The DeJeans: A family divided and reunited by death

Melinda Moore DeJean wasn’t supposed to be able to have children. So when her son arrived on Aug. 3, 1989, she called him Jeremy because she was told the name means “Gift from God.”

“Jammer,” as he came to be known, was not only Melinda’s miracle baby, he was a birthday present to herself, delivered 25 years to the day after her own birth. It was a difficult labor that Melinda was lucky to survive.

But that blessing became a burden after Jammer died last year at age 24. He had been through a horrific, three-year medical ordeal triggered by massive Grand mal seizures. Forevermore, Aug. 3 would now be a reminder of the greatest loss a mother could ever bear. And as that date again approached last month, Melinda flatly told her husband she didn’t think she could get through it.

“For all those years, it was great that they had a birthday in common,” Michael DeJean said. “But after Jammer passed away, I just knew that Aug. 3 was going to be a bad, bad day.”

Melinda never lived to see it. Two days before, ruined by a year of unweighable grief and her own battle with an insidious form of lupus, Melinda ended her life.

Michael DeJean was wrecked, but not altogether surprised. “For Jammer’s entire life, Melinda would say to me, ‘If anything ever happens to him, I am on the next bus out of here,’ ” Michael said. “And she meant it.”

And in less than 14 months, this loving family of three was now a lonely family of one.

​A rock ‘n roll beginning

Melinda and Michael DeJean were performers. She was a tall, gorgeous actor who could play dumb blondes in stage plays and channel her inner Joan Jett fronting big-hair, 1980s rock bands with her future husband playing drums.

“She had the hot bod and she had the looks,” said her college classmate, Annie Dwyer. “She was always guarded, but she was so funny. I remember she won an award for a performance, and when she accepted, she said, ‘I’d like to thank my hairpiece.’ Whenever I shut my eyes, I see her laughing.”

Melinda Moore attended Loretto Heights, at the time Colorado’s premier college for the performing arts, alongside a talented group of classmates that included siblings Paul and Annie Dwyer, Nick Sugar, Brian Smith, Scott Beyette, Melissa McCarl, Lucy Roucis and many others. Moore found frequent work in the late 1980s at the Heritage Square Opera House in Golden and Scarlett’s Dinner Theatre in Aurora, where she was known as a fine singer, dancer and comedian – but a terrible waitress.

“She loved playing ditzy blonde roles because she often delivered food to the wrong tables,” Michael said with a laugh. “But the audience would think she was just staying in character. ‘What an actress!’ they thought.”

Michael, a graduate of Denver’s Kennedy High School, was a musician who also worked sound at Boulder’s Dinner Theatre for three years while playing drums for a band that had, in his own words, both a laughable name and a terrible lead singer. That is until a friend introduced Michael to Melinda, who became the new face of … Mannikin.

“I thought she was great, and she started singing in the band,” DeJean said. Mannikin started playing out – and the two started dating. Well, he corrected: “I never really took her anywhere because I never had any money. So we really didn’t date. We would just hang out.”

DeJean was drawn to Melinda’s personality and sense of humor. “She was just so funny,” he said. “I could always be myself around her. I always looked forward to hanging out with her because she was almost like one of the guys. She just fit in with everybody.”

She was especially good with a comeback, he added. Melinda teased Michael for having no hair on his chest. He would say in his feeble defense, “Well, grass doesn’t grow on a playground.” To which she shot back, “Well, it doesn’t grow on a parking lot, either.”

The couple made extra money working for a company called Show Pros along with many of Melinda’s college classmates. They performed at private parties, fundraisers and country clubs. DeJean also played in several bands ranging from Motown to rock and metal. “I was all style and no substance,” he laughed.

Melinda, meanwhile, worked regularly at local dinner theaters. To castmate Gerylann Castellano, Moore was an A-1 prankster.

“She would do something backstage that would keep you giggling, or do something onstage to see how well you could hold it together,” Castellano said. “She is someone who makes you feel like she is your best friend. She gave her all.”

DeJean eventually joined a rock band that roamed throughout the East Coast. The couple’s relationship was “on-again, off-again” for the next five years as Michael played out and Melinda settled into her life in Colorado.

