Enter Central Park from 5th Avenue at 72nd Street. Go down the path on your right to the Boat Pond. At the bottom go down the right side to the food kiosk. Jim’s bench is about 4th from the end on the front row. It has his name plate on it. Thanks for visiting Chris! It means so much to us. Email us a photo of yourselves there.
Rob Kuser, e-mail to the author, October 9, 2018
Melissa and I are in New York with our two daughters. We are navigating through Central Park. The directions from Jim’s father are clear but we are approaching the Boat Pond from the West Side so that they are not wholly applicable. Central Park has always confused me, ever since my parents first took me on day trips from Connecticut as a child.
I hadn’t intentionally avoided the bench. It just wasn’t something I’d prioritized. I’ve typically focused on what’s ahead rather than behind me. I’ve only visited my own father’s tombstone once. Contemplating Jim’s death was also not something I’d prioritized. I thought about it occasionally, but only briefly, during moments of introspection while hiking, or at the 28th minute on the treadmill. It came in the form of a jolt of inspiration or remorse. I’d sometimes say a prayer for Jim when I was at Mass. Other than those bolts of reminiscence, Jim’s death got lost because my life was going on despite the sadness that my friend’s was not. Like almost all who die young, he was a man left behind. And while I hated that fact, I recognized I needed to go on.
More than anything else, Jim’s death frightened me. Jim was the epitome of life and his death brought forth the stark realization of the ephemeral nature of our existence, something which you don’t know until you bear witness to it. Jim was somebody who’d jump out of a boat and swim to shore out of sheer exuberance. He was the one among our group of close friends who always encouraged us to stay for one more drink because it was the last time we were going to see each other for a while. He was right; those moments were precious. And his premature death is one of the events that brought that home to me. But until I was no longer young myself, I never knew how to process the emptiness and the fear his loss evoked. I didn't want to accept my mortality, the truth that I too could, at any moment, leave life behind, or rather be left behind by life.
Of course, my grief was different from that of Jim’s parents or siblings who, at least at first, would’ve missed Jim at every waking moment; every room in their house, every location in their town, a touchstone to remind them of their loss. Our mutual friend, Matt, had kept in touch more with Jim’s family. He’d lost a sister, so he knew better than me the gut-wrenching feeling of outliving a sibling or child. One of the things that had impelled me to finally visit the Boat Pond was Matt’s echoing Rob Kuser’s words: “It would mean so much to them.”
Melissa and I trail behind as the girls are energized by the hustle of Manhattan and on a mission to find the bench. It’s a gorgeous day and the Boat Pond is crowded. We count four from the end by the kiosk and see an old couple sitting on a bench looking out at the toy sailboats. My younger daughter asks them politely if she may check the name plate. They move aside and the husband asks if the person named there is our friend. It is. The plate, burnished bright by the shirts or sweaters, jackets and coats of the many people who’ve sat on the bench reads:
In Loving Memory of
James Amberg Kuser
June 29, 1971 – August 31, 2003
“What a perfect location!” the wife says, explaining how the two of them love sitting on this particular bench, looking out across the rippling, little body of water.
“Please,” the husband insists as he gets up to go.
“No, don’t worry about it,” I reply as his wife rises to join him.
They are determined to give us our space. The old man looks at the name plate and, I imagine, ponders the inescapable question that arises: Was it a good life?
I thank the couple, who assure me that the bench now has more meaning to them. I take a picture of my daughters, grappling inwardly with my emotions. Am I sad that Jim isn’t here with us, angry at the cosmic injustice of his having been deprived, aged only thirty-two, of all the life I see abounding around us? The four of us sit down and a hush rare in families with young children descends as we witness what all those who visit ‘Jim’s Bench’ must see: couples on first dates, children playing at the water’s curved granite edge while parents stand guard, business people taking a moment of repose, tourists checking a landmark off their bucket list, and the old biding time they hope might somehow slow down before it runs out. It seems to me briefly, in this moment, as if Jim’s bench is a bridge between the living and the dead.
