My Journey to Robert Jordan's FuneralEdit
Posted by Jason on September 27th, 2007 in the Robert Jordan's Blog category
The following is an account of my experiences when I traveled to South Carolia for Robert Jordan's funeral. I was privileged to attend his services in Charleston, and to meet his family. My goal in attending the funeral was to represent as many of his fans as possible, and to document everything in order to share it with you. I hope what follows can help give you a sense of what it was like to be there. Even though you couldn't attend, I promise you, whether you're reading this in the school computer lab, at the office, or in your kitchen, you were in my thoughts and heart, and I did what I could to make sure RJ and his family knew it. It wasn't just me visiting them... it was all of us.
I received a phone call from Wilson on Sunday, September 16th. That's when all of this began. I could tell immediately from his tone that something had happened. "We lost him," Wilson said. "Jim passed away today."
To be honest, I don't exactly remember what my first reaction to that gut-wrenching statement was. I remember being worried for Harriet, and I remember being sad for Wilson because I could hear how upset he was on the phone, but in that infinitesimal moment when the words first sink in, I think I felt a wide array of emotions. There was sadness, of course, and shock, because we had just received good news in the previous blog entry, but there was also ... what? Disappointment? It would be a lie to say that I wasn't heartsick at the thought that RJ wouldn't be finishing the final volume in The Wheel of Time. Most of you I'm sure, felt it too. Just as he was honest with us until the end, so I will be honest here. I think we're all sad, and at least a tiny bit frustrated, by not having A Memory of Light completed in the way we wanted and hoped for.
Before you think poorly of me, hear me out. Obviously, we can't blame RJ for that. To do so is to show a lack of understanding of the way he worked and the way he fought this disease. Amyloidosis is a brutal disease and nobody could fight as hard as Jim Rigney. His blog is a testament to his fight and his dedication. He proved to us, right here, that he was Aiel to the core: "Till shade is gone, till water is gone, into the Shadow with teeth bared, screaming defiance with the last breath, to spit in Sightblinder's eye on the Last Day." I don't think there could be a stronger statement that defined RJ's fight with the disease. When I say I was frustrated, it lasted only a fraction a second. It is, in part, our ability to overcome our negative emotions that makes us human to begin with. I took that frustration and fed it to the flame, and let the void surround me. There was work to be done, fans to be notified, and questions to be answered.
Thus began a three-day adventure that I'll never forget.
A quick note: For those of you who may not know, Robert Jordan was a pen name used by James ("Jim") Rigney. Jim is survived by his wife Harriet, his step-son Will, his brother Reynolds, and a full host of cousins, nephews, nieces, second-cousins-twice-removed, and more. A few people have asked me who Wilson is, and what a "Brother/Cousin, 4th of 3" means. Indeed, it sounds like a bizarre mix of the Borg, southern genealogy, and the even stranger Aiel relationships, but it's actually quite simple. Wilson is Jim's first cousin and they have always been very close, so close in fact that they considered one another brothers. So, that's where Wilson's use of the term "Brother/Cousin" comes from. The "4th of 3" refers to the fact that Jim was one of 3 brothers (Ted, the third brother, passed away a few years ago) and Wilson was considered the "4th" brother in that family.
Jim lived in Charleston, South Carolina, in a beautiful old home that's been in Harriet's family since the 1930's. One of the kindest gestures I received this week was having Wilson say that I would be welcome there, and at Jim's funeral.
On Sunday evening, I posted the news of RJ's passing several hours after it occurred. Wilson sent me the brief write up that you've all read by now. Within minutes, the Dragonmount.com server began to see an unusually large increase in traffic. Within an hour, the site had slowed to a crawl. By the following morning, it was nearly impossible to get to RJ's blog. Initial reports run by the DM admins on the server at the time suggested an increase of traffic of about 250-300 times the normal amount. We estimated that it would take about 120 extra CPU's to fully handle all of the requests coming in at every moment. The DM server is brand-new, still cutting edge, but with the kind of numbers we were seeing, all we could do was try to keep the website stable.
