When someone several degrees of separation away from the shortest strings of your heart passes, you feel caught between the remoteness of unfamiliarity and the twinges of affection. Did you know her well enough to mourn? Or does that right belong to others, closer, more special, who don't have to strain to remember when they last saw her?
I actually do remember when I last saw Jeanne Jasperse. She came to my office for some small exchange with Alan White, her long-time friend and music collaborator, also my legal assistant and Chief Damage Control Officer. I stood next to the counter in my office's kitchen, staring with unseeing eyes at a pleading just received by fax. Fatigue came over me in waves as I struggled to cope, at that moment dealing with a broken hand.
Jeanne crossed the dozen feet between us with her long-legged stride and folded me in her arms. It's so good to see you! She exclaimed. Emotion washed over me; not the cleansing wash of baptismal waters, but the damning taint of guilt. When are we going to have coffee again? She asked this with smiling reference to our only coffee date, six months before this encounter, when she had materialized in response to my broadcasted wail of self-pity. Since then, I'd not taken the time to see her again; no reason, really, just a nagging feeling of disconnect, a sense that I might have to climb down from the fence and really engage with someone more genuine that I felt capable of being sometimes.
When were we going to have coffee again? It turns out: never.
And I remember the first time I saw Jeanne Jasperse: Blayney's, 1986, a week after my first hospital discharge in a decades-long parade. Wearing black, a shadow of my former self, I slipped into a chair in the farthest table from the stage and assumed an expression of remote disdain. I flipped my dark shades over the red I carried in my eyes, and pulled my back ram-rod straight, preparing to dislike the two women who stood side by side on the stage next to Alan White. I grunted my order to Heather, the waitress, then fixed my reluctant eyes on the front of the room, ready to condemn the act, a trio which had formed during my absence from the scene.
And then the voice of an angel filled the room.
Of the two women, Jeanne had the less trained voice back then. But hers carried sweetness, and the promise of something soothing, and a fragile joy that could not be denied. Her eyes flashed; her hands raised; her chin tilted heavenward; and I felt my resistance fade. How could I dislike a person so devoid of malice, so drenched in glory?
Over the next thirty years, I rarely saw Jeanne without a beer. But I also rarely saw her without a smile. She wore her delight at each meeting with anyone whom she called "friend" like a silk shawl that kept away the evening's chill. And she considered me a friend, though even before she died, I classified myself as less than a poor excuse for one.
I don't know enough about Jeanne Jasperse to write her obituary. But these things I know: She laughed without hesitation. She cherished her son. She stuck by her friends. She persevered, though sometimes, she succumbed to the bogeyman who hovered in the corner with his wicked grin. She danced without reservation and loved without expectation. She faced adversity that I can never comprehend; and lost her way more times than I will ever know, stumbling on broken cobblestones, clutching at the long gnarled branches of trees hanging over her path which blocked the guiding star and the warming sun. And this, too, I know: Jeanne Jasperse sang with a raging purity and an unrelenting passion.
It's just gone midnight. I cannot sleep. As always happens when the universe suffers a sudden rending in the shape of a precious and worthy soul, I am awash with a burning mixture of loss and guilt, and something more: gratitude, for the time that I knew her, and the gentleness with which she touched me.
Heaven's choir grows richer this week, and the Kansas City skyline suffers the loss of an under-appreciated treasure. Oh, Jeanne, Jeanne. We shall miss you. Rest easy, my friend. And thank you.