I lost a friend this week.
Twenty-five years ago, when I took my first teaching job at Kingsway College, I had just turned 21. Though Kingsway at the time prided itself on having a young faculty, the next youngest staff members were in their mid-20s and mostly young married couples. Though they were great people, I was fresh out of university and had more in common with the 17 and 18-year-olds I was teaching, who were the same age as many of my college friends. Most of the close friends I made during those first couple of years were my students rather than my fellow teachers. Of those, two were destined to become two of my closest lifelong friends: Jamie and Cathy.
Though I had a unique relationship with each of them that has lasted for the past quarter-century, we were also close as a trio and shared many memories and good times together. Cathy later married Jamie’s cousin, becoming his family as well as his friend. And it was Cathy who emailed me yesterday to tell me that Jamie was dead, having finally succumbed to the cancer he had been fighting for the past couple of years. He was 41 years old.
Jamie and I had one of those friendships where you click instantly, where you feel you can finish the other person’s sentences an hour after you’ve met, where you can be apart for ten years and pick up where you left off without missing a beat. I would have described him as a “kindred spirit.” What’s struck me over the past two days, seeing the tributes people have posted on his facebook page, is how many other people used those very words to describe their relationship with Jamie. He was lucky to have a lot of kindred spirits, but it wasn’t just luck. He was a person who valued his friendships, who treated his friends well, who made time and space in his life for friends.
If you were Jamie’s friend, you knew he would be loyal. You also knew he would make you laugh, and make you think. He was a very funny man with a zest for life and a quirky way of looking at things — sometimes hilarious, sometimes serious, but always thought-provoking.
Jamie was passionate about music and about words. We shared a love of a lot of the same music — I don’t think anyone not related by blood to Cyndi Lauper ever loved her music as much as Jamie did, but we did share that, along with a love of Rich Mullins and Weird Al Yankovic and many other, very diverse, artists. We both loved books; twice in Jamie’s life he gave me credit for lending or recommending a book that had a radical effect on his thinking. One was C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, when he was 17, and the other, many years later, was Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down. We both loved Anne Lamott. We could talk about books and listen to music for hours when we were together, and often did.
Jamie married his high-school sweetheart, Melissa, two years before I married Jason, and we began our families at the same time — my two children and his two eldest children are within a couple of months in age. For several years it seemed our lives were headed in very similar directions — Jamie was even a teacher for awhile. During those years, we rarely saw each other — for all the years of our friendship, we rarely lived in the same province. We kept in touch sometimes regularly and sometimes sporadically — by letters, emails, blog posts, instant messaging and Facebook, our means of communication evolving with technology.
We began communicating more regularly about six years ago, when Jamie came out to me. I had no idea he was gay, but when he told me, lots of things made sense. And I don’t mean in the “Oh, that’s why he was so effeminate and campy” sense, because he wasn’t. I mean contradictions in his personality — Jamie was a funny, joyful, optimistic person who seemed deeply sad sometimes; he was passionate about God but struggled to hold onto faith. I thought we knew each other so well, but I learned that I had really known very little about his struggles over the years. I didn’t know about all the time he’d spent praying for God to take away what he’d been taught to believe was a sin.
I could digress here, and say that before Jamie came out I had other gay friends, and I had already begun to question the traditional Christian stance on homosexuality, but I was living with my own personal “don’t ask; don’t tell” policy which I guess could be summed up as “Don’t condemn; don’t advocate,” (i.e., don’t condemn gays and lesbians, but don’t advocate openly for their rights either). Sharing some of Jamie’s experiences made me move away from that stance … but I don’t want to write about me; I want to write about Jamie.
While I know Jamie loved Melissa and their four children very much and leaving that marriage caused him (and them) a lot of pain, I was glad to see how happy he was in the last few years of his life. Not knowing, at the time, that they would be the last few years, he made the difficult choice to live those years honestly, being open about who he was, and sharing his life and home with a wonderful man, D’Arcy, who truly loved and cared for him. I guess you could say his true colours came shining through.
