My uncle Jimmy, in the loving care of my mom and dad since he was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer six months ago, died suddenly Monday after the tumor that was wrapped around a major artery essentially broke his heart.
As I’d imagine is often the case with cancer, a “sudden” death really isn’t all that sudden in most senses of the word. Still, my parents were not prepared to have him sitting at the dinner table enjoying a hamburger and focaccia bread one minute, then bleeding out on the living room floor the next.
“I looked at him, and I knew he was gone,” my dad said last night.
Still, by their accounts, the heroic cadre of EMTs, first responders, and paramedics stormed their tiny house, trying every last measure to revive my uncle. But by the time he got to the hospital, he was gone.
Jimmy was responsible, in a way, for awakening my awareness of the process of getting things into print. When I was about 7 or 8, I remember The Transcript — the paper for which he was an award-winning City Hall reporter — inexplicably didn’t print the comics one Friday night. “Why wouldn’t they?” I wondered aloud.
Jimmy picked up the phone, dialed a number, and asked one of his colleagues what happened. He hung up the phone. “They’ll be running two pages of comics tomorrow,” he said.
It seems weird, but at that age I still wasn’t sure what it meant to be a reporter, but that small gesture made it real to me that real people made newspapers happen — the whole of newspapers, down to the comics page.
When I was 11, Jimmy and his then-girlfriend Trish took off on an international journey. My somewhat portly uncle shed the extra pounds and began exercising to prepare for a life of following his nose around the world. We would get postcards and the occasional letter, all with exotic stamps and postmarks. We would bring them to Friday night dinners at my grandmother’s house in Adams, where my mom and my uncle Tommy and my grandmother would pass them around, read them aloud, quote from them, analyze them, dissect them, laugh about them. My mom would write and we would send cassette tapes occasionally, always to “poste restante,” general delivery for whatever country was on his itinerary.
I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but in 1980, Jimmy had to move forward in his travels — I would imagine because of visa or other practical matters of international transit — and the only way forward was through Iran, in the middle of the Islamic Revolution. With no way to contact him, we could only wait for word of his safe passage. I remember the collective sigh of relief when he sent a postcard describing a harrowing journey on trains where he feared for his life, where Iranians pumped full of anti-American fervor would look at him and make the finger gesture pantomiming beheading.
Eventually, Jimmy and Trish parted ways, and Jimmy continued his travels. At one point he ended up as an extra in an Indian movie and regaled us with a colorful story about his 15 minutes of fame in what these days would be a direct-to-DVD turkey.
Jimmy was in Hong Kong when he ran out of money, and he took a job writing for Asiaweek magazine, a newsweekly that at the time was owned by Reader’s Digest, if memory serves. In 1981, he came home for Christmas. It was only three years, but it seemed like he had been away forever. He returned home thin, healthy, with a repertoire of exotic stories.
And gifts, some of the best gifts you could imagine, gifts that were, by and large, beyond the range of anything in our imaginations. An opium pipe for my uncle. Beautiful silk coats for my mom and my aunt. A Tibetan prayer wheel for my dad. A beautiful, oversize, full-color Times of London Atlas of World History for me. For my brother John, a toddler at the time, a glowing-eyed remote-control dinosaur that spit little plastic discs on command.
Jimmy returned for my grandmother’s funeral only a couple months later, and he would come home for Christmas most years. Those trips home would be full of excitement and stories. My dad would go to bed, exhausted from construction and timber-framing artistry, leaving my mom and Jimmy to spend night after night talking into the early morning hours about anything and everything, wide ranging seriocomic discussions that would include healthy doses of pure Adams, Massachusetts trivia for its own sake, contests to remember the most minute details from the dusty crevices of their sometimes Dickensian youth in a morose mill town. They would discuss literature, Adams, history, Adams, current events, Adams, politics, Adams, then literature about Adams, the history of Adams, current events in Adams, and the politics of Adams.
Sometimes Jimmy would talk shop about the technology of publishing. After I started working for newspapers in 1983, I would sometimes be able to get the topic away from Adams, at least for a little while.
In 1990, I came to the house for dinner and announced that I was hired as a typesetter for New England Monthly magazine, a career move that would let me get my own apartment. “Well, I have some news, too,” Jimmy said. “I’ve taken a job with Time magazine, and I’m going to be moving to New York City.”
As a senior writer for Time’s international edition, he would aggregate news from the magazine’s network of correspondents for wide-ranging cover stories ranging from the Israel/Palestine conflict to the Mad Cow outbreak. He described an extreme work process that would have him at his desk for 48 hours straight every Friday and Saturday.
In 1996, Time transferred their international operations to London, where Jimmy moved and where he would never be the same. He hated life there and fell into a deep depression, exacerbated by heavy drinking. He was put on leave from his job, and he fell out of touch. He was unable to open his mail, and his utilities were cut off. My parents went to London and brought him home, a shadow of his former self.
Jimmy underwent treatment for alcohol addiction, a quiet journey that he undertook with determination — and success. He lived with my parents for a couple of years, then finally got an apartment in Williamstown, where he began taking solace in new routines. He would spend time at the Williams College library, bookstores, and coffee shops. It is not how I’d imagined Jimmy would spend his days. I doubt that in his better days he would have thought that too. But he seemed content.
