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We’ll Miss You, Jim

On Sunday, my 35th birthday, my step-grandfather, Jim, passed away at age 93.

I met Jim about 20 years ago, when my mother was dating Jim’s son and my stepdad, Tom. Jim and his late wife, Rose, were older than my biological grandparents. As is typical with blended families, we didn’t know what to call them, so we simply referred to them as Jim and Rose.

Over the years we would visit with Jim and Rose, going to their house on Long Island for holidays. Even when they became my ex-step-grandparents, I still made a point to stay in touch as much as I could with an occasional visit when I was in town, or a call to the house every so often. When Rose passed away a few years ago, my wife and I attended the wake.

Since his wife’s passing, Jim’s own health had begun to deteriorate. He had fought and won a battle with cancer two decades earlier, but now his body was breaking down though his mind stayed sharp.

Over the past year, I put reminders in my calendar to call him every few weeks to check in, to see what he was up to, what he was reading, how he was feeling. My wife and I would stop by for a visit when we could, and he was always appreciative when we did. On one of my visits, when he was still feeling well enough to move around the kitchen, he made me lunch—chicken soup.

Despite what I can only imagine was heartbreaking frustration at not being able to use his body to do much of anything, he didn’t let his brain quit. He devoured the New York Times every day, listened to books on tape with an old school tape player at his side, read long biographies, and listened to music.

Once he mentioned that he had read about all the excitement the then-new musical Hamilton was generating on Broadway, and that he was curious about it—though not sure he’d like the show’s hip-hop score. A few days later I sent him the original cast recording.

Given the speed of the singing and rapping—especially the character who rapped in double-time with a French accent—I wasn’t sure Jim would get past the first few songs before setting it aside. But when I called him a few days later, he told me he had listened to it twice.

He admitted that the music was not exactly his cup of tea, but that he did his best to follow along using the CD’s printed liner notes. That just blew me away. That he would even listen to Hamilton (twice), no less read the tiny-print lyrics, told me a lot about Jim’s thirst for knowledge. Just because he didn’t have the energy to leave the house, take a train into Manhattan to see the show on Broadway, didn’t mean he wasn’t going to at least see what all the fuss was about if he had the capability to do so from his living room.

In the past few months his health took a turn for the worse. I didn’t get the full details—I could have, but didn’t feel the need to pry—but it seemed that as hard as he battled he wasn’t going to win this time. Still, he persisted. On several occasions I thought I would be speaking to him on the phone for the last time. On some calls, I got the sense he thought that, too, especially when he would effusively thank me for calling him so often.

In the last months I began to call more frequently. His daily routine of taking midday walks had been all but curtailed; he spent a lot of time at home sitting, doing some light physical therapy in the house when he had the energy. I figured he was bored, so I called. Sometimes he was too tired to chat and only stayed on the phone a few minutes. Usually I could tell his energy level by how well I could hear him. In the past few weeks, despite some complaints about physical weakness and pain, he sounded as good as he’d sounded to me in years. In one of our most recent conversations, Jim told me he had just finished a biography about the Wright brothers (on his iPad), and suggested I check it out.

This past Thursday, I called Jim to firm up plans for my wife and I to come out to Long Island and see him on my next visit to New York a week later. He jokingly said, “Um, let me check my calendar. Let’s see, Saturday. Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. Yeah sure, you can come by on Saturday.”

I wasn’t planning to call Jim this week because I knew I’d see him in a few days. I went on with my day and week, celebrating my 35th birthday over the weekend. I even received a card from Jim in the mail.

On Sunday night, while returning some birthday calls I’d missed during the day, I spoke with my stepdad, Tom, who told me that Jim had passed away earlier that day. He had been in some pain and the family made the decision to move him to a hospice facility, where he passed away peacefully.

Jim told me stories about his childhood, growing up on a farm, and about his time after the war when he and Rose moved to Virginia for a few years, not far from where I live now. He told me stories about taking his station wagon full of kids across the country to camp in national parks. About how with the help of doctors and medication and meditative gardening in his backyard, how he beat cancer.

If you met him just once, you would say Jim was a nice man. He was also a World War II veteran, a teacher, a gardener, a cancer survivor, a husband and father of four, a grandfather and step-grandfather. And he was my friend.

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