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It’s a sparkling autumn afternoon in tiny Newbern, Tennessee, population 3,337. The lunch bunch at Mom’s Buffet is perusing the menu of typical Southern cuisine, while down the street and across the railroad tracks over by the train station, sunlight streams through the windows onto the golden oak pews of an exceptionally quaint and charming family-owned mortuary.
An angel mother and those that love her and her now deceased 41-year old son Jay sit and savor the sweet serenity of this long-awaited day. There is tender music from family and Church members, and even more tender talks from family and leaders of the Dyersburg Branch in the Memphis Tennessee North Stake. How they had cherished this delightful and remarkable man, diagnosed with extreme Lymphedema in his early twenties, who spent his entire adult life in a special bed, in a body ravaged by the disease.
“Jay Thompson didn’t have a perfect body. He didn’t have a perfect life. But he had a perfect heart!” grins President Brent Jensen. Family, friends, Church members and LDS missionaries from near and far laugh, nod, smile and wipe away the tears in agreement. Jay is their brother. He is everyone’s brother.
At last a beautiful piano arrangement of Amazing Grace fills the chapel and a benediction begins. Suddenly a roaring train whistle blasts through the little chapel! Startled, we laugh again as we realize that Jay will always have one last joke! Jay gone? Absolutely not! That whistle blast is proof that he’s very much alive and delighted with his life on both sides of the veil.
Jay’s shining testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and his gratitude for the privilege of mortality will always be with those who knew him and those who will come to know him as his story of faith and fortitude, of testimony and trials, of enjoying while enduring is passed on.
It is my great privilege to be able to share this story with Meridian readers this week of Thanksgiving, when all that we know and love is treasured anew through harvest eyes.
My story of Jason Lynn Thompson (April 4, 1975 to September 22, 2016) goes back to a humid Sunday in July while leaving the foyer of the Jackson Ward in Tennessee. “You and Brother Allen will want to make a special effort to get to Jackson General Hospital and meet Jay Thompson,” said Elder Milk, one of the senior missionaries in our Ward this past July. “They’re the only ones with the skilled staff and facilities for when he becomes ill. He’s a an amazing, unique person, and to just walk in his room will be something to treasure.”
What could possibly be so special, I wondered. My husband, the High Councilor for the Dyersburg Branch knew a little. Jay, nearly 100% bedbound for most of his adult life, had acquired Lymphedema throughout his entire body in his early twenties. His benign tumors, weighing up to 150 pounds each, had caused him to weigh 750 to 800 pounds, and sometimes more, though none of his weight was related to obesity.
More remarkable than his condition, we were told, however, was his marvelous spirit and the twinkle in his eye. He was a fairly new member of the Church with quite the conversion story to tell.
Bob and I drove over to the hospital and parked. As we asked for directions to his room, the medical attendants smiled and said, “Jay? Oh, we all love Jay! He’s right down the hall!”
We walked in and there he was. Lying on his back in an oversized bed and covered with a hospital sheet up to his chin, his friendly smile and twinkly, bright eyes were there to greet us and he was eager to get acquainted. While it was true that his large, misshapen body filled the bed, there was no real awareness of that. In a few minutes, his angel mother Pam arrived. She is one of those darling ladies that you feel like you already know from the moment you say hello.
We chatted about the Olympics, the good people in the Dyersburg Branch, the weather, and then asked about how he had come to find the Church. Anyone expecting a quick answer was in for a surprise! Both Pam and Jay loved to talk. Over the next several months, hospital stays evolved into full-time Hospice care at his home. We visited as often as we could to simply be with them and bask in their goodness. Each visit left us with another chapter of their lives.
Jay was the only child of Pam and Eddie Thompson, both from Tennessee. Pam’s pregnancy was uneventful, but little Jay was born on April 4, 1975 with many problems in his hips and legs. He never crawled, and finally walked at age three. Even so, he was a happy, gregarious baby and young child. This was his nature and it never changed. Quite obviously the result was that he was much loved by everyone. When he became old enough, starting at around age seven, numerous surgeries were performed on his hips and his feet to enable easier walking.
During the post-operative care for one of the surgeries, as an adolescent about 12 years old, an unusual, four pound benign tumor was removed from his lower back. No one thought much of it. What became a much bigger problem in the next year or so was the spontaneous breaking of one of his legs as he stood in the kitchen, in the last stages of recovering from a surgery that they thought would be the last. His thigh had snapped and shattered like a match stick. The ensuing recovery for it was long and difficult, lasting nearly another two years. This was life for the Thompsons.