My daughters get up and walk over to the Boat Pond. Melissa and I watch them freed from the anxiety we had on previous visits to New York when they were small and required our constant vigilance. How long those days seemed then; yet now that time in their lives and ours seems so compressed, the memories jumbled but still so near that you can see them as if they were yesterday. I can see Jim now, holding our older daughter, then aged two, on his lap at a restaurant in New York shortly after 9/11. It’s a solemn time and the City is strangely quiet and contemplative. But Jim finds joy. He’s making faces at my daughter and singing her a song by his idol, Bruce Springsteen. She is mesmerized by him.
That memory gives way to another, several years older... Jim invites his friends to join him at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park because he has inside information that the Boss will be there. I go to the bathroom while Southside Johnny is on stage and I see Springsteen sitting at the bar enjoying a beer. He actually makes eye contact but I move along to avoid acting star struck. Twenty minutes later though, Jim and the rest of us are an arms’ length away from Bruce playing guitar.
Now it is a few years earlier again. It is the summer of 1992.... We are all in a bar near Georgetown University on the night of Jim’s 21st birthday. Jim has sprained his ankle earlier in the night and is hobbling on one leg, but grabs Matt, Dave and me while he belts out the lyrics to Springsteen’s ‘Rosalita’:
Windows are for cheaters, chimneys for the poor,
Oh, closets are for hangers, winners use the door,
So use it, Rosie, that's what it's there for.
Then it’s July 1995... Jim is hosting a reunion in New York for his friends from college. He feels we’re growing apart and our lives will suddenly shift away from each other so he has called us together for a last youthful hurrah. Twenty of us are gathered on the lawn of his parents’ house in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. We will go our separate ways after but for now, we still have time.
He quotes Springsteen’s Thunder Road: “So you're scared, and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore.” Next Jim materializes before my closed eyes at my wedding, a small informal affair in Connecticut, on October 14, 2000... He is standing up during the dinner and inquiring whether it is an open mic. He avoids any potentially embarrassing tales of sophomoric antics and focuses on a four-hour conversation we had on the drive from Connecticut to Boston the summer before when, at the age of 28, we were both feeling hesitant before the unchartered waters of adulthood and the responsibilities that lay ahead. As always, he quotes Springsteen, talking about windows, doors, and roads; how when one closes another opens. He mentions how Melissa reminds him of a lovely Irish girl named Riona we met once in Boston years before.
And suddenly, there we are again, sitting in that same Boston bar. It’s evening and we’re listening to a piano player, who is brilliant. We’re not sure if he’s a Harvard grad student who plays piano as a side hustle, or a Berkelee School of Music alum. He’s singing Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ when the woman at a table next to us joins our conversation. She introduces herself as Riona. She’s says she’s from Ireland, which we can already tell from her accent. She’s funny and seamlessly contributes to our discussion of topics ranging from sports and politics to religion and relationships, as if she is an old friend.
Jim had been in a long-term relationship and was struggling with his decision to end it. I had just terminated a brief relationship and was not. Despite my own track record of awkward relationships, I’ve been counseling Jim for the past four hours during our road trip from my parents’ home in Connecticut to Boston to visit two college friends, Matt and Dave, who are living in Boston’s North End for the summer. The four of us are out together, celebrating our birthdays, which all fall around the same date. Riona is with a group of acquaintances from Tufts, a university in Walnut Hill, where she’ll be attending grad school in the Fall. She tells Jim that he should feel relieved about the break-up, that life is too short to waste on anything he is not passionate about. Jim assures her that he knows this; it’s his mantra.
Riona is enjoying our company but is also taken with the piano player and his easygoing command of the crowd. For his part, he also appears to be noticing her. Jim gets up and hands the piano player $10, compliments him and asks him to play ‘Thunder Road’. Jim’s devotion to the Boss’s music has always been contagious and is having its usual effect on Riona, who listens attentively as Jim offers a true fan’s guidance on some back stories behind Springsteen’s music.
“I’m not sure this guy takes requests,” Jim observes after many minutes of the pianist’s ignoring his,“I think I may have just lost a Hamilton.”