Somewhere in the midst of Jamie writing to me about his coming out/separation/new relationship drama, suddenly there was a totally unexpected twist — he was diagnosed with the same cancer that had taken his dad’s life a few years earlier. It was quite advanced by the time he was diagnosed, so the prognosis was never good, but Jamie was a person so full of life and hope and energy that I somehow managed to believe — as many of us did — that he would be the exception to the statistics, that he would be the one to “beat this thing” and survive terminal cancer.
Jamie did a lot of surviving and had a lot of good times in the years — about two and a half, I think — since his diagnosis. At that point he and I hadn’t seen each other for many years, except for fleeting stopovers when I happened to be passing through Toronto airport and we met for a quick meal between flights, but I went to visit Jamie soon after I learned he had cancer. I made two more visits to Ontario after that, each about a year apart. For the first two visits, I would never have guessed there was anything wrong with him, except that last year he was bald due to chemo — but his energy, spirit and joy were unchanged.
This year’s visit was different. We knew it would be the last, as Jamie’s strength was dwindling and the doctors had already told him they had no more treatments to try. I asked if he wanted me to come visit and he said yes, but that I shouldn’t wait too long.
I didn’t. I flew up for a weekend in February, and as on the last two visits, Cathy came from her home not far from Jamie’s, to spend the weekend too. We enjoyed the same great conversations, remeniscing about the past, watching terrible old home movies, listening to favourite music, talking about life, death, God and love, laughing as much as ever. This time there were tears mixed with the laughter, especially as the visit drew to a close.
For me, the weekend was unique, but I realize I was just one traveller on what Jamie jokingly referred to as “Jamie’s Farewell Tour” — a stream of old friends who came to visit in the last few weeks and months, wanting to spend time with him once more. His joyful spirit and loving nature touched a lot of people, and everyone wanted to say goodbye.
Death is terrible however it comes, and in some ways sudden death is easy in its painlessness and lack of fear, but it is a wonderful gift to have the chance to say goodbye. The last time I hugged Jamie, I said, “At least with you I know there’s nothing we’ve left unsaid.” When you know it’s the last visit, you don’t hesitate to say, “I love you.”
My friend Jamie was a more gifted person than the world ever knew. He was a good writer, though he never wrote for publication. He read everything I ever wrote, often before it was published, and I used to tell him he was the world’s worst critic, because he was so unflaggingly encouraging and generous that he never criticized. But I wish I, and others, had gotten to read more of his writing. If he’d survived cancer, Jamie would have had an incredible life story to tell, and I wish he’d had a chance to write it. He was also a gifted musician, singer and songwriter, though only a relatively small circle of people ever got to hear his songs.
Before I left at the end of that last visit, I asked for a copy of a song he’d recorded years ago — his version of my favourite song by his favourite singer, which he had once given me on CD but I’d misplaced. Now I listen to it over and over; it’s the last I’ll ever hear of his voice.
Here’s that song, Cyndi Lauper’s “Change of Heart” as performed and arranged by Jamie Townsley, along with some pictures that I’ve kept over the years that give a little flavour of our friendship.
That last picture is one Jamie didn’t want me to take — the last picture I have of him. He was uncomfortable, towards the end when his liver was failing, with people seeing how frail and sick he looked. But in that picture, though he’s thin and his skin is discoloured, all I see are his eyes and his smile — the same smile that caught my eye twenty-five years ago; the smile I’ll never forget.
Friends are precious; every one lost leaves a hole that can never be filled. Of course, what Jamie has lost is far greater than what his friends have lost — he lost half his life, the chance to see his kids grow up, the chance to spend years with D’Arcy in the yellow house they bought together. After his struggles with faith, Jamie was both skeptical and open-minded, and always curious, about what there might be beyond death. I pray I will see him and laugh with him again.
Until then, I can’t help dwelling a little on what’s missing from my life — because every friendship is unique: every person you love holds a piece of you that no-one else does. There are jokes I shared only with Jamie, parts of me only he knew and understood. Those parts are held in abeyance now, waiting. I bide my time …