This week I said goodbye to my dear friend John, quietly in my heart, unconvincingly in my mind and not surprisingly in the presence of tears.
My last visit with him was more about proximity and presence than words. The man I grew to love as a brother over the last decade was slipping away, his towering vitality seized by cancer, and now he was confined to a bed provided by hospice.
John’s beloved Beth left us to our visit in his upstairs room of their fine Victorian, a house blessed with happy times and enviable views of my favorite Seattle park. Century-old fir trees flanked the north side of the house and the oldest one provided a verdant stage outside John’s window. On a nearby branch perpendicular to the weathered trunk, perched a Great Blue Heron — its silhouette abstract, its color as deep and rich as the weeping boughs determined to conceal it. Beth said the heron had been there off-and-on all week. I wasn’t quite sure if the tall lanky bird was keeping an eye on John or vice versa.
At first, I began to chatter about random things–nervous small talk at best. John, with his eyes fixed out the window, and his voice just above a whisper, awaited my next pause, and said, “I bet the ferry ride was beautiful today.”
Grateful that John had saved me from myself, I calmed down and started over and spoke slowly, “John, it was exceptional. The Olympics had a fresh coat of snow. The Sound was churned up by wind, rough with whitecaps, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Even Mount Baker was out.” John turned to me, with the slightest of smiles, and nodded with approval. Even when bedridden, John was a generous soul. He knew he could not feel better, so he made sure I did.
John had many gifts, and focusing on what truly mattered was one. Others may go through life searching for the better “party,” but for John, the best place was where he was and who he was with. He reveled in the moment, in the people before him, and in what was genuine and sincere.
What John pursued, lived, and loved was not about bravado, bragging rights, or bucket lists, but rather the shared experience, the exchange of ideas, the delight in discovery, the power of music, the beauty and impact of the written word, and the easy fellowship of a crowded table and a noisy room, even better if under he and Beth’s roof.
John left us this week, the heron now gone, but you don’t forget a man like John, you don’t abandon his friendship merely due to his absence. John, we’ll smoke some ribs just for you, read some lightweight novels so you can mock us. We’ll curse armadillos and squirrels, and we’ll listen closely to the conversation so you know you taught us well.
And John, I know all this sentimentality would have rankled you to no end, so I’ll try to make it up to you with a judicious quote from one of your favorite (no-nonsense) poets, Robert Frost:
“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.”
Yes John, it may go on without you, but we don’t have to like it one bit, dear friend.