Today is the birthday of a very dear friend of mine. I did not get him a present; I will not be sending him a card; we will not be sharing cake together. Last September he died in a car accident on a lonely road in rural Pennsylvania. Somehow, his tiny and ancient Saturn crossed into the lane of an oncoming RV. The family in the RV was fine – there were no injuries to any of them. My friend was not so lucky.
James was a writer. He was more than that really; he was such a big personality that it seems inadequate to describe him as simply a writer or a journalist or a story-teller. He was this larger than life figure who would leave you curled in the fetal position, tears streaming down your face from laughter one day, then tell a tale that would break your heart into a million pieces the next. He was dedicated to his newspaper reporting despite his own admission that his chosen media was in its death throes. Even after working 12 hour days he still found time to write letters to political prisoners thorough Amnesty International and was always the first to get his Christmas cards mailed.
Like so many important moments in life, the moment I found out he was gone is a crystal clear memory that plays in my mind when I am least expecting. It was a Monday afternoon, about 3:30. I had just finished nursing Sophie, my then two month old. My other daughter Azania was finishing her homework at the dining room table. My cell phone rang and because it was next to her, Azania brought it to me and, seeing that it was her uncle Brad, pushed talk. I gave her my face that meant ‘don’t answer mommy’s phone because I wanted it to go to voice mail’ – a face that is beyond a 7 year olds comprehension.
“Hey Brad what’s up?”
“James. James is dead.”
I knew this was not a joke. I wanted this to be a joke, and even though Brad is one for pranks, this was not something he would ever joke about. He repeated himself and I could feel the blood draining from my face, tears welling up and spilling over, my voice shaking and thin. I looked at my children – two beautiful girls who are so full of love and joy. The older one was looking concerned at my tears, the little one looking content and full, only slightly interested by the change in my voice.
We hung up and I just cried, wishing I had answered more of his phone calls, wishing I had called him back, wishing that I could have just one more day with him. I took him for granted. I avoided his phone calls because I did not want to hear about his problems. I did not want to talk about mental illness or dating or political prisoners. I did not want to tell him what I was feeling – that maybe this job I had been going after was a big mistake. Maybe the dream of a political science PhD was someone else’s dream. Maybe I had no idea what I was doing with my life, and was terrified that I would be swimming around in this limbo forever.
James would regularly tell me that I needed to write. I would usually try to change the subject, trying to shake off his encouragement because – why? I don’t even know now. Because I could hear the words in my head but there was something stuck between the words and the vast space of the blank page. Because when I did write I felt like my 13 year old self writing angst-y, unfocused poetry that was too heavy on the metaphor and too light on the substance. I felt like I could not live up to whatever it was he saw in me, so why even start.
It seems so cliché to say now that he is gone, to honor his memory I have decided to dedicate my life to writing. It is cliché, but it is also partly true. I want to honor his memory – not only because I think he was a spectacular person who more people should have known, but also because I want to be the person he knew I could be.
A small thing to some, but mailing Christmas cards was an event I dedicated to James. While he would have his out by black Friday, I would find myself staring at my unopened and un-mailed box of cards well after the New Year. This year, though I did not start on Thanksgiving, I did manage to get my cards mailed before Christmas.
The other way I will honor his memory is to write. I will do what he knew I loved even when I refused to acknowledge it. I will honor him with words.
Happy Birthday, dear James.