>Goodbye Mr. Rogers (Hello Back to the Future Moments)

by jvaragona

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My mother called me early on Saturday to inform me that Mr. Rogers had passed away. I’m not talking about THE Mr. Rogers that most of us love from our childhood. In my neighborhood growing up, we had a lot of kiddie drama. We were always having it out with some family or kid. For a while, it was the Rogers family. When I was much younger, my mom was friends with their mom, Terry, and my brother, Matt, and I hung out at their place with their boys, mainly the 2 out of the 4 that were closest to our age, Mike, born in 1980 like me, and Jeff, who was two years older than Matt, who was born in 1986.

Anyway, at some point, we all just went to war, which basically entailed screaming insults and playing pranks on each other. It got the whole neighborhood of kids involved, so it was very productive.

As we grew up though, things calmed down. Matt started bringing Mike and Jeff around our place and I became good pals with Mike. We hung out fairly often for about a 2 year span, shooting hoops, going to Six Flags, and just doing what kids do. I told him the rhythm of his name was really cool…”Mike Rogers”. He had an odd inflection in his voice, especially when he said “putz”, one of his trademark terms that I have yet to hear someone else use in their regular vocabulary.

In early November of 1996, Mike, Jeff, Matt, and I went down the block to our preschool reunion at Union Nursery School. We obviously weren’t in the same classes, but shared that institution nonetheless. It wasn’t a real reunion, per se, more like we went in the still fairly large gymnasium of our former preschool, looked at some photos on posterboard, and signed another large posterboard of alumni throughout the years.

It was the last time I was to see Mike or Jeff alive.

On November 24th, a Sunday, my family and friends threw me a surprise birthday party. Those are always memorable moments in one’s life, but for myself it became moreso. My party wound down in the early evening. Around 8pm, my brother and parents saw a quick teaser for the 10 o’clock news. Apparently two boys were killed in a single car accident in Webster Groves, which was maybe 2 miles from our home. My parents thought they heard the names as “Michael and Jeffrey Rogers”.

My mother came and told me. My only reaction was to get them to investigate further. You see this was before the time of simply loooking on the news station’s web site. She called the Webster Groves Police Department and they couldn’t shed much light on it. My parents then took a walk down the street to the Rogers’s place in the cold, misty, rainy night. They came back to my brother and I to tell us that the family’s van was there, but Mike’s car was not (he had just turned 16 in September and gotten his car and license at that time). We could only wait for the news.

When the news came on, it was a quick blurb of a story, but confirmed our worst fears with a flash of their photos. I had experienced the first emotional loss of my life. I sat in my room listening to Weezer’s blue album, which I had gotten earlier in the day as a birthday gift, to maybe ease my mind, but all I could do was bawl uncontrollably.

The next day’s Post-Dispatch had a front page article giving more detail to the tragedy. Our friends were riding in Mike’s car, following the rest of the family home, who were riding in the van. They were on their way home from church of all things. Somehow Mike lost control of his vehicle on the mist covered I-44 and went down an embankment, where his car rolled over and up against a tree. The two boys were instantly crushed to death. Their father went looking for them after they didn’t get home. He saw emergency vehicles while retracing the route and knew instantly. He approached emergency personnel and told them that those were his boys.

a more detailed article from the 11/26 St. Louis Post-Dispatch [click on photo to enlarge]

After reading the article, I told my mom that I couldn’t go to school. I even called my friend, Adam, who had met Mike, to tell him I wasn’t coming. My mother ended up pushing me to go. I had bouts of crying in the day, even in front of my religion class with Father McGrath after he asked me how I was in front of the class (generally, not knowing what had happened at all).

I only went to the visitation, which was on my real birthday, two days later, after my mother assured us that, given the circumstances of the accident, it would not be open-casket. As soon as we walked in their church’s lobby area where the wake was, I could see that her assurance was no good. They only looked like fragments of who they were. I couldn’t bare to look longer than it took me to know that it was them. We went to see their mom, Terry. My parents told her that it was my birthday that day. They said I was apprehensive about getting my license now. We embraced. I grabbed her tight, in order to ease her pain and mine, and she said to me, “Go get that license or my boys will haunt you.” It sounds bad, but she meant it in a playful way to help me realize that you can’t let anything hold you back from day to day life.

The next day, before the funeral, I made my father take me to the DMV to get my license. I barely passed, but I did, so that my friends wouldn’t haunt me. I did feel as though they actually were in the car with me for the first year or so. It was very off-putting. When I would drive down the stretch of I-44 where they lost their lives, I would get away from the shoulder and speed by, so not to envision their demise.

Less than 4 years later, my brother, Matt, died from Wegener’s Granulomatosis, a rare vascular auto-immune disease. I suddenly began placing that moment in February of 2000, which was the most traumatic time of my life, with the other episode in November of 1996, when I lost two young people I knew, and thought that I was way too young, myself, to be experiencing so much crap. It is a quick way to make you grow up or mess with how you reach adulthood.

As I bunched those experiences together, I thought of the 4th of July in 1996, when Mike, Jeff, Matt and I sat on a wall in the Rogers’ alley, which intersected with our block. We watched the fireworks display, being put on at the VP Fair or Fair St. Louis, miles away in downtown St. Louis. Their dad, Don, came out and sat with us. It was one of the few times I heard him say more than a few words, and now I can’t even recall what he said, but it was one of those simple times that made me feel like I knew him more and respected him. Looking back, it was also just one of those good times that you remember from your childhood.

When Mike and Jeff died, I remebered that day, and they began to fade. As time went on, it was that memory that helped me remember them though. When Matt died, he began to fade in that memory too. Just thinking of that day, I felt like it was a conspiracy of them against me. Shortly after Matt passed away, I was told that Don had cancer and was given a couple of years to live. I thought of that day even more, realizing the implications. Here was this memory of mine, with myself, three other young people, and one older person. The other young folks were all deceased and now the older would pass on soon enough. I didn’t feel like I would die necessarily, but when you can think of moments involving yourself and multiple other people, and all of those other people are dead, it is a pretty odd feeling. It reminded me of in Back to the Future when Marty has a photo of him with his brother and sister, and after he interferes with his parents meeting, he and his siblings begin to fade from the photo. It’s not exactly the same premise, but the thought always comes to mind.

After hearing the news of Don’s illness, I felt like the family had been dealt too many bad hands. Through it all though, Terry especially, kept a positive attitude, thinking that there was a plan for them. This was and is an incredble feat considering Terry is blind, and has been since birth. Her boys helped her a lot through the years and she lost two of them. After 1996, the family took in little Jeanetta, who as she grows up, brings happiness and a light to a beaten group of people. Needing to do something, I wrote to Oprah to give a Florida vacation to the Rogers family. Unfortunately, Miss Winfrey didn’t respond.

I will say that I feel horrible that I haven’t visited with Terry much since her boys passed away. Even though I’ve now been on that side of loss, I still am uneasy about all of this. My mom, however, has remained a good friend of their family.

So Mr. Rogers is gone now. He lived far beyond his doctors’ prognosis, but the cancer took hold. He had a stroke a couple of days before and never recovered. How much can a family take? Terry has the resilience to get back up and live. I only hope she can remain an inspiration for her two remaining boys, David and T.J., and her daughter, Jeanetta. I will be thinking of them.

I am not so sure I could make it through a time like that, but then again, people said the same thing directly to me after my brother died, even in more direct terms. On occassion, life throws us some crap, and you never really know how much you’re going to get and how you’re going to take it.

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