Tuesday, June 23, 2009


So, it turns out people want last year's hero clicks as much as they want last year's cell phone. Just in case, Dad is carefully cataloguing them, and storing each collection in its own separate baggie. During his work, he discovered some interesting (though probably not surprising) facts:

All female hero clicks have big gazangas.

The heroines, while well-endowed, are fully covered. The villainesses all have low-cut dresses.

In amongst the collection there are some surprising figures. Dad is particularly taken by the penguin hero clicks. Dad loves penguins. He wishes he could have one as a pet. He'd take it for walks, holding it by the flipper. He'll be saving out at least one of those pieces.

There are also rabbit hero clicks. We really don't understand this game.

None of us were quite ready to part with James' big yellow crocs, the ones that earned him the name Big Bird from his (our) friend Jenny. They're in pretty good shape still, but they were too big for me, Mom and Mary. They fit Dad nicely though. He's not likely to wear them out in public as James did, but even that is possible. His red high-topped Converse are already something of a legend on campus. I hadn't put it together until now: that's where James came by his Converse fascination.

Mom and I took what we hope will be the penultimate load of stuff to Goodwill today, but of course gauging that sort of thing is always risky. We think there will be only one more load.

A close friend of ours, Tom Mullen, died on saturday, at the age of 74, from a stroke. His family and ours were entwined in several ways. His older daughters were close friends of Mary's (I thought of them as additional older sisters). His son Brett and daughter Ruth were both friends of mine and James'. His late wife Nancy was a loving presence in our lives, taking as much interest and joy in our doings as she did in those of her own children's.

Tom was an accomplished man, graduating from Earlham in '56 (several of his student pranks still live in the Earlham oral tradition), then Yale Divinity School, then back to Earlham where he was dean of students, then professor of applied theology, then Dean of the Earlham School of Religion. He wrote books on faith and religion that were known for their humor. He was a smart, loving, principled man who made Earlham, and Richmond, better places. But those aren't the things that immediately spring to my mind with Tom. My first thought is, he was a hoot. Tom was a funny guy. Like many dads, he was particularly fond of tormenting his children, embarrassing them in public whenever he could. Sarah and Martha remember leaving for summer camp, and having their father chase the bus, screaming "they're taking my babies, they're taking my babies!" On another occasion, a close relative asked him please to wear a tie when she introduced him to her fiance. On the day, Tom dutifully showed up wearing a tie over his t-shirt and shorts.

As de facto daughter, Mary came in for some ribbing early on, and when Tom learned she gave as good as she got, he was thrilled. They lovingly sparred for the next forty-odd years. I'm sad to say I hadn't seen him in years, but the rest of the family got to see him one last time, when he came to give his condolences two weeks ago. Like many folks, he had a wealth of James stories (which, as you can imagine, are especially appreciated right now), and he told several of them, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying. He mentioned that James and his first wife Nancy became fond of doing jigsaw puzzles together. Mom and Mary opined that James must have bored her at times, but Tom said "Nancy Mullen didn't bore. And she certainly wasn't bored by James." Brief pause. "He bored me sometimes."

That epitomizes Tom beautifully for me, him coming to offer tears, humor and comfort in equal measure to his friends. We say good bye to him on Saturday, then to James on Sunday. We're all grateful to have a chance to offer what comfort we can to a family who has been so quick to help us in similar circumstances. I'm feeling the ties of this community very deeply right now.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Random Thoughts

From Mary:

"I'm sadder than I knew I could be."

"The only way out is through."

From Mom:

"There are no arrears of love."

From Dad:

"This isn't a tragedy. It's an absurdity."

"The circle is unbroken. We're still six."

This latter I find especially comforting; though I initially felt his lack during family grace, that experience seems to have changed. I don't think Dad is just whistling in the dark. You know that feeling when you lose a tooth, and keep feeling the gap with your tongue to see if it's still there? ("Yup, tooth is still gone.") I was doing the emotional equivalent a lot last weekend; that sensation is starting to fade.

