Saturday, July 12, 2008

jim is dead

Jim is dead and the brief mention of it in our local paper drew 35 comments, 31 of which were expressions of shock and dismay that the iconic Tulsa hamburger joint where Jim's body was found had closed its doors.

There was much angst and discussion of what it means for the local economy that the famous Ron's Hamburger Heaven was no more. The wailing and rending of garments over the loss of the hamburger restaurant was sincere, I'm sure, and on another day, if it were not my friend found dead in that building, I might have joined in, at least in spirit.

Happily for Tulsa burger eaters, it was discovered in the ensuing discussion that Ron took his big grill elsewhere, leaving the tiny little storefront on 15th Street because it was too small and too old. Ron's thrives and Tulsans breathe easier.

My friend, though, he's still dead. He was a lawyer for the Indian tribes in Arizona 25 years ago. He fought hard on environmental issues. He was a big hearted man, smart and quirky and funny. I met him only later, after he arrived in Tulsa and was living at the YMCA, a comedown fueled by the stress of his work and the alcohol that helped take the edge off of life. He was proud, though, of the work he did and of the nickname he was given by the Indians: Little Prairie Dog. He was never certain about the origin of the nickname, whether it was because of his wild eyebrows and thick golden hair, or if it was just a term of endearment, for he was dear to them, I don't doubt him on that.

He was dear to many of us, even with all of his eccentricities, the breaking waves of a profound mental illness that he tried to strongarm into remission. We were gardening on the day his disease first stood up and looked me in the eye. Sitting in the back drive, transplanting seedlings and moving them to the hoophouse, we were lazily planning the dinners we'd have midsummer when the eggplant and squash, onions, tomatoes, and basil were in their full and fragrant glory. Jim was, as I am, a fan of ratatouille put together from vegetables minutes from the garden. We worked and laughed and talked of gardening and AA and wilderness lands, politics and God, food and how it feels to find a love that's true.

In the midst of it all, Jim stopped, looked up and said "Yes, I understand and I will." What? A mourning dove sitting on the roof of the house had directly spoken to Jim. I missed the avian communique and dismissed it as a new agey spiritual kind of thing. We were all spiritual seekers in the mid-'90s, and anything was possible, maybe even a verbal dove.

A few months later, Jim got a message that he was to clean up downtown Tulsa. He would arrive at meetings 10 minutes before closing hauling the bags of trash he'd picked up on the way, railing at the slovenly habits of Tulsans. Eventually, dark forces began to oppose the cleanup and Jim felt and looked hunted, and yet he persisted, perhaps finding in that action some semblance of the environmental work he did before his brain betrayed him.

He came out of it enough to recognize that he needed to get out of the YMCA, get some kind of steady work beyond mall food court duties. I helped him get a job where I worked. He was eminently qualified ~ overqualified ~ to do child support enforcement, but he loved it. He felt useful and he was profoundly moved by the plight of the children in need. He worked for them, ever the advocate of the underdog, always with an open heart and the wish to help.

Some days at noon, he'd head out to converse with the trees ringing the parking area. Occasionally, he'd prune them, speaking in reassuring tones. His coworkers withdrew. He appeared one day with hands dyed blue to the wrists. No explanation, none asked for, but blue hands when meeting with the public as a representative of the State? Not acceptable. Write-ups ensued and his deterioration continued. The little house he'd purchased on the west side became his haven. I'd see him on his bicycle riding to and from work, shaking his head in response to the conversations he was having with himself.

When he lost the job, he lost his insurance, of course, and he lost his house and the last time I heard from him, he was laid up in one of the 11th Street motels, a flophouse the last line of defense between wounded human being and living on the street. He called to ask if I could spare any "fresh organic vegetables from your beautiful garden." It was February, and I had barely put in onion sets. I had nothing. The calls came in for a couple of days, "if no vegetables, perhaps some plant starts in case I can get established somewhere in time for a garden."

I guess he did get established in that abandoned building half a mile from my "beautiful garden." It hurts my heart to think of him alone there, so close to our home, where he spent many happy times. I don't know yet what killed him. I am not sure a lot of official attention will be paid to a homeless man found dead in an abandoned building. I called the police department's chaplain to help them find Jim's next of kin. I left one message about Jim's family. And then I called back, just to say that Jim mattered, he did.

I wanted someone official to know that Jim mattered to a lot of people. That he was loved. That he had a community. I am too familiar with the indifference of some police officers and I wanted them to know that Jim contributed to this world, that he was everything I'm telling you, and that the loss of Jim really is a loss. It is.

People die every day and homeless people, the invisible souls who exist in abandoned buildings and alleyways, who pass out on sidewalks and roll their carts into neighborhoods where messy lives are not met with approval, they die all the time. In this country, it seems we have to be attached to something before we're of any value. We need to be planted in a home, connected to a job, a school, something that assures others that we are of some account, that we are not dangerously untethered to normal society.

It's easy to get annoyed with them, those men and women with their signs on the corners, the ones we just know are only looking for enough cash to drink, the ones we imagine go home to their tidy houses in the suburbs, having put one over on us by playing on our sympathies and raking in more money than we do. It is easy to dismiss them, to look at them with hard eyes and the certainty that they created whatever led to their downfall.

