Wednesday, September 02, 2009

James Barham: Losing a Lover and a Friend


Copyright © 2009 by John Primavera for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

On August 28, 2008 James Barham stood smoking with a group of fellow homeless men on a corner across from St. Vincent de Paul’s when a loud rumbling noise was heard. By the time the loud sound and shaking ended, he and 15 other men lay injured; victims of a walkway collapse in San Diego’s downtown East Village. The injuries he suffered from lying under tons of wooden scaffolding included a fractured knee and vertebrae. Ahead of James lay not only months of corrective surgery, but confinement to his bed as well as learning to use a wheelchair and crutches; and also a gradual dependency on pain-relieving drugs.

Only the thought of winning a personal injury lawsuit sustained him. That and one other thing: his lover, John. His lawyers, meanwhile, paid his rent and gave him an allowance to live on. His medical expenses as well as the powerful pain-killing medications were included. But not included were family & friends who were in short supply. John was all there was. But John had his share of troubles, including a life-long disability that forced him to be wheelchair bound. Nevertheless, John comforted James and tried to boost his self-esteem by paying James for odd jobs, such as painting, repairing John’s ramp, and helping John shop for shoes. He bought James a DVD player for Christmas and a cell phone to call his sister in Texas.

But unable to find steady work, James became depressed. Through the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Center, John found him a counselor who told James to avoid things and situations that added to his depression. In June 2009, James left San Diego to visit his sister in Texas. He saw a doctor there who injected him with steroids for his back pain. They didn’t work. After a while, his lawyers ordered him back to San Diego where he was to undergo a spinal fusion operation by doctors his lawyers chose. An operation James dreaded. Once back in San Diego, he was given stronger doses of painkillers, including Percocet. John became concerned about the increased dosage. The knowledge of what befell Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson made him apprehensive about their misuse. But James’s physical and mental state seemed to take precedence over everything else. John began to suspect James had an addiction. But James was too used to doing what his lawyers wanted to argue.

John, around this time, was undergoing severe pain in his shoulder due to muscular dystrophy, and had to have ultrasound treatments for it. Somehow, John’s usual concern for his lover’s emotional well-being weakened. His own physical crisis meant James’s emotional needs went unmet as John turned inward. It seemed while James needed him the most, John was too blinded by his own pain and fear over the future to see about James. So inevitably, James spiraled downward and went into a drug-induced stupor that killed him. On July 28, paramedics pronounced him dead from “an accidental overdose.” He was 45 years old. When his lawyers told John his lover had died, a devastated John asked: “Why wasn’t James supervised properly?” He got no answer. They had taken a poor, homeless man and with the promise of unheard of wealth in store, induced him into taking powerful drugs like Percocet.

To his lawyers, James was just a way to win a high-stakes lawsuit. His sister, who flew in from Texas to San Diego at her own expense, was told by them she would receive no compensation for what happened to her brother. Not even what it cost for his cremation. “The case was closed,” they told her. Today she awaits his ashes. For John, James was a loss impossible to replace. A friend to hang out with while others turned away. Death, John knew, wasn’t from an overdose. Instead it came from a broken heart.