Something wickedly wonderful this way came — and left much too soon

This view from our office's back door for five days each year is always bittersweet.

This view from our office’s back door for five days each year is always bittersweet.

It’s a strange juxtaposition I find myself in each year, watching the arrival of the carnival and seeing the excitement in the eyes of our children. But as the rides are hammered together late into the evening, I am reminded of the night 12 years ago when I got the call from my best friend telling me he was coming back home to Oregon — because he was dying.

He was 30 years old.

I had been working late at the newspaper that evening and was just heading out the door when my cell phone rang. Seeing that it was my friend, I stopped in the open doorway and leaned against the jam, enjoying the spring air and watching the Ferris wheel begin its first revolution in preparation for opening night. It was well past dusk, and the strobing and spinning lights of the carnival were like shooting stars, rising into the night sky and reflecting off the surface of the nearby Siuslaw River. As my friend spoke, I found myself watching The Zandar, a spinning hub routinely hosed down after launching people’s stomach contents. When the words “cancer” and “inoperable” escaped the phone, my world began to spin as well. I remember slowly sliding down the jam, and the feel of the strike plate gouging my back until I had collapsed into a hunched position. He explained the ocular cancer, which had taken his left eye nearly two years earlier, had returned and spread to his brain and organs through his lymph nodes. He had less than three months. In the distance, I heard the first screams of carnival goers and, for only the third time in my life, I wept uncontrollably…

image In September of 1995, I received a letter from my mother. Included with it was something she’d cut out of the local paper, something written by a young man who, that July, had become the new sports editor for the Siuslaw News. As I unfolded the three-column rectangle of news print, a smiling face appeared below the wide brim of an Australian-style hat.

The face was kind. Genuine. And in the eyes was a vibrancy and glean that transcended the black and white newspaper page.

Long before I actually met Jason F. Jensen, I somehow knew that his eyes were blue. That he walked with his hands in his pockets. That he preferred hiking boots over Reeboks. And that his wit was sharp, but never cruel.

As I read the last paragraph of my mother’s letter, she closed with a mixture of whimsey and intuition:

I hope you can meet each other some day; I know the two of you would be friends.

I then sat down to read “Breathe easy, young man,” Jason’s first column for the Siuslaw News, and was immediately taken by the description of his escape from the San Bernandino Valley — a 15 mph getaway in his “violent-yellow” VW van that marked his return to Oregon after a year of living in the “coffee-colored haze” of southern California.

In his writing was a mixture of truth and vulnerability laced with subtle humor — qualities that were a direct reflection of his natural disposition as both explorer and astute observer of life.

By the following afternoon, the column had been laminated and posted on our refrigerator door.

Three years later, we arrived back in Florence with our possessions, our plans to settle down, our new jobs and our refrigerator — column still in place. It wasn’t until months later, while visiting some friends, that a lanky figure descended the stairs into the living room, hands in his pockets. He had hiking boots on, and his blue eyes greeted us long before the words could leave his mouth. As he pulled his wide-brimmed hat into place, I blurted, “You’re the guy on my refrigerator!”

One might say that from those words, our friendship began.

But, I’d have to disagree; in actuality, it started long before that. Long before my mother decided to clip that first column from the newspaper. Long before he sat in this very newsroom and wrote a story about returning home that remains on our refrigerator to this day. I believe that true friendship begins long before a handshake or shared laugh. It’s something set into motion and meant as a gift for staying on pace with your life.

Make the right decisions and remain true to yourself, and you will find the gift of true friendship.

Based on that belief, I’d have to say that returning to Florence was the best decision I ever made. Jason became one of my truest friends, closest confidants, and the godfather to my son (And yes, Jason could do a mean Marlon Brando).

If friendship is the metronome of life, I’d have to say Jason’s was paced with absolute precision — a notion made evident by the ever-widening circle of friends he made in his 30 years of life.

When it all comes down to it, love is the only real measure of success. It’s the only thing worth taking with you, and the most lasting gift you can leave behind.

Jason, should you ever question your measure of success in this life, take a look at our refrigerator door —

And breathe easy, young man.

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67 thoughts on “Something wickedly wonderful this way came — and left much too soon

    • I really appreciate your understanding of that, Susan. While it’s still something that brings sadness at times, my feelings of appreciation and joy for the friendship we shared far outweighs the sadness. It only gets tough for a few days each year, when the carnival comes to town. In some ways, though, it only makes me appreciate him more.

  1. I never even knew him and I love him. And I love that YOU loved him, too, in all the best ways that friends can.

    Just look at that face. It fairly radiates love. How could anyone NOT love him back?

    Thank you for sharing this story. It will touch a lot of hearts. It touched mine.

    • Yeah, he even LOOKED special. Definitely someone put her for a short time to leave a lasting place in all of the hearts he touched. Thanks for letting me finally put it down into words.

  2. You know, he walked right off of your blog and is sitting in the big stuffed chair across from me in my living room right now. Excellent description that came right from your heart, the best kind of writing when done right.. and it’s the kind of write that feels good not because it was a good write, but because those memories bring him to life and put your friend in front of you. Thanks for sharing, but something tells me you don’t need thanks right now.

