The Jimmy Spoon
This story feels unique to me, but I know it is not. It’s about old friends and how long they stick around. I met Mark, Jimmy and Nora when I was 21, in my last year at the University of Louisville. We were in the first generation of role-playing gamers, and we met through a monumental weekly Dungeons and Dragons game held in a dormitory basement, attended by students from all the nearby colleges. Nora soon moved in across the hall from me and she made my final semester silly and priceless. She had grown up with Mark, and in fact, they were distant relatives. Mark met Jimmy while attending Spaulding College (now Spaulding University), and although Mark had dropped out, they had an apartment together in Old Louisville, the Victorian neighborhood that connected our two campuses. Nora and I spent as much time at the apartment as we could. Ah, the independence from dormitory rules!
Nora and Jimmy were the True Fans of the D & D, Science Fiction, Fantasy, comic book world. I was, and still am, an unfaithful semi-fan of it all, and Mark mostly hung on for the company. When the four of us first started gaming and socializing, I had a fiancé in another city, and he soon joined us, living illegally in my dorm room until another friend let him move in with him in his Old Louisville apartment. When the year ended, Nora and I got an apartment together, and I married Steve a few months later. Yes, I was the kind of Baptist girl who would hide a man in her room for a month but not live in sin openly.
This was the beginning. Over the following five years or so, our little nugget of a group grew to include several others, almost all of them someone known from either Spaulding or U of L. Between the mid to late 80s and early 90s we were as tight as a group of friends can be. As tight as they had been in The Big Chill. As tight as they would be later on Friends. Television shows and movies like that exist because this phenomenon exists. We were happy together, and, as we saw it, we were outsiders and freaks who’d been rejected by normal people but who’d found solace in each other. We thought we were extraordinarily lucky. But then we began to deteriorate. There are several events I could recount that mark that decline, but the reasons were the same: people changed, as people do, and we didn’t support those changes in each other. We felt uncomfortable about the things we didn’t have in common and tried to ignore those differences instead of accepting them. We thought we owed each other consistency in personality and actions, and we had unrealistically high expectations of each others’ ability to negotiate the problems when they came. We fell apart.
It was so painful then, I wouldn’t have believed it if I’d been told that it was necessary, and even good, for this to happen. In my loneliness I made room for new people and with my extra time I developed new pursuits. Another effect it had on me is that I have grown to distrust the idea of a group identity. Oh, it’s so seductive, the urge to relax and be “one of us,” but I’ve seen echoes of what went wrong with us in other groups as well, so I’m wary, and I keep myself on the edges whenever I start to sense that “this is who we are” vibe in the air. I don’t regret what happened now, except for the ways I hurt others, and I hope no one else does either. Most of the damaged individual friendships limped along for awhile, eventually recovering and being even stronger because of what we’d learned, but some friendships never healed, and the group as it evolved in the late nineties was looser and smaller.
Around the year 2000, about four or five of us who’d been seeing each other mainly for gaming (yes, that still goes on) thought we’d like to get together a bit more often and for other reasons, so we started going out on Thursday nights. The idea was to not plan, but just meet and do whatever we were in the mood to do, excluding gaming. The “Thursday Whimsy,” as we called it, continued for nearly ten years, and as I see it, this was a better time than the early years, because we were better at being close without holding on so hard. As much as we’d planned on going into each Thursday with open intentions, it quickly settled into a pattern of having dinner and then going somewhere else for coffee and dessert, usually on or near Bardstown Road in Louisville. We had such great talks, so many good times, and understood each other better than we ever had before.
Perhaps now I should introduce the principals:
First, Jimmy, from rural eastern Kentucky, a gay man who’d once studied for the priesthood but who now wanted to be a college professor. He worked at the university and took classes mainly in linguistics and queer theory. He was a unique and commanding presence, a very large (about 500 lbs.) man with a long blond tonsure. He was fatherly and trustworthy, and in fact acted as a father figure to the daughter of our friend Annette. He is one of the least critical people I’ve ever known, and – it’s difficult to express how pure he was in this because it sounds so ordinary – he truly had confidence in other people to know what was best for them. He was not the friend who was going to take you aside to tell you when you were off-track. He knew you’d figure it out on your own. It took me a long time to figure out how wonderful that was. If others were “concerned” about somebody and having a gossip about it, he’d shrug, say “that’s what (s)he wants.” He expected that same consideration from others about his life and decisions as well, and he could certainly be stubborn, too, although he usually had a sense of humor about it.
Mark was, when we met him, the most “80s” of us all. He reminded me of Dave Stewart. He was always absorbed in the arts of the day, dipping a toe in each at various times. He could sing, paint, sew, dress hair, write poetry, and he was so funny he had enough humor for all of us. So much of our collective language started out as Mark jokes. He had a great deal of natural talent, but when it came to being disciplined about anything, he’d falter. Mark had mental and physical problems that prevented him from ever really taking off the way he could have. It’s a tragedy, really. He’d go after one goal and then another, getting to a certain point and then just not having anything else to give to it. During the Whimsy years, he earned an MFA in poetry – all the more impressive because he never obtained a bachelor’s degree and had been admitted to the MFA program in spite of that. That was his time of being appreciated and lauded, but after graduation, he dropped the poetry almost completely.
