“Life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue.”
A Boy Named Sue – Johnny Cash 1969
The first thing I noticed was a cluster of women from Susan’s Sunday School class hovering around her on the steps of the church. From the truck where I sat waiting on her, she looked emotional and I could tell she had been crying, but then she had been that way earlier in the morning as we sat in the 9:15 service, and truth be told since her cancer diagnosis last fall … well, for either of us to be emotional or even teary-eyed at church was not so unusual. So, I was uneasy but not alarmed initially. Susan saw me and started to walk over, accompanied by a lady from class. By the time she opened the passenger door, I could tell something more was wrong.
Life sure ain’t easy today.
John Stephen Sams was my wife Susan’s youngest brother, and he died in his sleep overnight on June 29, 2014. He was 36 years old. He leaves behind his wife Corinna, his mother and father Paulette and Melvin, his older siblings Mary, Susan, and Russell, his in-laws, and nine nieces and nephews.
He also leaves a hole in our lives and in our hearts.
Stephen was 10 or 11 years old when Susan and I started dating, and from the get-go he was the little brother I never had growing up (even though I was just old enough to have been his dad too). Driveway basketball games, shooting pool in the basement, getting crushed and humiliated in video games by the little Techmo Bowl wizard that he was, laughing over lines from The Simpsons, or lyrics from a song we found funny (one night when Susan and I lived in Carrollton, Stephen and I doubled over on the floor guffawing trying to recite the words to Johnny Cash’s classic A Boy Named Sue) … there might have been a time I was around Stephen and we didn’t laugh and have fun, but none come to mind easily.
Stephen was the baby of his family, seven years younger than his brother Russell, and the pet of sisters Mary, Susan, and everybody else in the family. Stephen was 20 or so when my son Luke Jackson was born (the first grandchild on Susan’s side of the family), and Stephen once playfully chided me, asking what took us so long because he was glad to get some of the attention off him. He meant it too.
Susan and I were working on academic degrees during most of Stephen’s teenage years. I was a graduate assistant teaching physical activity classes at Georgia and then at Tennessee, and the timing and setting could not have been better for a teenage boy. Stephen spent spring breaks with us on occasion, and visited other times too. He would tag along to my racquetball and bowling classes, and so enjoyed playing and competing with those college kids. After a couple of years, he never seemed to mind when I put him on a court with the prettiest girls in class either. At UT, we lived in a small married housing apartment near campus with an extra bedroom that Stephen bunked in on his visits. Susan worked from 9 to 5 at the university, but my schedule was really wide open because I was writing a dissertation on my own schedule and only teaching a couple of hours a day. Stephen and I would walk to my classes; when we finished he would be so sweaty he looked like he’d just come of out a steam room (from playing racquetball non-stop the whole time), we would go grab lunch with Susan or just the two of us, then he and I would spend the afternoon playing video games back at the apartment. Nearly every time he visited, we rented some game called Metal Marine; it was one of those military affairs where you had to build up your weaponry over time (literally hours and hours). We would spend all our efforts building an ICBM nuclear device … and then immediately detonate it to blow up all our enemies and start over.
As Stephen got older he developed into an elite level golfer. Susan and I graduated and started our professional and home life, so we didnt get to see Stephen as often.
Still, his parents rented a beach house in the panhandle of Florida nearly every summer, and Stephen, Russell, Mr. Sams, and I would often make a golf foursome. Stephen and I would team up against Russell (also an outstanding golfer) and his dad (a very good golfer) in scrambles matches. The matches were fun and they were close and competitive. Stephen could hit the ball farther than anybody I ever played with (by far), so I was getting to hit into Par-4 greens from 50 or 60 yards instead of 160 (and from the fairway instead of the woods). Man, he could hit a golf ball. In high school, he won the Georgia state championship in the state’s largest classification. We had a lot of fun on those golf outings over those precious summers.
Life goes on (too fast) and all our families settled into the routine of seeing each other mostly on holidays, birthdays, and at special occasions – whether happy (weddings) or sad (funerals). No matter the setting, for me time spent with Stephen was always time spent laughing, discussing life, and enjoying his kind-hearted nature.
Now, he is gone and he will be so sorely missed by so many.
Life ain’t easy.