Last Monday, after several days on a ventilator, I said goodbye to my Dad and watched him slip peacefully in to the eternities. It’s been hard…and surreal…and exhausting…and heartbreaking…and tender. We are grateful for our faith and knowledge we have of eternal life and while we are devastated that we lost him here in this life, we can’t wait to see him in the next! So today, I wanted to share with you his life sketch and a special, heartfelt thank you for your prayers, well-wishes, and hugs.
James Eugene Allen, our husband, dad, grandpa, brother, and friend, lived a life fit for the Hallmark Channel. Full of youthful mischievousness, daring rescues and times of war, finding true love losing it and finding again, and of course, a tragic ending. Even the best screenwriters in Hollywood couldn’t make this story up but he was lucky enough to live it.
Jem was born on May 22nd, 1955 to Bonnie Copeland and Nick Allen in Crossville, Tennessee. He had four sisters – Mary Ruth, Geraldean, Joyce, and Brigetta and one brother, Henry. Jem’s father, Nick, was killed in a car accident when he was young before he had a chance to meet him. Growing up, he was close to his siblings, particularly Mary Ruth whom he called Sissy Bug. He had only recently connected to his half-sister Brigetta and was looking forward to getting to know her better when he passed away.
Growing up in Tennessee, he was a rough and tumble little boy who protected his sisters. In the summer, his mother would give each of the kids a nickel to go to the store and get a moon pie and coca cola. There were two ways to get to the store – walk three miles on the dirt road or cut across the neighbor’s field and be there in a mile. The only problem was that the neighbor had a bull. So Jem’s sister’s devised a plan – Jem would take off running to distract the bull the other direction, allowing the girls to run across the field. When they got safely over the fence, they would in turn scream and holler to get the bull’s attention so that Jem could cross the field safely, too. What they didn’t realize is that their hollering only riled the bull more making him run faster after their little brother. Jem could feel the end of the bull’s horn just as he slid under the fence to safety.
Mary Ruth liked to play kitchen outside and Jem begrudgingly followed along. One day she made mud pies, and started to cry when Jem wouldn’t eat her delicious goodness. The ever gracious and caring big brother, he would rather eat the mud pie then watch his sister cry and so that’s exactly what he did…all three of them.
In 6th grade, Jem and a few of his classmates decided to smoke whatever they could roll up like a cigarette. They would sneak across the field during lunch and recess to roll their contraband and one day were caught by the Principal. Jem, thinking he was smart, decided to stuff his in his coat pocket. He hung the coat in the cloak room and went back to class. Within a few minutes, the cloak room was full of smoke and he had caught his classroom on fire.
Incredibly talented artistically and good at building things, he once described high school to me as “boring”. He dropped out before he graduated, much to the chagrin of his mother, and instead joined the United States Army where he served as a helicopter gunner, saving hundreds of his fellow soldiers during the Vietnam war. He was shot in the head during the conflict and earned the Purple Heart for being wounded in battle. His bravery during that period of his life wasn’t something he bragged about – instead it was reflected on with humility and gratitude.
He welcomed daughter Leah in 1975 and was deployed to Germany shortly after. It was there, he met the love of his life Chris. Unfortunately, this is where life and love get complicated. You’ll recall I mentioned the Hallmark channel?? Bridget was born in 1978 but did not meet Jem until many years later when God would bring Chris and Jem back together again after many years of searching and heartbreak for both of them. In 1991, Jem became a dad for the third time to son Cody.
Serving as a gunner wasn’t Jem’s only sacrifice for his fellow man. While stationed in Germany, Jem and his buddy were leaving a bar when they heard a woman screaming in an alley nearby. Racing to the scene, they witnessed a man brutally stabbing the young lady. Immediately, Jem jumped in to save the woman, suffering 6 stab wounds to the abdomen himself before subduing the attacker.
One of his favorite scriptures, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” – John 15:13. He also served as a paramedic, firefighter, police officer, and specialized in cave search and rescue. He even traveled with his firefighting unit to help search and rescue efforts at Ground Zero after 9/11. His life was always a testament to his belief in serving and loving others.
On February 2nd, 2002, his life was forever changed when a co-worker knocked over a rack of steel pipe, crushing every major organ, breaking his back, pelvis, an arm, his knee, and a foot. This was the beginning of the many health issues that eventually took him home.
Always creative, Jem was an incredible artist. A drafter by trade, his talents weren’t just designing buildings and staircases. He made several pieces of art cherished by family, especially Chris, Bridget, Bill, and Aspen. He also liked to use those creative juices to build spectacular Christmas light displays. While working for a ceramic and tile design company, he was given the task of designing the annual Christmas float. He had dancing Santas, moving reindeer, and animations of all kinds. In the nine years he did the float, he took 1st place 8 years in a row.
After his injury in 2002, Jem became a long-haul truck driver and used his time on the road to try and find Chris. He hauled exotic animals from Florida to Canada and came through Idaho ever three weeks. For years, he would look for Chris, most often in Boise because that is where he thought she was. He would stop at the Flying J in Twin Falls and fuel and even sometimes spend the night. For three years he looked throughout Idaho for his soul-mate. Little did he know that she was managing the hotel right next door to where he was getting gas. They laughed many times about being in the same place at the same time and not even knowing it.
In 2008, after 9 years of searching, he arrived at his “IDA-HOME”. He loved his grandchildren and embraced Bill and I as his own. He dreamed of days when the pain he suffered would let him play freely with his grandchildren and serve his wife – from riding horses to shooting guns and bows arrows. He truly yearned for his body to allow him to be active and outside.
Chris and Jem built a life together, cherishing every moment they had together. Shortly after Jem arrived in Idaho, he was given only 6 months to live. Instead, he taught us patience and where we got our stubbornness from, and enjoyed 7 years more than he was told he had. In 2013, he made it official and Chris and Jem married in a little white chapel not far from here. We called it the hitching, but really it was just another part of a beautiful love story between my parents. Not everyone is lucky enough to have that and I am grateful that my parents, even though it took some twists and turns, loved each other deeply.
That love and affection, combined with a hint of mischief, was evident in their everyday life. Chris worked downstairs in her home office. Jem’s health required her assistance from time to time so if he needed her, he would simply tap his cane on the floor to get her attention. She would run upstairs quickly to see what was needed. He would smile and grin and tell her “nothing – just wondered what you were doing”. This would go on for three or four more times, until she would threaten to throttle him. Then he would smile and tell her to be patient. And she couldn’t help but smile.
In the hospital, he would have moments where he was awake enough to communicate with us. The ventilator prevented him from talking, but he could write notes. Sometimes they were hard to decipher, but there were many over those 11 days that simply said that he loved us and one where he said he was sorry. Since he has passed, Chris has found several notes he left for her in random places, a testament to his thoughtfulness, gracious spirit, and deep love for his wife. His health didn’t always allow him to be the kind of husband he wanted to be – mowing lawns and painting and fixing things up – but his heart allowed him to be the kind of husband God wanted him to be – full of love, hope, and humility.
Sometimes life just isn’t fair. And my mom summed it up perfectly when she said she felt cheated because Jem had left us far too soon. Several days before he died, we got to share a few moments talking about Jesus and eternal life. In his struggle to overcome earthly pain, he found grace and solace in what was coming and where he is now – drinking pepsi, eating Fast Break candy bars, riding Tennessee Walkers, meeting his dad for the first time, embracing his mother, and sitting at our Savior’s feet. He is gone for now and missed deeply by his grandchildren, his children, his wife, his brothers and sisters, and his friends. But we rejoice in knowing we will see him again and are grateful that we were part of the screenplay of his life.