The Eulogy for John A. Cogan

06
Oct

The Eulogy for John A. Cogan

(February 3rd, 1972 – September 13, 2018)

To understand both John Cogan and his twin brother Justin, you need to know something of the stock from which they came.

Their father Donald was the youngest of three children, preceded in birth by his brother Jack and sister, Patricia.  They grew up on a celery farm in Allendale New Jersey where their father was employed as the manager. There “Donny” (as he was called) learned to rise early and work hard, to be handy when thing broke down and needed fixing, and to love the earth and the outdoors.

Following high school, a taste for adventure led Donny to enlist in the Navy, serving his country for three years on board what was known as a Mother Hen — a ship that provided support to submarines. He was on duty during the Cuban Missile Crisis and he was also on a ship to which one of the first Apollo astronauts was brought back after plummeting back from outer space down to the ocean.

Following his discharge Donny’s sense of adventure led him to join the technology company ITT which sent him to the northern hinterlands of Greenland.  There he worked for over two years on the early warning system that was the foundation of our nation’s missile defense.

John and Justin’s mother Sandra grew up outside of Montreal as the second of three sisters, preceded by Barbara and followed by Judy.  Their mother died when Sandy was only 19.  Their father was a lieutenant in the Canadian army and couldn’t afford to send his daughters to college.  Sandy was especially bright. Following high school she caught the train each day into Montreal where she worked as a secretary.

Barbara and Judy found jobs working for the airlines.  One night working the midnight shift Judy met a young man passing through the airport on the way to Greenland who happened to be a workmate of Donny.  The young man asked Judy if she wouldn’t mind being his pen pal and so they began exchanging letters.

When Sandy got to read some of the letters Judy was getting, she asked Judy to write her friend and see if he had any lonely buddies up there in northern Greenland that might want to become her pen pal.  That’s how John and Justin’s parents met.

The exchange of letters sparked enough interest that Donny and his friend arranged to spend a two week vacation in Montreal, and in the course of that visit Donny and Sandy found themselves falling in love.

They dated for a time before becoming engaged, getting married in Montreal on November 16th, 1968 following which they moved to New Jersey where Donny continued to work for ITT. After a short time living in an apartment in Ramsey, they settled into their first home in Oakland, where Donny’s sister Pat already lived with her husband Ted Swenson and their three children.  Several other families in the Swenson clan also lived in Oakland at that time, and Donny’s parents lived nearby as well.   At some point Sandy’s sister Judy flew down from Montreal to visit, and it was at a family barbecue that she met Ted’s cousin, Ken Swenson, sparking a romance that led to marriage bringing Judy close at hand as well.

John was born to Sandy and Donny on February 3rd, 1972, ten minutes before his brother Justin.  Though there was a very strong resemblance, they were not identical twins.  The most obvious difference between them from the start was that John was born with clubbed feet, resulting in an extended hospital stay and his first of many operations to correct the birth defect.   A determined lad from the start, Aunt Pat recalls that when baby John was still sleeping in a crib it was not uncommon for his parents to come in to find that he had kicked off his casts.

In the years to follow John’s condition would require more surgeries, and surgeries to repair surgeries gone awry, and endless sessions of physical therapy.  In spite of his initial response as a baby to kick off the irritating casts, as the years passed John never complained or expressed an attitude of self-pity. In spite of the therapeutic braces he required well into middle school, John engaged in all the physical activities common to an energetic boy.  The braces occasionally brought him teasing, but John endured the taunting without retreating, marching out onto the playgrounds of life determined to participate fully.

The perseverance and positivity that John manifested in meeting this and the other challenges sent his way in the course of his life assuredly was related to the fact that John and Justin had extraordinarily loving parents who were wholeheartedly devoted to their sons.  Their parents provided their sons with powerful examples of how to carry oneself in this world.  By no means rich they met the demands on their financial resources and time presented by John’s birth defect without complaint.

And there was also the love and support provided by the large extended family centered in Oakland of which John and Justin were almost the last born of a their generation of childrenThis fact garnered them a great deal of attention from aunts and uncles and older cousins who often served as the boys’ babysitters.  As the years passed every major holiday was spent with happy, loving gatherings of the extended Cogan-Swenson family.

When the boys were four, Donny took a new sales position with AM Varityper in East Hanover.  The Cogan family moved from Oakland to Flanders, where Sandy and Donny purchased a larger, more affordable house in a new development full of young families providing the boys with a multitude of great playmates.  The larger patch of land allowed John and Justin’s dad to grow a big backyard garden producing peppers, peas and of course tomatoes.   There was an elementary school an easy and safe ten-minute walk from their home.  Justin fondly remembers the daily routine that lasted from kindergarten through sixth grade of walking with his brother at his side to and from school.