    • I really appreciate that. It feels good knowing others have a chance to know him in some way, even if only through me. Glad to know he’s got a a spot with you as well. He was a true gift, meant to be shared. Thanks for letting me share him with you.

  3. This has made me think. I won’t go into it now because I want to honour your friend. Just know that this is a great gift to him and your readers. Well done.

    • Thanks for reading, and letting me share the gift of his friendship with you. Jason had friends everywhere; he just loved people. I couldn’t think of a better tribute to him than, in a small way, passing that friendship on to others. Thanks for being one of them, Ross.

  4. Nice post, Ned. Such a shame that a good man can be taken so young while others not a quarter his character get to live longer lives. Who knows, maybe your friend didn’t need long to do whatever it is he was meant to do on this earth. He’d appreciate this post, I’m sure.

    • I couldn’t agree more with both thoughts, Don. I have to think he wasn’t meant to be here long because of the many lives he touched in such a relatively short span of time. Thanks for reading and letting me share my friend with you.

  5. Thanks for this post. I was told two weeks ago that my cousin was diagnosed with cancer and it is inoperable. She is in hospice as I write this post. She is well loved by many and I am not saying this just because of her illness. Perhaps when she makes her transition, she will be greeted by those blue eyes and she will båt her brown eyes ånd he will show her around.

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your cousin. No doubt your love for her and that of her family and friends will bring her a lot of peace. I have to admit I got a little teary — in a good way — at the image of your cousin and my friend meeting. I know he will tip his hat and make sure she makes herself at home. Thank you for sharing that.

  6. I can’t do schmaltz, Ned, (I’m a Brit … we do stoic) especially as I experienced the same thing at first hand when my husband died at the age of 42 with 3 inoperable brain tumours. All I can say is that I understand … completely … and I cried with you.

    This post may be different from your usual posts, m’dear … but it had to be written … and now I know all about the unique specialness that was Jason F. Jensen.

    Much love.

    • I’m so very sorry to hear about your husband, Angela. That’s a loss on so many levels. Thank you — stoic, schmaltzy or otherwise — for taking the time to share this with me, and getting to know Jason.

      Much love in return.

  7. Good post from the heart. I hope you enjoyed spending time with him again as you were writing. So many of us have a Jason we lost too soon, but had our lives enriched, by knowing them.

    • Absolutely, Tric. As hard as it was to write in the beginning, revisiting those times with Jason quickly changed that. My thoughts to you and to those in your life who left too soon.

    • Yep, those smiling eyes. You’d think he was Irish instead of Danish. It’s taken 12 years to finally sit down and get through it, but I’m truly glad I wrote it too. Jason was a world traveler with so many friends. Sharing his memory has sort of been like his second world tour. He would’ve liked that 😉

    • Thanks, EJ. He was definitely a good looking Dane with wonderful qualities. I’m sure there were a lot of women who cried, some only because he was ridiculously handsome 😉

      Thank you for crying with me, for all the right reasons.

      • You are such a good guy, Ned. The love you have for your people is evident in every word that you write.

        I have had a couple of dear friends die and when I found this quote it gave me a lot of comfort. I hope you like it too. I love that you keep his piece on the fridge, that’s where I keep stuff from all the people I love too, from both groups- here and gone.

        “Sometimes people fall into our lives cleanly- as if out of the sky, or as if there were a direct flight from Heaven to Earth- the same sudden way we lose people, who once seemed they would always be part of our lives.”

        Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

  8. Crying. This is so wonderful.

    “When it all comes down to it, love is the only real measure of success. It’s the only thing worth taking with you, and the most lasting gift you can leave behind.”

    If you and I were buds, I’d be hoping you’d someday write my obit … and actually have something to write about.

  9. Wow Ned. Kinda of a tingle actually. Kinda like Jason is with you the minute those hammering of that carnival begins… to say ..”Hey ole buddy! It’s me! “.
    The very thing that you remember as something sad, he brings to you as sweetness. Embrace those carnival sounds.
    What a gift when you think about it.
    Beautiful. Peace be with you.

    • You’re so right, Lisa. Having that yearly reminder is similar to how the smell of apple pie or a certain song can conjure a time or place in our lives. The carnival was always the tip of the iceberg to a crazy weekend each year here in Florence during the Rhododendron Festival. We have about 200 bikers who rude into town for the festival. One year, Jason and I dressed up like bikers and hung out at one of the bars. We looked like a pair of cheesy extras from The Wild Bunch… good times. 😉

      • I too, recently lost my best friend. Sadness has a way of taking a piece of our heart. Not sure why, it just does.
        But, I have come to realize and embrace the memory of her soul. She is with me everywhere I go. And out of the blue-there is something to remind me.
        You now have embraced his soul. And he has shown you, without a doubt, that he is with you. Not just in your mind…but right there.
        I smile with you.

          • …and I too and sorry for your loss as well Ned. Go have a drink at that bar in honor of your friend! ; )
            But you MUST dress up. Wear your leather…seeeeee….always leads to an alcoholic discussion. Ha! That’s why I like you. *smiling back at ya*

  10. Ladies and Gentlemen. Is there no limit to the Awesome Awesomeness, That is Ned Hickson? I guess not.

    Ned, I love my friends more than I love myself. I have learned, that success and happiness dont mean anything, if you have no one to discuss, or share it with. Our friends are what make us who we are.

