Celebrating the death of a friend

Posted by on Feb 7, 2013 in Brian's Blog, Friendship | 1 comment

He never learned to play an instrument and could barely carry a tune. Yet my friend John MacManus was a far better judge of musical talent than Simon Cowell or Paula Abdul.

Today, I celebrate his death. Not mourn, celebrate. If the word seems inappropriate, perhaps callous, let me explain. As I once heard a priest say, it is right for us to celebrate a death – in the manner of John Donne and the other metaphysical poets – because the deceased is finally free of pain, finally gone to the eternal reward. Those of us who believe, said the priest, know the deceased has moved on to a better place, where we will all reunite in the fullness of time.

I don’t know if John was a believer. That was something we never talked about. But I do know that belief in the hereafter is perhaps one of the few consolations any death can bring. The comfort for believers is in knowing that the end of one journey marks the beginning of another.

John and I were friends from the age of nine onwards. We met on the first day of school. We were both in fourth class at Oatlands College in Dublin. I was the new kid in school. John was the old hand. He put his arm around my shoulders and invited me to meet his pals.

We lived within a few blocks of one another. We walked to and from school together, and competed with one another for top place in every class. John was very good at math. I was good at English. No surprise, therefore, that he eventually became a scientist and I a writer.

What did we talk about during those long walks back and forth to Oatlands? Girls? Soccer? The Top 20 hits on Radio Luxembourg? If I were a novelist rather than a nonfiction writer, I could recreate the conversations in detail. I can’t recall what books we might have discussed (likely those of P.G. Wodehouse) or what movies we might have seen together (perhaps “Belles of St. Trinians” and “Bridge on the River Kwai.”) I do remember, however, that we shared a mutual hatred of Gaelic football, the national sport played at Oatlands as at most schools run by the black-soutaned Christian Brothers.

We remained close friends from fourth grade until our second-last year of high school. Then my father received a civil service promotion, and our family moved from Dublin to Cork. John and I preserved the friendship for a while through correspondence. In one letter he asked if I was acquiring a Cork accent. “The voice that reads your letters to me will always echo with the sounds of Dublin.”

Over the years, we gradually lost touch. I seem to recall John went to England when I returned to Dublin. When our paths finally crossed again, it was completely by chance. Unbeknownst to one another, we had both immigrated to Canada. In 1973, John was in Ottawa working as a researcher with the National Research Council. I was in Ottawa on temporary assignment as a reporter with Southam News. One of my stories appeared on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen. John saw it and sent me a letter care of the newspaper. “Dear Brian Brennan,” he wrote. “I used to go to school with a Brian Brennan, I wonder if you might be the same guy.”

I returned to Prince George after my three-month stint with Southam, and later moved to Calgary. John and I began corresponding again, and got together for a drink whenever business took him to Calgary or me to Ottawa. We discovered we both liked Elmore Leonard, John Banville, the Chieftains, and Van the Man. After he retired from the NRC, he developed a passion for large-format film photography and taught me a thing or two about f-stops and lighting techniques.

In December 2011, John learned he had cancer. Yesterday, I found out that he died a little over a month ago, on Dec. 28. I am shocked and saddened. He was much too young, only 69. I will always remember him fondly.

I celebrate his life and the death that brought him deliverance from pain. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. The ancient and mysterious words of the 23rd Psalm bring home the reality of John’s death. Life is a process, not a series of disconnected incidents. Only after we have lived it, and celebrated it, can we look back and determine its true significance.

One of my abiding memories of John goes back to a day in the early 1960s when he picked up a broom in his kitchen, strummed it like a guitar, and sang an off-key version of “Love Me Do.” He then tried to convince me the group responsible for this dreadful song would one day become the hottest pop act in the world.

I didn’t believe him.

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Copyright 2013 Brian Brennan - Author

One Comment

  1. Nice piece, Brian. Thanks.

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