Today my old friend John died of what I will have to say was a combination of liver cancer and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This is such a sad day.
I met John in New Orleans back in 1982 or 1983. I was at a Unitarian singles event and saw him across the proverbial crowded room. He was tall, slender, blond, and looked over at me and smiled. I smiled back, and then John came over to talk to me. Years later I asked him why he did so, and he said ``because you had such a pretty smile.'' That's honestly the only time ever in my life any man told me there was anything physically attractive about me, and I'll never forget it.
I realized right away that John was different in many ways. He was a mathematician who had taught at Tulane University for years. At first I couldn't locate the source of his accent, and then he told me he was born in Latvia and that English was very much his second language.
We dated through most of the years I lived in New Orleans. I know he'd never before had a woman in his life, so everything we did and everywhere we went was a new adventure for him. I was then working for a newspaper where I was, among other things, the food editor and restaurant critic. So John, who always sought out people with expertise, loved to take me out to dinner at the nicest New Orleans restaurants. He'd dress up carefully in a suit he'd probably had since he got his undergraduate degree from MIT, and top it off with the necktie he got when he did post-doctoral research at Tubigen University and kept pre-tied and slipped over his head like a noose. We'd go to Commander's Palace, LeRuth's or Galatoire's, and he'd be intrigued by the menu, but always tell the waiter what he wanted was ``fish, plain boiled fish.'' Finally I figured out that he meant broiled, and the whole ordering-food business became much less difficult.
John was born in Riga where his father had a fireworks factory. This meant that his dad was one of the few people in Latvia who knew how to make bombs, and when the Russians invaded, his family knew this was a liability and chose to flee. They made a very poor choice of a city of refuge, ending up in Dresden, before the Allied carpet bombing nearly flattened the whole city. He had terrible experiences in Dresden as a young child, knowing many moments of hunger, deprivation and fear.
After the war, Dresden was in the Russian-controlled part of Germany, so his family had to leave again. They made it first to West Germany and then to Austria where they lived in displaced person's camps. His parents' marriage didn't survive the trauma of the war, so when they had a chance to emigrate to the U.S., they did so separately. John and his mother ended up in Nebraska where she--a former mathematics teacher--worked in a hospital laundry. There were few Latvians there, so eventually they found their way to the Boston area, which had a sizable Latvian community. There John went to school, and did so well that he got to MIT, then picked up a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship that paid his way to Harvard, where he got his PhD.
Those were lean years, and it took all his energy to learn English and to excel in school. So he missed out on all the normal teenage and college experiences. And then when he got to Tulane, he buckled down with an intense seven-day work schedule that left him no opportunity to discover much about the city where he lived. When I met him, he was in his early 40s, and had rarely eaten a meal in a restaurant, traveled for fun, or gone on a date.
John was physically awkward. I think, on many levels, he lived so totally inside his head that he sometimes didn't notice he walked around inside a body. One day we were walking from the French Quarter up to the Fairgrounds to go to JazzFest, he walked the entire distance of many blocks with a full-sized broadsheet newspaper stuck to the bottom of his shoe and never once noticed. Then he stood in the gospel tent in the middle of the aisle with his fingers stuck in his ears because the music seemed way too loud to him. He was oblivious to the odd looks everyone was giving him. He swam every day in the Tulane pool for exercise, and often rode his bike to school, but his more than a few nasty spills from the bike and the diving board spoke about his obliviousness to his presence in space.
Like many other refugees, John had a lot of anxiety about losing his papers and his cash. (My immigrant father did so also, although to a much lesser degree). When we'd go out for dinner, John would cash a check at the university bursar's office, roll each $20 bill into a tight cylinder and secure it with small orthodontic rubber bands. Then he'd place them in a small leather coin purse that he zipped shut and wrapped with the big rubber bands that are placed on celery. This would go into his shirt pocket that was pinned closed from the inside of his shirt with an enormous safety pin. When it came time to pay the check at the restaurant, a certain amount of drama ensued and I can recall conversations stopping at all the other tables at Commander's, as everyone watched him flip his tie over his shoulder, unbutton his shirt, reach inside, unpin the safety pin and begin the process of taking out his money.
