Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Making sense of the senseless - a Tribute to my brother Jim

James W. Wetzel (4/28/1951 – 2/15/2015) Photo by Adriane Workman

“Vengeance is mine, and recompense.  In due time their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.”
 —Deuteronomy 32:35

Was this Jim’s reward for a life dedicated to his faith? Read on …

* * *

In the early morning of Sunday, February 15, 2015 my only sibling, younger brother Jim, suffered a fatal fall in his home. He was 63, in fine health, and happy with his life.


They say “Everything happens for a reason.” This does not mean that every event in the entire universe has been pre-ordained. Science tells us that there is uncertainty built into the very foundations of reality. It was not known—not knowable—at the time of creation that my brother would die on this day.

My interpretation of the old platitude is: “Every experience has meaning,” to which I add “… so it falls on those of us who cared about Jim to make sense of it all.”

There was a time in my life when I would have attributed it to nothing more than the random workings of an uncaring, indifferent universe. But I no longer believe things are that simple.

My personal quest to find meaning out of Jim’s passing began by contemplating the actual physical event of his death. It has haunted me—an image of Jim lying motionless at the bottom of the absurdly steep steps in his townhouse in Newark, DE. What were the underlying mental processes—what thoughts and subconscious influences were occurring in Jim’s mind as he directed his body down those steps?

We can never know what Jim was thinking. But this much is certain: The conscious act of going down the steps was accompanied by some influence or stimulus that distracted him from properly controlling the motions.

His foot slipped. Was this some punishment meted by a vengeful God, as the Bible verse I quote up top suggests? Was it a manifestation of a greater plan for good wielded by a caring and benevolent God? Or was it just a lonely and unguided, purely human mistake?

The greater question is this: Were Jim’s thought processes operating in a disconnected, isolated individual mind, or is/was there an ongoing link/conduit/connection to a larger spiritual ‘environment’?

For forty years I would have answered without hesitation: “We’re on our own. Sorry, Jim, it was just bad luck. We’re all just a bunch of lonely minds trapped within our mortal shells, desperately seeking connections with the other mortal shells around us and desperately trying to make sense out of random, meaningless chaos. There’s nothing more.”

But over the last seven years I’ve changed my mind. There is something more, I contend.

But what? What is the nature of that spiritual link, and to what ‘great spirit’ environment or pantheon are we connected?

Jim is a Christian. He has, as far as I know, fully accepted Jesus as his Savior. If I understand correctly, the Christian belief is that the connection is to God through the mediation of his Son Jesus, who in turn instills in him the ‘Holy Spirit.’

Based on this, I have to believe that God called Jim to depart the mortal world. Further, I have to believe that through the mediation of Jesus, God’s vengeance/punishment, as described in the opening Biblical quote, was meted on the Christ and not on Jim.

So the question boils down to understanding God’s full purpose for this action, despite it seeming to be counter-productive of the generally understood purpose for God’s faithful servants.

To many of us, Jim’s passing seems arbitrary and even cruel. Jim’s life was without question a positive influence on the people around him. He was a shining light of life-energy and love. The things he would have done for his church and family over the coming years were going to accomplish a huge amount of net good. He had an abundance to give and was abundantly giving.

So, in the light of that, what meaning can we who survive him take from his sudden, unexpected death?

The simplest, most direct answer always seems to be that it will strengthen us and strengthen our resolve to make a difference every living day—to live as if we, also, might be called away before we expect.

But I believe there is a larger, deeper, and perhaps more personal meaning that each of us who were influenced by Jim’s life must find in his passing. I believe that Jim’s passing is a calling to enrich our lives by actively seeking that meaning. Doing so affirms that Jim has not just vanished. Our connection with him continues. He has stimulated a new, ongoing, active layer/component to the relationship we had with him in life—a new journey.

Jim’s living example is there to guide us toward that meaning. It may be a long journey and we may not reach the mountaintop of understanding. But there’s another old platitude that I love, from Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Life is a journey, not a destination.”

What a wonderful segue into my fondest memories of Jim.

When Jim took vacations he did one of two things. He went fishing or he hiked the Appalachian Trail.

Jim with big drum at Topsail Beach, NC, 5 May 2010

Jim got hooked on fishing as a child. We lived on land that contained a trout stream. I’ll leave the memories of Jim’s fishing exploits to others.

In recent years Jim and I shared three extended hikes on the Appalachian Trail. He was hiking the trail for several years before I first got interested in it.

Jim began hiking the AT in the early 2000’s. Each year he would dedicate about two weeks to hiking a new section of the trail. As of his passing he had hiked all of the trail between about Roanoke, VA and the Massachusetts-Connecticut border. That’s about 750 miles of trail.

