A couple of years ago we began a much-anticipated project to completely blow out and remodel the downstairs room in our house Hilary and I have been using as our home offices over the last ten years. Very exciting, right? It was, but with one big catch—this was Jimmy’s room, and it was filled with Jimmy.
This isn’t the first time we’ve faced this daunting task. As I wrote in “The Rolex” chapter of Suffering Is The Only Honest Work, Jimmy was renting a bohemian style cabin in Laurel Canyon and pursuing his career in writing and acting in Los Angeles. A little over a month after he died in August of 2008, Jimmy’s older sister, Brittany, and I drove to LA and met Jimmy’s close friends John Dale and Evan Nicholas to clean out Jimmy’s place. Although it was very hard and emotional, there were actually a lot of light moments and laughter triggered by Jimmy’s eclectic taste—or lack thereof—in clothes, his very hip selection of mostly jazz LPs, and his enormous collection of books, half in Spanish.
We boxed up the books and I brought them home and put them up in our attic. John and Evan donated the clothes and what little furniture there was to a Hollywood community resource center, and each of us selected at least one thing of Jimmy’s to keep. Brittany had already placed dibs on his writing table, which used to be her desk and that I had refinished. Evan selected the old expresso machine. John took the turntable and a few albums. I grabbed his well-worn leather jacket, with a threadbare Nordstrom’s label, he bought at Goodwill. I wear that jacket every chance I get.
Back home, I took some time going through his things in his bedroom, like the back pack he brought home that last night, and the drawers of his nightstands. My feeble efforts mostly involved packing more books into boxes and hauling those up to the attic. The rest of his things were left in the three closets, two nightstands, and the built-in cabinets in his bedroom. And that’s where they resided for almost ten years.
We’re talking about a lot of stuff…all of his original poems, stories and screenplays, his jazz saxophone music, two saxophones and a flute, hundreds of photos, report cards, newspaper clippings, I’m pretty sure every card he ever wrote us was in one of the drawers. There was his baseball glove, and three footballs autographed by several Chargers players. The closets were home to the outfits he wore to proms and Ryan and Brittany’s wedding, the cowboy boots, leather chaps and vest he wore every day from ages two to four, and a never-worn Torrey Pines High School letterman’s jacket. “No better way to start a fight with kids from rival schools” he’d explained when I asked why he didn’t.
A box of trophies from youth soccer, little league and Pop Warner, and hundreds of CDs of his favorite music, some purchased but mostly his own playlists of burned favorites needed to be dealt with. There was a ton more of his books, four shopping bags of condolence cards and the six guest books signed at his memorial service. And, of course, his king- size bed.
Brittany and Jimmy, Halloween 1987
Everything had to be taken out of his room before the demolition began. I offered to do the heavy lifting and make a first pass. Hilary gave me license to decide what to keep and toss. I promised myself I would set aside those things I felt needed a thumbs up or down from Hilary or Brittany.
Fortunately, I had just recently retired and had quite a bit of free time. I dedicated the next two weeks to spending some quiet, quality time with my son. It was very much like an archeological dig—each drawer, file cabinet, folder, and closet holding all of these memories and markers from each of his 24 years with us. I took my time. He and we had accumulated so much because he accomplished so much.
Some decisions were easy. The floppy discs for the Nintendo games–into the trash bag. We would keep all of his writings, including the eight drafts of the last screenplay he was working on, Now’s the Time. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Van Gogh, I continue to believe Jimmy will be really posthumously famous one day. I’m reminded of the lines from The Band Perry’s hauntingly beautiful song, If I Die Young:
A penny for your thoughts? Oh no,
I’ll sell them for a dollar
They’re worth so much more
After I’m a goner.
Maybe then you’ll hear
The words I been singing
Funny when your dead how
People start listening.
Here’s a link to a video performance
Our medium Tarra instructed us years ago to keep his musical instruments for the then yet to be born grandkids. The two saxophones and flute stayed, but I tossed the box of saxophone music Jimmy played with his teacher of eight years, Anthony Ortega, and two of the footballs signed by the Judases—aka Chargers. I kept the one signed by Junior Seau—he was a friend of Jimmy’s and mine.