Because I was on the food and culture beat, I got to go a lot of fun places for free and loved to take John with me. We'd go to the opera and the symphony, and the openings at the museum and galleries. One time the ballet held a black-tie birthday party for ballerina Margot Fonteyn at a Prytania Street mansion of one of the New Orleans Ballet's board members. John showed up at my house in his Earth shoes, rented tux, a cummerbund in one hand, a handful of shirt studs in the other, and a look of utter panic on his face. But once we got him pulled together, we went to the party and had a great time. I remember there was a little sugar medallion in the middle of the cake that said ``Happy 65th birthday Dame Margot Fonteyn.'' Nobody was eating much of the cake, and the caterers were just about to haul it away. John saw that I had my eye on the medallion, then this ordinarily extremely law-abiding man snitched it, wrapped it in a napkin and stuffed it into the pocket of his tuxedo for me.
When I had my 40th birthday, he took me to K&B Cameras down in the French Quarter. My car had been broken into a month earlier and I lost, not only my own camera, but one that belonged to the newspaper. John walked me into the camera store and said ``you must have the camera you want. the best one you want. Don't tell me a cheap one, just because it's cheap. I want you to have a good tool.'' So he bought me my beloved Nikon F3, and for the next 20 years, every time I took one of the thousands of photos I shot, I thought of him. Later, when I made the transition to digital photography, he bought me a fabulous macro lens for my Nikon DL 70 because he knew how much I loved doing close-up nature photography.
He asked me to marry him just before I left New Orleans for a new job with a newspaper in Los Angeles. I told him no because I could see that the level of anxiety, vigilance and rigidity that were part and parcel of his everyday life would have driven me crazy and him crazier at my loosey-goosey Bohemian lifestyle. But we remained friends. He'd come to California two or three times a year, and we'd often travel together. I know that in his office is an enlargement of a photo I shot of him at the top of the Chichen Itza pyramid in the Yucatan. And tonight I looked for, but failed to find, a photo I shot of a relaxed John in a yellow t-shirt and shorts, sitting on the sand of Poipu Beach on the island of Kauai.
I was on my way to New Orleans to see John when Katrina came ashore. He had actually made dinner reservations at Commander's for that night. I was in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the night before and planned to drive down to New Orleans the following day as I'd lived through hurricanes in Louisiana and Florida and knew it couldn't be all that much to worry about. Fortunately, my friend Mark sent me an email from North Dakota urging me to turn on the Weather Channel and check things out before I headed further south.
I aborted the trip, drove across north Louisiana and ended up in Dallas, where I spent four anxious days watching the city I loved be destroyed live on television, and desperately calling everywhere and combing the Red Cross lists in hope of finding John. I was unsuccessful, and ultimately headed back to California, not knowing if he'd lived or died in the storm.
John did eventually manage to get out of New Orleans, and spent a long time in Boston, trying to do his research in an office Harvard loaned him, and sleeping on a small mattress on the floor of his brother's apartment in Jamaica Plain. Eventually he returned to a FEMA trailer, where he was stuck for something like two years while he waited for his destroyed apartment to be rebuilt. He lost everything he owned during the hurricane except for what was in his office at Tulane and his papers and important documents he carried to Boston in a backpack.
John never recovered from Katrina. Every task of daily living was three times more difficult for him. He had constant car trouble, and sometimes had to take his bicycle long distances to any of the stores where he could buy groceries. He began eating only one meal a day, and because shopping was so difficult, his food choices became more and more limited. The first time I saw him post-Katrina, when he came out for a visit, I was appalled as he'd lost so much weight and had such ill-fitting clothing. And he seemed so much more anxious than he'd ever been before. Each time he came out to California, he saw more risks, more dangers, more causes for anxiety in all directions. I'd go out into the garden to water and come back inside finding him sitting in exactly the same rigid and vigilant position he was in when I left. He didn't sleep well at night when he was here, constantly waking and looking around anxiously.