We've been clearing out James' place, Mom generally working in the morning, Mary and I working together in the afternoon. Mary said at some point that she'd never seen a space that more spoke of its inhabitant than this one. Very true. Maybe one always feels that way, but James was a collector of various things (his museum training perhaps, though it's probably a chicken-or-egg situation) so everywhere one looked there were coins, polished stones, prisms, antique cameras, swords and keys, posters of Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Tweety-bird, and Sports Illustrated Swimsuit models. And the hero-clicks. Holy sweet mother of god, the hero-clicks. They're key elements of one of his more byzantine games and he has them by the cartload, lovingly displayed on bakers racks and bookcases. We're bringing in a friend of his who understands such things (she used to own a store) to recommend actions to take with them. They're starting to oppress me a tad, have to say, but they'll be gone soon. Damn but there are a lot of them. Mary also said "it's weird how much stuff just becomes garbage after a loved one dies." I still find myself reluctant to throw things out that are of no use to anyone, since it still feels like James will object. He loved this stuff, won't he be annoyed if we throw it away? Oh, right.

A sweet, though occasional wrenching discovery, was the number of cards he had saved, most of them from other Laceys. It's been comforting to see words of love to him, in my handwriting. I'm grateful for the evidence that I told him how much he meant to me WHILE HE WAS STILL ALIVE. Yes, of course I knew I had, but it still helped to see them there, tucked into various drawers, shelves and boxes (did I mention the gazillion boxes?) throughout his place. One card that Dad had written him some years back said (I'm paraphrasing) "This is NOT a birthday card, this is just a card to remind thee how much we love thee, and how lucky we feel to have thee in the family." If I hadn't found it, I would have thought it was something Dad had written in the last week, as an attempt to make sense (hah!) of his death. It wrecks me to think of it now (and I'm not sure I did Dad a favor by showing it to him, given how it tore him up), but oh, I am glad he wrote it, and that James saved it.

As I mentioned earlier, James had a gift for connecting with older folks, especially older shy folks. I learned yesterday that when one of his ladies needed cataract surgery, James a) overcame her resistance by reminding her that her precious and hard-won independence would require the surgery, b) accompanied her to all the doctor's appointments, c) learned how to give her eye-drops, since she couldn't do them herself and d) along with Mary, housed and fed her during the necessary recuperation time such surgery required back then. This isn't the only new-to-me story I've heard recently, but knowing this woman, how shy and wary she was of adults, I know that James' sweet, relentless persistance -a quality that could drive you crazy at times - was exactly what the situation called for.

It wasn't just older folks who warmed to James so quickly; like his dad, he was a great favorite with babies and kids. Dozens of times when we were eating in a restaurant, a baby at a nearby table would take a shine to him, and spend the entirety of his/her meal smiling and gurgling at him. One of our friends remembers how sweet he was to her three little girls, saying "how many teenagers would listen so patiently to the goings on of five-, seven- and ten-year-old girls?" More than one person has mentioned James' gift for listening. To be honest, I would not have previously listed that as one of his gifts, but given the deluge of people mentioning it, it's clear it was. What do older brothers know, anyway?

I realized today that most of the people speaking about James spent more time with him as an adult than I did. As is probably clear from my memories thus far, the sweet kid (up through first year of college) is the one I knew best. In some ways that gave me a useful perspective. I would see him once or twice a year, and be able to note the ways he had come into his own just a bit more since the last time. The rest of the family, seeing him every day, couldn't always see the changes as much as I did. It's humbling and touching to realize that his friends probably knew him better than I did, or at least knew him in ways I never did. That's probably the norm more often than not, of course. I'm sure friends of my sister and parents also have insights and stories that would surprise me, but I think James probably came with more of them. Frankly that's good.

We're learning too, or relearning rather, how many people we love are part of this sad fellowship, the families who lost adult children. Mom and Dad have very close friends who are proving to be enormous help in all this, even as they both insist they don't have any answers. Mary has learned that one of her friends AND her mother-in-law each have brothers who were killed by cars on June 6th. There's a weird connection to share. I too have been buoyed up by all of you, in particular the ones who have lost loved ones. It's a club we all join eventually, I know, and everyone agrees that doesn't make it any easier.

