That day when you sat, looking tired and wan yet tanned by the sun, on that incline of lawn that sloped up to your house next to mine.
You told me you were sick.
You told me you got sick from the needles you used to do the drug you learned to do in the Army, a drug that let you escape those horrors, one doorway into hell replaced by an addictive other.
You told me in your way that you’d had some good life, the backyard parties of our families, our shared love of beach & brine & sun & sand. I didn’t know you were dying.
Before you died you re-painted your mother’s house and you painted JF high on the chimney I could see out my bedroom window. The other thing I could see was that beautiful pin oak, which was one of the only big trees to survive Sandy. I thought of you all the time when I lived there. I’m ashamed to say I don’t know when you died; just that one day you were there and then you weren’t, and no one told me about your wake or your funeral. They were sparing me something, I think, or maybe there was nothing for you. That’s how it was sometimes then.
Your mom, you know, became a powerhouse – not that she ever wasn’t – but for your sake she started the first support groups for families; she worked to dispel the myths; she demanded answers, research.
She laughed one day so hard in my family’s kitchen when she heard the lyrics
and I think that god’s got a sick sense of humor
when I die I expect to find him laughing
So hard she laughed, too hard maybe. She laughed like she wasn’t a good Irish Catholic lady for a minute. But she was, wasn’t she? So much faith, endless faith she had in the beauty of a laugh or a night with friends and other small charms this sick world offers, and all of that faith despite all of the misery she survived. She was my mother’s best friend. My mom still misses her.
She never met your brother’s child, her first and only grandkid. Your brother did come around, my mom tells me, eventually, to take care of your kid sister after your mom died.
We always felt a little guilty next door. We all lived, flourished in our ways, despite arrests and never enough money and our own invisible family traumas. Somehow we all made it, despite everything. Your eldest brother – that brother, who denied your mother the right of ever knowing her only grandchild – and your kid sister are all of you now.
Today is like that day I saw you – blue skies and a late spring sun, dandelions in grass that can’t grow fast enough.
I’ll be teaching students born years after you died about the disease that killed you tomorrow if I can manage. If I can I’ll tell them about you, but probably I’ll just put up a link so they can read this if they want to. I want them to know about your beat-up jeans and the blade of grass in your hand and in your mouth, your short auburn curls full on your young head. You were younger than I am now, so much younger. You were a picture then, and still are in my head, a young man who never asked why me but only longed, perhaps, for another day in the sun, another cold one, another clam on the half shell.
Just so you know, Jimmy, someone who owned your house finally painted over your initials, and since I noticed I’ve taken to writing or carving your JF where I can. You’re never forgotten, not while I live at least, and I think, I hope, that you’d appreciate that one of us Kramers breaks the law on your behalf as often as she can. I think that might make you laugh, and here I am now, laughing on your behalf but crying for you too.
You would have been 60 this year. Godspeed and say hi to your mom.
b. May 17, 1956
d. August 14, 1989