A very special birthday gift

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I received word this past Monday that, on Sunday, my first cousin, John Honeycutt, died of complications with pneumonia. My brother, Wayne, who happened to see the announcement on social media called to let me know. I was terribly saddened.

John, or Johnny as the family knew him back in the day, was born on my fourth birthday. He was the first-born of three kids to John and Ruby Honeycutt, Ruby being my mother’s youngest sister.

I remember extraordinarily little about life at age four, but I do remember this even because my mom told me that my birthday present from Uncle John and Aunt Ruby was a brand-new baby boy cousin. At four, I was less than thrilled and complained that I would rather have a toy. He turned out to be a great gift.

Prior to my junior high years, I spent many nights at the Honeycutt home. Since we were just four years apart, we enjoyed doing many of the same things. If my memory is correct, John, the dad, worked at the Tennessee Eastman Corporation but their home was in rural Sullivan County, Tennessee. They had a farm, which I found extremely exciting.

I rode my first horses at Johnny’s home, helped collect eggs from the chickens, avoided the cows, and tried to catch frogs in the pond on the property. The road in front of their house was paved so we, along with Johnny’s two younger siblings, Jeff and Pashia, rode bicycles for miles and miles at a time.

As we got older, I was expected to occasionally help with the tobacco crop on the land, one of my least favorite tasks. One night when I wasn’t feeling well, Ruby medicated me with a spoonful of sulfur, followed by a spoonful of molasses. It was a wonderful time and place to be a kid. John, the father, was a tall, powerful man who was a welcoming presence when I was visiting.

We got older and junior high and high school demanded our attention. Johnny went to Sullivan West High School and was a great athlete. He was also the quarterback for the school’s football team. I was out of high school for a few years when I took my younger brother to watch Sullivan West play cross-county rival Lynn View High School.

As far as I know, Johnny was the only person in our family to play starting quarterback. Both high schools no longer exist, the victims of age (my mother and her sisters went to Sullivan in the 1940s) and school consolidation.

After high school, Johnny graduated from the University of Tennessee, went to work, and got married to Susie Christian in 1984. I moved out of the state eventually and we lost touch. We re-united on social media a few years ago and I discovered that he, too, was a motorcyclist. We talked about getting together sometime and taking a ride. We both thought we had all the time in the world, but, as it turns out, we didn’t.

Johnny, now known to most as “John,” worked for Domtar, a paper company, for thirty years. His wife was by his side when he “became absent from the body and present with the Lord” at the Johnson City Medical Center.

I have been fortunate to have wonderful cousins in my life — my early life especially. Certainly, John was one of the best. Even though we have not physically seen each other in many years, and only a few years ago re-connected, every birthday I thought of him since we shared the day together (along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was born on a January 15). It turns out that he was a great birthday gift to a four-year-old after all.

I do regret that we did not get to take that bike ride together. Vaya con Dios, John. We’ll catch up down the road.

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the pandemic, the church is open at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays but is also live streaming at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life) He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]