Trying to Plow with a Feather

These are, as best as I can reconstruct them, the words which made up my remembrance of Jim at his memorial service exactly a year ago:

In his short story, “A Tranquil Star,” Primo Levi wrote about the impossibility of putting some things into words. He wrote, “If in fact this story must be written, we must have the courage to eliminate all adjectives that tend to excite wonder; they would achieve the opposite effect, that of impoverishing the narrative. For a discussion of stars our language is inadequate and seems laughable, as if someone were trying to plow with a feather. It’s a language that was born with us, suitable for describing objects more or less as large and long-lasting as we are. It doesn’t go beyond what our senses tell us.”

Jim is larger now than we are, and to talk about him now goes well beyond what our senses tell us. So I’ve warned you at the outset that the words I’m about to use are hopelessly inadequate to describe Jim’s story. Not being blessed with any performance skills, like some of our friends, they’re all I have.

As Randy said—and I’ve never heard it quite like that before–I’ve been with Jim since I was a seventeen-year-old college student. I was not uninventive, and tried many, many methods to evade the school’s laboratory class requirements.  But I ended up in Plant Bio nonetheless, and I guess the rest is history.  I actually was the first girlfriend—and have good reason to believe I was the last.

There were many other lasts in his life which we didn’t know were lasts at the time, any more than we knew, way back when we were seventeen and twenty, that he would be my last boyfriend and I the last girlfriend.

These lasts all say something about him.

His very last trip to a place he wanted to go was exactly two weeks ago, when our sons and I took him to see our daughter Suzannah perform in a show. The last photographs he took with those keen, bright eyes were of his youngest child, as she danced.

The last photographs of him were taken as he was sandwiched in a hospital bed between two of his fairy god-daughters.  That was just last week.

The last book he started was a biography of Alexander Hamilton.

The last movie we saw was Gettysburg. . .which took us two days to get through, nearly as long as the battle itself.

Jim’s overwhelming last goal was evident to anyone who knew him.  He wanted to come home, where the last things he saw were made and arranged for his comfort by his children.  Most of all he wanted to hear their voices and see their faces and feel their touch.

The last time Jim was outside he saw the biggest moon in nineteen years.

The last time he got up on his own was to stand—on his own; that’s why he had Bob unhook him.  He didn’t want to be tethered.  And he stood and walked to the next room, where he saw friends, and his frenzied beagles, who were delighted to see their master, and an unexpected snow on the first day of spring.

The last time he put on his reading glasses was to read a card from a niece who told him how much she loved him.

The last thing I read to him was a card from the daughter of a colleague, who told him all the kids loved it when he was Santa at a Christmas party and it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun being an elf without him.

The last person to whom he spoke on the telephone was his lifelong friend Joe, who called as soon as he landed his plane in Colorado.  Jim’s other boyhood friends had been able to come up to see him earlier that day.

The last voices he heard belonged without exception to people who loved him deeply.

The last hands to touch him belonged to the children he loved beyond the measure of all of those inadequate adjectives.

And you’ve heard that the last practical joke he played, just days ago, was on poor Dr. Bob.

Jim personified grace. Faced with the instant, incalculable loss of his health and the work and life he had known and loved, and then with the certain knowledge of how the medical portion of the story would end, someone he had just met asked him, “How are you?” He answered, with that characteristic little head and hand shrug, “For a guy with metastatic pancreatic cancer, I’m great.”

And he was. He didn’t expend time on an anger phase or a bargaining phase of dealing with his sudden diagnosis. Jim immediately accepted it as a biological event, the biology major he had been when we met as undergrads, and he adapted.

And when it still made sense to dive into aggressive treatment in the hope of some shot at a cure, he literally signed right up.  We didn’t even have a chance to talk about it.  The oncologist told him, “This is going to be terrible, awful.  You have no idea.”  And he said, “Sign me up.”  As my friend Kevin said at the time, it’s “like trials. Sports. And dating. Aggressive moves with a positive attitude.”

He couldn’t have had a better attitude, and he taught all of us by maintaining hope, while recognizing and readily discussing with anyone who wanted to talk to him about it how his hopes had to shift and adapt to biological reality.

