Earlier this spring, in my non-fiction writing class, I wrote and recorded a radio piece about aging. In the piece I spoke of you, told your story, shared about the privilege of getting older; a privilege you did not get. On the day my radio story was played in class, another student left abruptly in the middle of my recording. After class she approached my desk with tears in her eyes.
“Jessie, I’m so sorry for leaving in the middle of your presentation. But I have to tell you something- I was sitting there, listening to the story about Jimmy, and something sounded so familiar about him. So I googled his name and there he was. I couldn’t believe it- I knew him and his wife.”
“Are you serious?” I grabbed her hand. This is when she started sobbing.
“Yes, yes, I just can’t believe it. I can’t believe he’s… I rode home next to him and his wife- Cassidy, right?- this Christmas, on a plane back from Denver. And I have thought about them almost every day since. There was something about them that was so special, you know, and the way they talked with me, and the way Jimmy loved Cassidy…it gave me hope. It changed things for me.”
Do you remember who I’m talking about, Jimmy? She’s recently been through a nasty divorce that left her defeated, lost, unsure of herself and her value. She wrote about this loss all semester, and I wondered about the pain in her heart. But you know what she told me? She told me that the way you loved Cass changed HER life. She told me how you and Cassidy were so excited about the vacation SHE had just taken, how you both asked questions about her trip to Mexico with her sister, how you kept your hand on Cassidy’s leg the entire flight, even while you read, because she is a nervous flyer and you wanted to reassure her. This woman cried and cried in the middle of our classroom, pinned under the weight of your death, bewildered at the depth of Cassidy’s heartache.
She knew you for one plane ride.
A few hours in a tin box high in the sky.
And she has never stopped thinking about how you loved your wife.
Sam and I went to New York last week for your memorial service at Columbia, where your Bassett program friends hosted a beautiful time of remembrance. The Dean of Columbia medical school spoke of your qualities as a student and a person. Your advisor laughingly told us about his unorthodox note taking during your interview to be accepted into the program (basically he scrawled across his pages, “We must convince this student to join our program. He’s amazing!” And guess what- the other interviewers did the same thing. This happens for exactly no one who applies there, Jimmy.) There was an entire video of students who went to school with you for only 6 months, sharing how you changed their lives as doctors and people. A new tree stands in your honor on the Columbia campus, a constant reminder of the lessons you unwittingly imparted on everyone you met. Your friend Wilson designed a fabulous tribute to your other-wordly powers of love and care, with a pin for people to wear on their white coats, or in my case, their diaper bags.
This was your third memorial service, Jimmy. Third. You died when you were 24 years old and it has taken thousands of people three services to truly begin mourning what they lost when you died.
But in all of this celebration of your life, and in all of the unending grief of your absence, this is the truth that sticks with me:
You changed my classmate’s life on that airplane.
You changed her life because you LISTENED. You and Cassidy talked with her about a vacation, you showed an interest in her, you held Cassidy’s leg because she gets scared on airplanes, and you changed her life. You gave her hope for a love that is bigger than the pain of her divorce, and you gave her hope for her future. She said it over and over again- “They were so full of love and light. Not just for each other, but for me, too. I have thought about them constantly since that day.”
A serviceberry tree grows tall in a grassy square in New York City, a living notice to all who pass that a man came through this world who ascended the muck of life. Beneath that tree lies this plaque with this inscription; a direct quote from your journal; and I just wanted you to know that it has already been proven true.
You, Jimmy Watts, cared not for yourself, not for your own interests; you did not think of how you felt or who hurt your feelings or what people thought of you; you just listened. And you loved. And that changed us, Jimmy. It changed an entire school of doctors. It changed families. It changed churches. It changed me. And it changed my hurting classmate, who needed hope more than anything else on that turbulent flight over the Rocky Mountains. Your work has indeed been made permanent by your Creator. It has been made permanent in the trajectory of our lives without you. It is permanent here, in my own soul: because I want to be that person on an airplane. I want God’s love to shine through me effortlessly, simply because I know who I am in Him, simply because I have the freedom to love with abandon.
When I know who I am, I have the freedom to love with abandon.
Thank you for (unknowingly) showing me what that looks like. Thank you for ministering like Jesus did: with humility. in the quiet moments. to everyone you met.
Thank you, friend. I love you.