"Sometimes, all your best-laid plans that seem in tune get eclipsed by the moon. When that happens, learn to dance in the eclipse's shadow," former Knight James Soper wrote nearly one year ago in his journal titled, "A Year With Cancer."
On Friday morning, James passed away after battling an aggressive stage 3 germ cell cancer for almost a year and a half. He was 28 years old.
Having served as the former president of Campus Peace Action at UCF, James, who was a senior sociology major, used his gifted teaching skills to lead club meetings in the gazebo on campus, guiding themed discussions from topics such as meditation and spiritual awareness to environmental sustainability. He also cheerfully gave free hugs on campus as part of the RSO's traditional Peace Parade.
Tedious chemotherapy treatments left him in bed for weeks at a time, unable to move and struggling to sit or stand up. But despite those and three surgeries to remove tumors from his brain, liver and chest, James never lost his intellectual vigor and zest for life. Friends and members of the RSO cherished moments when they were inspired by the 28-year-old's words.
"James was like my brother. For the short time I knew him, we developed a strong connection," said Nicole Medina, also a former CPA president and James' roommate. "I remember talking to him about his cancer and how he was dealing with it emotionally, and he just seemed kind of enlightened about everything that's going on. He just started talking about … how the world doesn't owe anyone anything, how the world didn't owe him anything — and how you really have to appreciate every second you have."
James did just that with all his interactions: He infused them with compassion and humor.
"He was dressed up like Apollo," said CPA member Christina King, reminiscing about when she first met James at a Tent City fundraiser party. "The party was a little rowdy and a little too much for me, and I pretty much just talked to him that night. I remember meeting him and thinking, 'Wow, there's something special about this guy, and I want to get to know him.'"
Like many others, King recalled James' ability to lucidly engage anyone in thought-provoking conversation, whether about philosophy, Zen Buddhism or simply surprising people with knowledge about his obscure interests, like environmental sociology, or lightening the mood with nerdy chemistry jokes.
Josh Soper, James' brother, said that back in high school he was so deeply invested in those interests that he preferred to independently study those instead of his classes. But the intelligent then-teenager still passed his AP courses' tests, despite not having the best grades.
"He's a guy that has very specific interests that not everybody shares with him," Josh said. "He would just talk about this thing that he's really passionate about — and he makes you care."
But the scope of James' personality went beyond philosophical, eccentric conversations with friends and fellow students. James encouraged others to uphold environmental sustainability practices by leading by example — even if that meant using recycled toilet paper, or never using plastic water bottles.
"Environmental sustainability was something we both cared about," said Medina, an international and global studies alumna. "His goal was to be an environmental sociologist. He's no longer going to be able to do that — it's my job to continue what we both started. I'm trying to make a positive impact on the world because of those conversations we had together."
James' comedic banter and sense of humor still carried on throughout his debilitating, painful cancer journey. His friends gave him quirky nicknames, like "Sassy James Cat" — which friends called him when he wore his furry cat headband, just for kicks — "Mongoose," after his favorite animal, and "The Saint."
"When we had conversations, whether it was about a spiritual topic or religion or anything, it came from a place of not trying to win a conversation, but rather … the idea was to grow and encourage spirituality," said senior philosophy major Chase Nichols, recalling frequent back-and-forth conversations he had with James about the human existence and how to more gently express his own ideologies, which were very different from James'. "He never talked down to people. It came out with love and understanding. He personified that with his life."
King said Campus Peace Action members plan to host a memorial service for James on campus. To honor his love for nature, a red maple tree seedling which he carried with him throughout a recent road trip with Nichols will be planted at the Tent City site on campus.
"It's a beautiful day, no matter where you are. Smile, look outside at this big, beautiful playground we've been given to explore. Everything can be an adventure if you decide it to be," James wrote in a March entry in "A Year With Cancer," which he compiled in hopes of leaving something meaningful behind.
"On the subject of your past, keep the wisdom, but leave behind the bitterness. The wisdom will lead you forward, but the bitterness will weigh you down. In this way, it's possible to gain experience without sacrificing innocence," James wrote.
Nada Hassanein is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @nhassanein_or email her at NadaH@CentralFloridaFuture.com.