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Jimmy was smart, Jimmy was funny, Jimmy was more energetic than his 30-year-younger wife, Jimmy despised pretension of any kind, Jimmy worked his ass off for what he believed in, Jimmy was politically scheming to the end. All this was self-evident to anyone who knew him.
Jimmy lived his illness much the way he lived his life, only more so. Or maybe it just put who he was in sharper relief.
Jimmy was the epitome of strong-willed and everyone who knew him knew that of him, too. He told himself early on that he was not afraid of this illness, or even of death. He found ways to keep the fear away. Every time the tumor’s advance stole some of his functioning, he challenged himself to adapt. This was an immediate, seemingly spontaneous response, not spoken about. When he no longer could calculate payment at the grocery store, he took to carrying large bills, so that he could just hand one over to the clerk with a smile. When the doctor told him he couldn’t walk the streets safely because he had “left side inattention,” he came home that same day, got up from a nap, said he wanted coffee ice cream and insisted he was going to walk to the store alone to get it. I, of course, insisted on going too. I followed him as he walked through several blocks of a busy construction zone, grazing his right hand against the fences and buildings, using them as a guide. Afterward he told me that I shouldn’t worry, that he had obviously “figured out a system” that would keep him safe.
When he was in California for his radiation treatments, he played poker, and every time I picked him up I was afraid that this would be the day he would realize how confused he could be by numbers, that this would be the day of his mortification. Instead, Jimmy would get in the car and say something like “I netted about $450 – I was up by about $700 at one point, but then I got confused for a little while. But I didn’t do so bad in the end.” With a Grade 4 glio blastoma multiforme tumor – a tumor the pathology report called “exuberant” in its growth – he still ended up winning more money at poker than he lost.
Of course, the tool he used most to hold back his fear and his despair was his sense of humor. None of us present will forget the sight of him lying on the hospital gurney about to be wheeled into the operating room. He had on the sickly mint green hospital gown, the hair net, and a head with magic marker lines to aid the surgeon. He showed absolutely no anxiety. Instead, he began singing in an almost preternaturally flat voice a song from The Mikado, “Defer, defer to the Lord High Executioner!” Not one line, not one round of the chorus, but many, many rounds.
It was surreal, it was a beautiful moment, and it was a gift to us. It did not delude any of us into thinking our Jimmy would come back from the operating room unscathed and non-malignant, but it did make me feel that we would make it through the dark night of his illness with his dignity, and mine, intact.
When people called Jimmy in the last month of his life, he was mostly paralyzed, he was incontinent, he was struggling to speak. They would ask him how he was doing. He would respond in his slowed down voice, “I’m DYING (pause, pause, pause – he always had exquisite timing) – but I feel fine.” I could visualize his friends on the other end of the line, making that hard, hard call to the dying man they loved, and being so taken aback – and then relieved – to get that response. Pure Jimmy. Somehow both unsettling and reassuring all at once. (And totally calculated on his part – he said to me as an aside once, “That should make them relax some.”)
The impact Jimmy had on the world around him is often measured by his ideas, his sane analysis of history and politics in a seemingly insane world. He did have an impact, more than most of us dream of having. But those of us who knew him well knew that his heart was as big as his mind. It was his heart that drove his thirst for justice, it was his heart that opened him up to people beyond the privileged circumstances he was born into, it was his heart that made him wise, instead of just smart. I found it fitting that the day before he died, the hospice nurse said, “His heart is beating strong.”
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