Snow began in the night, and I did chores in the half-light of a hushed landscape. Down on the town road, I heard the rumble of the plow as it passed, the scrape of the blade, the rattle of the tire chains. I hitched Pip to a fence post and milked, snow falling atop both our backs. I’d slept cold and woken colder, but the warmth of my morning fire stayed with me, and I did not hurry. My family was gone, encamped deep in the woods. I had only the animals and myself to serve.
Back inside, eating my eggs and drinking my coffee, I heard on the radio that Lemmy died. This made me think of my friend Jim, who died nearly five years ago. Jim didn’t listen to Motorhead as often as I did – he was way too classy for that – but it still happened from time to time. It was Jim’s old sawmill that milled much of the lumber we built into the barn I’m sitting in right now. Actually, I can see the sawmill from where I’m sitting right now. I need to get it fired up again; I’ve got a beautiful spalted maple log I’m keen to open up.
Here’s something I wrote about Jim a while back. I hope you like it.
• • •
It has been almost two years since my friend Jim died in his sleep. He was 43 when he died, and less than three weeks away from adopting newborn twin girls with his wife, Nancy. It had taken them nearly four years to line up this adoption. They’d come close to becoming parents before, to babies that for one reason or another had become unavailable at some heart-wrenching last minute. But they’d never come this close. They had a carriage. They had a crib. They even had diapers. This time, it was going to happen.
I didn’t actually know about the impending adoption until after Jim’s death, because I hadn’t talked to him in a couple of months. But that was ok, because that was the sort of friendship we had: We could go a few months without seeing each other, and then fall right back into it. Often we’d come together over a project, or one of the blueberry pies he baked every year for my birthday. I can’t remember how or when that tradition started, but I remember the pies and I remember the company. I remember that Jim would eat three pieces, each with two or three scoops of ice cream. He’d always been like that. The boy could eat.
I won’t say that Jim was my best friend, if only because he had a lot of friends who would claim him as such and I have no more right to that claim than any of them. What’s remarkable, really, is that so many thought of him as their best friend, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought of them all as his best friend. He was the sort of guy whose life was big enough for that, whose sense of himself was sound enough that the energy most of us expend just trying to figure out who the hell we are could instead be invested into his relationships with others, like a low voltage electrical current. Which is a funny way to put it, now that I think about it: Jim and Nancy installed renewable energy systems for a living.
So maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t my best friend, but in either case, he was a good friend, and had been for more than 25 years. Jim and I went to high school together; he was a couple years ahead of me, which meant that he graduated at about the same time I dropped out. We both had a fondness for Rush, motorcycles, and driving too fast, in approximately that order. We wanted to be tougher than we were, but we were just too damn sensitive and neither of us could quite muster it. I have no doubt we recognized this in each other, and that it is in part why we sought each other’s company.
In adulthood, Jim and I came to embody some very fundamental differences. He became a strict vegetarian, while I came to be a connoisseur of animal flesh, raising and personally slaughtering my family’s meat. He became an overtly spiritual man, a seeker of and, it seemed to me, a vessel for a particular wisdom that I suspect will always elude me. He was neat, if not meticulous. When he and Nancy bought a new rug for their living room, Jim chose one that was white. A white rug: It was something I could hardly fathom, something that, in my house, would remain unsullied for approximately as long as it took to unfurl. After he died, I was helping Nancy pack up some things and every time I walked across that rug I worried over what might be on the bottom of my shoes. Because damned if that thing wasn’t as white as the day he brought it home so many years before. It was as if that rug had been blessed by Mr. Clean.
But despite all these differences, we remained close. When our oldest son was born, Jim was the first person other than Penny and me to hold him. Our second son took his first steps with his soft fist enclosed in Jim’s big work-calloused hand. Everywhere I look in our house, there is evidence of Jim: The door we built together, the solar panels we installed together, the drywall we hung. Starting in the second week of every August, we pick blueberries from the young whips he helped plant way back in 1998.
Jim and Nancy lived next door to Jim’s parents in a house Jim built before he and Nancy met. It’s an amazing place, full of thoughtful and carefully crafted details. I put in my share of hours during its construction, and one day, as we were working on some task or another, Jim showed me a photo of the slate stone flower he’d fashioned at the roof’s peak. I remember asking Jim why he’d gone to the considerable trouble of making the flower, and then installing it where no one was likely to see it. “Someday after I’m gone, someone will be up on this roof and I want them to know I cared,” is what he said. I said nothing. I mean, what the hell could I say to that?
After his death, Jim’s family did an amazing and unusual thing: They left his body where it lay, in Jim and Nancy’s bed, for three full days. And Nancy invited anyone and everyone to come say goodbye. Or hello. Or whatever they wanted. I remember sitting on the bed with my friend, crying my friggin’ eyes out. I remember how at first I’d thought that maybe I couldn’t do it, couldn’t handle seeing his body like that, in his bed, exactly as he died. I remember thinking that I couldn’t imagine how his family could just leave him there and open the door. But sitting there with him, and gathering with so many of the people whose lives had somehow become intertwined with his (and it was a lot), I realized I couldn’t imagine it being any other way.
Three days after he died, we lifted Jim into a homemade coffin and buried him on the land. That was another thing I wasn’t sure I could handle and yet another thing that, having done it, I couldn’t imagine not having done. It poured that day, as it had on so many of the previous days, and we pumped hundreds of gallons of water out of the hastily excavated gravesite, a steady, brown stream of collected rain and diluted soil, and I thought about how Jim’s body would eventually merge with the earth just as the soil and water had merged. And then I realized how I’d unconsciously begun to distinguish between Jim and Jim’s body. I tried to pinpoint when this had happened, but I couldn’t.
We set the coffin into the ground and started backfilling. The soil was wet and heavy in the palm of my spade. For the time, it had stopped raining, but we could see the next wave of clouds building in the sky. Penny took a turn with the shovel. Jim’s father was next to me, shoveling. The soil thumped against the coffin lid. It made a noise that reminded me of a horse’s gallop. Claudia, another of Jim’s best friends, starting singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” We all joined in.
Two weeks later, I was at the hospital with Jim’s family and a handful of friends, awaiting the arrival of the twins Nancy would adopt.
Not long after the twins arrived, and not long after my grief had evolved into gratitude in the way that all grief deserves to evolve, I had a dream about Jim. It was short, or at least the portion I remember was short. He was sitting in one of the wooden Adirondack chairs my parents gave Penny and me for our wedding. I was above him, from some undefined vantage point. Was I in a tree? Maybe. On a ladder? I don’t think so, but it could be. Perhaps I was merely levitating. Whatever the case, my view of Jim – and not just his physical being, but everything about him – was complete. He was wearing the big, mirrored aviator sunglasses he used to wear and his hair was pulled back into his trademark ponytail. His face was tilted toward the sky, but he could not see me. And he was laughing.