I made him a quilt because I knew he had lost everything and because I wanted to do some small thing to help restore a measure of color and life. You can read about it here. I think he liked it, but he was unable to do much about refurnishing his apartment once he got out of the FEMA trailer. I questioned him and was appalled that he only seemed to manage a mattress on the floor and one green plastic lawn chair. I tried sending him care packages of easy-to-prepare food items because he confessed to me that he was living largely on boiled cauliflower, and I could see that his weight was going down down down.
We stayed in daily touch by email. John acknowledged every email I ever sent him, often with a wry commentary. We were worlds apart politically, so before the last election had conversations that were spirited, to put it mildly. But I think those conversations were in the spirit of the kind of disputation that he, as a mathematician, enjoyed.
I knew he wasn't feeling good for a while. He thought he had bursitis and complained of pain in his hips. I was worried and made him promise to call me after he got back from seeing the doctor. When he did call me back, the news was terrible: inoperable liver cancer. He tried to talk to about it in a very calm and rational way with what sounded like a good deal of acceptance, but I know he was scared and sad. And so was I.
He told me that the docs had given him six months and, characteristically, he was going to take care of himself on his own. I knew this wouldn't work so I tried to arrange my work schedule so I could take some time off and come to New Orleans, to help him figure out what resources were available, and to move into either assisted living or a nursing home.
But the cancer moved too fast, and he spiraled downhill rapidly. I think he probably just lost heart, particularly after the docs told him he was too weak and frail for chemo or other stopgap measures. I tried and tried to reach him by calling his house, his cell phone and his office and kept getting no answer. I didn't know what, if anything, he'd said about his illness to people at school, so was very reluctant to call Tulane to inquire.
Finally I did so earlier this week and found that he was in the last days of his life in a nursing home and was no longer able to see visitors or talk on the phone. The people at the math department helped him with so many details: his will, filling out the forms donating his body to the medical school, and getting him into the nursing home. I will forever be grateful to them for their kindness to someone I know must have been a difficult colleague on occasion.
John died at 1 a.m. today. For now, there is no memorial planned. His only living relative is an elder brother with serious health issues of his own who lives in Boston.
I have tickets to see the Bolshoi this coming Saturday night. I'll be using the very fine opera glasses that were John's last gift to me. I had taken him to see SF Ballet's production of ``Nutrcracker'' last year, and the magic of the ballet totally captivated him. He sat there in the Opera House as thrilled as any 10-year-old child at the wonders that unfolded in a two-act ballet. I don't even remember telling him I wanted or needed opera glasses, but they arrived at the Yule, and they are just perfect. I'm sure as was the case with my camera, every time I hold them in my hands for the rest of my life, I'll think of John.
We Pagans say what is remembered lives. And I know that will be the case for John. I won't let his memory fade away. He was a good, gentle and kind man, decent to his core. Several of my famously critical and difficult children were befriended by John. Somewhere in his office is a black and white photo I shot of a tall awkward mathematician and my 12-year-old daughter riding an elephant together in the Audubon Park Zoo. After my son David was killed in a mountaineering accident, John very painstakingly photocopied every letter David had sent him and gave them to me because he knew how precious my few mementos of him were.
Every year at Samhain, it's my privilege to stand on the top of a mountain under the stars, in the middle of a circle of friends, and call out the names of the Beloved Dead, who have passed from this life during the previous year. This year, John's will be one of the names I will call. And my friends will slowly dance a circle around me, chanting softly ``What is remembered lives'' at each name. John, you will always be remembered with love and affection. Thank you for the gift you were to me, and to many others.
Here are several photos I shot of John in recent years. Several are from a day trip we took over to Angel Island. The photo that shows a quilt in process behind him is the one he used on his Web page at school. I wish I could find the one from Hawaii as it's my favorite, but it hasn't turned up yet today.