Happy Birthday, Jimmy Mac

Jim in 2006

Today is Jim MacLaren’s birthday. He died August 31st, 2010. In his honor, I am re-posting the eulogy I gave at his memorial service.

I Am Not My Body

A eulogy for Jim MacLaren, delivered at the celebration of his life in Lancaster, PA. September 18th, 2010.

***

The first thing you say when someone asks you to give a eulogy is “why me”? The first thing you say when someone asks you to give Jim MacLaren’s eulogy is “O my God! Why me?!” After Hilary called me and extended this profound honor to me, I hung up and buried my head in my hands. How to encapsulate the extraordinary drama of Jim’s life in fifteen minutes? How to do justice to his accomplishments? How to recognize all the people he touched, and who meant so much to him? Jim, as some of you know, was fond of practical jokes. Or at least, he knew how to have a good laugh at someone else’s predicament, so . . . . Thanks, bro. Good one . . . .

So at the outset: thank you Mom, Dad, Step-Dad, Sisters, Brothers. Thank you, Jim’s family, for this honor.

So I will tell my story of Jim. And I will leave so much out. So much I don’t know about. So much I never knew about him. And so I encourage all of you: tell me what I left out . . . later. Tell each other. Tell your stories of Jim to me and to each other, and to the world, today and for the rest of your lives. Because this is how we honor him now. We are Jim MacLaren’s story tellers. And what an amazing story it is. Jim has now become what I think God intended for him to become – a myth. And I don’t mean “myth” as in a fiction, something untrue. No. I mean myth the way Joseph Campbell thought of myth: not as a lie, but as a symbol or metaphor for something mysterious, heroic and true.

The title of my eulogy is a phrase Jim used continually following his second accident:

I am not my body.

Jim at Yale College, 1981

I met Jim in 1981 or 82. Jim was recruited by Yale College to play football and lacrosse, and he and I were in the same graduating class, the class of 1985. Although I don’t remember the moment, I’m sure that when I first laid eyes on him I had the following thought: “dumb jock.” Jim stood six foot four and nearly 275 pounds. He was easy-going, no discernible accent, and had a manner which was decidedly working-class. At a place like Yale, that was noticeable. I was the same basic shape I am now, but probably twenty pounds lighter and I actually had hair. So my knee-jerk assessment of Jim was as much a product of envy as it was of my late-adolescent tendency to make assumptions about people based on how they look. I wanted to look like him.

But here comes Jim’s first lesson to me: I am not my body. I sat in theater classes with Jim and listened to his thoughtful feedback on others’ work. I was affected by his gentleness. I was seduced by his smile and sense of humor. I suddenly got it: this guy’s full of surprises. Surprising that his responses to the work in class were genuine, and not the rote responses we learn to give when we figure out what teacher is looking for. Surprising that he saw things I didn’t see. Surprising that this athletic recruit was in an acting class at all. Surprising how good he was: well prepared, brave on stage, expressive and not at all stuck in some self-limiting “macho” persona.  I can see Jim now, after we got to know each other, over a beer and a slice at Yorkside pizza, tilting back in his chair, arching an eyebrow and smiling at me: “You thought I was stupid, didn’t you Benny?” Yeah, I did Jim. Before I even knew you. But I was the stupid one, because you were not your body.

I loved being around Jim. His size and personality gave him a sparkle that I enjoyed bathing in, hoping it would put me in a better light. He was fun, with a mischievous streak a mile long. Our relationship revolved for the most part around the usual stuff two straight guys in college like to talk about: sex, sports and having fun. But as we got to know each other better, we discovered something deeper we shared in common: the similar circumstances of our families of origin. In a deeply personal way we couldn’t possibly describe, Jim and I “got” each other.

James E. Snow was born April 13th 1963 in Concord New Hampshire. Later in life, he was legally adopted by his step-father and his last name was changed to MacLaren. His mom remembers the forceps marks on his face, his full head of hair, and that at birth “he looked like he needed a shave”. Needless to say, she was concerned about his future appearance. I think he turned out just fine, Mom. As a baby, Jim smiled early and often, never crawled and began walking at sixteen months. His family called him Jamie. He adored his grandfather Burt, and his early years were filled with love.