For those of us who don’t have a twin, it’s hard to imagine what the experience of having a twin is like.  The experience of each set of twins of course is different.  Justin described to me a sense of sharing with his brother this deep level of knowing one another that arose from having shared so much of life dating all the way back to their days together in their mother’s womb.  So little needed to be said aloud in any given situation they encountered — they intuitively knew what the other would be feeling or thinking.

There was a sense of looking at the other and gazing into a mirror – a sense that could be a bit unnerving at times because there was no filter:  in looking at the their brother each could see both their own good traits as well as their not so good traits.

When the boys entered middle school and moved on to high school, there was this natural evolution of identities that also didn’t need to be verbalized; an unspoken happiness for one another as each began to find their own paths, separate from the other, with their own sets of friends and hobbies. There continued to be some overlapping activities.  Their very first paying job was a shared paper route in middle school – and later they would both put in time working at a McDonald’s.  But other activities and interests diverted. John left behind his elementary school band  experience playing percussion alongside Justin to gravitate towards extracurriculars like Chess Club, the Computer Club nerds, and even channeling a new love for fantasy role-playing games to become a D&D Dungeon Master.  Justin stayed the course with band percussion to join the high school marching band geeks, holding his place down in the drum line.

Justin began to imagine a life as a lawyer while John was drawn more strongly to computers, science and engineering.

Their tastes in music diverged in interesting ways:  Justin gravitated towards progressive rock, while John developed a taste for heavy metal.  Both enjoyed seeing their favorite bands in concert as often as possible.  As he grew older, John’s musical tastes took some unusual turns towards folk rock like the Indigo Girls, and singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Michelle Malone.  Later, by some strange mystery, Frank Sinatra took up a prominent place in John’s CD collection.

There was neither jealousy nor concern over the distinctive paths each chose – in their unique circles both brothers found good people to have as friends, and genuine contentment with their lives.

One overlapping commonality — a constant from elementary school straight through high school – was their shared involvement in a longstanding family tradition of Scouting.  Their mother served as their den mother in cub scouts and when they progressed on to Boy Scouts their father served as their Scoutmaster.

Through scouting, John and Justin developed leadership and organizational skills, gained self-confidence and self-reliance and strengthened their sense of a moral code by which to live, all while enjoying the camaraderie of fellow scouts.

In high school they both spent entire summers serving as counselors at Camp Somers, a sleep away Boy Scout camp in Allamuchy. Their handy and practical father built his sons frames out of plastic piping to support mosquito netting that covered their cots making them the envy of the rest of their fellow staffers.

One of the true highlights of the lives of both John and Justin was a Philmont trip they took with their Dad that served as a kind rite of passage during the summer they were fourteen.  To prepare themselves both physically and mentally they undertook several short backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail and elsewhere.  There were other Boy Scouts from northern New Jersey who made the trip, but few got to share the experience with their dads, and John and Justin were the only scouts from their troop to make the journey. The trip involved flying to New Mexico for two weeks, the heart of which was ten days of backpacking through the rough terrain of Philmont Scout Ranch. They carried all their supplies on their backs and averaged fifteen to twenty miles a day. It was extremely challenging, pushing the boys to their limits, but ultimately breathtakingly amazing, changing them forever for the better. And each got to experience it all with their Dad and their Brother at their side.

Prior to this trip their Mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer, undergoing a mastectomy.  After her surgery and treatments, their mother’s health returned and all seemed fine.  Although John and Justin were aware their mother was going through this ordeal, their parents shielded them from fully grasping the threat to her life that this disease posed.

But there comes a point in life sooner or later when it is no longer possible to protect the children we love from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and for John and Justin this time came sooner rather than later.  A few weeks into their high school junior year, 1988 when the boys were sixteen, John was at home one evening with his mother and father.  Justin was out working a closing shift at McDonald’s.  Suddenly, their father collapsed with a massive heart attack.  Having been well-prepared through his Scout training to handle emergencies, John immediately began to administer CPR.  Despite his best efforts, John was not able to save his father’s life, a fact that Justin and their Aunt Judy suspect haunted him thereafter.

The police picked up Justin from McDonald’s and brought him home, just as his father was being taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead, September 11, 1988.  The father who just two years earlier had led his sons through a rigorous ten-day backpacking trip was suddenly no longer present here on earth with their family – thrusting John, Justin and their mother into heartbreaking grief.