Remarking that maybe it’s just not a song ‘he fella knows, it’s evident that Riona already sees in Jim what we have seen for years, namely a rare equilibrium of confidence and humility; that air of intensity of conviction alongside the nonchalance of knowing that some shots won’t fall but you’ve got to keep shooting to get all the things you want in life. My interactions with Jim are usually high-volume and fast-paced, and Riona keeps up with us for the rest of the evening. She’s quick and her banter has the bite of a Celtic breeze. Just as the bar announces last call, Riona halts our conversation. The piano player is staring at our table, whether at her or Jim next to her is hard to say.
“If you know, you know….Take me to Bruce!” the pianist says into the microphone as he strikes the familiar opening notes for ‘Thunder Road’.
The piano player’s rendition is inspiring. He finishes in dramatic but unpretentious fashion. We’re about to approach him to compliment him when Riona’s friends get up to leave. They’ve closed out their tab, and for the first time all night, Riona is caught off guard. Her friends are impatient. They’re heading out, imploring her to follow rather than leave with a couple of male strangers. Jim and I offer her little support because we’re both thoroughly enjoying her company and bad at goodbyes. So, Riona takes control, grabbing a pen from her purse and a coaster from the table, she writes down her name and number.
“I’m not sure how this works,” she says, stumbling to find the words and careful not to be presumptuous or rude. “…. Well, here’s my number. I never want to get in between friends so if you never call me, I’ll understand. But if one….of you is interested, or maybe the both of you just want to do this again…well you know where to find me.” At which point, she tosses the coaster onto the table and leaves. Jim and I take a moment to process the dilemma before us. Before I can object, however, Jim picks up the coaster, walks over to the piano player and hands it to him.
Melissa goes over to join our daughters at the Boat Pond. I’m now left alone on Jim’s bench and one more memory comes back to me from the summer of 2003. Melissa, and I have just moved into our new house in Denver when I get a call from Matt who says, slowly and formally, “I’m sorry to tell you our good friend Jim has died.” The words are shocking but I don’t cry. Matt isn’t crying either. We muster some confused words and promise to be in touch about funeral arrangements, which will take place in Jim’s hometown of Lawrenceville. I call Dave. It’s a sad game of telephone tag in which I keep hoping someone had gotten wrong at the start of the chain. I tell Dave the news, much as Matt has told it to me: Jim was running in Central Park when he collapsed and died, the cause most likely cardiac arrhythmia.
Coming out of my reverie, I find that I don’t mourn for the loss of friendship, or grieve for lost opportunities, or grow scared at the realization of my own mortality, or curious about what would have become of him. Instead, for the first time since his death, I thank Jim. I am thankful to him because from this loss Matt and I have become much closer. Matt writes to me on Jim’s birthday and we talk frequently even though we are miles apart, sharing memories not only of a life we once lived, but also of a life we are living. We share the trials and tribulations of children, jobs, the joys and sorrows of where we are now and where we are going. Jim’s death spawned another friendship and I am thankful for that. And I am thankful that Jim entered my life because, for over a dozen years, I bore witness to a life well-lived. One needs to look death in the eye in order to see the beauty of life. We are only left with memories. They do not only celebrate the past. They fuel the present.
I’m looking out into Central Park and seeing the love for life that characterized Jim. I suddenly want to burst into a run, chase down the old couple who were here before and exclaim…
“Yes! Yes! It was a good life! It was short but it was rich and filled with passion.”
It’s more than a name plate attached to the bench by the Boat Pond. There’s a story. It has a sad ending for the main character but the rest of us who knew him are the better for living through it.
Christopher Parent is a writer and intellectual property attorney currently living in Zurich, Switzerland with his wife and two daughters. He moved to Zurich after serving as in-house counsel for Nintendo and in private practice in Denver. His work has appeared in law reviews as well as in Kairos Literary Magazine, The Good Men Project, Memoir Magazine, Ginosko Literary Journal, Points in Case, Public House Magazine, and The Haven. He won the Fall 2020 Memoirist Prize for a story about his early introduction to racial inequality. Another piece will be published this year in Drunk Monkeys. Links to some of these works can be found on www.chrisparent.net. Besides travel and writing, he spends his free time as Assistant Coach of the Swiss Women’s Lacrosse National Team.