Maybe. Sometimes. And many, many times not. I am of the belief that it could happen to me, that I could be sitting in the garden only to find myself being addressed by a lily or a robin. I know too many people, perhaps because of my AA affiliation, who were living normal lives until they weren't. In an instant, the line is crossed and then it vanishes and life is forever altered. I can see myself in ragged clothes, pushing a cart filled with all that I own, collaring anyone who will listen to tell them what the lily said, of the robin's warning.

My friend is dead and he mattered. There are Jims everywhere in Tulsa and I expect each one of them matters to someone, somewhere. Maybe to you. I hope to you.

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Anonymous ewe said...

Some are sicker than others lynette. But you do a great job at Step 12. Remember. It says we TRIED.

July 12, 2008 12:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lynette that was just beautiful writing and really heart wrenching because it is so TRUE.

July 12, 2008 7:38 PM  
Blogger Dusty said...

I think it is hard for folks, that have never lost a loved one to mental illness perhaps coupled with alcohol abuse, to understand Lynette.

This post took me back to my ex-husband, a Vietnam Vet who suffered horribly from PTSD, which of course didn't exist back then according to the assholes at the VA.He walked away from me and our life for the last time 8 years ago. As ewe says: we TRIED.

But we, the universal we, have generally become a nation of hardened hearts. We seem to think showing compassion is a sign of weakness.

This is a beautiful stunning and bittersweet tribute to your friend. Thank you for sharing it with us.

I hope you too find peace and a way to deal with the loss of such a dear wonderful friend. I am still trying to find that peace when it comes to Bruce.

July 13, 2008 2:32 AM  
Blogger Willym said...

We are currently trying to come to terms with my mother-in-law's rapid descent into the last stages of Alzheimers. Losing a living soul to mental illness, Alzheimers, addiction is a dreadful thing. The physical person you love - funny I was going to write past tense - and care for is still there but what really made them a person has disappeared.

You may, or may not, know that I have gotten into the habit of lighting candles when I go into a church here - and there are 997 to go into - quietly saying the names of people I feel should be brought to the attention of what ever power there is greater than us. Later today on one of our walks I'll be remembering Jim and asking that he be granted peace.

As always Lady you've touched our hearts.

July 13, 2008 4:12 AM  
Blogger bigislandjeepguy said...

what a great tribute to jim.

July 13, 2008 2:18 PM  
Anonymous TedBear said...

Sweetheart, I am so sorry.

Jim's journey is heart wrenching. Tragically, horribly, there are Jims ignored everywhere. Jim's life mattered.

Maybe the next administration will withdraw from Iraq, stop American Imperialism and care more for people than corporations or the military industrial complex.

July 13, 2008 5:59 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Tragic and unnecessary. I'm sorry that in our brutal society, there is no money for mental health. It is all spent on tax cuts and war.

Thank you for caring about him and for telling his story.

July 14, 2008 9:05 AM  
Anonymous Al said...

I just want to echo what Jeff said. It seems so overwhelming sometimes to know what to say or do when things like this happen, but this piece is key.

You told his story beautifully. Better than most could hope to, and with an eye that spoke from both wisdom and friendship.

July 14, 2008 10:40 AM  
Blogger The Milkman said...

He was connected. To you. And you're right... he really did matter.

Beautiful post. You write so honestly and without pretense. Such an insightful soul you must be.

I, too, recognize the razor's edge that separates me from my comfortable life and a rudderless existence. I still say that once my generation becomes old enough to receive social security and medicare that it'll be as dry as an Oklahoma reservoir after a draining and a long drought. Perhaps we'll share a can of cat food while sitting at the bus stop one day.

July 14, 2008 12:54 PM  
Anonymous ralph said...

There are far too many lost people out there who all come from somewhere and got lost along the way. Thank you, Lynette, for remembering one of them with such beautiful words. Todays N.Y. Times has an article on its Editorial page called "Losing Private Dwyer" that touches on the same thing. I have a feeling there are going to a lot more Jims and Private Dwyers out there in the future. To keep trying is all we can really do.

July 15, 2008 9:10 AM  
Blogger Felicia said...

I'm sorry for your loss.

July 17, 2008 7:43 AM  
Blogger TankMontreal said...

I think you are more of a Big Hearted Belle than anything else.

July 29, 2008 10:00 PM  
Blogger lisalgreer said...

I hope you are ok, Lynette. Thanks so much for this moving tribute. This is why I am progressive and why I hate the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps stuff." Just one or two turns of luck, a genetic difference, a bad decision... and it could come to this for any of us. The more I see my own flaws, the more I sense this. Mercy and grace are wonderful things... something we need more of in this country.

August 03, 2008 10:45 PM  
Blogger Dusty said...

Amen Lisalgreer.

August 03, 2008 10:50 PM  
Blogger more cowbell said...

I'm very sorry about your friend, Lynette. He did matter, and now all who read this know how much.

Ditto jeff and lisalgreer.

August 05, 2008 1:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Lynette - I needed a dose of your compassionate and clear voice ... Michele

September 09, 2008 9:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Lynette - I needed a dose of your compassionate and clear voice ... Michele

September 09, 2008 9:35 PM  
Blogger sexy said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

March 16, 2009 2:25 AM  

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