Friday, July 03, 2009

"Be a Little Kinder"

When people asked how we were doing, Mom often said "we're laughing as much as we're crying." That's true, and feels like a worthy tribute to James. Our friend Gordon Thompson (who also suffered the loss of his youngest child, a woman I always thought of as my first 'little sister') knew James all his life, even having him in a class in college, and for several days running Gordon comforted us with memories on 3X5 cards. At one point he wrote "James talked like he was double-parked," and the sheer, concise, brilliance of this observation had us all laughing and crying at the same time. I'm not sure that's a sensation I've ever experienced before. It's weird. Not bad, necessarily, but weird.


Before I had arrived in Indiana, Mom and Dad told Mary and Tony about a friend of theirs seeing James a few years back and saying, "well, he sure got all the looks."

Mary laughed and said, 'you poor guys, now all you've got is Horseface and Monkeyboy.'

Tony --the love of my sister's life-- said, 'Patrick doesn't look like a monkey!'

Mary responded, 'have you seen his feet?'

Let me hasten to add that once Tony got Mary alone, he told her gently but firmly that she most definitely was NOT a horseface, and he really hoped she'd stop saying things like that about herself. He's a good egg, that Tony.


I learned another story about the plethora of heroclix (thank you, Marta, I thought hero-clicks looked wrong). James did love them, there's no doubt, and as with so many things, he happily collected and displayed them by the truckload. But there was another motivation involved. A few years back good friends of his opened a gaming store in Richmond. New businesses are always risky ventures, none more so than specialty stores, especially in economically fragile Midwestern towns. James and his friend Matt decided they would, between them, buy a case of heroclix each month, as a way of patronizing a business they liked, and supporting friends they cared about. I have no idea how much money that involved, nor how much help it was in the long run, but I'm coming to see that such concrete, practical expressions of support were typical of my younger brother. I want to be more like him. Gonna work on that.


After the memorial, as Mary and I were winding down from the day, I said, "That was just lovely. So now we get James back, right?"

Without missing a beat, Mary said, "Right. That's the rule."

All righty then. Rules are rules.

Mary and David Garman were the sweet, valiant folks who stepped in to take on the burden of planning the memorial for us, allowing our addled brains to roam free. It's amazing how many little details a memorial can involve, and I think we would have anticipated few if any of them. Mary and David's work, not the least of which was rallying and organizing the help of many other wonderful folks, was invaluable. (They also officiated the happier occasion of Mary and Tony's wedding; we have much to thank them for.) After the service, even as they attended to god only knows how many tasks, Mom reported each of them found a moment to hug her and say "this really sucks."

Yes it does. It really, really does. We never lose sight of that fact.


When James was little we used to joke privately that he would be president someday because eventually everyone would just get tired of him asking to be. His cheerful, sunny relentlessness could wear you down; as I've mentioned before he could also be overly sensitive and thin-skinned. Combine that with being small for his age, and you had the ideal victim, giving even the most casual of bullies satisfyingly explosive reactions. He struggled academically and socially more than either Mary or I did; it wasn't until junior high that his dyslexia was discovered. Things started to turn around his junior year of high school though; since Dad was on sabbatical, he, Mom and James went off to Southport Island, Maine for the year. James came into his own in many ways during that school year. For one thing he suddenly shot up to 6'1"; when I came to visit at Christmas, I could no longer deny he had passed me in height (it had probably actually happened the previous summer), but to his credit James limited his gloating to a half-smile as he leaned WAAAAAY over to hug me at the airport. I got over it, especially once I realized his height cut way down on the bullying. He also found himself on the honor roll for the first time in his life, and by the end of the year some of his classmates had begun coming over for study groups with him. Even after returning home, James was never again off the honor roll. Something had clicked.

Nonetheless he still often came across as young for his age, leading many to dismiss or under-estimate him. When James decided he wanted to go to Earlham for college for example, a few people confided to my parents that they didn't believe he'd be able to hack it, and he really ought to be encouraged to go somewhere else. More than one of them suggested James needed to have the apron strings cut, maybe by dropping him randomly by the side of the road somewhere like an unwanted pet. It will probably come as no surprise to other parents that the most confident, 'expert' advice tended to come from people who did not, in fact, have children of their own. Mom and Dad decided to let him make his own decision, in part because they realized that after they allowed Mary and me attend Earlham, refusing James the same option would have smacked loudly of rejection.

When he started college, Mom gave him a little card with this quotation from Calvin Coolidge on it.

"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."

