Friend Of A Lifetime
I pulled up to a healthcare facility in the northwest suburbs outside of Chicago close to nine years ago. It was a fall afternoon after the leaves had just changed colors, where the weather was the right mix of sunshine with a bit of nip in the air. I didn’t know it then, but that day, I would meet a man that would become one of the best friends that I would ever have. Jim and I crossed paths because he is a veteran from World War Two (he served in the China – Burma – India Theater of War). He and I met in a common room in the nursing home where he resided at the time for his interview. When I walked in and saw him sitting there, I literally felt as if I was having a personal meeting with Santa Claus. Jim had a welcoming presence about him that began with his gigantic smile that radiated from his face. One cannot help but notice Jim’s sweet smile and of course his characteristic long white beard.
Even after my first interview with Jim, I was drawn to him. I had to come back to see him again and then I came back yet again and then again and again. I visited Jim countless times over the next year, which then turned into years. One month of calling, writing, and visiting Jim turned into months and that then turned into a year of visits and that year then turned into years of visiting Jim and over the years, we developed an astounding and powerful friendship. Sure there were close to seventy years between us in age, but something drew me to Jim. It had to be his stories.
Whenever I spent time with Jim, it was as if I had the opportunity to go back into history, but even more than that, this elderly man became my friend. Jim’s stories transported me back to the depression years. Through other stories that he told to me, I felt like I was growing up when FDR was president. Through other stories that he recanted, I experienced the WWII years, from others, I was in the 1960’s, and so on. Jim became my best friend (“bestie” as my generation calls our best friends) out of everyone whom I was frequently interviewing for my oral history project. Jim had no living family. He did not have a single niece, nephew, cousin, anyone. Over time, I learned how Jim lived alone in his house that he had lived in for years when one night Jim fell and he never walked again after that night. He was taken to the hospital after it took him hours to scooch himself on his back to the phone to call an ambulance. After that fall, he was put into this healthcare facility and he has been in a wheelchair and living in a nursing home ever since. Unfortunately, Jim found himself in this situation, but because he was living permanently in a health rehabilitation facility, he and I met when the activities director received my flyer asking if that retirement home had any WWII veterans who would be willing to share their stories with me.
When I read the Chinese proverb, “An invisible thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but will never break,” all of my moments with Jim flash in front of me. He would not be a friend that I know for years and years (simply because there were close to 70 years between us in age), but he would be a friend that I was destined to meet and just like the proverb says, “our friendship would never break.” He would always be a part of me. Individuals with whom we come into contact get pieces of our hearts. Jim is someone who has one of the spots in my heart. I will never be the same after having met Jim. In the span of my entire life, perhaps we would be friends for what seemed like a moment in time, but what a precious moment our friendship will always be to me.
“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for a while, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same.” – Flavia Weedn
It All Changed In An Instant
Fast forward nine years from the day that I first met Jim. It was not your typical December afternoon in Chicago. It was seasonably warm and there was not any snow on the ground. I sat on his nursing home bed as I had done hundreds and hundreds of times over the previous nine years. As had recurred many times over the preceding years, my elderly friend, Jim, was parked in his wheelchair eating his soup. It was part of my weekly routine to spend time with my comrade in his nursing room and converse with him while he ate the requested food from “outside” the nursing home that I brought to him.
We were having, as we always did, a thought-provoking conversation. All of a sudden, the soup that Jim was holding crashed to ground. “Jim?!” “Jim, did you drop your bowl of soup?” No response. I asked him again, “Jim?” I stood up from his bed in his nursing home room. I walked over to my friend parked in front of me in his wheelchair and put my hand on his shoulder. “Jim, are you, okay?” Still no response. I ran into the hall. “Nurse, nurse, I need help in here!” She entered the room and laughed as she said, “Jim just doesn’t feel like talking.” I tried to give him a glass of water. That too crashed to the ground. I panicked. Nobody would help me. I frantically called 911 to have an ambulance come.
I watched Jim in what ended up being his last time ever pulling away from his nursing home. I followed the flashing lights from the ambulance until we reached the nearby hospital. I parked my car and checked in. It was now about 4:30 pm on Friday. The chaplain met me right away. I knew this could not be good.
These would be the last few living hours that I spent with my best friend. He never spoke again after he dropped his soup because he had a debilitating stroke, but while I was in the emergency room with him on Friday evening, he kept squeezing my hand, gazing into my eyes, and winking at me. I will never forget those last deep looks that he made into my eyes. By Sunday morning, his breaths were shallow and it sounded like he was weeping. He experienced periods of no breathing for a few seconds to a minute. I held his hand and played his favorite songs from YouTube on my phone. All weekend long, I stayed with Jim. At the time, time passed so slowly, but now, what I would give to tell him one more thing.
Jim always sat parked in his wheelchair next to his bed at the nursing home and I always sat and sometimes would lie down on his bed. He used to joke with me, “I am going to start charging you rent.” I would lie on his bed with my arms crossed behind my head and I eagerly listened to his stories for hours. Now he was lying on the bed and I was sitting in the chair next to him literally waiting for him to take his last living breath here on Earth.
“What’s your story with him anyway?,” the hospice nurse asked me as I sat sobbing next to a 94 year old man on his death bed. “I’m his niece.” For years, that is what Jim told the staff at nursing homes when they asked who I was because we figured out that these places treated him better when they believed that he did in fact have family. She glanced at me like the numbers and the years were not adding up. “Great niece,” I added. She walked out of the room and his periods of rapid, shallow panting continued. “What’s our story?,” I thought to myself. Amidst the tears, I smiled. It’s quite a story. Jim and I were an unlikely friendship that developed in a less than ideal place. It was two people who were destined to meet. Close to nine years ago, a twenty something met the friend of her life in his upper eighties in a nursing home. How often does that happen? That’s where our story began, but today is about the end of my best friend’s story.
