Jim Nesbitt was more than just my namesake

My uncle and namesake, Jim Nesbitt, died suddenly Wednesday while grocery shopping in Sante Fe, New Mexico. He lived out his final years there making friends and making impressions on people that would last a lifetime. He was in his late 60s and had a multitude of health problems, so hearing that he had died was not a shock. But, coming to terms with the fact that someone who was so intimately familiar with my personal failures and triumphs is no longer around, is incredibly difficult to accept.

From the summer of 2010 to April last year, I lived in Beijing, China, working for an English-language newspaper. During that time, Jim and I would talk once or twice a year on Skype. After I moved back to the States, our conversations became a weekly affair. We’d talk basketball, politics, complain about relatives; they were always free-flowing conversations, but the common denominator in every chat was, at the end of every conversation, he’d tell me, “I love you and will talk to you soon.”

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Jim and I in Santa Fe, N.M. in 2013.

My first memory of Jim is visiting him in Columbia, Maryland, with my family when I was around 8 or 9. We were watching a movie — Crocodile Dundee, I think — and I stepped out to use the restroom. Jim and his wife at the time, Marcia, had a stack of magazines near the toilet and while flipping through them I found a Playboy. I lost track of time, but apparently spent quite a while in the bathroom. When I returned to the living room, Jim asked me why I had been gone so long and said something like, “You found my Playboys, right?”

Jim loved women, and women loved him. He was the kind of guy who could steal your girlfriend, but charm you to the point where you’d still like him. On Thanksgiving Day in 2007, Jim got sick while on the way to Lexington, Kentucky, for a family get-together and nearly died. I went to visit him in the hospital and he looked horrible. He was pale, and the doctors had taken off his clothes so they could insert tubes and wires in his body.

I immediately began crying when I saw him. Jim, who couldn’t speak because a tube had been inserted in his trachea, pointed to an attractive nurse in the room, looked at me and then nodded his head.

In case I was having trouble understanding him, he pointed to the nurse again and made a humping motion. Here’s a guy on his deathbed, still thinking with his penis instead of his brain.

Relatives have told me that Jim could be incredibly difficult to deal with, and I believe it. He fought in Vietnam and according to my grandmother (his mom), he was never the same after the war. He struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, and only became sober after my father, his baby brother, died in 1989 at the age of 34. Jim was married several times, but never had any children.

Oftentimes, he would say I was like a son, which in reality was accurate. I only had 10 years with my dad; Jim and I got almost 37 years. He never criticized me, but was always honest when I asked for advice or how to handle a problem. According to friends and family, he always bragged about me and my accomplishments as a journalist.

To lose that kind of support is devastating; there is no replacing it. But I’m going to choose laughter and good memories over crying and being sad. Jim and I talked about death many times, and he always said that he didn’t want a typical funeral when he died. “Fuck that shit. I want to have a party,” he would say.

I’m glad his last moments were in public, because Jim loved to be around other people. I imagine him telling a joke to a stranger, checking out the woman in front of him or thinking about a friend in need.

Jim, who wasn’t into organized religion but was very spiritual, told me several times that if he ever saw my Dad again, the first thing he would do is punch him in the face. My father died of an abdominal aneurysm, but was an alcoholic and that addiction undoubtedly contributed to his death.

If there’s life after death, I have no doubt Jim already hit Dad in the face, and then helped him up and gave him a hug.

To Grandpa with love, in real time

When my Dad died in 1989, I didn’t find out about it until hours after the fact. It happened suddenly — he suffered an abdominal aneurysm and quickly bled to death internally — and I was out of town at the time.

My mom didn’t have a cell phone that she could call me from in the ambulance that took Dad to the hospital. They were still uncommon then and obnoxiously large and expensive. I was in a car with a friend and his father, less than 70 miles from home, but essentially unreachable.

Today, I live in Beijing, a world away from my family in the United States. Yet as my Grandpa, stricken with final stage Parkinson’s disease, enters the final days or hours of his life, I’m receiving texts and emails every few hours about his condition. My aunts are uploading on Facebook pictures of relatives by Grandpa’s bedside, kissing his face, holding his hand and playing guitar. Continue reading

Reunion road leads to Santa Fe

During a recent trip home to the United States, I flew to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to visit my uncle Jim.