In 1968, he moved with his family to Illinois. In ’69 they went to California. In ’71, at age eight, his parents divorced and he moved with his mom and siblings back to New Hampshire. He was so big at ten years old that, much to his mom’s distress, his school wanted him to play football with the eighth graders. The beating he must have took paid off, because later, he went to the Vermont Academy and became an All American lacrosse player and football star. He arrived at Yale in the fall of 1981.

Some of my high points with Jim at Yale working on a scene from a play called Bent, about two gay men sent to the concentration camps in world war II. “I want to stretch myself, Benny,” Jim told me, “I’m always getting cast as these muscle men and enforcers. I want to work on something really different” What I would have given to have been cast as a muscle man, just once. But, like I said, Jim was full of surprises, so we worked on this scene from Bent, as lovers, and we kissed on stage in front of a room full of our peers and one of the scariest acting teachers I ever took a class with. The kiss? It was just a peck. Jim would laugh, smack me on the head after rehearsal and say, “No tongue, dude!”

Or the production of David Mamet’s play Edmond we were both in our senior year. Somehow, for both of us, this production was a culminating experience. It’s an intense, dark and violent play – just the kind of play two cocky Yalies drunk on testosterone would love. And we loved it. At the time, Jim was a member of a “secret society” (a kind of glorified fraternity at Yale). Like so much else about Jim, I was jealous of his membership in Wolfshead, but it was one of the only societies that allowed senior class visitors. Some the best times I had with Jim were in the spring of 1985, after rehearsals or performances of Edmond, in the basement of Wolfshead, having the kind of fun it would rude to describe at an event like this one.

Or the one and only spring break trip  I ever took, which I took with Jim. These were the days when credit card companies would send seniors applications and then Visa cards. Jim always had, shall we say, an enthusiastic relationship to money. Simply put, if he wanted it, he bought it, whether he had the money or not. Jim never met a credit line he didn’t love. So we paid for this trip to Florida with these funny little pieces of plastic, rented a car, and drove to Miami. It was . . . well, you know what it was. Jim got lucky, I didn’t, what a surprise. We drove around with a case of light beer in the trunk. We were on top of the world.

Later in the spring of 1985, all of us Theatre Studies majors had a rude awakening. We were about to graduate, and most of us didn’t have clue what to do next. So, most of us tried to buy a little extra time by staying in school, and we auditioned for graduate schools in theater. Much to my surprise, I was accepted at the Yale School of Drama. Jim was wait-listed, and we rejoiced, knowing that we would be together again after a year.

That fall I began a very different kind of educational experience at the Drama School, and Jim got on his motorcycle and went to New York, to study and live a little before what was essentially a formality – his re-audition for Yale Drama School the following spring. On October 13th, 1985, riding home from an acting class he was taking in Manhattan, Jim was broad-sided by a New York City bus. They chalked the outline of his body on the street, and he was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

But remember, this man was full of surprises. I am not my body, he said.

He came back from the dead. They cut his left leg off below the knee. By January 1986, he was being fitted with a prosthetic and learning to walk again. He re-auditioned on schedule in March, and was accepted to the Yale School of Drama’s class of actors to graduate in 1989.

If I think about it, I believe that Jim’s deep reverence for life, for the experience of living, began in his recovery from that first accident. Jim carried with him the profound knowledge of having been dead, medically speaking. And so he began to see himself as miraculous in the years after he lost his leg. And he was. That first accident also loosed Jim from any conventional design to the trajectory of his life. Sure, he was in Drama School, but so what? Life is short, no one knew this more deeply than Jim. So go as you are led, follow your heart, because for Jim it was no joke – you could be run over by a bus tomorrow.

L > R: Me, Steven Skybell, Jim MacLaren, crap I forget his name. The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, Yale School of Drama, 1987

I am not my body, he said. And so, during the three years of his training in Drama School, Jim simultaneously began a training of different kind. He began to transform his body: from that of a former defensive lineman, to that of a world class tri-athlete. Jim became fascinated by his own body, and at the same time he began to experience it a limitation, a boundary. And he sought to push the edge of that boundary further and further. If there was ever a sport designed for the phrase “I am not my body” is the sport of triathlons, in which human beings push themselves beyond any sense of limitation to feats of endurance and physical accomplishment which seem impossible. This was the sport Jim was drawn to. It could have been golf. It could have been archery. No, not for Jim MacLaren. It had to be a big deal. It had to be triathlons.

