I had a friend named Jeff.
He came to work at my library about 8 years ago, but we didn’t really start talking much until the end of 2003, when a rogue board member decided to bully the other trustees into making a new rule restricting R-rated movies to patrons who were 17 or older. During a staff meeting where we were informed of the board’s decision to ignore our objections, I took a stand and said that I was both a patron of our library and a staff member, and as a patron I would do what I had to do to fight it, even if it put my job in jeopardy. Little did I know, I was sitting next to someone who would turn out to be the greatest champion of free speech I ever met. The bond was instant.
Our friendship blossomed when we discovered how many things we had in common: atheism, book-love, liberalism, and many more. When my father was diagnosed with cancer in early 2004, Jeff was a quintessential member of the small support group I leaned on regularly. I’m sure I couldn’t have gotten through that without him. The day my father died, I drove home from the hospital in the very early hours of the morning, showered, redressed, and drove over to the library, where I stood outside the back door until he arrived at 8:45. When I told him what happened, he hugged me for a long time and then asked me if I’d driven all the way over at this fragile time just to stand around waiting to see him. Of course I had, but suddenly I was embarrassed about how much I relied on him to make me feel better. At a time when everyone was saying the stupidest things to me about my dad’s death, when strangers were trying to foist upon me their religious beliefs without regard to my own beliefs, and when I was desperate for some peace, I knew only Jeff would understand. I told him no, I was restless and had gone to the library to arrange for time off. He hugged me harder. He didn’t want to think of me standing alone outside the library in this state waiting for him to arrive. He never knew I did just that.
I work in a library like many others, full of colorful characters. Easily, the most colorful character was Jeff. I could live to be 100 and never meet anyone with more passion and love of life than he had. He spoke many languages, including Spanish, Portugese and Chinese, and adored other cultures and people. He championed many causes, celebrated diversity, and became an ordained minister so that he could marry people. The only times I ever saw him angry were when there were occasions when he was witness to discrimination, or when someone tried to say that food in Chicago was better than anything in Iowa. The man loved Iowa. Born, raised, and educated there, he had a marrow-deep aversion to anything compared to Iowa. His intellect was impressive, even in a library environment, and though he didn’t often work the reference desk, if ever there was an obscure fragment of information I needed (for myself or someone else), he was my go-to person. He was married to a woman I never got to know, though I wish I had, and never had children, though I think his worship of his cats was probably greater than any proud parent I’ve ever encountered. Jeff had a heart so big it was overwhelming. I often didn’t know what to do with all the compliments he bestowed upon me, but if you knew him, you’d know he meant every one. If he cared about you, it was 200%, never less. And the only time you ever saw him less than ecstatic to see you was when he was very sick, and then he was only somewhat muted, but always enthusiastic. Jeff made everyone feel good.
As the head of our Technical Services Department, he was in a role he seemed born to play: king of cataloging. Like many catalogers, his focus on details was exquisite, and if you dared to ask a question, he would tell you the answer down to the DNA that the answer was made of. He was precise. He told me many times that his mentor advised him that if someone asks him what time it is, not to tell them how to build a watch. While Jeff found this amusing and self-defining, I think we all (including Jeff) knew that we were going to get the watch instructions anyway. But it was okay. Because it was Jeff. And his heart was always in the right place.
Jeff was not just lovable, but he was loved tremendously by so many people, and he loved back tremendously. There was never a doubt in my mind that he was my friend and he loved me. I hope he knew the feeling was mutual. A few years ago he had a car accident, and during the chest X-ray the technician told him he had the largest ribcage he’d ever seen. This was merely confirmation that his heart was so big, only the largest ribs could contain it.
Walking into a room where Jeff was, if you said hello, how are you, he would reply, without fail, “Great, now that you’re here!” If I didn’t say hello first, he would announce my presence to anyone nearby by shouting, “LOOK! It’s the lovely and talented Nikki! Isn’t that great? Nikki is here!” Sometimes he simply would say, “Hello, beautiful,” and it was never sleazy -- it was true to him. I wish I could see myself through his eyes. He said these things to all the women on staff, but because he said them all with sincerity and flamboyance, no one ever felt it was anything other than complimentary. We ate it up, squirmed under the spotlight, and ultimately felt good.
Jeff loved food, passionately. He loved a good debate, passionately. He loved the people in his life, passionately. His laugh could be heard at a distance, and no matter the situation, he could always find a way to make it funny. Though he hated meetings at work, passionately, none were without his hilarious participation to resurrect them with life. There are very few photos of him at our library where he wasn’t making a silly face. Tonight Ann shared a story of when he worked with her mother in a very strict and unfriendly environment. If things got too quiet and serious, he’d fly a paper airplane stocked with glitter over the cubicles, crop-dusting his coworkers with sparkles. Jeff made everything better.
Over the weekend, Jeff suffered a series of strokes and died.
The enormity of this statement is still unacceptable.
If I hadn’t seen him in the hospital bed myself, I might not believe it at all. There was simply too much life in him to lose it all. He was too young. He was too strong. He was, and is still, a presence that made the world a better place. It simply does not make any sense at all.
Losing him is devastating. Knowing him was a gift.
I had a friend named Jeff. And I was honored that he considered me a friend, too.