Jim and I became close after my father — his youngest brother — died when I was in fourth grade. Something about his presence helped fill the gap that Dad’s absence left. We’d horseplay in my front yard, and Jim, built like a defense lineman, would sling me to the ground using techniques he learned during tai chi classes.

Jim and I.

Jim and I.

I hadn’t seen him since 2008, a couple of years before I moved to Beijing. The first few times I came home to Kentucky for my annual leave, we talked on the phone but I didn’t visit. I felt guilty, and so this year I decided to go West. Continue reading

Cries of a child left behind

The screaming started before sunrise. A boy with a high-pitched voice was crying uncontrollably and yelling for someone. I couldn’t make out what he was saying — it didn’t sound like Chinese. I just wanted it to stop so I could fall back asleep.

This continued for the next two days I stayed at a Tibetan hostel in Shangri-la, a city in northwestern Yunnan province. Like a rooster greeting the morning sun, at around 5:30 each morning, the boy would begin screaming, shouting out the same word over and over again until he drifted back to sleep. Continue reading

Now I’m a non-Belieber

Dear Justin,

I really tried to be a “Belieber.” Not that I was ever into your music or dance moves (OK, I downloaded “Baby” – albeit, illegally – but only because it’s upbeat, and I’m running out of songs to jog to).

The reason I wanted to believe in you was that my 11-year-old niece is a big fan of yours. And in this day and age, kids need good role models, some more than others. Continue reading

A full-time brother

Growing up, my brother Billy and I shared a bedroom. We slept on a bed that folded into a futon. When we weren’t asleep or at school, he followed me everywhere. If I locked myself in a room, he’d try to pick the lock or figure out another way to get in.

I hated it at the time, being shadowed wherever I went. I was five and a half years older than Billy, and having your younger brother around was a liability. If I was with friends and we got into trouble and needed to run, he was usually the slowest in the pack. I felt like Billy was holding me back, sometimes literally.

But I also knew he needed me, and so when my friends weren’t watching I tried to teach Billy the difference between right and wrong, helped him with homework and showed him how to field a ground ball. I had to fill the void of our dad, who died when Billy was 4 and I was 10. Continue reading

Lessons from a dad I lost too soon

The last time I saw my father was through our living room window.

He was sitting in his favorite La-Z-Boy. I pounded on the screen with my fist, but he paid no attention.

“I love you. I love you,” I said.

Finally, he looked in my direction and muttered something that I couldn’t understand. Satisfied, I walked toward the end of our driveway, where a car was waiting for me. I was leaving for the weekend to stay with my best friend and would be back on a Sunday, November 5.

When I returned home two days later, I was led to my parent’s bedroom, where my uncle and mom were waiting. Your dad got sick, they told me. We took him to a hospital. There was a little bit of a pause. “And he just … died.” Continue reading

Gone, but still a part of the band

I played the air piano while he played the guitar. Some of my earliest memories are of listening to my father, Dave, play music with his friends. I’d pretend to be a part of the band, imagining that the invisible instrument I was banging on made the collective sound of the guitar, bass and drums a little sweeter.

When my father wasn’t playing, I liked to march around our house in a trucker hat with his instruments. Once my younger sister, Valerie, became strong enough to carry a guitar, she became a part of the act. My parents probably found it amusing because there are several pictures of us posing side-by-side with his guitars, sometimes in our underwear.

My father, Dave, (right) singing with his friend Paul. (Photo courtesy of Doug Wolgat)

I could probably remember more about those days with my father if I hadn’t spent years trying to forget them. When he died in 1989 of an abdominal aneurysm at the age of 34, my mother, Vicki, took his pictures off the wall. His instruments were put in a closet. His clothes, in a shed. The songs he had recorded onto cassette tapes were also packed away, but sometimes at night my mother would slip outside and listen to them in her car. Continue reading