One of the Boys
“Life is a misery, death an uncertainty. Suppose it steals suddenly upon me, in what state shall I leave this world?” — Augustine of Hippo, Confessions
Jim was the first of the Boys to die. He was 49-years-old when he climbed the stairs in my grandmother’s house, retired to his bedroom with a crossword puzzle, and slipped silently out of the world of the living during a nap. When my grandmother called him for dinner and he didn’t respond, she went upstairs to wake him. She knew he was dead as soon as she entered the room. She called the undertaker, a family friend, before she called the ambulance.
That was December 29, 2003. I wasn’t there, but I’ve heard that story — and told some iteration of it myself — countless times since then.
I don’t know why Jim died. The results of his autopsy were inconclusive. This wasn’t comforting to anyone in our family, all of whom wanted a reason for his sudden death.
During the last twelve years, I’ve imagined his moment of death hundreds of times, eventually settling on one scenario that I can play like a short film in my mind. The camera is steady on Jim, asleep, crossword puzzle and clear Bic pen strewn next to him on the double bed covered with a thin, light blue quilt. He is wearing a faded, crew neck sweatshirt and the same slacks he would have worn to work earlier that day. There are white athletic socks on his feet. The camera zooms in on his chest until it’s actually inside of it, looking at his heart, still alive. It beats strongly, steadily, until suddenly it slows. And then it stops.
Jim was tall and dark-haired and serious. He loved the Yankees. He was good at math. He was my uncle, my mother’s brother, and my grandmother’s son. He was born the third of ten children in 1954 in Binghamton, New York.
Eight boys and two girls. The boys were called “the Boys” and the girls were called by their actual names because there were significantly fewer of them. Their baby portraits hang in two rows above the couch in my grandmother’s living room and as a kid, I would stand in front of them, looking at the portraits and running through each of their names as quickly as I could in my head, willing myself to slip up by forgetting the order or skipping one. Joey, Bobby, Jimmy, Michael, Richard, Nonie, Dennis, Tony, Martin, Tricia. Jim’s portrait is on the top row, in the center. He is a smiling, fat cheeked babe dressed in blue and white, a tiny white hat perched atop his head.
My aunt and uncles loom large in my childhood memories, both as a collective and individuals. When I think of them together, I feel a swirling sensation of the group trying to top one another’s jokes, laughing so hard they cry, calling each other nicknames whose origins would take me years to puzzle out. When I think of them individually, I recall images that define who they were and are to me.
I see Bobby, on his pontoon boat, opening a cooler full of beers. Marty, serving up milkshakes in my grandmother’s dining room on pizza night. Richard, turning to me, in the passenger seat of his Ford Bronco, as he drives along a country road. Tricia, hand on her hip, giving someone an insult they probably deserved. I have hundreds of these tucked away, waiting for the right moments to resurface.
When I think of Jim, here is what I see: He is cracking wise from his spot on the couch in my grandmother’s living room, a paperback novel or a crossword in his lap. Though he shared the family’s sense of humor, Jim was quiet, observant and thoughtful in a way that most his siblings were not. He was a devoted reader and when I visited Binghamton from my childhood home outside of New York City, I looked forward to accompanying him on his weekly trip to Barnes & Noble. On Saturdays, he went to four o’clock mass at the same Catholic church that the family had always attended. Though I never talked to him about his faith, when I was 13, I asked him to be my confirmation sponsor. He and I both, I sensed, harbored a secret, personal spirituality. We also shared a name; his middle name — my grandmother’s maiden name — is my first name.
I don’t know much about Jim’s childhood and young adulthood. What I do know, I’ve been told by others. I was told that Jim drank his way through college. When he was done with that, he returned to Binghamton and drank his way through several years during which he was unable to hold down a real job. In the mornings, when my grandmother realized that Jim had never come home, she would take my uncle Martin with her to look for him in the usual places. Jim ended up working for a friend who owned a beer delivery truck. My own brother, also named Jim, still has the Budweiser shirt that he wore, his name embroidered on the chest pocket.
