Tuesday, January 29, 2008

This one is for John.

One of the men on pilgrimage with me in Italy was a fellow named John McAuley. John was an economist, professor, father, sailor, author and senior writer for Dow Jones, among other things. Shortly after his return from Italy, he had a heart attack and died on the New York City subway just after being interviewed on live television. His wife, Kathy, who was also on pilgrimage with us, emailed us all to share the news of his passing. My heart broke for her loss, as they worked literally across the country from one another but seemed to be the best of friends, comfortable with one another in the way that we should all hope to be when we get on in years.

John and I had shared a few late-night "grande birra" in Italy and discussed literature, among other things. He asked what some of my favorite books were, and I remember mentioning Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano," a monumentally depressing and utterly beautiful book that revealed to me a new way of thinking about the ways people choose to deal with their sorrows. Though I had learned of the passing of my wife's grandmother that afternoon and was in heavy spirits, John saw in me that night a need to feel some camaraderie, lest I be alone with my thoughts. I would venture that we writers have a knack for that sort of thing. I appreciated his drawing me out.

John was a bright man, and happy. I marveled at how little pretension there was surrounding someone so accomplished. I recall sending an email to friends shortly after his death and imploring them to recognize the significance of perfect strangers who enter and exit our lives at particularly crucial moments. John’s death affected me in a way I didn’t expect. Since being in Italy and sharing such a profound experience with people I hardly knew, or didn't know at all, my awareness of how tiny our lives are has been heightened.

Tomorrow, our group of pilgrims is having a memorial Mass for John. Probably because of the beers and conversation we shared, I've been asked to share some memories of him during the service, and I'm left with a keen sense of how ridiculous it is to be sharing anything about someone whose life only intersected my own for the briefest moment. But yet I'm grateful for the chance; glad to let others know that guys like John are out there in the world waiting to crack jokes with random Milwaukeeans in cockeyed black hats while sitting on the sidewalk in front of a cafe in Rome under the incredible bloom of a full moon over St. Peter's cathedral.

We're only on this rock for a moment. May we all be as memorable and kind as John was. If you're into prayers, say one for Kathy and Matt McAuley.

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