This is one of those articles I haven’t wanted to write, but the need to do so still exists.  My family lost a good friend today.  However, the belief is still there that the parting need not be sorrowful, it’s more a matter of time until we meet again.

James Cantrell died this morning in Florida after a long and agonizing yet still courageous battle with cancer.  Those are hard words to write.  They’re words that bring about anger — aimed directly at the illness that took James’ life, and the lives of too many others.

But, knowing James, he wouldn’t want us to be sad for long.  He’d want us to celebrate the life that he led.

In many ways, it was the kind of life everyone could take a piece from and use as an example on how to live it to the fullest, and to show how much we can care for everything and everyone around us in Christian love.

Earl Harris (left) and James Cantrell, in their "younger days."  (Photo courtesy Earl Harris)
Earl Harris (left) and James Cantrell, in their “younger days.” (Photo courtesy Earl Harris)

It’s been about eight years since James started attending our church.  He’d pretty much always be there with his friend, Earl Harris, at his side.  They both brought a lot of energy and smiles to our church.  They’d help with floral arrangements, helping provide money for remodeling projects, Earl would bring in his bagpipes on occasion and provide some special music.  When I stopped putting together our church newsletter every month, Earl was the one who picked it up and ran with it, giving it his own special touch.  I sat on our church board for a while with James.  He was always passionate when it came to expressing his opinions, and so often his opinions had to do with helping anything or anyone who needed it.  He always believed that, no matter what the need or the cost involved, the Lord would provide.  All that was needed was a deep faith.

He wanted others to share that belief.

It wasn’t until recent years that James shared something in public through social media that showed his courage.  It came through a change in his relationship status on Facebook, where he proclaimed that he was in a relationship with Earl.  They shared a domestic partnership.  No one that I knew raised a fuss about it, at least not openly in our church.  I remember the first time I saw James at our church after it was made public, and he looked at me in a way that I sensed he was wondering whether I would accept the fact that he was gay.  I walked up to him, gave him a firm handshake and a smile, and greeted him just the same way I always had.

A change in his relationship status was not going to affect how I saw James.  I saw him for the person that he was — open, kind, compassionate, outspoken, passionate, generous, energetic, humorous … the list of adjectives goes on.

Above all else, he was a Christian through and through.

James saw many of those same caring, compassionate qualities in my lovely wife, Amy.  When she put out the word about a stray kitten who needed special vet care, James stepped up and gave it to him.  It wasn’t cheap, but James didn’t care about that.  He cared about helping to take care of one of God’s creatures.  Our daughter Alicia named that kitten “Ninja.”  That kitten grew into a beautiful cat that’s graced James and Earl’s home with its presence ever since.

And then there was the caring that James showed to a family in need of help.  It was my own family, last year, when we were about to run out of hope and faith when I was among the long-term unemployed and our savings had been wiped out.  I didn’t ask for help.  James saw a need, followed his heart, and provided it.  Before that, he did his best to help in my job search, using his own information technology career contacts to try and help me find a computer programming job.  I gave him my resume to send out himself, he read it, and he wondered aloud how it was that no one had been beating down my door with a job offer.

It gave me a feeling of pride and hope when I needed it.

And then there were the monetary gifts that he would discreetly hand to me, not taking “no” for an answer.  They were generous, to say the least.  Any time I would even try to say the words, “Thank you, James,” he would firmly insist that the gifts weren’t coming from him.  He was simply doing what God was telling him to do.

The timing was perfect.  It lasted for the most part until I was able to finally secure a decent job in late February this year.

As fall approached last year, a cancer that James had been battling and beating had returned, and the prognosis was that it was terminal, there was nothing that could be done.  When I saw that news, I called James immediately and had a heart-to-heart chat with him, trying to give him some encouragement after all he’d done for us as an “instrument” of God.  In that phone call, he showed great courage.  He wasn’t afraid of dying.  He said he fully expected to just go to sleep one day and not wake up.  What he feared the most was how Earl — his partner, the love of his life — would make it through.  He wasn’t thinking of himself, he was thinking of the person he cared for most of all.