Everything changed when Jammer was born.

An out-of-body experience

Melinda and Jeremy 'Jammer' DeJean. Melinda Moore, who graduated from St. Mary’s Academy, was diagnosed with a severe case of endometriosis as a younger woman – a growth in the uterus that creates so much scar tissue, it can make conception impossible. That only made Melinda’s pregnancy at age 24 all the more miraculous.

In the delivery room, Melinda began to hemorrhage, and doctors told Michael DeJean she might be bleeding to death. That’s when, he says, Melinda had an out-of-body experience.

“She said she was given the choice of going or staying, and she said, ‘I am going to stay; my baby was just born,’ ” DeJean said. “That’s when the doctor smacked her on the leg and said, ‘Stay with me!’ At that moment, she said she could feel herself rush back into her body.”

It was not unlike an out-of-body experience their son would report having two decades later. “I don’t know,” DeJean said, “I guess they had that in common, too.”

Jeremy came to be known as Jammer because he had two uncles just a few years older than he was – and neither of them could say “Jeremy.” “It just came out ‘Jammer’ instead,” DeJean said, “and it stuck.”

Michael and Melinda were married on Jan. 20, 1990, and moved to Maui in 2001. Their first eight years in Hawaii, DeJean said, were the best of their lives. They owned their own home, Michael owned his own business and, most important, they had a healthy son.

“Every parent thinks their kid is amazing. My kid is amazing,” DeJean said, still struggling to apply the past tense. “He was so gifted in so many areas.”

Jammer was, in DeJean’s estimation, a math genius. “I don’t know where he got that from,” he said with a laugh, “because Melinda and I could not balance a checkbook.”

He was also a gifted athlete, excelling at ice hockey, surfing and football. At 11, he was named MVP of a Denver Broncos’ youth camp. “When he was 12, he could throw a football farther than I could,” DeJean said. A college coach played catch with a 16-year-old Jammer and later told DeJean, “God, that kid throws harder than my college quarterback.” But even though Jammer’s mother was statuesque, the men in the Moore family tend not to have the kind of growth spurt that produces high-school quarterbacks. At 5-foot-9, Jammer got tired of getting beat up and decided to focus on the much less-pounding sport of surfing. He was happy.

Then in 2011, out of the blue, 21-year-old Jammer fell into an 8-minute Grand mal seizure that was so violent, he crushed two discs in his back from the spasms.

“Melinda had no idea what was happening,” DeJean said. “She went running into his room and saw that his back was arched and his eyes were rolling to the back of his head.” But DeJean had grown up with a kid who had epilepsy, so he knew exactly what to do. He rolled Jammer on his side. Grand mal seizures typically last less than two minutes. “But this just wasn’t stopping,” Michael said, “so I had to call 911.”

The mysterious seizures continued every few months, but doctors were baffled as to their cause. So Jammer was put on a variety of heavy-duty pain medications. The nine-month quiet period that followed turned out to be a tease. One day, Jammer wasn’t feeling well so he drove himself to the doctor, where he had a massive seizure and fell down a flight of cement stairs. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where six more severe seizures followed. Jammer lost consciousness. He was prescribed Ativan, and he lost his short-term memory for three days.

“He would call every half an hour from his hospital bed and ask, ‘Dad, what am I doing here? Why am I here?’ ” DeJean said.

A year into Jammer’s ordeal, the DeJeans still had no answers for what was causing Jammer’s seizures. “The doctors never even labeled him as an epileptic,” DeJean said. “They put him on DilantinKlonopin and other big-time anti-seizure meds. They would make him so out of it that it would change his personality.” The family had heard of miraculous testimonials coming from families who were treating seizures with THC oil. But doctors refused to prescribe it for Jammer. “We were very frustrated,” DeJean said.

It was then that the family moved back to Colorado, thinking they could get better medical attention here. They settled into a three-bedroom townhome in Littleton. But Jammer’s condition only worsened.

It was tough,” DeJean said. “Any noise, and we would jump. We didn’t sleep much. It took a big toll on us.”

