Annette Brown, Lifetime The story of June Carter Cash comes to life in the…
- Posted on Sep 11th 2007 3:00PM by Jessica Robertson
I also explained to Johnny that in telling our story, I might help other women who have gone through troubles such as we had. I so much want for good to come out of those darkest hours.
"Johnny, some of your fans might be upset hearing the details of our divorce and what happened," I said. I do worry deeply about the reaction the public will have.
But Johnny didn't waver in his support. "Like I said, all my fans will read it. They'll love it," he said with confidence. "It's time."
And in that single moment, having Johnny's support and blessing confirmed in my heart that it was finally time to tell my story. Too many things were lining up and falling into perfect place, clearing the way for me. I felt God guiding me forward each careful step of the way, assuring me I was on the right path.
The truth is, I have only recently begun to feel the grace and the reconciliation of making sense of what happened to our marriage. And now, with Johnny's blessing, I would finally have what I longed to have for so many years in his shadow: a voice of my own to tell the world the truth.
"Johnny, that makes me so happy I could just kiss you!" There was no hiding the tears welling up in my eyes.
I laughed as Johnny stared at me with outstretched arms. "Well, here I am!" We shared one of the sweetest hugs we ever shared.
It hurts my heart to know that afternoon was the last time I would see Johnny. If I had known, I wouldn't have been so quick to leave. I would have spent the rest of the afternoon with him. And I would have savored every minute.
I would have told him all the things I've wanted to tell him over the years but never did. I would have hugged him tighter. I would have told him how special he is, what a good man he is.
I would have held his hands and examined his face and searched for that young Johnny who stole my heart so many years ago. I would have relived so many more of the happy times with him. I would have asked questions that have lingered in my heart. I would have loved to hear him tell me what was in his heart too.
And maybe I would have told him my darkest secret, which I am only now able to admit. I would have told him that I never stopped loving him. Through all of it, despite everything, I never stopped loving him for one second.
Instead I just hugged him happily, said good-bye, and left thinking I would see him again soon. And now he's gone.
While word of Johnny's death spread around the globe, I sat quietly sipping coffee in our den at a window overlooking the
In the hours that followed the horrible news, I did the only thing I could do, or have learned to do when times are bad: take each hour as it comes. As I managed through the next few days, my mind filled with memories of the life Johnny and I shared -- the adventures, the heartache, the success, the failures, the joy, the sadness, the secrets, the lies. And the regret.
In the weeks that followed Johnny's passing, it was impossible to escape media coverage of his death. Everywhere I went there was discussion about Johnny, articles about Johnny, and radio programs playing his music. His voice and image were everywhere. Even a simple trip to the dentist, where I hoped for a moment of quiet escape, was in vain. There was Johnny, smiling at me from the cover of People magazine sitting atop a stack of newspapers and books on the waiting-room coffee table.
And strangely for me, during this time when I most longed to be left alone to grieve privately, there were repeated mentions and photographs of me amid all the coverage and stories. I felt uncomfortably exposed, thrown into the mix of public examination of Johnny's life.
Curious strangers appeared at our front door. "Is this where Johnny Cash's first wife lives?" they'd ask, peering into our house. And I began noticing the hushed whispers of strangers behind my back as I ran my errands: "...that's Johnny's ex-wife, Vivian...." I even received a phone call from a reporter at the National Enquirer tabloid, pressing for details of my last meeting with Johnny. A "reliable" source had told them of our meeting, including certain gifts that he gave me. They wanted details.
I have to say I've never been comfortable with the attention I received as Johnny's wife. I've always been a very private person. Even though most people are interested, if they do find out about me having been married to Johnny, they found out on their own. Never from me.
And I have learned over the years that there are two distinct groups of people: people who have a curiosity about me and my past with Johnny, and people of the
As I stepped closer toward the side entrance of the building, the flashbulbs popped and flashed and the press photographers yelled just like the last time Johnny and I passed through these doors of the historic Grand Ole Opry. Back then I felt like the first lady of country music on Johnny's arm as he shouldered his way through the crush of fans. There was always such commotion wherever Johnny went -- women screaming and throwing themselves at him, girls clamoring for autographs. Johnny had a huge following of fans from the very beginning.
But on this November night, there were no screaming women. Outside, fans were quietly gathered in front of the Ryman. They had come from all over the country, some driving eighteen hours or more, just to stand outside in the cold and pay their respects. Many had made makeshift shrines on the sidewalk, candles burning next to framed photos of Johnny. One man stood alone playing his banjo, plucking out "Folsom Prison Blues." Other fans simply stood quietly holding candles. The mood was solemn and reverent.
