John Kimberley, Freshman year, Wilson High School
When at heart you should be sad,
Pondering the joys we had,
Listen and keep very still.
If the lowing from the hill
Or the toiling of a bell
Do not serve to break the spell,
Listen: you may be allowed
To hear my laughter from a cloud.
Sir Walter Raleigh, explorer (1554 -1618)
Despite the amount of complaining I have engaged in over the past few years on the subject of aging, the truth is I don’t feel old. 44 isn’t old. It isn’t young, but it’s not old – and it’s damn too young to die.
My friend John Kimberley was too young to die, but die he did – alone in a hospital in Twin Falls, Idaho two days after Christmas 2013. As his friends try to grasp what led to John’s downfall and demise, we take comfort in having known and spent time with this very special guy.
John Kimberley had a lot of friends when I met him my freshman year in high school, but he always seemed happy to make room for one more. While I did not grow up with John as many of his friends did, I was a part of the gang from Wilson that often roamed around Dunthorpe at night, drinking and smoking and getting up to all sorts of no good. I felt like I was part of a little family – a late arrival for certain, but a part nonetheless. John made me feel welcome and comfortable in this new group of comrades.
The Gang, Gearhart, Oregon, approximately Spring 1986
In later years, John and I became “family” in the truest Portland sense: through marriage, but not really. Let me break it down for you:
After her divorce from John’s father Kim, his mom Susie married Bruce, whose first wife was Francie. Bruce has a son named Matt, with whom John was longtime friends, and the two friends became stepbrothers. Bruce’s first wife Francie (mother to Matt) was later married to my father, which made John’s stepbrother Matt my stepbrother and John my step-brother once removed (new familial designation coined for the purposes of sorting out the incestuous nature of Dunthorpe and Portland Heights in the 70s through 90s.)
John and Casey, circa early 90s?
As if all that weren’t enough, after my father and Francie divorced, Francie married Paul, who was the father of Emily, one of my closest friends. While Emily inherited (I say “stole”) my beloved stepmother and stepbrother, I got less people to disappoint and a smaller Christmas shopping list, so it was all fine by me.
I have so many stories in my mind about John and the crazy things we did together with our tight-knit group of friends. I fondly recall keg parties, beach and mountain trips, skipping class nearly every Thursday during senior year to drink beer at Andrea’s house (Thirsty Thursdays – Coors Lite ONLY!), Bishop’s Close, the trestle, the loss of part of Chris Taylor’s middle finger, night visits to the pool at Lewis and Clark College, and skinny dipping off the Khonstamm’s dock in the summer evenings.
Just a typical day in Oregon
As I look back on our high school and college activities, it’s a wonder we didn’t lose John or anyone else during that time (unless you count that part of Chris’ finger). We had fun, yes, but we took risks. We took extreme risks that make my skin crawl now, as I sit in this 44 year old woman’s body and imagine my son doing anything remotely similar.
But we survived, and once we all made it out alive I suppose we took for granted that we’d all be around for a good long time, throwing the occasional reunion party and staying close with those with whom we were closest.
I lost track of John a few years after his brief marriage to Sally, as many others did. John didn’t just party, you see, he partied. Hard. And even though he spoke with his father Kim in college about quitting booze, he always wanted more time. “I know Dad, I know. I know I need to quit but not just yet. I’m too young to quit drinking. Don’t worry, I’ve got it under control.”
But he didn’t have it under control, and it was starting to become a very serious problem. John went to variety of rehab facilities throughout the years but sobriety just never took hold in John’s heart. Sometimes John would have longer periods of abstinence, sometimes shorter, but never constant. Ironically, when he wasn’t drinking he was the first person to show support to others tacking the sobriety issue, visiting them in rehab when nobody else would come.
That was John. He was kind and helpful and sensitive, even though he could display a persona of machismo and nonchalance. When the son of a family friend committed suicide years ago, John didn’t hesitate to go to their home, knock on the door and offer his heartfelt condolences.
Little John with cousins
Nobody else came, they said. Nobody but John. Where others saw a terrible and difficult interaction with a grieving person, John saw an opportunity to be kind and comforting.
Having been deemed disabled due to his many physical ailments, John was not able to hold down a job for the last few years of his life. However, he became involved with a group called “Higher Ground” which gets disabled people on the slopes in Sun Valley www.highergroundsv.org.
While John joined this group because he was disabled but still loved skiing, he needed little instruction. His dad told me John was as proud of his involvement with Higher Ground as anyone could be proud of anything. John had hoped to become an instructor for the organization but that did not come to pass before he died. Again, it was just like John to take pride in helping others, even when his own life was not going so well.