The next morning I found myself on a plane flying from California to South Carolina. I grabbed a rental car and set off to drive to Robert Jordan's house. Let me pause here a moment and say that again: I was driving to Robert Jordan's house! If you're as much of a fan-boy as I am (and I know there are A LOT of you who are AT LEAST as big a fan as I am of his books), it would be a wild and crazy thing to think of going to the Creator's house and seeing where the books were written. Less than a week ago, such a thing would have seemed ridiculous to me. South Carolina is so far away. The closest I had ever come to visiting the Deep South before this trip was watching Gone with the Wind, and attending DragonCon in downtown Atlanta a few years ago, a decidedly different experience than visiting Charleston.
Jim once told me that he lived in the Two Rivers and suggested I check a map. I never had his mailing address though, and I couldn't exactly Google it, could I? But now, having been there, I can tell you that he wasn't kidding. He lives in the Two Rivers! Charleston proper is situated on a peninsula. The two bodies of water on either side of the peninsula are rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper. Jim and Harriet are very near the tip of the peninsula where these two rivers collide. They're deep in the Two Rivers. You might say they live as deep into their Two Rivers district as Emond's Field is in its own.
All of the homes in this area are old historical buildings, usually three, maybe four stories tall, with the well-known pillars and balconies that define the architecture of the southern United States. Jim and Harriet's home was completed in 1795. As I drove up their street, looking for the right house number, I saw a large white gate, and knew that I'd arrived. Carved into the gates are two large, sinuous creatures with five fingers on each claw. The symbol of the Dragon used in the books. I had found it.
That Tuesday evening when I arrived was filled with so many amazing memories. I'll never forget it. First, I want you all to know that I found Harriet very quickly (or rather, she found me) and I let her know (on behalf of myself and all of you) that I was sincerely sorry for her loss. Her way of replying was to give me a warm smile, look me in the eyes, and say, "For you as well." Harriet is an amazing woman. You've heard RJ say it over and over again, but this week I saw it for myself. A southern lady to the core, Harriet is the essence of grace, with an easy manner that makes you feel like an old friend the moment you meet her, and an air of poise that belied her grief as she comforted others. Her eyes are warm and gentle, and sparkling with intelligence and wit. Oftentimes, I saw her with tears glistening in those lovely eyes, but she had just as many smiles to give to the rest of us. More, actually. She sang and clapped her heart out. She laughed with, and hugged, and kissed everyone who came to visit. I was welcomed into her home as part of the family this week, and cannot find the words to express how humbled and honored I am to have been included. By welcoming me, she and the rest of Jim's family welcomed us all as a unified collection of fans. Have no doubt that you were all there with us that evening.
A bit about RJ's home. God, where to begin? Every wall is covered in artwork, most of it paintings. There are some photographs, but by and large those were only present at desks or set in a frame under a lamp. The parlor has several floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with nothing except all the various editions of The Wheel of Time. It seemed as though every edition for each book was there and all of the translations. I'm six and a half feet tall and I would need a ladder to get to the upper shelves. If you have seen the book, then you've seen the large, antique dragon chair that RJ owned. It's pretty darn scary up close. It sits near the bookcases like a guardian ready to spring at the unwary critic. The effect, however, was a bit ruined by the fluffy pillows and blankets draped across it. :)
As wondrous as the house itself is, the most exciting place to visit is, of course, the place where it all happened, the carriage house. This is where RJ wrote all of his books. Inside is a library of over 16,000 books (yes, you read that right) and at least several hundred bladed weapons. Swords, axes, spears, and knives of all shapes and sizes line the walls and shelves of his office. Both the upstairs and downstairs areas are jam-packed with this stuff. It was like walking into a used bookstore that also happened to sell weapons, smoking pipes, and funky hats. I guess RJ liked to wear different hats when he wrote. Not just the ones you saw him wear on tour or in publicity photos, but wacky Viking helmets or jester hats. Who knew? Maybe it helped him get into all the different characters. Maria, one of his assistants, seemed to think he did it just to keep them all laughing, or guessing about his sanity.
One other thing about the carriage house is that it was filled with gifts sent to him by fans. There were sketches, paintings, sculptures, plaques, and other memorabilia that he had received over the years from people who loved his work. It was pretty clear that he treasured those things. So, if you were ever a fan who sent in letters or gifts, be assured that he received them. I also received confirmation that he read every single letter written to him over the years. Clearly, he did not always have time to reply to them all, but he read every one and it meant a lot to him.