Two of the hikes I took with Jim also included his son Rik, and both took place in Shenandoah National Park. One will be forever etched in my mind for the unexpected freezing rain when we were all dressed for the forecasted 60 degree late May weather. It was the coldest I have ever been in my life.

Jim looking west from Hazeltop, Shenandoah National Park, 27 June 2009

The other Shenandoah hike found us camping at night atop Hazeltop Mountain with beautiful panoramic views to the west as the sun set. Just me, Jim, Rik and nature.

My favorite memory is of us hiking over Cold Mountain—a bald-topped mountain with panoramic views in every direction. But hiking with Jim was not about the scenery. It was about connecting, one-on-one. We hiked for hours lost in non-stop conversation. What we talked about I have no memory. It really didn’t matter. The point was the brother-to-brother bonding. Now, in hindsight, it becomes ever more precious.

Jim on Cold Mountain, VA, 16 June 2011

I suppose I could ramble on and on with more memories. I am, after all, one of only three people who knew Jim his entire life. My first memory is of him just a few months old in Mom’s arms sitting in the back seat of our car as Dad drove us cross-country from Wisconsin to Delaware where he would start his first job out of college.

In Delaware we lived in a rental house, and Dad rented a garden plot on busy six-lane Pennsylvania Avenue about a half mile from the house. One evening when I was about six years old Dad had taken his car and driven over to the garden to work it. Jim and I were riding around home—me on my little 16-inch-wheel bicycle that I had just learned to ride, and little Jim on his tricycle. I got it in my head that I was going to ride my bike over to Dad’s garden. I told Jim to go back in the house because I was going to ride too far and too fast for him. Off I went. Pennsylvania Avenue had no sidewalk so I was careful to keep to the right shoulder—even that was narrow. I joined Dad in the garden and was playing there when a gentleman drove up to us with Jim and his tricycle in tow. He had found Jim riding his little trike in the middle of traffic lanes, grimly determined to follow me to the garden. It was a quick and hard lesson on my responsibilities as an older brother, and of the power of sibling competitiveness. Thank goodness for that kind gentleman who took it upon himself to get involved.

There are two elements of Jim’s personality that stood out for me. First was his gregariousness. He was as extroverted as I was introverted—very typical first child-second child differences. The second was his legendary frugality. Jim made frugality an art. His Appalachian Trail ‘trail name’ was ‘Frugal’ and in fact one of his reasons for hiking the trail was that the lodging was free.

Jim loved to share his shopping exploits, such as combining a coupon with a sale price. He would go far out of his way to find bargains. I remember a stockpile of dozens of two-liter bottles of lemon-lime soda that he brought home from the grocery store virtually free.

If he wasn’t shopping for bargains for himself, he would do the bargain hunting for others. The very last communication I had from Jim, a few days before he passed, was an email in his usual cryptic style, directing me to a newly listed bargain ocean-front lot just half a mile from my home.

Jim, I love you. I will miss your smile and wit, your company and your analytical mind. And for the rest of my days you’ll be with me as I seek out the meaning that your life has for mine. Rest in peace, bro.

* * *

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
—Romans 6:23


  1. P.J.,

    What an outstanding tribute to your brother.

    I am very sorry for your loss, and you and your family are in my thoughts.


  2. pj,
    i recently moved far away from my family and (although they are healthy... for the most part) i am only able to see them once a year. it's such a long time and scares me to think that during all of this time apart, i might lose someone that i love.
    it's so beautiful when you said "What we talked about I have no memory. It really didn’t matter. The point was the brother-to-brother bonding. Now, in hindsight, it becomes ever more precious."
    such a sad thing has happened but i am amazed at your clarity and peace of mind. i am also incredibly sorry for your loss. it's obvious that the world has lost a kind, loving individual, with lots of goodness to spread.
    i suppose i just wanted you to know that your words and this tribute to your brother has helped me in some way that i have yet to fully understand. i worry constantly about memories and how to keep them whole, as impossible as that may be. however, in the brief moments when i am with my family, perhaps it's not about remembering every detail of every minute - it's about the importance of having spent that time together.
    thank you so much for reminding me of this.
    and once again, i am so, so sorry for your loss.
    take care,
    rosalie melin

  3. Our thanks to Marilyn for forwarding this to us, allowing us to read this inspirational tribute, which also helps us to know the Jim we have not seen in 25 years. Roger (Tim) and Candice are able to be present for the memorial service on March 14, representing all of Erwin's children & grandchildren. . .we are family!

    With care, Kristin Wetzel