John, Carl, Pete, James, Dawson
As the years went by, John’s absence from Portland and our lives became an accepted fact. Every time I saw my old friends, his name always came up. “How’s John?” we would wonder. “Has anyone heard from him? Is he OK?”
More often than not, the answer was no – nobody had heard from him, and if anyone had, he wasn’t OK. But the question still arose, and I had this conversation with my friend Julie on the way to a small high school reunion on December 26. We both reminisced about what a nice kid John was, and how much we would like to see him. We talked about how inclusive he could be, and sweet (while still a bit of a devil).
John and James
Of course we couldn’t know that at the moment we were speculating about how our friend was doing, he was in an ambulance being raced from Hailey to Twin Falls, a distance of 70 miles that would encompass John’s last ride. I like to think he was conscious, without pain and marveling at the speed at which the ambulance was traveling (“floor it, dude!”), blissfully unaware he would not be coming back to his little apartment in Hailey and his life of solitude.
John was supposed to reunite with his father after Christmas in Sun Valley, a trip they had shared several times over the years. They spoke three times on Christmas Eve for almost an hour at a stretch, as the call kept getting interrupted by this or that on one end or the other. Three hours on the phone was highly unusual for John and Kim, as were his Dad’s last words to him on their final call.
“I love you,” he said, an expression Kim does not use often.
John and his father
Kim told me John was really excited about seeing his dad in January. It had been a year since they last saw each other, also in Sun Valley, and John even promised to get a haircut before his dad’s arrival. “I look like a caveman,” he told Kim on their last call, “but I’ll get it cut!”
The enthusiasm John showed his dad about their visit was encouraging. He sounded sober, and hopeful. He had talked about getting a cat, but each time he visited the animal shelter he came home empty-handed. Perhaps he knew he wasn’t long for this world, and didn’t want to leave behind a pet who would be lost without him.
Remember loafers and socks?
So what lessons can we learn from John’s death? There was no shortage of friends and family who tried to help John conquer his problem, so I hope nobody out there mourning John is second-guessing themselves and thinking they could have done more to save him.
They could not save him, for while John was compassionate and caring towards others, he was not so towards himself. Something happened to John Kimberley somewhere along the way – maybe in his childhood, maybe in his chemistry – that drained his capacity to love and care for himself.
Besides the obvious lesson here (love and rejoice in your friends and family while you still have the chance), we can also learn to accept this painful fact: some people cannot be saved from themselves. For some of us, our addictions are stronger than the combined will and help of others and whatever we can muster ourselves.
My Uncle Joe was so much like John: funny, loved by many, warm and giving of heart, sensitive. But Joe struggled for years with his addiction, and it finally killed him at the age of 53 despite the efforts of so many to keep him on the path of sobriety.
The irony is not lost on me that as we gather (and have gathered) to celebrate and remember John, we will drink. We will drink to excess as we toast our lost friend and the times we shared together. Is this wrong? Perhaps to honor John, we should forgo alcohol in remembrance of how this lovely and intoxicating poisonous lady destroyed his life. That would be the right thing to do.
John and Sally
But I don’t think it’s what John would have wanted. In fact, if we could speak to him again and propose a dry memorial, I can hear him now:
“Don’t be a bunch of pussies, guys. I’m dead. Raise a glass to me and get over it! I’ll see you on the other side, where addiction doesn’t exist and the powder is always fresh. Where are my Vaurnets, by the way?”
In closing, I offer this poem written by my father John DesCamp for my Uncle Joe when he passed away. I think it fits very well here and could have been written for John himself.
I remember him first
about the time he was ten:
a small cowboy
in the middle of the gang;
he had on jeans, a brown plaid shirt,
bare feet and a battered cowboy hat
in the wet December afternoon.
His arched eyebrow
and one-sided grin
let you know he was one of the good guys,
maybe a little wild,
but more Roy Rogers than Lash Larue:
a musical, big-hearted cowboy,
not a gun fighter.
Like a lot of cowboys,
he had a difficult relationship
with his horse:
it got him there and got him home,
but it was an uncontrollable, mean son of a bitch,
and bucked and bit him all too often.
As they both grew older
it got harder to handle,
even as he needed it more.
But he kept on riding it, he said,
because it always took him home
when he was lost.
He’s gone now,
but if you’re quiet and listen,
you can still hear the music he made.
And you can still feel his grin
in the love of those he left behind.
John and Mari
Goodbye, my friend. May death and whatever comes after bring you the peace and love you so surely deserved during your time with us. You will be missed.