Okay, one last carriage house story, then I'll move on. While I was there, the temptation to sit down at his desk, in his chair, at his computer, became overwhelming. I noted at the time how strange it was to be feeling as though this act were sacrilegious. Of course, I meant no disrespect. I just wanted to sit at the place where these books had been written. As I eased myself into the chair, I was overcome by a profound sense of excitement and sadness. I could feel his presence and his eyes on me in this place where he poured out so much of himself through his writing. The screen was dark as my fingers hovered over the keyboard, aching to touch the letters. I typed the word "RAND", just a silly attempt to mimic the strokes that keyboard had seen countless times before. The computer screen, which a moment before had been a dark sentinel guarding its Master's desk, suddenly sprang to life from sleep mode and beeped loudly at me. I damn near jumped out of my skin! I vaulted from that chair as if the Dark One himself were in pursuit and fled with the distinct realization that there were a lot of sharp swords and scary masks watching my hasty retreat!
That same Tuesday night while we were outside, Wilson pointed out to me that even though we were in the downtown area of a major city, if you closed your eyes and listened, all you could hear were crickets. Our beloved RJ lived in a slice of heaven, my friends. You probably have heard him speak of how much he loved that city, and I can now see why. Look at these photos and the lush jungle of greenery that surrounded him. I have little doubt that the trees and landscape of his home helped him to imagine the Green Man and the Nym, the Ogier Groves, and the eternal forests in dreams where wolves hunt and dreamwalkers dwell. It was here in his Stedding, beneath the trees and a canopy of stars that I stayed late into the night, sharing stories with Jim's friends and family and letting the peace of the warm southern evening pass through me.
The following morning I arrived back at the house early. Even after the warm welcome the night before, I was amazed to find myself seated at the breakfast table with the members of his immediate family. (Somebody invited me to sit in Jim's chair, but I hastily declined because of my last adventure with one of his chairs. The walls of the dining room were covered in paintings of Jim and I felt them "giving me the eye.") The newspaper reports were rolling in and we all read them. One of them... the London Times, perhaps?... even used the term "Randland". Ha ha ha! I got a great chuckle from seeing that term used in a major newspaper.
Shortly after breakfast, I found myself helping out by doing dishes. Washing dishes is a soothing task for me, so I find that I do it quite often. (My wife thinks I'm crazy, but she never complains.) Also, I figured that, had any of you been there, you probably would have done the same thing. Jim has given so much to us that doing a simple chore like washing plates on the day of his funeral was an easy task to do. It also helped pass a little time before going to the church.
The funeral took place at St. Stephen's in Charleston. It's a small church with a simple and glorious beauty. Jim's ashes were on a pedestal in front of the altar. In addition to family and friends, I saw some fans who had come to pay their respects. Among them was Melissa Craib, the founder of TarValon.net. I was glad for her presence as she was someone I knew well, but more than that, I was glad she was there because she was another fan. Jim would have wanted her there. Melissa has already written up a report on the funeral. You can read it here.
Tom Doherty, the founder and president of Tor Books, gave the eulogy. He said Jim was one of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century, and that he believed time would show the same was true for the 21st century. I couldn't agree more. Whether or not you like the books, regardless if you're frustrated by their size or pace, I think we could all agree that the sheer majesty and scope of the Wheel of Time series is unparalleled. Simply put, it's the longest, and perhaps the most accessible, epic fantasy saga today.
By the way, I had the amazing fortune to be able to talk at length with Tom D. over the course of my visit. Tom is a man whose experience and insight into publishing is eclipsed only by his warmth and kindness, and his love for Jim and Harriet. If that sounds overly sugary, I assure you it isn't. I would be hard pressed to meet another man as kind and attentive as Tom.
Harriet's son, Will, Jim's brother, Reynolds, and Wilson all spoke at the funeral. Wilson read a truly moving essay that touched me deeply. I'll post a copy of it soon.
In the end, the most amazing part of the funeral was the singing. Now, I won't claim that we had the most talented vocalists in attendance, but what the congregation might have lacked in talent, it more than made up for in spirit. And that is what we sang, spirituals. Songs with roots that run deeply through the southern experience and blossom at need to replenish the hearts of the grieving and remind them of the hope that lays in faith. At one point, the church was bursting with song. I remember looking up as we raised our voices to heaven, and I thought of all of you fans who were not present. I thought of how, with the people above in upper balconies and the white walls, this must be a little what it's like to be in the White Tower for assemblies. The songs rose into the air, and together we sang Jim's spirit into heaven, and into one another, and around the world.
