for some reason, perhaps because this is my first big loss, I thought the funeral would “make things better.” it didn;t occur to me that I felt that way until afterward, when it didn’t. … I did my hardest weeping after we got back Sunday afternoon. and I am now feeling the biggest part of the loss.
it was nice seeing the edges of the hole that Jim made, though — by which i mean the people who pilgrimaged to Shasta to attend the funeral. Ann wrote something about the weekend which she is permitting me to post, so I shall. But some random notes:
- Seeing someone-you-love’s name accompanied by two dates is a definite Step On The Path.
- ” ” photographs and realizing that “this is the remaining physical evidence” is another Step.
The alarm rang this morning and my first thought was, “Crap. Now I have to try and get through another day.” All I really want to do is sit and stare. I am completely unmotivated to work, play, laugh, teach, pray, study, shave, dress myself, or eat. (But at least I have my health, he joked attemptedly.) Even lifting my arms to the keyboard is taking all my effort.
Anyway, here’s Ann’s piece.
The Weekend of Jim’s Memorial January 10-12, 2003
Part I – THE TRIP THERE
Neal’s/my/our friend Jim Gjerde had a catastrophic heart attack on
December 11, 2002 in his girlfriend Jan’s bookstore in Mt. Shasta,
California. He went into a coma where he remained, treading life for 16
days, until he died on December 27th at 10:08 p.m. Jan called us on
Saturday evening, just as our Sabbath was coming to a close.
Neal had known Jim for 25 years. Jim — or “Sputnik” aka “Sput,” as his
old friends knew him — was what I like to call a sane freak, and you must
understand that the term “freak” is a compliment when I use it. He was
deliciously weird, frighteningly intelligent, and endlessly interesting
and interested. As Neal says, he never stopped thinking, he never stopped
learning; he never stopped looking around and grinning. A fringe lunatic
of the most delightful variety. I loved talking to Jim, and listening to
I met him in Berkeley in 1988; he and I were going to meet for the first
time to walk over to the post office together to mail in our request for
tickets to the Grateful Dead New Year’s show. I was a tucked-and-
tailored legal assistant dating his best friend Neal; he was, like Neal, a
shaggy, scruffy, Goodwill-attired, sleepy-looking 25-year-old. Here’s the
weird thing about our first encounter, and I’ve never told anyone: We
individually mailed off our requests for tickets but I had run mine
through the office postal meter and so my request was rejected (“no
metered mail!”) and Jim’s tickets arrived in timely fashion. The part I
never told anyone was how annoyed I was that I, the responsible one, had
failed where Jim-of-the-casual-lifestyle had succeeded. I was really only
annoyed for about 5 minutes; after that I found it all quite amusing.
Throughout the years this is what Jim meant to me: someone who was always
there, someone to turn to. Even if we didn’t speak for years, I found
comfort in his presence, like the big old quilt you keep on the top shelf
in case the weather turns really cold. Had he been MY friend exclusively,
I probably would have pulled the quilt down far more often no matter what
the weather but simply because I liked its smell, and the way it felt when
I pulled it about my shoulders.
Jim knew things about me that only Neal knows. For one thing, that I am
in fact a fringe lunatic in conservative clothing. (Neal always told me
that was good — I could infiltrate that way.) Jim and I had some of our
best conversations in 1989, when Neal worked nights at Berkeley Sauna.
Jim would come over (appearing, like a hungry cat, seemingly from
nowhere….I didn’t know where he lived or what he drove, and I never
asked) and we would sit on my back doorstep and smoke and talk for hours.
I could always be myself with him; he was shock-proof.
Through the ensuing years, he was more out of touch than in. He and Neal
would go for huge chunks of time without talking or even knowing where the
other was, and then there’d be the reconnecting phone call. He was the
Best Man at our 1994 Tahoe wedding.
When Neal got cancer last summer, he and Jim reconnected and spoke often.
In November, 2002, a month before he died, Jim came to spend the weekend
That was a hard weekend. First of all, it was sprung on me. Guess who’s
coming to dinner, breakfast, lunch, dinner, breakfast, and lunch? So I
was in a bit of a wifely peeve. I was especially peeved to learn that
Neal was going to go about teaching religious school on Sunday, leaving me
alone with Jim to “entertain” him for four hours. I was so wrong. Our
time together was absolutely precious. I’m so grateful for that weekend.
