Monday, June 20, 2005

In Memorium: James Turner

He called my grandmother "Fuji". Something about the pants she wore cut off just below the knees reminded him of a wrestler named Mr. Fuji. At least that's the story I always heard.

He loved wrestling before it was all glamour and steroids. He loved the Atlanta Braves before they were any good. He would sit there muttering to the television as images of Bruce Sutter and Bob Horner and Phil Neikro filled his small set.

He drank and smoked and cursed and got in fist-fights and yelling matches with people he loved and people he did not understand. He collected aluminum cans -- big stacks of them. And he wore overalls.

He was the first person I ever knew who didn't know how to act in church. Didn't know any of the songs. Didn't know when to stand up or sit down or how to turn to Isaiah or Galatians.

He battled demons and never could get a handle of them. He was on his own from the age of 11, isolated and abandoned by those who were supposed to watch over him. That's probably why he self-medicated so much.

We thought he was going to die back in January of 1983. My family was on vacation. We had gone to New York City to see Yul Brenner's last dance in The King and I. Then we drove down to visit some of my parents' best friends in West Virginia.

That's where we were when my father's secretary tracked us down.

We drove all night to Atlanta and got to the hospital thinking he would die any moment. He didn't. Instead, the doctor told him he had to stop drinking and smoking. I suppose he figured he'd rather die if he had to give all that up. The problem was his body wouldn't cooperate. So, he just stopped living. Just sat there all day and all night watching The Price is Right; Walker: Texas Ranger; In the Heat of the Night.

He wasn't a bad man. When he met that wild teenage girl named Polly, he did right by her. Their relationship was a trainwreck much of the time, but he didn't leave. He didn't abandon her with those hungry kids. He stayed there and did the stuff a man is supposed to do. He provided for his family -- working two jobs most of the time to make ends meet. He was kind to animals (especially our family dog Boots). He liked candy and shared it with all his grandkids. He wasn't a bad man.

He just wasn't an especially good man.

I don't know if he had any kind of faith to speak of. I don't know if he ever found his faith in Jesus. I do know that he spend a lot of time the past few days staring off into nothing. It looked as if something was going on in his mind, but his body wouldn't cooperate again. I like to imagine he was having some interesting conversations with Jesus. I don't know.

I can't judge his faith any more than he could judge mine.

But he's not so different from any of us. As much as we want to puff out our chests, hook our thumbs in our lapels and say, "I'm not such a bad guy" -- the truth is, when I'm alone and it's just me and my reflection staring back -- I know: I may not be a bad man, but I'm not an especially good one either. My guess is that most of us feel that way.

We're not the kind of people we should be -- not all the time. We take out our frustrations on the people closest to us and say hurtful things when we don't understand. We curse and yell and fight with people, we battle demons, we check out and self-medicate when life gets too hard for us to handle. And for too many of us, we stop living long before we actually die.

Eighty-nine years seems like such a long time, but you and I both know: it's here today and gone tomorrow. It doesn't make it easier for those who are left behind to say goodbye. But say it we must. Hopefully, we will be wise enough to learn the lessons his life teaches us.

Goodbye, Pops.