5 February 2002

Some moments of recall.

This won't be fitting or true but I will do as well as I can. I am thinking of Jeff, whom I knew best when I was 15. He was a kind man, an activist minister, and would would sit with me and ask me questions in one-hour sessions. My life was a disaster. We had no money and I had no friends. I needed to talk. I wrote stories filled with violence in English class and the teachers called home to say that I had talent, then ask what was wrong.

Jeff had a wife and daughters. He worked with the poor, especially the African-American poor in the Apartments for Modern Living, a housing project, the residents of which the rest of the town kept at a nervous distance. My mother worked with him, but those who work with the poor usually end up in their ranks and he once gave us food when things broke utterly. I was perpetually interested in nonviolence, so we talked about that. He had an orange beard.

He asked me, sitting in a small office on Rosedale Avenue, “Do you think God gets angry,” and I thought for a long time and said, “No, I don't think he does, that's not how he works,” and Jeff said, “I do. I think God gets angry when he sees injustice, and sad, and furious.” Once a week for months we went over these things, picking apart faith and putting it back together. When I was young I was very religious. I wanted to be a minister. I was also suicidal and depressed and I would sit with bread tins filled with ammonia and clorox and smell them and think of mixing them, in order to burn my lungs out.

Jeff took interest in me and helped me focus, kept me from a creeping nihilism that chewed at my gut throughout my adolescence. He gave his life to feeding people, to getting them employed, to helping them be more faithful whatever the faith, and most of all to cutting down prejudice, which he saw as a root of many evils. I loved and trusted him, 12 years ago. I saw him last two years ago at my grandfather's funeral and shook his hand, all those years between us. I was sad on the day, but proud of the big funeral, of my girlfriend who was with me, of my well-paying (to me) job in New York.

A month or so after that my mother told me Jeff's family was having money troubles - he'd been fired from the center he'd founded. I told her I could send a few hundred his way, but the word never came, and I was grateful because my funds dried up a year later. But even now as my account is much smaller I still would gladly send them at least $500, if the call came.

I took my mother out to lunch this Saturday; we met in Trenton, NJ, and she told me - this was said quietly, respectfully, and that is how I am writing it - that in the last two years Jeff had gone into a serious depression, and in December he killed himself, by carbon monoxide poisoning in his mother's garage.

She'd wanted to tell me in person, but she couldn't stand to bring it up over the holidays. So it had waited until today, over our meal. It was a surprise, because I honestly rarely thought of him, and the person whose depression was so acute he committed suicide is wildly different than the smart and laughing older man, his wife cheerful, stretching a minister's dollar, his daughters bright and laughing, who was keeping his eye on me over a decade ago. I can't glue my past and his past into this new set of conditions.

My mother is grieving, because they were good friends for years, and they fought civic battles together. She is also angry with him, which I respect. She tried hard to help him, and I know her, and I know that when she says she tried hard, it means that she did anything and everything she could for Jeff and his family. There was other bad news in the lunch conversation, so I listened to that, and then we talked about how things had turned out and what that meant. It was a good visit, free of old stresses, even if it was suddenly filled with a sense of fresh sadness.

On the way back from Trenton, as I passed the increasingly more dense towns in New Jersey that point back to Manhattan, I closed my eyes and listened to the train. I remembered back to the pain I was in and the pain I caused, the nights spent on top of the municipal garage staring at the sky or running through the woods. There Jeff is, in those memories, with his orange beard. He is keeping me calm, giving me this sense that men, if they are serious about life, grow into something useful, thoughtful, humble.

My mother had said that at the funeral the minister - she named him; he'd been a friend and supporter of Jeff - did not gloss over the suicide; he referred to the depression that led up to it as a debilitating illness, which was what it was. And he said,

Now Jeff has gone to Christ. And Christ greeted him and said, hello, Jeff, I am so glad to see you again, and Jeff said, how do you know me? And Christ said, of course I know you. You helped a man who hadn't worked in years to get a job. You helped a mother fill out the forms she needed to go back to high school. You brought bags of food to people hungry and helped them take them without giving up their pride. You found shoes for children whose parents couldn't buy them. And that was me. I was the woman going to high school, the ex-addict trying to make a basic salary, the family that could afford bread but not milk. It was my children who needed shoes on their feet.

My mother choked up repeating this.

In my memory Jeff, you are no failure, even though you must have seen yourself as one, and you must have been tired and sick even when I knew you, the shadows of later events echoing backwards in time, the daily pinch of being a poor minister, the racism and indifference, the hopes of healing the world, some small part of the world, thwarted by constant human bullshit and ignorance. All that was going on but I never knew you as anything but available, kind, and deeply faithful. I can feel why you did it, why you sat and breathed in your own end, and I can't presume to wish you hadn't; it was your choice to make and I haven't known you for years. But I wish I want I will that you hadn't, because I'd have the selfish pleasure of offering you a proper thank you of offering you my home and my money or books or just myself, anything else to show that you were worth keeping in this world, and whatever I was giving it would have been no sacrifice, it would be gladly, pleasurably given. Which is something I learned from you, and others like you.

I know from my mother that you were far gone, lying on the floor refusing to get help, that I couldn't have made a difference, but with all you did to save the world I could have at least shown you the way that my life has crystallized around the interior patterns you helped me define. I did what kids do, I went on and lived my life, ungrateful and self-absorbed. You must have lost the ability to feel the successes of your mission, lost the antenna that let you receive the signals from the people you helped, the network of poor souls growing slightly more rich in time, in whom you'd planted an idea of justice and nonjudgemental faith, or else you would have known your value as a minister, as a friend, as a person who wanted racism gone and people fed. When I give away my money and my time, when I slept at the homeless shelter a few times a month, when I put the dollar in someone's hand, when I write checks to organizations, when I sit and try to figure how to give more, do more, help more, make myself more useful (and Jeff I've become selfish and I wish suddenly I could talk to you about how to release myself from this fear of somehow going broke, and make myself really useful, oscillating between seeking comfort for myself and comfort for others; I am not by my own definition a good person now) - when I do those things, I'm still acting on your advice from 1989, and without your ear and voice to guide me, in 1989 I might have - even though it seems impossible to me now, I've worked it out and my life is quiet - I might have done - I wanted to do - the same thing you did, breathed the end with my bread tins.




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


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