I can’t remember the first time I met Jon, but that’s because I was only 2 years old when my Aunt Carla brought him home from the hospital.
What I can remember is that, from a very early age, he always felt more like a brother than a cousin to me.
Jon and I always seemed to be there for each other during our highest highs and our lowest lows, our lives woven together like the patchwork quilts of our Appalachian Scots-Irish ancestors.
I was the eldest son of the eldest son, and Jon was the first born son of my father’s sister, who was two years younger than him, just as Jon was two years younger than me.
We both came into this world under less-than-ideal circumstances. My father was shipped off to Southeast Asia to support the Vietnam War efforts just a few hours after I was born, while Jon never knew his birth father.
We both wound up living with our beloved grandparents for a while, creating incredibly strong bonds with them (and between us) that would ultimately last a lifetime and have a profound influence on the men we became.
Jon and I were both sweet-natured, sensitive, somewhat shy, and silly as young boys, perhaps due to the feminine energy of spending our infancy surrounded by our mothers, aunts, and Granny.
We were also both drawn to Grandad, a bearish mountain of a man with a strong work ethic, a successful career, a great knack for storytelling, an infectious laugh, and an affinity for shenanigans we both adored.
Even after our respective parents had moved out, my dad’s 3 siblings and their kids would all get together at my grandparents’ house for every major holiday– birthdays, Mother’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Neither Jon or I had siblings for the first 8-10 years of our lives, so we were really like two peas in a pod.
We both wore hand-me-down clothes, often stained with the remnants of our endless outdoor adventures, with matching “bowl cut” hairdos given by my grandmother.
As my cousins and I look back on our childhood photos now– many of which you can see in the slideshow– you realize Granny was CLEARLY incapable of cutting a straight line!
Whenever our extended family got together, Jon and I would submit to the pleasantries all young kids endure at family gatherings– the pinching of cheeks, the ruffling of hair, the “my how you’ve grown” commentary.
But inevitably we would lock eyes, move away from the grownups, and say, “Wanna play?” And once we were released from our family obligations, we were like Wild Things set free!
Jon and I had a classic boyhood friendship, like Huck Finn & Tom Sawyer or Calvin & Hobbes. I can still picture him as a boy in my mind, his eyes wide, his toothy grin, and his blond hair bouncing in the breeze as we ran off in search of our next adventure.
We were both drawn to nature, especially after Granny & Grandad bought a trailer on Lake Hartwell for our families to share when I was 5 or 6 years old. This was our childhood happy place!
With no phones or video games to distract us, we spent long summer days filled with swimming, picking fresh blackberries, fishing off the dock, jumping into inner tubes and spinning until we were dizzy, cracking each other up to the point of hysterical laughter, and laying next to the open windows at night so the cicadas and tree frogs could serenade us to sleep.
In a conversation a few years before Jon died, we talked about these early childhood memories with misty-eyed nostalgia, and Jon told me that those were some of the best days of his life. Those blissful memories would play a huge role in the men we ultimately became.
One of the first times I remember thinking of Jon as my brother was after he and Carla moved just around the corner from my parents and I in the mid-1970s.
We attended the same elementary school for a while, and I would walk him home every day, since he was two years younger than me and needed to cross a major road to reach his house.
We took a shortcut through the backyard of a house next to the schoolyard, where a couple of teen hooligans ambushed us with pocket knives and demanded our money.
Jon couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 at the time and, as his eyes welled up with tears and fears, I immediately got angry and screamed at them to leave us alone. Over time, that protective instinct only grew stronger, as I realized that Jon looked up to me like an older brother.
Though we played together competitively hundreds of times over the years, shooting hoops, playing soccer, swinging across creeks, taking target practice at aluminum cans and plates with our BB guns, and wrestling as young energetic boys often do, I cannot recall us ever having a major disagreement.
We always supported and encouraged each other, and our fraternal bond only grew stronger over time.
After my grandparents and Jon’s family moved out to the Winder/Auburn area in the early ’80s, living a half-mile away from each other, my summer vacation time with Jon, Carla, and my grandparents became a much-needed escape from the troubles I was dealing with at home.
Jon’s sweet, smiling nature seemed to me like a reflection of his mom’s nurturing love. When I visited them, Carla often treated me more like a son than a nephew, and her deep love for Jon was both evident and inspiring.
I have fond memories of days when I fell and hurt myself while riding Jon’s minibike, and Carla tended to my wounds. Or she would offer to wash our hair in the kitchen sink at the end of a long, sweaty summer day. Maybe this explains why Jon ultimately grew up to be such a devoted father to his daughter, Blair.
