James Eugene Needham was one of my closest friends that died a little over a year ago. Everyone who knew him called him Gene. He was 62 when he died and had been a walking miracle up to his death. Gene struggled with epilepsy almost his entire life. He consistently had “Grand mal” Seizures. For those of you who aren’t aware of what those seizures are like, let me enlighten you. Per the Mayo Clinics’ definition, “A grand mal seizure causes a loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions. It’s the type of seizure most people picture when they think about seizures. A grand mal seizure — also known as a generalized tonic-clonic seizure — is caused by abnormal electrical activity throughout the brain.” In short, it’s the type of seizure that you don’t want to joke about because it can be highly deadly.
I met Gene in 1992. We both worked at Food Lion in Summerfield/Greensboro, NC. Gene was full of life and energy. He loved to rock out to Bon Jovi and any of the classic rock stations. We connected in a never romantic way, but since both grew as “only children,” we understood one another better than most of our colleagues. I had never known anyone that had epilepsy before Gene. If I had, my circle of peers never divulged that information. I had heard about epilepsy most of my life. Gene had a seizure while at work one day, and I stood back, shocked. I watched as others gently rolled him on his side, and they called 911.
During the Food Lion days, Gene and I had a friendship with another man named Marcus. Marcus would eventually become a police officer in Greensboro, and he had a history with Gene and his family. He’s a good man who would eventually provide me with the news that made my heart sink.
Not long after his seizure, he was sitting in the break room, and I joined him. I was curious about his epilepsy. He explained what happened to him when he has a seizure. He said it was like he zoned out. One minute he would be fine, and the next, he was almost in a trance while his body would convulse. Gene’s mother had schizophrenia and lived in a nursing facility until her death. Gene always felt that his mother couldn’t handle the fact he had epilepsy, and because of her mental illness, the knowledge her son wasn’t normal may have added to her mental state. I’ll never know.
Gene and I were thick as thieves. He didn’t trust his father’s side of the family at all. He was paranoid about how they were trying to steal from his dad and take over Gene’s care as well. They wanted Gene to live in a group home. I wish he would have, but he refused. Gene wanted to live on his terms and did. He would go on beach trips alone, go to restaurants, and he LOVED Pizza Hut. He would come up with any and every excuse to go there.
When I started dating my now ex-husband, Gene felt slighted. I tried to spend as much time with him as possible, but our friendship dynamics had shifted. Gene felt replaced, and I never wanted him to think like that, but it wasn’t easy to move forward in life. Other than his beach trips, Gene rarely went out. He stayed home a lot, so when I could, I would go pick him up, we’d have dinner and hang out at some of our favorite spots and talk.
Eventually, I married, and Gene came to the wedding. He later confided that it was hard for him to watch me walk down the aisle because he knew I was making a huge mistake, and he couldn’t stop me because it was my mistake to learn. I’ll always love him for that reason. He let me fall on my face because he knew that it would be the only way I’d see I was marrying the wrong man.
About six months into my marriage, I hadn’t spoken to Gene since the wedding. I needed to know if he was okay. His father answered the phone and informed me that Gene had been in a severe accident. Gene couldn’t drive a car due to epilepsy, but he could drive a moped. There was a special event happening in Winston Salem one evening, and Gene was determined to go. He was a die-hard wrestling fan, and he adored Duke Blue Devil Basketball. I was a die-hard Carolina Tarheel fan, and we always egged each other on with our different sports mascots that we favored. Gene’s father, James, told me that Gene had every bone in his body shattered by a tractor-trailer truck. He left the event and was on his way home when he had a seizure and was not cognitive enough to respond accordingly to the oncoming truck. It took months of rehabilitation for him to walk and function again. Gene was never the same after that accident. His memory had become short. He would tell you something and then repeat it multiple times until it exasperated anyone who would listen.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw him after that accident. He seemed to be Gene, but the shell of the man that laughed and carried on was gone. About three months passed until my next visit. What I saw that day lingers in my memory. Gene had accidentally blended two fingers off. He couldn’t control things as he had before. Simple tasks for most of us became tedious for him. He recognized that he needed help but refused to seek treatment.
Gene had been a virgin for a long time. He met a woman named Amy, who was his downfall. She stole money from him, seduced him, and alienated him from his friends and family, including me. I never thought about Gene in a relationship with anyone until she came into the picture. At first, I was truly happy for him because I wanted to see him happy. Then her true colors came out. Gene refused to talk to me, and I had no clue why. Eventually, Gene and I talked and found out a lot of what Amy told him was to manipulate him so that no one else would come into the picture.
Over the last year of Gene’s life, he let his phone number become disconnected. It became difficult to keep up with him because no one could get ahold of him. He had attended church, but his pastor was frustrated with him on many levels.
Almost a decade went by after he and Amy split up. I received a phone call from Marcus that took the air out of my lungs. They found Gene in his apartment, and he’d been dead for a while. I asked Marcus to keep me in the loop about arrangements. Gene’s father had died several years previously, and Gene had no other dependents or direct relatives. When I attended Gene’s funeral, I was disgusted. His so-called family all talked about him in ways that I know that he would have turned over in his grave over. They weren’t the ones that knew him well enough to understand what was important to them. If they were so upset about his death, why did none of them reach out while he was alive? Gene always said his family was two-faced. Even the pastor noted that Gene hated cold weather. That was a bold-faced lie. Anyone who knew Gene knew that he preferred the cold because heat triggered the seizures more than the cold. By the time I left his funeral, I was stewing mad because I knew Gene had been disrespected by those who claimed to love and miss him, but there was nothing to be gained by causing a scene. I only have one picture of Gene from my wedding. I treasure that photo, not because of the wedding, but because I captured a pic of him. Gene wasn’t a person who enjoyed being in front of a camera. We had that in common too.
The reason that I’m writing about Gene is simple. Many people have epilepsy and do not have a robust support system. They may not know about the networks available to them. I don’t want Gene’s death to be in vain, and I hope that if you know someone who suffers as Gene did, please do everything you can to be a friend. There are epilepsy support groups, hotlines available, and other resources that can assist. If you truly care about that person, please do not wait until they’re dead to let them know how you feel. I hate to be crass but if the people who claimed they loved him really did, they had a very funny way of showing it.
Gene was a good man that touched a lot of lives. His friendship taught me that we don’t have to understand why people are dealt a rough hand in life to know that life gives us opportunities to step away from our troubles. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about issues you don’t understand. There are many different people globally, and every person has a story to tell and doesn’t want to disappear from our memories. The knowledge we gain from each other might help save others in the future. Have a great weekend, everyone.