And for the half-day that Neal left Jim alone here. We talked. Jim
REALLY listened to me. That was one of his gifts. He made a person feel
One thing he told me during that long talk really stood out for me after
his death: He told me how frustrated he was that he couldn’t drive and
that he had to rely on friends for rides. Decades of Type I diabetes had
damaged his eyes. After he died, I kept thinking, “You’re mobile now,
Jim; you can go wherever you want, my friend. Use those wings!”
So…December 27th comes and goes and Jan organizes a Memorial Service for
Jim at the Episcopal Church in Lake Shasta on Saturday, January 11th.
Neal and I left Sonoma Friday afternoon, January 10th. It was gray, dark,
and raining. And in our souls as well. Neal had been in a place of deep,
agonized mourning pretty much since Jim’s heart attack. I had felt stabs
of pain and had had bouts of sadness and crying, but had been going about
my life without obsessing too much on Jim’s death.
The trip up felt like a scene from a movie. The Winters Cutoff over to
Interstate 5 is a blank landscape, dotted only with cows and dilapidated
buildings which all seem to have arrived there by accident and without
purpose or people to tend them. I popped in Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were
Here” tape (“shine on, you crazy diamond!”) and we spoke little.
At Dunnigan we swung onto Highway 5; the sky grew darker and the rain
heavier. I had only ever traveled up Highway 5 for vacation purposes –
mainly to go to Mt. Lassen with my family. Highway 5 and all its
long-beloved town names — Dunnigan, Williams, Willows, Richfield, Corning
– had up until now only brought me memories of driving through them long
before the Interstate was built…days of feet-out-the-window sunshine and
the smell of alfalfa and my mom pointing out the different crops and
telling us “It’s going to be hot going up through the Valley today.”
This trip, however, was anything but a vacation. The rain pounded and the
big-rigs firehosed water onto every passing car and the state-sponsored
Rest Areas looked as dreary as vacant drive-in movie parking lots. We
switched tapes and motored up Highway 5 to Led Zeppelin (“Stairway to
Heaven”), more Pink Floyd (“Dark Side of the Moon”) and Alan Parsons
Project (“freedom, freedom, take the world away….). I kept noticing
things along the freeway I’d never noticed before, but they looked
anything but new: “casual” housing of dilapidated trailers, and
ramshackle, tumbledown homesteads, surrounded by dead and dying autos,
their parts strewn about as if by the very wind that buffeted us mile by
We stopped at a Taco Bell in one of the now-hostile-feeling towns and I
gagged down half of some sort of wickedly bad taco “salad.” Neal had more
luck with burritos. Heading north again, I stumbled upon an awesome
college-sounding radio station, playing 12-string guitar/poetry/folk music
which seemed to be a good chaser to Pink Floyd. One song merged
commercial-free into the next as liquidly as the raindrops on our
windshield and the station became the soundtrack to most of our
south-of-Redding I-5 trip. At one point, the rain grew leadenly heavy and
the sky turned pewter and we looked ahead and everything north hung black
and forboding like the edge of Mordor itself. It was still early
afternoon and felt like dusk.
When we finally reached Redding, my gaze turned to the right. Somewhere
out there was Mercy Medical Center, where Jim had gone to die. I felt a
clutching sickness tear at the inside of my throat, and suddenly I was
wailing/keening/moaning/crying for Jim. I called out his name, I told him
I missed him, I think I may have railed at God a time or two; I can’t
exactly recall. I went on like that for about an hour, or until we got to
Dunsmuir, at about the same time the last song on our home-made tape was
playing: Elton John’s “Funeral For a Friend.”
I hadn’t known that I held that much Jim-pain/Jim-love inside me. All
around me there were majestic trees and the moss-green mini-sea that is
Lake Shasta and patches of snow liquid-papered onto the foothills of the
Siskiyous, and I could see the beauty in which Jim had lived and through
which a screaming ambulance had borne him into the lowlands of Redding,
and it just all hurt too much to bear. I regained some sort of composure
as night began to fall and we made the last leg of the trip from Dunsmuir
into the City of Mount Shasta, second exit, to the Best Western Treehouse
Inn, $85 a night and a free breakfast.
