On July 16th, 2017, at 1:50PM, James H. Gledhill passed away from complications arising from pancreatic cancer. He was attended by his wife, children, and stepchildren. On July 28th, a memorial was held for Jim at the Leander United Methodist Church in Leander, Texas. I was honored to be able to deliver a part of the eulogy, along with my brother Sam, and long-time family friend Dianne Lansden.
When I was 16 years old, just a few days before Christmas, my father sat me and my brother and sister down and told us that he was leaving our mom and moving out to start a new life. As soon as I was able to make sense of what he was saying, once the words sunk in, I just ran from the house and jumped in my car, racing to a friends house through the Lake Loraine neighborhood we’d just moved into a few months before. It was the only time I ever ran away from home. In that moment, life as I knew it was over. It was the most painful loss I’ve ever experienced. Today we gather to mark another loss, and this one is no less painful for me. But today I promise not to run away.
Because, you see, while my life as I had known it did end on that day many years ago, my life itself was far from over. In most of the ways that matter my life was really only just beginning. And there were some very hard years, and some very painful times ahead, but life kept on going. And there were happy times, and girlfriends, and marching band, and high school graduation, and college, and dropping out of college, and moving back home, and then getting back on track. And for my mom, there was work, and graduate school, and getting licensed as a therapist. And, occasionally, dating. And there were some nice men who didn’t quite work out, and there were some terrible dates with men who never had a chance.
Then there was Jim.
Jim was different. He was funny, he was kind, he wasn’t afraid to laugh at himself, and he could give as good as he got. He was an Air Force pilot and had all the stories you’d expect about flying, drinking, and living the life of an officer in that era. As a kid who’d grown up idolizing my grandfather, who’d piloted B-17’s in WWII and retired as a Major General, Jim’s life story hit me right in the feels. But he wasn’t living that life when he entered mine, he’d retired and was divorced with two adult kids of his own, but he’d managed to incorporate his life experiences and continue to grow from them. He was remarkable. He also had a boat and wasn’t afraid to use it. We had great times together, trolling for King Mackerel just offshore of the Eglin Officers Beach Club in his little Mckee Craft and later on in his much-more-appropriate Cape Horn center console. Eventually I took what I’d learned from boating with Jim and sailing with my dad and applied it as a boatswain’s mate in the Coast Guard when it was my turn to serve.
Jim wanted two things in his obituary, that he had a sense of humor and that he was “politically incorrect”. Both of these things are true, but they’re hardly an adequate measure of the man that he was.
Jim was certainly funny, and he appreciated a good joke or a clever play on words as much as he appreciated just about anything. If you got to know Jim much at all, if you were someone he considered a friend, then you would have almost certainly heard his “Giuseppe the bridge builder” joke. If you’re not familiar with it, and don’t worry, mom, I’m not going to repeat it here, it might be easy to dismiss the story as he told it as simply a bawdy, adult joke with an arguably homophobic subtext. But in memory of the man who told it, I choose to view it as his effort to impart a valuable life lesson about the challenges in living an authentic life and overcoming the stain and stigma of your indiscretions.
But not every joke landed. One of the first Christmas mornings that Jim was a part of with us, Jim decided to play a joke on my mother that he never lived all the way down. There was a wrapped present under the tree and the tag on it said that it was for my mom from Jim’s two dogs. Jim saved it to the very end to present it to my mother after we’d finished opening all the other gifts. We had no idea what it was, and if I remember right they weren’t yet engaged. I think we thought it might have been a ring. But it wasn’t. It was dryer lint. It was an empty box of Tide detergent that had been filled with dryer lint, and then wrapped up as a present. Because Jim thought that would have been the best that his dogs would have been able to come up with and that would make it funny. Because dogs. Lint. Hilarious. Eventually we all got over it.
And it is certainly both fair and remarkably accurate to say that he was “politically incorrect”. In fact, I don’t know that we ever had a discussion about politics where I felt he was correct, or even right about most of the facts for that matter. But it certainly didn’t matter, and he had plenty of room in his Republican heart for the bleeding heart liberalism of my mother – that’s all that anyone cared about. And before our current political moment, when “not politically correct” has become code for someone who’s just been waiting for the time they could say whatever terrible thing they’ve been wanting to say in public but were too afraid to, Jim was simply, honestly, and openly his own man. He wasn’t cruel, he never tried to be mean, and if he said or did something that hurt someone’s feelings he’d own it and try to do better. You can do worse, trying to get through life.
When he and my mom wed one of the things my siblings and I had to figure out was what we were going to call Jim. We were all talking about it over dinner with my mom and him, making jokes about different options, and I suggested that given the circumstances we go with “Faux Pa.” He laughed, she laughed more, and the name stuck. It stuck until the grand-kids came along and eventually made him “Papa” because “Faux” was too hard to say. They didn’t get the joke anyway. There was nothing phony about Jim, he was one of the most authentic people I’ve ever known, and while the circumstances that brought him into my life may have been unfortunate, having him as a stepfather was no mistake. It was a gift.
When the end came I was glad that they were here, and not still in Florida. Even though this past year was not what any of us were planning on when they retired to Leander. And even though I won’t be able to give Jim the viking-style funeral we’d sometime talk about while he was floating around in the pool back at the house in Fort Walton. We had it all planned out – setting Jim adrift on a float in the pool in the backyard that he loved so much, a cheap beer in one hand, a can of dip in the other. Maybe a fishing pole? Setting the whole thing alight with a flaming arrow, or, if we could manage it, maybe the burner from a turkey fryer.
But that was not to be. Instead, I held his hand and waited with him until there was no more waiting to be done. It was not easy. I hated every single second of it but I was profoundly grateful to be able to be there. I wanted to run away, but anytime I felt like I couldn’t bear it any longer I would look at his face and tell myself the same true thing over and over: “He would do it for you.” And I could look around the room at my mother, my sisters, my brother, and know that he would have been there for them. As he would have been for anyone else here today.
When my mom called and told me to come over, that the end was coming fast, I found myself thinking as I drove out to their house about what I could possible think or find to say about my life with Jim. Usually we might turn to Scripture at times like this, but instead a line from Walt Whitman was rattling around in my head – I am large, I contain multitudes.
From combat pilot to, to golf groundskeeper, to flower deliveryman. A husband, ex-husband, father, stepfather, son, brother, friend (unless you’ve broken my little sister’s heart), Nascar fan, boxed wine connoisseur, for better, for worse. Jim was not a physically imposing man, but he was large, and he contained multitudes.
So when I found myself alone at his bedside, I brought out my phone, put the “Classic Country” radio station in iTunes on, and began reading Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to him. In retrospect I probably should have chosen to read the names of the drivers and teams in the starting grid and the finishing order of Indianapolis 500 races from the 50’s, or maybe NASCAR races from the late 80’s, but I didn’t think of that at the time so he got a poem from Whitman. And I’d like to share some of that with you now as well.
I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any
more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at
the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff
that is fine,…
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is
idle to try to alarm me.
And as to you Life,
I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths,
(No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before.)
There is that in me — I do not know what it is — but I know it
is in me.
I do not know it — it is without name — it is a word unsaid,
It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol.
Something it swings on more than the earth I swing on,
To it the creation is the friend whose embracing awakes me.
Do you see O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death — it is form, union, plan — it is eternal
life — it is Happiness.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.