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I was hired at the university on the same day as John more than thirteen years ago.     Dr. V made it three and we all were moved into the same office together.  There are moments and events in life that are pure serendipity, the magic of coincidence, and the grouping of Dr. J, Dr. V and myself was one of those. Dr. D took us on as our mentor for school rules and procedures.  Dr. H brought her gentle island wisdom to the mix. I am writing on behalf of this group of professors who loved and admired our friend John. I am writing to memorialize the few scraps of his life that time has not blurred since his death.

On his office walls were posters of James Joyce conferences. John’s doctorate was in Joyce.  He knew more about the author than almost anyone on the planet without exaggeration.  The PhD means you are one of a very few experts in something very special.  For John, that was Joyce.  I had loved James Joyce from when I was in my twenties.  He is one of the gods of literature.  To have spoken with John about this great writer was as close as I could come to speaking with the writer himself. For John, the connection was not just admiration, but that shared Irish culture, that twinkle in the eye of a mischievous leprechaun, that in-your-face attitude of a man who has earned a hard living, and beaten down by hard liquor, that ability to be as soft as a field of four leaf clover, and that sudden passionate anger that broke out when something just didn’t seem right. I am convinced that James Joyce and John would have been the best of friends. 

In addition to Joyce posters on the walls, John had three works painted by his brother, passed away as a young artist.  There was a large abstract piece that would never seem to stay in its frame. Then there was a small one of Fly Boy hovering beside a rocket above a cityscape. Fly Boy seems to have been a favorite character John’s brother would paint into his works, part whimsical and yet boldly intruding in a work you might think at first would have been the better without him.  But then on further thought, you can’t imagine the painting without Fly Boy. He didn’t fit in the pattern of things and yet there he was as harsh as paisley. I thought highly of Fly Boy, a fish out of water who doesn’t quite mesh with society.  He represents that part of all of us which never quite feels at peace with how the world works. The third painting was sixteen square feet of literary theme.  It depicted a scene from Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, somewhere in Mexico, with palm trees and donkeys and characters from the book and snippets of the novel painted around the frame. Dead center out of all logic Fly Boy dangled by a silver rope.  I must have stared at that painting for a month of days all told. John held close to his brother.  In stories John had written over the last ten years of his life he explored his family history as if he would not let go of even the things the rest of us would be happy to forget. It was as if it all mattered so much to him.

Then there was John’s desk with the usual clutter of text books and student papers, but always clear space around his photos of Ana and Seamus.  He had a section of book shelf dedicated to anything Seamus did.  He loved to bring his son in to school and we loved to have him there.  What a great and intelligent person Seamus is, and how John was always just that much more vibrant with his son around. If John had a secret life, it was his absolute devotion to his wife and son.  And it was no secret to any of us.

 Across campus, John stood down to no one.  He brought such knowledge and insight and passion to any conversation that everyone from staff emptying the trash to the president signing our contracts respected him. 

His students considered him one of their best teachers.  Even the students he failed had to admit Dr. J had done everything he could to get them to succeed.  They admired how utterly real he was with the class.  He was so knowledgeable and capable of laying out the concepts.  But he spoke without any artificiality.  One student told of not having read a small piece of literature and of Dr. J lashing out “You want a high-paying job and you can’t be bothered to read a damn paragraph for a quiz?”  Another student spoke of walking in late to class and Dr. J saying without missing a beat of his lecture “It’s okay.  Come on in and take a seat.  I’m only fucking teaching here!”  His cursing was always met with laughs because every student knew he wanted the best for them and would do anything he could to break through the wall that keeps students from learning.  The kind of energy it takes to care that much is a drain on a teacher.  Yet John brought that energy to class even during his sickness. One student remembers Dr. J lecturing in class and having a sudden nose bleed.  When she pointed out that blood was drooling from his nose, John wiped it with the back of his sleeve and replied “So what?’ and went on with what he was saying. Tough man, John. Tough, good man. The students had a memorial t-shirt printed with the words they all had heard after some excuse they might have made. The shirt says “’I don’t give a shit.’— Dr. J.”  The irony is that only John could say that in a way that everyone knew meant the exact opposite.

In his last year he couldn’t swallow though he could speak. He had a stoma opened in his stomach and would sit at his desk, hike up his shirt, insert a feeding tube into the stoma and slowly pour some vile smelling concoction into his body. The first time he did that in front of me I found myself staring and he caught my stare. “You want me to do this in the bathroom? It’s fine by me. I know it stinks.” “No, John. Never. You take care of yourself. It doesn’t bother me at all,” I said. What I almost said but bit back was that I had watched this countless times already when my father was dying decades previous. What had struck me dumb seeing John was not what John was doing but how I had forgotten what my father had gone through. I had erased his suffering. Suppressed it, the Freudians would say. Forgotten and gone.

This doesn’t seem to be a balanced piece of writing.  What in our lives is balanced? Much is missing. Time has passed and memory wants so much to erase what has no immediate use. I wish I could go on but I can’t.  I wish I could write something better to show how much John meant to us.  I wish I never had to write this at all.  There were days I tried to bury my thoughts in the task at hand but a numbness would inhabit my body.  There were sobs choked back at any moment. This was the pain of losing someone very special and not understanding why. I cried. Yeah, I cried for me and for Ana and for Seamus and for the world of the living who yearn so for those lost to come back and comfort us with their special qualities. It is okay to cry. It is okay to remember our dead. It is even okay to be selfish about loss. My good friend John is gone.  I won’t say goodbye. I will try not to forget, but I can’t make any promises.

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