People come in and out of your life – and if you have been like me, you have lived two, with two last names, two identities, two careers, and many people that came, went, returned, and left again. I once complained to the priest who converted me, simply known as Monsignor, how I hated it when people left my life and he wisely commented, “Anne Elizabeth, life is like a river – it flows and takes twists and turns. People come and go – you will learn to handle it better as you get older. I always called it loss due to time and tide.” I argued with him, at the wise age of 21, that people should stay and not leave – because I added them to my tribe – not realizing he spoke from extensive experience. Monsignor Regan was one of those people who came and went in my life, but he shared tribal status with a boy I collected in my tribe named John.
John died last week.
On the eve of John’s burial, I wanted to share him with you. And I hope his family sees this and know, I will come tomorrow, to see my old and dear friends, because they are part of my tribe too – and from a period of my life I so miss.
I can pinpoint the very moment I remember meeting a fourth grade boy named Johnathan Bartlett. In fact, I met this little boy on my very first day at my first teaching job in the summer of 1996. I was 23 years old and to be honest, too young for the job I had been hired for, with no experience, no sense of direction, but his mother took me under her wing and helped me. I had only met his mother once, but I knew his father very well. She became my mentor and her darling John-John, as we loved to call him, was impish, loveable, and he quickly entered my world as my own darling boy.
Johnathan was a miracle child. Born with a heart condition, he brought such joy to the many people who loved him. Memories of him pass through my mind like an old movie: John-John who helped me pack my third apartment, carrying boxes to and fro during a total of three moves in my single nomad years with Kirsten, John-John who became a neighbor for a brief time, and the darling John-John who became our official shadow, with Kirsten, as we spoiled him rotten with junk food, dragging him out to Wal-Mart at crazy hours during the summer, and teaching him – yes – how to smoke. Again, I wasn’t always a good role model, but I was “Miss Anne” and he was in my tribe.
At my wedding, his mother was one of my wedding attendants and I even wore her family pearls since mine hadn’t been restrung in time. John-John did the music – a role he took very seriously. It simply meant “hit it” when I walked out, but he “hit it” very well on my childhood stereo system. And he got to laugh uproariously when I, having starved all day to fit into a size eight dress, got so drunk, I remember John-John making faces at me and making me laugh at my wedding reception. My new husband took me home and put me to bed. I deserved that hangover in 1998 – I didn’t role model good decision-making and got, as John-John would later tease me, “shit-faced drunk” at my wedding in 1998. And, once again, I wasn’t a good role model, but I was “Miss Anne” and he was in my tribe.
After my marriage, my husband and I tried to get pregnant and suffered a miscarriage. Upon my return to work, he came to the library to “check on Miss Anne.” He held my hand, this sweet boy, and told me someday I’d be a mother. “You’ll be the coolest mom ever,” he told me. And John-John made me laugh when I just wanted to cry in my grief. I was so glad he was part of my tribe.
My only surviving child, Ian, was born a year later – himself a miracle child.
Sometimes, over the years, I would see my growing son mirror some John-John qualities: a sweet, gregarious young man who made me laugh. One day, I took my son to my old stomping ground of West Georgia – and gave him the Anne Hendricks tour. An echo of another visit, in 1997, reminded me of when I had taken John-John there. I took Ian to eat the same Pizza Hut and smiled as he rambled about his day and I remembered John-John doing the same, at nearly the same age, in 1997. John-John had met Monsignor at lunch that day in 1997 and my old priest teased him about being part of “join Anne Elizabeth’s tribe.” He told John-John I was notorious for collecting people and not wanting to let them go. Both of these males, on that one day, became a memory of one of the happiest days in my life: showing John-John where I had found the forgiveness of Christ and the man who led me to Him in 1993. From then on, I couldn’t ever separate my last long visit with Monsignor without remembering John-John with us. John-John had played with Monsignor’s collection of cats, dogs, and every type of critter the old priest could save. He died a few years later, leaving my tribe.
In 2002, when I moved to South Georgia, a young man who said, “I’m John now, okay? I go by John,” and some friends, now teens, scrubbed carpets stained with Ian’s sippy cup spills and chased Ian through my empty house as he yelled, “NO NO BIG TRUCK,” with an old, funny memory only we shared. I had little money – so I said, “How about that old cassette player I’ve had for eons?” He grinned and took it. “I played this when you married Bob, remember?” I remembered. We shared a cigarette and I burst into tears as we sat on my front steps. My marriage, at that time in 2002, was at a cross-roads and John told me, “Miss Anne, you love him. Try to work it out. Ian’s only two.” The work out lasted another eight years, partly for John reminding me of my wedding day and how my husband had gazed at me with love. I always thought it amazing a boy could remember that – and I hugged him. My ex-husband and I may not have given those eight years to Ian as a family had I not bared my soul to a teenager with good advice. But John was in my tribe and that’s what friends do: they help.
The last time I saw John; he had married and had a son. Pressing twenty dollars in his hand, I hugged him and told him to stay in touch. He teased Ian about “having the best, coolest Mom” and Ian rolled his eyes. But I reminded John he was in my tribe and I missed him.
Yes, I collect people and don’t want them to leave, especially the males in my life I have collected. I have lost too damn many. Monsignor. Brett. Aunt Jim. Dad Browning. Bobby. And now, John.
Time passed. People change. I went through so many changes in my life, I sometimes stare at my wall on sleepless nights and blink back tears. I sometimes long for a simpler and better time and stare at pictures and things of friends, family, and, yes, miss the PEOPLE of my library career. Life made better sense in the past, not the present, and losing people I love…makes my tribe feel smaller. But, at 42, I remember, with time and tide, the river will flow yet again. Just like Monsignor said it would: new people, new experiences, and a new career.
Godspeed, John-John. Tell that wise old man in black robes I miss him too. And here’s a warning: you both will always be in my tribe.