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Nearing the End

May 16, 2018 | (1,124 words)

I’ve noticed that people my age are starting to check out and die, which is a most disconcerting development. My long-ago best friend and one-time business partner, Jim Gillis, passed away recently, though I only heard about it a month after his funeral Mass.

We had lost touch, as they say. But for a couple of summers back when we were twelve and thirteen years old, we spent practically every waking moment in each other’s company. Jim was the youngest of six, I was the oldest of six, and his family was much more interesting to me at the time. They had three boys and three girls to our four boys and two girls. Everyone in his household was older and seemed to be in perpetual motion, as I remember it.

Jim’s father was a doctor who had a family medical practice that he conducted out of his home. Does anyone reading this now even remember such a thing? His mother was a registered nurse who, I believe, assisted with the family practice, keeping the books and such.

By the time I had come into the picture his dad had taken an early retirement, and was volunteering his services at the VA Hospital that was an hour’s drive to the west. His mother returned to teaching, and was affiliated with a well-known Catholic nursing school, an hour’s drive to the east. If memory serves she was also a department head. These two adults defined what today we refer to as “giving back.”

Mrs. Gillis, in particular, was by this point doing her own thing in a very big way, and homemaker was no longer an integral part of her daily agenda. She was a somewhat erasable presence, as I recall, at least where her youngest child was concerned. She had what we used to call a finely tuned bullshit detector, and was always calling Jim to task for what she felt was his tap-dancing out of this or that responsibility.
The scenes I witnessed between them were brief, conducted in an almost continuous gesture as she was scooping up her books and briefcase, on her way out the door to university.

When the two of us were not playing basketball on a local playground, there was a lot of idle time spent sitting around their dining room table on a typical summer’s afternoon. Jim and his next oldest brother, Angus, were prone to making themselves something substantial to eat at odd times throughout the day.

…always a fan of food

Always a fan of food, I tended to hang around and scarf up whatever was being concocted. It did not escape Angus’s rueful-but-good-natured attention that for a while there it seemed like I was eating more at their house than at my own.

It was during one of these dining table conferences when Angus first suggested that Jim and I put an ad in the paper, “because people like to hire students.” We did, and sure enough, people called. Angus was right. Mrs. Gillis drove us around to our mostly lawn-cutting jobs back then. I’m not exactly sure how she fit it into her hectic schedule, but somehow she found time for us.

I was asked to be the front man. Negotiating job scope and cost in this modest capacity hit an agreeable nerve, and turned out to be the start of my eventually being in business for myself. Even though my partnership with Jim only lasted a few summers.

Dr. Gillis had odd hours at the hospital, and could occasionally be found at the dining room table later in the day, smoking like a chimney. He would sometimes be joined there by his older brother, the globe-trotting Maryknoll missionary, in town every once in a while for a visit. The two of these crusty old guys interacting with each other was something to behold. The Braveheart phenomenon was still a solid three decades in the future, but witnessing this blast of pure Scottish bonhomie at the Gillis dining table was bracing, to say the least.

Jim was an early rebel against religion, and he used to give his uncle the missionary a very hard time. The old priest took it all in stride, gently deflecting Jim’s adolescent jabs with a world-weary grace and a dash of stoic humor. By the time I turned twenty, I was to rebel against religion every bit as much as Jim had done years before.

Jim’s father was only fifty-seven when he died suddenly, with his youngest child only thirteen years old. I remember that funeral Mass quite well to this day. Jim made himself conspicuous by blowing his nose very loudly, from start to finish. He was registering his pain, of course, but he was also letting everyone in the church know he thought the Catholic proceedings were just so much fluff and meant absolutely nothing.

“The Body Has a Head,” and “Man’s Presumptuous Brain”

During that funeral Mass I thought I heard the following words, as part of the Gospel reading: “when you are with the light, have faith in the light, and you will become as sons of the light.” I thought the priest that day announced it as being from John. Never much of a Bible scholar, I have been unable to locate any such passage in the years since, nor have I ever heard it spoken again at any Mass.

Mrs. Gillis continued to be a presence in my life for a few years after the untimely death of her husband. She took to recommending books she thought I would benefit from reading, even as an unlettered, young hayseed. Among them were some that continue to stand out, all these years later: The Body Has A Head, and Man’s Presumptuous Brain. Both of which remain among my favorite titles in our home library.

Looking back I am struck by how this oh-so-practical, professional, and monumentally pre-occupied woman managed to rather casually and uncannily have my number. How are good teachers able to do that so effortlessly?

In closing, then, allow me to publically acknowledge the recent passing of my long-ago best friend, James A. Gillis (April 23, 1954 – March 27, 2018). As well as acknowledge what a large and important role the entire Gillis clan played in my youthful formation. They were colorful characters, each and every one. Thanks especially to Mrs. Gillis, for showing an interest in her youngest son’s little friend.

And while I’m at it, now is probably a good time to send similar thanks out to all the other gifted teachers I was lucky enough to encounter, for doing much the same thing.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
May 16, 2018

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