Losing a Piece of Yourself Too Soon

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Have you ever written and deleted something a dozen times before committing? That’s how this intro came to be, and I’m sure James Shotwell can attest to that as well. As a fellow writer who founded Under The Gun Review, but has since moved on to being the Digital Marketing Coordinator for Haulix – he knows the power of the written word and I’m sure is familiar with drafting something up over and over again. Because again, that’s how this started out. That’s because the topic I am grateful James was willing to talk about today is not an easy one.

This week is about death and James has not lost a family member by blood, but instead a friend he met in college who came to be less than a friend and more of a brother. Not all of us are lucky enough to find a friend like that in life, but James was. Sadly though, his brother from another mother Justin passed away a couple of years ago now, and the following explores the day James found out, his outlook on death and more.

Kendra: Can you please describe the exact moment you found out your friend had passed away?

James Shotwell: A description for something like this is hard because, at least for me, the memory of this event is a blur of images and color. It’s a series of brief moments with a pain in your chest you never thought was possible because you only feel it when another soul you consider close to your own  shuffles off the mortal coil and into whatever follows. I can tell you I was seated in a 2PM press screening for a movie whose name I don’t remember at the AMC theater next to Boston Common in downtown Boston on November 10, 2014. I felt my phone vibrate in the minutes before the movie was supposed to start and something told me I should look at the message (even though we’re not supposed to have our phones on). I looked down, staring at the glowing screen nestled between my legs, and saw a text from my friend Justin’s mother that said along the lines of, “Justin is slipping away. The doctors say it won’t be long now.”

I remember getting up, my eyes already shrink-wrapped with tears, and stumbling out of the auditorium. I made it about a hundred feet, maybe less, before collapsing on a bench outside a theater auditorium where a showing of Gone Girl was just letting out. I called my mom first, or maybe it was my fiancé (Lisa). I couldn’t tell you the conversation in detail, but I remember telling them both I wasn’t ready to say goodbye while fighting back as many tears as I could. I also remember thinking that the people leaving the theater probably thought I was having a very strong reaction to David Fincher’s latest film, but that thought was my mind’s way of trying to focus on anything except the painful truth that I was over seven hours away from my best friend and the chances I could make it to him before he passed were very low. Even if I could make it, I couldn’t drive in my condition.

Kendra: You two were more like family than friends. How long had you known one another and what brought you two together?

James: Justin and I met shortly after we both entered college at Ferris State University. We were in different dorms and different programs, but our paths crossed when Justin was promoting an upcoming Atreyu concert in Detroit on campus. We did not attend the show together, but we found each other in the crowd by chance, and from that night forward we were inseparable. I’m an only child, so I had never known the closeness of siblings before meeting Justin. He, like me, was from a small town where he was the only person who liked the crazy music and films he felt a fierce connection to, and it was our mutual love of pop culture references, Atreyu, Chiodos, and the films of Kevin Smith that served as the glue that sealed our friendship as something stronger than any other relationship we had with our peers.

When I got into music writing and launched my own site, Justin helped me create content despite having no journalistic aspirations of his own. He’s the entire reason I got into film criticism, which today is my main focus outside the work I do for Haulix. I wouldn’t be who I am today had I not met him, or at least I wouldn’t be anywhere near as successful as I am.

Kendra: When he passed, did it make you sit and rethink your own life at all like – fuck, I need to start anew, move, do something more? I mean you were already pretty accomplished at the time, but still – anything like that go through your mind?

James: Justin knew me better than anyone else, and I think in some ways he got me as I didn’t get myself. He knew my first instinct when presented with his passing would be to run or hide, so he tried to minimize that by giving me something to do. He asked me months before he passed to accept the responsibility of notifying our friends from around the country/world of the new before they learned of his passing via social media. Within half an hour of knowing he was gone, just as I finally caught my breath, I started making calls. I must have called two dozen people, many of whom I hadn’t actually spoken to in months, and I told them everything that had transpired. I also told them of Justin’s love for them and the memories of their time together he would tell me. I heard the shock and sadness hit them each, one by one, and I wept with them as we accepted the facts we wished were not true. By the time I ran out of numbers I felt a connection to the people in my life and his I don’t think I would have turned to otherwise, and I’ll forever be grateful for that. It was probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do, but it was also one of the most rewarding. Justin loved many, and he was loved by them all in return. To be entrenched in that love, even for a few hours, was a feeling unlike any other I have known in my near three decades on this planet.

Kendra: Do you feel each generation views death differently?

James: Not really. I think the way different generations view philosophy and religion in relation to death changes, but even that is pretty infrequent. Death is the one constant, and that has always been true. We can have all the technology in the world and be as digitally connected to one another as  that technology allows, but none of it can make the pain and finality of death any less painful on those left to live with the knowledge their loved one is no longer walking among us. That void we tell ourselves social media helps fill is proven false the minute someone dies, and that’s okay because we need to feel that pain and emptiness in order to better appreciate those who remain among us and our connection to them.

Kendra: Have you done anything to sort of honor your friend since he’s passed; road trip, tattoo, anything like that?

James: Justin was cremated, and his family was nice enough to send some of his ashes to me in Boston a few months after his memorial service. After thinking of what would be both fitting and in line with our relationship I decided to take my share of his remains to Spofford Lake in New Hampshire. I had never been there previously, nor had Justin, but after learning it was the same place where our favorite comedian, George Carlin, had his ashes spread – something about it felt entirely fitting. Justin and I were the only two people we knew who loved Carlin’s work for the longest time (until I met my soon to be wife), and the idea of releasing him into the same bit of nature where George was released is something I know he would have appreciated.

Kendra: Do you believe we’re ever really prepared to lose a loved one at our age, any age for that matter?

James: No. My dad’s father is still alive, but recently he had a major health scare out of the blue. He thankfully pulled through, but my mom told me when they first learned of him being sent to the hospital my dad told her he was scared “the end” was near. My dad is 51, and by all accounts he has a had a good relationship with his dad his entire life. That’s far more years together than most people are able to have with the parents, and for my dad it still isn’t enough. He would gladly have another 51 if he could, and I know I hope to have another 70 or so with him. That’s a dream for both of us that we know is next to impossible, but we cling to the hope some kind of grace befalls us because we know the people who made us are something special we cannot find anywhere else on this planet. We never have enough time with those we love. Never.

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