On this Thanksgiving Day I am thankful for all of the friends and family who have stood beside me and encouraged me throughout my life. There’s one in particular I would like to focus on today. I’ve been trying to write something about him for several days, but I have trouble concentrating sometimes. My mind wanders down a winding path and stops to spend a minute at curious spots along the way. Eventually it finds its way back to the present moment and sets me to task at hand. A few days ago this happened when I was trying to write an epitaph about my friend, and it led instead to a prologue of sorts about all of the interesting people who have passed through my life. Because, you see, my friend was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known.
If you know me at all then you don’t need me to say the name to know of whom I speak. If you’ve only known me for a short time you will eventually hear me speak of him in one way or another. He was the One I Admired Most. His name was Jimmy.
I don't really have a memory of the first time I met Jimmy which validates how long he was in my life; at least 22 years. At my best guess I was about five or six when I first noticed him as a fixture in my home. He and my pesky sister were the best of friends and I remember I resented him (like I did all of my sisters’ boyfriends) for taking her away from me. I tried to keep them apart by sitting between them, or tagging along. Eventually his charm won me over, probably when he gave me a Christmas present for the first time. It was a plant starter kit, the kind you sprout seeds in clear plastic containers with gel inside. I thought that gift was wonderful. My sister told me it was from the both of them, but I always imagined it was just from Jimmy. That was the first of many gifts I was to receive from Jimmy in our 22 years, not all of them tangible. The most valuable gifts he ever gave me were the gifts of his time and attention.
Over the years not a Christmas passed that Jimmy was not there. He was there for every Easter. He was there for birthdays. And he always seemed to be there when my sister was giving me perms. If the phone rang on a Sunday afternoon there was a chorus of “It’s Jimmy” before the phone was answered. It usually was. My mother would even make him his own pone of cornbread if she knew he was coming. He ate like he was wearing a badge of honor.
So why was he the most interesting person I’ve ever known? I can’t pinpoint it, he just was. He lived his life to an off-beat. He was smart, funny, sarcastic, and serious, all at the same time. He liked rabbits. He found enjoyment in irony. He was tall and broad but walked and spoke softly. Coolness oozed from his demeanor. He wore his hair long, faded blue jeans, chambray or flannel shirts, and white leather tennis shoes (K-Swiss or Adidas?) and always, always a silver Jack-o-Lantern lapel pin my sister gave him. He gave me some of his cast off flannel when I was a freshman in college, and I wore them like my own badge of honor.
Come to think of it, maybe I can pinpoint it. Life was very hard for me as a child. Other adults in my life were not always understanding of my shy ways and they teased me. It was hard enough to be teased by children my own age but I was teased, sometimes viciously, by adults. By all standards Jimmy was an adult to me, but he did not torment me. I know I was the pesky one in those days, but he did not treat me as if I were an annoying gnat as some others did. As I matured he regarded me in respect to my age instead of always treating me like a child.
One of my favorite times was when he took my Oldest Friend and Travelling Partner and me to New Orleans the day after Thanksgiving. He took us to his favorite places on the off-beaten path. He treated us to lunch at the Camellia Grill and gave us a quick tutorial on their ordering etiquette so we would be in the know. We visited a record store, newsstands, and unique shops all over town. We were silly teenagers but he treated us like friends. You don’t know what it means to an insecure child or teen to be given attention as an equal by an adult they admire most. To me it meant the difference between walking around with a feeling of worth or sleeping the day away in a dark room. To me it meant everything.
I can associate many events in my life with phone calls. Phone calls bring surprises, good news, mundane updates, and grief. I associate two phone calls with Jimmy, and they both brought grief. The first was from my sister telling me he had cancer. The second one was from my mother telling me he had died. I saw that moment, 21 years ago this week, as if I was outside of my body watching myself answer the phone. I was wearing a white blouse and sitting at the secretary’s desk in my office. I knew he was in his last days, but even knowing the inevitable does not make the moment digestible. I hung up the phone and pushed some pencils around on the desk and thought I would be fine because I knew it was coming. After a few minutes I went to my boss’s desk and told her I had to go. She wasn’t the type of person you told anything, but that day I did and I left.
My biggest regret was that I did not go see him in those last months. I felt I failed as a friend. The next few months were very difficult for me. I was a sleep-deprived new mother with fragile hormones and to add grief and guilt on top of my unstable emotions yielded many, many tears.
I’ve kept all of the letters I’ve received from friends over the years. Some are good, some not so good. Some are fantastic, some bring nostalgia, and some are creepy. I’ve consolidated most all of my letters, cards, and notes from Jimmy into one collection. They all fall in the good – fantastic category. One day a few years ago I visited the box that holds them and found the one pictured above. It brought back such a good feeling that I framed it and set it on a shelf in my office. I think the words he wrote were more from his heart than the song he quoted. In hindsight those words define what I think was Jimmy’s outlook on life. Be young, be foolish, be happy. I try.