Melinda began to sleep with Jammer because his seizures would leave him with back pain so great he couldn’t sleep. Melinda discovered that if she slept back-to-back with Jammer, the warmth and support she provided would relax her son’s back tension.

Jammer never knew when the next seizure would hit. Understandably, he grew afraid to go anywhere in public. “That was a problem with him going to school and getting jobs,” DeJean said. Jammer enrolled in an EMT school, but there he had a seizure in class – the worst one he had ever had to that point. “He actually lost control of his faculties and stopped breathing,” DeJean said. “So they had to give him CPR.”

Jammer began regularly having seizures where he would stop breathing. After one of them, he told his parents that he, too, had had an out-of-body experience.

“He said he left his body,” DeJean said. “He was looking down and could see Melinda moving his head, trying to get him into a position where he could breathe. He said it was nice and peaceful. He said, ‘It was the first time I didn’t feel bad or wasn’t in pain.’ ”

At the time, DeJean didn’t think much of it.

An encounter with a gun

Jammer was now in a state of chronic waking pain. Michael asked him bluntly if he ever had suicidal thoughts. “He always said it was something he would never do,” DeJean said. But not long after, his grandmother found Jammer in the family car with blood dripping out of the door.

“We were staying at my mom’s house,” DeJean said. “We were actually counting out silver dollars that my grandmother had left. She collected coins. My mother pulled them out of a drawer when she just mentioned, ‘Oh, and here’s Ed’s World War II gun.’ ”

It belonged to Michael’s stepfather. Jammer inspected the gun and suggested that his grandmother sell it. “That’s a collector’s item,” he told them. “It’s worth quite a bit of money.”

That was a particularly rough night for Jammer. Around midnight, he went into his parents’ room and said, “There’s just something wrong. I don’t feel right. I need to go to the hospital.”

Jammer never liked going to the hospital, so Melinda knew this was bad. Jammer had three seizures in the car and two more at the hospital. “And they still friggin’ released him,” DeJean said. “They just gave him more meds and sent him home.”

Mother and son were again sleeping back-to-back when Jammer got up and told Melinda he was going for a glass of water. The next thing Melinda heard were screams from Jammer’s grandmother. She had gotten up at 6 a.m., looked outside and noticed the lights were on inside Michael’s car.

“She went outside and saw that there was blood coming out of the door,” Michael said, “She ran back inside screaming, ‘He’s bleeding! He’s bleeding!’ ”

Apparently Jammer had gone downstairs, grabbed the World War II pistol, took it outside to the car and fired the gun. Melinda ran downstairs and drove him to the hospital.

Jammer shot himself through the roof of his mouth and out the top of his head, but he survived. Michael is convinced it was not an intentional act. “I know Jammer,” he said. “If he wanted to end his life, he would have researched how to do it right. That’s how he was. He would not have played around and missed.”

Jammer and Michael DeJeanBut DeJean knows that Jammer was depressed. Who wouldn’t be? “At 24 years old, when you are stuck at home with your parents, and you can’t work, and you can’t go to school, and you are afraid to be in public, and you don’t go anywhere with your friends, how are you going to feel? You can’t do anything.”

(Pictured at right: Jammer and Michael DeJean.)

Later, Michael would learn that when patients have a cluster of seizures, they tend to lose impulse control. “They don’t think straight,” Michael said. “The neurologist had never told us that. No one ever told us that.

“I just think the whole thing took a toll on him. A lot of people who have seizures do what he did. But it’s not that they want to die. I don’t think Jammer ever wanted to die. I think he wanted to change his situation.”

Jammer remained conscious and was talking for the drive to the hospital. Doctors repaired the damage and removed a blood clot. Ten days later, as doctors were preparing to move to him to Craig Hospital for rehabilitation, Jammer suddenly started twitching. A brain scan showed this was a different kind of seizure, one originating in his frontal lobe. These are called status seizures, and each one can be life-threatening if they don’t terminate quickly and spontaneously. Jammer’s did not.

“They tried to get them to stop for a couple of hours but he was obviously in incredible agony,” Michael said. “They put in a trach tube to help him breathe, but that meant he couldn’t talk, and he kept pulling at everything. So they put him in a coma.”