Part II — MEMORIAL AND REUNION
Room 106. We unpacked. I turned on the Zenith because that’s what you
do: other towns might have better TV. However, I discovered that
television offerings have become America’s electronic malls — identical
from town-to-town. Paul and Jamie Buchman romped around the screen in our
wood-paneled motel room as comfortably as they had in our dingy-walled
apartment in Sonoma. It was 5:15. I had given Jan our ETA; she called
and we tried to set up a dinner but she, understandably, had much to do
before tomorrow’s Memorial service. We made plans to meet at 8:30 the
following morning for breakfast. Neal and I had never met this woman, the
love of Jim’s life.
I wasn’t yet hungry so Neal and I lit the Sabbath candles and read for an
hour or so, then went down to the hotel’s dining room/restaurant. As we
ate, Neal looked up and said, “It’s Alana!” His
old-friend-from-high-school-turned-our-friend with whom we are in frequent
contact, had shown up for Jim’s funeral. She and Jim had once been
roommates. I ran across the room and hugged her soundly and she joined
Dinner turned into a pre-memorial for Sputnik, as we all shared stories.
Neal and Alana had more to tell, of course, all about the old wild days
and their collective misspent but properly lived youth. After dinner,
Neal and Alana went to the hot tub together while I curled up with film
critic Anthony Lane’s new book. The phone rang — it turned out that
Jim’s old friends Linda and Randy from Humboldt County were also staying
at the Treehouse, in Room 227. I had met them once, at a wild party in
Rio Dell back in 1988. Neal knew them well. When he got back to the room
we crashed Room 227 and exchanged reunion hugs. They had with them
their teenaged son Cory, and a wonderful shepherd/pit bull/greyhound mix
named Maya who couldn’t tear herself away from me, to my delight. We
finally left them to their bedtime sometime after 11 p.m.
Our bed was comfortable but sleep was elusive and we awakened to the 6
o’clock alarm in mutual states of fatigue and dread. Today was the day.
My head throbbed from my Redding-to-Dunsmuir tear-letting; I pressed
ice-cold washcloths to my swollen eyes. As we headed to the lobby to meet
Jan, I had a sense of what she would look like. I knew that Sput would
not have chosen a round woman, and I was right: Jan is petite. Five foot
and a smidge, perhaps. She is beautiful. Long, thick, shiny straight
golden-brown hair; gray eyes shining with wisdom. And then she spoke and
there was that voice that been so generous over the phone with us in the
weeks since Jim’s heart attack — the deep, sweet, husky, soothing voice
of Jan. Only now she was saying, “It’s nice to finally meet you!”
Gracious, ever gracious.
We began breakfast, and Alana joined us, and once again there was a
pre-memorial for Jim — two more hours of shared anecdotes,
“how-did-you-meets” and remembrances. Jan excused herself at nearly 11,
and the rest of us went to our rooms to get ready.
The Memorial was at 1 p.m. at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Mt. Shasta.
Jim had, within the previous 5 years, returned to his more
Catholic/Christian roots (similarly to how Neal had returned to his Jewish
roots), after years of exploring alternative religious practices. He was
very fond of Vicar Julie of St. Barnabas, and we had heard him talk about
her frequently during his November stay. As she began the service, Neal
and I both understood why Jim was so drawn to Julie. She was warm and
Once Jim decided to recommit himself to Christianity, he did it right.
That is to say, he was a purist. None of this halfway, this-and-that,
part-New-Age crap for him. He wanted the real thing. And this service
was traditional. The priests were in white Lenten robes; there was
chanting; there were bells and incense (or “smells and bells,” as Jim
called it). But Jim also felt free to have a voice in his religious
experience. Shortly after taking the podium and introducing herself,
Julie pulled out a sheaf of papers.
“Right after I became the vicar of St. Barnabas, I received this five-page
letter from Jim.” Laughter filled the room; his friends knew what was
coming. “In which he set down all the ways in which he thought services
at St. Barnabas could be improved.” Hilarity, from the crowd. Good ol’
Jim. Julie gave us the very precious gift of reading to us from parts of
Jim’s letter and in doing so brought him into the room with us in quite a
different form than the white-cloth covered ashes of Jim sitting on the
The formal parts of the service were difficult. I’m Jewish, so I couldn’t
participate in the Jesus parts, of which there were many. I couldn’t even
say “The Lord’s Prayer” which, before my conversion to Judaism, had
brought me comfort and which I can recite not only forwards and backwards
but which I can also sing because I know the melody which someone wrote to
add to the verse. These days, however, “The Lord’s Prayer” sounds as
alien to me as Hebrew once did. I found myself longing to comfort myself
with The Mourner’s Kaddish, and I even brought into my head the beginning
of that prayer, “Yit gadal v’yit k’dash sh’mei rabbah,” desperately
searching for spiritual purchase.