Just like that our lives can change in an instant. I dreaded getting “the call.” I knew it would come one day. We are all mortal. I always assumed the nursing home would call me and let me know that he had passed away. I didn’t know that he would have a stroke right in front of me and I would sit and lie beside him on his deathbed for two straight days. In the nursing home room, it was always just he and I for years. So I guess, when it came time for him to take his last breath – it made sense that it was just he and I too. I talked to Jim almost daily and went to see him every week.
When Jim was dying in front of my eyes as I sat there all alone, suddenly, “Chasing Time” wasn’t about the film or the book that I have been working on finishing. “Chasing Time” was about my memories and my moments with my friend Jim and so many others who are no longer here. What I didn’t know when I started “Chasing Time” was that when too late came, I would mourn and miss my friends as they passed away one by one. What I didn’t realize when I started “Chasing Time” was that I would meet one of the best friends of my entire life.
His dead body was wheeled out of the room at the Hospice care facility where he passed away. I followed in silence as I stared at the cloth that had a cross printed on it draped over the body bag. I followed my friend out to the Hearse. For years, I knew that this day would come and now it was here. So much came together in that moment: my research, my “Chasing Time” project, and utmost of all, one of the most treasured friendships that I would ever experience. It all hit me as I watched the mortician slide Jim’s body into the Hearse. The tears continued and I stood there looking at the sky long after the Hearse was out of sight.
From One GENERATION to the Next
I lost someone very near and dear to me. I walked back into Jim’s empty room to gather my belongings. I just sat there for a while. I felt an arm around my shoulder and I looked up. My husband came as soon as he could once he was off of work from his shift at the firehouse. I hadn’t called or texted him any updates since the night before. “I’m so sorry, Tor.” He hugged me tightly.
For so long, every time I received a death notice about someone from the WWII generation, it was a trigger for me to send out another letter or to make another call to get another interview before I “missed” another one. I would immediately start another “chase” in an effort to secure another interview to capture someone else’s story before he was also gone.
This day, though. This day was different. When Jim died, my world came to a stop. I officially made a decision to stop CHASING TIME. Although, it has been an incredible ride, a new chapter was beginning.
It’s bizarre how your heart can be exploding with joy and broken into millions of pieces at the same time. The day that I lost Jim was the day that I stopped Chasing Time. In the month of December of 2015, I felt a pain and a loss that I had never felt because one of my favorite people on the planet was now gone, but around that same time, I experienced a joy that is indescribable.
During the past decade, aging individuals within the subculture of a nursing home were something that filled my days and my free time. Doctors, nurses, nursing homes, retirement facilities and all the unpleasantries that go along with elderly care were my familiarities. I was always at nursing homes completing interviews and in particular, I was always at Jim’s nursing home visiting him.
On the car ride home from cleaning out Jim’s room at the nursing home, Joe pulled up to the store. I walked in. Tears ran down my still wet cheeks from the tears left on my face from crying about losing Jim. But now, I entered this whole new world. I was mesmerized by all the tiny clothes, bottles, and the pastel colors. When I was sobbing next to my best friend in the hospital bed until he literally took his last breath, I felt tears on my cheek. On that same day, I experienced tears as I entered a shop for babies where for the first time, I would actually stop, reflect, and pay attention, rather than just running in, grabbing the gift on the registry and then continuing on my way. For years, the thesis of my movie and book CHASING TIME is that there is beauty in the cycle of life. But, it was on that day, that I really understood what I had even written anyway.
There has not been a day that I haven’t cried since I lost my Jimmy, but there was another reason for the tears. They were twofold. Now I was crying because I missed the nursing home world (mainly because that world reminded me of Jim), but I was also elated about the new journey and adventure that I was about to begin.
When Jim finished telling me his legendary stories, he always used to say: “THEM WERE THE DAYS.” A few days ago, I paged through Jim’s WWII scrapbook and put on his hat that said WWII veteran. I smiled as I saw all the pictures in his scrapbook that depicted the stories that he shared with me over the years. Them were the days that I CHASED TIME and met someone in his nineties who became the friend of my lifetime. Jim made me a better person and he was someone who touched my life in a way that I will never forget. But now …. It was time to retire what was close to a decade that I spent my days CHASING TIME and it was time to begin awaiting life.
Soon all of my elderly friends who were a part of Chasing Time will be a memory. I won’t have the opportunity to call them or see them in person. When I look back on my days of Chasing Time, everyone who is gone, especially Jim will always tug on the strings of my heart. It’s happened over and over in history. As we lose one generation, another generation graces us. I could never officially retire from Chasing Time, until now.
The decade that I spent Chasing Time was the ride of a lifetime, but I cannot wait to begin this new phase in our lives. Now that June has arrived, our new baby is days away from entering the world. My heart aches to lose those who have gone before us, but we are blissfully joyful as we await the arrival of Baby JoTo. For the past decade, I constantly carried a video camera with me, so I was always ready to document WWII stories. The other day, I put away my video camera and shortly after, I opened the door to the extra bedroom in my home. I kneeled in front of the bookshelf and paged through the new baby books. I moved onto the dresser and took out a perfectly folded little onesie. I secured it in my hospital bag and smiled while I thought, “From one generation to the next, the world keeps on going,” as I turned off the light in what just a few short days would be our baby’s new nursery.