Many of you know that my good friend, John Helwig, passed away earlier this week from a heart attack at the age of 43. This news has been devastating for me. I can’t remember another time in my life when I’ve cried as much as I have in the last 3 days. Of all the people I’ve ever lost, losing John hurts the most. It’s hard imagining life without him.
I hate funerals that are dry and somber. I hate it when the pastor tries to give a eulogy for a person they didn’t really know. The shock of John’s loss is still so fresh for his family that his sister, Amy, told me she didn’t think anyone in the family would be able to come up with anything to say. I didn’t know what John’s relationship to the pastor doing the service was, but I knew that I couldn’t sit through one of those dry and somber services. I couldn’t let a man who was the polar opposite of dry and somber be sent off that way.
I cried and I prayed for God to give me the right words to help me capture the essence of John’s spirit. And while I was happy with the result, I had a hard time when I practiced reading it out loud at home. I knew I was going to need a little help from above to read it in front of all of those people. I prayed right before I got up to deliver the eulogy.
Dear God – Please give me the strength to make it through the next 10 minutes without crying so that everyone who is in this room will be able to hear and understand what I am about to say.
When the pastor called for people to come up and say a few words, I was the first to step forward. Here’s what I had to say:
I dated Tony for six months before I ever met any of his friends. He talked of this mysterious of group of guys during that time but I had my doubts about whether or not any of them actually existed. When I finally did meet them, I understood why he’d been keeping me away. They were all cute, smart and funny. The type of guys that I would’ve liked if I didn’t already have a boyfriend. And there was no one cuter, smarter and funnier, than Tony’s best friend of all, John Helwig.
Tony and John became friends because they shared a passion for music. John played bass. Tony played drums. And anyone who knows anything about music knows that the bass and the drums are the glue that holds any good band together. So it’s no wonder that they’ve stuck together through thick and thin for nearly 30 years.
There are stories that shaped my impression of John and their friendship before I ever met him. I’d like to share a favorite:
When John and Tony were about sixteen, Tony had 8th row tickets to see Rush. The girl he’d planned to take to the concert, asked to “hold” the tickets until the show. Then she broke up with him and refused to give the tickets back. Tony was down in the dumps about this until John suggested going to the concert anyway. They wouldn’t be in seats that great but at least they’d be seeing one of their favorite bands. After the opening act, they were out by the concession stand and a couple approached them asking if they wanted to trade seats because it was too loud where they were sitting. When they looked at the tickets, they found out that if they traded they would wind up being in the front row. I’ve always imagined this moment like a scene from Wayne’s World. Wayne and Garth flashing their tickets as they made their made to the front row, pausing briefly by row #8 to let that girl who almost ruined the night know that she hadn’t, and by the time she realized they were sitting in the front row, they had ruined hers.
I knew then that John was the kind of friend you’d want to have. The kind that wouldn’t let you wallow in sorrow when you could just as easily be having a good time. Yes, you could be mad. No, it wasn’t fair. Things might suck for a while but if you wanted to have any kind of joy again, you’d just have to roll with the punches and deal with whatever life had to throw at you. And John always seemed to find a way to do that with a smile.
Over the past few days, I’ve been going back looking at pictures and old e-mails, trying to find the words that would sum up the kind of man that John was. I found a joke that he sent to me. And this one really hit home, because I think this one illustrates the different aspects of his personality…the man he wanted to be and the man he was:
Before I lay me down to sleep,
I pray for a man, who’s not a creep,
One who’s handsome, smart and strong.
One who loves to listen long,
One who thinks before he speaks,
One who’ll call, not wait for weeks.
I pray he’s gainfully employed,
When I spend his cash, won’t be annoyed.
Pulls out my chair and opens my door,
Massages my back and begs to do more.
Oh! Send me a man who’ll make love to my mind,
Knows what to answer to “how big is my behind?”
I pray that this man will love me to no end,
And always be my very best friend.