There is no way that a grief like the one John and Justin knew ever fully leaves a person.   It is there forever, from time to time rising again to the surface.

But the love their father had so generously poured into his sons remained inside them in spite of the heartbreak.  Deep within was the model their father had provided of how to live life well. Along with being an example of what it means to be “faithful and true” by Justin’s description their father was a genuinely happy man who could find humor in almost every situation.

John and Justin’s Mom would never re-marry.  She devoted herself to her boys.  Having previously worked outside the home part-time, she now took full-time employment with AT&T to provide for her sons financially.  Having been brought up to take responsibility and to know their way around the kitchen, John and Justin took on the job of having dinner on the table every evening when their mom got home from work.

With their father no longer there to encourage them in their commitment to Scouting, it would have been easy to let that slip.  At some point their Uncle Ted took the brothers aside and said directly what they probably already knew deep inside – that as part of their father’s legacy they needed to persevere in their quest to become Eagle Scouts.

And so they did.  Justin readily acknowledges that his brother’s Eagle Scout project was a good deal more complex and better organized that his own. John’s project reflected his strong interest in science and technology.  The dangers of radon gas leaking into homes had recently come to be recognized, so John designed a project that would respond in a very practical way to this threat.  He searched out the right contacts to get radon testing kits donated and then with the help of fellow scouts under his direction the kits were distributed throughout their neighborhood.  John provided training to homeowners in how to use the kits and guidance in what to do if the presence of the radon was detected.

There was a clock ticking on attaining their Eagle Scout rank – all badges earned and projects completed before they turned 18 – but they both managed to complete their requirements in time, finding some motivation by the friendly competition of brothers determined to one-up the other.

It was an especially poignant Honor Court that the brothers shared in April 1990, with both expressing in their speeches their deep gratitude to their father and sadness at his absence on that day.  But his mother was there beaming with pride, as was Uncle Ted and Aunt Pat and so many others who had supported them along the way.

The year before their father had died he had bought a brand new Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, his pride and joy.  With his passing the car become their mother’s primary car.  When Senior Prom night came — in spite of having had a not so great track record with the old family minivan — John somehow talked his mother into letting him drive his date to the Prom in the Oldsmobile – a mystery to this day for Justin.

As much as it surely provided their mother comfort to have her sons home with her,  upon graduation from high school her sons’ educations remained paramount in her mind.  Having never gotten the opportunity to attend college she was determined that her sons would. She fully supported their desire to go off to college with the one caveat being that it not be too far away.

And so with their mother’s assurance that she would be fine on her own in the Fall Justin headed off to Seton Hall to study political science with a goal of law school on the horizon, and John to Rutgers to study ceramic engineering.

To mark the start of this new chapter in her life their mother and her sister Judy took a cruise to the Caribbean which they enjoyed immensely.

Initially John seemed to take well to college life, pledging to a fraternity as a Freshman and moving into the fraternity’s house his sophomore year.  Among his fraternity brothers – for reasons not altogether clear but easy to speculate about – John earned the nickname “Bad Ass.”  It was a moniker in which he seemed to take some pride.  Years later he discovered a particular brand of Hawaiian coffee known as “Bad Ass” resulting in several members of the Cogan and Swenson families receiving “Bad Ass” coffee mugs for Christmas.

Unfortunately, the summer before John and Justin’s senior years there was a reoccurrence of their mother’s cancer.  John had moved back home during his junior year and was there to provide the assistance his mom needed.

Looking back, the reasons how it came to be that John rather than Justin made this sacrifice are hard to sort out.  There was the fact that Justin didn’t have a car while John did and therefore theoretically could commute to school.  Perhaps John felt a particular gratitude to his mother after all the attention he had received in the first dozen years of his life in overcoming the obstacle of being born with clubbed feet.  Perhaps it involved the fact that although John had enjoyed fraternity life, his enthusiasm for his chosen major of ceramic engineering had waned over time whereas the path forward for Justin at that point in his life seemed clear.  Or perhaps it was simply ingrained in John’s nature to step up to the plate when a crisis arose — to be responsible and take charge.  And so John stepped up to the plate and was there to drive his mother to her doctor’s appointments and cancer treatments.

One of the things Justin feels profound gratitude to his brother for is the fact that John never once made him feel guilty about having been the son who continued on with his college education.

