Virginia's take: a wife's loving tribute to Gritty Flyright's Wes Liston
By Virginia Liston
We lived in Smoaks for two years and had a great time. Two school teachers, with goats, chickens and cows playing part-time farmer. Friends would come out and stay and we would play music and games and enjoy the quiet evenings that the rural South offers.
It has been my experience that as soon as you think you have life figured out, it comes along and pulls the rug out from under you. It is those who learn to tuck and roll that grow. But that is not where this story begins. It dates back to 2006 in Columbia, many years before, at the University of South Carolina where I was studying to become an elementary school teacher. As a wide-eyed, curly-headed girl from the mountains of Virginia, I had managed to make a few good friends and was enjoying my time as a college student.
As the years went on, our cohort of future educators got smaller and we all got to know each other a little better. Most of us were female, with a few males, one who caught my eye. His name was Wes Liston. I will never forget the day he walked into one of our classes, and as most elementary classes began, we were asked if anyone would like to share. Now, the intent of this question is to make connections between the content of the class and our practicums. But on this day, slow-talking, good-looking Wes had something different to share. A car had hit him on the way to class. As we all gasped, the fact that a car hit him and he still came to class was much more than we could fathom. But that’s Wes. Once he has his mind set that he is going to do something, well he is going to do it.
During his planning period, he would step into the kindergarten classrooms to read with the younger children. He was reminded how much we all learn through music, and saw a need for music in the upper elementary classrooms as well.
Wes and I got along famously. We had so much in common and were fast friends. We bonded over our love for music and would sit in my Jeep for hours listening to the Bellamy Brothers, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, John Prine, George Strait — the list goes on. As time passed, our friendship grew into a more romantic relationship. Which was a big deal, because I always told my mother I would never date a boy from South Carolina. But Wes was different. He was wide open and had a way of making you feel like you have known him for your whole life. He never did anything halfway.
We spent our Senior Year student teaching and taking our last classes to graduate. It was an intensely stressful year. That is when Wes began to get sick. We did not know what was wrong, just that something wasn’t right. Symptoms of abdominal pain were mild and infrequent and the doctors suggested it was likely a stomach ulcer. He pushed on as we found our way to graduation in May 2007. Wes was offered jobs in Columbia schools that others, including myself, would have killed to teach at. But he turned them all down and went to Smoaks, South Carolina, to the place where his grandfather grew up and his family first settled.
We brought in 2009 from a hospital room watching our beloved Gamecocks play football. I stayed as long as I could and was all but drug out of the room to let someone else come and stay with him.
He taught 4th Grade at Bell’s Elementary School, a country school dating back to the 1950s. It was along what has been dubbed the “Corridor of Shame” because of the lack of attention the schools were given. The bathrooms were outside and cables hung from the outdoor hallways. But Wes was in heaven. During his planning period, he would step into the kindergarten classrooms to read with the younger children. He was reminded how much we all learn through music, and saw a need for music in the upper elementary classrooms as well.
It was these experiences that would ultimately lead him to buy his first harmonica and guitar. With the help of his friend Brad Elliot, he learned to play a few chords and brought the power of music into his own classroom. He was exactly where he wanted to be and loved those children and the community with all he had. Unfortunately, that May, Wes’s mysterious sickness became more serious. I will never forget the nurse dropping her pen due to her hands shaking because of the appearance of Wes. He was now in tremendous pain and immediately sent to the Emergency Room where they would again misdiagnose him. This time withMesenteric Adenitis.
He went to a Gastroenterologist Specialist in Spartanburg, not far from his hometown. The doctor was optimistic until his mother asked about Crohn’s Disease.
After antibiotics and rest, things would temporarily get better, but eventually turn to worse as we started our second year of teaching. Life tugged at our rug and we were engaged in August 2008 — a Summer 2009 wedding was set! I had taken a teaching job in Summerville, South Carolina, while living in Mount Pleasant. We were commuting to spend time together and madly in love. By September, his condition had gone drastically downhill. He went to a Gastroenterologist Specialist in Spartanburg, not far from his hometown. The doctor was optimistic until his mother asked about Crohn’s Disease. We were told that this would be a worse case scenario and we would only discuss Crohn’s if he found it in his colonoscopy.