I pray for a deaf-mute nymphomaniac with huge boobs
who owns a liquor store and a golf course. This
doesn’t rhyme and I don’t give a shit.
I think his former girlfriends would agree that he was all of the things listed in the first poem. He was sensitive, kind, and caring. He loved kids and sometimes I think he got along better with the kids than the girlfriends, because he was a kid at heart. John was kind of like Peter Pan. I don’t think he ever really wanted to grow up.
I see a side of John in the second one. The guy who isn’t afraid to tell like it is, whether it is politically correct or not.
I joked with Tony about John being my “back up” husband in the event that something bad ever happen to him. I say this partially because John is the type of friend who would have made sure our kids knew what a great dad they had. But also because John was often a peacemaker. Sometimes he the one who got an earful whenever one of us was mad at the other. Whenever I was the one who had a gripe, he’d always say, “Yeah, well that’s Tony. He’s been like that as long as I’ve known him.” Then he’d start telling me some funny story about something that happened during the course of their friendship and by the time he was done, I wouldn’t be mad anymore.
Remember how I said the bass and drums are the glue that holds the band together? Sometimes, John was the glue that helped his friends hold their lives together. He celebrated with us when we triumphed in good times. And he held our hands and cheered us on in bad times when we struggled to keep moving on.
Finally, I thought I’d read part of an e-mail that John sent me in January of 2010. I picked this one because it touches on all the things that were important to him, in his own words.
I’m writing this email in response to all your sweetness. Thank you for the Christmas card. The Charlie Brown Theme gave me a good grin. I don’t participate in facebook very well. I log on and read other peoples posts and thats all I do!! I like to read your posts.
I’ve been very irresponsible with my credit card debt for about two years and already its showing improvement. I bought some things to make my evenings at home funner. My new PC and bigscreen tv.
My christmas was nice. My dad moved to New Mexico and he traditionally threw big fun x-mas parties. It was the first X-mas not with him. But my sister Amy has her new son Sammy and he’s 3 and a half. He’s GREAT! He made Christmas fun again at my moms. There hasn’t been any little ones at our parties for a long time. He loves his Uncle John. He lives with Amy ( single mom ) about an hour north in Oshkosh. I don’t get to see him often but when I do we have a great time. This year might be the first year I spent more for gifts than I got in return. Most people have this happen at a much younger age. I’m growing up honey.
My job is going well. My job relies on other businesses doing well to keep me busy. Because I’m not married / no family I’m able to be flexible. I can make some money by putting in tons of hours.
I miss you guys down there in Roselle and you are always in my thoughts. I will visit again soon. Your kids don’t know me as well as I’d like. That sucks. Going to change that.
(Note: And he did, he came down to see us a couple of times in the last year and got a chance to bond with our daughter, Linnea, over their mutual love of The Beatles, her piano playing, and most recently, the news that she wanted to learn to play the guitar.)
I could simply drive down and go out with Tony to his gig. Back to the house and crash on the couch. I guess when the weekend comes all I want to do is my shit around here and rest. My dad who I already told you lives in New Mexico sent me a PC cam for X-mas. Are you interested in Skyping with me?
I know you are interested so I’ll share …….. my love life! Dead! I’ve been solo for awhile and its been fine. I tend to throw my cash around alot when I’m hooked up. I’m admittedly terrible with my money. This is one aspect of being hooked up with a GOOD woman that can be beneficial. A good woman can help manage money better than me. I’m beginning to get the itch.
DANG! ( here goes – take another swig from my tall frosty mug of Miller Lite ). NOOO ! no stinkin girls! My 40 inch Sony is so damn cool. Really friggin great! I have plenty of distractions. I would love to take a road trip this winter to visit my dad in New Mexico. A free place to stay out in the desert. Or maybe trip on down to Mardi Gras. I’m going to try and discipline myself and not do anything. Keep working until my debt is reasonable. Its so stupid to pay all that money (in interest) to the bank.
