It was February 2, 2003. Sunday evening. Jack and I had gotten up that morning at 3:00, on purpose, to take a bus from our motel room in Indiana, Pennsylvania, to Punxsutawney for the predawn Groundhog Day festivities on Gobbler’s Knob. I had told stories as part of the festival the day before. Four hours of sleep. Several hours stomping numb feet in a frozen mist with 25,000 other idiots waiting to hear what a groundhog had to say about the next six weeks’ weather. Then, a long, cold, grey ride home.
Is any time of day more lonesome than dusk?
From the front door I could see the message light blinking on my telephone. Four calls, all from the same number in some area code I was unfamiliar with. Four messages spanning Friday evening to Sunday morning. It was the same voice, but the tone the messages got tighter and more agitated.
“This is Mary (someone whose name I didn’t recognize). Would you call me please? It’s kind of urgent.”
“This is Mary (unfamiliar name). I really need to talk to you.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to call if it wasn’t important.”
“I’m Jack Knutson’s mother. I’d really appreciate it if you’d call me back. Call me collect.”
I stood there in my coat, my bag still hanging off my shoulder. As I dialed, something told me to sit down. I knew this wasn’t going to be good news.
“Mary, it’s Megan Hicks. I’ve been out of town, and only just this minute got your messages. Is Jack all right?”
She told me Thursday morning the housekeeper had found him dead in his bed.
“They’re sayin’ probably a heart attack. No tellin’ though, really.”
She said she had gone down to Oklahoma City to clean out his room and gathering his belongings…
“…I found his address book, and there was your number in it. I thought you might be interested to know he had passed. I mean, for years now, whenever I talk to him it’s Megan this and Megan that, and, well, he just thought the world of you, so I thought maybe you’d like to know.”
I thanked her for calling. I told her I thought the world of her son. That he was one of the most remarkable people I had ever known.
“Well, he was something else, now wasn’t he?”
If I asked about funeral or burial plans, I’ve forgotten what she told me. It wasn’t a long conversation.
“You were just important to him. I thought I’d let you know.”
When I hung up, Jack touched my shoulder and asked, “Dead?”
I nodded. And while he sat on the footstool holding my hands, I sat in the big brown chair and told myself the news could have been so much worse.
That time when he called to tell me he might be going to jail, I entertained visions of Paperman locked up with people against whom he couldn’t defend himself. In a previous post, I think I used the descriptors “incarcerated, warehoused, exploitable, discarded.”
It was only several days after I had written that string of words that it occurred to me that’s exactly what had happened to him.
I believe Jack Knutson died of criminal neglect. For months before and after our final visit, he talked about how he could only see his shrink once a month now, then every six weeks, then…every three months. His social worker had taken on so many more cases that she couldn’t see him as often, either. All those prescription bottles on top of his dresser! I don’t know from pharmaceuticals, but my Jack does. When we left Paperman’s room that last time, he looked at me with big eyes and said, “He’s got some pretty heavy duty shit there.” And I wonder who knew exactly how much of what Paperman was taking? When was the last time his heart had been checked? His last blood work? Dental checkup?
Still. He was just dead. It could have been a whole lot worse.
Dead was better than injured and helpless, on welfare in Oklahoma City. Dead was better than obeying the voices in your head that tell you all the different ways you need to mutilate yourself. Was dead better than another forty years of group homes, bad diet, failing health, and anti-psychotic drugs? Jack would have opted for “not dead,” no question. This was the only life he knew, and he had learned how to enjoy it. All he needed was a stack of paper.
The following Saturday morning I woke up, disoriented, at 8:00 when the phone didn’t ring. And then I remembered, Oh. That’s right. Paperman won’t be calling anymore. And I turned over and went back to sleep.
What Jack and I shared was a small friendship. It wasn’t deep, it wasn’t broad, but it had longevity. He was like a neighbor — someone you know for years by virtue of inhabiting common ground and probably wouldn’t know otherwise. Our common ground was a square of paper … because in that simple, unremarkable form, he and I both saw infinite potential.
Jack taught me everything I need to know about making art. For thirteen years I had regular glimpses into the life of someone whose urge to create was so strong it overrode anti-psychotic drugs. His delight was in the creation, and once the creation was done he laid it down (or mailed it to me) and went on to create something else and something else and something else again. Maybe someday he’d be a famous “origamist.” Maybe someday he’d get a driver’s license and drive a car. Maybe someday he’d buy his mom a house where they could live together. Til then, though, it was a thirteen-year string of Saturday morning announcements: “Hi Megan, it’s Paperman, guess what I came up with this time!”