Pam and Eddie were loving parents and good providers. Pam was there at Jay’s side as her little son needed full-time support and care. From an early time, almost from his very birth, she knew that much of her full-time life’s true mission would be to support Jay’s unusual needs that would last, as it turned out, for his entire life. I asked her about it her feelings about this more than once, and her continual, simple response was “It’s what any mother would do. I’m not anything special.”
Their extended families also adored Jay! His delightful, playful and intelligent personality endeared him to everyone. Although there was a great deal of pain and suffering, that’s not what anyone remembers of these years. After the first surgeries, he could walk and get around, but still had many, many hours in bed. He became fascinated with Star Wars. The movies, complex characters and fantasy world brought much needed relief, diversion and entertainment throughout his life.
During this time Pam, Eddie and Jay were active members of The First Assembly of God in Ripley, Tennessee. Unknown to Pam and Eddie, Jay was already interested in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Seeing the ads on TV, his heart had been touched and he wanted to order a Book of Mormon. Not wanting to rock the boat, however, he never said anything.
Jay had been able to attend public school as a young boy, but as his disabilities and surgeries kept him out of school and unable to participate, he eventually began to attend a special school for handicapped children. As a teen and high school-er, he was popular and made good friends, some that would last a lifetime.
In the early 1990’s, Eddie was diagnosed with cancer. Pam’s nursing extended from Jay to her husband as well. These were long days and years for everyone. Now in his late teens, the good news was that Jay, with so many health challenges seemingly resolved, qualified for placement in a residential school for handicapped young men and women that would provide vocational training. It would give him the independence he needed, both by living away from home, and the skills that he would learn. His future looked so bright! It was a very sad day when through a miscalculation of requirements, the school administration determined that Jay was no longer eligible. He called on the phone for Pam to come and pick him up. From one day to the next, he returned home, and never left.
It was during these years, in Jay’s early twenties that more strange tumors, similar to the one that had been removed as a young boy, began to appear all over his body. An especially large one grew between his legs. Doctors diagnosed “Lymphedema” which results from a blockage in the lymphatic system, which is also a part of the immune system. The blockage prevents lymph fluid from draining, and the fluid buildup leads to extreme swelling.
The large tumor between his legs eventually grew to approximately 150 pounds, leaving valiant Jay unable to ever wear anything but shorts or to walk. Eventually he was able to wear only hospital gowns. Though treatment of Lymphedema has changed and improved since the 1990’s when Jay was diagnosed Pam believes he was treated as well as possible for the time.
Pam was only 45 when Eddie died of cancer in 1995, leaving her and their young adult son to mourn his passing. Reality hit the family hard. Pam had to go to work to provide for herself and Jay. She took a job at a local gas and convenience store as a cook and a cashier, working from pre-dawn to mid- afternoon. She worried constantly about Jay at home alone, but there was nothing she could do about it. Adding to to her burdens, her mother became very ill and needed to be placed in a nursing home. Dear Pam cared for them both as best she could. When her mother passed, due in large part to negligence at the nursing home, Pam was awarded a settlement she used to purchase a home with a garage that had been converted to a bedroom, big enough for Jay’s special bed, medical equipment and belongings, including his beloved Star Wars collection. The garage door and driveway were perfect for the times Jay needed medical transport. They were both thrilled.
After ten years of Pam’s employment, Jay came across some information that changed their lives. With his physical condition, they qualified for some additional government funding that allowed Pam to come home! This option had always been available, but they had not known about it. In a remarkable spirit of faith and forgiveness, Pam shrugs and says, “How is anyone supposed to know everything? It’s OK!”
It was a great relief for her to be able to stay at home each day as his condition continued to develop.
More and more tumors appeared and grew. His health declined, but his spirit did not, even when slights and offenses were made due to his appearance. Since he appeared to be a morbidly obese person, rather than one with a strange and severe diagnosed disease, Pam and Jay personally experienced the injustices and prejudices against obese people. Jay did not overeat, nor was he negligent with his health. This was simply the body that was his tabernacle for his journey here on earth. He and the family accepted it as such. True to their inherent natures, Jay remained cheerful, and Pam was forgiving when others, including medical doctors, were unkind about his size, appearance, condition and prognosis.