He went to rehab. He got better. He smoked incessantly for the rest of his life, but he never had a drink again. As far as I know. By the time I was a kid, he tended bar off and on and could go to the bar to socialize and watch a baseball game, throwing back Diet Cokes at the same rate as his friends and brothers threw back beers. He got a Master’s degree in math or something involving math — I never can remember — and eventually became the Assistant Comptroller of the City of Binghamton. With my uncle Richard, he owned a two-family house. Jim lived in the upstairs apartment. When my aunt, his sister, was going through a divorce, Jim moved out of the apartment and in with my grandmother so that my aunt and her children would have a place to stay.
Jim did two surprising things in the years before he died. I wasn’t really surprised, because I was a teenager and thought little about the behavior and choices of my adult relatives, but other family members have recalled that they were surprised when first, Jim bought a speedboat. Even though he co-owned our family house in the Finger Lakes, he wasn’t necessarily a boater. He was more of a sitter on the dock, where he ate whole cans of Pringles in the sun and smoked cigarettes and read mass-market paperbacks while he tanned his prematurely lined face and long limbs. Second, he got a girlfriend. Jim had been, for a very long time, a bachelor. When he started dating Carol, everyone was shocked, but in a pleasant kind of way. Carol was lovely and familiar, having grown up in the same neighborhood as my mom’s family, and I think the feeling was that she and Jim were good together. In retrospect, it looked like things were really working out for Jim at the end.
I emailed my dad to ask him if he remembered a detail from the days that followed Jim’s death. I was in the middle of writing this, a brief meditation on Jim’s life and death, and wanted to make sure I was getting everything right. The dates and the details are, after over a decade, hazy.
I thought I remembered being on the porch on New Year’s Eve, with my dad and someone else, maybe Jim’s girlfriend Carol. We had watched a firework display that the city put on to ring in the new year. My dad didn’t recall this specifically. He told me that he remembered my uncle Bob, who would die two years later, bringing over a cooler to keep on the porch.
“So 1 or 2 or 3 of us would go out to the porch to get another beer and escape the stifling heat and the crush of people inside,” he wrote to me. “It was cold, but we stood out there anyway. I know I spent a lot of time out there by myself. I recall having several quiet conversations with Carol that weekend.”
None of this confirmed my own memory and I vaguely recalled the cooler of beers on the porch, but wondered if it wasn’t just my own imagining my dad’s memory. I decided to stop fact-checking. I would write what I know of Jim, the memories and assumptions and experiences that I carry with me every day, the things that have become part of my own personal narrative. If they are not true in fact, they are true to me.
Here is what I remember:
My family was on a ski vacation with friends in Vermont when we found out Jim was dead. I was sixteen, a junior in high school. It was after dinner and I was feeling nervous about going to a party that night with other teens. This was because someone had mentioned smoking weed when we got there and I’d told my friend, a girl two years older than me who I’d looked up to since childhood, that that was a thing I’d totally done before. Which was a lie. I’d never smoked marijuana in my life. So, in the moments before I found out that Jim died, I was trying to find a quiet place to plot my way out of going to this party because I didn’t want to embarrass myself by smoking weed incorrectly.
As I descended the stairs from the den where I’d been hanging out with my siblings and friends, I saw my dad comforting my four-year-old brother, Aidan, who was crying. I approached them and said, “What’s wrong?” just as I saw my mom across the living room, sobbing on the phone. My dad told me that my uncle Jim had died. I immediately thought of my grandmother’s brother, also named Jim, who had died two years earlier. I was confused. And then I realized about whom he was talking. My first feeling after that was relief. I didn’t have to go to the party.
That feeling, of course, didn’t last. I stood next to my dad, listening as he told me the details. Jim had just died. Probably a heart attack, but they didn’t know just yet. My mom was still on the phone. Aidan was still crying. The rest of the night, for me, is blank until it was time to go to sleep. My five younger siblings and I slept in the same room, each in our own single bed. My dad came in at one point to say something comforting to us — I don’t remember what it was — after the lights were out. I fell asleep to a symphony of children’s sobs and snotty noses and tears being rubbed off onto pillowcases.
