This past weekend much of my family gathered together in Northern Virginia to celebrate my father’s youngest sibling and only brother, Jim Kestell. When we lost Jim in mid October to leukemia, I was on the other side of the world, in Nara, Japan. Nara is best known for the deer park at its center where thousands of deer, wild but unafraid of humans wander casually, crossing at crosswalks and baying through the night. Nara is also home to the Kasugayama Primeval Forest, woodlands preserved for over a thousand years, a wild, overgrown, and magical place. Both the deer and the forest were first protected in the 9th century by a Shinto emperor who honored nature as sacred so, despite the modernity of neon Japan pressing in from all sides, Nara is something of a wild city. This was a fitting spot to meditate on Jim’s passing, because he found his peace in the wilderness. He was not a religious person, but his temples were everywhere, any perch from which he could appreciate some wonder of the natural world.
This weekend we gathered as a family to express gratitude for knowing Jim, and heard incredible stories of his life work. Jim lived a life in service to others as a civil rights attorney. His casework resulted in at least three notable appellate decisions, but it was his clients’ stories that resonated the most with me. Jim wasn’t just a lawyer to his clients, he was a dear friend, a person with the status and power to render help who presented himself with incredible humility. He turned out his pockets to help people he had only just met, he was a truly remarkable man. Part of me hoped he could hear it, how much he was loved, but another part of me hoped that on that October morning in that wild place far away, something new had blossomed into life and that it still grows, of and surrounded by the stillness of a nature held sacred.
I was honored to be able to speak at Jim’s memorial, here is what I said and the promise I intend to keep:
I am fourteen, sitting in the driver’s seat of Jim’s car, terrified; “HOLY SHIT, does he expect me to drive?!?!” I think as Jim hollered from the outside to “just ease off the brake.”
An hour earlier we had been sitting in the Orioles home park, Memorial Stadium; Jim, my brothers Bob & Joe, my sister Caddy and I. Jim had taken us to a ballgame the way he took us on tons of adventures (hiking, fishing, skating): he spontaneously suggested going out and doing something awesome and then did everything necessary to make it happen.
Everything except for ensuring that the car tires were fully and safely inflated. Which is why we ended up at that downtown Baltimore filling station and how I found myself behind the wheel for the first time.
“Just ease. Off. The. Brake.”
I keep my right foot pressed to the floor and push the other pedal down with my left. The car growls and bucks and Jim whips off his cap with some frustration.
In Jim’s eyes, those pale eyes that would sparkle with joy or mischief, in Jim’s eyes we could do anything. He recognized our potential and encouraged us to believe in ourselves and create lives we loved. Jim celebrated our successes as the clearly obvious results of our genius and mourned our failures for the bad luck they were. In Jim’s eyes, everything was possible for us, we were unstoppable. Which is why, on this night in 1989, he is growing frustrated that this 8th grader cannot manage to ease the car into place by the air tank so the hose can reach those goddamn back tires.
“That’s it!” he says, gesturing for me to slide back over to the passenger side, which I do, with all the urgency of an adolescent, lifting my foot off the brake.
The car begins to roll backwards as Jim leaps, with the deftness of a man accustomed to averting last second danger, into the driver’s seat and hits the brake. The car jerks to a halt, all of us kids sit in stunned silence. Jim appraises car’s new position, kills the engine, declares “this should work!”, and jumps out to fill the tires and lose at least one of the valve caps.
Thanks for the adventures, Jim.
Thanks for, however absurdly, believing that we are capable of more than we could imagine, and when things don’t work out as planned, thanks for jumping in the driver’s seat and showing us that with enough joy and a little chaos- you usually get where you need to be.
I love you, I miss you, and I will work to spread more love and compassion in the world in your honor.