Even as we're occasionally ambushed by strong emotions (a Joan Osborne song caught Mary and me VERY off-guard on Saturday), we are, of course, grateful for the love that is making this grief so powerful. We know things will get easier to some extent, in time. A new 'normal' will take shape eventually. We don't ever expect to stop grieving though. Nor do we want to.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

First Day, Richmond

I feared it would hurt being in the place where I expect to see James around every corner. There is some of that. I already thought I saw him once, coming up the sidewalk to my sister's place, where I am staying. I keep forgetting he's dead, and making plans to do various things with him. Things pop up that trigger the thought "must tell that to James." Holding hands for grace the first time at dinner last night, when it was just four of us, was a punch to the gut I hadn't predicted. The circle was just different. I could feel it. Apparently Saturday night, both Cleo the cat and Fang the dog sensed something was amiss too. Quite uncharacteristically they followed Mom and Dad up to bed that night. Neither of them stayed for long, but they seemed to need to tuck the folks in. For Fang in particular, going upstairs (where baths happen!) is VERY unusual.

Being surrounded by people who knew and loved James, though, makes a big difference. Brian came to be with me on Saturday, and it wasn't until he was there that I realized how helpful it was to have someone to talk to who actually knew and liked James. Here of course, there are hordes of them. It just so happens quite a few of them had seen James in the last week. More than one person has identified James as his/her best friend. College professors, retirees, gaming pals, former co-workers, men, women of all ages have described him as their 'buddy' a lot. His contagious happiness, kindness and forgiving spirit has been mentioned several times, independent of the obituary Dad wrote (see below).

There have been funny stories too, as there should be. Mom says her most vivid memory of him presently is his face turning bright red from laughter, sometimes having to run into the kitchen to spit when he'd been caught unprepared by a comment. Another friend, one who keeps a curse jar (ten cents a letter, apparently), told about a time when she was recounting to James some mistreatment she'd suffered at the hands of a former spouse. Suddenly James began rooting around in his pants pocket, pulled out a handful of change, threw it in the jar and yelled "asshole!"

We've also, in the most affectionate manner, been able to do a bit of laughing AT James too. We've all acknowledged how he could sometimes just BORE YOUR FACE OFF, when he got going on the minutiae of some new game, or documentary he'd seen (one involving sea turtles was particularly memorable), a favorite TV show or god only knows what. The man remembered detail. Dear GOD he remembered detail. It was heartbreaking to see when he knew he was losing his audience, clearly not know what to do -- so he'd talk faster. James had something called pressed speech, which meant he was prone to speaking so quickly he was indecipherable. At its most extreme he would simply leave syllables out, in his need for speed. He was always quick to offer assistance in any way he could, sometimes offering it two, three, or EIGHT MILLION TIMES. He never took offense at the refusals though.

Hearing about the joy he brought other people though, at the lift they always felt when they ran into him, while not surprising, is balm to my vague fears about whether he was truly happy. Being in his environment, around people who knew him in different ways than me, I'm remembering that yes, he really was that happy, straightforward, what-you-see-is-what-you-get guy. And on the subject of the kissing: I've learned that James began the habit back in 2005 when Dad suffered his second, more frightening heart attack. There is even more comfort in that habit now; James had breakfast with Mom and Dad on Saturday, then he took some stuff to the dump for them, as a favor. Before he left, as always, he hugged and kissed them both. That expression of love is their last contact with him. I guess I can say the same thing, even if my hug and kiss was back in December. And yes Jeaux, we are maintaining that tradition.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, we had some of the birthday cake last night. We all agreed it was one of the best ones Mom ever made. I'm glad we didn't stomp on it.

Tomorrow the four of us will tackle his apartment.

Below is an exerpt of the obituary Dad wrote for the local paper.

"Our beloved and loving son and brother, he was a man of principle, a gentle, generous man, and a staunch dependable friend to many, always ready to help others in the most practical ways. He knew how to care for others. he had a great capacity for happiness and brought happiness to others, and he knew how to forgive hurts. His wit was quick and always kind. We cherished his company and will cherish his memory all our lives."

Monday, June 08, 2009


My brother James officially turned 41 on Thursday, but we were going to celebrate on Sunday (I was going to attend by phone). Saturday morning he was killed in a collision. Mom had just taken his birthday cake out of the oven when she got the news.

