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Among Friends

James sat on stage with his typical half-grimace, always waiting to bellow a line of loud sarcasm, with his hands folded in his lap, part of an assembly of seven. The lights dimmed and the room hushed. The purpose: poke fun at James with stories that weren't entirely fabricated. Three speakers were particularly notable-- the surgeon, the lady-in-the-choir, and the pastor.

“I work often on Sundays-- sometimes I can't make it to service,” the surgeon began, “Fortunately, James heads the greeting committee so I feel like I'm still part of the church when I do attend. It's comforting when James walks up to me on a Sunday, stretches out his hand, and says, 'Hello, I'm James. I don't believe we've met, is this your first time visiting?'” Behind the surgeon James, in stitches, clasped his hands to prevent those hands that used to shake in greeting, from shaking themselves.

The lady-in-the-choir spoke about meeting James, “When I joined the choir this mustachioed man asked if I was single. I was . . . worried. He was old. . .er and made strange jokes. I asked my friend about him. She said, 'Oh, he's harmless— and married to the nicest woman, but he'll probably try to set you up on a blind date sometime.'” The match-maker smirked as she spoke, mustachioed no longer. James' muscles had betrayed him a week earlier, while shaving, and to cover up the mistake he removed the mustache totally.

Finally, the pastor took the podium. “James uses his. . . unique personality to love people and serve the Lord. He once helped George McCalford with his golf game for two hours, on a whim-- after that George's game increased by four strokes on average. His dedication makes him a great friend!” James had given up golf; although he loved it, he could no longer clutch the clubs.

Lou Gehrig's disease was apparent, but losing, in James. Yes, James could not golf or shake hands. Yes, his life would end, likely painfully. But it had not changed him. He still sat in church and barked ill-timed “Amen”s and spoke whatever jokes were on his mind, regardless if they were funny or appropriate. This wasn't a eulogy or a sad attempt at a “celebration of life” in which family members and friends drink and revel in an attempt to fend off tears at their beloved's passing. James was still here. The pastor wasn't remembering James, he was making fun of him; The Pastor was a friend who was, not only allowed, but expected to do so.

Oft tactless, even rude, James was saving the pastor from the same fate as ex-preacher Jim Casey in The Grapes of Wrath--having no true human confidants, disconnected from the common man, his congregation, and destitute in faith and joy.

James was living, not yearning for death but not fearing it; sitting in a gritty and glorious realism that transcended normal definitions of a dignified death. That night, James' life displayed itself as a lesson.

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