Looking back, I think there was defiance in it. Looking back, I think somewhere, deep inside, Jim the competitive athlete was saying to God, to the universe, to whoever was watching: Yeah? You wanna take my leg? Fine – go for it. Now watch this. And as he became better and better at it, he began to weave his own myth, which contained the notion that the accident had happened for a reason: so that he could transform himself and excel at endurance sports.

Jim racing a triathlon c. 1990

After graduating from the Yale School of Drama with an MFA in Acting, Jim spent a few months in New York, appeared in a soap opera and then gave in to his passion. He began training full time, quickly found sponsors and by 1990 was routinely finishing marathons in front of eighty percent of the able-bodied competitors. Jim set world records for disabled marathon runners and triathletes, competed in the legendary Iron Man triathlon in Hawaii, was featured in major sports magazines including Sports Illustrated and is in the Triathlon Hall of Fame. I went to New York and bartended. I completely lost touch with Jim from 1988 to 1993.

This is a phenomenon many people experienced with Jim – this aspect of having him seemingly at the center of your life, then having him nearly disappear. His level of dedication made Jim obsessively focused on his training, and he let nothing get in the way, not even relationships to friends and family. And let’s be honest – actors are narcissistic creatures. I should know. Add to an actor the life and training of a world class triathlete and you have one of the most self-centered people in the world. Not necessarily in a bad sense, I mean, he had to be. But it’s also true that Jim wasn’t the greatest at returning phone calls and emails. And anyway, who could keep up with him during this time of his life? For me, he became the stuff of second-hand stories I heard from classmates – did you hear about Jim? About his time in that triathlon? About that article about him? And so, even before 1993, Jim was living into his own myth: perhaps it was Jim MacLaren Myth version 1.0.  I am not my body, my wounded, one-legged body. No. Look at me now world. I am heroic, superhuman and nearly perfectly fit.

I am not my body.

In June, 1993 I was living the actor’s rat race in New York and burning out fast. Then my friend – a Drama School classmate of Jim’s – the actress Mary Mara called me in tears. She was crying so hard I couldn’t understand her. Then I began to understand. Jim had been in another accident. Most of you know the details. But let’s listen to Jim tell it:

The race starts. I finish the mile swim and hop on my bike. A couple miles into the bike ride on a closed course, I’m stretched out on my aerodynamic handlebars, just flying. I assumed the people watching were applauding until I realized they were screaming. I look over to my left, and coming right at me is the grill of a black van. I learned later that a traffic marshal had misjudged my speed approaching the intersection and had directed the van to cross the street.

Life in these moments really slows down. I remember thinking, Okay, if I pedal one click faster, I can beat this guy across the intersection. The last thing I remember hearing is people screaming and the driver hitting his accelerator instead of his brakes. He struck my back wheel, I was thrown from my bike, flew headfirst into a signpost, and broke my neck.

None of that I remember. I woke up in the ambulance, still in race mode, feeling the adrenaline. I was in the same state of mind I had been in eight years earlier – when I first woke up after getting hit by that bus and saw that my leg was missing, I thought,Oh, okay, cool, your left leg’s gone. And I went back to sleep. When I woke up the day after that, that’s when my ego and brain started freaking out.

So when I came to in the ambulance, I knew right away that my legs didn’t work. But I remember thinking, Oh, maybe I’m just a paraplegic. Maybe I’ll be able to wheelchair race. And I could go beat Jim Knaub (who held all the wheelchair marathon records). Then I blacked out again.

The next thing I know, I’m in the hospital, outside the OR. A doctor is holding my hand. He tells me straight, ‘Look, you’re a C5-C6 quad, which means that you broke your neck right up around your ears, and you’re never going to move or feel again from the chest down for the rest of your life.’ At that moment, there was some aspect of me that felt that if he never let go of my hand, that I’d be okay. But, of course, he had to let go because they wheeled me into the OR. That was the start of multiple surgeries and months of being in the ICU. Basically, the inferno had begun. It was hell.

That’s from one of Jim’ motivational speeches.

