Sunday, June 19, 2016


I HAVE A lot of friends, which anyone who knows me would agree to. I’m one of those people who you can’t walk down the street with, practically any street, here in Pittsburgh without someone calling out my name. I have artist friends, and comic-book fan friends, and friends from various neighborhoods (as Fred Rogers demonstrated long ago, neighborhoods are all-important in Pittsburgh), and friends from various workplaces. The latter is a particular source of pride for me. Over the years, I managed to forge incredibly solid friendships with people I worked with. I’ve designed their wedding programs and even been in some of their weddings, babysat their children, and had at least one child (so far) named after me. I’ve been adopted into numerous families, and laughed and loved and cried with them. My places of employment changed, but I’ve still managed to stay close to scores of these people who support me every day.

My sister Jami is one of them. I call her sister because she has been that to me, and much more. We worked together at two different places, and know each other through and through. I was adopted into her family, the Marlowes, while in my twenties, and had no idea of the depth that this relationship would develop. Through her, one by one, I met the other Marlowes, and each one embraced me without reservation. Billie, the matriarch, adopted countless kids via her own kids, and you always knew that she cared about you. She even had a phrase related to her children I’ve taken to heart: “I love all of my kids equally. But sometimes, one might require more attention than the others.”

Think about that. Isn’t that the smartest way to spread the love around? By not worrying about comparative volume, but instead focusing on the need, we address what really counts. And Billie let you know you were loved, even when she cracked the whip. She fed her kids and kept them stuffed, and she made everyone laugh. I made a drawing of her once at a party, just a quick sketch to pass the time, and tried to capture that vivacious spirit. She loved it so much that it hung in her home for years afterwards. When she passed away, the Marlowes used it as the cover image of Billie’s memorial program. I’ve rarely been so humbled and flattered. But it goes to show that a few moments can mean a lot over time.

Another Marlowe family member I met was Jami’s brother-in-law Jake. His last name wasn’t Marlowe, but for all intents and purposes, he was a Marlowe and he knew it. I think he was proud of that. The very first time I saw him, it made an impression. I’d been commissioned, via Jami, to draw a portrait photo of her young niece Denise (yes, we’ve made many jokes about that cadence) who was taking dance lessons at the time. This is back when Jami and I were working for the same company, but at different locations. She called my store one day to inform me that Jake was in town from West Virginia and would be stopping by to see me, as I recall to drop off reference photos of his daughter to draw from. He was described as a big, tall man, who would probably be wearing boots which made him even taller. He sounded like a good ol’ country boy with a genial nature. That’s exactly what he was.

Eventually, the front door beeped opened and made every coworker snap to attention, and Jake walked into the store. The second I laid eyes on him I thought, “Yeah. That’s a big guy.” Whenever I think about this initial encounter, I always remember the impression he made in that moment, basically filling up the store. There was never anything more complicated about Jake from that moment forward. This was a very open and genuine person. What you saw was what you got, and what I got in that first encounter was a sincere man who was very enthusiastic about celebrating his family. That never changed.

What I had no way of knowing was how what I saw and got was what everyone else who knew him was seeing and getting too.

*     *     *     *     *

I CAN’T SAY I got to know Jake well at all over the years. I just didn’t see him often. The Marlowes live in West Virginia, and I’ve always lived in Pittsburgh, and I don’t drive, so going to see them wasn’t in the cards. But when they were in town visiting Jami, I’d see them. In more recent years, Jake could be depended upon to come into Pittsburgh annually to help, behind-the-scenes, put on her charity event LUVFEST. He was always there to do the lifting or the driving or the ticket-taking or, really, whatever was required of him.

Jake was funny to watch. For the most part, he was pretty inauspicious, and for a man of his size didn’t take up much room. But he was quick to make small talk, with anyone, and could get enthused about minutia in seconds. And he’d talk. And talk. And talk. And then his wife, Jami’s sister Betsy, would snap him out of his revelry and he’d get back to the task at hand. It was always like watching a puppy get corralled from jumping on a guest, no matter how many times the guest had visited.

The rapport between Jake and Betsy was just as amusing, but it was also always tempered with affection. There are couples I know who snipe at one-another in ways that are uncomfortable to witness; Jake and Betsy had figured each other out long ago, and it was obvious. These two just belonged together. And when you saw them with Denise, you could tell exactly where she got her DNA from. It was as if every other molecule in her body was evenly distributed from her parents. As a microcosm of the Marlowes, and an example of how families should be, they were in many ways almost sitcom perfect. Not literally perfect, which doesn’t exist, but they followed Billie’s advice and made sure the love and attention was evenly distributed.

A few years ago, I had plans to set up at the West Virginia Pop Culture Con, and Betsy and Jake offered to let me and my girlfriend stay at their place for the weekend. They were wonderful hosts, and I never doubted for a second that we were welcome, and I also never got a sense that their routine was appreciably different with us there. They bantered and jested like always. Jake asked me questions about how the Toshiba Thrive tablet I’d gotten was working, as he’d recommended through Jami it was the brand I should buy. His IT knowledge was boundless, and he shared it with enthusiasm. Denise was also there, as was Betsy’s and Jami’s brother Wally, and everyone was great and expressed interest in our daily doings at the convention. It was a good trip in close quarters, and the family let it be known we were always welcome to return.

