I never thought my first real camera - a 35mm Minolta with extra lenses and a carrying case - could enrich two lives in separate yet profound ways.
The life of the camera came into my hands at age 15 - I bought it on lay-away with my first job only a year after I met - James - the guy who I knew would become my first mature love. At the time I thought he would be my forever amour - how eternal that first real passion felt as it burned into my young heart.
Kaleidoscopic memories continue to flash through my brain. When I was 14 years old I was reading Edgar Cayce books trying to figure out how I got into the family I was born into - my parents even asked me, "Where do you come from?"
James came into focus through my telephoto lens across a co-ed softball field. His blonde locks, blue eyes and agile body came towards me as he shyly smiled and said hello. I was a goner - swept into a girl’s fantasy world that would last 3 teenage years. He was my little red-haired girl in Charlie Brown – oh it would hurt.
We slowly started to see each other - with James taking me backpacking - fishing the rivers and channels of San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento or up in Stanislaus County. Our love of living off the land, Indians, music concerts and later - the love of taking photographs would be common ground in dealing with our lives.
I skipped and ran the local hay fields taking photos and carried my camera everywhere I went during my last few years of high school. I became a loner more out of my home life circumstances - whereas James had a loving home. I remember meeting his father a few times and thought he was the quietest man – when he died during my senior year - I heard the word Alzheimer’s for the first time. It was James’ terrifying secret I shared that summer. James took to hopping the trains to travel and upon his return he taught me how to build and fly box kites.
Since my family life dictated secrecy – our seeing one another wasn’t very public as others perceiving us as a couple – which worked great for a teenage boy. The summer I graduated high school James became my first love and yet having that experience with him branded us more as friends for life. It’s not that it wasn’t romantic – it’s that it was over quickly and we were both now 18 and 19 and within six months I found out James had started dating a new girl.
It would be six more months when his older brother, Buddy called.
"James is paralyzed – he flipped his bike jumping an irrigation ditch and is in the hospital. Please go see him."
Dazed, confused and a part of me still loved him so deeply - I knew I had to go. An older sibling told me not to go - that it wasn't my place because James had a girlfriend – anger snapped back from always being held back.
“You’re supposed to be his best friend and you’re afraid to see him. He’s my friend too and I’m going!”
His eyes were the most perfectly colored black eyes I had seen since he had his nose broken in high school and I told him so. James was confused because no one had told him about his eyes – only that he snapped his back. His bed the nurses rotated to even out his weight for the healing process before being transferred to a rehab facility.
It was here that we became closer than ever. He told me he had broken up with the girl he had dated the day of the bike crash and apologized for ignoring me. Then he shared, “I’m scared to live.” He only cried once and I told him I understood that feeling – differently. I went home to cry so he wouldn’t see me hurt.
In his rehab hospital I visited often and brought in different foods as we shared his progress or our dreams in life. I wanted to continue writing, acting and get away from my family so I could grow as a person. He just wanted to walk. Together we had many shared moments that most couples never experience. True intimacy of the heart, mind and soul – that? I learned from him.
When he got out of the hospital he had parallel bars built by an old man who answered my ad in the newspaper. To see James’ face light up over the chance to pull his body up to his 6 foot stature still makes me cry. He felt his legs didn’t spasm like so many others with spinal injuries because he was able to have the bars so early out of rehab.
Then depression set in and I convinced him to leave town with me to see Omi - my ex-opera singing grandmother who routinely would commit imaginary suicide by sword - while reciting Madame Butterflyand crumple to her carpeted floor and lay stiff. Omi lived close to Monterey and was the comedic relief needed – she always got back up and had 3 heart attacks by her account that no doctor or family member ever witnessed. Omi had the perfect getaway pad. We shared the extra bedroom.
Here we grew even closer because James was early in his paralysis and couldn’t contain the timing of his bowels or urine movements. Essentially, he mucked up every pair of jeans he had brought but I helped him clean the car and told him I couldn’t smell a thing. We went and fed the seagulls and he got out onto the sand.
When we returned from our trip - I realized my friend needed something I couldn’t give him. So - I sold him my camera with gear for a quarter of the price and sooner than not – he was outdoors. He got a car with mechanical devices that allowed him to drive and joined a wheelchair basketball team. I was invited and it was not an easy sport to watch.
I moved to Berkeley to study and worked in San Francisco for a husband/wife private investigative team - Palladino & Sutherland. James soon was in Santa Rosa and knocking on my front door in the middle of the night – sitting with a smirk on his face – pleased he had dragged himself up stairwells - gotten past secured doors to surprise me.
We went chairing together with me on his lap in his wheelchair - careening through the streets of Berkeley - squealing and laughing like little kids. In a few years James moved to the Bay Area to become part of the transportation division for the city in what he referred to as the “handicapable” job. He started to travel the world because he joined the Special Olympics but invited me to pre-meets before embarking to Japan and Europe.
Six months after my husband died – I took Dylan to meet James who by then was living outside of San Francisco in a beautiful apartment. With Dylan in his roller chair he saw James as just another big kid. They adored one another and I felt a sense of happiness for the first time. I was with someone who knew me, got me and understood loss.
I looked at his fridge and noticed an article about Alzheimer’s. James told me his biggest fear was of getting the disease and dying like his dad. I told him that would never happen but in the next few years – my open sea kayaking friend would forget that I called more than once.
Buddy called me again and said James had fallen asleep with a lit cigarette and that their sister had him put into a home. Buddy was angry and I was confused. I didn’t realize it had gotten that bad and when we spoke? James sounded normal – even an on duty nurse told me they should let him out and I believed this for months until one day James told me he missed hearing from a mutual friend, Mark. I called Mark and he told me that he had just spoken to James the day before…Alzheimer’s takes us backwards.
We talked for months and I tried to figure out how to get him out when I was asked, “How are you going to care for your toddler and a man in a wheelchair all by yourself? He needs more care than Dylan does. Wake up! You can’t do it all alone!”
I knew I couldn’t. I cried. We kept in touch and then one day Buddy called me and said James was dead.
My first love who danced in wheelchairs, traveled the world, taught me about being handicapable – who feared nothing but Alzheimer’s – was gone.
When someone gifts you the freedom to be who you are – know they won’t always be around to say:
“You’ll get a job. Don’t give up!”
“Don’t worry about what others think!”
“You can DO IT!”
I miss that voice and that encouragement.
James Ward Lee died in his late 30’s of Alzheimer’s.
The link below is dedicated to him and Maria Shriver’s March against Alzheimer’s.
Broken Memory poem by E.M. Fredric
Please pass this along.