"Passing for Human" by Jamie Bishop
A year ago today, I found out that my good friend Jamie Bishop had died. One year, and it's passed so quickly. I almost missed the date entirely; school has been especially hectic lately, and I've also been ill, which dampens my concentration and cognitive abilities. Today was a long one, wherein I helped to invigilate a term test for about 250 students, and didn't even leave campus until 5 p.m., and I'm tired and really should be in bed by now, but I didn't want today to pass without any comment of its significance.
A year ago, I was just stepping out of the shower, and Janet was telling me, "Don't turn on the TV." When I asked why, she just told me to come upstairs and see her as soon as I finished getting dressed. Janet's not one for surprises, and doesn't like keeping secrets, so I really knew something was up. I pulled my clothes on quickly and hurried upstairs, where she told me about the horrible massacre at Virginia Tech. At that point, it was still unclear who had been killed, and how many, but the news was that a German class had been hit, and the teacher had been shot.
It was one of those moments where I was taken completely out of myself. I felt lightheaded and numb (I'm sure all the blood had drained from my face), and it was as if I was no longer looking through my eyes, but somehow behind my eyes, which made Janet and the room in which we stood seem very far away. I didn't want to believe the news. I couldn't. I quickly fired up the iBook and checked the BBC and Google News, but the reports were still preliminary, and no names had been released. Mass confusion, and wild speculation, and no one knew exactly what had happened yet.
Email brought messages from Alex Wilson and Mike Jasper, who had also been great friends of Jamie's (and who wrote beautiful remembrances of him here and here, which I did not properly acknowledge last year; sorry, guys), asking if anyone had heard from him or Steffi. I still had their phone number from when Janet and I had visited Blacksburg in January 2007, and I ran downstairs with it in my sweating fist. After getting the okay from Janet's mum that it was okay to make the transcontinental call, I dialled multiple times, getting busy signals; understandable, since I figured other people would be trying to also find out if they were safe. After maybe a dozen tries, the call finally went through. My hands were shaking and my breath was unsteady.
A friend of Jamie's (a colleague at VT, I believe) picked up the phone, but his voice sounded so similar to my friend's that the first word out of my mouth was "Jamie?" For that split-second before he answered in the negative, an entire other world unfolded before me, one where a different classroom had been hit, or where he'd called in sick and someone else had covered his lessons, or where the media had just been wrong about what had happened and blown everything out of proportion, or where he'd been shot but it had only grazed his shoulder and he was already home from the hospital, or where, or where, or where.
But then his friend said, "No, I'm sorry," and told me his name, which I almost immediately forgot. When I told him who I was and asked if Jamie and Steffi were there and safe, he said, "Look, I hate to do this, but I'm going to have to ask you a few questions first. The media have been calling here all day, and I need to make sure you're a friend." He asked me to describe something that people wouldn't normally know about them, and after faltering for about a minute, he asked me to give some specifics about their living room (I'm guessing because he was standing there at that moment). I told him about the DVD shelf Jamie had constructed, and the four giant digital collages he'd created (by blowing up an image then printing it out in smaller segments, then painstakingly reassembling the images into the whole by pasting them all onto plywood, and doing it so carefully that you could only really see the seams if you were less than a few feet away).
After a few minutes of listening to my stumbling description, he stopped me and said, "Okay, I believe you. The good news is that Steffi is safe; she's here right now, in the other room. But Jamie was one of the ones killed."
I let out a long shaky breath and couldn't speak. Jamie's friend let the silence hang for a moment. I don't know whether he volunteered to be the spokesman for our mutual friends, or if it was thrust upon him, but I deeply appreciated (and still do) his patience and his delivery. He'd just lost a friend as well, but here he was fielding phone call after phone call, having to deliver terrible news over and over, and do it with a steady tone and unwavering understanding.
I thanked him for telling me the truth, and asked if there was anything I could do, although I couldn't imagine what I could contribute, being on the other side of the planet. He said that things were being taken care of, and that Michael and Jeri Bishop were on their way up from Georgia. I felt helpless in that moment, useless by dint of distance. I wanted to do something, anything. I told him to please relay my sympathies and support to Steffi and both their families, and then I hung up.
