I knew Jim for most of my life. When I think back on it, outside of my own biological family, I knew Jim longer than anyone.
Back in 1966 or 1967 Jim Burns was my sisters’ chemistry teacher at Andrean high School in Merrillville, IN. He became a good friend. He spent a lot of time with our family and actually lived in our old summerhouse in Michigan City, IN for a school year. I knew him when he was single, I knew him when he fell in love. And then he married and moved away and our family barely kept track of him in Rochester, NY and then Austin, TX. It was mainly Christmas cards.
Many years passed and I had pretty much forgotten Jim Burns. It was a very long time before I saw him again. His wife Diane had died and his two sons had grown into their own independent lives. Jim was a nomad, driving around the country becoming reacquainted with old friends, revisiting his old haunts.
I ran into him at my sister Ruthie’s house in Toledo. It was good to see him again.
Fast forward to the present. My mom and Jim Burns were married for seven great years. They lived in Brevard NC, which is relatively close to us. My family got to see them fairly often. For the last several years they drove down to have Thanksgiving with us. They knew our friends and got a big bunch of backporch folk music from time to time.
Jim died just a few weeks ago. I was honored to spend a lot of time with my mom and Jim during these last seven years, especially this summer.
It was a privilege to know Jim Burns for as long as I have. His passing has left a hole in my mom’s life that will never be filled.
I wrote this letter to his sons the day after he died. I got to meet Michael and Pat and spend a few days with them just at the end of Jim’s life. I post it here because it tells of my great admiration for Jim and how much he meant to my mom.
Dear Pat and Mike,
I am sorry about the loss of your dear old dad. Jim was a good, sweet man and our lives will not be the same without him. I’ll remember his quick wit, his intelligence, his wonderful stories, his sense of justice and his compassion. His years in Brevard with my mom left him a great distance from you. But I was the lucky one, wasn’t I? I saw them quite often. And they made each other very happy.
My own dad died in the late 80’s. It seemed unfair. Jack O’Keefe was so young. And my mom was adrift. We were left fatherless. Ruck was lucky enough to find love again with a wonderful guy – Otto. I did not know Otto very well and they lived far away from all of us. I love him because he loved my mom. But I never referred to him as my stepdad.
You guys, when Otto died, Jim was there. He helped my mom make it through her second hardest time. He helped her to start over. You’ll never know how grateful I am for Jim coming into my mom’s life. And when they settled into NC, I never saw my mother happier. My family saw them often. My boys, who never met Jack O’Keefe, will remember Jim as a grandfather and I will remember him as my stepdad.
How wonderful that you both got to be with him in NC toward the end. I was with them a few days before you came and you must know how excited he was at your visit. The afternoon you all came in from the airport – when he knew you were almost there, he wanted a clean shirt, to have his oxygen tank in the bedroom with the door closed and to have his hair brushed. He wanted this time with JD and Teddy to be special. Honestly, I was going to stay with my mom and Jim indefinitely – until the end I thought. But when I saw your warm and generous hearts, and how much you loved your dad; when I heard you call him “Pop” and kiss him on the head, I knew it was the right time to go and leave you Burns Boys to yourselves.
So, thanks for coming. It meant so much to your dad and my mom. Thanks for sharing your stories with us. It was funny to meet you guys after having known Jim for most of my life, to have known him as my sister’s teacher, my family’s good friend, to have seen him fall for your mom and then to wonder for years about him, and finally to have him come back into our lives for some happy times.
In the great scheme of life we all have pain and sorrow along with our happiness and joy. You can’t have one without the other I suppose. I just wanted you to know that Jim has been part of my family’s joy.
I hope our paths cross again. I like you guys. And I loved your dad. Our world will never quite be the same without Jim Burns.
May your happy memories come quickly to fill the space of your grief.