Throughout their college careers their mom had been vigilant in checking their report cards when they arrived home.  At some point that Fall she called Rutgers to ask why it was that a report card hadn’t arrived home for John.  She was told that because students were adults without permission the registrar wasn’t authorized to give out grades to parents, but the woman thought it probably appropriate to share the truth that John’s mother in her weakened condition hadn’t grasped which was that John hadn’t enrolled for the Fall semester.  Having never been asked about this directly by his mother John hadn’t bothered to mention it, but upon reflection she realized that with all that John was doing for her, taking classes at the moment wasn’t really an option.

In the winter of 1994 – the start of Justin’s final college semester — their mother’s health took a turn for the worse.  In February she entered Saint Barnabas Hospital where she would spend the last five months of her life.  When he could, Justin would take two buses to visit his mother, but John with a car and no school to deal with was able to visit more frequently.  Their mother encouraged them to enjoy their lives and not to focus themselves on her.  In July however, a month after Justin’s graduation, their mother died having spent the last month of her life unable to really communicate.

And so five years after the sudden heartbreak of losing their father, John and Justin endured the much slower heartbreak of watching their mother die.

As with their father, the love of John and Justin’s mother for them was beyond measure.  She too was an example of a woman who found great joy and purpose in life.  In Justin’s estimation she was the strongest person he ever knew, a quality both of the boys probably didn’t fully appreciate growing up.  Their parents had been each other’s best friends and so deeply in love – when money was short they could turn grocery shopping into a date night.  It had been devastating to their mother to carry on when their father died, but carry on she did.  She drew particular strength from her Catholic faith and church, where she served as a Eucharistic minister.

Though they lost their parents way too early, the parenting John and Justin received in their formative ears was extraordinary.  Their parents combined wondrous tenderness with the capacity to be strict and demanding in all the right ways.

A month after their mother’s death, their Uncle Ted also succumbed to cancer having fought a parallel battle over the previous years to the one their mother fought. Three years earlier their paternal grandmother – the strong matriarch of the Cogan clan — had also died.   In five years the twins had endured four heart wrenching losses.

Justin moved back into the house in Flanders where together the brothers set about addressing the tasks involved with processing the estate as well as looking after the house and paying all the bills.   True to form their mother had diligently prepared the will and left all the important documents organized and easily located.  Aunt Pat and her son, cousin Craig who was a lawyer provided much support and guidance in this time.

For three years the brothers lived together in the house.  During this time John found employment using his computer skills.  Justin began law school at Seton Hall but withdrew after a semester to work for a year clerking at a local law firm in Chester, a helpful experience in that it led Justin to realize he didn’t want to be a lawyer after all.

After so much death, over time new life began to re-emerge.  The first children of the extended Cogan-Swenson family’s next generation were born, and it seemed particularly appropriate that they were twins:  Heather and Zachary, the children of Chris Ann, Pat and Ted’s daughter. It seemed as though things had come full circle.

Justin’s romance to Alison had begun during their senior year in college when they worked together as Resident Assistants at Seton Hall.  Following graduation Alison took a job with an accounting firm in Washington, DC but their relationship continued in spite of the distance that separated them.  Eventually in order to be closer to Justin, Alison moved back to New Jersey to take a job with her firm in Roseland and within a year the couple became engaged.  In anticipation of their marriage, the brothers agreed to sell the Flanders house right before the wedding.

For Justin one memory stands out regarding his brother from the day of his 1997 wedding to Alison.

With the run up to the big day, Justin experienced the typical anxiety that a groom can feel wanting everything to go just right.  On the morning of the wedding which took place in Connecticut the discovery was made that John had never gotten around to trying on his tuxedo and when he finally did, lo and behold his pants didn’t fit.  Overwhelmed with annoyance, Justin lashed out at his brother:  “You’re my best man and this one simple thing – try on your tuxedo — you couldn’t manage to do?!!  Are you kidding me?!!!”

In Justin’s memory, he berated his brother for several minutes.  The problem with the pants, of course, was ultimately easily resolved.  Looking back Justin realized he had been a total ass about such a small thing, but what stands out most for Justin from the memory is how calmly John stood there taking his brother’s verbal onslaught.

There had of course been plenty of other occasions through the years when Justin had lashed into his brother as brothers are prone to do and on most of those occasions John had given back in equal measure.  But on this the day of his twin brother’s wedding John had the wisdom and the love to recognize that his job was to stand there and take it – to give his brother opportunity purge his body of his frustration and anxiety.   In retrospect it strikes Justin as an incredibly loving thing for his brother to have done.

And there John was at the reception toasting Justin and Alison.

