A Turtle’s Tribute:
I knew Jeff Surber since 4th grade. We got to be really good friends when we were in High School when a bunch of us guys and girls, hung around, going to movies, games, dancing at the ‘Disco Loft’ in downtown Crawfordsville, Indiana and having parties at our parents houses.
Jeff & I both graduated from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana where we roomed together one summer. After graduation he headed to Indianapolis and then down to Dallas and I headed to California.
I got to see him most Christmas’s since we came back ‘home’ to visit our parents and we talked frequently throughout the years. He and Coy made a beautiful couple together. I stopped at their stylish home a couple of times on my trips from LA to Indiana. They were always the hosts with the Most!!! Jeff had such an infectious laugh and you couldn’t help but being in a better mood when you were around him. Sincerely, John
As taken from The Cathedral of Hope Web Site Memorial by permission of Mr. Coy James.
Jeff was born April 13th, 1961 to Ron and Jan Surber of Crawfordsville, Indiana. He was the second boy; and, in addition to his older brother Greg, he was soon to be joined by brother Mike and sister Janna Kay.
Their home was full of laughter and love. It was from this beginning that Jeff got the values that made him what he was throughout life – one who could light up a room with his laughter, enjoying each day to the fullest, and doing what he could to make the world a better place.
He had such strength of character and a determination to make the best of what life brings. This would serve him well years later when he faced the catastrophic news that he had tested positive for HIV.
Jeff was the usual boy growing up doing all the things boys do and get in trouble for. He was in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts; he was very active in his church and church choir. He was an honor student his junior and senior years of high school. He loved doing plays and musicals. There was one play called “Lily, The Felon’s Daughter” and Jeff played Compton, Lily’s son. The playbill described the character as being “as handsome as a Greek god” – great casting huh.
Jeff had an unintentional flair for entertaining his family and friends. Jan tells this story. “We used to call him ‘Mr. Gullible!’ One evening when Jeff was about eight years old, our phone rang. He answered and was all excited trying to tell his dad that the President was on the phone! When Ron took the phone, sure enough it was Mr. Nixon – a fellow lodge member, who Jeff thought was the President of the United States. We laughed about that a long time.”
Mike tells this story, “I can’t be sure of the dates and ages, I was pretty young at the time. But one morning we had a really bad storm. Dad was at work. Mom had all of us in the basement due to the severity of the storm. Greg – Mr. Always be-prepared, disappeared back upstairs. He was gone for a few minutes and then returned – with Dad’s chain saw, muttering something about ‘If this house falls down, I’m going to find a way out.’ The weather continued to worsen, the tornado alarms in town were sounding, and from the basement windows you could see trees leaning and leaves whipping around. Seat cushions from the back patio were rolling down the driveway like tumbleweeds. Meanwhile, Jeff was running around the basement Yelling, ‘Auntie Em!!, Auntie Em!!’ It wasn’t so funny at the time, but we’ve laughed about it ever since.”
A funny/not so funny thing happened, during finals week, when Jeff was at Ball State University. Jan recalls, “It was on s Sunday morning and we were at church when we received a phone call from Jeff. He was having an appendicitis attack and they were taking him to surgery at Ball Memorial Hospital. At the time he was calling us, he was on a gurney on the way to surgery.
Only Jeff would find a phone on a gurney on the way to surgery. By the time we arrived at the hospital, which was two and a half hours from home, he was already out of surgery and in his room. Finals were delayed, but everything ‘came out’ fine.”
Jeff had a way of making an impression on people; he certainly made one on me. My mother always told me that I should meet someone nice at church. Jeff Surber probably wasn’t whom she had in mind, but that’s exactly what happened. It was April of 1988 and I was singing in the choir of what was then MCC Dallas. We were preparing the music for the special Easter services. Jeff was working in the sound booth. One of my friends whispered, “I know someone who thinks you’re cute.” In spite of thinking I’m way to adult for this – I listened with a great deal of interest. “Do you know Jeff Surber?” he continued, “He’s the guy in the sound booth with the beautiful smile.” I’d always thought that love at first sight was such a hokey sentiment, but from the moment I saw him, I was a goner. Jeff was just the sort of person you couldn’t help but like. He was funny, interesting to talk to, fun to be with, and he did have such a beautiful smile. We had lunch together April 17, 1988 and were inseparable from that day on. Jeff moved into the small one bedroom condo apartment that we shared for almost four years.
I’m sure you’ve seen or known couples who are so in love and focused on each other that it nauseates everyone around them. I’m embarrassed to confess we were that sort of couple. Our first separation for business travel or holiday travels to our respective homes caused a crisis that was only mitigated by three digit phone bills.
