Hours after crews recovered the remains of Megan Cramer from the rubble that once was JJ’s restaurant, friends went inside her Kansas City apartment.
Along with her belongings and her stacks and stacks of books, which she often would read in a favorite leather chair, was a card. All filled out, for close friend Donn Davis’ birthday.
It was just like Megan, her friends and family say, to remember someone else. And to be early. His birthday isn’t until June.
“When they handed it to me,” said Davis, who had known Megan for more than a decade, “that’s the first time I really cried.”
Since Tuesday evening, when a gas leak led to an explosion at JJ’s restaurant and Megan was the only staffer unaccounted for, friends and family have tried to come to grips with what happened.
First, there was panic, when she couldn’t be found.
Now there’s the finality of it all. Just Tuesday morning, she had spoken to her mom, Genny Cramer, in Springfield. Megan, 46, was tired, having worked long shifts, and was looking forward to a day off Thursday.
Instead, on Thursday, her family got official word from the medical examiner’s office that the remains recovered the day before did indeed belong to Megan — their daughter, sister and aunt.
“I will occasionally find myself thinking the worst, of what it might have been like for her,” said her dad, Carter Cramer, a visual person who Genny says keeps having images flash in his mind of the restaurant walls falling in on his daughter. “But then I go to who she was.”
And who she was is what’s keeping family and friends together right now. They try to move past the explosion and sorting out the details of what happened and why. They’ll leave that to the investigators, who plan to have a report next week.
For now, those closest to Megan find strength in their memories of her, a former lawyer who found her love in restaurants, serving and helping people.
“She had a connection with people in general that is undeniable,” said Martin Diggs, a server at JJ’s who also had worked with Megan at The Melting Pot where she trained him about six years ago. “You know the tone when someone’s being fake, that fake sincerity? That doesn’t come across with her. She was tremendously genuine.”
She’d been at JJ’s for only about five months, lured from The Melting Pot by Kevin Fossland, another server who had worked there with her and Diggs.
Fossland typically worked Tuesday nights, but he wasn’t on the schedule for this one. Since the explosion, his mind has been consumed with the friend who would often touch his shoulder, give it a squeeze and call it her “love pat.”
“I think knowing that we all have a lot on our minds as well as our plates, that plays into the fact that this hasn’t settled in yet,” Fossland said Friday. “The fact I’m not going to see Megan again.”
Or be able to confide in her, as many of her friends did, when something was going wrong. Or get a good book recommendation.
She loved all things writing, from the New Yorker magazine — to which her family gave her a subscription every Christmas — to anything written by Maya Angelou.
She was also quite the activist and once helped found the first chapter of the lesbian and gay student group at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, her alma mater.
And she would counsel young people as they were coming out.
“She was one of those people who had great wit but would never say, ‘Let me tell you a joke,’ ” said sister Stephanie Cramer, a Springfield artist who is six years older than Megan.
“She could look at you, give you that smile and you knew that she had lots of layers and this person was very deep and very loving.
“ This has been very hard.”
Davis called down to Springfield about 7:30 Tuesday night. He left voicemails for Megan’s parents, both retired professors from Missouri State University, and Stephanie.
“This is an emergency,” he said. “It concerns Megan. Please call me back as soon as you can.”
He soon spoke to Stephanie. The conversation, he said, was the hardest of his life.
“There’s been an explosion at JJ’s, and no one has heard from Megan,” he told Stephanie. “And we’ve been trying to locate her.”
Those who know the Cramer family say they’re tight. They vacation together and spend holidays either in Kansas City or Springfield. Stephanie’s daughter, August McGrail, would often be the topic of her proud aunt’s stories.
They also would talk by phone many times each week, or sometimes just leave messages.
“I’d call and say, ‘This is your main man, just called to say I love you,’ ” Carter Cramer said. “She’d call back an hour or two later and say, ‘Back at you.’ ”
And often Megan would leave messages for Stephanie.
“This is your sister,” she would tell Stephanie. “I’m just calling to tell you I love you. You don’t have to call back. You are magical.”
So when friends couldn’t find Megan on Tuesday evening, after searching hospitals and her apartment, finding her car where she parked it and feverishly texting friends looking for her, her family knew the worst had to have happened.
“We knew she would have called us,” Genny said.
Added Stephanie: “Within an hour of the explosion, she would have found the phone. She would have found us if she was alive.”
Friends in Kansas City thought the same.
Many of her co-workers and friends gathered Tuesday night as the debris of JJ’s still smoldered. Along with them, her regular customers have been sharing stories.
In her years as a server, she collected quite a following. At The Melting Pot, people would call and ask whether she was working on a special night. Even though they would be celebrating an anniversary or birthday, sometimes they would postpone it, just so Megan could be their server.
Or the restaurant would call Megan on her day off and tell her one of her regulars would be in that night. She would come in just to serve them.
“There are a few stories,” Diggs said. “Someone once showed up at The Melting Pot and they said she now worked at JJ’s. And they left and came over to JJ’s. She really did have something about her. An aura.”
Her family will have a funeral in Springfield. They want it to be a celebration of her life. Maybe they’ll read some of her poetry, which she’d begun to hone in the past several years.
Since the explosion, each member of the Cramer family has dealt with the loss in his or her own way. August remembers the times she spent with her aunt, confiding in her some things she wouldn’t even tell her mother.
Mom sees her daughter frozen in a picture from when she was a little girl in a funny black hat.
“She was precious,” Genny Cramer said.
Dad has seen another image. He pulled into the garage one afternoon since the explosion and saw his daughter, a wide smile on her face.
“It was so sad, because I knew she is gone,” Carter Cramer said. “Yet on the other hand it was so beautiful that I could hold that smile for a while.”
Stephanie started to paint. It’s what her sister, her biggest supporter, would have wanted. Stephanie is painting a portrait of Megan.
“I’m avoiding all newspapers,” Stephanie said. “No TV. I’ve asked my parents to turn it off when I’m around.”
So she can concentrate on Megan.
Friends in Kansas City will have a memorial service in the near future, one where her co-workers and friends and regular customers can come and share memories.
Davis now cherishes the card Megan bought for him. The one she signed.
He reads her words and remembers her. Not just her sense of humor, but how she was a loyal friend.
One day he’ll frame the card, so he can always see her last words to him.
In a way, her goodbye.