Staff column

Memories of big-hearted man loom large

By Ann Macari Healey
Posted
Ann Macari Healey

The massive oak bends over a small gray home on the corner of a quiet Long Island street, its strong, leafy branches casting cool shade over friends and family gathering in the yard.

Small American flags line the sidewalk, and a larger one hangs by the front door. Above the garage is a fading banner that proclaims Old Glory, USA, Liberty.

Nancy Nyhuis greets her guests warmly, with a quick, welcoming smile that also imparts a sense, a shadow, of sadness behind it.

A white limo party bus pulls up to the house and the group of 24 piles in, chattering, laughing, squeezing next to each other on long seats illuminated by a string of blue lights.

Nancy stands in front of the group, a glass of wine in her hand.

"First of all," she says, "thanks, everyone, for being here. I have a picture of John in the back ..." She pauses as tears fill her eyes. "This has been a bad day for me because it's so final. But I'm glad you're all here."

Someone pops in a CD of her husband's favorite music and the lyrics of a lilting country song that tells of a simple man loving his "helluva life" fills the bus. Everyone cheers and holds drinks high in a toast. The driver shifts the bus into gear toward the first of four stops.

And, on this warm June day, almost four months after his death, John Devlin's final wish unfolds.

"It's what he wanted," his sister, Jennifer Zarcensky, says. "To have a party."

That's the kind of man John was - brash, rowdy, opinionated, funny, full of passion for life and those he loved. He liked a party. He also was the kind of man who showed up at Ground Zero the day after the heartrending devastation and who stayed there for 9½ months, seven days a week, 12 hours a day, operating the heavy machinery that removed the rubble that contained, not only the concrete of the towers, but also the remains of those who had worked in them. He loved his country.

In the end, patriotism killed John.

In 2009, he was diagnosed with Stage IV inoperable throat cancer, most likely, doctors said, a result of breathing the toxic dust that permeated the site. The cancer is often associated with longtime chain smokers, but John never smoked. After a grueling regimen of surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy treatments that left him in constant pain and unable to eat solid food, John - a once-brawny 270 pounds with a scraggly mustache and goatee - shrank from an XXL- to an M-sized T-shirt and died March 11. He was 53.

Until his death, and with others from police and fire organizations, he fought loud and hard for the federal government to recognize and be accountable to the many first responders, including the heavy machine operators like him, who were becoming ill and dying because of their work at Ground Zero.

And yet, knowing the outcome, he had no regrets.

"John and I went there together," friend Kevin Cullimore, also a heavy machine operator, says. "It was just a calling, as an American."

A traditional Mass was held for John soon after his death. But John wanted to go out on sounds of laughter. So he planned this celebration. Those who have come represent markers of John's existence, a timeline of people that dates back to childhood and spreads through every trail of his life. They include me and my husband, whose sister-in-law is Jennifer.

The bus pulls into a nearly empty parking lot at Gilgo Beach, a tranquil stretch of white sand and low dunes on Long Island's south shore where John played as a child, where he later brought his two children, where he would whip out his harmonica and join the bands playing there on weekends.

His son, Matt, 19, tall, blond, steps down from the bus. On the right side of his chest, under his arm, is a tattoo of a Native American woman wearing an eagle headdress, the image of the medallion his dad always wore.

Matt likes the idea of this traveling wake.

"When Dad found out he had cancer, he threw a pre-chemo party." His dad, Matt says, defined optimism. "He said as long as you stay happy and positive, good things will come your way. It might take a while, but it will come."

The group treks past beach-goers sitting under umbrellas and playing volleyball. Children dig holes that catch water from the incoming surf.

Eddie Jr., a fourth-generation son of the family who owns the inn at the beach, grabs his surfboard and approaches Nancy. She gives him a small green tin with some of John's ashes.

"I'm going to go past the waves," he says, "then I'm gonna turn around and face the group."

He paddles through the surf with his right hand, the tin aloft in his left.

"Matthew," Nancy calls, looking around for her stepson. "Where's Matt?"

Matt moves toward Nancy, who is tightly holding the framed picture of John to her chest. They put an arm around each other.

Eddie Jr. turns his surfboard toward shore. Like a trail of dust in the soft breeze, John's ashes scatter into the air and drift down into the water.

Matt and Nancy hug. Tears well throughout the group.

