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Finding James07:50
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James Carlsen (Courtesy of Kathy Carlsen)
James Carlsen (Courtesy of Kathy Carlsen)

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KATHY CARLSEN: James, my son, took his guitar everywhere with him. Whether it was slung over his back down at the beach, or he was out in the woods. He’d start playing, and he’d say, "You think you could put the words to it?" We’d sing all kinds of music. Constant laughter between us.

I couldn’t find the guitar. It wasn’t anywhere. He sat down, and he said, “I have to tell you that I sold it, and I sold it for drug money. And it was the worst mistake I ever made, because I feel like I've lost part of myself.”

That guitar was his voice.

James told me himself that he was a heroin addict. And I said, “Everything's gonna be OK.”

I took him to rehab. I checked on him every morning at 7:30. That morning was the only morning I never checked on him, because I heard him brush his teeth. He was whistling.

James Carlsen (Courtesy of Kathy Carlsen)
James Carlsen (Courtesy of Kathy Carlsen)

I got up around 9:30. I’m like, "I don’t hear James. That's weird." And I went in, and he was sitting in his desk chair. His eyes were open, but they were rolled up in his head, and they didn’t show any reaction to light. And he was very, very, very cold. I knew right there that he had gone.

James was 19 years old when he died. I have some very short video clips on my iPhone. Thirty-three seconds of him playing the guitar, sitting in a field.

I just woke up one morning and said, "I’ve got to find that guitar."

I called Guitar Center myself and said, “My son sold his guitar to you. I’d like to find out what happened to it.” They said, “We can’t tell you anything.”

So then my good friend said, “Let me write a pitch for a story.” The editor at the Eagle-Tribune, he decided that he would allow a story to be done about the guitar.

HEATHER McQUEEN: I had picked up the local paper, the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, and saw the headline, "Finding James’ Guitar." I opened and closed that article more times than I can count.

I haven’t lost a son, I haven’t lost a child, but I’ve — you know, I lost one of my friends to suicide.

James Carlsen (Courtesy of Kathy Carlsen)
James Carlsen (Courtesy of Kathy Carlsen)

You know, she had talked about this guitar and that, when that guitar was gone, it was like losing her child’s voice. I lost my voice, too, and after a pretty dark period, I just got it back last year.

I kind of made it a mission. If this is the last thing I do, I will find this guitar.

I had messaged my friend, “Hey, do you still work at Guitar Center?” He said yes. I sent him my article. “Take a look at this and then talk to me.” He’s like, “It breaks every rule we have.”

A couple days later, he texted me, and he said, “I have some good news for you.” And rules or not, in three days we had tracked it down.

It took me a good couple hours to be out of shock. I called her; it went to voicemail. Two minutes later, she calls me back.

CARLSEN: I was skeptical. How could anybody have found this guitar this fast?

Tom L’Abbe is the gentleman who bought my son’s guitar. I drove up the driveway of Tom’s house, walked into the kitchen, and across the table was lying my son’s case. And there written across the case was "James Carlsen" in his writing, and the minute I saw that, I sat down at the kitchen table and started crying.

Kathy Carlsen and Heather McQueen sit with Kathy's son's guitar, which Heather tracked down, knowing how much it meant to her. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Kathy Carlsen and Heather McQueen sit with Kathy's son's guitar, which Heather tracked down, knowing how much it meant to her. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

I have friends, but what Heather did for me was more than anybody else that I’ve known for my whole life would ever do. I haven’t known Heather any more than two months.

If she was able to read into that article that I wasn’t just looking for a guitar, that I was really looking for part of my son, she already knew me.

McQUEEN: Right now we are sitting in the living room at Kathy’s house in Ipswich. And I am, for the first time, holding her son James’ guitar.

CARLSEN: You strum it. You know how to play.

McQUEEN: Never thought I’d be playing it. Pretty intense.

Heather McQueen plays James Carlsen's guitar for the first time. (Erika Lantz/WBUR)
Heather McQueen plays James Carlsen's guitar for the first time. (Erika Lantz/WBUR)

I have a mother, and I’m not looking to be someone else’s child. But sometimes, people fill those places. We both lost a piece. And we can sit next to each other and say, "You’re here. I’m here. Cool."

CARLSEN: James and I were so close. I was a musician and every night before we went to bed, we’d get in this big bear hug, and I’d pat a rhythm on his back. He’d have to match it, exactly, on my back.

The night I brought the guitar home after finding it, I lifted the guitar up, and I put it on my lap, and I wrapped my arms around it, and I put my head in the crook of it, and I said, “OK, James, are you ready?” And I started patting a rhythm on it. It feels just like him.

And I say goodnight.

Kathy Carlsen hugs her son's guitar and case. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Kathy Carlsen hugs her son's guitar and case. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

I don’t know what I believe, but I’m hopeful that when my time on this earth comes to an end, he’ll be the first person I see. Because it’ll be a lot of years of hugging a guitar that doesn’t hug back. And so I’m hoping I’m going to get that rhythmic pat back again. I’ll get that hug.

I just don’t want to let go this time. I just don’t want to let him go.


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This story includes music from APM and Chris Zabriskie (CC BY-NC 4.0).

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Erika Lantz Twitter Producer, Podcasts & New Programs
Erika Lantz was a producer in WBUR's iLab, where she led the radio series/podcast Kind World.

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