The Passing of a Faraway Friend

Today I had planned to give some link love, but instead I want to use this space to mark the passing of a beloved friend and a regular commenter. Last week I found out that Jack (username Jack Phoenix) passed away suddenly. I want to take a moment to tell Jack’s story.

When I started Rogue Priest, Jack became one of my first regular readers. What caught my attention was the compassion and warmth with which he wrote. When I talked about the idea of trying to live more like the great heroes he never mocked or doubted me. He was always ready to offer sound advice and sincere encouragement.

This is perhaps even more remarkable because of his trying past. Jack was born in the Ukraine during the Holodomor. If you don’t know what the Holodomor is, it was an artificial famine in the 1930s in the Ukraine. It was engineered by Soviet Russia to reduce the population of the Ukraine and maximize the amount of food Russia got from them. It was a genocide. Jack’s father starved, while hiding food for his children so that they could live.

Jack’s older brother smuggled him out of the country and through Poland to the UK. Jack survived but his brother ultimately did not.

By the time I knew him, Jack was 78 years old: retired, living simply and very happily with his family in Hawaii. I remember him being very excited to hear about people’s dreams. He once wrote:

I adore that the impossible is recreational to this generation.

I’m retired from the impossible these days but when I was young I did the impossible.

I lived.

I hope you live through your impossible journey too my young friend.

Jack lived a long and, ultimately, happy life. When he died his family found a letter he left for me, which was incredibly moving. Since then I’ve had the chance to chat a little with his wife Nora and discovered that she has the same bright warmth as Jack.

Jack left instructions that he does not want fancy ceremonies or long speeches saying how great he was. So instead, I will ask you to join me in remembering Jack through our actions. Jack was always very touched when he saw people giving food to children. Please consider baking something for the kids in your family or donating food to a food drive to help those who are hungry. If you put a smile on a child’s face I know that is the best thing you can do in honor of this man.

I wish I had a chance to meet him in real life, but as he said, “live well and that will be enough.” Godspeed on your journey, Jack.


8 thoughts on “The Passing of a Faraway Friend

  1. What a treasure to meet a man like that, even if not face to face. When I meet someone like that, it restores my hope for humanity, not to mention my hope for myself when I reach such an age.

  2. Nora says:

    Drew Drew,

    Thank you so much for your touching tributes to my husband.

    I wanted to share this with you, it’s my favorite memory of Jack.

    Jack’s best friend’s name was Alex. Alex was the best man at our wedding, our son is named for him, and when he became ill with cancer we took him in and Jack personally cared for him, feeding him every day. The first time Jack tried to feed him he refused but Jack persisted and eventually Alex accepted Jack’s care.

    Alex had initially refused Jack feeding him out of shame. You see, Alex’s real name was Alexi. He was the Soviet middle man in charge of starving Jack’s village during the Holodomor. Jack’s brother had told him of Alexi and advised him that should he get the opportunity he should see him for himself. A number of years after we moved to America Jack got that chance.

    Alex had defected to the United States and was living in the town we moved to, just down the street from our apartment. Jack and I went to his house and I recorded their conversation. There Jack confronted him and told him,

    “I know who you are Alexi and you know who I am but you do not remember me. In the old country there was a boy and a baby who went missing into the woods and presumed dead. I am that baby and you are the man who made me an orphan.”

    Alex said, “If you wish to kill me, I would understand. I’ve done terrible things in my life, my death would be well deserved.”

    Jack responded, “I only wished to fulfill my obligation to my brother to see you with my own eyes. I wanted to know what kind of a man you are. Now that I see you I understand you’re not a monster. You’re a good man with a good heart who was led astray by fear. So confident am I in your good nature I wish to tell you I forgive you. Not only for my own life, but for my brothers, sisters, father, mother, all of my family, and all of my village that you killed. Nothing can undo what you have done and it will not be forgotten, but I forgive you. From this day forward you are a brother to me and if you are ever hungry I swear I will make a place for you at my table.”

    Needless to say Alex was dumbstruck and after much weeping and pleading for death and vengeance he accepted Jack’s forgiveness. The two of them became dear friends, indeed like brothers. Jack never spoke of Alex’s past again and always referred to him as “my dear brother”.

    When Alex moved in with us he asked Jack why he was going to such lengths to care for him. He demanded to know why he would feed a man such as him. Jack responded softly, “Because as your brother it is my duty, and as your friend it is my privilege.”

    My husband was a man unlike any other to look into the eyes of the man who took everything from him and call him a brother. I want you to always remember, dear Drew, that you sincerely inspired hope in his heart, and in my heart too. Be well sweetie, and thank you again for helping to honor and remember my husband.


    • Nora, I cannot imagine how I could have inspired hope in Jack, when this story of him is what inspires so much hope in me. If I can be one fifth the person Jack was I will be glad. I want to take this story and make it a front page blog post of its own, to show what heroic compassion means. But Jack did not want to be praised and put up as an example, and I’ve already talked him up so much. I don’t know if I should spotlight this in a post or just leave it be. But I can tell you that when I am faced with people I hate I will be thinking of this example and doing my best to show the same incredible love that Jack showed.

  3. I am so sorry about the passing of your friend. No words can express… I just wanted to leave a quick reply to give you my continued support. You are very blessed to have such a wealth of friends, even in the other world they support you…

    I wish I could say/do more.

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