We lost three friends this year, and it was only in sitting down to write this that I realized their deaths had something in common.
Steve was always looking after people, but he never called attention to the fact. He put up a shelf for me once and reinforced it, and never mentioned it–it was just there one day. He was so quiet that many people overlooked his wicked sense of humor. After riding all the way from San Francisco to El Cerrito listening to a group of young black men call each other “nigger” (appalling to anyone of his generation or mine), he calmly turned to Eve and me and said “Okay, honkies, this is our stop.” His life was more complicated than most people realized. People knew him for decades and hardly knew him at all.
He started having lower back pain in 2011, and put it down to the commute he was making from San Rafael to Pleasanton. In 2012, when he had become unable to walk, a scan revealed a tumor in his kidney that had spread into his spine and his ribs. The doctors tried surgery, chemo, and radiation. They got him back on his feet, looking 20 years older, but he died in the spring of 2013, after suffering terrible pain. He was in his early sixties. It was too soon, and it was too late. The world is a poorer place without him.
Sweet-faced Alice was one of the first people we met when we started going to the monthly breakfasts at the Red Men/Pocahontas Hall. She always looked so happy to see us. Sometimes she asked questions about computers. (People do that–they hear you work in a tech-related field and assume it means you provide tech support.) She’d moved to Oakley with her first husband before I was born and fought the school board to make sure her children got the education they needed. Gossip suggested she was hoping to marry her beau Richard, but that he’d buried too many wives already and didn’t want to be widowed again.
One month we showed up for breakfast and she wasn’t there. She’d had a fall and the X-ray had revealed a brain tumor no one had suspected. A few weeks later, she was dead. She wasn’t young, but she’d been expecting a future, even so.
In some ways, Jim reminded me of my grandfather: a smartass from a big family. But where my grandfather had a horde of sisters, Jim had enough brothers that they could make their own gang. They must’ve been trouble, the whole lot of them, because Jim left home at eighteen (or was it sixteen?) “on account of sickness–my parents were sick of me.”
Jim spent five years in the Air Force, married, and moved to Oakley, whereupon he joined the Improved Order of Red Men, on whose behalf he invited Stefan and me to breakfast in March 2012 when we attended the groundbreaking for Carpaccio.
Who can resist an invitation to have “Two eggs, two sausages, two bacon, all the pancakes you can eat, and all the bullshit you can handle?” We went to breakfast, met Alice and Richard and Jane and Mary Lou and Elaine and Debbie and the rest. Jim gave us the tour of the museum and explained the history of the order. He was tremendously proud of the order, its patriotism, and the fact that the Sons of Liberty chose to model their organization on the Iroquois Confederation because the Native Americans had such an obviously superior form of self-government.
Jim was strong-chinned, thick-necked, barrel-chested, with short upper arms, heavy eyebrows, bristly ears. Judging from photos I saw at the funeral, he was never a tall or handsome man, but he had presence and miles of personality, and he had standing in his community. With that and the ratio of women in the Degree of Pocahontas to men in the Improved Order of Red Men, it’s not that surprising that widows and divorcees queued up to try to get his attention when his first wife died.
It’s not hard, either, to imagine why Shirley caught his eye. Even in her seventies she remains an attractive woman. According to her, Jim slapped his little black book down in front of her and asked her to write her number in it–earning her some black looks from the other women in the room. One refused to speak to Shirley for years after she and Jim were married.
Like his parents and his siblings, Jim struggled with diabetes. He was working to get his weight down, but he did sometimes cheat. (Those pancakes, you know.) And while he’d once been active, increasing back pain had decreased his mobility drastically. A TENS machine had brought some relief for a while, but only temporarily. Jim’s skin started to take on a grayish tinge.
When he collapsed at the Hall in November, everyone thought it must be something to do with his blood sugar, though it had been fine when he checked it that morning. The VA hospital opted to run some more tests, and then some more. When the answer came back in the beginning of December, it wasn’t good: liver cancer.
After the last set of tests, the doctors said that as long as Jim was able to eat, he might last as long as six months. They sent him home.
The next evening, he was dead.
Everyone at the funeral spoke of Jim’s humor, his friendship, his devotion to the Order, his passionate partisanship for the Oakland Raiders. He was buried in a black tuxedo and a Raiders tie.
Jim was 80 years old. I’d meant to go visit him. He died before I had the chance.
I lost three friends this year, to tumors they never suspected they had until it was too late to stop them. With several of my relatives by blood and marriage in their eighties, I expect to be attending more funerals before long. And with Fukushima spewing radiation through the Pacific, I wonder how many people in my generation will make it to their eighties. It may soon be a novelty to attend a funeral for someone who didn’t die from cancer.