Written by contributing writer Jamie Hansen
Most of the time Jim Messmer was calm, cool and collected. I am rarely calm, cool, nor collected. I was umpiring a kickball game in a league in which he and I played; neither team is pleased with my work. Jim was hanging out, waiting to play the next game. I was becoming increasingly agitated, tossing players from the game – even the park. And there’s Jim behind me, telling me I’m making good calls, telling me I’m doing great.
Though he worked at Webster and I’m an alumna, our paths didn’t cross here. But knowing Jim, I’m not the least bit surprised his humor, kindness and willingness to help others left an undeniable mark.
I met Jim playing in that kickball league. I play in a league affiliated with Team Saint Louis, which offers athletic opportunities for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Allied (LGBTQA) community. Before we were even introduced, I knew we’d be friends — he was stretching before our first game of the season, wearing pink Chucks. I expected him to remove them before the game. Nope. He played competitive kickball in high-topped pink Chucks.
And he did it well — in his first year with us, he was voted our team’s MVP. This required he don a pink tutu, which he did with absolutely no hesitation.
Kickball is really important to me. I’m a bit of a late bloomer in that I didn’t come out until I was 30. It was the league that gave me the courage to do that. Even though I was out before I met Jim, he helped make it okay. Jim sometimes brought his wife and daughters to our games, even though our team’s antics aren’t even close to PG. Jim knew that, but we loved having his daughters at games.
His kids are the first – even before any children in my family – who know me as a lesbian. They are the ones for whom I hurt the most. I think of them daily and I hope to see them at the fields this season.
I learned of Jim’s passing through a social media post. I had to read it six times before it registered. The first five times I was sure it was Jim posting about his brother. Then the words blurred. Then I closed the app and opened again, hoping that I’d somehow imagined it. I would guess most of us are still trying to make sense of it and understand why. We’ll never again see him smile. We won’t get to talk to him about great music or see his pink Chucks obliterate a kickball. I won’t get to hear him tell me I’d done a good job on a kickball field when I rarely did, because that’s just who he was.
Unfortunately for those left behind, we will never understand why. Even if we had Jim back for a moment to explain, we likely still wouldn’t understand. As someone who resides in that dark hole and is trying to claw my way out, I thought I’d have a bit more insight into the why. I do not.
In a double-whammy of sorts, I also struggle with depression and anxiety. Unlike many who suffer from mental illness, I’m vocal about it. I used to hold a lot of shame in an illness that isn’t my fault. It’s taken much of my adult life to understand that depression isn’t some character flaw that strikes those who simply can’t buck up and smile. That’s the evil of depression — it is no one’s fault, but it sure loves to tell you it is.
My heart hurts that Jim didn’t think he could stick around — that the pain was so great he couldn’t see a way out. My heart hurts that I didn’t see anything wrong. My heart hurts that he didn’t reach out that day. We didn’t talk about my struggles much, but Jim would have helped me navigate through. In a lot of indirect ways, he did, just by being him. I’m so very sorry I couldn’t return the favor.
At Jim’s memorial, his wife said she and the girls are choosing to remember the 42 years and 360 days of his life before his suicide. That’s all we can do now.
The day after his death, I posted on social media the importance of speaking up in times of struggle. Perhaps that’s the wrong message. Maybe we should check in with people who matter to us. Suffering isn’t always obvious and those hurting may not be able to vocalize their pain. That one simple gesture might make a huge difference.