When I was cleaning out James' kitchen, I found this card, yellow with age, stuck to his refrigerator door. Mom has it hanging above the kitchen sink now. Dad remembered James saying more than once that his motto was "don't give up." There came a point where Mom and Dad routinely told him "continue confounding the experts," because he had already done so many times. Some people remained unsurprised and unimpressed by his efforts, but many others did have their low expectations refuted. Some were even big enough to admit it. James confounded many 'experts' when he graduated from college.

There was a certain amount of tut-tutting from some quarters when he moved back into the family home after school. Actually this put him firmly in the center of a national trend at the time (1991), with minimal job opportunities creating a country full of 'boomerang kids.' Nonetheless the (childless) experts once again furrowed their brows. James did eventually get his own place: immediately next door. A few years later he moved again, this time a block away. As he continued to expand his social circle and come into his own as an adult, family remained firmly at the center of his life and routine. James always knew there were people who thought less of him for staying close to home, but I think he came to see that wasn't his problem. He did maintain all his life certain child-like qualities, but they became tempered with an adult perspective. What had been immaturity transformed into a child-like openness that disarmed people and made him friends across all boundaries of sex, age, religion, orientation and race. His fondness for games and toys transformed into a contagious joy and a passion for gift-giving. Just as wonderful though, was his grace in receiving gifts. When a new friend offered James some extra tomato plants, he was surprised and touched at how excited James got at the thought of sharing fresh tomatoes with his family. I have many friends -and you know who you are- who hate receiving gifts of any kind. I'll admit I'm not always as good at it as I could be. The talent James had for it is rare. Gonna work on that too.


Years ago, for reasons that are lost in the mists of time, whenever James and Mary were at dinner together, he would hand her the wine cork and say, "here, this is for thy collection."

Over the next several months and years, in tones of increasing exasperation, Mary explained that she didn't HAVE a cork collection, had NEVER HAD a cork collection, was not remotely interested in STARTING a cork collection, but none of that stopped him. As time went on, Tony began doing it too. Next James began sneaking corks into Mary's home, hiding them in random places. This last trip I found one inside the bottle of ibuprofen.
Somehow this then led to James creating sculptures out of corks to be left in her place when he could (she probably came to regret having him cat sit for her). Dinosaurs, spiders, cobras, entire villages of people were left conspicuously displayed throughout the house. Eventually she just gave in.

James' cork art was just the beginning though. While he was taking carpentry classes and learning to build furniture, he continued to make little trinkets, talismans, weapons and other gew-gaws out of sticks, bits of wood, duct tape, cardboard, toothpicks, wire and dental floss. Many of them may have been pressed into service as game pieces in one of his games, but I think he made them for their own sakes. They were fun little things to do with his hands, much in the same way friendship bracelets are for me.

We tried to give away his remaining creations, only to be told repeatedly, "I already have many things James made especially for me." I'm in the same boat. I have a panoply of weapons fit for a tiny Medieval warrior, a miniature staff topped with a horned cyclops head, and my favorite, a wooden key, with its own carrying pouch, that James said was my key to "life, happiness, or whatever thee wants it to be." The staff and weapons have hung on the wall beside my computer for years now. I had tucked the key away in a box full of trinkets. It's now sitting on top my monitor. (See photos above.)


I don't mean to suggest there was no heartbreak for James. I know he suffered great disappointment in his work life for one. After years during and after college volunteering at his dream job, he was finally offered a part-time paid position. It seemed like the years of sacrifice had paid off. I don't pretend to know the whole story, nor will I claim to be objective, but it appears to me James was taught a vicious lesson in office politics. First his immediate superiors were fired, but the people doing the firing encouraged James to stay, saying he was their 'ace in the hole.' Then when it became convenient, they canned him too, telling him he had been mishandling his principle task for the previous two years. Sadly it was done in such a way as to plant a canker of doubt that ate at his morale for years afterwards, leading him to wonder if maybe, just maybe he hadn't been as good at his job as he had thought. I think maybe for the first time in his life James may have lost his persistence at that point.

I won't say more about that right now, okay? I can feel the blind rage building. I'm incoherent when I'm raging.

Eventually he returned to the handyman jobs he had held before, cobbling together a modest income and honing a variety of skills. One friend told us that James planted all the perennials in her yard, and she will think of him every spring when they come back. Another friend told us about a small rock retaining wall James had helped her family build in their front yard. Her teenage daughter remembered James teaching her eight year old self how to lift with her legs, simultaneously making her feel her involvement was valued and appreciated. I can't think of better monuments to his work life. Mary and I tried to find the retaining wall (apparently the new owners kept it), but our faulty memories didn't lead us to the right address. We'll visit it when I'm next in town.
"It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than 'try to be a little kinder.'"