The phrase that went around the drama school community was, it’s Greek. It’s Greek what happened to Jim. By that we meant, the only way to comprehend what had happened to Jim with this second, unbelievably awful accident, was as if we were witnessing an ancient Greek tragedy, written by Aeschylus or Sophocles. These are plays of curses, miracles and divine intervention; plays in which the painful and chaotic experience of life is expressed through the drama of heroic characters making heroic choices or facing horrible circumstances. These are mythic plays. At the end, there is always some lesson learned, as if the Greeks are telling us, see? There is a moral to the story.

Except that what happened to Jim was not a play. It was real life. The great challenge we faced with Jim was that, in 1993, we didn’t know how the play would end. We knew we were only in the third act – the part of the play when the really bad stuff happens – and that there were still two acts to come.

The next seven years were really, really hard for Jim. This was the time he learned exactly what he would be dealing with, if he chose life. And really, who could have blamed him if he didn’t? It seemed a very real and open question – would he actually keep going, and if so, go where? I was out of touch with Jim during these years. Many of us were. Jim faced many demons during those dark years. Once, he told me of a time he was in Hawaii and driving his wheelchair drunk one night, trying to decide whether or not to just steer himself off a cliff. I wouldn’t have blamed him, not one bit.

So let’s get real about what he was up against:

  • No movement from the waist down.
  • No control of his bowels or bladder.
  • No sexual function.
  • Limited movement of his arms and hands (which was a big surprise to the doctors).
  • Chronic pain and fatigue.
  • The necessity of continual and on-going medical care.
  • No freedom of movement.
  • Continual infections and treatment for infections.

Even if I could have seen him during those years, I doubt I would have had the courage to. I felt the same fear many of us felt when thinking of going to see Jim after that second accident: the fear of not knowing what to say to him, of wanting to apologize for the world, for life. The fear, deep down, of facing the great unavoidable truth Jim MacLaren put in front of us by his very existence: that really terrible, ghastly stuff happens to good and beautiful people for no apparent rhyme or reason. It can happen to any one of us, or to people we love, at any time. That’s the truth which Jim made clear, and I avoided it by avoiding him.

But Jim was full of surprises. I am not my body, he said. This made all the more poignant since what a glorious body he had.

I saw Jim for the first time after the second accident in the early oughts  in Boulder Colorado, where my Mom lives and where Jim had moved. I was terrified. But here’s what I remember. I remember the distinct sense that Jim knew this re-connection was harder for me than it was for him, and that he was trying to make it easier for me. We spent an hour or two together, and after the first ten minutes I felt like I was back with that guy I went to Florida with, fifteen year earlier. I was experiencing the eternal and essential Jim-ness of Jim again. I was experiencing his spirit, which I fell in love with in 1982, which lasts forever and which no tragedy could ever quell. I am not my body, he showed me, I am something mysterious and unnamable.

Jim around the time we re-connected, 2000 or 2001

We thought Jim had become the biggest star possible with the triathlons and all. But –surprise! In the beginning of this century, Jim co-founded the Challenged Athletes Foundation and began a very successful  motivational speaking business, assisted by his sister Jen. And what a speaker he was. Here’s another excerpt:

I can still say, as objectively as possible, that I wouldn’t trade what happened to me. Having to admit to my own dependency and vulnerability—hiring caregivers, having to travel with somebody, needing someone to help me take care of my business life—these were all decisions that actually made me more powerful. Why? It finally dawned on me that acknowledging your wounds and vulnerabilities, and becoming more conscious and knowledgeable about yourself actually makes you a stronger person. I’ve learned how to let people in who really love me, and say, ‘I’m hurting and I’m human and I need some help.’ If I can look at my life truthfully and accept everything that’s happened to me, then I can believe that I’m always going to be okay.

Over the next eight years, Jim, in his wheelchair, became something of a celebrity, and the myth entered its fourth act. The pinnacle of this time in his life was certainly his being named, along with Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, the ESPN Arthur Ashe Courage Award winner for 2005. The story of that award, and Jim’s remarkable relationship with this inspiring young man from Ghana is well documented. Search “Jim MacLaren” on YouTube. You won’t be disappointed.

If the triathlon years were marked by an obsessive self-focus for Jim, then the wheelchair years were marked by an equally obsessive outward focus. During the last ten years of his life, Jim made it his mission to reach people who needed help, to inspire people who needed inspiration, and to love virtually everyone. Those dark years of the late nineties were the crucible in which Jim made the decision to live. And once having made that decision, he had to live the only way he knew how – big. Full of surprises. Larger than life.  And exuding love and good humor.