Doctors were hoping to slow Jammer’s brain function way down in the hope that his brain would “re-set” and the seizures would stop. But they never did. They tried for two months, with a comatose Jammer still enduring recurring status seizures. Jammer developed pneumonia. He was being fed from a tube. “Melinda lived in his room in the ICU,” Michael said. But the longer they were there, the worse Jammer was getting. Melinda was mired in a state of endless agony.

Doctors finally told the DeJeans to prepare themselves: That if Jammer ever came out of the coma, his brain would be unarguably, unalterably damaged. There was no way to know what kind of mental state he would be in.

Two months before the coma, Jammer asked to speak to his father alone in the family kitchen. Michael says Jammer told him: “If I ever have a seizure where I can’t come back, I don’t want a DNR.”

“So I knew there was no way in the world he would want to live that way,” Michael said. “But Melinda, of course, was like, ‘I’ll take whatever I can have of him.’ ”

The parents suffered on, watching Jammer waste further away. Ten weeks into the coma, Jammer developed sepsis, an often life-threatening blood infection that can trigger massive failure of multiple organ systems.

“He had been through so much already,” Michael said. “After he got sepsis, we decided that we would honor his request.”

On June 15, 2014, they suspended life support, and Jammer slipped away. It was only weeks later that Michael realized his son had died on Father’s Day.

For Melinda, “losing Jammer was like losing half of her soul,” Michael said. “She lay on him, crying and holding him. She could feel his heart beating faster until it finally stopped.

“I have to tell you. There is nothing worse than watching your kid die.”

The words of warning echo back anew

‘If anything ever happens to him, I am on the next bus out of here.’ ”

The DeJean familyAnyone who read Melinda’s Facebook page after Jammer’s death knew that she was in trouble. She spoke openly of her inescapable cycle of grief. She thanked Jammer for being such an amazing son. She wished a Merry Christmas “to the only reason for me to ever have one … You are and always have been my everything, and to go through the holidays without you could not be more painful … I love you more than words can say and miss you more than my heart can take.”

She told worried friends that she needed time and space to heal. She asked people to back off, and they did. “I can’t answer your texts. I can’t answer your phone calls,” she wrote.

“It was as if we were in a Plexiglas box,” Michael said. “We were kind of moving through the days in slow motion while everybody else’s lives were going on around us in normal time. You feel separated from everything. Everything is surreal.”

Melinda buried herself in grief. Michael buried himself in work. Michael took the only lousy job he could get at the time – a short-term stint as a concessions manager at the Pepsi Center.

“Melinda would ask me, how do you work? How do you do it?’ ” he said. “And I said, ‘Because if I don’t do something, we don’t eat.’ ”

Eventually, well-meaning friends stopped talking about Jammer, or changed the subject whenever it came up. Michael understood why. No one wanted to put Melinda back in that dark place. But she had never left it.

“She would say to me, ‘They’ve already forgotten about him,’ ” Michael said.

“You have summer friends; you have lifetime friends. But when you lose a child, you have no friends. It’s because people don’t know how to talk to you. They don’t know how to act, and eventually, they start to slide away.”

Michael got through it by taking care of Melinda. “That was my role, and that’s what I focused on,” he said. “I took all that energy and I put it into trying to keep her alive and well.”

After Jammer’s death, Melinda’s lupus unleashed itself on her body. It’s a mysterious disease that the Lupus Foundation of America calls “one of the world’s cruelest, most unpredictable and devastating diseases.” Essentially, lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that can damage any part of the body – skin, joints and organs, eliminating the body’s ability to fight off viruses, bacteria and germs.

“Over the last couple of months, her lupus was just literally eating her alive,” Michael said. “I had taken her to the hospital three times in the past two months. Her liver was swollen. Her kidneys were swollen. Her sodium was off. They just couldn’t get it right. She was in incredible pain. She had really bad arthritis in her hips. Incredibly bad headaches.”

