A couple of years ago, while I was still living in Washington, I finally figured out how to search by tags on Flickr. See, when you upload photos, you can add tags to each photo, words that describe what’s in the photo or where it was taken. I was clicking on some of my tags, which took me to other people’s photos, when I landed on a photo of a chain-saw sculpture of a mermaid that had its home at a gas station near my house in Washington. I decided to leave a comment, and that’s how I met him.
Jim was my dad’s age, or maybe a little older, as some of his grandkids are teens already. He was a shipyard worker who’d lived in Bremerton most of his adult life after growing up in central Washington. He had lots of old photos that he scanned in and posted to Flickr, giving long and detailed stories about his family. He talked about where they came from, where they lived, what their lives were like. He talked about all the exploring he and his brothers did around their home when they were kids.
His blog was full of these same stories, but elaborated upon, as well as what was going on in his everyday life. He had a grandson who came over every day so his granddad could provide childcare before school, and you could tell Jim was intensely proud of his grandson. Everything new his grandson figured out was detailed in his blog. Even just a walk to the bus stop in the morning was fodder for his blog stories.
One thing he never really talked about was how he ended up with his wife. It’s probably because most folks who read his blog and saw his Flickr photos were people who already knew him in real life. But you could tell the love he had for his wife was intense. The kids they had were his, from a previous marriage, but she loved them as much as he did. Family was so important to him. His kids were scattered around, no longer close to home, but they would come home for the holidays — and my favorite photos were always those of him surrounded by his three kids, all of them grinning from ear-to-ear to be together again.
Last year sometime he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer you get only from inhaling asbestos at your workplace. Those long years of shipyard work, of providing his family with a good home and a good life, had caught up with him. He started chemotherapy in May, and his Flickr updates and his blog stories became more infrequent. The chemo would knock him on his butt for a couple of days every time he went in, and he was getting chemo every week. There weren’t many days he had that were good ones, and I’m sure he didn’t want to waste his good days sitting at the computer.
He did try to keep taking photos. Every so often he’d get his camera out and give an update on the building project near his home, or show off a gift he’d received from someone.
One day in October my Contacts stream on Flickr filled up with photos uploaded by Jim. I headed over to his blog and read how his wife had organized a very last-minute vow renewal ceremony. Everything came together in just a few hours; all of their friends and family in the area had dropped everything to be there for these two. On their back deck, surrounded by many people they love, they reaffirmed their vows and their love for one another. The most poignant photo was of Jim and his wife, their foreheads leaning against one another, their eyes closed.
A couple of nights ago I realized it’d been a while since Jim had updated. I headed to his wife’s blog, only to find Jim was dying. The mesothelioma had finally gotten the upper hand.
Jim died on Sunday morning.
Even now when I think of it, I start to tear up. I didn’t even know him in real life, but I think he really touched my life. His photos really inspired me; his stories gave me a glimpse of growing up mid-century in central Washington. He seemed like such a kind and gentle soul, someone with a lot of friends who loved him dearly. The love he and his wife shared give me hope that Kurt and I will get there one day, as long as we keep working on it.
I cried so hard last night, that this gentle man was gone. And I am sad that I can’t even go to his wake to say goodbye; I’m too far away now.
I’m surprised his death has touched me so deeply. But this world will be a little dimmer now without him in it.