Midway through 6th grade, a new kid suddenly entered Burr Farms Elementary School. Our friend groups were well established, but everyone liked Jim Conant. He was funny. He was smart as hell. And — this is not something one generally says about almost-teenage boys — he was kind.
As we moved through Long Lots Junior High and Staples, Jim and I remained friends. Not best friends — we hung out in different circles — but we shared classes, senses of humor, and ways of seeing the world.
Jim always seemed to know who he was. I had no clue whatsoever. I admired his calm sense of self, even if I couldn’t describe it at the time.
Jim went to Princeton, and made a name for himself academically (graduating magna cum laude) and musically (he was a fantastic trumpet player). I went to Brown, still trying to figure things out. We shared a good-natured rivalry.
Jim then earned a master’s in electrical engineering from UCLA. He went on to work with radar, sonar and software. He held two patents.
I went on to do whatever it is I do. We lost touch, though he lived just an hour away in Brookfield.
Three years ago, at a Staples reunion, we reconnected. I told him how much I’d admired him when we were younger. He seemed surprised.
A few months later we met for dinner in Ridgefield. We caught up on our lives. He told me about his marriage and divorce, his 3 kids, his involvement in youth sports and a youth math program, and his civic volunteer work.
But Jim seemed distracted. A couple of months later, he called to say why. The afternoon of our dinner, he’d been diagnosed with ALS.
He relayed the news matter-of-factly. With his scientific mind, he’d already done plenty of research. Lou Gehrig’s disease sufferers generally live 2 to 5 years, he said. Before dying, they lose the ability to move their limbs, talk, swallow, and breathe on their own.
Their minds, however, remain fine. They know exactly what is happening to them.
At that point, he was in good physical shape. He kept active. His spirits were strong.
A couple of summers ago, Jim invited a group of old friends to his house on Lake Lillinonah. The setting was beautiful; the evening was fun. He was an animated tour guide as he piloted his boat across the water.
Our next dinner was at Rizzuto’s. He wanted to come to Westport. He didn’t get out much, but he could still drive. He apologized for having to prop his head up from time to time. His muscles were already weakening. But he talked about today and tomorrow much more than yesterday.
As with all ALS sufferers, his decline was steady. His preferred method of communication became email. A few months ago, he wrote that he had always wanted enough time to read and listen to music. Now he had that time, but for the absolute worst reason.
This summer, Jim emailed me that at some point — not then; in the future — he would have to make a decision about living life as a quadriplegic, or not. He described that choice matter-of-factly. Right now, he said, he was doing fine.
On Friday, I emailed Jim:
I hope things are going okay, and you’re able to enjoy your surroundings. Your comment about having time you always dreamed of to read and listen to music – but not the way you wanted to – really resonated with me. It made a profound impact. So please know that – long after our elementary school days – you continue to influence my life, in very positive ways. For that, I am very grateful.
I am thinking of you.
Coincidentally, early on Monday, I saw on Facebook that Jim’s birthday had been Saturday. I had no idea.
Two days late, I posted a generic greeting on his timeline. Dozens of others were already there.
Jim never saw those good wishes, from his many friends. He did not get my email, either.
On Monday afternoon, his brother Scott sent the news.
Jim died Friday night, at home. His sister, son and a good friend were there.
One day before his birthday.
(A reception for Jim Conant will be held tomorrow — Friday, September 19 — at 10 a.m., followed by a memorial service at 12 p.m., at the Brookfield Congregational Church. He requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Massachusetts General Hospital ALS research clinic, the ALS Association, ASTDI or Regional Hospice and Home Care of Western Connecticut.)