When I arrived at my grandmother’s house late the next day, I had had a lot of time to think about what I was going to say to her. Six hours from Vermont to our house in New York, where my mom and I had taken one car to collect everyone’s clothes for the wake and funeral, and another three back upstate to Binghamton. My mom drove, since I had only just gotten my driver’s license the week before. She cried off and on the whole time. I had to fight through a crowd in my grandmother’s house, where it seemed that everyone who had ever been connected with our family had gathered to grieve, to find her seated in the dining room.
I hugged her and cried and choked the words, “I’m so sorry.”
“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry too.”
The crowd at my grandmother’s house remained the same size for days. If friends or distant cousins or more immediate cousins left, it felt like there were always new ones to replace them. For a break one afternoon, I showed off my new driving skills by chauffeuring my uncle Richard and my great-aunt Honey to the Union, a local watering hole that the Boys frequented. I drank a Diet Coke in a booth with cracked vinyl seats and thought of Jim.
The wake was held over two days. The line to enter stretched outside of the funeral home and into the parking lot. We found out later that over a thousand people had come to pay their respects.
On New Year’s Eve, I watched fireworks from my grandmother’s porch with my dad and Carol. My dad cried when he was talking about Jim, with whom he’d been very close. “I bet you’ve never seen your dad cry before,” he said to me. He was right; I hadn’t.
The funeral mass was held the day after New Year’s. I wore a black cardigan with a faux fur collar that I’d purchased the year before to wear to a Model UN conference. In a quavering voice, I read one of the readings that my grandmother had chosen with the priest from the lectern. I don’t remember if it was from the Old or New Testament. The priest, a friend of our family, gave a homily in which he compared Jim to St. Augustine, the theologian who converted to Christianity after an early life of hedonism and disbelief, and my grandmother to St. Monica, Augustine’s mother who devoted many years of her life to his reform. I was struck by the aptness of the comparison, though I recalled that St. Monica died long before her son.
The first year after Jim died was long. My grandmother became depressed and anxious. She developed an obsession with the afterlife. Her house turned into a shrine to Jim and a repository for religious books about grief. Even though she told us, half joking we thought, that sometimes she wished it wouldn’t, her life went stubbornly on. Within the next four years, two more of her sons would die. Their illnesses would consume her, and the rest of us, and our grief for Jim lessened out of necessity.
But in the early months of 2004, I cried in the shower often. I wondered if a day would ever pass when I didn’t think of Jim or his sudden death and feel a crushing sense of sadness. I was sad for myself and my grandmother and my mom and everyone else I knew who saw a Jim-shaped hole every time they looked at an empty lounge chair at the lake or waited for him to chime in to their conversation. I was sad that life in our family would never be the same. I didn’t yet know that the human soul is resilient, able to sustain incredible loss and go on to experience joy. I didn’t yet know that missing someone doesn’t have to be oppressive. It can also be a tool for remembering, for keeping that person’s part in our own life story alive.
I sleep in Jim’s room, in the bed where he died, whenever I stay at my grandmother’s house. I’m no longer troubled by sleeping in his literal death bed, but I used to be. Over the years, I’ve spent many nights awake under his same light blue comforter, wondering how it was that he came to die in that place, and then how and when and where I will die when it happens.
I haven’t had those thoughts in that room in a long time. The room is only Jim’s in name anymore, having been cleared of most anything that belonged to him. There remain some childhood photos, a large poster that my family had made for a fundraiser in his honor, and his Masters diploma. Images and mementos that my grandmother keeps because, simply, she is his mother. Looking around the room, I wonder where they will end up in the future, when Jim’s room no longer exists. Will anyone else want them, for memory’s sake?
Myself, I am a keeper of relics and a collector of my familial past. I could be convinced to take another photo or the diploma or one of his Agatha Christie books that surely live on in my grandmother’s attic. But for now, I keep one photo of him and the card that he gave me on my Confirmation day in my bedside table. Those things, and my memory, are enough.