The clothes not attacked by moths were donated to the Encinitas Community Resource Center—who by the way was really excited about the letterman’s jacket.
I created three “I’m not sure” piles for Hilary, Brittany and Jimmy’s brother-in-law Ryan to peruse. Ryan chose Jimmy’s well-travelled leather briefcase, some books with Jimmy’s chicken-scratch notes and, for his boys, his first little league homerun ball. Hilary and Brittany kept all photos and everything he ever wrote to them. No one could bear hanging on to the cowboy boots, vest and chaps.
I couldn’t part with the condolence cards and guest books, not yet anyway. Maybe someday I’ll have the fortitude to go through them.
I continue to keep his cell phone and wallet, including the three $20 bills tucked inside, in a nice enameled cigar-sized box.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a purge, but at the end of the day we made a sizeable dent. There remain hundreds of photos in bags and boxes that I will cull through and digitize—another great retirement project. And ten plus boxes of books, baseball cards and Jimmy’s writings safe in the attic. Maybe in another ten years we’ll be ready to take another look at them.
It felt really good to spend so much time with Jimmy through all of the things he touched, wore and wrote, and all that which was written about him. I kept it together pretty well, with one major exception. And that was when I got the message from John Dale that he and Evan Nicholas were going to run the Los Angeles Marathon on March 18, 2018. Jimmy had run that marathon, his one and only, in 2007. The boys set up a Go Fund Me account to raise money for The Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Award given out annually since 2010 by the USC English Department to top graduating seniors. I completely broke down and cried harder than I’d cried in a long time. It was cleansing. Evan and John raised over $7,000 for The Jimmy. Friends Don’t Forget Either
That left his bed. I felt it important for Hilary to make that decision.
On Good Friday, a wonderful non-profit organization, Just In Time, that benefits young men and women transitioning out of foster care to independent living picked up Jimmy’s bed, the lamps and his nightstands. All three young men that came to the house were raised in foster homes. There were some tears as their rental truck drove away. We knew they would find another good home for Jimmy’s bed.
It was time.
It was time for us to let some of Jimmy’s things go. After ten years we knew that stuff isn’t what keeps us connected to him. Those are fingerprints, but that isn’t Jimmy. All of my brothers- and sisters-in-loss confront this. Some are not ready to touch their child’s bedroom for fear it will be interpreted as they are moving on and no longer remember or want to remember their child. Many of us fear that “the things” are all we have left.
Jimmy, in his gentle, persuasive way, let us know, “It’s okay. Now’s the time.”
LORD TENNYSON FOOTNOTE
If you look closely, in the If I Die Young music video the lead singer, Kimberly Perry, laying in the canoe is holding a book of poems of Lord Alfred Tennyson. The song is somewhat tied to one of his poems, The Lady of Shalott, which is about a beautiful, young medieval woman living in a castle on an island in the middle of a river near Camelot. The Lady has been cursed such that if she leaves the castle she will die and may only view the outside world by looking into a mirror. She violates the rule and gazes out the window of the castle directly at Camelot where sees Lancelot. She is so smitten she is compelled to leave the castle and go meet him.
She finds a boat, writes her name on it and climbs in. When the boat lands at the shore of Camelot a group of knights, including Lancelot, is there to meet it. Lady Shalott is dead, apparently having frozen to death on the voyage from the castle.
Of course one of Tennyson’s most well known poems is In Memorium about his prolonged suffering and grief over the loss of his good friend and almost brother-in-law, Arthur Henry Hallum. Tennyson and Hallum met at Cambridge and became fast friends and intellectual soulmates. When Tennyson brought his friend to his childhood home in Lincolnshire, Hallum met Tennyson’s sister, Emily, and fell instantly in love. The two were to be married, but while on a short trip to Vienna with his father, Hallum suffered a stroke and died. He was 22 years old.
In Memorium is one of Jimmy’s and his brother-in-law, Ryan’s, favorite poems.
The sharp knife of a short life.