One of my favorite Jeff stories happened when we were only a few weeks into our relationship. Jeff had borrowed one of my ties to wear to church. This was a favorite of mine – I had paid too much for it at Neiman’s. Jeff liked the tie too, but was a little nervous wearing it because of the price. For those who know Jeff – he had already taken control of our household budget and Neiman Marcus was now off limits, I couldn’t even park at that end of North Park Mall. The morning that Jeff wore my favorite tie, he was also still working sound for the church. Feeling especially confident that day, he began busily connecting microphone cords to the appropriate places in the sound board. To accomplish this, he had to reach through a small window at the back of the sanctuary and practically stand on his head to reach the connectors. He was so pre-occupied he didn’t notice a small votive candle sitting in that window. When he stood up the tie was on fire. I’m surprised more people didn’t hear him screaming and running back and forth across the back of the church hitting himself with a hymnal trying to put the fire out. I’ll spare you all the catty comments from the crowd. He was so embarrassed and just knew I would divorce him for burning up my favorite tie.
We had been together almost a year when Jeff discovered one morning that he had shingles. He was so afraid that this meant something more serious. We went to the doctor together for our first HIV test. We vowed to each other that day that whatever the results, we would be there to see each other through whatever was ahead. His test came back positive.
In 1989 AZT was the only medication available that was thought to be somewhat effective. The side effects were so severe he couldn’t tolerate it. For the next five years he would struggle with the effects of one drug after another. Trying every possible means to fight the battle for his life. For five years he also struggled with how he was going to tell his parents – not only that he was gay, but also that he had AIDS.
He was a courageous man. He rarely complained. Rather, he was determined to live each day to the fullest, no matter how many days he had. He would not permit himself any self-pity, and was determined to continue with life as if this disease had no power over him. I’m convinced this attitude is really what kept him alive so long. He was a fighter.
As a part of our renewed focus on embracing and experiencing life, we joined the Turtle Creek Chorale, and spent eight years singing our hearts out. We loved the fact that we were not only making beautiful music, but that we were also doing our part to make a difference in the world. Particularly rewarding was the TCC European tour in 1995. We traveled to Barcelona, Berlin, and Prague singing concerts and donating the proceeds to AIDS organizations in the various cities.
Jeff was always getting “the look” from Dr. Seelig during rehearsals. Jeff, John Thomas, and Jim “Buffy” Fredricks loved to make jokes. Jeff would always get caught. The first opportunistic infection came in February of 1994. Pneumonia caused his first hospitalization; and of course, he was allergic to the preventative medication. He finally had to tell his parents the news. It was like a great weight was lifted tell his parents the news. It was like a great weight was lifted
off his shoulders, he would later tell me.
Having the unconditional love and support of his family was an important part of the healing
process. His entire family came to his side, and also accepted me as part of the family.
He slowly recovered, but we both knew greater battles were ahead. I finally convinced him that he should take disability leave from his job at Nissan. Sitting at home, however, was not his style. He spent the next five years of his life continuing his volunteer work at the Cathedral of Hope. He was a part time bookkeeper, he answered the phones as an “Office Angel”, and counted Sunday offerings.
Five years later Jeff’s quality of life had deteriorated to the point that he was in constant pain, not able to eat anything, the only thing keeping him alive was a 24-hour nutritional IV.
So, with the same courage and determination with which he lived his life, he decided to discontinue all treatment and begin hospice care at home.
The constant prayers and support of family and friends sustained us through those last two weeks and continue to help me and all of Jeff’s family carry on without him.
Soon after Jeff’s death the following e-mail, written by Reverend Piazza, was sent to the Cathedral of Hope devotionals mailing list:
“I was thinking today about my friend Jeff. He died a couple weeks ago and so he has been on my mind a lot lately.
Jeff fought to live with AIDS and got very little help in the battle from medical science. Oh, everyone tried, but nothing seemed to help. In fact, the medication often just made him worse. Still he fought harder than anyone I know and he lived a good life for nearly a decade after he first got sick.
In the end, he came to the place where the nutritional IV he was taking was all that was keeping him alive. That wasn’t how he wanted to live. He talked to his partner, his family, his friends, and his pastor (me) and then he terminated all treatments except those that made him comfortable.
The night I went to his home to plan his memorial service was the first night he had turned his life support off. It would take another two weeks for his body to give up the fight. I’ve thought a lot about those last two weeks. Would I have had Jeff’s courage? In theory I agree completely with the choice he made. In theory it is the exact same choice I would have made… I think.
I keep wondering if as I slipped away I might not have changed my mind. Just one more day … I probably would tell myself. Where did Jeff find the courage to give up the fight? He had faith in God’s goodness and grace and ultimately he literally gave himself to that good God.
Often, I hear preachers legalistically pronouncing what faith is and is not. Now, when I really want to know what faith is, I think I’ll remember Jeff. He made the choice to truly trust the God some of us just talk about.
Prayer: Loving Lord, I say that I have faith, yet do I really believe in you enough so that my faith influences how I live my life and what choices I make? Give me the courage to truly lean upon your love and mercy. Help me grow in my knowledge and love of you so that my faith in you may grow as well. Amen.
This Turtle Sponsored by: Andy Steingasser