During one hospital stay, Jay fell. This had happened at home, and, stranded on the floor, he knew exactly what to do and who was needed to help. However, the hospital personnel were determined to do it their way. When nothing worked, Jay laughed and asked for the phone. Dialing 911 he joked, “Whoever thought I’d be calling 911 to get help IN the hospital!” His special team of firemen hurried right over and were able to set the situation right, while everyone present had a very good laugh.
One could believe that he was naïve about his life and future, but his intellect and constant reading proved otherwise. He was very much a people person and great conversationalist. His faith, though unexpressed in an organized church, was still very much intact, even though they had abandoned the congregation they had attended in earlier years. I’m sure that others felt the light of God in his mighty spirit, even before being baptized into to the LDS Church.
As for Pam? Though devoted and kind she says, “I was mad at God! He’d taken my husband when I was only 45! I had no resources to care for myself and my son. I was mad!”
Jay, however, was not mad. He spent his days with his computer, his books, his video games…. and his friends! Of course, he could not get out of the house to see or be with them, but they were more than happy to come to him. And Pam, though angry with God, was still Pam! She was happy to have them and to lend a helping hand whenever needed. When one of Jay’s friends needed a place to stay for a short time, they gladly welcomed him into their home.
This young man’s mother, a member of the Church, called Pam and asked if she’d mind if the missionaries visited her son, who had become inactive, at their home.
“Sure! We love having people over!” Pam responded. So the missionaries came. After visiting with Jay’s friend, they asked if they could visit with Jay and Pam. “Of course!!” was her reply.
Whoever would have guessed that Pam and Jay were absolutely golden, and ready for the Restored Gospel? The minute Jay heard the Joseph Smith story, he knew that it was true. His heart had been touched years before with the ads on TV and he’d been waiting.
And thus began a stream of a countless missionaries who came to teach and to be taught, to listen and to learn, to play with Jayson’s Star Wars swords and toys, and to love and to laugh from the bottom of their hearts.
Within a short time of starting the discussions, Pam and Jay both knew they wanted to be baptized. Pam’s sister Susie, who had been included and also knew almost immediately that the restored Gospel was true. was ready to be baptized as well. In a very short time, Pam and Susie were baptized on the same day.
And thus began the tender loving care of the Dyersburg Branch for Jay and Pam in the very special Thompson home. Several times a week for the next several years, volunteer and assigned Priesthood members would go over to “turn” Jay onto his side so that bedding could be changed, and other personal needs could be taken care of. Pam’s warm personality rewarded her with many wonderful friends from the Branch that loved and supported her. And of course, the constant flow of cheerful missionaries was there to keep them company for the next several years. In an imperfect situation loaded with challenges that cannot be put into words, there was love, love and more love.
Pam progressed and received her Temple endowment, while Jay stayed home and prayed to be baptized. His testimony was as strong and bright as his mother’s and his aunt’s. The only thing holding him back was the baptismal ordinance itself, which was seemingly impossible with his lack of mobility and special circumstances. Though it took more than a year, Jay’s faith, and that of two very special Elders, was finally rewarded. Through prayer and the support of the Mission President for the Arkansas Little Rock Mission, at last the special day came when Jay was, indeed baptized! It was a small private baptismal service, with Church approved accommodations for his personal, physical needs. That very afternoon, he was ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood. Though he never attended a meeting or entered the Chapel, he received the Sacrament each week from Priesthood bretheren and was an integral part of the Dyersburg Branch.
Unreserved about their joy in finding the Restored Gospel, Pam and Jay immediately began sharing the good news. Everyone that came to their home and within their circle learned about the Church and they become marvelously effective member missionaries. Pam’s sister Susie sent her first Book of Mormon to a friend, who sent it to a friend, who sent it to a friend … several of those individuals have also been baptized. Susie decided that she could best be a missionary by sending a Book of Mormon each month to someone she knew. No one can quite figure out how many people have learned about the Church, and how many have joined, as a result of these Books of Mormon and Pam and Jay’s continual talking about the freeing doctrines of the Church.
In early September, Jay returned from his three week stay at Jackson General to his home in Dyersberg. In addition to the extreme Lymphedema and the many health complications it brought, Jay was also suffering from a badly broken ankle. In a bizarre maneuver of moving him on the oversized gurney into the room, an orderly had thought that the reason the gurney was not moving was that it was caught on a corner of the doorway. He moved it and rammed it hard, not realizing it was actually Jay’s ankle rather than the corner of the gurney. Jay was in excruciating pain, and due to his size, there was not an X-ray machine to determine the extent of the break. Although it needed surgery, they were unable to perform it, due to medical complications they feared would not allow him to awaken fromthe anesthesia, so Jay continued to cheerfully endure.
