Friday, May 19, 2006

Jim Moran

My dear friend and hiking partner, Jim Moran, died last Thursday night. His wife Susan and I were with him. It was a difficult death from lung cancer, and it was unbearable seeing him in so much pain. Though he had not been able to open his eyes all day, at the very last minute before he left, he opened his eyes wide, looked at Susan and repeated three sounds that were undoubtedly "I love you. I love you. I love you."

His memorial was held on Saturday. He designed it, music, speakers and all. A friend read "Do Not Go Gently," three other friends reflected on their friendship and whatever topic Jim assigned them. His brother spoke. We listened to, and in some cases sang along to, songs. A letter was read to Susan that Jim wrote for the occasion. After all of that, I had to find a voice and speak. It was really hard. Jim asked me to speak on our friendship and on sobriety. At his death he was 18 years clean and sober, and this included cigarettes. Here's what I read:

I taught writing in the early nineties, and had one student who added a real charge to the class. By opening up, he created an atmosphere of trust in the room.

He wrote an essay about storm watching on Black Rock Beach near his old apartment in Cohasset. It had the kind of carefully chosen details we were working toward, the kind that require a real presence and awareness. And he included some confessional musing about being sober that clearly took courage. I wrote in the margin of his essay that I'd shared some similarly "sobering" experiences.

We didn't care that I was the teacher, that he was 26 years older than me, that we were male and female. We just found each other, worked on creative projects, stayed sober, and started climbing mountains.

In other words, we routinely exposed our souls, stayed alive together, and were humbled by forces bigger than ourselves. It was a very powerful recipe for friendship and for life. Some of the purest moments of joy in my life have just hit me out of the blue while walking along a trail with Jim.

Jim and I helped keep each other on the path for the next 15 years. We showed up and tried to be present for spiritual, physical, and psychological hurdles, constantly arming ourselves with new tools for expression. And we supported each other unconditionally in these endeavors. New forms, new media, new people, new programs, new languages.

This support was possibly my first real understanding of the idea of unconditional love. It's astounding how many people he gave this to.

He also taught me not to bottle up positive feelings. He would be talking about how glowy the light in here is or "look at that stained glass with the little dots in it!" and then probably take up stained glass. He never seemed to take anything for granted. Jim could add celebration to your world the minute you walked in a room "Beth-a-ny!" he'd exclaim, grinning like a fool. He said I was his tracker, keeping him on trail. If I was his tracker, he was my compass.

We spent weekends, sober anniversaries, and holidays together. And one year while five miles up Mt. Carrigan in a hailstorm, we found some shelter, he had me turn away, and he surprised me with tall, strawberry shortcake with whipped cream for my birthday.

We contemplated a great number of things in cars, over coffee, and on the trail. We discussed:
Whether art might be the difference between being dissatisfied and doing something about it.
Or, if you change yourself, and you give yourself to the community as a whole through your service, whether you may indeed be changing the world.
Whether it's possible you need to have lost someone you care about to learn real compassion.
And most importantly, just what would happen if a priest, a duck, and a mouse walked into a bar . . .

Jim had attained a certain degree of self-awareness that allowed him to tap into his core and while sometimes he struggled with what he found in this well, there were also these big bubbles of mirth that rose up. We giggled together with abandon, child-like awe, and total goofiness. And I think the risk taking involved in being sober, the facing and talking about difficult things and walking through them to the other side is what allowed us this gift of humor and fun.

One time when I arrived home alone after camping in Alaska for two weeks, I played my answering machine messages and heard, "Hi Mr. and Mrs. Ericson, this is Jim Moran, a friend of Bethany's. I am so sorry Beth was eaten by that bear. I just wanted you to know that before she left she told me that if anything were to happen to her that I should have all of her camping equipment."

His humor gave him an incredible attitude during physical hardships. I remember when I took him to the pharmacy after he hurt his shoulder and he'd drawn a smiley face on the tennis ball his hand held while his arm was splinted. The tennis ball had a very funny discussion with the pharmacist about Jim's needs.

And he could even laugh in the face of cancer. I was with him on one of his earliest of many scary meetings about his prognosis. The doctor was flustered. "Hello James. I see you've brought your. . .your. . . a um, well I see you've brought a young lady with you." The doctor then explained how a person can get lung cancer 18 years after quitting, and stopped after each point and looked at me and explained the equivalent in breast cancer. We burst out laughing when he left the room.

After waiting too long in the VA clinic one day we had a loud mock fight pretending he gave me his cancer cooties. I told people he got his cancer on We arrived nervously for one of his P.E.T. scans under a sign that read Boston PET Center, and laughed our way in the door. When he told me last month that he wanted Ted and I to bring some of his ashes to Mt. Osceola, I complained that he was just trying to get us to finally carry him Up a mountain.

Jim was my role model, and he fought for life every last inch of the way. He and Susan's love for each other and the work they did to make sure each other knew it has been incredible to witness. Jim once told me about the idea that hope manifests in us as long as we have a voice in what happens to us. The fact that I am speaking in a memorial he designed, says his hope was so strong it outlived him. When he asked me to speak he told me sternly "you have five minutes." We stared silently at each other. Then we burst out laughing.

When Jim was given four months to live in July, he said he'd just live his life in four-month increments until he was in his eighties. It wasn't until a month ago that he and I had a discussion about his impending death rather than impending life. He felt that what would happen after death was that he would live on as energy in other people, slowly fading out over time.

I am forever grateful Jim walked next to me for a while. And his energy connects this whole room full of people, and many, many more. This connection is possibly one of his greatest achievements. Don't leave him here. Bring him along with you: Live every day fiercely present, with grace, honesty, and humor.

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At 12:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful text. Brought tears to my eyes and made me wish I knew Jim Moran.


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