And who but the most hopeful man could have started guitar lessons last summer—after a 30-year hiatus during which he was kind of busy–or kept an eye out for bargains on new lenses for his camera, or calculated assorted scenarios for how much tuition we’d be paying just as soon as he returned to work?

He was the best of teachers. When we were in the hospital for the last time, once again being treated by doctors Jim had hired, one of them told me it wasn’t an age thing–because they weren’t so far apart in age–but that he “always wanted to grow up to be Jim.”

I said we all want to grow up to be Jim.

I am just beginning to realize some of the quiet ways in which he taught me over these past nearly nine months in a changed world for us. At first it was subtle, like when he would walk over and say “This is the first thing I try when the printer jams,” and quietly make sure I paid attention. “This is how I unclog this pipe,” he would say–I guess he didn’t learn his lesson from that plumber–and he would dispatch Emma and me for the right tools, so we’d know where to find them.

Last summer I still possessed a good dose of pathological fear of hospitals.  I’m sorry to share this, but it’s a Martin family trait.  When we do go into medicine, we go into research, and stay far away from actual patients.  And it’s  ironic that we ended up spending so much time at Mass General, the very place where as a high school student I had thought it would be a great idea to volunteer in the emergency room to try to get over that fear—obviously with only very limited success.

And yet within the space of months this summer, magically, Jim was doing things in that way he has of doing them, and I realized that almost all of my fears–fears I’d had for decades–were gone. Jim planned a last family trip for all of us, and I discovered I was no longer afraid of flying. He slowly had me take over all of the driving, and I found I even could handle highway driving among Massachusetts drivers.  Even at rush hour, even twisting out of Memorial Drive.  At home, I was able to put on the blue gloves and give parades of injections.

I realized that Jim gradually had been stepping back from the things he always had done, at precisely the pace I needed to make sure not only that I could do all of these things, but that I knew I could handle them—and he knew I could do my best to take care of our family here without him.

The only profound fears I kept were the fear that he would suffer and the knowledge that he was going to die. And the reason I could go on was that I have these children, and these friends, and this greater family.  And because he knew not just what to tell me to do, but also to tell me that he was not afraid.

Jim and Bob knew better than anyone what the end of life after a long illness can look like, and be like, and he genuinely was not afraid.

All he wanted was to come home. His children, dear friends, sisters, and people who have become brothers to him, gave him that. Of course he missed work terribly. He missed his healthy life. There were times—though surprisingly few of them—when he was discouraged and saddened, but I promise you he was never afraid.

Other people write words much better than mine. One is a poem by Mary Oliver called “A Pretty Song”:

From the complications of loving you

I think there is no end or return.

No answer, no coming out of it.

Which is the only way to love, isn’t it?

This isn’t a playground, this is

Earth, our heaven, for a while.

Therefore I have given precedence

To all my sudden, sullen, dark moods

That hold you in the center of my world.

And I say to my body: grow thinner still.

And I say to my fingers, type me a pretty song.

And I say to my heart: rave on.


(c) 2011 Stephanie M. Glennon

Author: Stephanie

In her spare time, Stephanie works full-time, and then some, as an attorney. She has published articles and delivered talks in arcane fields like forensic evidentiary issues, jury instructions, and expert scientific witness preparation. She attended law school on the banks lso is an adjunct professor at a law school near the banks of the Charles River and loves that dirty water, as she will always think of Boston as her home. You are welcome to take a look at her Facebook author page, or follow @SMartinGlennon on Twitter and @schnitzelpond on Instagram. Bonus points for anyone who understands the Instagram handle. All content on this blog, unless otherwise attributed, is (c) 2012-2023 by Stephanie M. Glennon and should not be reproduced (in any form other than re-blogging in accordance with the wee Wordpress buttons at the bottom of each post) without the express permission of the domain holder.

5 thoughts on “Trying to Plow with a Feather”

  1. Thank you for sending your words from last year’s service for Jim. They move me now as then and I’m grateful to have the chance to be there again…with him and with you.

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