Following the sale of the Flanders house, John initially moved into an apartment in Hackettstown, and after a few years of renting decided to buy a townhouse in another corner of town.  John’s close friend Chris from high school lived with him in both places for a time.  John became a serious Yankees fan.  He was always ready for an adventure.  There were regular road trips with friends to visit baseball stadiums, Cooperstown, and even a memorable trip up to Canada to visit relatives.

John cherished and cultivated his school and work friendships.  After John’s death, Justin began to hear stories from John’s friends about his generosity towards them with both his time and his money.  In a time of need John knew how to be there for friends in just the right way.   An old high school friend named Adam tells a story of how at a low point in his life – when he was recovering from a serious illness — John persuaded him to take a road trip to Baltimore to see Camden Yards and Cal Ripken play before he retired.  Adam said the trip turned out to be just what he needed.

At one point John had a long distance relationship with a young woman he met online from, of all places, Canada.  They had several extended visits with each other and spent vacations together.  It was during this time period that a dream of John’s to travel to Tahiti was fulfilled.

Justin’s impression was that John gave everything he had to make the relationship with the young woman work but eventually he accepted that it just wasn’t going to be.  John wasn’t one to talk much about his feelings but it is safe to say he would have loved to have had the chance to have a wife and children.

When children began to come along for Justin and Alison, as with so many other areas in his life John was the go-to guy. Following the adoption of Edward, when the day of Cassie’s birth approached there was never any question that John would be the one they would hand baby Edward over to when Alison went into labor (at least until Alison’s parents could arrive from Connecticut.)

As the full house of children came along John enthusiastically embraced his role as uncle.  At Christmas he would show up with a huge sack of gifts carefully chosen for each of the five Cogan kids.  He’d read them stories and play Legos with the boys.  He would come along on outings to places like “The Land of Make Believe” and was present for many special occasions such as the adoption of TJ.

John never resented the happiness that his brother and his friends found in marriage.  He was truly happy for them.  He never wanted to hold them back, nor did he want to be the “third wheel” and so gradually he began to take a step back. John’s life became more and more solitary.  He lived alone with his beloved Katie Kat.  As Justin and Alison’s kids got older and their lives more hectic, John’s visits to their home in Parsippany became less and less frequent.

And there were health issues that arose. Thirteen years ago John was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, and following his brother’s lead, shortly thereafter Justin was similarly diagnosed.  Unlike Justin with Alison, John lacked the day to day support he needed to manage his diabetes successfully.

Twelve years ago John took a job with a manufacturing company named the Weiler Corporation which involved an hour commute to Pennsylvania.  John poured his energy into his work and soon became the invaluable go-to-guy whenever there was a problem with the company’s computer systems.  He was an integral contributor to the company’s success and expansion as the years passed.  He was essentially on call 24/7 receiving dozens of alert messages that required his attention when something with the company’s computer system went weird.  John’s work became his life, and it was there that he cultivated more friendships.  Often John took on the role of “big brother” to younger employees, taking them under his wings to mentor.

He failed, however to take care of himself, and was disinclined to reach out for help.  And so it was that three years ago Justin and Alison received a phone call from John letting them know that as a result of his worsening diabetes he had ended up in Hackettstown Hospital with a wound on his foot that wouldn’t heal properly.  He called because he needed somebody to pick up his mail and look after Katie Kat.  He remained hospitalized for several weeks, and upon his discharge came to live with Justin and Alison in Parsippany where they could make sure his diet didn’t consist of junk food – that he got the proper nutrition and encouragement to restore his health.

Justin and Alison were quite willing to have John stay with them indefinitely.  John, however liked his independence and so after six months he and Katie Kat returned to live in his town house in Hackettstown.  Ever the self-reliant Boy Scout, perhaps John was also determined that he would not be a burden for Justin and Alison in their busy lives.

Although the hospital stay surely was something of a “wake up call” regarding the need for a healthier lifestyle, left to his own devices John slowly drifted back to bad habits.  His eye sight deteriorated, eventually making driving at night impossible.  John began to work more and more from home. It is a testament to how invaluable he had become to his company that by the end his bosses were willing to accommodate John’s need to work from home full-time.

And it was there in his home that John died on September 13, 2018 – 30 years plus two days from the date of his father’s death.  They both were 46 when they passed.

John was a loyal and devoted son, brother, nephew, uncle and friend.  He met life with determined courage and a dry sense of humor, refusing to give up in the face of the many challenges life dealt him.  He was always ready to step up to the plate when love required he do so.

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