I should mention that Harriet wore one of Jim's hats to church. You know those wide-brimmed hats he wore on tour? (Not at all dissimilar to a hat worn by a certain ta'veren gambler.) Well, Harriet was sporting one of those very stylishly and it choked me up to see her wearing it.
Following the funeral was a reception where everyone could mingle and chat. I had met many of the people there the night before, but this became an opportunity to meet even more folks, and go deeper into conversation with those I had already spoken with. Many fond memories of Jim were shared. Aside from being a famous author, the fact that so many people would attend his funeral and have nothing but good things to say about him speaks volumes about the kind of man he was. I had come to Charleston for Robert Jordan's funeral, seeking a chance to say good-bye to a well-beloved author. What I actually found after three days with his family and friends was so much more than I could ever have imagined. I was gifted with the opportunity to learn about Jim Rigney, the man, a far more fascinating person than Robert Jordan could ever be.
I spent the few hours between the funeral and the burial touring downtown Charleston and mingling at the reception. Harriet's cousin, Harriet (yes, another Harriet), and her husband George were gracious and gave me a tour of downtown Charleston. I was able to learn a bit about the city and places Jim used to frequent. Most notably, I saw the Yacht Club where he was a member. One thing that strikes me about a place like Charleston is how much HISTORY there is everywhere you go, and how people here know their ancestry back multiple generations. Harriet and George told me that they were instructed when they were young to "know the maiden name of all four of your great-grandmothers." I was only able to come up with one of them. I promised George that I'd research the other three and get back to him! Many of you are wiser than I am and already know this lesson, but for those who don't know it yet, I humbly offer it here. Take the time to learn about your roots! Know who your family was and how you ultimately came to be. Most of our personal histories are still passed through oral tradition. So, take the time at some point in your life to know those who came before you and pass the information on to those who follow. This is clearly a lesson Jim learned early in his life, or maybe had bred into him from the start. These histories will help complete you and may even spark creativity or insight that you didn't know was there before.
The final stage of Jim's funeral was his burial. Once again I was humbled by the family's invitation to attend this very private affair. We buried him out in the country, and I say "we" now because it was made clear to me numerous times by different people that I was an honorary member of the family, a distinction that I kindly extended to all of you in spirit. Harriet dropped rose petals into the grave with her son Will by her side. At one point, she was presented with a folded United States flag as is traditional at the burial of a U.S. veteran. The men in Jim's family; Reynolds, Will, Tom Jones, and Wilson, all placed the dirt on top of him; an eternal blanket to keep him for the Ages.
The church where he was buried was completed in 1785 and has had continuous services since then. Jim and Harriet were married there. His grave is next to that of several family members who preceded him and Harriet told me that one day she would rest next to him at the same site. Prayers were read, songs were sung, and tears were shed. This was, by far, the hardest moment for me personally. Despite the sadness of those present, you could see the deep bonds of family coming together to support each other. The Rigneys, like your family, like mine... are just that: a group of people who have discovered that together they are greater than the sum of their individual members. I saw Jim's family brought together by his life. Like any other family, I'm sure they have problems and disagreements, but the strength in their love for one another is evident when they gather together. These were the people who loved him, and I'm proud to have stood with them as your representative.
While the tears flowed, and the bagpiper from the Citadel played his mournful tune, I saw something radiant which made me smile. A little baby, only a few months old with beautiful eyes, was looking directly at me. I snapped a photo of her because here was a sign of new life and promise among the cold stones and the earth. Here was someone that Jim probably cherished in his last months and would have wanted the world for. The Wheel of Time turns...
Towards the end, when most of the family was finished with their farewells, I took a moment to sit before Jim's grave. I tried to recall that first excitement I had when I read The Eye of the World thirteen years ago. I offered a bit of that feeling to him, so that the joy of having read his books might stay with him for a while as he rests. Once again I thought of all of you and told him how much we all loved him. I thanked him for the gift of his books, and I bade him farewell.
