No one is ready for this. At this point in our lives, many of us have eulogized grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles, but no one expects this—to come together to mourn and remember someone who should still be walking among us, here, in middle life. No one can be ready for this. Even today I suspect that many of us have still not reckoned with the sudden reality of this enormous absence in our lives. For many of us, our minds are still struggling to catch up with our broken hearts.
A week ago today my old friend Pete called me late to ask about some disquieting messages on his Facebook feed, and after rushing to my computer to see for myself I felt my heart go faint with vertigo. Within the hour, after several frenzied messages and phone calls, another old friend, Jane, called to confirm the worst. “He’s gone, John is gone,” she said with a catch in her throat, and in that instant I felt my heart plunge deeply into the pit of my stomach. After a moment of stunned silence and a couple confused, whispered exclamations of disbelief, we both agreed that we each had to go cry for a while, and we promised each other we would talk later.
I sat with tears running down my cheeks, and watched my screen for a while to see how we start to grieve in this age of the internet—and what I saw was a beautiful thing. I saw that since the time the world had started to steadily pull our lives in different directions, John’s had spread and intertwined and had its wonderful effect on other constellations of neighbors, colleagues, and friends, most of whom were unknown to me. As the pixilated messages of shock and sorrow, memory and condolence continued to slowly accumulate, I started to see them as a confirmation crystalizing right there in front of me, a confirmation of John’s exceptional qualities as a person and friend. His warm reach was long and embraced many, and many beyond me were devastated by this loss. This made me think of the only passage in western philosophy that almost always moves me to tears, the account of Socrates draining off the last of the deadly hemlock, and the reaction of his friends:
And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept over myself, for certainly I was not weeping over him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having lost such a companion (Plato, Phaedo, 116d).
After posting this tribute I went to bed, my face covered and tears flowing, awash in the collective calamity of our loss of our friend John, our husband John, our father John, our son John, our brother John, our kin John.
Every day since last Thursday I returned to read John’s page, and every night, alone with my thoughts, I would ruminate about what these testimonials and sentiments said about his life. These recalled to me John’s wide-ranging, curious, sharp, and playful mind, his articulate insights about the larger world, his love of tinkering with technology or any mechanical problem, his amazing photographic eye, his boundless passion for every genre of music under the sun, his shirt-off-his-back generosity, the boisterous wit of his conversation, and the warmth of his company over food and drink. But even while weeping silently in the dark over the loss of our friend, every night without fail I found myself smiling through my tears at his relentless sense of humor. Let’s be honest: no one can think about John for very long without smiling or laughing out loud, even now. We all have our “John stories,” and to tell them all would take many happy hours, if not days. The thing I’ll remember most vividly about John is his unrestrained and joyful guffaw that came from straight from his belly. There was never anything false or pretend about it, and it was impossible to resist. In John was an insatiable lust for life that found its expression in laughter, and it is his laughter that I will always keep with me.
Of course John’s family knows all of this better than any of us, because no matter how long any of us have known John, or how well any of us think we know him, his family know him at a higher magnitude of intimacy. I know that the words I am about to speak might not reach them in their sorrow, but I find I must speak them anyhow. An old friend of mine from Duquesne wrote me the following last week:
Life is full, especially the lives of those who impact us deeply. This is obviously true in life, but this fullness cannot be emptied, even in death. We need to find new ways to let their lives be full, and continue to fill us, and to pass this fullness on to others, and to share with them and fill them with the joy of a life well-lived, so that our loved one’s life remains, in a very real sense, a life well-lived.
To Sarah, and Anton, and Stella: I know you realize that John’s life, though not nearly long enough, was well-lived and full—well-lived and full because you helped to fill it with your love and your own lives, and because his life and yours combined and flourished in love, filling you all. John’s life is still full even today because all of us are here to celebrate this fullness despite our sorrow. It’s okay to weep in your laughter and smile through your tears; I suspect that it is within this weird, paradoxical tension that we can continue to feel John most closely, even in his absence, so the life he lived can continue to fill us throughout our lives, and we can share the well-lived joy of his life until the end of our days. In this, your husband, your father, our friend, will remain. In us.