Unfortunately, after the colonoscopy we learned Wes did in fact have Severe Crohn’s Disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system wrongly attacks areas from the esophagus to the colon. For Wes, his ileum (where the small and large intestine meet) had been so severely attacked it was all but closed. You must understand. We were young and invincible and had just been given a very serious diagnosis. The rug was pulled out, and we did our best to tuck and roll. Wes continued to teach while undergoing Remicade injection treatments as an immunosuppressant every week at a local hospital to reduce the inflammation in his intestines. But by December, it was out of hand and he was rushed into an emergency surgery as the inflammation was actually scar tissue and Wes, a once 180-pound, 24-year-old, in the prime of his life was now only 132 pounds, in excruciating pain, and malnourished struggling to process solids and liquids.
As time passed, our friendship grew into a more romantic relationship. Which was a big deal, because I always told my mother I would never date a boy from South Carolina.
We brought in 2009 from a hospital room watching our beloved Gamecocks play football. I stayed as long as I could and was all but drug out of the room to let someone else come and stay with him. The surgery was a success. They removed the diseased area of his intestines and Wes went into remission! That July, we married in Pawleys Island and had nothing but joy and excitement for our future together. We lived in Smoaks for two years and had a great time. Two school teachers, with goats, chickens and cows playing part-time farmer. Friends would come out and stay and we would play music and games and enjoy the quiet evenings that the rural South offers. But I am not a country girl and after many “polite suggestions” Wes agreed to relocate. We found James Island, a wonderful community in which Wes could still have a decent size lot and I could have a neighbor and grocery store less than 30 minutes away! With our move came new jobs/schools as well.
Wes was in remission for three years when he came home one day not feeling well. After a few weeks of familiar symptoms, a colonoscopy revealed that his Crohn’s Disease had returned. This time, once again, to be found in his small intestine and also in his colon. He ended the school year on FMLA after missing up to 40 days of work, and after six hard-fought years in the classroom, was forced to leave teaching, a profession in which he excelled and felt called to do. It was an extremely difficult time, and we both struggled to find our role. Wes tutored students, served as a therapist with the Early Autism Project, cleaned carpet, and hustled to find any type of job he could do that would not cause too much stress, the number one trigger of his disease.
Wes has polished the floors under the rug that was pulled out from under him, and I could not be more proud.
During this time, Wes also dove into music as therapy. Now the guitar was no longer sitting in the classroom, it had found its way into our home. This tough season would be the first sign of a serious journey with music as he experimented with playing and singing for himself.
Now I am here to tell you I have always told Wes he was a good singer. But it was not until the day that he walked into our house, with no shirt or shoes, and asked me if I heard drums, that he would be put on a path to believe he could sing. At first, I thought he had lost it. But he swore he heard drums, and he was going to find them. To say Wes marches to his own drum is an accurate statement. But, on this day, Wes Liston literally marched down our street, shirtless, shoeless, to someone else’s drum. And he marched right up to their front door. I was not there, but by his story a woman answered the door. He asked her if someone was playing the drums. She took him to a room inside the house where her husband, Graham Whorley, was hitting those cool beats that caught Wes’s ear. A fast friendship formed with a guitar virtuoso and local musician who had played music his entire life.
This tough season would be the first sign of a serious journey with music as he experimented with playing and singing for himself.
Wes dove into his newfound passion and saw it as something feasible while working part-time jobs. Graham became mentor offering advice and meaningful feedback. When he was ready to perform, he joined Graham on Tuesday nights at Brick House Kitchen, a unique live music venue on James Island. Then, as time went on, Graham and his village of supporters challenged him to play and sing more for himself.
Wes has a way of being in the right place at the right time. Bobby Compton, a musician from Georgia, for example, once brought him up on stage at the Georgia Theatre to secretly let him play unplugged to help get his stage fright under control — with a promise that he would inevitably become a performer. His friend Brad Elliott not only taught him to play guitar, but served as songwriting inspiration and the connection to a new friend and guitarist, David Kascak. Wes and David formed the group we know today as Gritty Flyright. The two quickly added friend and saxophonist Jamal Hall to form an acoustic trio that served as the roots of what became a 10-piece collective playing public and private shows based right here in Charleston, South Carolina.
We were young and invincible and had just been given a very serious diagnosis.
Since all of this began, we have welcomed two beautiful boys into this world. I left teaching and found a job that I love. His music has flourished, and he is writing and releasing original music, leading with the same gumption of the boy I first met who came to class after being hit by a car. Wes has polished the floors under the rug that was pulled out from under him, and I could not be more proud. He manages his Crohn’s disease with strength, raises our boys with grace, and sings like a son of a gun. To know him is to love him. I do.