The pain for this ankle break alone was more than most of us can imagine. Nevertheless, we visited and watched the Olympics, laughed and chatted with Jay, and continued to learn more about them and their lives with them both while he was awake and Pam alone when Jay dozed.
For the next three weeks, Pam rarely left his side. There were personal things Jay needed that she provided and knew better than any hospital nurse. Jay’s condition was more comfortable for him in an extremely cold room, so she was always bundled up in a fuzzy winter robe, a wool hat and slippers. She slept on a fold out chair each night, and waited as patiently as possible to be able to go home. She worried beyond belief about how they were ever going to get Jay home with his broken ankle. In addition, his kidneys began to fail. Though consuming large quantities of liquids, little of it was passing. Pam turned to the Lord, her friends, her sister Susie (now suffering with cancer) and President Jensen. And they were all there for her!
At last, some concerns stabilized and the doctors and medical staff figured out a way to get him home without touching his ankle. It was all a much more complicated task than most of us can imagine as Jay did not fit in a regular gurney, ambulance or medical transit vehicle.
Within a day of his final return, the visiting nurse informed Pam it was time for Hospice care. Jay’s kidneys were permanently shutting down. There was nothing more that anyone could do. Thus began three weeks of Pam knowing exactly what was ahead, as she had helped her husband pass from cancer, with the same fatal situation: failing kidneys. For over twenty years, she had known that this month was coming.
When I approached her about sharing their story on Meridian, and how many missionaries and members would be inspired, she was delighted! She has always felt that Jay’s life mission was to be an example. After joining the Church, they both longed to share his testimony, knowing that his remarkable baptism was meant to be an inspiration for missionaries and that they must never forget their important daily work or who might be waiting for them.
We went one evening, with notebook and pen in hand, ready to get Jay’s story written down. He did his best to visit and help, but in the end, nausea won. We smiled and left, hoping there would be another chance to visit in person with Jay.
There was not.
Over the next several weeks we stayed in touch with Pam in person several times a week, by phone and by text. We learned that he was sleeping more and more, and that there were frequent visitors from the other side. Sometimes he spoke and could be understood, other times, not.
On the morning of Thursday September 22, Pam called and said simply, “He’s gone.” She had been up and down with him all night, sleeping as she had for years in a reclining chair by his bed. They had both gone to sleep in the pre-dawn hours. Pam woke up. Jay did not.
Well-prepared for this day, she called the special mortuary that had been arranged for in advance. Within a few hours, they arrived to honorably care for the incredible mortal body that had carried this marvelous spirit through his life’s journey. We went over the next evening. There, in Jay’s room, with all the Star Wars collection and posters, and his empty bed, we sat with Pam, her sister Susie, her head wrapped in a fun scarf from her chemo, and two dear family friends.
With no clock, and no interruptions, the room was filled with light and joy, smiles and laughter. They talked about how much Jay had always wanted to ride a bike, and were sure that he was whizzing around on the bike of his dreams right then, up and down the golden streets of heaven, and maybe even in front of the house, popping wheelies and racing. We talked of the fun pranks and jokes he had played on family members, and of the things that he had loved. We smiled thinking about his own smile — now radiant and perfect after the many years of being unable to visit a dentist. We spoke of a beautiful young woman, courtship and eternal marriage for this handsome man who’d never been able to date, and of fatherhood and family for one who’d never had a sibling, and whose own father had passed away early in life. We spoke of the joy of being free at last of pain from his earthly body, and the joy of being comfortable, healthy and normal in a resurrected body that would be comely and perfect in form, feature and function.
They tried to count up how many missionaries had been Jay’s companions in this life, (impossible) and we all marveled at his missionary work here on earth, anticipating his great success on the other side. A large map of the world on the wall was a reminder that Jay’s missionary work would go far beyond this bedroom.
Ever present in the conversation was Jay’s great and shining love for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints, the Prophet Joseph, President Thomas S. Monson and the missionaries. They spoke of his ability to keep on smiling, to keep on talking and laughing, while never complaining about his life, his body, his circumstances, his pain, or any of the evident things that the rest of us would consider as great, great sorrows and misfortunes.
