By E.M. Fredric
"Lucky is the man who is the first love of a woman, but luckier is the woman who is the last love of a man." Unknown
April 3, 2020 - I never thought my first real camera - a 35mm Minolta with extra lenses and a carrying case - could enrich two lives in separate yet profoundly similar 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 love when I first laid eyes on him. At the time, I thought he would be my forever amour - how eternal that first real passion felt as it branded 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 – even my parents 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 young girl's fantasy world that would last three teenage years. He was my little red-haired girl in Charlie Brown – oh it would hurt and be worth every second.
We slowly started to see each other. James took me backpacking - fishing the rivers and channels of San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento or up in Stanislaus County. He would take me panning for gold which we never found anything of worth but the time spent meant everything. The wild buffalo accentuated our love of talking about living off the land, Indians, music concerts and later - the love of taking photographs would be common ground in dealing with our lives. We even got stuck in a serious snowstorm that came in swiftly after hiking the 3 ½ mountain trail to Wheeler Lake and having set up camp.
We awakened to the forest looking like a living Christmas card. Fortunately he had a tarp to keep us warm and plastic bags we tied over our socks as we hiked out in our sneakers, jeans and wool coats. James also knew to look at the marks cut into the trees so we could find our way back. Unbeknownst to me, my mother had called the police to try to find us when she heard on the news that a couple had gone missing in the sudden weather change. James hotwired the car (I lost the key hiking out) and we drove back sans snow tires, in the snow, then hail and later rain. It was an awesome trip!
I skipped, ran and walked 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 came from a loving home. I remember meeting his father a few times and thought he was the quietest man who watched a lot of television. 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.
My father worked as a Special Service Agent out of the Department of Corrections and met my mother in Munich after the war - so family life was dictated by the importance of secrecy. I never dated like a normal teenage girl. Who wanted to meet your cop father? So, my seeing James without anyone knowing how deeply I cared for him - worked great - for a teenage boy. The summer I graduated high school (a year early) James became my first love. It's not that it wasn't romantic – it was over quickly in an open hay field at night under the stars. 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 motorcycle jumping an irrigation ditch and is in the hospital. Please go visit him."
Dazed, confused and a part of me still loved him so deeply - I knew I had to go. My older and meaner brother told me not to go and heartlessly stated that it wasn't my place because James had a girlfriend. Bully be damned. At that moment I knew I had to go and responded in a tone that surprised me.
"You're supposed to be his best friend and you're afraid to see him. He's my friend too and I'm going!"
When I entered James’ hospital room his face lit up. His eyes had the most perfectly shaped black eyes I had seen since he had his nose broken in high school and I told him so. Like purple crescent moons. James was confused because no one had told him about his eyes – only that he snapped his back. His nurses rotated his bed to even out his weight for the healing process before he would be transferred to a rehab facility.
It was here that we became closer and bonded for life. He told me he had broken up with the girl he had dated the day of the motorcycle crash and apologized for ignoring me. Then he openly wept and trusted me with, "I'm scared to live." He only cried once and I told him I understood that feeling – differently but that he was going to get through this and for some reason told him what a beautiful scar he had from surgery – so thin and perfect in the precision that the healing would show little scarring.
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 be able walk again. 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 my eyes well up. He told me years later that 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 German grandmother who routinely would commit imaginary Hari-kari - while reciting Madame Butterfly and crumple to her carpeted floor - stiffly splayed out. She always got back up and swore that she had had three heart attacks - that no doctor or family member ever witnessed. Omi lived close to Monterey and she was the comedic relief needed and 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 bowel movements - his catheter tube was connected to the bag that held his urine - which was easily emptied. 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 the Bay Area to study and perform while working a day job 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 deliciously evil wide grin 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 of the Special Olympics and invited me to preliminary swim meets before embarking to Japan and Europe.
In September 1991, four months after my husband died – I took our son 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 door and noticed an article about Alzheimer's on it. James told me his biggest fear was 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 because 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 with me in his wheelchair, traveled the world, taught me about being handi-capable – 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 love you!”
I will always treasure and miss that voice, that smile, that encouragement and that kind of love that tethered my heart and soul with a moonlit warmth that sustains eternal.
James Ward Lee died in his late 30's of Alzheimer's. He brought so much to his and so many others lives and enriched mine beyond compare.