This morning I was lying on my side at the foot of the bed, profoundly weak and tired, the TV on some discussion show that interrupted the talk for a commercial break. I must have heard this particular commercial a hundred times before. It's the Values.com high school basketball one in which the hero, Alex, huddling with the rest of the team, confesses to his coach, "I touched the ball before it went out. It's their ball." One of his teammates says, "C'mon, Alex. The ref did not caught it." Agony, oh, agony. The coach chokes down this pill, sends his team back out on the court, and says to Alex, on his way to confess to the referee, "Good call, Alex." The word "Sportsmanship" pops up, and the voiceover says, "Sportsmanship. Pass it on."
"The issue is not sportsmanship!" I snarled at the TV.
The issue was in what Alex's teammate said: "C'mon, Alex. The ref did not caught it."
Did not caught it? Caught it?!
No, man! The issue was why the entire English department of that high school wasn't stripped to the waist, strapped to gratings, and each given fifty lashes per word of Alex's teammate's sentence: "The ref did not caught it."
What with the objections the NEA would raise, perhaps a firing squad armed with M60 machine guns would be better. The anti-water boarding faction might object to those wretchedly miscast English teachers being broken on the rack. I don't know.
"The Ref did not caught it."
Perhaps we could all get together on at least using hot irons followed by beheading those particular English teachers.....
And that was how my thinking was going when I realized I was taking out my pain on this stupid TV advert. There are an amazing variety of ways to try and hide from feelings, judgmental anger being only one of the many. What was really going on?
A friend dear to me, a very important friend, died the day before New Year's Eve. I was among Jimmy Monteith's many friends and family members at the hospice when he died, and all of those dreaded feelings of pain and loss I'd medicated away for so many years had returned and were all over me. But using drugs in response to the death of this man would not be to honor him, although he, more than anyone else on earth, would understand and forgive.
Life sucks better clean. We say it in the meetings and it usually brings up a small wave of sometimes bitter laughter. But it is no joke. Jimmy's death leaves a lot of pain and a lot of loss, an enormous hole in the hearts of so many persons. By being clean for his death, though, I got to share in the magnificent appreciation of his life, not just what he meant to me and to his friends and family, but an appreciation of the man—the example—he was every second up until he drew that final tortured breath.
Jimmy was a recovering drug addict, seventeen years clean. He had one eye, was balding, was full of jokes, was a bee keeper, a fixture in Southern Maine NA, and one of the very few persons on this planet I can honestly say does unconditional love. I say "does," because I don't know if he believed in unconditional love or not. We never had that conversation. One reason for that omission was because he was such an obvious vessel of unconditional love, I don't know anyone who doubted him in this regard.
I don't know what he was like before he got clean. His story is much like all of our stories, so he was probably much like we were when we were using drugs. But the man, clean, growing into becoming a fully realized human being? No one ever had to earn their way into Jimmy's heart. If you were a recovering addict, or a human being, his love was there. Take it and bask in its glow, or leave it until later—no matter. Patience, love, tolerance, a helping hand when you needed one, an ear to complain in, a shoulder to cry on, a mobile place to share laughter and tears, these are only a few of his qualities and why he will leave such a hole in so many lives.
He died of liver cancer. The first two things he did when he got the diagnosis that he had cancer and perhaps a year or a little more to live was marry the woman he had been living with and buy a new pair of downhill skis. I asked his wife which came first, and she wasn't really sure. I do know he loved his wife and that he loved dancing with the mountain. He was a member of the Blokes, a bunch of recovering addicts in NA who get together three times a year for a few days each, to ski when it's light and share good fellowship when aching bones and muscles make it down from the slopes.
I had been acquainted with Jimmy ever since he got into the program. I was asked to be a member of the Blokes a few years ago, and got to know him better. That first year, he was my roommate. I was also just getting back on the snow after a couple of what seemed to be horrific medical procedures. That first time out at Sugarloaf, the snow on the usual trails was boiler-plate ice, and I couldn't handle them. I spent the rest of the day skiing the resort's bunny trail. Jimmy, a very accomplished skier, spent half his day skiing with me so that I wouldn't have to be alone. "No Bloke ever has to be alone," he said to me. Time after time, up and down the bunny slope, accompanying this feeble wreck on boards, never a moment of impatience, always positive, always with a joke, a laugh, a friendly hand on my shoulder, and a hug.
Years passed, and we'd trade friendly shots at each other at the house the Blokes rent, talk skiing, recovery, about the people we love, about his spirituality and mine. Then came the diagnosis of liver cancer. The way the rules are, he didn't qualify for a transplant. And we watched as month by month he wasted away. This ski season, he was going to be too weak to ski the steeps, and I was looking forward to doing the bunny slopes with Jimmy again. Before I was allowed back on the snow after a couple of operations, however, Uncle Jimmy died.
That's how he introduced himself at meetings: "Hi, family. I'm an addict called Uncle Jimmy." And he was everybody's favorite, loving, uncle; Faith, hope, humor, and a helpful strong arm when you needed one.
He's dead, and that sucks. Liver cancer sucks. Not being able to joke with him, hug him, ski with him sucks—all excellent excuses to pick up that drink, that drug, and slide back into that nightmare that makes a summer Jamboree out of Hell by comparison. But here's what I got by staying clean another day:
I was there, among his friends, as the end approached. By the time I arrived, Jimmy was drifting between sleep and a wakefulness filled with confusion caused by the toxins building up in his body. Accepting that he was out of it, I went to his bedside thinking to say a goodbye that would probably fall on deaf ears. When I looked down at him, though, his one good eye was looking back at me. I moved a little and his gaze followed. I bent over and said to him, "Jimmy, I love you and we're going to be skiing together again."
I kissed him.
He kissed me back and smiled again.
An hour later he was gone. He was in his mid-fifties.
Yeah. Life sucks. The Law of Probability Dispersal says, "Whatever it is that hits the fan will not be evenly distributed." We each can't pick which parcel of life's woes will fall into each of our laps. At times it seems as though the range of human misery is inexhaustible. The wad we are issued, whether heart disease, Parkinson's, addiction, crippling wounds, childhood abuse, the deaths of loved ones, poverty, or insanity, that is out of our control. What we each do with the circumstances life deals us, however, is in our control. Do I sit in my misery and cry, "Look what's happening to me!" or do I say, "What can I do about this?" and then reach out for the help I need?
While you're pondering which way to go, keep this little vignette from the life of Uncle Jimmy close to your funny bone, and to your heart. In the hall at the hospice, waiting for the end, one of Jimmy's closest friends told me that he had talked to Jimmy a few days before, as his pain was increasing and his organs were shutting down. His friend asked him how he was doing.
Jimmy answered, "Well, I pissed myself; but it was warm."
Uncle Jimmy made whatever transition death is clean, sober, surrounded by love in the form of family and friends who were also clean and sober. After he died we held an NA meeting in his room with Jimmy's pitifully shrunken remains a part of the circle. It was the most powerful and beautiful meeting I've ever attended. Would I have preferred to keep from seeing and feeling all this by sitting alone in the dark with a bottle and a bunch of pills? Not on your life.
Yeah, life sucks; but it sucks better clean every time.
Barry, this is a wonderful tribute to this strong and inspiring individual. Thank you for putting your thoughts down on paper...or little bytes...or whatever. JTM
I was diagnosed with liver cancer about two months after Uncle Jimmy. For me, however, the rules permitted a liver transplant. That isn't fair. This was one the times that the unfairness of life worked out in my favor. I attended Uncle Jimmy's memorial service today. I had no idea how many lives he touched until I saw that full chapel. I wish love and peace to all who are pained by his passing.
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