A few Saturdays ago, I got a birthday card from one of my favorite people, James. On the front, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tinman, and the Cowardly Lion are gazing up at something wonderful. Probably Oz. Inside, James made a joke about pickings being slim at the Winn Dixie at one am. To me, though, the card was perfect.
Key West, where James lived and were I spent two wonderful years, was my Oz. I’d left the bleak brown desert of Arizona, crossed the country via the Yellow Brick Road (A.K.A. the Interstate Highway System) and arrived on Duval Street where the colors were brighter, the rum smoother and the smells smellier. By the time I left the island, twenty-five months later, I was a women who’d found all that her heart desired. Two amazing friendships and the best orange rum cake in the universe. (I already had true love)
When I opened James’s card that Saturday, it was late. I sent a quick message telling him that the card had arrived on my actual birthday, I loved it, and that somewhere over the rainbow there was lots of rum. He didn’t reply. I didn’t think anything of it. Sometimes we went days between replies.
The next morning, I woke up to an email from a mutual friend. James was no longer with us.
I had to sit up, read the message twice and then wake my husband. Did this really mean what I thought it meant? Sadly, it did. Sometime between mailing my card and my birthday, James had taken his own life. I can’t say I was completely surprised. There was a lot of sadness in his soul.
I can say that I was pissed.
And then sobbing uncontrollably.
And then pissed again.
When someone dies, it’s easy for the survivors to only remember the good stuff. James wasn’t perfect. He could be argumentative and exhausting and difficult. But he was also funny. And cheeky. And sarcastic. And above all else, fiercely loyal to those he called his friends. And that circle was wide and eclectic. In the days that followed his death, those friends began sharing their James stories. And so many of them began the same way. I saw him and I knew I had to be his friend. It was that way for me too. He had an intoxicating energy that you just had to be a part of.
Rolling a piano down the street and stopping to play for traffic. Strolling to the bar with two great danes and a parrot on his shoulder. Wearing a top hat to the grocery store, just because. Teaching a friend to embrace Madonna: take control, don’t be second best, express yourself.
All hail Matti Makkonen, inventor of the text message
For the last few weeks, my days have been filled with so many I need to text that to James moments.
There’s an I Love Lucy special being advertised on tv. Does he know? Is he going to watch? Oh my God, some toy company made wide eyed Joan Crawford and Betty Davis, Whatever happened to Baby Jane dolls. Has he seen the ad? The dolls eyes are amazingly creepy. That actor from that tv show has a bio out. Has he read it? The writing is the absolute worst. He needs to grab it from the library so that he can leave one of his scathing catty reviews. It’ll be so hysterical!
I pull out my phone. Poise my thumb over the keypad and then suddenly remember.
Did I text him that much during the four years that I knew him? Probably not. But knowing that he’s no longer there makes each lost moment feel devastatingly important. Something that only he would understand. And appreciate. And love.
Put it in Print
James was a writer. That’s how we met. I joined a little critique group and there he was. He wrote essays. Sometimes they were gut wrenching; the loss of his beloved Great Dane left me in tears for days. Sometimes snort inducing; his annoyed take on the idiocy of organized meditation made me want to sign up for a class. Just for a laugh. We’d talked a lot about what he’d include in a second volume. It would have been good.
I’m crushed that he and I will never write the book we plotted out about a girl who steps off a cruise ship in Key West and meets a bartender who inspires her to rethink her life. We joked that it was our story.
Lady Sings the Blues
James had a thing for Diana Ross. Her attitude. Her amazing voice. Her voluminous hair. Her attitude. I know I’m not the only one out there with a mix CD of her songs compiled by him for my specific needs.
And though he loved her best, it really wasn’t just Diana that did it for him.
The man simply loved music. It defined each moment in life. It set the mood. It lifted the spirit. It gave one the strength to go on. For a time anyway.
Not long ago, one of his dear friends, DJ Donna Flaggs of WHCP radio out of Maryland dedicated an entire show of smokey blues to James. If you’re not already a member of soundcloud, you can still listen with a free 30 day trial. He’d have thought the fuss was silly but I know he would have secretly loved the selections.
I’ll miss you the most, Scarecrow
It’s only been a month. The urge to text James my every waking thought will probably go away soon. I’m going to finish the book I’m currently writing and then revisit the outline we wrote for our book. Maybe I’ll contact his sister about pursuing the story on my own. Maybe not. Right now, it’s still too soon. I’m thankful for the new friends I’ve found through James. They’ve made the loss bearable. I’ll be back in OZ, a.k.a. Key West in the fall and I hope to connect with many of them. We’ll talk about James and drink rum and probably sing some Diana Ross. And maybe I’ll text him about it.