My feet didn't want to move, but somehow I made it back up the three flights of stairs to the room that Janet and I use as a home office. She turned in her chair and said, "So?" All I could do was nod my head before bursting into tears. She hugged me, and I held her close, not wanting to let go, needing to cling onto something important in this life, and we both wept and held each other and wept some more.
Eventually, I was able to sit back at my iBook again and relay confirmation of the news to Mike and Alex, as well as to Andreas and Luna Black (again mutual friends), and then blog about it.
On April 16, 2007, Jamie, along with thirty-one other VT faculty members and students, was murdered by Cho Seung-Hui, a young man with severe behavioral problems and easy access to semi-automatic firearms.
In the days that followed, I tried to stay on top of the news stories, and blog about them, to spread the information. Reporters from National Public Radio, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, Carolina Alumni Review, and The Carrboro Citizen emailed requesting interviews or statements, and I pointed them all to my tribute, stating that this was everything I wanted to publicly say. (At least they were polite, unlike Inside Edition, who made Alex throw up in his mouth because of their incredible lack of tact.)
Any news about memorial scholarships, or essay awards, or any other kind of encomiums to Jamie went up on the blog. It became an obsession for a while, a way to finally be able to help in some way when I couldn't before. When Paul Di Filippo (who is an extremely nice guy, and is very close friends with Mike Bishop) would post news first up at theinferior4, most likely because Mike had emailed him the information, I would feel left out of the loop, cut out of the circle of importance, and angry at Paul for posting it first. Sure, Paul is a close family friend, but what about me?
Grief brought out a profound selfishness, which I'm sure that you, my astute and long-suffering blog readers, were probably aware of. My pain was most important, my suffering was worse than anybody's, my feelings were at stake. Forget Jamie's devastated wife, and his grieving parents, and his many other family members and friends, and our mutual friends, forget about everyone else, what about me?
There are times in my life when my ego has gotten me into trouble, but it was never as big as in the days and weeks and months after the shootings at Virginia Tech. And I feel like such a shit about it now. Even after I had begun moving on, and living my life again, and feeling guilty that I wasn't hurting as much, I still felt like my blog should be the most comprehensive source for information concerning Jamie's death and his legacy. And this wasn't fair. I didn't treat a lot of people very well in the last year because of my ego, and I'm very sorry for this now.
I still think about Jamie quite a bit. I was passing by a comics shop a few weeks ago, and on a whim asked if they had a copy of Bill Sienkiewicz's graphic novel Stray Toasters, which Jamie had enthused about during the Blacksburg trip. Luckily, the shop had one copy, so I bought it, took it home, and over the next four nights read it. It's extremely dark and surreal, and I'm still trying to suss out the significance and symbolism that saturates every page. Not an easy story to read, but the artwork certainly shares a sensibility with Jamie's work, and there are some moments of dark humor that I could see him laughing at and wanting to discuss.
During a lull in classes today, I visited memory39, and was glad to see that it was back up again (I'd checked several days ago, and the site was down, making me wonder if VT had canceled Jamie's account there, which seemed like an incredible loss, as his entire portfolio is on that site; I wrote to Mike letting him know this, and I don't know what he did, but the site is back up now, although I notice it's now on a UNC server, which is where it was previously located while he was working there). I browsed through the different illustrations and photographs, reading the commentary, as well as the bio and artistic statement, and in general reacquainting myself with my lost friend.
I'll just end with a quote from Mike Bishop, taken from the catalogue that accompanied the recent exhibition of Jamie's work at the Lamar Dodd Art Center at LaGrange College. (I very much hope that Mike doesn't mind.) It refers to the artwork posted at the top of this entry, which is the cover art for Passing for Human, an anthology forthcoming from PS Publishing in the UK, which was edited by Michael Bishop and Steven Utley. It is the last book cover that Jamie undertook, and it will appear posthumously.
Jamie himself was fully human, with all the quirks and qualities that the phrase "fully human" implies, but he was definitely passing for human, as we all must do; and I regret with all my heart that he passed, with no real chance to do otherwise, long before he should have.
I still miss Jamie an awful lot. And my heart goes out to everyone else who does as well. May we all never forget him, and see him in another life.