Johnny's funeral had been a private ceremony, closed to the public. So this evening offered the first chance for fans and fellow artists to publicly honor and remember Johnny, whom they all loved and admired. And everybody, I mean everybody, loved Johnny.
Some of the biggest names in the world of music were on hand on this night, a testament to Johnny's influence: Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr., and George Jones. Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, and John Mellencamp were also slated to perform. It was a Who's Who of celebrities from Al Gore and Whoopi Goldberg to Bono and Tim Robbins, who was acting the role of host.
Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, Tara, and I, along with our husbands, all took our seats in the wooden pews of the historic church to watch the show. Forty-seven years previous -- on
"I'd like to dedicate this song to my wife, who is here tonight," Johnny said as he looked over to me with a smile.
It was a smile of pure joy. A smile that said, I'm proud to be here, I'm doing what I love, I'm a blessed man. And with that he started to sing. As always, within minutes he had the audience demanding more. I stopped counting at his fifth encore.
Never did I dream back then that I wouldn't be by his side all these years later. If someone had caught me by the shoulder and told me that Johnny and I wouldn't be married forever, I never would have believed it. Nothing would ever come between Johnny and me. I was the woman he walked the line for.
As I sat and waited for the tribute to begin, I tried to convince myself that Johnny really was gone. Maybe the evening would give me some measure of closure, I hoped. None of it seemed real. In a sense, none of the past forty years have seemed real. Johnny went straight from my arms to God's arms. Anything that happened in between just wasn't supposed to happen.
I wondered what people sitting next to me in the auditorium would think if they only knew the truth about the stories that Johnny insisted it was "time" to finally tell. Could they imagine a truth other than the stories they've been told? They believe what they want to believe -- what they've been told to believe. Would they believe the truth?
My thoughts were interrupted as the Fisk Jubilee Singers started the evening off with the rousing gospel hymn "Ain't No Grave Can Hold My Body Down." They sang that song just a few weeks earlier at Johnny's funeral. Then Tommy Cash, Johnny's brother, took the stage to begin the show. As teenagers he and I climbed trees together and chased each other around the yard. We were like brother and sister. It made me proud to see him standing tall during this difficult time.
Next, Rosanne took the stage to perform and speak about Johnny. How she was able to find the composure to sing and speak eloquently amid her grief, I have no idea. But she's just like Johnny, a consummate performer. Once onstage, she's in complete control. She inherited her daddy's genius in that way.
As I watched her perform, I thought of Johnny and me as newlyweds. When I was pregnant with Rosanne, Johnny loved to lay his hands on my stomach, rub my tummy, and sing and play the guitar to her, fascinated by her kicks and rolls. "What are you doing in there?" he'd say. Johnny was amazed by the miracle of his baby growing inside me.
We both adored kids and were anxious for a family of our own. We wanted a large family -- eight children as quick as we could have them. After our one-month wedding anniversary passed and I wasn't pregnant, I was so upset that I had disappointed Johnny. I can still hear him, so sweet, telling me, "Don't get discouraged, baby! It's only been one month. We'll get our baby, don't you worry." When we learned that I was pregnant, we literally jumped up and down with joy.
Back then our dreams were so simple, and not even music-related. Johnny sold appliances door-to-door in east
Our main form of entertainment was Cash family picnics at the park. That's how we had our fun. In the evenings I would roll my hair on our bed while Johnny sat next to me and played his guitar and wrote songs. And we listened endlessly to music on the radio. Hank Snow was always Johnny's favorite. And we both loved George Jones, Ferlin Husky, Ernest Tubb, and the Grand Ole Opry radio program. When I look back, those were the happiest days ever. We didn't have much, but we had each other.
There was nothing back then to suggest a superstar in the making or the material success that would come within a year after we were married. Nothing to suggest that fifty years later, Johnny would be loved by millions of fans and celebrated as the greatest country music artist of all time. Johnny was just my husband back then. A career in music was something we only dreamed about.
I later learned that an astounding ten million viewers tuned in to watch the memorial tribute show on television, and I marvel at the tremendous influence Johnny had in his lifetime. But at the same time I'm not at all surprised.
From the very beginning, even from his very earliest public performance, Johnny had an innate ability to connect with audiences and command their attention. He had a magnetism unlike anyone I have ever met. I don't know if it was his height -- he was over six feet tall -- or it might have been his distinctive walk. With those long legs of his, you couldn't help but be transfixed by him. I don't know what it was. But he was captivating to watch. You felt the power of his presence when he was in the room. Even as his wife I sensed that. And on that night, just like the enormous black-and-white portrait of Johnny hanging center stage, his presence still loomed large.