It was typical of James.

One year ago, I was looking ahead to trying my hand in a career as a car salesman.  One year ago, James and Earl were preparing to move to Florida.  I was among those from our church who sadly but willingly pitched in and helped them — sad because we hated to see them leave, supportive because we knew they were going to a place where they could try different treatments for the cancer and perhaps beat it for good.

I was the last one out of the house on the last day for loading things for the move.  It gave me time for a decent goodbye to James, time to say thanks to him again, time to have him insist again that it wasn’t him who was providing the help but the Lord instead, time to let him know how much that help meant to us.  I gave James as many words of encouragement as I could, stayed as positive as I could in talking about my own situation, gave him a final hug and a wave goodbye, did the same with Earl, and drove away.

The car sales job lasted all of three weeks for me.  I was back where I started from.

After a while, thanks to prayers and aggressive treatment, James’ cancer disappeared.  It was cause for celebration.  After a while, I landed a decent job.  On the day I got the word on that job, my family got another “gift” through James that would help us through until my first decent paycheck.

Once more, the timing was perfect.  James made for an ideal “instrument” for God’s handiwork.

James’ cancer eventually returned.  There were more prayers for healing.  This time, however, it appeared that it could be James’ last fight.  He gave it his all.  Earl kept friends and family posted on what was happening through Facebook.

James and Earl on the day they exchanged marriage vows in Washington, D.C.  (Photo courtesy Earl Harris)
James and Earl on the day they exchanged marriage vows in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy Earl Harris)

It was through Facebook, after the Supreme Court ruled to uphold same-sex marriage in states and municipalities that had already voted to allow it, that Earl proudly and happily announced that he and James would be flying to Washington, D.C., to exchange marriage vows.  We were all happy for them.  We knew how deeply they cared for each other.  Earl was showing it for all to see all by himself.

The prayers continued, but as time went on the feeling was that things didn’t look good for James.  Toward the end, the reports were that he had gone over 40 days without nourishment.  He was giving it his all.

As of this morning, James is at rest.  After many a night of little or no sleep, Earl can hopefully rest easier as well.  There will be heartache to go through, the pain of missing the one he loves with all his heart, but the truth remains that James doesn’t have to fight any more.  Earl needs to rest on that knowledge.  Those with faith believe that we will meet again.

In the end, James and Earl’s sexuality didn’t matter to me or to anyone else who knew them well enough to see how strong their Christian beliefs were and still are today.  In the end, all Christians regardless of sexuality would do well to live by the kind of example that’s been set by the compassion, courage, and strength that was shown by James.

I’d thank him again for that compassion myself, and for how his genuine love and caring helped my family through some of its darkest times, but I know what he’d say:  “It wasn’t from me, it was from God.”

Lord, you brought us a worthy instrument of your love in James Cantrell, and we are grateful for the time we were able to know each other and share moments together, both good and bad.  Please watch over him as he rests.  Until we meet again …



18 thoughts on “Celebrating the life of a good friend who’s passed

  1. John, your words brought tears to my eyes. James was my friend for over 30 years and I thank you for such a beautiful tribute to such a beautiful person. You certainly captured the loving spirit that was James. I would like to share this on my Facebook page.

  2. You captured so well the James I knew and loved and will miss for a long time. He was one of the most supportive people I’ve ever met, and an inspiring example of Christ’s love in action.

  3. Thank you for the beautiful words you shared about James and Earl. I was deeply saddened to hear the news about James. It is comforting to know that Earl and James will be together when they meet our precious God. Even though this is a difficult day, it is also a day to celebrate the life of James. I never met James yet I feel like I have known him all my life through emails and calls with Earl. They have been so kind and gracious to me through a difficult time in my life. We are family and James snd Earl are my brothers….in and through Christ, I love them.

  4. Thank you for the beautiful tribute to James. I am sure you expressed many of the things Earl would have said about James and I know he is grateful for your kind words and your friendship. (I am Earl’s older sister).

  5. Very nicely written. I am proud to call James my brother in-law and we will all miss that “Banty Rooster” dearly! (Earl’s little sister)

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