Due to the nature of his condition, his body was cremated. Pam and Jay had picked a very special box with a dragon on it for his remains. It was just right for the powerful and mighty dragon of the Lord that Jay is!
Jay’s Memorial Service was held a month later. Pam prepared for it and the changes in her life with courage and support from the Branch. She planned a special Star Wars life celebration and dinner for after the Memorial Service, and gratefully welcomed the returned missionaries who had baptized Jay that came from Utah and Alaska to celebrate Jay’s life that sunny Saturday.
During the time between his death and his service, I had my own unique experiences. Numerous conversations with dear people in my life revealed they were struggling with finding personal happiness. There are no easy answers for the great range of emotions for each solitary, mortal journey. However, it seems exceptional to me that Jay, who had been given so seemingly little in this life, should, in the end, experience such uncommon cheer, peace and happiness. What a remarkable thing, and a remarkable gift this legacy is for all of us who struggle, as the adversary hopes we will, in finding “enough” in the world of social media and Pinterest. How their wicked charms and lures challenge us to compare our lives to others, even when our lives are full to bursting with blessings of health and abundance. What a thing or two Jay’s legacy can teach us.
“I kept on waiting,” said President Jensen at the Memorial Service. “For the day or night to come when Jay was unhappy and discouraged. Or to openly complain. For three years, from when we first moved here, I was frequently a part of the group that would go to turn Jay. I asked myself ‘When is there going to be a bad day, or a disparaging remark, or a spirit of depression?’ But It never came! It just never came. In the end, I realized that Jay did not have a perfect life, or a perfect body, but he did, indeed, have a perfect heart.”
I had hoped that President Jensen had saved his talk so that I could share it, but he had not. He had spoken from his heart about the heart of this marvelous, unique, light-filled, love-filled man who simply loved, accepted, and chose to be happy. No matter what. And that was Jay’s life. Not written down anywhere until this article, but recorded on the hearts of those that loved and knew him.
Several weeks later, Pam and I met again after the Dyersburg Branch Trunk or Treat party to prepare this article. Dressed in a cute witch’s costume with blue hair and painted blue fingernails, for the first time since Jay was born in 1975, she is not the mother of a disabled child or a caregiver for an adult. She is grieving, but allowing herself to be, for the first time in her adult life to be “just Pam.”
As we sat in the cozy living room of a ward member to talk, her own spirit of willingness and a desire to share Jay’s life as far and wide as possible just bubbled. It’s a continual revelation for her, as time goes by, to learn, of the impact Jay had on so many as they learn of his death and reach out to her. She feels the need that others have to brush lives with this inspiring soul.
She allowed me to read Jay’s patriarchal blessing. My eyes filled with tears and the Spirt filled my own heart as I read. Jay was told that his patience and faith, along with his many other blessings were great in the sight of the Lord. He was told to pray, prepare and study for his nearly immediate return to our Father, where even more blessings awaited him. Can you imagine the heavenly blessings that will come from cheerfully and faithfully enduring over 20 years of living in bed in a body such as Jay’s, or the blessings of being an example of love and light and truth to those around me in such difficult circumstances?
Pam’s example of love, acceptance and endurance are to be equally celebrated. Jay could not have lived his life as he did without her. Without resentment, she embraced her calling to be his mother, full time, for 41 years. Her service and sacrifice were far beyond what any mother expects when she conceives and delivers a child. His death brings great changes to her life that she is courageously working through.
My heart is filled with gratitude for the special hours with them both, for his Memorial Service, for the example of the leaders and members of the Dyersburg Branch, and the many adorable, powerful missionaries that changed Jay’s and Pam’s lives forever.
While I can scarcely comprehend what it all means for this life and the next for the two of them and their eternal family with Eddie, what I can comprehend is that for today, for this Thanksgiving week, our own greatest blessing is the freedom to choose. It is to acknowledge — with gratitude, a forgiving smile and a generous dose of Jay’s good cheer — the great, inherent goodness of each imperfect day and each imperfect person in our lives. It is to be enthused, committed and valiant in embracing the Gospel, our Lord and Savior, our personal testimonies, and the ever abiding principle of free agency that allows us to choose to be happy … no matter what. Jay’s life was truly a living Thanksgiving.
And that, my Meridian brothers and sisters is what this Thanksgiving week is all about: to remember that our own lives are meant to be rich and full and happy. No matter what.