Last December, he went to the hospital for stomach pains, and he was referred for tests. Shortly before Christmas, he went in for tests to confirm an initial diagnosis of lung cancer.
We’ve never determined exactly how much hope there was. By all accounts, Jimmy’s oncologist had the reputation as an optimist — the type of optimist that caused other doctors to roll their eyes when Mom and Dad would bring him to the emergency room periodically. And despite the clues, despite what other doctors would say, Jimmy kept fighting.
I was visiting when he called Mom for the first time after the diagnosis. “I will hold you up,” she told him, her voice cracking but determined, speaking through the tears I knew were dropping by the phone.
Shortly after his diagnosis Jimmy called 911 from his apartment and was brought to the hospital unconscious. For about a day, it looked like he was about to die. But Jimmy got through that medical crisis, against no small odds, and came to live once again with my mom and dad. He still maintained his apartment as an icon of hope, always holding fast to the idea that he would regain enough strength to return.
At the little house in Plainfield, my parents provided him with a place where he didn’t have to go through his last journey alone. He drove them crazy in that little house, but no way they would do anything else. However impatient my dad would get — he would occasionally vent when he’d call me with a question about his computer — he never showed impatience to Jimmy.
“When I see how good Richie is to my brother, I fall in love with him all over again,” my mom told Susi and me several times.
Last week, Dad called me and told me that Jimmy was getting weaker. “You might want to come up and see him,” he said. I promised to come up Tuesday to fix Dad’s computer and to hang out, as soon as I finished putting together the pages of The Commons, the newspaper I edit in Brattleboro.
On Monday night, I got the call from Dad that Jimmy had just hemorrhaged. “I don’t think he’s going to make it this time,” he said. And within the hour, Susi called from home to say that Dad called with the news that Jimmy had died that night.
The sad fact of the matter is I thought Jimmy would die a prolonged, linear, movie-style cancer death, eventually weakening to the point of needing bed care or hospitalization. I didn’t think it had come anywhere near that point, and every time I would call the house and he would answer, Jimmy would always brightly say he was feeling better, that he was doing better, that he had a good prognosis, that he was beating this thing.
Truthfully, until Dad called last week, I really didn’t know how bad he was. Nor did Susi and I know what Mom and Dad apparently did from the earliest days of his illness — that the cancer could create a weakness in his artery, a weakness that could kill him almost instantly at any minute.
Susi and I went to Plainfield last night to help write the obituary. My mom had found letters Jimmy had written her from Hong Kong and during his travels, as well as the issue of Asiaweek with a note to readers that praised him for his work writing a cover story on nuclear proliferation and the prospects of nuclear war.
The editorial was accompanied by a photo of Jimmy by a shelf of books, perhaps in the magazine’s reference library. The moment captures him holding a large book, looking up, surprised by the camera, a “you caught me” smile on his face, and a twinkle in his eye.
That’s the Uncle Jimmy I’d like to remember — the Uncle Jimmy who left a powerful legacy of accomplishment, of professionalism, of excellence, of the love of good writing. The Uncle Jimmy who would drop references to ancient civilizations and who had a healthy skepticism for the absurd. (“Oh, come ON!” he would say, with incredulous contempt.) The Uncle Jimmy who was confident, funny, happy, and brimming with life and stories that somehow could link the life and lore of the ancient Phoenicians to the cultural life of Adams, Massachusetts in the 1950s.
I think that’s the Uncle Jimmy that he would like us to remember, too.
Jimmy’s obituary follows.
WILLIAMSTOWN—James V. Walsh, 62, of 26 Hall St., died June 29 at North Adams Regional Hospital of complications from lung cancer.
Born in Adams Feb. 27, 1947 to the late John J. and Mary G. (Toohey) Walsh, he was a 1964 graduate of the former Adams Memorial High School.
After his graduation with honors in English from Williams College in 1968, he worked as an award-winning reporter for The North Adams Transcript,, where he covered City Hall.
In 1978, he embarked on international travels throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East, an extended journey that included experiences in Iran during the Islamic Revolution and playing a minor role in a film in India.
His travels took him to Hong Kong, where he worked for the next 10 years as a general editor for Asiaweek, a newsweekly covering that part of the world.
A note to readers preceding his 1983 cover story about the prospects of nuclear war praised his “meticulous checking he has been known for during nearly fifteen years in journalism.”
In 1990, he began a career at Time for the magazine’s international editions, working first in New York City and then in London as a senior writer, responsible for numerous cover stories during his 10-year tenure with the company.
He returned to the United States when he retired in 1999.
He leaves one brother, Thomas A. Walsh, of Adams and a sister, Mary E. (Walsh) Potter and her husband, Richard, of Plainfield, as well as nieces and nephews.
A brother, John Walsh, died in 1992, and a sister, Roberta (Walsh) Costine, died in 2004.
Calling hours will take place Friday from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Flynn and Dagnoli — Montagna Funeral Home’s West Chapel at 521 West Main St., North Adams. A memorial service will take place at the convenience of the family.
Contributions in James Walsh’s memory may be made to the Highland Ambulance, 56 Main St., Goshen, MA 01302 or to the American Cancer Society, 30 Speen St., Framingham, MA 01701-1800.