"I saw him healthy, going down," says his sister, Jennifer, older by three years. "He really fought it. He really put up a fight ..."

Back on the bus, the 1970s Southern rock tunes "Ramblin' Man" and "Ghost Riders in the Sky" generate an enthusiastic sing-along.

Second stop: Sea Breeze, a quaint bar near the Babylon town pier that in the early 1900s was the hangout of local clammers. It's small, with a wooden ceiling, a pool table, a dartboard and a line of stools at the long, acrylic-topped counter on which Nancy places John's picture. The bartender sets down a shot glass of Jack Daniel's in front of it.

"He was my best man," says Tim Cunningham, John's friend since they were 5 years old. "We've been through thick and thin together."

And "I love remembering him," he says. "When he walked into a room, he had such a commanding presence. He controlled any party. He was always so funny and he always had a good joke to tell. Even if he insulted you in some way - and he did - he had a way to make it better."

About 45 minutes later, the group climbs back on the bus.

Third stop: Mustang Sally's, a long, narrow dive in a nondescript shopping strip in Bay Shore, flanked on one side by an ice cream shop and on the other by a convenience store. Inside, jerseys of the New York Jets - John's favorite team - and the New York Giants hang on one wall.

Kevin sits at the bar, nursing a beer. He remembers how he and John met - in a fistfight related to work that Kevin initiated. John knocked Kevin down several times, then looked at him.

"Are we going to do this again?" he asked Kevin. "Or are we gonna have a beer?"

They had a beer. And "we were buddies from then on."

He worked alongside John at Ground Zero for just as many months. He still has a bag of clothes from those days that he opens every now and then. "I don't know why, but smelling it sometimes, it brings me back to earth."

He is 51 and has two children, ages 5 and 6.

"I look at my kids," Kevin says. "It scares the hell out of me. ... I try not to think about it." Then, again, softly, "I try not to think about it."

On the bus, Lenny Martinez, once John's partner in a contracting business, leans back on the seat. As another country tune starts up, he tries to blink back tears. He takes off his glasses, wipes his eyes, hugs his wife.

"Every time I get back on the bus, I start crying," he says. "He was king of the prom. ... He would get everybody together. It's kind of sad - they say the good die young. If I can affect half as many people as he did, in my lifetime, I feel my job is done."

The bus pulls into an empty lot across the street from The Southside Hotel, a red brick restaurant-bar in Bay Shore that has been around since Prohibition days. Stories about John flit around the small tables in the wood-lined colonial-style bar.

Lenny is smiling, remembering how, at Lenny's wedding, John, a top hat on his head and cane in his hand, pretended he couldn't see as he walked into the reception hall. How the crowd laughed.

Lenny laughs, too. He also remembers John's resolute sense of duty: "He was an average lunchbox guy. He said, 'I got to go.' Most people wouldn't do that."

John's boisterous 75-year-old uncle, called Uncle Dave by all, raises his glass and bellows:

"To John, my nephew. I loved him dearly and I know you guys, did, too. Salut!"

The room echoes.

On the bus, Nancy finds her seat. The afternoon has been difficult, but good, too. Plenty of tears, but also so much laughter, so many warm remembrances, so much loving comfort.

As the strains of a song begin, Nancy jumps up excitedly. It is "Compass" by Lady Antebellum. Everyone seems to understand and the bus fills with exuberant voices and clapping.

Yeah, it's been a bumpy road, roller coasters high and low

Fill the tank and drive the car, pedal fast, pedal hard

You won't have to go that far

If you want to give up cause it's dark, we're really not that far apart

So let your heart, sweetheart, be your compass when you're lost

And you should follow it wherever it may go

Nancy is swaying, letting the music and words take her someplace else. The necklace she made from her and John's wedding rings hangs around her neck - inside John's simple circular band is hers, shaped into a heart, the diamond nestled at the point.

In the moments before John died, he looked at her and said, "This is my send-off song to you. Listen to every word."

When it's all said and done, you can walk instead of run

'Cause no matter what you'll never be alone

Never be alone, oh-oh-oh

Never be alone, oh-oh-oh

Nancy's smile lights her face as she sings. Her eyes close and her arms reach toward the sky.

She is listening.

Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. Her column earned first place in the 2013 Colorado Press Association Better Newspaper contest. She can be reached at ahealey@coloradocommunitymedia.com or 303-566-4110.