My health is great. My job helps me to keep in shape. I feel good. I haven’t gotten any flu shots yet. Do you think I should? Swine or seasonal? Both? I go so many places everyday and grab a million different doorknobs each week, I feel my system is in good fighting condition. I never call in sick.
Simon and the Barsinisters in Chicago? DANG! We missed it! We had a great time dancin to him in NYC. We coulda danced like that again!
Photo is of Lambau last season. Too bad so sad about Bears. Hmmmm….. am I ripping on Bear fans? I was born and raised a Bear fan. What can I say? I love both teams. Can I rip on Bear fans? Truth be told I have become a Packer fan first and Bear fan second. My fellow pack fans relish in ripping on bear fans. I don’t (much). C’mon! The teams are rivals. Its fun!
Some people may look at John’s life and be sad about all the things that he didn’t do or didn’t have the chance to do, like being more responsible over the years, settling down, getting married and having a family.
I don’t look at his life that way. John lived his life, on his terms, surrounded by people the he loved. That’s what he needed to be happy. Not money or things. Well, except for that 40 inch Sony and an ice cold beer. And he got to see the Packers win the Super Bowl…again.
My daughter asked, “Why couldn’t Uncle John have died in 2050 instead of now?”
And the answer that keeps coming to my mind is, “Would that have made this hurt any less?”
Anytime we lose someone we love it hurts. I think this hurts more because it was so sudden and many of us didn’t have a chance to say everything that was on our hearts. You feel like it would have been easier if you could have just said “I love you” one more time or even a simple “goodbye.”
To John’s parents, I’d like to say thank you for blessing all of our lives with such a beautiful son. To his mom, Joan, thank you for being a “second mom”, opening your home to us and making us feel welcome any time we came to visit. To his sisters, know that he loved you, and was proud of you and your kids. He loved being the fun uncle.
I was telling my mother-in-law that when I think about John, every memory I have is a good one. We laughed and cried over so many things over the years. But no matter the situation, John always had a way of turning it around and finding something positive in it. How many people in life can you say that about?
And to John, I love you. I hope what I’ve said has done justice to the incredible man that you were. This world is not going to be the same without you in it. I’m going to miss you so much. But I am so thankful for the time we had. I will never, ever forget you. And I’m looking forward to the day when I’ll see you again. Watch over all of us until then.
I also read my husband’s tribute to John:
I have to say good-bye to my good friend John Helwig today.
Thanks for never judging me
Thanks for making me feel normal when it seemed I was the craziest person ever
Thanks for talking me into doing the most stupid things I’ve ever done
Thanks for leaning on me when you needed it
Thanks for all the laughs, so many I can’t count them
Thanks for being the one where nothing needs to be said
Thanks for being there all hours when I needed it
Thanks for showing me how to be fearless
So many memories of fun times, laughs, trouble, stupid things, great things, jams…I’ve lost a part of myself today.
I don’t know why God needed a guitar player all of a sudden, but save a spot for me because I’m ready to jam.
Thanks for being a real friend.
And finally, some words from a mutual friend of ours who could not make it to the service:
In the short time I got to actually spend with John,
(although we’ve known each other since High School),
the one thing I remember most, was his wonderful spirit.
He was the easy going one of us all, care-free. There was
never anything, or any song, that he could’nt do or play.
He was the first of my friends to have no fear in learning
difficult music, and not being intimidated by the artist or
their technique.We will all miss his laugh and his crazy
way of making everyone else laugh. Though we might
be missing him, he’s now jammin’ with the angels, and
making them laugh. Thanks John, thanks for being a
wonderful, positive part of my life!
Many people came up to me after the service and that what’d I said was perfect. That I’d even managed to make people laugh and forget for a minute how sad they were. Maybe I was channeling John for a couple of minutes because that’s what he would’ve done in a situation like this. I hope I did him proud. I knew some of his friends from Milwaukee and NYC, but I’m sure you have great stories about him that I’ve never heard. Feel free to post your memories of him here.