By the time we were teenagers, Jon and I had our respective struggles with dominant authority figures, with girls, with bullies, with feeling like odd ducks in our respective social circles.
We still loved playing outdoors every chance we got, but our conversations became deeper and more meaningful. We talked on the phone often, helping each other through clashes with parents (or, in his case, his stepdad), crushes, heartbreaks, and all the usual coming-of-age challenges.
Even in times when it felt like we were all alone in our respective worlds, we always had each other. Jon was my best friend and confidant. He was so thoughtful, considerate, empathetic and, in many ways, wise beyond his years. Even as a kid, he always seemed to have an “old soul,” with Grandad as his #1 male role model.
In early adulthood, I was able to be there for Jon when the relationship between him and his stepfather became too difficult to bear.
He lived with me during a formative time in both our lives, and we became much closer, being at the core of an ever-growing group of oddballs and outcasts who were trying to find our place and our purpose in the world.
When I wound up homeless at age 19 after a series of personal struggles, Jon was the only member of my family who knew where I was, and he told his mom about my dire situation.
Through Jon, Carla reached out and offered me money to get a room at a boarding house, which gave me a base from which I could get back on my feet and ultimately rebuild my entire life. Just over a year later, I was working my way through college.
After all this shared history, it should come as no surprise that Jon was the best man at my wedding in 1991.
He was also the first person who knew about the ever-increasing problems in that marriage. He was one of the first people to hold my daughter Allie in the hospital after her birth in 2001. And he was the first person I told when I decided to file for divorce a few years later.
Now in our mid 30s, we poured our hearts out about our respective life struggles in a way that we hadn’t done in years, and it was then that Jon told me for the first time about a woman he’d taken an interest in, Elizabeth.
Despite being one of the coolest, handsomest, funniest, and kindest men I knew, Jon had only had a few significant relationships at that point in his life. So when he talked about Elizabeth in a way that made it clear that he wanted to be a better man for her, I knew it was really serious.
On our way back home from the mountains, we stopped off at our family’s old property on Lake Hartwell. Our little cove had long since dried up, and the trailer Grandad had bought 30 years earlier had fallen into disrepair. By this point Grandad had been gone for 7 years, and his loss was a big blow to both of us.
Jon and I hugged, and I had tears in my eyes as all the warm childhood memories washed over me. At that moment, feeling scared and overwhelmed by all the changes in my life, I genuinely treasured his companionship, his sage advice, and the strength of our brotherly bond more than I ever had before.
It pains me a little to admit that Jon and I did not keep in touch as much as I would’ve liked in the years after he asked me to be a groomsman in his 2009 wedding to Elizabeth.
Our careers took us in different directions, but both were inspired by our grandparents.
Like Grandad, Jon loved working with his hands, and started his own successful home remodeling business. Inspired by Granny and Grandad’s love of travel, Mary and I launched Green Global Travel and Blue Ridge Mountains Travel Guide, visiting 50+ countries around the world.
Thankfully Carla and Lawayne took up our longstanding family tradition of hosting holiday gatherings at their house after Granny died in 2009. And whenever the Loves got together and Jon walked in the room, I still felt that same old excitement of getting to spend time with my brother from another mother.
We would often talk about our parallel lives as devoted husbands and fathers, about our respective businesses, and about our memories of the good old days, with frequent bursts of laughter and tomfoolery that reminded me of the kids we used to be.
Our childhood days at Lake Hartwell continued to play a central role in our middle-aged lives.
Mary and I keep a boat docked at Lake Allatoona, spending 3-4 days a week there when the weather is warm. And Jon and Elizabeth’s family would all gather at their private lake near Dahlonega almost every weekend, creating magical memories I know Blair and her cousins will treasure forever.
After a life filled with many challenges, it was so gratifying for me to see Jon find his perfect match in Elizabeth. I had never seen him happier than he was with her, until Blair came along and made his life complete. As a doting dad myself, seeing how his smile lit up whenever Blair was around filled my heart with joy.
As we watched Jon take on his 3-year battle with cancer with strength, dignity, and an incredible measure of intestinal fortitude that reminded me of Grandad, it was difficult for me, knowing that this was one adventure I couldn’t join him on, no matter how badly I wished I could be his protective Big Brother again.
And though this insidious disease may have beaten him in the end, I can’t help but be thankful knowing that Jon’s spirit is finally able to run free again.
Free from pain. Free from suffering. Free from worry.
I like to imagine him with his eyes wide, his toothy grin, and his blond hair bouncing in the breeze, rushing towards Granny and Grandad, and the biggest, most beautiful lake you ever saw… –by Bret Love