I remembered the previous times I met Jim (when he was on book tour). I would always see him and think "Wow! That man right there is Perrin and Mat and Elayne and Loial, and Asmodean and Elaida and everyone else all made flesh." I would imagine that by shaking his hand I would be shaking all of their hands. As the burial approached, I had expected to feel a similar thing when he was buried. I expected to feel as though we were laying all of those characters into the ground, but that never happened. I realized that these characters and events are very much alive and present. Go into any bookstore and Mat is as alive and witty as ever. Rand will always be his charming and...uh...moody... self. The Forsaken will always be a threat. Jim gave these characters life, but we sustain them, and that is what I truly believe applies to the living as well. We live life in order to interact and be with others. By sharing a bit of yourself with another person you connect with them on a deeper level. There is energy within and between us all. Life, God, or the True Source, whatever you want to call it, is what I think we're here for, or so I felt at that particular moment at the foot of Robert Jordan's grave.
Jim had wanted a certain song to be played at his funeral, Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. For some reason it wasn't possible to do it, so after most people had left the burial ground, Mary, Harriet's cousin whom Jim had treated and loved like a daughter, loaded the CD up in Jim's Porsche and cranked it up. The music evoked a sense of sadness laced with hope and the promise of salvation.
Oh, and, by the way, I got to ride in that Porsche on the way home. Jim bought it for himself when he became the New York Times #1 best-seller for the first time. (Book 8, I think). He told me a couple of years back via e-mail that "it handles like it's on rails." Indeed, it did.
The rest of Wednesday was spent back at the house. Once again, I walked through the carriage house, this time taking photos. (The swords and hats no longer seemed angry with me for sitting in his chair.) Wilson took me upstairs in the main house where I saw the original painting of the cover from The Dragon Reborn. This is the one for which Harriet asked the painter to remove Ishamael's face. I also was able to see Jim's numerous war medals, and those of his father.
The evening went on, and night fell. My flight for home left the next morning at 6 AM (yuck). Making my farewells was hard, as I had genuinely come to enjoy everyone's company so much. I felt like I was leaving the Winespring Inn in the Two Rivers. Several of the ladies wanted to make sure I had had enough to eat, and a few of the gentlemen wanted to be certain I had all my travel arrangements in place. On both of my back-to-back nights leaving Jim's house, I walked away with a plate full of food. I now know what the term "southern hospitality" means.
I could not possibly write about all of the conversations I had during my time in Charleston. There were so many of them, and much of what was said was somewhat private in nature. Mostly, conversations were about everyday things, but the WoT geek in me was curious, and so I poked around. I can tell you this much: nothing about the plot of the final novel was revealed to me. I'm no closer to the identity of Asmodean's killer than you are. (Although, come on people, it's been 15 years. You should know by now. Go read the WoT FAQ. When I suggested to Maria who I thought it was she gave me a "Don't-even-go-there" look.) What I do know about A Memory of Light is that we need to give everyone time to figure out what's going to happen with it next. Wilson has already revealed previously on RJ's blog that Jim left some pretty detailed notes on what would happen. He, Harriet, and presumably Maria and the other assistants, all know the endings and secrets. There are both written notes and audio recordings of Jim saying what happened. (Wouldn't it be cool to have that audio published with the final novel someday? Tor, are you listening?) How or when we'll see A Memory of Light in published form needs to be worked out. Jim's death is too recent and the wounds it left too raw to his family to say when the last volume will be completed. Time will provide us with the book we want, and the conclusion the series deserves. We just have to be patient.
Speaking of conclusions, so ends my adventure. Although, as Jim has told us eleven times before, there are no beginnings or endings to the turning of the Wheel. I hope this gave you even a little taste of what it was like. I'll never forget those days at Jim and Harriet's house. I am saddened by our loss, and at the same time, overjoyed by the opportunity I was given. I wish each of you could have seen the bookshelves, felt the grip of the swords, and heard the crickets. And the music. Wow... the music especially will stay with me forever. The Tinkers and Ogier need look no further for their songs than the ones we sang to Jim Rigney when we gave him to the earth.
I'll end with this beautiful quote that was printed on the back of Jim's prayer card at the funeral. I have a bunch of them and I'll figure out a way to give them away to some of you. The other fans at the funeral may have already posted them. The quote reads as follows. I have it burned into my memory.
"He came like the wind, like the wind touched everything, and like the wind was gone."
Thank you Jim, for touching my life, and the lives of all those reading this and beyond. We will miss you so.
In loving memory, and on behalf of all those reading this, I remain,