Memories Stories

The time that…

Did I ever tell you about the time that Jeff got beat up by a biker gang?

And to clarify: we’re not talking about people on bikes. We’re talking about people on motorcycles.

Here’s how my version went. I was asleep. I was living either at home in Greenwood, or maybe I had moved to Fishers by then. I got a call at midnight or 1 a.m. It was Jeff. All he said – through gasping for air and some serious shuffling in the background – was this: “JESS! I just got beat up by a biker gang, but I’m okay! I’ll call you later!”

He hung up the phone, and I thought, “HUH?!”

I said, “WAIT! WHAT HAPPENED!”

But he had hung up.

He had woken me from a dead sleep. I sat ramrod straight in bed and tried to think through what he had said.

First, he was okay. Alright. There was that.

Second… a BIKER GANG?!

Here was the scene: Jeff was still working for Kiewit, and was in charge of concrete at a power plant in Iowa. Going to visit him was… an experience. Truly. You went shopping for clothes at the Farm and Fleet. You had breakfast at Hy-Vee. And we went to dinner at Applebees. There was an A&W Root Beer right across from Jeff’s townhome, that he shared with three other guys. We had a ton of fun!

When I’d go visit, Jeff inevitably would work on Saturdays. It therefore fell to me, to claim the couch – and therefore, the TV – for College Game Day and whatever station Purdue played on. Jeff would get home around noon, and we’d watch football. His roommate – who did not attend Purdue – would always try to beat me to the couch, but I could not disappoint. I always beat him to it.

The laborers on this job were… rough. We’d sometimes go to the bars on Friday night after I pulled into town, and a few times, Jeff suggested we leave. He thought the crowd was getting a bit… too eclectic for us to stay there.

So, I shouldn’t have been too surprised to get the phone call that he’d been beaten up by a biker gang. Here was Jeff’s version.

Jeff was out with a friend visiting from out of town. Guys from the job were there. A biker gang showed up. Something like legit Hell’s Angels. One of the laborers had a few too many, and he started mouthing off to the biker guys. Some punches were thrown. The laborer – in Jeff’s words – “was getting wailed on.”

So Jeff – because he was Jeff – jumped into the circle to pull this guy out. He grabbed the guy, and was in the process of exiting the circle of biker guys beating up this guy from the job… when Jeff’s elbow hit JUST the wrong person. The aggression shifted targets: now, it was Jeff.

So he ran.

When he told me about it later, Jeff said that he grabbed the laborer and just ran. He ran and ran and ran.

I think they only got in one or two punches before Jeff made it out of there. So, I’m not sure that you could say he “got beat up” by a biker gang. But it makes for a good story.

And that’s the time that Jeff Thomas got beat up by a biker gang.

Have I told you about the time that I first saw Jeff’s family?

Graduation day, 2004. Purdue. The College of Engineering graduated on Saturday. The College of Liberal Arts graduated on Sunday. So, Jeff was in his cap and gown and walking around campus. I was just taking a nice little stroll when… THERE HE WAS! JEFF THOMAS!

I hid behind bushes. I’m not kidding. It’s equal parts pathetic and hilarious now.

I thought, “Omigod… there is Jeff’s family. There they are. He actually has a family. They’re real people!”

It took another year before I actually talked to them. But now… they’re MY family too! How awesome is that?!

Have I told you about what Jeff did when I finished my master’s degree?

I had made it a non-issue. I wasn’t going to participate in the commencement exercises. Jeff and I were married in July of that year. I had saved one class for AFTER I moved to Illinois and got a job. I love my career, but it has always seemed totally backwards to me that experience and education can actually prevent you from getting a teaching job. So, I finished my last master’s class during my first semester of teaching here… right around mid-December.

Because of the anticipation of Christmas, I didn’t expect anything. Maybe a pat on the back. But I came home from school one day, and there was a bottle of champagne on the table. Jeff was there. I had worked late.

“Wow — that was nice!” I said.

There was a card leaning on the bottle of champagne. I figured it was a congratulations card, and I’d open it; we’d toast; and that would be it.

But when I picked up the card, there was a little teal box hiding under the hypotenuse, between the card and the champagne. It had a white bow. It was from Tiffany’s.

I opened it. I loved it. A bracelet with my birthstone.

And Jeff said, “Omigod — I’m so sorry! It looked so much bigger online!”

I still laugh out loud when I think about that.

Jeff was a fantastic gift-giver. The best.

One year, he gave me a “free day.” He bought me a Kate Spade wallet and filled it with gift cards. What was more fun than the gift was watching him give it to me.

“Okay — so, on your free day, you’ll wake up. And you’ll of course want some breakfast.”

There was a Panera gift card.

“After that, you might need to fill up your car with gas.”

There was a BP gift card.

“And then after that, you’ll obviously need to go to the mall.”

There was a Von Maur gift card; a LOFT gift card; and a Banana Republic gift card.

And so on, and so on. Any other man in the world who has attempted to give gift cards as a present has failed miserably. But Jeff was so thoughtful in how he put it all together; and putting it in the wallet… nice job, JT.

Every night, Jake and I do the same bedtime routine. He gets 7 minutes of story time if he doesn’t take a nap; 12 minutes if he does. After that, we say prayers for people. My kids get to say prayers for 5 people… otherwise, they’d list their entire rolodex of names. Then, they pick one song (usually, it’s “Hail, Hail”… which means it’s the Purdue Fight Song). Then, I lay with them for 2 minutes. How I managed bedtime without an Echo Dot as my timer… I don’t want to remember.

And during those 2 minutes, Jake always asks me, “Mommy… can you tell me a story about Daddy?”

At first, it broke my heart. But now, we use those two minutes to reconnect with Jeff. I sometimes ask Jake to tell me a story.

But Jake’s favorite story is about the first time I ever left him and Daddy alone. Jeff ordered me out of the house to get a pedicure. I looked totally ravaged and worn. It was good advice. In fact, when I was getting the pedicure, the women asked me when the baby was due. An awkward exchange of glances happened after I said, “He was born three weeks ago.”

Any mother has to laugh at that. We’ve all been there.

So there was Jake and Jeff. I’m sure football was on. The pack-and-play was in the family room, and Jeff was changing Jake’s diaper.

I still cannot apprehend the logistics of how this happened, but Jake somehow projectile pooped off the changing table, past Jeff, and onto the floor… at least two feet from the changing table.

We laughed about that as recently as last year. Neither of us understood how it happened. But Jake sure loves hearing about it.

Kate also remembers that Daddy sat in the red, overstuffed glider during bedtime stories. Last night, she asked, “Where is the pink book and the Minnie Mouse book?”

That told me that she really remembers. Because she was obsessed with those two books for several months last year.

I was so sick of reading them. One night, I was impatient with Kate, and Jeff said, “Jess… come on.”

He was right, of course. But what I wanted to say was, “OMIGOD! I DO THIS BY MYSELF EVERY NIGHT!”

I knew part of his comment had to do with the overwhelming guilt for not being the father he wanted to be. But also, Jeff reminded me to make the hard choices to be present; to do the right thing; to lean in to the inconveniences, even when it wasn’t personally beneficial or even enjoyable. Because that’s what you do.

You want to see what kind of dad Jeff was? This video captures it perfectly.

Jeff is gone. But we have his stories. And the kids and I will cling to them. They are as much a part of us as our fingers or hair. I’m glad some of them are written down on Caring Bridge… and on this blog. And I’m so glad the kids and I have each other, to remember this man whom we miss so deeply, and who will continue to shape our lives forever.

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