In mid-April of this year, the Tunnel Fire engulfed more than 16,000 acres northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona, prompting the evacuation of more than 700 homes. One of those homes was that of Jim Phillips, a long-time member of the speculative fiction writers’ group of which I’ve been a part about fifteen years. Jim joined the group when he used to live in Duluth, Minnesota, and was a member of Lake Superior Writers. After he retired, he moved to Arizona, where he lived alone with two cats for at least half a dozen years. His nearest relatives lived several states away.
After the evacuation ended, a neighbor noticed that Jim’s Jeep was in the same spot it had been before the evacuation. Concerned, the neighbor apparently called the police to do a welfare check on Jim. They found him dead of “natural causes.” He had been dead for several days.
It was during this time we were supposed to have our monthly Zoom meeting to discuss our writing. We hadn’t heard from Jim about his availability for the meeting, so we delayed it until we learned more about his status. It just seemed weird to have a meeting without him.
We were aware of the evacuation and thought maybe he left his home so fast, he forgot to take his phone charger or something. That would be like him. My emails and texts to him remained unanswered, which was unlike him.
There are two other women in our group besides me, Linda and Lacey. Linda is retired and had a bit more time on her hands to investigate what was going on with Jim. Lacey has her own blog (Lacey’s Late-night Editing) and wrote a post that goes into detail about the events, should you be curious.
Linda doggedly tracked down information about Jim and called me when Russ and I were on vacation in Yosemite National Park to deliver the sad news. I was shocked, to say the least. We knew Jim had some health issues, but he had seemed fine the month before when we met via Zoom.
Like I told an acquaintance recently, Jim just “up and died on us with no warning.” It was disconcerting, and it took me several days to get out of my funk, even though I was surrounded by the unsurpassed natural beauty of the park. I found comfort in that beauty.
I’ve become a fan of Spotify and its various music mixes. A song called, “Resist the Urge” by Matt Sweeney popped up in my Daily Mix during vacation. Although I don’t agree with the song’s encouragement not to grieve someone’s death (you need to feel all the feels!), I do like the lyrics that say, “If you need reminders, look around at what is huge and wild and there you’ll see the way . . . I may not be there bodily, but in the wind, I’m here.”
Jim enjoyed hiking and getting out in nature. He often regaled us with tales of his hikes around Arizona. I felt he would approve my turning to nature to grieve. There wasn’t even a funeral for him that we could attend to share our grief. Not even an obituary we could find online. However, Jim started a speculative fiction group in Arizona and a member wrote a post about him (with Linda and Jim’s sister’s assistance). It’s fitting and such a good remembrance of him.
I especially appreciated this comment in the post: “The writing communities of Duluth and Flagstaff will fondly remember Jim for his scientific curiosity, love of all things science fiction and horror, his wicked sense of humor, his keen editorial eye, and his promotion of the Oxford comma.”
Since we couldn’t attend a public funeral, my writer’s group decided to hold a ceremony of our own. Last weekend, we gathered in Willmar, Minnesota, (the halfway point between all of us geographically). We had lunch together and then made our way to a state park north of town, where we hiked a short way on a trail (“Trail J,” for Jim). We found a small grove of oak trees and ventured off the trail to sit among them. I’m sure Jim would have approved of the location.
We shared our collective memories and feelings about Jim. We all were grateful for the visit we paid him a few years ago in Flagstaff, where we all gathered for several days. We visited the Grand Canyon and met with the writer’s group he had organized there.
As Lacey so aptly said in her blog post, losing a writing friend is different from losing a “regular” friend:
There is a part of me, a deep and essential part of me, that these three — now only two — people know more intimately than anyone else in my life. To share your writing with another, especially in its formative stages, requires a great deal of vulnerability. And from that vulnerability comes a trust that rivals the trust I have in my husband, my best friend, or my mom. Because time and again, they have proved themselves worthy to be allowed into my inner landscape, the world of my mind that is shared only sporadically with those I share my “real life” with.
Losing one of the few people who I consistently trusted with that part of myself is no small thing. And grieving it is no small task, especially when it is tied up so closely with the very thing I have turned to throughout my life to process everything else. But it’s the only way forward.
Jim provided a unique viewpoint on our writing that no one else will be able to match. Besides that, he was just an all-around good person. Even though he died alone with his cats, the ripples from his death reverberate through our lives, and it’s going to take some time to recover.
I couldn’t write any fiction for about six weeks after his death. When I did try, my output was only half of normal.
I’m okay with that. It’s going to take time to get over this.
When we met in Willmar, we didn’t bring any writing to critique. We’re saving that for our next meeting in August, when Lacey will be in Duluth (from her home in South Dakota). I suspect this meeting will be difficult without Jim, but we know he would want us to continue forward. He’d want us to keep writing. The WORST thing we could do is stop writing.
So, we will keep moving forward, keep putting words to paper. Keep hoping they are worthy.
We’ll miss you, Jim.