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Nina Jean: June 1, 1957 – May 9, 2010

May 10, 2010

Nina died last night. She went peacefully, something the doctors and those who loved her were afraid wouldn’t happen. The prognosis was for the cancer to eat through a blood vessel in her neck, resulting in a sudden, violent, uncomfortable end. Thank God it wasn’t like that.

Nina was my first wife, the mother of my two daughters, whose emotions were exposed in separate columns here: “You’re dying, Mom” on March 22, and “The beauty within” on March 23.

I guess it’s my turn now.

I remember that I was proud to be with Nina, to know that she was my wife. It’s a long time ago, a lot of emotion has come and gone, but I still remember the unique and awesome human being that she was – full of energy, full of health, full of animal magnetism, and constantly expressing an aggressive confrontation with the world.

She was also the kind of woman that men look at, even when they shouldn’t, and while that sometimes caused resentment with other women, it made me proud as a peacock. Hey, she married me, so I must be hot stuff, right?

Athletic! I remember taking Nina to play football with me on Sundays, and I remember a man named Sid chasing her ninety yards down the field, the legs on her 5’4” body like cartoon blurs. (Sorry, Nina, I mean five four and a quarter.) Sid was determined that a woman not be faster than him, and when she outran him and scored the touchdown he kept right on going straight off the field and to his car and nobody ever saw him again.

I remember a pickup basketball game in my parents’ driveway at Silver Lake, watched by various people sitting around the driveway in lawn chairs. Among them was my dad’s longtime friend and coworker, Von Hippensteel, who never forgot what he saw. It was Nina and me against two guys. She played in her bare feet. On concrete. Until the day Von died, almost every time I saw him he mentioned that basketball game and how amazing she was.

I remember going cross country skiing for the first time with friends, something Nina and I had never done. Cross country skiing is high energy activity, especially for beginners, but at the end of the day the friends, experienced skiers, were worn to a nub and Nina wanted to go dancing.

Me? Worn to a nub, but not admitting it.

The first time she spent real time with my family was at Silver Lake, Memorial Day weekend in 1977. We had a big dinner at my parents, with my sister Mary and brother Bob and their families. They were meeting Nina for the first time. After the meal, as table clearing and cleanup started, Nina walked through the kitchen, out the back door, and started sprinting across the giant vacant lot next door, running a huge 200-yard loop through the long grass in her bare feet. Like a deer. Mom and Dad stopped working on dirty dishes and leaned their heads together to peer out the window. They watched my sprinting fiancée for a minute, then my mother turned to me and said, “What is she doing, Jim?”

“Beats the hell out of me,” I answered, “but she sure can run, can’t she?”

Four years later, on another Memorial Weekend, the family set up a softball game in the same vacant lot and I watched my eight-and-a-half-month-pregnant wife hit a ground ball that she turned into a single, running down the first base line with cartoon-blur legs and her belly protruding a whole time zone in front of her. She looked like a Sherman tank running from Rommel.

Five years after that I spent my first Memorial Day weekend at Silver Lake without Nina. In between we’d had another baby and Nina had broken the gender barrier in the Grand Rapids Fire Department. That’s another thing I remember: at her firefighter academy graduation ceremony, one of the local television news crews pointed a camera at me and a young female reporter asked me, “How does it feel to be the first husband of a full-time firefighter in Michigan?”

I stared at the red light of that camera, paralyzed with stage fright, and finally managed to croak out something on the order of, “Huh?”

The divorce was devastating to me because I cherished the family we’d created. I didn’t want divorce and didn’t understand why it happened, but in the long run it was probably the best thing. We were not overly compatible (like Hillary Clinton is not overly compatible with Rush Limbaugh) and married way, way too quickly (as our parents repeatedly warned us). In the final analysis, divorce gave me a chance to grow up.

(Yes, believe it or not, even the most recalcitrant man can eventually mature.)

As the years passed and addiction came to define her, our contact was more and more infrequent. Maybe our divorce a quarter century ago and the infrequency of our contact give me a perspective that her family and her friends and our daughters don’t have: I remember Nina as she was then, in the prime of her life, a force-of-nature wonder of the world.