I don't know what happened to the cake. I'm a bit afraid to ask. I just know that if my sister got her way, they threw it in the backyard that evening, then she and Dad took turns stomping on it. Mom might have joined in. Not sure what Tony would do.
(Christmas, 2002?)
My baby brother (which is the only was I am able to think of him presently) never knew a stranger. As a more reserved person who has spent the last twenty years living in cities, it sometimes made me nervous to witness him strike up conversations with anybody, anywhere, at any time. Sometimes people were put off by it; even with familiar folks, James didn't always read his audience well. But he was just as likely to end up having a warm lively chat with a new friend. Frankly, given how sensitive, even thin-skinned James could be, I have to assume he got this response far more often than not. Perhaps he tapped into the ethos of our hometown more effectively than the rest of us. Even with a population of 40,000, Richmond can still feel like a small town, and James was very much at home in it. He knew how to talk to people. He bantered cheerfully with middle-aged guys at the gym. At one point one of his bowling buddies was a woman in her sixties. (Mary and James in the kitchen at Ragoora, Co. Sligo)
Actually he had a special rapport with little old ladies. More than one lady living alone came to depend on him for weekly drives to the grocery store. James loved to drive. From day one, we all knew he would be behind the wheel as soon as it was legal. Mom joked that he came out of the womb clutching a matchbox car in each hand (I don't want to imagine what that would feel like). I still see him, as a four year old, using a Frisbee, paper plate or any flat round thing he found as a steering wheel. Had he actually been behind a wheel back then he would have been only turning donuts, since 'steering' at the time seemed to mean constantly turning corners. At a very early age he could identify makes and models of cars. I still can't do that. Even back then poor James would start to tell me the finer qualities of a vehicle and it was as if he was blowing a dog whistle for all the sense I got out of it.
I suppose it's possible he was making shit up though. Around that same time, if any plane passed overhead, he'd look up and exclaim, "hey, private jet!" He wasn't trying to fool anyone; he honestly believed every single freakin' plane he saw was owned by some tycoon. It used to drive me apeshit.
(Atop Knocknarea (noc na RAY), Co. Sligo 2002)

(James and Mary, Knocknarea, 1993)
James loved board and role-playing games of all kinds. Sadly for him, he was born into a family of people who hated such things. As a teen and adult he managed to find a large circle of friends who shared his passion, but he'd still try at regular intervals to rope one or more of us in. By funny coincidence, I've found myself playing games with friends more in the last couple of years, especially the last six months, and enjoying myself quite a bit. I was a little wary of opening the floodgates, but had planned on accepting James' offer at least a few times, when I went to visit in August.
I can't think of anything I'd like to do more right now, than play a game of Scrabble with my baby brother.
(Myrtle Beach, 1998)
In the summer of 1993, we decided to take a family vacation for the first time in at least five years. The three children were all adults, I was living in Seattle, but Mom and Dad had spent most of the previous Spring in a farmhouse in County Sligo, Eire,they had become chummy with many of the local farmers, as well as their landlord and his wife and they just had to show us. So off we went. While there was a glitch or two in housing five strong-willed adults in one small Irish farmhouse, the magic of the place touched us all, and we had a fantastic time. We ended up taking family vacations a few more times to other locations after that, heading back to Ragoora (as the farmhouse is known) together in the Fall of 2002. For reasons that presently escape me, Mary, James and I got in the habit of buying the same (or similar) article of clothing before each trip. One year it was green shorts. Another it was hats that made us all look like Chico Marx. I still have mine. Another year it was straw hats. And one year (see above) it was Hawaiian shirts. I still have that too. Funnily enough, once you have a Hawaiian shirt, opportunities to wear it start to pop up. The Chico Marx hat, not so much.
James was a big fan of hats. Most of them were rather dashing, but as he got older he got more willing to court the ridiculous. He had one fur-lined job that (especially if it wore it with his greatcoat) made him look like he was off to patrol the Swiss border. He was also fond of brightly colored converse sneakers. Mary once pointed out that when James went off to the gym, he usually looked like Neapolitan gelato; a bright orange t-shirt might top red shorts, and be finished off with purple sneakers. He also liked bow ties, and would wear one that had belonged to our maternal grandfather to special occasions. Like most kids, James preferred to blend in as much as possible; for that reason I liked watching his rather eccentric style form over the last twenty years. It seemed to me he was carving space out for himself in ways I would have never predicted.
(Mary and Tony's Wedding, 2006)
("Shake the Bunny!" Laceyland 199?)