    Ned my friend, Your words are beautiful. and I thank you for them.

    • Thanks, Tom. Truly. And you are so very right about how the “things” — accomplishments, accolades, etc. — don’t mean anything without the people we love. Sharing anything with my wife always makes it more complete. I see, feel and experience everything more because of her. Good friends are the same way. They enrich our lives no matter who we are — something you can’t buy or find any other way than through love and friendship.

      Thank you, my friend.

  11. Thank you for sharing that beautifully written story of your dearest friend. He sounds like a wonderful person, and am so very glad that you two crossed paths. I thank everyday that my mom is healthy and still in remission, the word ‘cancer’ is always a word that punches the breath out of my chest. I completely agree with you in regards to friendships, “I believe that true friendship begins long before a handshake or shared laugh. It’s something set into motion and meant as a gift for staying on pace with your life.” Thank you! 🙂 … but my little cow tissue box is now out of tissues because I took the last one. 🙂

    • It’s obvious, here and in your other posts, how close you and your mom are. That’s a beautiful thing, which I’m sure has only become more precious to the both of you. While I miss Jason, I will forever be thankful for the gift of our friendship. Early on, I questioned my decision to move back to Oregon. Jason’s friendship, as well as my amazing wife, are two of the biggest gifts I was given for staying “on pace” with my life.

      If my delivery boy had been on pace, he would’ve shown up with the box of tissues I sent you 😉

      • Thank you Ned! The poor delivery boy probably ate the tissues from his long journey, haha 🙂 I do have a very good relationship with my mother… she is my partner in crime! I really am glad you were able to spend time with him. I believe things happen for a reason, the one with my mother makes me stronger, and much more driven in all life matters. I will drink to your friend today… while I work athletics, they wont mind 😉

        • Haha! I only keep that delivery boy around because I feel sorry for him 😉 My mom and I are also very close (she was only 17 when she had me, there isn’t much of a generational gap!). Know your mother values and treasures that relationship as much as you, which is a beautiful thing.

          And definitely have a drink to Jason. He loved a good drink. Of course he did; he was Danish like me! 😉

  12. Beautifully written, Ned. Sometimes precious people slip out of our lives long before we are ready to see them go, but your memories and his influence will always remain. Thanks for sharing.

    • I truly believe that as well. Jason may be gone, but the memories and his example as a person are with me every day.

      Thank you for letting me share my friend with you.

  13. What a beautiful, touching, and poignant tribute to someone you obviously loved very much and who you so clearly miss.

  14. Strider, Pirate Boy will always be missed. Our daughter took her first steps to him in our living room. He is to this day known to our children as uncle Jason. Thank you Ned for an amazing post.

    • Wow, I haven’t heard “Strider” in forever! 🙂 I remember him telling me about those steps. He was very proud of that 😉 So great to hear from you, Kielly. I’ll never forget that trip to see you guys in preparation for Operation DGS! My best wishes and love to all of you.

  15. Beautiful. One thing I am learning is that friendships are worthy of the time they take, and that friends are gifts to be treasured. I am glad you found the man on your fridge, glad for you that the friendship was good and strong enough to make you feel as deeply as you do. Thank you for allowing us into this.

  16. I was just listening to U2 with my wife, and I told her that I remember a reporter for the Siuslaw News that came out to help coach us in hurdles at SHS (I think I was a junior or senior…?), and I thought I remember hearing a year or two later that he died of cancer. We had no idea. He took the 4 or 5 of us who were dedicated hurdlers out to the beach on Saturday to train in the sand. We met in his house beforehand, and I remember U2 was playing. I can’t help but hear U2 and I think of Jason…so strange–I didn’t know him for long, but apparently he made an impact!

    • Wow Kris.

      I was just having my first cup of coffee, sitting here at my desk in the same newsroom where Jason was writing for the Siuslaw News at the time. Your thoughtful memories of him brought a smile to my face, and I knew as soon as you mentioned U2 and the hurdles training in the sand that we were definitely talking about the same person.

      Thank you so very much for sharing that memory, and for thinking of him whenever you hear U2. Without question, he was the kind of person who could leave a lasting impression in a short time.

      • I was talking to a few friends about Jason just today. He had an indelible quality, an effervescent and adventuresome spirit that was always present. Jason was a great friend and wonderful mentor for the woefully short time that I knew him. He was someone that you were instantly drawn to, and felt comfortable with from the moment you met him, someone you could talk to about anything. Though I will never forget the image of him standing in his worn hiking boots, duster jacket and wide brimmed hat, his camera never far away; I will always fondly remember him in his running shoes making a herculean effort to reforge us, from gawky teenage boys into some passable form of hurdlers. Always ready with a kind, and encouraging word and a glint in his eyes.

        • Jesse, I couldn’t help but smile while reading your description of Jason, from his duster jacket to his always being ready with a kind word. Thank you for sharing those memories and keeping them.

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