We got the text Sunday night. We were warned it was coming but it couldn’t stop how crushed we all felt. Nor could it have prevented our twelve year old from crying herself to sleep that night.
Surrounded by his sweet family, our friend passed away after a valiant fight with cancer.
I’ve hesitated writing this public veneration. Bunny expressed it best yesterday when she said, “Mom, I want everyone to know how great he was but I don’t want to invade his family’s privacy. I’m not sure what to do when my friends want to talk about him.”
It’s true. What ever grief we are feeling, we all know we’re satellites to the Christensen Family. The sacred, private grief they are enduring is their own and we all want to protect them fiercely. Yet James has touched so many of us in many personal ways. We all want to shout from our rooftops just how much he means to us in order to better the chances he will hear it.
Talking with my dear friend last night emboldened me to speak. I took our conversation as permission to publicly herald the well renowned but individually adored James Christensen. Considering how deeply our family feels for this man and knowing thousands of other families feel similarly, it’s no wonder there is a mighty chorus coming from rooftops all over the world.
Every single member of our family loves him and has been deeply touched by his influence. Our two oldest greatly benefited from being students in his Sunday school classes. He taught them beautiful truths of the Bible and a deeper appreciation for the lessons offered in the Book of Mormon.
Our younger girls saw his smiling face and gave him fist bumps as they passed him in the hallways of our chapel. Our boys have been touched daily by his breathtaking art that hangs upon our walls. And one in particular is the namesake of a historical figure whom I gained a greater appreciation for after hearing an address given by James at Christmas time several years ago.
To He-Man and me, he’s been the truest kind of friend there is. His acts of service, his expressions of love, his support and encouragement have come at times when we’ve needed it the most. As we reminisced last night, He-Man said, “My favorite thing about James is that when he stopped to talk to you, he really stopped to talk, like he wanted to touch your soul.”
Some of my very favorite memories of James are the many Sunday afternoon conversations we had during the last minutes of our church services. As a member of the leadership in our children’s organization, I found myself often monitoring the hallways during the final portion of those meetings. Once his class ended James would often join me and we would talk about anything we could think of. He shared his wisdom, his insights and humorous anecdotes as we exchanged all sorts of adventures from our different experiences. It was always inspiring and left me feeling uplifted and hopeful.
He also always made us feel sincerely cared for. Of the many times James did this, the most precious were during a couple of He-Man’s birthdays…
The first was during the year He-Man spent six months away from our family on work assignments. Previously, I had never known you could be surrounded by the people you love the most and yet feel completely and utterly homesick and lonely. Homesick for that ONE person. We were rapidly approaching another three-month assignment and my heart was filled with dread. I wanted to make his birthday special but we were preparing to purchase He-Man’s practice and had little to spare on any sort of birthday extravagance.
Shortly before all of this, James shared the story of how George Lucas once commissioned him to paint a picture. He-Man listened to the tale completely enraptured. James knew how much he LOVES Star Wars. Just before He-Man’s birthday, James surprised me with a print of his painting, ‘An Unexpected Layover at Mos Eisley’. I’ve never been good at keeping secrets but this one was too good to spoil while the picture was being framed. On his birthday, He-Man opened up the gift and was utterly delighted by the surprise.
Near the end of last summer, He-Man was about the most discouraged I’ve ever seen him. Our belongings were packed and stacks of boxes cluttered our home. Several things that could go wrong in a small business were all happening at the same time and his birthday was fast approaching. His spirits were down, so down in fact, he didn’t feel much like celebrating.
As I gathered our wall hangings and art work, I noticed the $3 seascape painting I bought from a yard sale in Florida. The seller assured me it was from Thailand and painted by a blind man. I brought it home and proudly displayed it for He-Man who teased me about it from that point on. He often commented about how funny it would be if he could somehow change the boats on the horizon into At-Ats…
It gave me an idea. I called James and asked him what he thought about doing this sort of thing and he instructed me to bring the painting to his home. On He-Man’s birthday a few days later, he and his sweet Carole stopped by with the painting wrapped in paper. He-Man almost immediately noticed the few minor changes James made to it. It has become one of He-Man’s most treasured possessions.
It may seem like a such a little thing but it was a huge deal to us. He-Man was quickly descending into a dark, downtrodden place and I was frightened for him. That day was the first time I’d seen my husband smile in weeks. James and Carole changed his trajectory when he needed it the most and that’s made all the difference.
I saw James a few weeks later as we briefly visited. Eyes filled with tears, he tenderly told me he would’ve purchased our home if he could have in order to let us stay. The fact he even considered it was everything to me.
That tender memory will be the last I have of this sweet, glorious man. Shortly thereafter it became necessary for his family to encircle him and give him the physical, emotional and spiritual support he needed to get through these final months.
During this time I’ve watched their dignity, their grace and their faith as they’ve navigated a journey through which no textbook could ever truly prepare anyone for. Yet James and his family have traveled it. And that legacy of grace, kindness and love leaves me and my family something to aspire to. It makes me believe that it’s possible to keep your faith in God and humanity and it teaches us to refuse to lose the passion to live a brilliant life, filled with quiet acts of service that bring joy to others. In essence, he taught our family how to live in color.
And THAT is what James C. Christensen means to our family.