When Meegan Johnston became ill, her children Patrick and Bobby were 11 and 13. She was determined to live to see them become men. Patrick is now 21 years old and working as an information technology specialist at Smitty’s Lumber. Bobby is 23 and working at the Fort Belvoir Marina. He was married this summer. Their mother died on March 9. She had seen what she needed to see.
Johnston grew up on Royal Street in Old Town Alexandria and attended St. Mary’s School. “That’s where she grew up,” said her husband John Johnston. “That’s where her life was.”
She contracted Hepatitis C through a liver transplant in the 1970’s. She showed the first symptoms of the liver disease in 1991. In 1996, it became apparent that the disease was terminal. She had a liver transplant in 1997, and another in 1999, when the first liver was rejected. “It’s a battle just coping with it,” Johnston’s husband said. “What you have to do to go through that transplant is incredible.” He cited the regimen of drugs she had to take to prevent rejection. “That kills you. Rejection drugs eventually kill you.”
But Johnston had a reason to live.
“What was important to her was to get her boys raised. It took every bit of strength she had. She fought like the dickens,” said her good friend Pam Kramer. “This is all so raw. We have been taking care of each other for the last ten years. She taught me a lot about perseverance and determination... She spent many a Mother’s Day in the hospital.”
Johnston’s brother, Kevin Powers, agrees. “Probably her single focus throughout the whole ordeal was raising her two kids… It was something she could tap into.”
And Johnston did not live for her own children only. Powers cited her “open door policy” for her sons’ friends and the children in the neighborhood. They all called her “Mrs. J.”
“She gave the kids a place to go and talk and have an adult listen without applying pressure,” Powers said. “She really, really helped a lot of kids.”
Kramer agrees. “She had the gathering house for the boys and all their friends and she loved it. They all thought of her as a second mom. She took care of all of them. Took them all in and fed them and put band-aids on their scraped knees.”
“She just wouldn’t stop,” Powers said. She never lost interest in what was going on in the world, even when she was unable to leave her bedroom. The youth “were her measuring stick,” how she kept up with the latest trends in clothes, hair, and music. “She loved music.”
Several times a year, Johnston would work to build up strength in the hospital then tell people, “I’m going to the moon.” She meant Moon, VA in Matthews County, where her mother lives. Johnston made a point of visiting her mother, even though the travel was exhausting.
LAST MONTH, Johnston’s liver and kidneys began to fail. Toxins built up in her body. On February 10 she was taken to the hospital. She stayed for ten days. While she was in the hospital, John, Bobby, and Patrick Johnston along with Powers met with her doctor. They decided that Meegan Johnston had fought her pain long enough. “The kids decided that the best thing for her wasn’t to have to suffer anymore, for her to be at peace,” John Johnston said. “She wanted to die and die in her own bed.”
The weeks between her return from the hospital on February 20 and her death were a time for the people whose lives she had influenced to come and say goodbye.
“A lot of people came to see her in the last few weeks,” said her husband. “I think it was very uplifting for her. It made her very happy to be with these people, that they would care enough to come and see her.” But “no one talked about dying because she never talked about it. She wanted it to be a good experience.”
When Johnston died in March she was 51 years old. “She absolutely accepted death,” said Powers.
John Johnston had also come to terms with her death, “Someone makes it through to the point they can and then you let them go,” he said.
Many of the young people to whom Meegan Johnston had opened her home attended her funeral at Saint Mary’s Church. They “have matured into young adults and never lost touch of what she had done and how she’d helped them,” said Powers.
For Kramer, the lack she feels is in the small, sustaining details of their shared lives. “I was diagnosed with lupus right after her first transplant. Even when she wasn’t feeling good she would come over and spend weeks with me and we would just take care of each other… I guess right now the biggest thing I miss is calling her and just talking. I had this desire at her service to give her a call and tell her everyone that was there. Stupid, girly stuff I guess.”
And how does Kramer think Johnston will be remembered? “How do you put it in a sentence? With Meegan what you saw was what she was. She let you know what she thought when she thought it.”
Powers also discussed Johnston’s legacy. “The strength of her marriage was incredible... Just keeping that family together was important for people to see.” She demonstrated that “no matter what’s going on, you can stick it out as long as you have back-up.” He said she also advocated for the importance of the youth, listening to them and letting them have a voice. “Don’t ignore them. They need to be shown they’re loved. They’re just too important.”