In retrospect, I wish I’d taken them up on it more frequently.

*     *     *     *     *

JAMI ASKED ME to call her earlier this week, and gave the news that Jake had been hospitalized for several days and his condition was serious. She immediately travelled home to West Virginia to be with Betsy and Wally. A few hours later, she sadly informed me that he’d passed away.

Not being able to go where you want to make yourself most available leaves you feeling frustrated. But I was tasked with looking after Jami’s cat, and later I designed a poster for the memorial service. Recalling how the portrait of Billie had been used for her memorial service program, I drew a similar sketch of Jake. He was easy to render. He was a character and his personality was understated in photos, but evident nonetheless. When Jami repeatedly thanked me for pitching in, and expressed regret over how what I was doing had eaten into my time, I tried to dismiss that thinking. Right now, my family needed my attention. That’s all that counted.

The Marlowes are a strong family with a vibrant collective personality. Their core unit of siblings is fascinating in their differences and similarities, and how tightly they hold on to one another. They really don’t mess around when it comes to being available for each other. It’s enviable to watch, even for those of us who have similarly large extended families. You can have a big family, but that doesn’t mean your relatives will make the effort to understand you, or to accept you even when they don’t understand you. And even big families can be exclusive with who they choose to let into the perimeter of their clan. Have you ever been part of a family, or a circle of friends, and yet still felt apart from everyone? It happens all the time.

Joining a big, headstrong family is an intimidating prospect. Allowing your identity to merge with theirs can be a fast way to become lost, but it can alternately work miracles. I’ve seen people join families and become transformed. The Marlowes have always been marvelous at allowing more and more people to build treehouses in their family tree, and spreading that love and attention around. So many people from so many walks of life are now Marlowes, in that broadest sense, that you can’t remember how they all joined up. But they just keep getting added to the database, all the same, and the treehouses get expanded.

Jake joined the Marlowes and made them a better family for it. He never lost his identity, and instead carved out a specific role for himself filled with laughter and fortitude. He loved Betsy enough to accept dealing with her big, intimidating family; he then dealt with them so well he came to love them through and through. They in turn came to love him so thoroughly that he was, in every respect, a Marlowe.

He was a hard worker and he made friends at his workplaces easily which he held onto. At his memorial service, when it was asked how many of the people in attendance knew him through his job, it was stunning how many hands went up. But there were also people there who knew Jake from other walks of life, from high school to the military to neighbors. People apparently knew him everywhere he went, and they all had nothing but good things to say about him. As Jami put it, “Jake was like the you of Morgantown, Marcel.” If that’s so, I might be even more loved than I realize.

The remembrances of Jake delivered at his memorial service yesterday had several things in common. Family and friends all spoke overwhelmingly of his sense of humor, which made a somber occasion much easier to bear. Memories revolved around his love of food, and his knowledge of IT services, and his absolute pride in his family. There was also a general acknowledgement that when there was a crisis, and when circumstances made the more sure-footed members of the family a little shaky, Jake could be counted on to keep things together. He was a rock in a storm, in direct contrast to his goofy, overgrown man-child demeanor. Jake could be counted on, and that would be missed.

It’s tough to see people you love deal with such an immense loss, knowing you have nothing to replace it with, but it’s comforting to know there are a lot of people feeling the same loss. The best balm for grief is communion and laughter. And we laughed a lot. I think Jake would have wanted it no other way.

*     *     *     *     *

JAKE REMAINS UNIQUE in my life as someone who I remember the first and the last time I ever saw him. The first time was when he walked into my workplace, wearing large boots, and filling the room with his presence. The last time was just a few weeks ago, when I was invited to join their family on a Sunday brunch to celebrate Denise’s graduation from nursing school. We sat directly beside one another in the restaurant, and made small talk, like usual. There was nothing outstanding about it at all.

I met Denise’s boyfriend, and Jami and I joked with our friend Jess about the couple we’d seen dancing in the car outside. Denise and Betsy sat side by side, now colleagues in a profession we all have admiration for. Jake was a little quieter on this occasion, mostly staying buried in apps on his smart phone. As boisterous as he could be, most of us at the table were a different type of boisterous, and so he just left us to our own devices and we had a good time on a chilly May day in downtown Pittsburgh. We hugged goodbye at the end of the meal, and I presumed I’d see Jake again for another family event soon in a month or two.

And now he’s gone. It’s stunning how quickly this has happened.

I knew Jake in very broad strokes, but to be fair, Jake was a very broad strokes kind of person. He was funny and goofy, and he loved people and many, many people loved him. He was a dedicated worker who loved his job and did it well. He was dependable. He was excited by what other people considered little things. He was the kind of person whose absence will make the rest of the world - his hometown, his workplace, the close-quarters of his home - seem a lot smaller now. He was a kind person, period. He was our IT guy, and now he’s God’s IT guy. I guarantee you, Heaven’s hi-speed network is running even smoother. And I guarantee he knew half the people on the other side the moment he arrived. That other half are now all his friends too.

He was big and he had a big heart, and he leaves big shoes to fill. I can only hope that, as the Jacob Tennant of Pittsburgh, I can reach as many people as he did.

Happy Father’s Day, buddy. Job well done. We'll take it from here.

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