While I sat in the church pews of the Opry, watching all those hundreds of people revere Johnny, I was struck by their laughter and comments celebrating Johnny's darker side. They all admire the man who angrily gave the finger in that famous photograph and kicked out the footlights of the Opry. They hail him as "'s favorite bad boy," dangerous and unpredictable. A lot of people think that was all funny. I never did. That wasn't Johnny. That violent, belligerent side wasn't him at all. That was drugs.
The real story, in my mind, that should be told is how one person and so many lives can be unalterably changed because of drugs. Johnny was tortured. Our family was tortured. For years he lived under the control of pills and did things he never would have done if he'd been sober. He fogged his mind so that he lived a double life. And he learned to live and be comfortable in that skin. I know we would still be married today if the drugs hadn't entered our lives.
So as the night unfolded I experienced a whole realm of emotions. Every person taking the stage shared a personal snapshot of memories from the past with Johnny that were vastly different from my own.
I can't remember the lyrics of every song that Johnny ever recorded in his career, or in what order they hit the charts. But I can remember the wonder and silence Johnny and I shared every time we looked at each of our newborn daughters.
I can't remember every city, every venue we visited as we crisscrossed the country on his tours, nor can I remember the names and faces of all of his bookers, label executives, and the like. But I do remember the feel of his hand squeezing mine backstage -- his secret assurance to me that I was his.
I can't remember details of each of Johnny's career milestones, but I remember hearing Johnny tell me that he loved me for the first time at our bench along the River Walk in
I remember our wedding day and the pride I felt the first time I wrote my name, Mrs. Johnny Cash.
I remember the soothing sound of Johnny's voice as he gently combed his fingers through my hair and lulled me to sleep with a whisper as he sang "Love Me Tender" at the end of a busy day.
I remember the giggles of our girls -- our "babies" -- on Christmas morning as Johnny played with them.
I remember the delicious smell of Johnny making biscuits in our kitchen with a recipe only he knew by heart.
I remember all the fun we had at home with our menagerie of animals around the house -- horses, dogs, a monkey, and a parrot.
I remember fishing with Johnny alone, just him and me, and how he loved to sit back and watch me cast, then wait and laugh each time I panicked when I caught something.
I remember us dyeing his hair black in the kitchen sink, and one time crying laughing when we tried bleaching it blond -- a mistake we quickly fixed before anyone could see.
Those are the slices of life I remember.
Nobody in that auditorium knew Johnny the way I did. Nobody loved him like I loved him. None of the people who tuned in to watch the show on television has any idea about the real man Johnny was. But I do. He was a wonderful, decent man. He was my strong, protective husband, and I knew he loved me.
Johnny was tender, sweet, and vulnerable. A writer of sugary, emotional love poems.
Here's a box of candy, Viv,
And if it's good and sweet,
Say "It's Johnny's love materialized"
With every bite you eat.
If it isn't tasty, hon,
Give Shraft the blame for that.
But if it's like my love for you,
It's bound to make you fat.
I never did stop loving Johnny, and that made getting on with my life after our divorce very difficult. Of course, he and I both moved on with new marriages and new lives, but I have always believed in my heart that what happened to our marriage should never have happened. I will never believe it was God's will.
Recently our daughter Kathy asked me pointedly, "Mom, you never got over divorcing Daddy, did you?" Leave it to our children to make uncomfortable observations. But she's right. I've never been able to admit that until recently. Years after Johnny and I divorced, I struggled with the pain and grief. I tortured myself with regret and second-guessing. What could I have done differently? Could I have fought harder to save the marriage? I still desperately miss the family we had, just Johnny, the girls, and me.
My daughters have always told me, "Mom, you have to revisit and examine your past in order to heal. You have to walk through it before you can get over it." That might be true, but it's not the easy way out. The easy way out is to stuff your feelings and go on. Pretend it never happened, pretend you don't have all those emotions. That's what I've done up until now.
You would think, wouldn't you, that when Johnny died it would be the end of the story for me. Instead it was just the beginning. It was the beginning of my search for answers and healing and doing all those things that my daughters told me I needed to do in order to heal. Revisiting my past was something I had always avoided. Now I knew I had to. For the first time in my life, my desire for truth was greater than any fear or doubt I had in making the journey. The first step, though, would require me to go back to the very beginning.
Copyright © 2007 by Dick Distin and Ann Sharpsteen
Buy 'I Walked the Line: My Life With Johnny'