Also attending the whimsy nights were Doug, the laid-back Virginian; Nora, who eventually moved to Kansas; Eric, Mark’s ex-boyfriend; and Steve, my husband, who became my ex-husband during these years. Eventually Eric’s new partner Michael began coming. Soon after the divorce, I was laid off from my job after 20 years and began working on a master’s degree. Eventually I had to drop out of Whimsy because I always had classes Thursday nights. Soon after, Jimmy did the same, for the same reason. It went along with a smaller group for a time, but eventually it trailed off, although we were still playing Dungeons and Dragons (3rd and 4th edition now) and saw each other at least every couple of weeks. I’m sad to say that my relationship with Jimmy deteriorated somewhat, although nothing was ever said about it. I briefly dated someone he had a crush on. I didn’t know originally, and then, since my dating the guy had absolutely nothing to do with whether Jimmy did or not – none of us were in love with the idea of monogamy – I was surprised that it became a problem. When I tried to make plans with Jimmy to talk about it, he said he didn’t have time, and wouldn’t have time later. I can’t say we were ever close after this.
One day in March of 2011, Jimmy couldn’t lift his arm. After the tests, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. At the time, the doctors’ estimate was that he had as much as seven years ahead of him. The tumor that was blocking the nerve to the arm went away very politely when it was treated. Life was different, but we thought we had time.
In June, Mark killed himself. No one now living can say with any certainty why he did it, but I know that Jimmy’s condition and the fact that Mark felt helpless about it had a lot to do with it. He also missed our socializing as much as we had, and he was feeling too ill to get out very much. Even when he was being reclusive, Mark was ever-present on Facebook and when I hadn’t seen any posts from him for several days, I started calling. In the end, Eric and Michael went to his apartment, saw his car there, and broke in and found him. Jimmy officiated at his funeral.
Within a month after that, Jimmy fell and broke his leg. At the hospital, they found more tumors, and within a few weeks it was clear that he wasn’t going to get anything near that seven years. He lived until October. The night he died there were 14 people with him.
Jimmy was cremated, and we had several plastic bags of ashes that he wanted scattered in various places. Michael was in charge of the scattering – in fact, he had stepped forward to do a great deal of the difficult work all along, since he hadn’t known Jimmy very long and he was able to be a bit more clearheaded than the other decision-makers, Eric and Jimmy’s brother Ferris. Friends gathered on several different occasions to scatter ashes so that everyone would have a chance. And Michael is going to be unhappy with me for telling this secret: when Steve and I joined Michael and Eric for our turn, we strayed from Jimmy’s wishes for the ashes and scattered some of them where WE had special memories. I think he’d have wanted us to. On Bardstown Road there is a shopping center called Mid-City Mall. In the parking lot there is a Skyline Chili, and that evening we ate at Skyline, as we had with Jimmy and Mark many times, and outside afterwards, we gave the ashes a shake. We went to the mall and shook ashes there, especially at the Chinese Buffet where Jimmy had loved to go. Then I led everyone around the back, because of a memory I had that needed to be honored: a few years ago, the day a relationship of mine had ended, I ran into Jimmy, who was coming out the back entrance. I was exhausted and sad and confused, as much a wreck as I’ve ever been in my life, and when I saw Jimmy I cried and he comforted me. “What’s the matter, Puddin’?” he’d said. I put some ashes where we’d hugged.
For awhile every time we saw anyone from the group, all we could talk about what who was absent. I guess that’s the way it is – the most salient aspect of being together was not who we were with but who we’d never be with again. In January Steve and I were driving down Bardstown Road, on our way to get Indian food for Steve’s birthday. I’m not there that much these days, and everything we passed reminded us of Mark and Jimmy. Every block brought old memories and further soured our mood. We could not quit thinking of times we were here with Mark and Jimmy, and times we went there with Mark and Jimmy. Mark and Jimmy. Mark and Jimmy. Then Steve told me a story. A few weeks ago, he’d been at Michael and Eric’s house for dinner along with Doug. Apparently there had been a little bit of a controversy in the Michael and Eric household because Eric had walked in on Michael spooning Jimmy’s ashes into plastic bags with one of their regular stainless steel spoons – the ones they use every day. Eric himself wasn’t too put out, although he didn’t like it and didn’t see why Michael couldn’t have used a plastic one, for God’s sake. Doug, though, had refused to use a spoon at their house at all since finding out about it, and he was still refusing to use one the night he and Steve were there, for fear of getting “the Jimmy spoon.” He was really upset about it! That struck me as so funny, the whole situation, and it was surprising too, because Doug is the most relaxed person I know! I was just lifted right out of my bad mood and had a big and satisfying laugh. I was smiling on the inside and the outside, and for the rest of the night, every time I’d think of it, I just had to giggle, it made me so damn happy. Later I realized that this was the first time since the two deaths that I felt something happened to move me into the new world. I’d been thinking a lot, as one always does, about making sure those who are left take care of each other and value each other, etcetera, etcetera, but this is the moment where I was pushed beyond grief into being happy we know each now other because of who we are now. Our friendship will go on, not defined by who we are missing.
As I said, our story isn’t unique. Many people have friendships that begin in childhood (and let’s face it, 21 is still a little bit that) and go into middle age and beyond. How lucky I am to have people who’ve watched me grow up and get older. I’m so sad that Mark and Jimmy won’t get to grow old with us, but so glad that there will be others who will be there (provided I’m still here), and it’s highly likely that some of them will be Doug, Michael, Eric, and Steve. We have a new event now: we meet once a month for Sunday dinner, taking turns having it at one another’s homes. We call it “That Time of the Month.”
In March, at Michael and Eric’s, Doug went outside to smoke and we decided to give him a spoon with his dessert and see if he’d absentmindedly use it. He did. He saw us shooting looks at each other and said, “What?”
Michael said gravely, “Doug…that’s the Jimmy spoon.”
Doug hissed, “You’re EVIL!” Then he smiled, and now he’s over it. And on we go.