Monday, July 9, 2012

Farewell to James Bailey - to Jimmy, J, Victor, and All His Other Names


On June 29, a friend of mine from years ago died. We still haven’t officially heard the cause of death, but his health was fragile, he was living in a nursing home, and he knew he was at great risk.

James Bailey was only about eight months older than I am; he died at age 44.

Let me be clear: this isn’t about me, my health or my reminiscences. It’s about choices – the choices that we make, good and bad. It’s about the choices made by Jimmy, or James, or J – as I called him in our last few conversations.

I helped an avid RPG community in Jonesboro, Arkansas to grow back in the late 80s, early 90s. And by RPG, I mean real dice-rolling, sitting on couches eating greasy food and drinking Mountain Dew, 12-hour marathon game sessions gaming. There was none of this online video gaming where your best friends are folks you’ve never met from New Zealand and Buffalo. These were people we invited into our homes.

I had my own circle of friends I gamed with. Jimmy had his regular gaming friends – colloquially called the Goon Squad. By and large, we mingled, but didn’t really mix. Jimmy was the rare one who did. I often was the DM (or gamemaster), and I regularly sought out people to play. After seeing how much he brought to a game, I invited Jimmy to come join mine.

Jimmy was intelligent and artistic, a bit of an oddball who sat cross-legged on the couch with his hands full of dice, waiting for a chance to pounce physically or verbally into the game. He created “Victor” for our AD&D Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game – an ex-gladiator turned refugee. He threw himself into gaming with gusto. He was friendly with everyone, he took an active role, and he was a pleasure to have around – which was surprising, given some of his issues.

Two things in particular stand out from that game campaign. One time Our Heroes needed someone to cover their escape. Victor said, “I’ll do it! I’m used to fighting a few guys at once!” Jimmy turned his character around and ran directly at the pursuing hordes of Non-Player Character villains. 

He didn’t have a weapon, but he attacked, all flying fists and brawling. I allowed him about one round of heroic butt-whupping before I, as the villains, had to pound the hell out of him. He barely survived, but the other guys got away and regrouped.

On a second, more infamous occasion, the party found themselves on an island floating a mile above the surface of the world. I designed it so that a magical spear was powering it. I described how the spear hovered in a beam of blue light, the chamber was at the center of the island, and how it hummed spiritually as they gazed upon it. I’d planned the campaign so the island could be moved, and they were going to pilot this thing to another location to fight a few huge battles.

Didn’t work. Victor decided he wanted the spear, so he took it. I couldn’t stop it, so I sent the island plummeting to the surface, forcing the rest of the characters to figure out how to get out or die. Yes, Jimmy actually sent an entire campaign crashing down just because his character had an impulse problem.
In character and in real life, he would make up his mind and there was nothing you could do to change it. It was noble in a way and tragic in others.

Jimmy had diabetes when he died. It had gotten so bad that he couldn’t walk. During a Facebook conversation, he told me that when the diabetes had set in, he developed nerve trouble in his feet and stomped the floor of his apartment in anger. This broke a blood vessel. He already could barely move, and with the open wound on the bottom of his foot, he was afraid of getting an infection. To avoid this, he chose to go into the nursing home and get help.  

Infection was a real fear. Jimmy had truly awful habits. He would eat the greasiest, nastiest, sweetest chunks of lard-and-chocolate flavored garbage he could get. His culinary habits were gross. His friends tried to get him to eat something healthier – anything! He ignored us. That was his choice. And yes, his cholesterol was sky-high at the end.

Jimmy was also… unclean. He lived in the same apartment for about twenty years that I know of. And I doubt he cleaned it more than once or twice a year. It was filthy. But it wasn’t just that; Jimmy didn’t like to bathe. People gave him grief about it. I had to start telling him to get a shower before coming over to my games. He fussed, but insisted on coming. He cleaned up and we were all astonished at how genuinely handsome he was. I think those once-weekly showers were all he got.

These were all choices he made. If they didn’t kill him, they certainly didn’t help him any in the long run.

I left Jonesboro in 1994. I’ve remained friends with some, and close friends with many others. Jimmy was one of those I failed to keep up with. Last fall, after a couple of decades, I wanted to check in on him. I’m in the process of rewriting a novel and wanted to consider using his character, Victor. A mutual friend, J.T. Benton, told me how Jimmy could be found and what had gone on in his life.

I reached out. We became FB friends and talked a few times. He admitted to obsessing on RPGs so much that he pushed most of his friends away, and he was aware that he was responsible for virtually all of his medical problems.

Jimmy had lost touch with almost everyone. But during that time, he made one huge defining decision. While he was sick and away from everyone he knew, and under the care of the nursing home, he admitted to himself he had a different identity.

Jasmine.

He said (and I’m quoting from our conversation here), “After becoming a veritable hermit for a while, I've came out as a transgender woman, but haven't gotten anywhere in my actual transition due to my doctor and financial issues.” His body couldn’t have handled the medical changes, even if he could’ve afforded them.

We talked about it. He knew no one in the LGBT community. Though he never said so, it was clear that he had avoided telling most of his friends about it. But he seemed to have opened up, and was okay with people talking about it.

While I was chatting with Jasmine Bailey on Facebook, I experienced a form of cognitive dissonance. I had no issue with his identity, but the onscreen avatar he chose was of a doll. I find dolls hard to relate to, and my memory of him was of a young man. I respected his decision, but needed to stabilize that dissonance. He agreed to let me call him “J.”

There are things we’ll never know about J. He forced people away from him and dropped below our horizons. I never asked him (sorry, I can’t help but use that pronoun) if he was transgendered, or transgendered and gay, or if he even knew how to define himself. I assumed he’d just tell us some day. I don’t know now, but honestly, it doesn’t matter.

J… Jimmy… Jasmine… chose a life that led to its inevitable end. But before that end, he chose to take on a new identity, to embrace a gender role that he preferred. That is wonderful.

A few months ago, I told him that I was going to use Victor in a book. I’d made up my mind that that character would bring something that nobody else could. I was planning to mingle Victor with some of his own characteristics – to create someone that was impulsive, odd, loyal, artistic, and endearing. 

When I told him, J responded, “I would be both flattered and honored if you used Victor in a story, so please do.” No writer can ask for better. 

From what I’ve been told, J was mentally and psychologically in a good place when he died. He was active in online gaming. He communicated with people he knew. It appears that he simply began to feel sick and was sent from his nursing home in Marked Tree to St. Bernard’s Hospital in Jonesboro. 

He was buried directly in a cemetery just south of Blytheville, Arkansas. There was no funeral, no service. J.T. Benton’s family is paying for his grave marker. 

Back when we were all friends, Jimmy seemed a simple kind of guy. But on reflection, it’s clear that he was far more complex than we ever would have guessed. It happens a lot, I’m afraid; those people we think we know, we know only a part of. I’m happier knowing more about him now than I did back then. 

Though we were never close friends, I'll miss him. Despite his faults, he was a genuinely good guy. Regardless of who he was when he died, I will still think of him as that intelligent oddball who sat cross-legged on the couch, dice in hand.

I never met Jasmine, never really had the time to get to know her. But I got to see a shadow of her as J. I got to talk with her, and I’m glad I did. 

I suspect that some of his friends will be upset that I’ve written this. That’s their choice. I can’t say I’d blame them. But J felt strongly about his identity and talked openly about it. He lived with his choice, and he had no problem with people knowing who he was.  

I think he’d be happy that someone is writing about it – the good, the bad, and the personal. For what it’s worth, that’s my choice.