-- Aldous Huxley

I came across this quotation about a year ago, and it immediately made me think of my younger brother. He was a kind man. I don't mean nice. Nice is what you write in a person's yearbook when you have nothing else to say. It's what you tell someone who has just expressed amorous feelings you don't return. "You're such a nice guy (but...)" James was kind, in an outgoing, dynamic way. I learned at the memorial that he saw his game nights, for example, as a recovery group for computer-game addicts; you were still playing a game, but you were also seeing other people. He helped more than one friend through a painful divorce, both in practical ways like helping them move, and more intangible ways like phoning them, dropping in to visit, inviting them to tea, and yes, to come play games. He knew that often when people demanded solitude, what they most needed was human contact, and he was braver than I am about drawing them out. As Dad said, he was very funny, but he was never intentionally mean. He was ahead of me on that front, BIG time. I am not above indulging in a bit of humor at the expense of others, as most of you know. I doubt I'll ever really give that up, but thinking about Huxley's words and my brother's example, may make me pause and, when in doubt, 'try to be a little kinder.'


Marta said...

oh patrick. thank you again.

i once overheard a friend of mine admonish her daughter, who is a little older than trixie, never to pass up an opportunity to be kind. that has stuck with me, and i admonish my kids similarly all the time. fortunately, i have kind kids (most of the time!)

another friend used to have as the tag line on her emails "it is better to be kind than right." ten years ago i was pretty sure that being right was the most important thing in the world (and that i was right most of the time, of course); more and more these days i think, on the whole, kindness is the better course. i too struggle with that.

one of my pet peeves is people who think you have only succeeded as a parent if your children move far away and never look back. that is a sort of modern insanity that is not good for anyone as far as i can tell.

the more i read about james, the more i regret i never met him. thanks for sharing him so beautifully.



ps gordon has never been to germantown; when folks are double parked here, i think they actually SLOW DOWN, lol! especially if they are double parked right beside an empty parking place.

Java said...

I'm especially touched by the hand-carved key to life, happiness, or whatever thee wants it to be. Actually, there are so many wonderful tidbits of James in this post it's impossible to pick just one to call a favorite.

James is an inspiration. Thank you so much for sharing him with us.

Greg said...

These delightful blog posts full of memories are so wonderful to read. So many of us, we discover, were denied the joy of knowing James. Bless you for making us feel like he was our friend, our brother, too.

Poor Patrick - thee cannot escape: we are all part of thy family, now. ;)

Cork collection. Heh.

Birdie said...

Such precious memories. Print these posts and save them. I feel honored to be witness to them.

EB said...

A very rounded picture; he's alive in my mind. I don't suppose you would have written as much about him if this hadn't happened. Apart from the awfulness there is a strong kind of creativity in this.

Ben said...

Another beautiful post that made me cry. The creative process is a remarkable thing. Welcome back home, by the way...

Brian said...

I forgot about the cork collection! I loved that.

Brian said...

When I came out to spend Christmas with your family that one year, James made me a...thing. Doodad. Objet d'art. As a Christmas present. Do you remember it? It was sticks and beads, arranged sort of like a little man with his arms outstretched, balancing on two poles, all inside a clear watch box.

I was really touched by it. Baffled, but touched. James went out of his way (not just with the gift) to make me feel welcome on an occasion when I was feeling very nervous and awkward.

I just tried to find it - I thought I knew exactly where it was - but I seem to have lost it in the intervening years. Boo me.

Mark said...

"It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than 'try to be a little kinder.'"

-- Aldous Huxley

How true. It seems like such a simple sentiment and yet ... I feel that the loss of James is providing reflective lessons for all of us. Thank you for that. And love to you.


Jeaux said...

This, and all these posts, are a beautiful and moving love letter to you brother, my friend. Sober, wise, never mawkish, yet always tender and insightful - it’s the insight, I think, that is the finest tribute that one can give another. Paying attention. Sealed with the epilogue, “...gonna work on that”, that is a brother’s kiss.

You have shown us a man of a kind, creative, and playful spirit. If he sometimes exasperated, that was our failing, not his. Seems like James was one of those rare people for whom the words ‘forever young’ will always ring true.

johnmichael said...

This is a beautiful tribute.
Thank you for sharing them with us.

Marta said...

ps don't you think gordon's 3-by-5 cards make him a perfect fit for facebook? so far, i have been totally unpersuasive. perhaps you can twist his arm?

Butch said...

Patrick, through your recollections of your brother, I feel as though I know him as well. You are a master at putting your thoughts into reality. Your brother obviously, was very loved and a very special person. Thank you for sharing him in these very difficult times. I think writing about him and talking about him with your family and friends is a good way of trying to make sense out of what happened.
( play # 9 on the CD I gave you. I wrote it for my own departed sister and there is plenty of room for your brother as well. )