didn't call his brothers before the authorities were summoned, was his mind working overtime, going over all the things that needed to be done, all the people he needed to contact, while he told the officers what he knew?
I don't know.
Maybe it seems strange that my memories of Jim Johnson are not political, but, really, they aren't. They're personal. It was that way even the last time that I was in contact with Jim and Virginia. It was nearly 15 years ago, when my mother died in a flash flood. I stayed with my father that summer, and we received a beautiful letter from Jim and Virginia. I was so touched that I sent a grateful reply, which prompted them to send another letter.
Neither of their letters said anything about politics. Both were relatively brief, but the conclusions said everything old friends needed to hear at such a time — "We love you."
Not long after that, Danny's twin brother, David, called. It was the first time we had spoken in several years, but we must have talked for a couple of hours that night. Two old friends talking. One doing his best to ease the other's burden.
There aren't many details from that conversation that have stayed with me, but I do remember talking about the flood that took my mother's life and the things that I had been doing to help my father, who had been injured in the flood.
And I remember telling David, "I hope you never have to go through anything like this." I meant that. But, in spite of my best wishes, I have to think he and his brothers have now been through worse. They lost their mother to lung cancer a few years ago, and now they've lost their father to suicide.
I wish I could be at the funeral tomorrow, if only to give them some of the comfort their parents' letters gave me. I'd like to tell them that I love them and that I loved their parents. But I'm sure they already know. And I'm equally sure that many people will be there. I have no doubt that the Johnsons will feel the love of many, many friends tomorrow and in the days, weeks and months ahead.
So today, my hope is for all the people in my home state who continue to hold grudges against Jim Johnson. I hope they will find it in their hearts to forgive him.
Because, in the words of the Don Henley song, that is what I think it's about. Forgiveness.