Neal had been asked by Jan to deliver a eulogy, and he gave a kick-ass
speech about Jim that Jim would have loved. Then another man spoke.
Then Jan. As I told her later, she rocked. How that woman stood up there
and said the things she did, how she read that unbearably beautiful and
painful W.H. Auden poem, how she did all that without crumpling in a heap
of sorrow, I will never know. All I can think of is that in her religious
tradition, there is a deep belief that Jim is in the place in which he was
meant to be, walking with Jesus, in a happy afterlife somewhere beyond
time, place, and pain. As we say in MY religious tradition, “Ken yehi
ratzon,” — “May it be so.”
And then it was over. A procession out to the reception hall, and there
we were in an overly-flourescented, hot room, seeking out all the
different people from all the different communities into which Sput had
woven himself. “I knew him from Diablo Valley College days.” “I knew him
from the Mugwort parties in San Francisco.” “I knew him from when he lived
in Oakland.” “Tower Records.” “The Self-Realization Fellowship in
Richmond.” And then there were his parents, who had apparently reconciled
themselves to Jim’s early death from the day he’d first been diagnosed
with Type I (formerly “juvenile”) diabetes. And his astonishingly
beautiful red-haired sister Ann, who lost her husband three years ago and
who told me, “You learn that the grief process never goes away; it never
It was like a wedding, but so not. I kept catching myself wishing, in
some ridiculous childish fashion, that Neal and I were up here for Jim and
Jan’s wedding in this very church, and I kept catching myself slipping
into that alternative “what-if” scenario, like some kind of fantasy
addict. This was no wedding. Yes, a church, a priest, a beautiful woman
to love the man, a reception, a hall, the smell of coffee, a book to sign,
flowers and an organ. But no wedding.
And then the reception was over. People drove back — to Portland, to
Dunsmuir, to Alameda, to the airport, to San Francisco, to Vallejo. Neal
and I stayed another night. There was some talk of another party taking
place in Mt. Shasta — some of the Humboldt County community wanted to
keep the hour going without the presence of Episcopalian adults and with
something a little more relaxing than coffee — but Neal and I went back
to the hotel room to have our close-of-Sabbath Havdallah service.
When Sput had visited us in November, we did this service as we do every
Saturday night. There is a candle, a box of sweet-spelling spices, and a
glass of wine. Neal and I chant blessings together and it’s a very
hauntingly beautiful melody. During Havdallah at our home in November, I
glanced over at Sput on the couch and saw him with his head back,
listening to us, a blissful smile on his face. He loved it. Since his
heart attack in December, I haven’t been able to chant the Havdallah
blessings without choking back tears of Sput-sorrow.
And of course this night, the night of his Memorial Service was no
different and quite a bit harder. The chant is in four verses, and as I
finished the first my voice broke, and I thought I wouldn’t be able to get
through it. But then I thought of Jan on the podium that afternoon, reading
love poems to her beloved whose ashes were in a box about four feet to her
left. And resolve washed over me and I toughened up and I by God got
through it to the end.
Havdallah is about the pain of separation — the holiness of Shabbat
separating into the ordinariness of not-Shabbat. I had never really felt
a sadness at the end of Shabbat, as observant Jews are “supposed” to feel.
As Neal feels. I told Neal, “It’s funny that, because of Sputnik, I now
feel pain at the end of every Shabbat, just like I’m supposed to but never
did before,” I guess Jim gave me the gift of understanding something about
the pain of separation. Who said lessons or learning have to be ones we
necessarily WANT in our lives.
We’re home now. It’s Sunday night. There’s a wake in San Francisco, and
Neal will be driving over for it. I never much thought about the meaning
of the word “wake” before, until we were in Mt. Shasta. I was reading
Lane’s review of “Star Trek: First Contact,” in which he quotes a line
about a temporal wake. I started thinking of the wake of a boat, and that
a funeral wake must mean just that: that which trails behind after a
person’s life, and death.
Jim has left a deep and wide wake. And just as I did back in my
water-skiing days, I want to ride the rough part, the part that makes you
jump and jolt and makes every sense alert and alive to the any-second
possibility of diving head first into icy waters. That’s the way Jim
lived, and he would expect no less of his friends.
James Leroy Gjerde
January 24, 1962 to December 27, 2002