PORTSMOUTH — The standing-room-only memorial service held for Eric James at New Hope Baptist Church will likely have a lasting impact for many in attendance.
James, 33, of Portsmouth, went missing July 18. His body was pulled from the ocean Aug. 23. He had died while kayaking, but there was no doubt, given the word of friends and family, his death was due to the internal and external effects of mental illness. James was left mentally handicapped as a child from the effects of encephalitis, his family said.
Neighbors and friends shared stories of experiences with James, most noting his good humor and infectious smile. One neighbor referred to him as the "hospitality chair," the first to greet them when they moved in, candy in hand. Another friend addressed James' and her shared commonality, mental illness, and asked that people be more aware, open minded and tolerant of those dealing with an illness "which is not related to character, not (concurred) through sheer will," a theme that would become more profound as the family addressed the group.
James' brother Darwin read from a letter sent by a friend, which included a touching story of Eric playing cards with the friend and his wife. While playing hearts, James noted the woman's rising frustration at continuously losing and began openly throwing the game. By the time it was over, they were laughing out loud. Later James told the husband, "When you play hearts with (your wife) you should always lose. ...; You'll win something more precious."
James was born in Brooklyn, but moved to his mother's native France early on. He attended primary and secondary schools in France and Switzerland. French was his first language. He returned to the states, attending McIntosh College and Southern New Hampshire University, where he earned a degree in small business management.
Darwin later shared how as a tiny boy, struck by encephalitis, Eric fought to live, and later to overcome mental and physical handicaps, eventually exceeding expectations. Darwin also pointedly addressed Eric's illness, stating how exacerbating some of his brother's traits could be; his chattiness, or inability to foresee consequence of actions. But more important was Eric's incredible giving and innocent nature, his willingness to give people another try though he was often treated cruelly for his differences. Eric's sister Nathalie described a number of cruel incidents her brother endured, both psychological and physical. Our culture, and society have not reached a place where those suffering from mental illness or handicap can feel safe and included, she said. At the time of his death, Eric was experiencing intense despair, his family said.
Both siblings and their mother, Marie-Helene, addressed the loneliness and hurt Eric felt over the years, with few, if any, true friends outside his immediate family. "The community is the only place Eric could be lost or saved," said Nathalie.
Marie-Helene said we might not know whether her son's death was purposeful or an accident, but that he was clearly tormented at the time. He had come to a wall and was frightened by misguided readings of the Bible, which separated him from his loving family, she said.
Eric's sister left those assembled with a challenge — to be more like her brother. Our culture allows too many ways around decency, shortcuts Eric never took. "He maintained his humanity," Nathalie said.
In spite of cruel treatment, he maintained a belief in man's innate goodness through most of his life. She asked we all choose the right way and, like her brother, to be "more completely human."