Two weeks before Melinda DeJean, Annie Dwyer and Michael DeJean at a college reunion two week before Melinda's suicide. her death, Melinda attended a reunion of Loretto Heights classmates at Racine’s restaurant. Eventually her friend Annie Dwyer found her weeping in the bathroom. The love, the laughter, the kindness from friends, were like daggers.

“I just can’t pretend, Annie,” she cried.

“I told her, ‘Honey, none of us want you to,’ ” Dwyer said. “But she just shut down.”

(Pictured at right: Melinda DeJean, Annie Dwyer and Michael DeJean at a college reunion two weeks before Melinda’s suicide.)

Throughout their mourning period, Melinda talked openly with Michael about joining Jammer. “She felt like she had broken her promise to him by staying alive,” Michael said. He pleaded with his wife that this was not a promise their son would want her to keep.

Still, “every day she would tell me, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore. I can’t go on. I can’t do this another day,’ ” Michael said.

“But she had always promised me that she wouldn’t do anything until I was comfortable with it. And of course, I was never going to be comfortable with it.”

She even spoke to her husband about the two of them going together.

“Absolutely, we discussed it,” Michael said. “The weight of it all just becomes so much that you start to think, ‘Yeah, we could take the easy way out.’ ”

But Michael would never hear of it, and he believed his ongoing refusal was helping to keep Melinda alive. But the coming of Aug. 3, 2015, began to loom large in their household. She told me straight out, ‘I don’t think I can go through another birthday,’ ” Michael said. “So I was worried about it all the time.” Michael was working from home for his job, which allowed him to be with Melinda 24 hours a day. He never dropped his guard for a second.

“I wanted us to seek help, but she flat-out refused,” he said. “After a while, I asked her: ‘Would you mind if I just went for counseling?’ Because I needed to talk to somebody about it. I kind of felt like I was betraying her, because I wanted her to go to therapy with me. But she wouldn’t.”

 

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE

On the night of Aug. 1, Melinda started to get sick. Michael knew the routine. “She would get headaches and then start vomiting,” he said. “I asked if she wanted to go to the hospital or wait a while. She wanted to wait. She took some anti-nausea pills and went to take a bath. Michael drifted off to sleep. The next time he saw his wife, Melinda was dead.

“I think the combination of her lupus, her emotional pain, and the birthday coming up was all too much for her,” Michael said.

A friend close to home

When the call came in to the Littleton Police Department reporting a death at the DeJean home, Victim Advocate Linda Suttle was dispatched to the scene to assess Michael DeJean’s immediate needs. The case struck close to home for Suttle when she learned the decedent had been a theater performer. Suttle is a longtime actor in the Denver theatre community. She has an opening of her own coming up in just two weeks at the Vintage Theatre, a comedy called Hamlet, Prince of Pork.

“As a Victim Advocate, I have responded to many suicide calls to try to help family members and friends of the victim,” Suttle said. “As I talked with Michael, I learned that we know many of the same people in the theatre community.”

But her first order of business was assessing DeJean’s state of mind.

“The officers and myself were very concerned about leaving him alone,” she said. “But I felt a little bit more comfortable knowing that our theater community would be reaching out to him and make sure he had the support he needed.”

The words she left behind

Melinda Moore kept a private journal next to her bed that she wrote in every night. After Melinda’s death, Michael opened the pages for the first time and wept.

She wrote to Michael: “I am not leaving you because you are not enough for me. I am leaving you because I am not enough for you.” She also wrote: “I will not get better for the rest of my life, and you deserve to have a better life than to have me anchoring you down.”

Linda SuttleThe six weeks since Melinda’s death have been both a blur and a slow quicksand for Michael. He’d rather do anything – even a four-hour interview with a reporter – than go home to an empty house. He has been asked to take a paid leave of absence of at least 30 days from his current job with Mood Media, where he sells sound systems and music to bars. Contributions from friends and strangers have allowed him to continue grief counseling. But what he needs most, Suttle believes, is constant face-to-face contact with his friends and loved ones.

“There is a tendency for people to rally around a person right after the suicide,” she said, “but as time goes on, they worry that they will bother their friend, or they worry that to bring it up would only make them more upset. But believe me, the person is already thinking about it, and you calling to express your concern and love will not cause them to be more upset. Don’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing. Just saying that you’re checking in, or that you are sorry for the pain someone is going through, is extremely helpful.”

