Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Grief, Redux: Nothing Gold Can Stay
(If you don't already have sympathy fatigue after reading my other grief posts over the hard summer of 2010, feel free to let this story burn up the last of your kind feelings.)
I don't believe coincidences have any more meaning than what we place on them. But I did think of John McGinnis that morning, I did, as I stepped outside the I-94 hotel to get something from the car. I was walking out of the canned lobby air into the morning and its freshness and the sunshine spurred some upbeat musings. Usually when I've thought of my old friend over the years it has been tinged with a bittersweet wonder why I've never met anyone finer. But the night before we had had dinner and swimming with a lovely family and the memory of Mia's happy face and the ease of it all made me think of the possibility.
That morning we had planned to head north to spend the rest of the weekend at Camp Wandawega in Wisconsin. But when I returned to our room from the car, Nora's coughs, little barks we had hardly paid attention to, turned into a bout of throwing up. We decided I would take her home and Randy would go on to camp with Mia.
There was another coincidence that day. Later, a couple of hours before I got the email, Nora and I were resting on our bed, a towel and plastic wastebasket nearby, and I grabbed a book at random from the shelf above the bed. It happened to be I Wasn't Ready To Say Goodbye: Surviving, Coping and Healing After the Death of a Loved One.
And how odd that my last post was partially about him.
I could say the universe was sending me a warning that I was about to get some bad news. Or I could say that the idea of Loss and the memory of this good person who was my friend a long time ago are so often in my thoughts that today was just a day when they happened to come together. Or I could give up on trying to do anything but feel sad that he's gone.
Because John was awesome. A phenomenal guy. Brilliant, kind, gentle, principled, wise, and funny, so funny. Special. His voice was beautifully deep but his laugh boomed even larger and invited you to join in.
He would joke that deep down he was a dull guy with simple tastes, but I found him endlessly fascinating.
We met sophomore year at Notre Dame in a seminar that all arts and letters majors took - a kind of survey of all the disciplines. We read some mind-blowing texts, including The Denial of Death and Invitation to Sociology and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and I squirmed silently as the class complained about having to watch Fellini's magnificent 8 ½. They were annoyed it didn't make any sense - I felt like Fellini had tapped into my dreams and put them on celluloid. This was my first year at the school; I was a transfer student from a dinky Baptist college in Libertyville, Missouri we called Billy Jewel Bible School. Here, I felt so intimidated by all the smart kids at the university I could barely speak in class.
One day early in the semester, our professor didn't show up at class time - I later wondered if this was by design to see what the students would do. I sat quietly, like I usually did, too shy to chime in, as people wondered if and when we should leave.
Then John stood up with the assigned book in hand and said, "My parents are both high school teachers. Maybe I'll give this a shot. Let's figure out what was going on in the book we read this week."
I was shocked at his earnestness and his confidence. How brave. But I couldn't admit my admiration. I had to roll my eyes and groan a little as he tried to start a discussion and write salient point on the blackboard.
I must have been groaning a lot, actually, working really hard at showing my contempt for thinking and effort, you know, too cool for school, because John suddenly stopped talking to the class, exasperated, and said, "I'm sorry, Cindy, but I'm trying here!"
My face burned. I was instantly so sorry. And so smitten.
After the discussion stumbled on for a few more minutes and John and the others decided to call it a day, I rushed out of my seat and up to him to apologize. And we became friends.
Friends of a sort - the kind of friend you talk about the David Letterman show with, about how funny Paul Shaffer is and how great Mitch Ryder looked singing "Devil With The Blue Dress" on last night's show. The kind of friend you have a secret crush on but don't tell him because you can't say that. I hung out in the studio when he had his radio show and he let me help him with his set list but I picked some eighteen minute dirge for him to play because I couldn't admit I didn't know as much about Lou Reed's songs as I pretended to.
His favorite poem was Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay." I have the poem here in front of me, I'm holding a Xeroxed copy that John made for me. It only took a few minutes to find it in the boxes downstairs, a few strata above the letter with which he took his leave of me. Looking at it burns.
But before the letter there were road trips to see the band X at the Metro in Chicago and to Champaign to watch Nebraska trounce Illinois.
I gave him a ride home from Omaha one Thanksgiving break, not just because I would be visiting my cousin Jeanne, as I said was my reason for being in town, but because I wanted to spend the hours in the car talking with him and sneaking peeks at him when he slept.
(I don't want to write about this. Because I want you to know how incredible he was, how filled with life and this is turning into something about Me and me being uglier than I can even believe now, me being a greedy child at twenty-one, starving, desperate to hold on to any love she can get, lying to myself that it was innocent because it was chaste, panicked into cruel omissions that were really cruel lies and stupid with fear and he was never any of those things because he was fearless. He got up in front of that class and he jumped out of airplanes when he was living in Hong Kong and he was always the same vital and good person, not trying too hard, not afraid of the truth, not needing to try to be anything but the boy who was already a man, filled with integrity and truth.)
I'm going to let the camera fade to black here and let's take it up later because I was shitty to him and he didn't deserve it and he was smart enough to get far away so we weren't speaking when we graduated and I couldn't even let myself think about it because it hurt so much.
He said his favorite poem was "Nothing Gold Can Stay."
Later, later, years later, when I had moved back to Chicago after Iowa and Boston, I ran into some friends of his at The Gingerman and we reconnected and he sent me a letter from Hong Kong where he was interning at the Asian Wall Street Journal.
And I read it and reread it with mixed relief, of course. It felt like I may have been forgiven a little, which I wanted but didn't feel like I deserved. The years since school had taught me what I had done and what it meant. And the letter had a friendly distance that said I had been forgotten some too. And it hurt again to think of what had been broken.
A few years later, the summer of 1997, I was in New York taking a film course. I looked up John's number and called him with a pounding heart.
We met at his Wall Street Journal office in the World Trade Center. At some point in the night he looked at me with something like surprise. Surprise that I still thought of us as friends, perhaps, I don't know, perhaps surprise that the past was still so present for me. He was courteous, cool. Introduced me to the woman he would later marry. We had dinner and talked about a giant table they had brought back from Hong Kong, the city where they met. They walked me to the subway train and we said goodbye.
Perhaps I should believe the Joanna Newsom song I'm listening to right now.
The unending amends you've made
are enough for one life.
I believe in innocence, little darlin.
I believe in everyone.
I believe, regardless.
I believe in everyone.
When I first got the news that John had died, I sat at my desk, sobbing. Nora came over and rubbed my back with her little five year old hand and said, "Don't think about it, Mommy. It's okay. Let's play Monopoly." So we got down on the floor and we did play. Instead of the top hat and the shoe, she uses her little plastic animals with big heads and oversized eyes for playing pieces. When our two plastic kitties land on Jail at the same time, she'll have them turn to each other and say, "Hello!" "Hello!" "Just visiting!"
We played Monopoly and here was life in front of me and goodness. And every stupid thing I ever did in my life had to be forgiven because this beautiful child and her lovely sister are the wonders that I find at the end of the chain, made with links of iron and gold, thorns and flowers, the chain that I have forged with each day of my life.
John's obit is here.