My friend James died this past Sunday at 10:45am. He died of a rare and aggressive form of leukemia that whittled away at his strength for the past couple of years. James did not want a funeral or memorial service. He will be cremated, and the world will move on.
Most people would not care to know James. Let me introduce him to you. James was an ex-con, incarcerated on three separate occasions: once for statutory rape, once for breaking and entering, and once for check fraud. His last conviction was his “third strike,” and he spent twelve years in prison as a result.
I first met James four years ago, when he called Mt. Haley and asked for financial help. I think he needed a phone card or something like that. He had a slow, deliberate way of talking in his deep and rough voice. I was never sure that drugs were not part of James’s life, past or present.
James fathered a child with a woman twenty years his junior, while this woman was still legally married to another man. The two of them moved in together and watched as their son, born prematurely, spent his first months in the NICU at a nearby hospital. James loved Dylan, who is now three years old and is developmentally behind most other children his age.
James lived on government assistance for a disability which was never entirely clear to me. Each month, James got his money and paid his bills, and he took great pride in providing for his family, making sure everyone had food to eat and clothes to wear.
James and I had a good relationship. For four years, almost every month I got a phone call from James: could I lend him some money, or buy him some groceries, or take him shopping, or drive him to Ann Arbor for a doctor’s appointment? Normally, I say “no” to repeated requests like his, but something about James kept me interested to help. I became one of his “pastor friends,” and he called so regularly that I began to expect to hear his voice every time I answered the church phone.
Here’s the thing about James: he was not a user. He did not manipulate me. He often said to me, “You know I’m a man of my word, and if I say I’ll pay you back next month, I promise I will.” And he always did. If I bought him fifty dollars’ worth of groceries, a pair of shoes for $85, or even let him rack up a bill of $200 from a combination of purchases, by the next month he always paid me back – or he called to ask for another month to get his money in order. I figured that I do exactly the same thing with my credit card – buy things now, pay for them next month – so why not give James the same experience?
We made a few trips to Ann Arbor, two hours to the south, to see his oncologist. I was there a year ago when he received his diagnosis of aggressive leukemia and his prognosis of one to five years. On each of these long trips, James would have us stop for lunch at the Golden Corral or IHOP or some other restaurant. And he always asked if there was a place where I wanted to eat, since I was doing him the favor of driving him to Ann Arbor and back. And even if I bought lunch that day, he always added that to his tab and repaid me the next month.
James had trouble controlling his anger. Early in our relationship, I worked with him to get his state ID card, which he had not renewed since leaving prison. We made several trips to the Secretary of State’s office, and one time he didn’t have the right paperwork, so he cussed out the lady behind the desk before loudly storming out of the building. The next time we went back to the office, it happened that the same lady was working there, and she looked visibly uncomfortable when he walked up to her desk. But – this floored me – he actually apologized to her for his earlier behavior.
James and I had several conversations about Christian faith and spirituality. He considered himself a born-again Christian and certainly knew all the right things to say to support that claim, even though to my knowledge he never went to church after his incarceration. He had a decent understanding of scripture, and many times he argued that the Bible is full of contradictions. For instance, the Bible teaches monogamy, he said, but what about Solomon and all of his “cummerbunds”? (He meant “concubines” but always said “cummerbunds” instead. I never had the heart to correct him.)
The biggest struggle James had, especially late in his life, dealt with the question of his leukemia and his son. Why would God bless him with a son, only to allow this terrible disease to kill him so quickly? How could God be considered “good” when James wouldn’t see Dylan graduate from high school, let alone learn to ride a bicycle? But “the good Lord must know what he’s doing,” anyway, James always concluded, even though I don’t think he ever felt truly at peace with his situation.
At one point, I referred to James as a sermon illustration at Mt. Haley. I called him “my project,” an example of building relationships, serving people in our community, sharing the love of Christ with people who need that love. But I see now that I learned so much more from James:
I learned how to walk slowly through Wal-mart, never in a rush to buy groceries, always careful to get what you like, even if it’s not healthy. I learned how to borrow and repay money without losing face. I learned how to be a father and talk about the gift of fatherhood. I learned how to look at money as temporary, not to be idolized or hoarded, but to be used to provide for those you love. I learned the value of honesty and transparency in relationships. I learned how to suffer with dignity. I learned that an adulterous, government-supported, anger-filled, ex-con father of an illegitimate child is capable of love, integrity, doubt, and even faith.
Tomorrow would have been James’s 55th birthday.
He always wanted to meet my wife and to have us go on a double-date with him and his girlfriend. We never got around to that, and I will probably regret that the most.
Most people would not care to know James. But now you do. Now you know something of his story. Now you know that even the forgettable, unpleasant people that we try to sweep under the carpet and pretend don’t exist are actually real people with real families and real feelings and real questions of faith. In the words of Thomas King, author of a book entitled The Truth About Stories,
“Do with [James’s story] what you will. Tell it to friends. Make it the topic of a discussion group at a scholarly conference. Put it on the Web. Forget it. But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story.
You’ve heard it now.”
Happy birthday, James.