There are times when DeJean thinks he has things together. “But I have moments, man,” he said. “The worst part is just going home to that big empty house. Melinda was my best friend. We have been married for 25 years and we have been together for 32. There aren’t many couples who can be together 24-7, and we never fought. Well, sure, we would argue, but she would always win, so I just wouldn’t fight.

“I can’t say that we had a perfect marriage. We have certainly had our problems. Everybody does. But especially after Jammer got sick, the three of us were just always together. Always. I took him everywhere with me. We had a unique connection. I saw every movie with him. Watched every football game.”

Today (Sept. 13) is the final day of National Suicide Prevention Week. In 2012, there were 40,600 suicides in the United States, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death in America.

DeJean knows well the stigma that society and some religious faiths place on suicide. He does not think his wife owes anyone who would ascribe a moral judgment to her actions a defense or an explanation.

“I have forgiven her,” he said. “But then again, I didn’t need to forgive her, because I completely understand. I spent so much time with her, and we talked about it all the time. I know why she did it. I know how she felt. I knew what her life was like.”

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE AMERICAN FOUNDATION FOR SUICIDE PREVENTION

Suttle, the police Victim Advocate, said survivors like Michael DeJean often look back and try to find something they should have done to stop a friend or loved one from committing suicide. “But I have found that once someone has made this ultimate choice, it is extremely difficult for anyone to change their mind,” Suttle said. “When I think about Melinda and Michael, and the pain that they felt after losing their son the year before, that must have been completely debilitating.”

DeJean admits that he gets angry with Melinda for leaving him alone. “Certainly,” he said, “especially after our son passed away. But at least we had each other.

“I talk to them all them time. I tell Melinda I don’t hold an inner anger toward her. That’s not my place. Obviously, Melinda never would have done what she did if something hadn’t happened to our son. So I would say to anyone: ‘What have you lost that makes you feel like you have lost your life? That makes you feel like you have lost your purpose in life? Once you lose that thing, then you can come back and talk to me about it. Once you have been in my shoes, or her shoes, then you can pass judgment.”

DeJean admits to having lost some faith in the medical profession after his son died. “But I also have to say that after Melinda passed away, just the support I have gotten from people in the theatre community has given me a new belief that there are still good people around.”

Melinda and Michael DeJeanHe hopes people will remember his wife not for how she ended her life but rather for how she lived it. “I want them to remember that Melinda was such a giving and forgiving person,” he said. “She always said we would never be rich because she would give it all away. She had a huge heart, and didn’t hold grudges. She was just one of the kindest, most open people, and she just had a light about her that would draw people in. People just loved her.”

Gerylann Castellano, Moore’s dinner-theatre castmate, said her friend “is truly so much more than all of this. We went through heaven and hell together. Her life journeys were raw, hard and fabulous. I believe she shares a soul with Jammer and they are now whole. It just sucks for those of us left here.”

Just last week, Barack Obama signed a presidential proclamation recognizing Sept. 9 as World Suicide Prevention Day. In doing so, he said, “We must do more to support those suffering.”

If DeJean takes any solace at how his sad story has played out, it is that the two people he loved the most are no longer in pain.

“The only way that I can get through the day is to think about the two of them together, happy and pain-free,” he said. “Jammer is free from his seizures and Melinda is free of both her physical and emotional pain.

“That’s how I get through it.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE TREVOR PROJECT WEB SITE

Melinda Moore DeJean Life Celebration

Tuesday, Sept. 15
7-10 p.m.
Columbine Lake Clubhouse
4192 W. Pondview Dr.
Littleton CO, 80123
This is a casual gathering, not a formal service.
An RSVP is requested by text-messaging Annie Dwyer at 303-523-8965.

Support for Michael DeJean

An online fund has been established to help Michael DeJean, who has incurred significant expenses resulting from the death of his wife and is currently on a paid leave from his job. This fund will also help pay for his counseling while he tries to move forward. http://www.gofundme.com/9s4vz9qks

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