My cell phone rang on a Sunday in May and I knew it was Jimmy. I said goodbye to Jimmy although I had no surety of goodbye, only the palpable sense of completion that comes with finishing a great book, that our friendship was graduating summa cum laude, and that we had both been blessed by our friendship beyond understanding.
Jimmy had just been released from OU Medical Center. He had been given bad news and his brother David had given me the details. I walked into my back yard and sat next to the pool and remembered another pool where I was baptized, at Green Valley Bible Camp on a sweltering July day in 1972.
Jimmy and I talked like the old friends we are. We haven’t stayed in touch much through the years, but we melt back into conversation like warm butter on hot corn. We talked about his Dad, William, who is buried beneath a headstone that reads, ”A great man has fallen” II Sam, a reference to 2nd Samuel in the Bible, which was sounded out by his brother-in-law as “A great man has fallen, aye-aye sam.” In the face of grim news Jimmy still laughed like he did in the old days, when we were young and smart and knew things. His voice was peaceful, calm, measured, intelligent, even as our conversation was tinted with brokenness, our voices cracking with emotion, laughing and crying all at once.
He was my coming of age friend, the friend Richard Dreyfuss, playing a writer reminiscing about his youth recalled, as he typed on a crisp white page in the final scene of the movie, Stand by Me, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.” “Friends come and go in our lives like busboys in a restaurant,” wrote Stephen King. But the good friends never fade away. They live on, they inhabit our souls and our hearts as they touch us from a distance with the music we made together and when I hear that music, Jimmy’s full-throated laugh and dancing brown eyes light the hallways of my memory.
I feel Jimmy at my side when the church sings Just As I Am and it’s 1972 at Green Valley Bible Camp as Jim and I stand together singing,
“Just as I am, thy love unknown hath broken every barrier down;
I hear Jim’s easy laughter as I tell stories, my first recollection that storytelling inhabits my soul, riding on a bus to that same church camp, two of my buddies, Jim and Tim, sat listening as I told a story fabricated from details I saw through the bus window. I was born a storyteller on that bus and I was born again in that camp pool a few days later, a story begun and a second birth, writ from places once dark, Jimmy by my side, helping to light a lamp in dark places with that laugh and gentle humor.
That summer we listened to The Eagles Take it Easy and Bill Withers Lean on Me on Jimmy’s low tech cassette recorder and it was my first memory of my own music…or at least my own through my friend Jimmy.
Sometimes in our lives, We all have pain, we all have sorrow But if we are wise, We know that there’s always tomorrow Lean on me when you’re not strong And I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on For it won’t be long, ‘Til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on. Bill Withers
Jimmy was a wonderful pianist and one of his favorites artists was Billy Joel. We hung out in his room listening to Joel’s The Stranger and the album Toulouse Street by The Doobie Brothers. Jimmy and I managed to float the Illinois River just about every year from 7th grade through my Senior year in high school. We once lost a canoe under a fallen tree in the fierce outer current of the river, we jumped from the trusses of the river bridge and lived, we talked about God and when we paddled past a couple of girls in a canoe, our senses heightened and we grew silent, waiting for conversational privacy to evaluate what we had just seen, and plan accordingly, perhaps to casually bump into them later downstream, maybe tip their canoe, what did we know, we just knew girls made us goofy.
We were two kids learning how to live without a filter, without someone peering over our shoulder, here on our swirling river, as beauty and hormones competed for our attention along with God’s great outdoors and our innate mischief. Jimmy was fifty-four when he passed from this life on July 14th at 9:00 AM surrounded by his family.
He told his older brother Eddie, “I’m going to see Pop first.” He said goodbye in the same graceful and light-hearted way that he lived, reveling in his answers to aggressive sales folks on the phone when asked why he was cancelling his phone service or subscriptions, “The reason I’m cancelling is I’m dying, I’m going home.”
I miss my friend, although I still hear his tenor voice when the church sings Just As I Am, I still see his shining eyes when Lean on Me comes on the radio, I still see the back of his head every time I sit in a canoe, and whenever I hear the Eagles, I think of Jimmy and think I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jimmy lived with a faith that moved mountains and someday I’ll see him again, I believe that, and look forward to one day sitting on a crystal clear river floating in a canoe looking at the back of Jimmy’s head, wondering how he’ll be different, how he’ll be new, and how amazing the music will sound dancing off the sparkling surface of a perfect flowing river.
Until we sing again, Dr. Jim Burns, my good friend, may the Lord bless you and keep you, and make His face shine upon you, and give you peace.