(Christmas 2002. We all got PJ's)
James also had an abiding love for Tweety-bird. I don't really get that one either. If you look at pictures of him as a little kid, he looks a bit like Tweety-bird, frankly. Some might even see a resemblance now. Whatever the cause, he loved that bird, and managed to find some weird memorabilia related to it. I was particularly impressed by him finding -and using, like, in public- a Tweety-bird bowling ball. In the last year he was part of a team where he was the only non-Jehovah's Witness. They would have lively discussions about evolution and such things while bowling. For some reason the image of James getting up from a debate about a literal interpretation of the Bible, say, to throw his Tweety-bird at some pins makes me really, really happy. I think those guys were devoted to James, even while they despaired of his everlasting soul.
(Christmas 1989. Sybil always knew which was her best side.)
(With Lilly 1985)
(With Fang, 2002)
James inherited the Lacey love for animals, with a special mention for dogs. Like me, he spent some time earning money as a dog walker and pet sitter, expanding his network of canine and feline friends outside the family circle. When we wandered about town, he was just as likely to be warmly greeted by a four-legged friend as by a human one.
Fang seemed to have a special fondness for smooching James on the face. We theorized that the bristly texture of his beard reminded her of her mother. Dad's curly, full beard doesn't have the same dog-muzzle quality. I speak from experience, having been regularly kissed by them both.
Dad has always been an affectionate guy, and though we had to weather some shoals during my adolescence, we came out the other side still able to hug and kiss one another. There was a period where I wondered if James indulged us, the kissing in particular, because he knew it was important to us, but given his preference, we might have been a bit more mainstream manly in our expressions of affection. If that were ever the case, though, it clearly stopped being true a few years back. At that point James made a point of kissing and hugging every single one of us after every meal we shared together (he'd thoughtfully save the dog and cat for after the humans). I don't know what prompted him to start and maintain that ritual. I wonder if he adopted it as a reminder to savor every moment, to cherish the time he had with each of us. It came to mean a lot to me (though I never said anything to him about it) since I'm the only Lacey who lives far away, making family time a rare and special thing.
( Christmas, year ??)
(By Yeats' grave, Co. Sligo, 2002)
So far my three days of grieving seem each to have had a theme. Saturday I was an incoherent, watery mess, pacing about trying to find something to do, by which I mean, make James not be dead. Yesterday I refused to believe it was true, and dove into a staged reading, grateful for an involved task and some human contact. Today, have to say, the regrets, even guilt, are starting to make an appearance. I'm brooding on missed opportunities. I'm wondering if James knew, REALLY knew I loved him. I wondered often over the years if James was happy. He was the family member I was least able to read, and I think the rest of the family felt the same way. Sometimes I thought he was just a straightforward kind of guy; other times I thought he played things close to the vest, keeping sorrows and fears deeply buried.
There were also ways in which he, poor guy, could never escape being the youngest, I think. It was always easy to dismiss, even snap at him, in a way that the four of us would never dream of doing to one another. I keep replaying the tentative expression on his face and tone of his voice when he would invite me to play risk or go bowling, already half-steeled for the 'no' he knew he was likely to hear, wanting me to know he wasn't hurt or disappointed by my refusal.
No, don't worry, I'm not going to wallow in this. Regrets and guilt are useless emotions, and most of the time they're self-indulgent. I know this is one of those times. There is nothing to be gained from self-flagellation, so I won't. I'm just accepting that this is part of the process. This is today's theme.
To be honest, I'm not sure I believe in an after-life, but like my sister, I am deriving great comfort from the fact that James did. He firmly believed that after death you were reunited with all your loved ones, including the dogs. I picture James driving in the mustang he coveted, or maybe flying his private jet, carting his beloved little old ladies and dogs all over creation, stopping off for treats and a game of scrabble whenever they want.
Oh, James. Dammit. Dammit, dammit, dammit. I miss thee. I hope thee's happy, but I wish thee was here.
(Ox Mountain, Co. Sligo, 1993)
James Andrew Lacey
June 4th, 1968 to June 6th, 2009