I’ve read those words many times, but never have they rung so true as when I use them to describe my friend James. When he smiled, his entire face lit up and you felt your own face light up, even if you were in a dark mood. James did not have a mean bone in his body and nowhere was that more evident than his million-watt smile.
I met James and his brother Eric in Germany. Our fathers were stationed there and somehow, we wound up on the same traveling bowling team. James was 2 years younger than me. Eric was 4 years younger. Where James was languid, laid back and comfortable wherever he happened to be sitting, Eric was bright, bubbly and ready for action. The two brothers complemented each other perfectly and both doted on their mother, one of the most beautiful and vivacious women I had ever seen. I loved being around them because it usually meant that a lot of laughter would ensue. And it did.
I remember watching James, Eric and a few others mooning other cars during a long bus ride between Kaiserslautern and somewhere (maybe Spangdahlem, maybe Hanau) to bowl in a tournament.
I remember long hours spent at the Vogelweh bowling alley, eating fries and playing those blasted video games. (Okay, I did not play that often. I sucked. I mostly watched the guys play)
I remember James deciding that I needed to learn how to drive and that he was going to be the one to teach me. In his friend Chris’ BMW. In the parking lot of the commissary at Vogelweh. In his disarmingly charming way, he talked Chris into actually taking part! Next thing you know, I’m behind the wheel of a Beemer, James planted next to me, Chris in the back seat with this “Oh, sh*t, what have I agreed to?” kind of look on his face. I remember starting the car. I remember hitting the gas. And I remember James yelling, “STOP! STOP!” and mashing the brakes so hard, we all nearly went through the windshield. End of lesson.
I remember, several months later, running into James in another parking lot. He had had a bit too much to drink and could not drive, but did not want to leave his car. Even drunk, he talked me into driving his car. I still did not know how to drive, yet I maneuvered his Beetle to my house. Did I mention it was a stick shift? I helped him up to our apartment, where he, my sister Kim and I watched movies until he sobered up.
I lost touch with James when my family moved back to the States, but several years later, reconnected with Eric. Eric put me back in touch with James, who was in Germany with their mother. We talked on the phone. We wrote letters- yes, actual, handwritten letters. He did not have a computer, nor do I think he wanted one. He wrote long letters talking about everything and nothing. He talked about his job. He talked about his mom. He talked about the child he had not seen because he was in Germany and the child was in Florida. That was the only time I heard sadness, regret. Every other time, it was hard to miss the smile in James’ voice. Every conversation immediately brought his face to mind, split wide with a grin, eyes crinkling and twinkling. We talked about me visiting his mother and him in Germany. We talked about how Eric lives kind of close to me (he’s in Oregon, I’m in Washington). We talked about where we would go to drink. Some of the old stomping grounds.
This morning, I received an email from Eric. Entitled: “Sad News”, it was short and to the point:
“I regret to inform you. My only brother James died unexpectedly in his sleep last night 10/22. He was 42.”
As I read those words, the years sped by in fast-forward through my brain. James bowling. James joking. James laughing as I try to make him stop smoking, even as he lights another cigarette. But most of all, I see James grinning that million-megawatt smile. And I cried. I cried for Eric. I cried for their mom. I cried for their dad. But most selfish of all, I cried for myself because I will never hear that lazy voice. Never see that brilliant grin.
But I will always remember.
Rest easy, my friend. I hope you are at peace.