I’m glad that she loved me – I’m proud that she loved me – even if it was only for a minute. And I’m eternally grateful for the daughters she gave me.

Goodbye, Nina. For a second time, and last time, goodbye. May God give you the peace that eluded you in life.

From Reno, Nevada, USA


May 19, 2010

The Grand Rapids Press wrote a nice obituary mentioning Nina's pioneering entry into the fire department, reproduced here on It's interesting that one of her two female classmates from that fire training class is now the fire chief.

May 19, 2010 - So sorry to hear about Nina. She was definitely a dynamic personality. We have some great memories too. - Bob & Aggie, Michigan

May 13, 2010 - Wonderful tribute Jim! God bless you, Sam, and Casey. - Todd L., Michigan

May 11, 2010 - Jim, Sam and Casey sorry to hear about your loss. Sam/Casey, I read your pieces and it was touching - my story is just about identical. My father also left early at 52. I had lots of 'future' plans for us but, 26 years ago (6 days after my birthday) it all ended due to the same disease. You'll hurt for a while but, you'll emerge stronger with an appreciation life and all that surrounds you. I've learned to live life for today and appreciate all those that I come in contact with, including the friendships I made with you and your family when I moved to Grand Rapids in 1990. Thanks for sharing your memories - be strong. - Leroy B., Connecticut

May 11, 2010 - Jim, my heartfelt condolences to you and your family. - Pam T., Michigan

May 11, 2010 - Jim, I remember the nights of Trivial Pursuit at your house, Nina and you had us all laughing. Of course the cough syrup helped! - Pat T., Michigan
J.P. replies: Pat is referring to a small party a long time ago. I was suffering from a cold and conceived the brilliant idea of using peach brandy as cough syrup. Every time I felt an uncontrollable urge to cough, I'd sip the brandy until the urge was gone. I'm sure most people can imagine how that turned out.

May 11, 2010 - I loved your memories of a woman who welcomed me into this family and was someone I will never forget. We had such fun together. Her life was never ordinary, I am so glad to see it ended with in peace. Because when all is said and done we can't ask for much more than that. - Denise G., Michigan

May 11, 2010 - Awesome memories for you to express to us Jim. God Bless Nina, the girls, and you! - Tim G., Michigan

May 11, 2010 - May the Grace of GOD be with you and your family Jim. - Michael B., Michigan

May 11, 2010 - Jim... your memories of Nina are beautiful and the way she would like to be remembered by us all... full of life, love and laughter and not letting those who loved her or were closest to her to know the demons below the surface. I will miss her and always remember her being so very vibrant in life. - Mary, Silver Lake

May 11, 2010 - Very powerful words Jim! Very touching....thinking of you and the girls. - Colleen A., Michigan

May 10, 2010 - I am sorry to hear about Nina's death. She was a beautiful and very unusual woman. I am mostly sorry about the terrible loss your girls feel. I am glad that they seem to understand that she just couldn't do more than she did as a mom. She just didn't have it in her. I am sure that she wanted to. Please give the girls my love!!! - Lynne, Chicago

May 10, 2010 - Heartbreaking & impossible to comprehend. She's a person I remember as too full of life to get my brain around her being gone. - Bree, Seattle

May 10, 2010 - Thank you dad. That was beautiful, and of course brought tears to my eyes. Mom really was a force of nature. I've never met a woman like her, and I don't know that I ever will. - Samantha, Michigan

May 10, 2010 - Thinking of you and your family. - Jan B., Michigan

May 10, 2010 - Our sympathy goes out to you and your two daughters Jim, you are all in our thoughts. - Love Jerry and Judy, Ohio

May 10, 2010 - Very touching memories. I remember meeting Nina at an early reunion, and I liked her very much. It's sorrowful no matter the changes in our life circumstances. - Betsy E., Michigan

May 10, 2010 - You brought me to tears. You may not know, but my first wife died of cancer in January of 2006. She is gone, but memories aren't. I didn't go through a divorce, but I was married for 26 years, some good, some not so good. My heart and prayers go out for you and your daughters. Keep moving forward... even as you look back at the memories. Take care dear friend. I know it's not an easy thing to deal with, but even after the many years of being separated there has to be pain. Take care and keep moving ahead. - Rich H., Michigan

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