John E passed away yesterday. His death, like all passings, came as a shock, even though I have expected it for as long as I’ve known him. But even having known that he had spent the last two weeks in intensive care, that machines had at times been keeping him alive, that the prognosis was not good… The final news still caught my breath and brought tears to my eyes.
There is much I would like to say about John, but little I can. In the two years I have known him he has told me many tales of his life, some heart-wrenching and some so tall that they surely cannot be true. It’s not my place to repeat those stories here. But I want to acknowledge the joy that came from knowing this man, and salute him as he moves forward to whatever lies beyond the veil.
When I met John, he was a man of the road. He arrived at l’Abri midway through my first term there, a sickly skeleton wracked by a terrible cough. He spent most of his time in bed, and when he was up he stalked the hallways and scared the girls like a character plucked from a Dickens story. We were told, and fully expected, that he could die right there that week.
But he rallied, and went, and returned several times over my two-term stint at the Manor. John was a heavy smoker and you often found him huddled in a blanket in the porch, waiting for a burst of sunshine in which to light another rizla. He was an irascible character at times and held most people at bay, but was funny and warm once you took time to get to know him. He told stories of life on the streets, of being in prison, of travelling the world. He loved music and would sit by the fire in the library listening to the radio while everyone else listened to lectures.
In the two years I knew him John’s life was slowly transformed. He returned to some form of health, putting on weight, losing the worst of the cough, gradually becoming able to do more and more. I’ll never forget the sight of him on a rickety old folding bicycle, as he gained real freedom again for the first time. Eventually he got a flat in the village, started a new course of treatment and began the process of reconciliation with his family. He even got himself a new pair of front teeth.
On my first return to the Manor I seriously expected to hear that he had died over the Christmas break. The next few times I came back to visit I would tentatively ask after him, expecting bad news. It was always such a joy to see his face again, because so often I had genuinely expected our prior encounter to be our last. But each time John did better than expected. He rallied and improved and his life became more ‘normal’ (whatever that is). He even got himself a car, giving me a lift to the station on one of my last visits.
I saw him last at the end of the Film Festival. He had popped in to the Manor for a cuppa at morning Tea Break. I didn’t have time to sit and talk, but I was glad to see him. He wasn’t well, but so much better than I had seen him at points in the past… I wish I had stopped to talk for longer.
It was a shock to hear the other week that he was on life-support. Dialysis and a ventilator. No-one knew if he would wake up. The amazing thing is that he did, and he saw his family and close friends around him. He woke up to see the face of his sister, someone he had not seen in 15 years. She said “We may not have been speaking, but I never stopped loving you.” That reduced a hard man to thankful tears.
I am very sad to say goodbye to my friend. I genuinely enjoyed his company, his inappropriate sense of humour, his unorthodox, ragamuffin faith. He became a fixture of my l’Abri experience, and I will miss him as much if not more than some of the workers there. But everyone has to die sometime, and I am so glad that he died now, reconciled with his family, as part of a community of people in Liss and Greatham, than when I first met him, as a lonely man of the road…
I feel like I have witnessed a miracle in the last two years. A slow, earthy and incredibly tangible transformation that seems no less impossible for being so normal and practical. A man alienated from family, from the world, found healing and community and reconciliation and home. I am so glad to have witnessed that, to have in some small way been part of it.
L’Abri has always been a place of ghosts for me. The faces and voices of friends now far removed echo around the building and grounds each time I go there. I fully expect there to be one more now, listening to classic rock in drawing room, walking slowly with a cup of tea in the grounds, huddled with blanket and fag inside the porch. It will bring me joy to see him there, as it always has.
Farewell my friend.