Sometimes God picks one of us and makes an example out of them. You don’t have to believe this. But I do. I believe that God made an example out Jim MacLaren. And it’s not an Old Testament example. It’s not, “behold my power and my wrath.” No. It’s look at what you human beings are really made of, really capable of. Watch, as I take away Jim’s leg. See? He becomes a tri-athlete. You can be like that. Watch, as I take away just about everything else. See? He becomes more loving, smart, open and generous than he has ever been before. You can be like that. You can, but without losing everything. I draw your attention to Jim MacLaren, God says. I make him a myth. Look, listen and learn.

In my worst moments, I ask myself: can I be like Jim?

The fifth act of Jim’s life confirms that the play was indeed a tragedy. Through a series of economic collapses, Jim lost nearly all his financial resources, and in 2009, he ended up alone in an assisted living facility in California. I had no idea about any of this. Not many of his friends did, so fast and so drastic was his downfall. But his sister did, and after going to see him, Jennifer rallied Jim’s friends to his side, and many people –many people sitting here today – contributed money and other resources to get Jim across the country and into a subsidized apartment in Akron, Pennsylvania, so that he could be near Jen and her family, and they could monitor his care. From late 2009 through early 2010, Jen, Jim and his doctors worked on stabilizing his health, which had become a nearly constant battle with virulent infections, infections which were becoming more and more resistant to the antibiotics used to fight them.

This is how Jim came back into my life. Jim’s apartment was a little over and hour’s drive from my house, and so when Jen gave me the word that Jim was strong enough to have visitors, I began to see Jim again on a regular basis. From last March through August, I drove out to see Jim once every one or two weeks, just to sit at his bedside, drink his coffee and shoot the shit.

Me and Pearce Bunting visiting Jim in Akron PA July 2010

While he made valiant efforts to get back in his chair, Jim was essentially bedridden at the end of his life. I saw my role as simply a companion, a listener, a joker. Someone just to help Jim feel like he was still a real person, with real connections with the world and to his own past. I tried to nudge Jim into visions of what the next act might look like. Back into theater maybe? Jim spoke to me recently of wanting to turn his motivational speeches into a fully theatrical one-man play, weaving in stories from the myths loved, indeed, that he was an expert on. He shocked me and my friend Pearce when we dropped by to visit in June, by reciting a famous passage from another David Mamet play, a notoriously vulgar diatribe which Jim snapped off to our amazement and to great comic effect. He was sharp, spot-on, focused, full of humor and grace, even as he lay in what he probably assumed was his death bed. Full of surprises – right up to the end.

In mid-August, I went with my family on a two-week road trip. My eleven year old son had been hearing me talk about Jim all summer and asked me when he was going to meet him. “When we get back,” I told him. Monday the 30th of August I called Jim and left a message to say we were home and that I wanted to bring Griffen with me to see him that Thursday. Jim died early the next morning, finally succumbing to the infections he had fought so long and so hard. Finally slipping into the peace he deserved. Finally released.

Some have wondered aloud to me – did he take his own life? Let me say emphatically that he did not. Jim had looked suicide in the face long before and had made up his mind. He chose life, because he knew it was gift and he wanted to wring every last drop of magic from it.

For me, the journey has always been about going deeper and becoming more of a human being,” Jim MacLaren said. Jim continues: “And, you know what, just once in awhile being okay with the fact that it’s fricking hard. It’s just hard, and it’s not fair. And when I say that, I’m saying that for everybody in the world. Somehow we were brought up to believe that life is fair, and that if we’re good, then it’s all going to always be good. But stuff happens. Is it fair what’s happened to me? No, of course not. So what? I still have to get up in the morning. It’s not about overcoming adversity, it’s about living with adversity.

Jim MacLaren is my hero. Not because he went to Yale College and the Yale School of Drama. Not because he’s in the Triathlon Hall of Fame. Not even because he won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. No. Jim’s my hero, because last March, as I left his room, he raised up his wounded arms and beckoned me to come closer. I did, and he held me close to him on his bed and he kissed me, again, and said “I love you, bro.” Jim told me he loved me, every time we saw each other. And I said it back. And we both meant it.

How? How, after everything?

Because, Benny, I am not my body.

Thank you for being here.